Archive for November, 2008

Herod’s Tomb?

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Archaeologists digging in the Herodium complex on the West Bank have uncovered unusually lavish and Romanate remains in the mausoleum, bolstering the theory that Herod the Great and his family may have been buried there.

Herod built Herodium as a massive complex, complete with his winter palace, administrative buildings and this tomb.

“What we found here, spread all around, are architectural fragments that enable us to restore a monument of 25 meters high, 75 feet high, very elegant, which fits Herod’s taste and status,” he told The Associated Press in an interview at the hillside dig in an Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank, south of Jerusalem.

Three intricately carved sarcophagi indicate that more than one person was buried in the mausoleum, but so far they’ve not found any explicit evidence that one of them was Herod himself.

That’s why the style of architecture and art is so significant: Herod’s Romanophilia was unique for his time and place.

The Google is LIFE

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

LIFE magazine, that is. Google is hosting a searchable archive of historical photographs from the LIFE magazine vault.

We’re not just talking the major VJ-day-navy-dude-kisses-nurse cover shots either, but a complete set of everything in LIFE’s archive, including pictures that were never published, all in as high a resolution as you could hope for.

That’s millions of photographs, even some as early as 1750. I don’t know how that could be exactly, because as far as I know the first permanent photograph was taken in 1826, the first really useable system coming a decade later with the daguerreotype.

The browse by decades feature starts with the 1860’s, so I’m guessing the 18th c. material is more recent photography of period paintings.

Item of note: there are 148 photographs in the LIFE archive from 1860. No other decade beats that number until the 1910’s. Slaughter inspires art, I suppose.

To search the LIFE archives, just type “source:life” after your keyword in the Google Images search box.

A 2,800-year-old monument to a soul

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

In 800 B.C., a royal official in the city of Sam’al in what is now Turkey, ordered a stone monument be inscribed after his death directing his mourners commemorate his soul.

Archaeologists who found the stele last summer believe it’s evidence the locals believed in an eternal soul separate from the body, which is notable for the time and the area.

“Normally, in the Semitic cultures, the soul of a person, their vital essence, adheres to the bones of the deceased,” said David Schloen, an archaeologist at the university’s Oriental Institute and director of the excavations. “But here we have a culture that believed the soul is not in the corpse but has been transferred to the mortuary stone.”

A translation of the inscription by Dennis Pardee, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at Chicago, reads in part: “I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the god] Hadad, a ram for [the god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.”

There might be an Egyptian influence in this theology. An Egyptologist cited in the article notes that the ancient Egyptians broke our notion of a soul up into two parts, one of which, the bit that includes personal characteristics, leaves the body after death.

There’s no evidence of direct Egyptian influence, though, and there were all kinds of cultures interacting in the area at that time.

The are in which the stele was found has a fascinating history:

The site, near the town of Islahiye in Gaziantep province, was controlled at one time by the Hittite Empire in central Turkey, then became the capital of a small independent kingdom. In the eighth century, the city was still the seat of kings, including Panamuwa, but they were by then apparently subservient to the Assyrian Empire. After that empire’s collapse, the city’s fortunes declined, and the place was abandoned late in the seventh century.

It wasn’t until the post-Schliemann Germans excavated the area at the turn of the century that the rich history of the city began to be revealed, and after that was another 100 years of neglect until the University of Chicago archaeologists began excavations in 2006.

Ancient Celtic coin cache found in Netherlands

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Man, those Celts really got around: Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands.

Caches of Celtic coin have been found in Germany and Belgium before, and now in the Netherlands.

Archaeologists say the trove of 39 gold and 70 silver coins was minted in the middle of the first century B.C. as the future Roman ruler Julius Caesar led a campaign against Celtic tribes in the area.[…]

Nico Roymans, the archaeologist who led the academic investigation of the find, believes the gold coins in the cache were minted by a tribe called the Eburones that Caesar claimed to have wiped out in 53 B.C. after they conspired with other groups in an attack that killed 6,000 Roman soldiers.

