Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Staffordshire Hoard reveals Anglo-Saxon technique to make impure gold look pure

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

In the five years since the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, the more than 4,000 pieces of the hoard have been cleaned, cataloged and grouped by physical and stylistic similarities. Five hundred more objects and fragments were found hidden in the soil clumped on the pieces and in a follow-up 2012 excavation. About 1,000 new joins have been discovered, allowing conservators to puzzle together objects that have never been seen before, including previously unknown types of sword fittings and mounts. More than 1,500 pieces have been identified as fragments of a single helmet. The hoard has also been officially dated to the late 6th, early 7th century, an important transitional period between the decline of traditional Anglo-Saxon polytheism and the advent of Christianity.

Researchers have now turned to analysis of the composition of the alloys. Minute scrapings taken from the surface of about 200 gold objects were viewed through a scanning electron microscope exposing an ingenious system of making gold with a high silver content look as shiny as pure as the real thing.

The technique was not written down in Anglo-Saxon times, and had never been detected in metalwork from the period, but a similar technique was known from Roman accounts. It must have been spoken about by the brilliant Anglo-Saxon metal workers, and involved taking gold which was alloyed with up to 25% silver, and heating it in an acid solution – made from iron rich minerals such as brick dust – so that at the surface the silver leached out and could be burnished off. The surface would then appear to be the highest quality gold, but just below the surface there was inferior metal.

“They knew what they were doing,” said Eleanor Blakelock, the scientist who discovered their secret. “This wasn’t something which could possibly have happened by accident.”

The technique left the surface with more than 90% gold while just underneath it was 70 to 75% gold. The shiny surfaces could be enhanced with contrasting decoration like wire filigree made from darker, less pure gold. The objects intended for males — belt buckles, weapon fittings — appear to have a higher gold content than jewelry worn by women. Experts don’t believe it was done as a deception to pass off a cheaper alloy as gold. It was just a way to make the best of the materials at hand.

The discovery has also revealed new information about some of the objects. The five hilt fittings from a seax, a single-edged knife, for example, have an odd man out. Four of the pieces have similar alloy composition and were given the acid solution surface treatment. The fifth piece, the pommel cap, has a different alloy composition and was not given any surface treatment. That suggests it was a replacement piece or a later addition to the seax.

Other analytical methods archaeologists used to test the metal content of the surface are not able to detect this technique, which means 1,400 year-old Anglo-Saxon metalworkers have done an impressive number on 21st century technology. Archaeologists now know they can’t trust standard surface analysis to determine the gold content of an artifact, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise.

In related news, the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, co-owner of the hoard along with the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, opened its new permanent Staffordshire Hoard Gallery on Friday. About 300 pieces are on display in an exhibition that covers how the objects were made, how they were used before being broken up and buried, the tools conservators employed to clean the hoard. There’s even a Mead Hall to give visitors a glimpse into the life of the kind of Anglo-Saxon lord who would have owned such expensive weapons.

History West Midlands has a wonderful collection of videos uploaded this year about the conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard and overviews of eight featured artifacts (subscribe to the YouTube channel for future videos) I dare you to watch just one.

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Largest Viking hoard since 1891 found in Scotland

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Retired businessman Derek McLennan was sick and really didn’t feel like dragging his carcass and his metal detector to a Church of Scotland field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, last month. He didn’t want to disappoint his detecting buddies the Reverend David Bartholomew and Mike Smith, pastor of Elim Pentecostal Church, however, so he pulled it together and off they went. After an hour of searching, McLennan found a piece of silver buried two feet under the surface. At first he thought it was a spoon, but when he wiped some of the dirt off it, he saw a saltire (X marks the spot) design and realized he’d unearthed Viking treasure.

McLennan reported the find to Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit and soon Galloway Council archaeologist Andrew Nicholson was on the scene excavating dozens of silver ingots, decorated arm rings and a solid silver cross with enamel decoration from the find spot. When the artifacts were fully excavated, McLennan ran his machine over the hole again and again got a signal. More digging unearthed a second layer of treasure, including a silver Carolingian pot complete with its lid that is one of only three of its kind ever found in Britain.

