Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Freaking huge gold torc found in Cambridgeshire

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

The British Museum just released its annual Treasure and Portable Antiquities Scheme report which announces archaeological findings made by members of the public in the preceding year. Among the whopping 82,272 finds reported in 2015 was a gold torc so huge it defies comprehension. Discovered by a metal detectorist on freshly ploughed farmland in East Cambridgeshire in September of last year, it is a four-flange spiral twisted bar torc dating to around 1300-1100 B.C., the Middle Bronze Age. Not counting the trumpet-shaped terminals at each end, the twisted bar is an exceptional 126.5cm (4’2″) long. The terminals are 108 and 107mm long, so just over four inches each, bringing the total length to more than 4’10″. At 732 grams (1.6 pounds) in weight, it is one of the heaviest bar torcs ever found in Britain and Ireland.

The find site is within 50 miles of Must Farm, the extraordinary bronze age village in the shadow of a chip factory on the edge of Peterborough.

“There was a lot going on in bronze age East Anglia,” said Neil Wilkin, the curator of bronze age Europe at the British Museum, “but it’s been a while since we’ve had anything as hefty as this.”

The torc is of the highest quality in materials and manufacture. It’s made of 86-87% gold and 12-13% silver (the remainder is copper), so 20-21 carat gold by modern standards. The four flanges are between 3.3 and 5mm long and are twisted counter-clockwise so expertly that the gap between them is consistently between 2.25 and 2.5mm for the entire length of the bar. Circular collars are fitted seamlessly between the bar and each terminal. How exactly they were mounted archaeologists haven’t been able to figure out yet, possibly by use of a solder with a different melting point than the gold of the bar and terminals, but tests have found no variation in the gold composition down the entire length of the torc, so if solder was used, it must have been incredibly subtle.

Torcs are usually thought of as jewelry worn around the neck, but unless there was an exceedingly wealthy and stylish Triceratops roaming around Bronze Age Cambridgeshire, this one cannot have been. It couldn’t have even been worn around someone’s waist. Because flange twisted torcs have never been found in burials, archaeologists don’t have any evidence to go on to determine how these giant torcs were worn. Suggestions include that it was worn as a sash, around the body from shoulder to hip, or possibly around the belly of a very pregnant woman as a protective talisman. It may even have adorned sacrificial sheep or goats.

The finder, who has chosen to remain anonymous, did not record the torc as he or she first found it so all experts have to go on is the finder’s vague description of it as “loosely bundled.” It was coiled but someone, and no one is naming names, opened it up into a single large loop and crossed the terminals before the discovery was reported to the Finds Liaison Officer.

The torc was reported to Helen Fowler at a finds meeting at Peterborough Museum, who said she was “gobsmacked” when it came out of the finder’s briefcase. The last torc she had handled was bracelet sized, but this one was far too big to fit on her weighing scales and she had to borrow a box from the museum to take it back to her office.

In addition to making it unwieldy, hard to weigh and materially altering a malleable, delicate archaeological treasure for no conceivable reason, the uncoiling damaged the flanges. In two places — about one third and two thirds along the length of the bar — the flanges are now distorted. In one of the spots, the edges of five twists have been scraped through the outer layer, exposing fresh gold. British Museum experts hope they’ll be able to figure out the original position of the torc at burial by examining the distorted places.

The torc has yet to be valued — a similar but smaller large-scale bar torc discovered in a bog in Northern Ireland in 2009 was valued at £150,000 — but whatever the final assessment, the Ely Museum hopes to acquire it.

Because your friendly neighborhood history blogger would never be so cruel as to report on a freaking huge gold torc without freaking huge pictures of said gold torc, your browser should probably stretch and do some light warm-ups before you click on these:


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Rare Viking coins found in Belfast

Monday, November 28th, 2016

A metal detectorist has discovered two 11th century Viking silver coins near Newcastle in Co Down, Northern Ireland. Brian Morton was scanning a field last May when he found the silver pennies half an inch apart under four inches of mud. He didn’t know he’d found an extremely rare historical treasure. That was formally confirmed last week when a coroner’s inquest in Belfast declared the coins official treasure trove.

Made of 93% silver, the coins are of a rare type known as Hiberno-Manx coins. The rulers of Mann in the first half of the 11th century were Vikings from Scandinavia and from Dublin. Olaf Sigtryggsson, King of Mann in the early 1030s, was the son of Sigtrygg Silkbeard, King of Dublin, and his wife Sláine, daughter of Irish king and national hero Brian Boru. Viking Dublin had its own mint and issued coins which copied English designs. The Hiberno-Manx coins were very rough versions of the Dublin designs.