The Eburones “put up strong resistance to Caesar’s journeys of conquest,” Roymans said.

The silver coins were made by tribes further to the north — possible evidence of cooperation against Caesar, he said.

The dating is notable not only because of the (tenuous) link to Caesar, but because by early in the first century A.D., the Celts had been chased off the European mainland by the growing Roman Empire and Germanic migrations. So this first century B.C. cache is sort of a last hurrah for continental Celts.

Go to Florence the first Sunday of the month

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

Then wake up at the crack of dawn and head to the Palazzo Vecchio, where 50 people will be allowed to view the archaeological dig in progress underneath the storied building. It’s like a club sandwich of Florentine history on display for you and 98 other eyes.

Visitors enter through a side door of the Palazzo, where a copy of the statue of David sits in front. They enter a cavernous room, where there’s a series of trenches, metres deep, and criss-crossed by wooden planks.

Archaeologists have spent the past few years unearthing the remains of an ancient Roman theatre — known as the Commune — discovering how the city evolved over 2,000 years.

“The Palazzo Vecchio has preserved all of the structures, whether Roman, medieval and even up to the renaissance, in its foundations,” says archeologist Lorenzo Spezzi, who has been working at the site since 2004.

“Here you see all of the ages of the city, from its establishment to the renaissance. That’s the wonderful thing about this area. You see, even from one room, the evolution of the city of Florence.”

The Commune was one of the first structures built after the Romans settled the town and was in continuous use for the 500-600 years. Then there’s a medieval street, complete with cesspit and all the facades of the buildings lining it still intact.

The dig is scheduled to be finished in a few months. After that, the city is planning to make available a permanent guided tour of the site.

No living relatives for Otzi

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

The Tyrolean Iceman known as Otzi died in the Alps 5,000 years ago, but despite his relative youth, scientists have discovered that he has no genetic descendants.

Earlier study of the DNA showed that he belonged to the lineage, or “subhaplogroup,” known as K1. About 8% of modern Europeans belong to the K haplogroup, meaning that they share a common ancestor, and that group is divided into two “subhaplogroups,” K1 and K2. The K1 haplogroup, in turn, can be divided into three clusters.

In the new study, the researchers took advantage of advanced genome-sequencing technologies to shed more light on the Iceman’s genetics. They sequenced his entire mitochondrial genome and compared that sequence to other published human mitochondrial DNA sequences to construct his evolutionary (or phylogenetic) family tree.

“The surprise came when we found that the lineage of the Iceman did not fit any of the three known K1 clusters,” Rollo said. His team has informally named the newly discovered branch on the human family tree “Otzi’s branch.”

This is unexpected news. He’s not all that old, really. You’d think there’d be some direct genetic link between him and modern Europeans, but nope.

It seems he was a member of a genetic group that is extinct now, or at least so rare that scientists have yet to find it.

Ancient Rome in 3D

Friday, November 14th, 2008

Okay people, you can stop emailing me this link now. I’m posting about it, SO CAN I HAVE SOME PEACE AND QUIET PLZ?!1

In all seriousness, Google Earth’s new Ancient Rome layer may well be one of the coolest things ever conceived by the mind of man. (And you can trust my judgment on these matters because I am entirely without bias.)

Ancient Rome 3D, as the new feature is known, is a digital elaboration of some 7,000 buildings recreating Rome circa A.D. 320, at the height of Constantine’s empire, when more than a million inhabitants lived within the city’s Aurelian walls. […]

Of the 7,000 buildings in the 1.0 version, around 250 are extremely detailed. (Thirty-one of them are based on 1:1 scale models built at U.C.L.A.) The others are sketchier and derived from a 3-D scan of data collected from a plaster model of ancient Rome at the Museum of Roman Civilization….

It’s like the only good part of the movie “Gladiator” (the sweeping CGI vistas of the city as they approach the Colosseum) expanded 7000-fold. You can fly over the urbs for the bird’s eye view, or you can focus in individual buildings at a level of detail that just boggles the mind.