All told, the hoard proved to include more than a 100 individual pieces. It’s the largest Viking treasure found in Scotland since 1891, and there’s the possibility of more to come when the silver pot is opened and its contents excavated in the lab. The array of artifacts — stamp-decorated bracelets from Ireland, glass beads from Scandinavia, a beautifully graceful gold bird-shaped pin or hair ornament, silver ingots marked with runic inscriptions, even textile fragments still attached to the Carolingian pot — make this a find of international importance.

Describing the find as “historically significant”, Stuart Campbell, head of Scotland’s treasure trove unit, said one of the most exciting objects was an intact Carolingian (western European) pot with its lid still in place, a rare vessel likely to have been an heirloom held by the family that buried the hoard. Campbell described the examination of the pot, which has yet to be emptied, as “an excavation in microcosm”.

He added: “What makes this find so significant is the range of material from different countries and cultures. This was material that was buried for safekeeping, almost like a safety deposit box that was never claimed.”

Campbell said that a find like this could also influence the way Scots viewed their historic relationship with the Vikings. “We have the idea of Vikings as foreigners who carried out raids on Scotland, but this was a Viking area where they settled and traded, and the people who lived there were culturally and linguistically Norse.”

The hoard was buried in the 9th or 10th century. The silver cross dates to around that time. Its unusual enamel decoration is figural, possibly depictions of the four evangelists on each arm of the cross. The pot was already at least a hundred years old when it was buried, hence archaeologists’ belief that it may have been a family heirloom. Researchers hope the contents might reveal more information about who buried the treasure under what circumstances.

The discovery is governed by the Scottish law of treasure trove which claims the artifacts for the public trust, while rewarding the finder and landowner with a sum equivalent to fair market value of the finds. In this case, early estimates put the value at £1 million, but that could change once the artifacts are examined more closely and the contents of the pot assessed. The landowners, the Church of Scotland General Trustees, and Derek McLennan have already come to an agreement on sharing the reward equally. The Church’s portion will be dedicated to the local parish.

This Reuters story has some beautiful close-ups of highly decorated gold and silver pieces. I’d embed it but it has an unkillable autoplay. :angry:

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Iron Age Celtic chariot fittings found in hillfort dig

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Archaeologist from the University of Leicester have found a hoard of rare bronze fittings from a Celtic chariot while excavating the site of an Iron Age hillfort on Burrough Hill near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. The fittings date to the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. and were deliberately buried as a religious offering.

The hillfort has been excavated by the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History since 2010 as part of a five-year project to give students a chance to gain hands-on field experience while exploring the Iron Age occupation of the fort and the transition into the Roman period. In fact it was a group of four students who found the treasure. The first piece was unearthed in a deep pit they dug near the remains of a house. The rest were discovered nearby.

The fittings were put in a box and placed on a bed of cereal chaff with iron tools laid around it. The box was then burned, with the chaff possibly providing kindling as well as a cushion for the sacrifice. Once the fire was out, the offering was covered in a layer of burnt cinder and slag. Archaeologists think it could have been part of a religious ceremony marking the change of a season, or perhaps something related to the construction of the nearby house.

These are incredibly rare and highly prized objects, a matched set of chariot fittings that could only have belonged to someone of very high status, a lord or warrior. Cleaning revealed intricate decoration on the bronze pieces, including a triskele motif of three interlocked spirals popular in Celtic art.

It’s unclear what the purpose of the iron tools was. Archaeologists suspect they may have had a horse grooming function. One of them has a looped handle and bent end with shallow notches that suggest it may have been the Iron Age equivalent of a curry comb. Two curved blades could have been hoof trimming tools or used in the production of harness parts.

Dr Jeremy Taylor, University of Leicester Landscape Archaeology professor and co-director of the Burrough Hill field project could barely contain his awe at the importance of this find:

“This is the most remarkable discovery of material we made at Burrough Hill in the five years we worked on the site. This is a very rare discovery, and a strong sign of the prestige of the site.

“The atmosphere at the dig on the day was a mix of ‘tremendously excited’ and ‘slightly shell-shocked’. I have been excavating for 25 years and I have never found one of these pieces – let alone a whole set. It is a once-in-a-career discovery.”

The objects have been removed to the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History for cleaning, conservation and analysis. They will be put on display briefly at the Melton Carnegie Museum in Melton Mowbray, from Saturday, October 18th through Saturday, December 13th. Once the lab work is done, a permanent display will be arranged.