Despite the political and familial connections between Mann and Dublin and the numismatic mimicry, more than 90% of all known Hiberno-Manx coins have been found on the Isle of Man, which strongly suggests they circulated exclusively as currency on the island itself. The rest were found in Scandinavia. The two discovered by Brian Morton are the first to have been found in Ireland. (There are some in Irish private collections, but they were unearthed elsewhere or their find sites cannot be authenticated.)

How the coins made their way to the Co Down hinterland remains uncertain, but one possibility is that they were taken during a Viking raid on a nearby monastery at Maghera, the court was told. The discovery may also reflect more peaceful trading or strategic links between the Isle of Man and south-east Ulster.

Robert Heslip, a former curator of coins at the Ulster Museum, said they were probably dropped by someone passing rather than deliberately hidden.

He explained: “I would think that it is more likely to be a loss given that they were separated. Also, two is an odd number. You generally find one or a hoard of these coins.” [...]

Dr Greer Ramsey, of National Museums Northern Ireland, said: “We take coinage totally for granted but, prior to the Viking period in Ireland, there wasn’t coinage, and silver was the main form of currency. … The significance is that these coins are really the first that we can say were found in Ireland. It is a measure of contact – that people from the Isle of Man were travelling over.”

Next up for the coins is a valuation by independent experts at the British Museum. They’ll determine the fair market value which will be ponied up by whichever museum wants the coin as a finder’s fee to be split between Morton and the landowner. Local museums are given the opportunity to secure the treasure first, and given the oversized historical significance of these small pennies, I have little doubt the National Museums Northern Ireland, likely the Ulster Museum, will snap them up.

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Extremely rare British coin found in boy’s toy box

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

A gold coin in a toy box that figured in the pirate games of two generations of young boys turns out to be one of the rarest British coins, a bona fide treasure. The owner, who chooses to remain anonymous because he basically hit the lottery, was given the coin by his grandfather.

“My Grandad had travelled all over the world during his working life and had collected many coins from the various countries he had been”, said the stunned and delighted vendor. “He gave me bags of coins to play with (I was into pirate treasure) throughout my early years… As time passed these coins went back into bags and boxes and were forgotten about until I rediscovered them after my Grandad passed away. I looked back through the coins — remembering the stories I made up about them when I was small — and then gave them to my own son to play with and put into his own treasure box. My little boy has been playing with this coin as I did all those years ago.”

Before letting his son go fully to town on the coins, he brought them to Essex auction house Boningtons to see if any of them were worth something. Coin expert Gregory Tong recognized it as one of Britain’s rarest coins: a 1703 Queen Anne ‘Vigo’ five-guinea gold coin, made from gold taken from Spanish treasure galleons at the Battle of Vigo Bay in October 1702.

It was the early days of the War of Spanish Succession, when the last decrepit, inbred Hapsburg king of Spain died putting the Bourbon Philip V, son of Louis XIV of France, on the throne and threatening the Balance of Power in Europe. The allied fleets of Britain and the Dutch Republic had attempted to capture the port of Cádiz at the end of August 1702, hoping to gain a base in the Mediterranean for their ships and to cripple Spain’s access to the wealth of its New World colonies. The attempt was a disastrous failure. Craft and ships were lost in the landing, troops pillaged port towns and never even got to Cádiz itself. As September came and no progress was made, bad weather became an issue. On September 30th, the Allied fleet left with its proverbial tail between its legs.

The Cádiz debacle did have one useful consequence for the Allies: the Spanish silver fleet which usually landed at Cádiz was forced to dock at Vigo Bay in Galicia. Lacking the complex customs and trade infrastructure required to process the tons of silver and gold, the Spanish treasure ships and the French fleet protecting were locked into the bay for a month. The English command got wind of this as its ships were heading back to England, and figured they might at least make lemonade out of the Cádiz lemons by attacking the treasure ships.

On October 22nd, the Anglo-Dutch fleet entered Vigo Bay. The next day, they engaged the Spanish and French fleet. It was a total rout. Every single Spanish and French ship was either captured or burned. More than 2,000 men died on the Spanish-French side. Only 200 were lost on the Allied side. While most of the silver had already been unloaded from the treasure ships, the Allies did manage to score thousands of pounds of silver and a much smaller amount of gold.