One wee problem:

Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, suggested Wednesday that the Google Earth feature could gratify tourists who are disappointed to find that the city’s ancient monuments are in ruins. “They may not be enough to involve the tourist in the experience of Roman civilization,” he said. “The public needs the hook-up with virtual reality.”

Now that’s just stupid. I don’t know what tourists go to Rome thinking the ancient monuments aren’t in ruins, but I doubt they’re capable of downloading Google Earth if looking at pictures or cracking a book is too much of a challenge for them.

One of the things I love the most about Rome is envisioning the ruins as they once were. My parents had these great little books with pictures of monuments as they are now and a transparent film you would fold over the pic that filled in the blanks with renderings of the monuments as they were in antiquity.

I pored over those books for hours. I think the Google Earth Rome would be even cooler, in fact, if they offered an overlay feature: new city over old, old city over new. They certainly have the data for it.

Here’s a groovy demo of what the new layer looks like:


Huge Greek necropolis unearthed in Sicily

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Archaeologists have long known that there was a burial ground in the ancient city of Himera, but they had no idea until recent construction in the area how gigantic it actually is.

“The necropolis is of an extraordinary beauty and notable dimensions,” Sicily’s regional councillor for culture, Antonello Antinoro, said Tuesday.

”Preliminary estimates indicate the presence of around 10,000 tombs, which gives the site a good claim to being one of the most important discoveries of recent years,” he said.

Among the most exciting finds are skeletons of newborn babies placed inside funerary amphorae along with the ancient version of babies’ beakers – small terracotta vases equipped with spouts to function as feeding bottles.

The tombs date from between the 6th and 5th c. B.C., and many contain skeletons that show signs of having seen the bad end of a battle or two. Some even have arrows still attached to them.

Himera was the site of two major battles with Carthage. The second battle in 409 B.C. ended up with Carthago doing the delendaing, which might explain why they needed a 10,000-tomb necropolis.

Phoenician pottery found in Lebanon

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

A team of Lebanese and Spanish archaeologists have uncovered a large cache of earthenware jars dating to the Phoenician era.

They weren’t for commercial use, though. No Tyrean purple destined for royal garments in those jars.

“The big jars are like individual tombs. The smaller jars are left empty, but symbolically represent that a soul is stored in them,” Ali Badawi, the archaeologist in charge in Tire, told Reuters Wednesday. […]

“These discoveries help researchers who work on past Phoenician colonies in Spain, Italy and Tunisia, to pin down a large number of their habits and traditions,” said Maria Eugenia Aubet, who leads the Spanish team.

War has taken a harsh toll on Lebanon’s efforts to uncover its rich history. This site has only recently seen work start up again. The last excavation before this was in 2005, before the war between Israel and Hezbollah made southern Lebanon too hot to handle.

Egypt’s 118th pyramid discovered in Saqqara

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

The base of it anyway. It’s 16 feet high now, but Zahi Hawass, the indomitable secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, speculates that it was 50 feet plus when it was whole.

It’s ca. 4,300 years old, and Hawass thinks it was built for one Queen Sesheshet.

Hawass said that the ancient pyramid, the 118th to be found in Egypt, may be that of Teti’s mother because two of the Pharaoh’s wives are buried nearby in the necropolis. The archaeologists working on the site will only know for sure that it is Sesheshet once they enter the burial chamber and find inscriptions, Hawass said. It’s unlikely that they will find any treasure inside as there are signs that thieves from ancient times hacked into the structure by digging a shaft, he said.

References to Queen Sesheshet have been found in ancient papyrus texts. In one of them, the queen made a request to doctors to find her a cure for hair loss, Hawass said. It’s not clear if she was ever given one.

What, they didn’t have Rogaine made from scarabs and Nile silt?

Anyway, another supercool thing about this find is that there are large fragments of the casing still extant. The Great Pyramid of Giza has some of the casings visible down at the base, but most of the beautifully decorated limestone was either destroyed by earthquakes or by people who reused the casings to build something new over the years.




November 2008


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