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Bronze Age palace, burials unearthed in Spain

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

A team from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) excavating the Bronze Age archaeological site on the La Almoloya plateau in the southeastern Spanish municipality of Pliego have unearthed residential and government buildings and 50 tombs. The plateau’s steep slopes made it a highly defensible location that was occupied from 2,200 B.C. to 1,550 B.C. by the El Argar culture. The extensive construction and dense population point to La Almoloya having been an important political center 70 miles northeast of the Argaric capital of El Argar (modern-day Antas, Almeria).

Artifacts found inside the buildings were in excellent condition. Metals, ceramics, stone and bone survived alongside exceptionally rare textiles. The structures and their contents paint a picture of a rich urban environment that is unique in Bronze Age continental Europe.

The excavations indicate that the La Almoloya plateau, of 3,800 metres square, was densely populated and included several residential complexes of some 300 square metres, with eight to twelve rooms in each residence. The buildings’ walls were constructed with stones and argamasa [a kind of lime mortar], and covered with layers of mortar. Some parts contain stucco decorated with geometric and naturalistic motifs, a novelty which represents the discovery of an Argaric artistic style.

Among the discoveries made is a wide hall with high ceilings measuring some 70 square metres, with capacity for 64 people seated on the benches lining the walls. The hall includes a ceremonial fireplace and a podium of symbolic character. This unique building was used for political purposes and archaeologists consider that it must have been used to celebrate hearings or government meetings.

Archaeologists affirm that this is the first time a building specifically dedicated to governing purposes has been discovered in Western Europe, and believe that decisions were taken here which affected many of the region’s other communities.

The ceremonial hall is flanked by adjoining rooms. Because of its political significance and large size, archaeologists categorize this structure as a palace, and a highly advanced one at that, comparable only to near Eastern buildings from this era.

Another reason to deem the building a royal palace is a tomb that was found adjacent to the main wall of the government hall. It holds the skeletal remains of an adult man and woman who were buried with 30 artifacts made of precious metals and gemstones. The woman wore a silver diadem around her head, one of only five Agaric diadems ever discovered and none of the other four remain in Spain. They were found at the El Argar type site by Belgian mine engineers Henri and Louis Siret in the 1880s and are now in the permanent collection of the Royal Museums of Art and History’s Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels.

The royal couple were also buried with four ear dilators, two of gold, two of silver, plus silver rings, earrings and bracelets. A bronze dagger had silver nails in the handle. These are rare and important examples of the advanced metallurgy of the El Argar culture. Two other pieces are uniquely significant on that score: a ceramic vessel with bands of finely layered silver and a punch with a bronze tip and a silver handle. Both of them are one of a kind objects that demonstrate the high level of Argaric silver craftsmanship.

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Met saves Treasure of Harageh from auction sale

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has stepped in to save an ancient Egyptian collection of artifacts from dispersal into the auction void. The Treasure of Harageh, a group of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and travertine vessels excavated in 1913-14 from Tomb 124 at Harageh near the city of Faiyum in Middle Egypt, was supposed to go under the hammer at the Bonhams Antiquities sale on October 2nd. At the last minute, the lot was withdrawn and Bonhams announced it had negotiated a private sale for an undisclosed amount to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This was a happy result for a controversial sale. The controversy wasn’t the usual kind. There was no trumped up “Swiss private collection” provenance; the ownership history was clear and unblemished, the publication record extensive. It was the seller raising eyebrows: the American Institute for Archaeology’s St. Louis Society. The AIA is opposed on principle to the sale of antiquities, believing they belong in the care of experts who will conserve them and make them available to the public for educational purposes. The St. Louis Society is an independent non-profit, however, and its charter with the AIA only explicitly prohibits the sale or purchase of undocumented artifacts, so no matter how horrified the national organization was, it could not prevent the sale.

The artifacts have belonged to the St. Louis Society since they were first excavated by a British School of Archaeology team led by Reginald Engelbach under the direction of pioneering archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie. The Society helped fund the excavation. In return, they received this exceptional group of artifacts. There are five travertine objects, four of them vessels, one of them a cosmetic spoon with a handle in the shape of an ankh. The jewelry group is seven cowrie shell-shaped pendants made of silver, a rare material worth more than gold in the Middle Kingdom, 14 real sea shell pendants mounted in silver and 11 silver pieces inlaid with various hardstones that probably were part of a pectoral plaque.