Really it wasn’t that much of a monetary gain, but the outcome of Vigo Bay did persuade Portuguese King Peter II to join the Grand Alliance, and it gave the British some PR relief after the Cádiz disaster. To fluff up the minor victory and obscure the major loss, silver and gold booty from the Spanish fleet was delivered to the Master of the Mint, a certain Sir Isaac Newton, to use in the production of commemorative coins, portable propaganda to convince people that the war was going well. He received 4,504 lb 2 oz of silver and just 7 lb 8 oz of gold, for a combined estimated value of a rather measly £14,000. (Philip V of Spain made something like seven million pesos from the Vigo Bay caper because he was able to confiscate all the silver the ships were carrying meant for English and Dutch merchants, so money-wise, this victory was decidedly on the Pyrrhic side.)

The gold was used to make half-guinea, guinea and five-guinea coins. They bore the dignified profile of Queen Anne on the obverse with the word VIGO stamped under her shoulder to publicize the source of the gold. On the reverse was the pre-union coat of arms. Only 20 of the five-guinea pieces are believed to have been struck. The Vigo coins were meant to be circulated — the silver was made into crown, half-crown, shilling and six-penny pieces — but the gold five guinea coins were so expensive that only the very wealthiest people could afford them, and they weren’t likely to spend them like cash.

Of the 20 struck, only 15 of them are known, all of them in private collections. They very seldom come up for auction. Only six of them have gone on the market in the last 50 years. The estimated value of the toy box coin is £200,000-250,000 ($243,620-$304,525), but it could easily sell for more given its rarity. The last Vigo coin to sell at auction went for just under £296,160 ($360,200) and that was in 2012.

When the owner discovered that the coin he’d played pirate treasure with was an actual treasure, he closed himself in the car and exulted so vigorously that the auction house staff could see the car bouncing as it was parked. He even came back the next day to be sure he wasn’t getting punked.

The coin goes on the auction block at Boningtons’ Epping saleroom on Wednesday November 16th.

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22 ancient inscribed gold plates found in Java

Monday, September 12th, 2016


Construction workers in the Indonesian province of Central Java have unearthed 22 inscribed gold plates from the 8th century. The crew was digging for an aquifer project in the village of Ringinlarik when they came across a stone box in a rock pile. A small container at 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) long, 13.5 centimeters (5.3 inches) wide, and six centimeters (2.4 inches) high, the box was intact with its lid still on — one of the workers thought it looked like a jewelry box — and its contents apparently undisturbed.

Gutomo, an official with the Central Java Heritage Conservation Agency (BPCB) confirmed the gold found was 18 carats. Each plate has an inscription in ancient Javanese letters. The inscriptions are names of cardinal and ordinal directions of Dewa Lokapala’s wind Gods.

The inscriptions are names of cardinal and ordinal directions of Dewa Lokapala’s wind Gods.

“We recorded eight names of wind Gods. We have also declared the location as a heritage site,” Gutomo said.

Dewas, also known as devatas or dewatas, are minor Hindu deities that govern specific areas of nature and humanity. The Devata Lokapala are the Guardians of the Directions, overseers of the four cardinal points — Indra (east), Yama (south), Varuṇa (west) and Kubera (north) — and four ordinal points — Agni (southeast), Nirṛti (southwest), Vayu (northwest) and Īśāna (northeast). Javanese Hinduism includes a ninth member of the party, representing the center point, and calls them the Dewata Nawa Sanga, or Nine Guardian Gods.

The Guardians are often found painted or carved on the walls and ceilings in Hindu temples, but Java has an even stronger historical connection to these deities because they appear on the Surya Majapahit, a symbol associated with the great Majapahit Empire which ruled over what is now Indonesia from 1293 to 1500. (Old time readers might recall the wonderful Majapahit piggy banks made centuries before pigs became a popular home savings motif in the West.) The Surya Majapahit has been found carved on many Majapahit structures, enough that archaeologists believe it was an emblem of the empire. It’s an eight-pointed star representing the rays of the sun with the major Hindu deities in the circular center and the Guardians on the outer perimeter next to the rays that point in the cardinal or ordinal direction they guard. The plates predate the Majapahit Empire by at least five centuries so they’re not related, but they do attest to the regional significance of the deities.

