Girl killed by Roman sword found in Kent

Girl killed by Roman sword ca. 50 A.D.The body of a young woman felled by a blow from a Roman sword was discovered near Faversham, Kent. Archaeologists were excavating the area to prepare for future roadworks when they came across the hastily-buried remains.

The girl appears to have been between 16 and 20 years of age when she died, kneeling, stabbed in the back of the head by a Roman sword. Some pottery fragments of Iron Age grave goods buried along with her date the grave to 50 A.D., just seven years after the Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 A.D. In all likelihood she was one of its local victims.

“She was lying face down and her body was twisted with one arm underneath her body. One of her feet was even left outside the grave,” [Dr. Paul Wilkinson, director of the excavation] said.

The burial site was just outside the Roman town, with cemeteries close by. […]

Another indication of her origin, according to Dr Wilkinson, is the orientation of the body.

Romans buried their bodies lying east-west, whereas this body was buried north-south, as was the custom for pagan graves.

In keeping with controversial new Ministry of Justice guidelines instituted in 2008, the skeletal remains of this girl will be reburied on site once the archaeological team have finished their examination. The Ministry of Justice grants licenses for archaeological excavation of human remains. Before 2008, licenses were granted that allowed researchers to retain, study, curate and display ancient excavated remains as appropriate. Only more recent graves were required to be reburied promptly.

In 2008, they changed the standard so that now licenses are granted solely on the condition that all human remains excavated at digs in England and Wales are reburied within two years, no matter what the age of the remains. Archaeologists are protesting the new guidelines vociferously, pointing out that human remains continue to be studied for decades, even centuries, as new scientific techniques are developed that can provide us new information about our ancestors’ lives and deaths.

The ruling was supposed to be an “interim measure,” part of a reassessment of the relevant act (the Burial Act of 1857), but now three years after its implementation, there are a large number of extremely important ancient remains that will have to be forcibly re-interred, like the 51 decapitated Viking warriors found in July 2008 in a mass grave near Weymouth, Dorset.

Royal weddingiana

Bored out of your mind with every TV talking head spending all day on the minutiae of today’s royal wedding? They never talk about the things I’m interested in, like explaining all the geegaws on the uniforms or how the glorious medieval Cosmati mosaic floor in Westminster Abbey’s sanctuary is packed with apocalyptic symbolism, or what was up with that one riderless horse bolting out of the procession (the horse was spooked by the crowd, dumped his rider and ran straight home; cavalryman was unharmed except in his dignity). For those of us who like our historical context in great gouts, here’s a little consolation.

First enjoy a couple of neat YouTube videos from the Historic Royal Palaces channel, one of the most consistently entertaining and well-maintained history-themed YouTube channels ever. This first one features food historian and leader of the HRP’s historic kitchens team Marc Meltonville talking about the history of royal wedding cakes.


Next up is curator Dr. Joanna Marschner who discusses the past two centuries of royal wedding fashions. The dresses are from the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace.


My personal favorite slice of royal wedding history, though, is this exhibit of biting Georgian satirical caricatures which took delight in mocking the marriages of George III’s daughters to their large German husbands. The exhibit marks the 250th anniversary year of George III’s coronation, and is appropriately hosted in Kew Palace, the family’s country retreat. Queen Charlotte, George III’s wife, died there, with her son the regent and future King George IV by her side holding her hand.

Kew Palace is also where the daughters of George III lived, often far longer than they would have wished. George and Charlotte kept their daughters as sheltered and homebound as possible, the King finding political pretexts to reject suitor after suitor, then the Queen wishing to have her daughters with her when their father descended into his famous madness.

Out of their six daughters, only three ever married. Charlotte, Princess Royal, was the youngest at 30, which wasn’t very young at all in 1797. She was the only to marry during George III’s lucid reign. Princess Elizabeth was 48 and Princess Mary 40 before they were finally able to get married and live their own lives. By then their brother George had been regent for years.

Those late-in-life marriages and the three unmarried sisters, Princesses Augusta Sophia, Sophia and Amelia were therefore ripe subjects for satirists.