It’s the 11 pectoral pieces that date the artifacts. Individual pieces are designed as hieroglyphs that spell the name of Pharoah Senusret II, the fourth pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty who ruled from 1897-1878 B.C. One of the 11 is also the standout piece of the collection. It’s a unique jewel in the shape of a bee. What makes it unique is that it’s three-dimensional, with inlays on both sides and even visible from the top. There is no other 3D jewel known from the Middle Kingdom. The bee, the real shell pendants (the first known instance of actual shells being used in Egyptian jewelry) and the ankh spoon are all unique and of major historical significance.

For many years the collection was kept at the St. Louis Art Museum. In 2011 it was moved to Washington University in St. Louis and two years ago it wound up in private storage at a cost of $2,000 a year. It was that storage fee and the conservation challenge that drove the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure of Harageh. Howard Wimmer, secretary of the St. Louis Society, said: “If there had been any way that we could have reasonably kept these items in St. Louis, we never would have pursued this course. One way or the other, we had to find a new home.”

It’s that one way they chose that was the sticking point. The AIA might not have had grounds to block the sale, but it wasn’t the only interested party.

Alice Stevenson, curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, said a sale to a private buyer would have violated an agreement between the museum’s namesake explorer and the St. Louis group that the antiquities be distributed to public museums, accessible to both researchers and the public.

“Museums and archaeologists are stewards of the past,” she said. “They should not sell archaeological items in their collections for profit.”.

Thanks to the Met, which is glad to join this treasure to other Harageh artifacts in its permanent collection, the sale of these antiquities won’t see them dispersed contextless into private collections out of the reach of the public and scholars. Unfortunately, there was one lot from the St. Louis Society’s Harageh artifacts, a Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest (2150-1990 B.C.) that did not get an eleventh hour reprieve. It sold to an unknown buyer for £27,500 ($44,182). I wonder if the Petrie Museum is aware of this sale. It seems like they might have legal grounds to void it.

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First coin in a hoard of 22,000 is one millionth PAS find

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has reached a milestone in a most dramatic fashion: its one millionth recorded find is a 4th century Roman coin proved to be the first in a hoard of 22,000 coins. It was found on November 16th of last year by semi-retired builder and metal detector hobbyist Laurence Egerton on the Clinton Devon Estates, near Seaton Down, Devon. He found the first two coins just under the surface, then dug deeper. His shovel came up overflowing with similar coins.

Here’s video his wife shot of his discovery:

Egerton alerted the Devon PAS Finds Liaison Officer and the county archaeologist. He was told to remove all the loose objects and refill the hole while the Devon County Council arranged a professional excavation. Just to be sure nobody else interfered with the hoard, Egerton slept in his car next to it for three nights. Between November 18th and 22nd, contract archaeologists excavated an area of three square meters around the find spot.

They found thousands of coins stuck together in one main group in a small pit. There are two concreted lumps within the main group which may indicate several deposits were made over time. The lozenge shape of the main deposit suggests they were buried in something flexible like a bag rather than, say, a chest. Underneath the coins fragments of what may be a fabric of some kind were recovered. They’ll be tested to determine whether they could be the remains of the bag that once held the coins.

The Seaton Down Hoard was transferred to the British Museum where the coins were lightly cleaned so they could be valued in compliance with the Treasure Act. The total weight of the coins is 68 kg (150 pounds). They range in date from the 260s A.D. to the 340s with 99% of them struck between 330 and 341 A.D. in the reigns of Constantine and his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. The most recent coins date to 347-8 A.D. from the joint reign of Constantius II and Constans, the latter of whom was the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343 A.D.

Almost all of the coins are a very common type known as a nummus made of copper-alloy with a small amount of silver. (The handful of 3rd century coins are radiates.) Most of them, more than 11,000, were struck at the mint in Augusta Treverorum (Trier), with 3500 struck in Lugdunum (Lyon) and 2000 at Arelate (Arles). In total an impressive 17 mints are represented in the hoard, and there are some ancient forgeries of indeterminate origin too.

The millionth PAS find, the first coin Egerton unearthed, is a nummus struck in 332 A.D. at the Lyon mint to celebrate Constantine’s founding of the new imperial capital of Constantinople. The obverse of the coin features a personification of Constantinopolis, a laureate and helmeted bust with a scepter over the left shoulder; the reverse depicts winged Victory standing on ship’s prow, holding a scepter of spear in front of her and a shield behind.