It’s not clear on what grounds the gold plates have been provisionally dated to the 8th century, but one big clue is a discovery made at the same work site earlier this year: the remains of a candi, the Indonesian word for a stupa, a Hindu or Buddhist temple. The use of volcanic rock and the structure of the temple indicated to archaeologist that it was younger than the Candi Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple about 40 miles southwest of Ringinlarik. Metal plates inscribed with incantations and prayers were placed in containers and buried under the foundation of temples along with other offerings to bless the temple, so it’s highly probable these 22 plates were in place when construction on the candi began.

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Icelandic goose hunters find Viking sword

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

Five friends on a goose hunting weekend in the Skaftárhreppur district near the Skaftá river in South Iceland, killed nary a single goose, but they did bag a Viking sword. It wasn’t even buried, but found on the surface of the soil. One of the hunting party, Runar Stanley Sighvatsson, said: “It was just there, waiting to be taken up.” That is probably the result of last year’s severe glacial floods eroding the old lava fields which had enveloped the sword for hundreds of years and carrying it to the field where it was found.

Runar Sighvatsson and another of the hunters, Árni Björn Valdimarsson, notified the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland of their find and on Monday delivered the sword to Kristín Sigurðardóttir, director of the Cultural Heritage Centre. Judging from a picture of the sword Valdimarsson had posted on his Facebook page, Sigurðardóttir estimated the weapon dated to the 10th century. Her initial examination confirmed that it is a type Q sword from 10th century, possibly the first half of the 10th century. She suspects the sword was probably buried in a grave.

The hunters came across it before it had been exposed for long, so while it is corroded, there’s a bend in the blade and the tip has broken off, all the parts are there and the sword is in excellent condition. There are even splinters of wood still attached to the handle.

“There might be some remains of scabbard on the blade but we will know more about this when the conservators have done a thorough search. The goose hunters that found the sword discovered another object which we have not analyzed yet,” [Sigurðardóttir] added.

“Our archaeologists have now gone to evaluate whether this [area] is a pagan grave.”

Finding a Viking sword anywhere is immensely exciting, but particularly so in Iceland where only 22 other Viking-era swords have been found. The last one was discovered more than 10 years ago.

The precise location of the find is being kept secret to keep treasure hunters away and give the agency the chance to explore the site for any other archaeological materials that might be there. Meanwhile the sword will go to the National Museum in Reykjavík for further study and conservation.

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Export of Queen Victoria’s coronet barred for now

Monday, August 29th, 2016

You might think a sapphire and diamond coronet designed by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria the year they were married would never be in danger of being exported out of the UK, but it is. The Culture Ministry has placed a temporary export ban on Queen Victoria’s coronet in the hopes that a buyer in the UK, ideally an institution, can raise the £5 million ($6,554,000) plus £1 million ($1,310,725) VAT to match the purchase price.

In the happy days before her widowhood, Victoria loved brightly colored gems, and Albert designed the coronet to match a sapphire and diamond brooch he had given to Victoria as a wedding present. Victoria was delighted with these gifts, writing in her journal “My dear Albert has such good taste and arranges everything for me about my jewellery.” In the case of the coronet, Albert arranged for Joseph Kitching, Goldsmith & Jeweller To His Serene Highness the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, to make it using gemstones that Victoria had gotten as gifts from her uncle King William IV and his wife Queen Adelaide. The small crown — just 4.5 inches wide — has 11 kite- and cushion-cut sapphires mounted in gold surrounded by diamonds mounted in silver. It cost £415.

Victoria wore the coronet two years later in 1842 when she sat for one of the most famous portraits of the young queen by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The fashionable artist’s first portrait of Queen Victoria captured her in white silk satin and lace gown reminiscent of her groundbreaking wedding dress which would launch the white wedding trend. The sapphire and diamond brooch Albert had given her the day before their wedding is pinned to her bosom, just as it was on her wedding dress. The coronet encircles the tidy bun on the back of her head. The painting became an iconic representation of Queen Victoria all over the world.

Prince Albert’s death in 1861 sent Victoria into a period of inconsolable mourning that lasted for years. She wore black and made no public appearances, executing the duties of the monarch in seclusion at her favorite royal residences, avoiding Buckingham Palace and London as much as possible. Breaking two centuries of uninterrupted tradition, she refused to attend the State Opening of Parliament for five years, finally returning to the duty in 1866 under duress. The new Prime Minister Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli pressured the queen to attend the ceremony to quell politicians’ and the public’s increasing discontent with her withdrawal from public life. She did it with great reluctance, grumbling that it would be a terrible “shock to her nerves.” Instead of wearing the coronation crown, whose weight had caused her some pain during her coronation, she wore the little coronet, a reminder of her beloved husband.