Coin hoards from the reigns of Constantine and his sons are among the most commonly found in Britain, but Seaton Down is notable both for its large size (the fifth largest ever found in Britain) and because it was excavated and recorded by archaeologists. All the other big Constantinian hoards, like the one of 22,670 coins unearthed at Nether Compton, Dorset, in 1989, were never recorded, analyzed or studied before being returned to the finder who broke up the collection and sold the coins piecemeal. Copper coins weren’t considered Treasure Trove by the laws at that time, and the local museum that kept the hoard until it was returned to finder just didn’t have the resources to study it properly.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was founded in 1997 to help prevent that kind of loss to the nation’s scholarship cultural heritage. In this case it has functioned as planned, giving archaeologists the opportunity to remove the coins in solid blocks so that even tiny fragments can be analyzed for key information by an institution (the British Museum) that has the technology, expertise and funding to thoroughly study and document the find.

The hoard was officially declared treasure this month. Next on the schedule for the Seaton Down Hoard is for its market value to be determined by the Valuation Committee. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, the museum in Devon closest to the find, wants to get a jump on the process. They’ve launched a fundraising campaign so they’ll have the money to pay the finder and landowner the amount of the valuation and keep the hoard together in the county where it was discovered. You can donate online here.

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Jewelry hoard hidden from Boudicca’s army found in Colchester

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

The excavation of the Williams & Griffin supermarket site in Colchester has born rich fruit again. Two months ago it was historically significant bone fragments. Now, three days before the dig was scheduled to end, archaeologists have found a collection of jewelry that was hidden under the floor of a house that was destroyed when Boudicca’s forces leveled Colchester in 61 A.D.

The hoard was buried in a small pit dug in the initial phase of Boudicca’s revolt, when her army was marching on Colchester which, despite its population of Roman veterans, stood largely defenseless and unfortified. Archaeologists believe a wealthy Roman woman or her slave collected her valuable jewels and hid them to keep them from being pillaged and it worked, to some extent. Boudicca’s troops never did find the lady’s valuables; they just burned her house to the ground and left the treasures to be found by archaeologists 2,000 years later. The entire hoard has been removed in a solid block of soil so that it can be excavated with all due deliberation in a conservation laboratory.

So far, archaeologists have found three gold armlets, a silver chain necklace, two silver bracelets, a silver armlet, a small bag of coins and a small jewelry box holding two pairs of gold earrings and four gold rings. When the block is fully excavated, they expect to find even more precious objects. It would be an extremely rich find no matter where it was unearthed, but it’s particularly significant given its location and the momentous events surrounding its burial. This is the first time a hoard of precious metals form the Roman era has been discovered in Colchester’s historic center.

Its historic value is far greater than its gold and silver content. There are traces of organic remains in the hoard’s soil block, like the remains of the purse that held the coins. That’s one of the reasons archaeologists have kept it intact, so that the earth could be carefully removed without damaging even the smallest remnants of surviving textiles, leather and wood.

The lady of the house’s valuables aren’t the only remarkable survivors in the house.

Ingredients for meals that were never eaten lay burnt black on the floor of the room in which the jewellery was found. These include dates, figs, wheat, peas, and grain. (Others will almost certainly be identified when soil samples are examined by a specialist in ancient seeds and plant remains.) Foodstuffs like these would not, generally, have survived, but here they had been carbonised by the heat of the fire so that their shapes were preserved perfectly. Some of the food had been stored on a wooden shelf which collapsed during the revolt, and the remains of the carbonised remains lay on the floor. The dates appeared to have been kept on the shelf in a square wooden bowl or platter.

Under normal circumstances, a discovery of ancient precious metals would be subject to a Treasure Trove inquest. The finds would be assessed for fair market value by experts from the British Museum and the objects offered to a local museum who would then pay the finders/landowners the amount assessed. Thankfully, Fenwick Ltd, owners of the Williams & Griffin store, have decided to waive any finder’s fee they would be entitled to under the Treasure Act and donate the hoard to Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service. That means the British Museum won’t have to get involved, and the archaeologists and conservators can focus solely on the work of excavating, stabilizing and analyzing this exceptional find.

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Grave of fearsome 11th c. warrior found in Siberia

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating a burial mound near Omsk in southwestern Siberia have discovered the intact burial of an impressively large warrior slain in battle around the 11th century A.D. He was powerfully built and 180 centimeters (5’11″) tall. A member of the Ust-Ishim culture, ancestors to the Khanty and Mansi tribes that still inhabit the area today, he was far taller than his comrades; the average height for a male was 160 centimeters (5’3″), so he would have towered over them.

He was around 40 years old when he died, and the cause of death is clear: his left arm was cut off and buried with him. His shoulder was also freshly broken. These were perimortem battle wounds. He was buried with copious grave goods and careful attention to ritual indicating he was a person of high status in his community. The most remarkable indication of the respect accorded to him was the large bear fang embedded in his nose, a fearsome symbol of strength and power. He also wore a death mask, now mostly decayed because it was made of fabric. Part of the mask were caskets of birch bark over his eye sockets and mouth. Inside the caskets were metal fish figurines whose heads were deliberately snapped off before burial.

Other grave goods include a round mirror of bronze decorated with abstract swirls that was placed on his chest inside a birch bark cover and a bronze cauldron with the remains of food still inside that was placed at his feet. These served a ritual purpose. Archaeologists believe the mirror was a worn as an amulet and served as a tool used to communicate with the gods, while the cauldron and food were meant to feed the warrior in the afterlife.

Close by were remains of leather and fur, perhaps part of his costume or from the quiver decorations on his arrows.

“We found 25 arrowheads – armour-piercing and diamond shaped, made from metal and bone,” said [archeologist Mikhail Korusenko], a candidate of historical sciences, from the Omsk branch of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“Some of them were clearly of military purpose. Behind his skull we found a ringed bridle” – a sign that the warrior was an accomplished horseman.

The arrows are still sharp today.

Mikhail Korusenko on the significance of the find:

“The first studies we made allow us to date the burial to approximately 11th-12th centuries AD. It is a truly unique find which would allow us to fill pages about not only the cultural, but the military history of this part of the region, as we know very little about this particular period of time.”

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Roman coin found in Sandby fort posthole

Monday, August 18th, 2014

Archaeologists have found a Roman gold coin in a posthole from one of the homes in Sandby ringfort. The coin is a solidus from the reign of Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III in a design struck towards the latter part of his rule, 440-455 A.D. This is a find of great importance for Sandby, because it’s evidence that might help explain what happened there.

Sandby is a ringfort on Öland, an island off the southeastern coast of Sweden, that was built and destroyed during the turbulent Scandinavian Migration Period (400 – 550 A.D.). It was first discovered in 2010 when two looting pits appeared, alerting archaeologists to the pressing need to survey the area before depredations ruined the context. Come summer, the spot was surveyed with metal detectors and four caches of glass millefiori beads, small silver bells meant to be worn as part of a necklace of a bracelet, finger rings, gilt bronze and silver buckles of very high quality were found. Other artifacts were found scattered around the site.

The next year excavations began. They revealed that an event of deathly violence had struck the fort in the 5th century. Its defensive high walls were overrun, the homes inside destroyed, its inhabitants killed and left to rot where they fell. Five bodies were found inside just one dwelling, all of them bearing marks of sharp force trauma. Only 2% of the site has been excavated, and the remains of about 10 people have already been found. So the residents were killed, their homes, warehouses and barns levelled, but the authors of this destruction left the expensive jewelry and gold behind. A raid for lucre wouldn’t have overlooked shallowly buried hoards and wouldn’t have killed everyone before they could reveal their hiding places.

Leaving the bodies in the open to decay was a deliberate choice, perhaps a warning to others, and it was an effective one since nobody occupied the fort again. That’s what makes this find so exceptional: a moment of destruction has been frozen in time for archaeologists to study like forensic units study a crime scene.

The solidus may be a key witness. About 360 solidi have been found on Öland, but they were stumbled upon, mainly during the plowing of fields, not excavated. This is the first solidus to have been unearthed in its original archaeological context: one of the homes where human remains were discovered. These coins were used by the Roman Empire to pay its mercenaries. One of the theories about what happened at Sandby is that it was home to returning soldiers rather than farmers grouped together for self-defense like the other ringforts on the island. Seen as a threat by their neighbors, they were raided, killed and left as a cautionary tale to any other mercenaries who might consider banding together and using their military skills to interfere with the pre-existing communities.