Neither Queen Alexandra nor Queen Mary wore the sapphire coronet. In 1922 King George V and Queen Mary gifted it to Princess Mary, their only daughter, as a wedding present when she married Viscount Lascelles, the future 6th Earl of Harewood, in 1922. Mary, Princess Royal after 1932 and Countess of Harewood after 1929, wore the coronet often on public occasions. After her death in 1965, the coronet fell out of view. It emerged in 1997 for an exhibition at the renown Wartski jewelers in London, on loan from the Countess of Harewood. In 2002 it was exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Tiaras exhibition.

At some point after that it was sold to a dealer in London. The overseas owner requesting the export license bought it from that dealer. Whenever an export license is requested, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) studies the piece and determines whether its historical and cultural value is too significant to let it leave the country without a fight.

RCEWA member Philippa Glanville said:

“Key to the self-image of the young Victoria, this exquisite coronet was designed by her husband Prince Albert. Worn in her popular state portrait by Winterhalter of 1842, the year it was made, its combination of personal meaning and formality explains why she chose to wear it in 1866, emerging from mourning for the State Opening of Parliament. It evokes vividly the shared romantic taste of the time, and its form has become familiar through many reproductions. Its departure would be a great loss, given its beauty, its associations and its history.”

Individuals and institutions have until December 27th, 2016, to raise the money or at least raise enough money to indicate they have a chance of matching the price if given a little more time. In that case, the temporary ban may be extended to June 27th, 2017.

If I were Queen Elizabeth II, I would be whipping out my checkbook right now. Which raises the question: are the Queen’s checkbooks plain or the kind with designs? I’m thinking horses in a field or Corgis at frolic.

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Fabulously rich Bronze Age grave found in Cyprus

Thursday, August 18th, 2016

Archaeologists from the University of Gothenburg have unearthed an exceptionally rich grave dating to 1500-1400 B.C. near the Bronze Age city of Hala Sultan Tekke in eastern Cyprus, one of the richest from the period ever found in Cyprus. The grave was discovered after a geophysical survey pinpointed nearly 100 underground pits in an area where farming had caused significant erosion. Most of the pits were wells averaging three feet in diameter. One of them was significantly larger at 13 by 10 feet. Excavation found the large pit was a family tomb which held the remains of eight children between five and 10 years old and nine adults, the oldest of whom was only 40 at the time of death. An offering pit was found adjacent to the tomb.

Inside the grave and offering pit, archaeologists found 140 complete ceramic vessels, gold jewelry including a diadem, earrings and beads, gold-mounted stone scarabs, gemstones, a bronze dagger and five cylinder seals. Some of the objects were made locally; some were made in Syria, Mesopotamia or Egypt. Most of the ceramics are elaborately decorated. Subjects painted on the vessels include people in a two-horse chariot, religious iconography, animals and a woman wearing elegant Minoan clothing. The ceramic vases were largely imported from Greece, Crete and Anatolia.

“The pottery carries a lot of archaeological information. There were for example high-class Mycenaean imports, meaning pottery from Greece, dated to 1500–1300 BC. The motif of the woman, possibly a goddess, is Minoan, which means it is from Crete, but the vase was manufactured in Greece. Back in those days, Crete was becoming a Greek ‘colony’,” says [University of Gothenburg professor of Cypriote archaeology Peter] Fischer.

According to Fischer, the painting of the woman’s dress is highly advanced and shows how wealthy women dressed around this time. The motif can also be found on frescos for example in the Palace of Knossos in Heraklion, Crete.

The grave goods also feature important objects from Egypt, like the gold-mounted scarabs. One of the stone scarabs is inscribed with the hieroglyphs for ‘men-kheper-re’ and the figure of a pharaoh. It refers to 18th Dynasty pharaoh Thutmose III (1479–1425 BC), whose successful wars of conquest expanded Egypt’s empire to its largest size, absorbing Syria and much of Mesopotamia.

Hala Sultan Tekke was one of the largest cities in the Late Bronze Age. It was inhabited from 1600 through 1150 B.C. and radar surveys have found that at its peak it was up to 50 hectares in area. The prosperous city benefited from extensive trade connections that reached as far as Sweden. The great number and variety of artifacts found in the tomb didn’t travel quite that far, but they attest to the availability of luxury imports in the Late Bronze Age city.

The archaeological team found evidence in the city proper of textile production and purple dying on an industrial scale. Purple dye was rare, expensive and of regal cachet. With purple textiles to trade, Bronze Age Hala Sultan Tekke could afford the best goods Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Greece, Anatolia and Crete had to offer.

The tomb was found next to an older neighborhood of the city which has yet to be fully explored. Excavations are over for the season, but the team will return next year to explore more of the area near the tomb before agricultural activity destroy the site.

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Roman phallus pendant found in Horncastle

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

A metal detectorist has discovered a Roman phallus charm in a field near Horncastle, Lincolnshire. Made of copper-alloy, the phallus weighs 11.6 grams and is 45.41 mm (1.8 inches) long. It’s curved in profile, with two spheres at one end representing testicles and two thin grooves run down the length of the underside with notched ribs between them. It was worn as a pendant from a loop in the center. Comparison with similar examples suggest a date of 120-300 A.D.

Phalluses were widespread in the Roman empire. They were talismans of protection against the evil eye, a curse that could be inflicted by individuals or by entire tribes that were believed to be collectively well-endowed with evil eye powers. The phallic deity Fascinus was thought to be protect against such spells, so his small, portable representatives performed the same function. They were extremely popular with the Roman soldiers. They were worn as pendants on necklaces and as decoration on cavalry horse harnesses.

Because they were so common in the army, phallus amulets can be found all over the empire. Britain is no exception. In fact, it’s particularly rich in phalluses. The largest collection of phallus amulets with the fist or the “fig sign” warding gesture at one end was discovered in Camulodunum, modern-day Colchester in Essex, the first capital of Roman Britain. Very few have been found in Lincolnshire, however.

The Horncastle phallus is similar to several horse harness pendants, but it could have been worn around the neck by a civilian. It wasn’t found on the site of a fort or other known army encampment. Phallus pendants were worn by adults and children — they were considered very effective against harm to a child — with no connection to the military.

It doesn’t have quite the rarity and cachet of the gold phallus pendant found in Hillington, Norfolk, in 2011, and since it’s not made of precious metals, it won’t be declared treasure trove which means the finder gets to keep the piece. That’s way better than gold, as far as I’m concerned. If I found something like that, I’d wear it every day.

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Tiny gold bead may be oldest gold artifact

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

A tiny gold bead unearthed at a prehistoric site outside the town of Pazardzhik, southern Bulgaria, may be the oldest known gold artifact. It was discovered two weeks ago in the remains of a small house. The bead, a small strip of gold wrapped into a ring, weighs just 15 centigrams (.005 of an ounce) and is 4 millimeters (1/8 inch) in diameter. It dates to around 4600 B.C., although how that date was determined is not clear from the news reports.

The oldest known gold jewelry currently on the books was also found in Bulgaria, in the Copper Age necropolis at Varna. An enormous quantity of gold was found in burials and cenotaphs at the Varna necropolis, more than 3,000 artifacts weighing a total of six kilos. One grave alone, grave 43, held more gold than has ever been discovered from that period in the whole world combined. The Varna treasure dates to between 4600 and 4200 B.C., so there’s enough overlap that the Pazardzhik bead can’t be absolutely confirmed as the oldest with current dating technologies.

Nonetheless, one archaeologist at least is certain the tiny bead predates the great treasure by at least 200 years.

“I have no doubt that it is older than the Varna gold,” Yavor Boyadzhiev, associated professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Science, said.

“It’s a really important discovery. It is a tiny piece of gold but big enough to find its place in history.”

The settlement in which the bead was found, known as Tell Yunatsite after a nearby village, is believed to have been founded by descendants of Anatolians who migrated to Europe from Asia Minor the 7th millennium B.C. and over the next thousand years developed metal processing know-how into a full-fledged industry. In the 5th millennium B.C., urban settlements grew around these burgeoning industrial centers. They are the oldest towns in Europe, and Tell Yunatsite may well be the oldest, with artifacts dating to 4900 B.C.

So far archaeologists have unearthed between 10 and 12 hectares (25-30 acres) of the settlement, just about a third of the tell, and the remains of defensive wall that would have been about nine feet high when it still stood. Little of the homes and possible workplaces have survived, but there is evidence of specialization and larger-scale production, for instance seven millstones to grind grain were found in one room. There are streets, public buildings, closely-knit dwellings, even clearly discernible uptown and downtown neighborhoods.