Another theory is that it was the violent resolution of a feud.

“We think it may have been the reason for the massacre at the Sandby Borg fort. And this is the only coin that wasn’t taken,” [lead archaeologist Helena Victor] explained.

“We found it on the edge of a posthole in the house. So maybe the robbers came to take the treasure there, and maybe they ripped the bag and one coin fell down into the posthole in the floor, and there it remained.” [...]

“I think that the money was a good excuse to end a feud. So there was probably a feud, this was a very strong statement, not just a normal robbery- an excruciatingly evil statement to kill these people and just leave them,” Victor explained.

“It was truly shameful. So to make a real statement you forbid them to burn the bodies. There are still memories 1,500 years later of these events, it’s a dangerous place. Parents tell their children that they can’t play there because it’s a dangerous place. They don’t remember the history but they remember it’s dangerous.”

It looks to me like the coin was pierced which suggests that it was worn as jewelry at some point. Instead of being in bag, it could have been on a string around someone’s neck and fell into the posthole when it was unceremoniously separated from that neck by force.

After conservation and further study, the coin will go on display in the Glimpses from Sandby borg exhibition at the Kalmar County Museum in southeast Sweden. The mini-exhibition opened last month after visitors clamored for news about the fort and its treasures. Mostly the exhibition uses images and text to tell the story, presenting some of the theories about the fate of Sandby, but there are a few artifacts on display — 30 glass beads, an iron spearhead almost two feet long. The coin will be joining them this fall.

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Chianti well preserves 15 centuries of history

Friday, August 8th, 2014

An Etruscan well in Cetamura del Chianti, an archaeological site on the property of the Badia a Coltibuono wine-making estate in Tuscany, has proven a cornucopia of historical artifacts from 300 B.C. through the end of the Middle Ages. The well — which technically is a cistern rather than a well since it isn’t spring-fed but rather a rain catchment shaft — was dug more than 105 feet deep into the sandstone bedrock of the Cetamura hilltop. Over the centuries, a vast number of artifacts made from bronze, silver, lead and iron, plus ceramics, glass, bricks, tiles, wood, 70 bronze and silver coins, jacks-like game pieces (astragali), animal bones, antlers and grape seeds were thrown into the well, probably as votive offerings in antiquity and as simple discards in later eras.

The Cetamura settlement has been excavated since 1973, unearthing Etruscan remains including an acropolis and extensive artisan quarters, a Roman villa and baths and a medieval fort. The well is in Zone 1, the acropolis area on the top of the hill, and a team of archaeologists and students led by Florida State University Etruscan expert Nancy de Grummond have been excavating it since 2011. So far the team has unearthed 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, an impressive number of very rare Etruscan wood pieces and almost 500 grape seeds.

The bronze vessels, of different shapes and sizes and with varying decorations, were used to extract water from the well, which has been excavated to a depth of more than 105 feet.

“One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla,” de Grummond said. “Another was adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard and, for handle attachments, had African heads, probably sphinxes.”

The grape seeds, found in at least three different levels of the well — including the Etruscan and Roman levels — are of tremendous scientific interest, according to de Grummond.

The seeds date to the third and second centuries B.C. (Etruscan) and to the late first century B.C., early first century A.D. (Roman). The waterlogged environment preserved them exceptionally well which will give researchers the rare opportunity to do DNA testing as well as radiocarbon dating. This has the potential to illuminate the viticultural history of one of the famous wine growing regions of the world, a history that is very little known. Genetic and morphometric analyses of the seeds will categorize the different grape varieties and, if all goes well, will determine if any of these ancient Chianti grapes are related to the ones used to make Chianti wines today. The Roman seeds discovered in the 2012 and 2013 dig seasons have already been sorted into three different types.

Interestingly, the grape seeds weren’t just thrown in to the well in handfuls. The team found most of them inside the bronze vessels, evidence that they may have been ritual offerings rather than garbage. The wood from the early Etruscan level also appears to have played a ritual role.

“Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified, such as parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool and a rounded object that might be a knob or child’s top,” [de Grummond] said. “The sheer amount of Etruscan waterlogged wood — with some recognizable artifacts — could transform views about such perishable items.”

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