The settlement is known as the “Town of Birds” because of the more than 150 ceramic bird figurines unearthed at the site. The preponderance of the birds depicted sitting upright rather than in flight or other natural positions suggests the townspeople had a cultic devotion to their feathered friends. The Town of Birds was destroyed around 4100 B.C., probably by invading Indo-European tribes from the northeast. They did not have sophisticated urban culture, but they had horses and they had weapons and the defensive walls were not enough to keep them out. Skeletons of women, children and the elderly with holes inflicted by axes have been found strewn on the floors of structures, suggesting a deliberate massacre of non-combatant residents.

The bead will be studied now in order to confirm its age. Once the analysis is complete, it will be put on display at the Regional Historical Museum of Pazardzhik.

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Roman gold curse tablets found in Serbia

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

Extremely rare curse tablets made of gold and silver instead of the usual lead have been unearthed at the ancient site of Viminacium in Serbia, about 60 miles east of Belgrade. Archaeologists were excavating land adjacent to power plant before construction of an addition to the plant when they found a large family tomb decorated with colorful wall paintings. There were multiple rooms containing multiple burials from the middle of the 3rd century A.D. through the 5th.

Buried with one of the skeletons dating to the 4th century were two small lead cylinders holding three rolled up sheets, one of silver, two of gold. The silver and gold sheets had writing and symbols inscribed on them. One of them has Greek letters but is written in Aramaic, not Greek. Archaeologists have identified an intriguing combination of names on it: Baal, Yahweh, and Thobarabau, Seneseilam and Sesengenfaranges, three deities/demons (depending on whether your perspective is polytheistic or Christian) native to what is now Syria. A curse tablet inviking the powers of both Baal and Yahweh is unprecedented.

The other two aren’t inscribed with letters at all, but unknown symbols. Traditionally curse tablets (defixiones in Latin) were written in Greek or Latin with some ununderstandable words. These were voces mysticae, belonging to no known human language, meant to appeal to the deities and demons in words only they could understand. They also used charakteres, symbols believed to represent astrological signs or cosmic forces, or, in the case of Christian curses, angels and other heavenly host. The silver curse tablet is the only one ever discovered written solely in symbols.

Found throughout the Greco-Roman world even well into the Christian era, curse tablets called on spirits, demonic or divine powers to control a target — destroy an enemy, force restitution of stolen goods, get someone in the sack or make the opposing team lose. The tablets were thin sheets of lead on which invocations against the targets were scratched. They would then be rolled or folded up and placed in a relevant area usually below the ground, graves, wells, temples, sanctuaries or the homes of the cursed.

The earliest known extant curse tablets were found in the Greek colony of Selinunte in Sicily (modern-day Castelvetrano where they grow the greatest bright green olives) and date to the early 5th century B.C. The 22 Selinute tablets were mostly litigation curses intended to kneecap opponents in a lawsuit. Other popular types of curses include ones against rival sports teams, rival businesses, thieves and love or sex spells. Men tended to deploy curse tablets to arouse women’s passion, while women mostly used curses to stimulate men’s affection.

About 1,500 ancient curse tablets have been found. The vast majority are made of lead, some of lead mixed with tin and copper. A tiny fraction are inscribed on precious metals. These are the first curse tablets ever discovered in Serbia. It’s a testament to the wealth of Viminacium that the only defixionis ever found there are extremely rare examples in gold and silver.

Viminacium was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior. Its strategic position near the border with the Goths made it one of the most important cities in the empire. It had a permanent military camp and was a prosperous trade center. Excavations since its rediscovery in the late 19th century have unearthed the largest Roman amphitheater in the Balkans, 40,000 artifacts, 700 of them gold and silver, and more than 14,000 Roman-era graves (the largest Roman cemetery ever discovered), some of which contained extremely fine and rare jewels, one of which contained unique gold and silver curse tablets.

The section of the cemetery in which the tablets were unearthed is also home to a number of Christian graves, and archaeologists don’t rule out that some of the dead in the tomb may have been Christian. Orthodoxy wasn’t cemented in the 4th century and the syncretism evinced in the tablet could be the work of a Christian drawing in influences from adjacent, albeit seemingly conflicting, beliefs.

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