James Gillray’s ‘The Bridal Night’, published in May 1797, depicts the marriage of Charlotte Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of George III, to Frederick Duke of Wurttemberg. Dubbed the “Bellygerant” and described by Napoleon, “that God had put him on earth to see how far skin could stretch…”, Gillray depicts Frederick as quite unfeasibly fat, and cheekily represents the wedding night with a cherub sat atop an elephant.

Roman ship found at Ostia

Archaeologists excavating an area where a bridge is scheduled to be built between modern-day Ostia and Fiumicino, the town just outside Rome where Leonardo da Vinci airport is found, have discovered the remains of an ancient Roman ship. The 11-meter (36-foot) section is from one of the sides of the ship. So far neither the stern, bow nor hull have been recovered, but since we’re talking about ancient wood, the team is working very deliberately to ensure its preservation.

Anna Maria Moretti, archaeological superintendent for Rome and Ostia Antica, said “the find is a novelty because at that depth, about four metres below the topsoil, we have never found a ship, only layers (of buildings) and one single structure”. […]

She also said there were “remains of ropes and cables” in the ship.

“Restoring the vessel will be an extremely delicate operation,” Moretti went on. “We’re keeping it constantly covered in water so that the wood doesn’t dry out.

“The wreck must be treated with highly sophisticated preservation techniques,” Moretti said.

I hope they have a giant freezer available somewhere, because the polyethylene glycol dousing system that preserved the likes of the Mary Rose and the Vasa is way too expensive with oil prices the way they are.

According to site director Paola Germoni, the discovery of the ship at this location indicates that the ancient coast line was 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) further inland than it is today. Silting gradually filled the port and the mouth of the Tiber shifted, pushing back the shoreline so that the ancient city of Ostia, now called Ostia Antica, is miles away from the modern beach town of Ostia.

You can see how the river and shoreline moved in this post about Portus, the artificial harbour first constructed next to Ostia’s smaller natural harbor by the emperor Claudius.

Portus as it was, modern painting from 1582 fresco

Trajan's Lake today, Google Maps view

Roman ships were found before in this same area when the airport was being built. The small fleet and the artifacts found with them are now on display in Fiumicino’s Museum of the Roman Ships.

Giant statue of Amenhotep III rediscovered in Luxor

Archaeologists excavating Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple in Luxor have uncovered a colossal statue of the pharaoh. It’s 42 feet tall (13 meters) and consists of seven enormous blocks of quartzite. The head hasn’t been found yet, but they’re looking for it, so this giant may turn out to be even more of a giant than he is now. As it is, this 3,400-year-old statue is the largest of its kind ever found in North Africa.

The statue is apparently one of a pair that once flanked the northern entrance to the temple. They are thought to have been brought down by an earthquake in 27 B.C. which severely damaged the temple. The matching statue has not been found yet, but this isn’t actually the first time these colossi have come to light. The pair was first discovered in 1928, only to be reburied at the site under sand for their own protection. The team hopes to find the second colossus in the next digging season.

Meanwhile, the blocks are being cleaned and restored in the hope that they can be reassembled at their original location.

Archaeologist Abdel Ghaffar Wagdi, supervisor of the 7-month excavation, announced that two other statues have also been found. They’re less dramatic in scale, however. One is an intact black granite statue of the lion-headed goddess of healing, Sekhmet. She is six feet tall. The other is a statue of the baboon god Thoth.

There have been an abundance of Sekhmet statues found at Amenhotep III’s temple, leading some archaeologists to conclude that the pharaoh was ill towards the end of his life, possibly from arthritis, and made regular offerings to Sekhmet for her protection.

Amenhotep III was the seventh pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, reigning from 1391 B.C. to 1353 B.C. He was the father of Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten, and the grandfather of King Tutankhamun.

Colossal statue of Amenhotep III in Luxor

Bolshoi Theater to reopen after major reconstruction

Bolshoi facade undergoing reconstructionMoscow’s Bolshoi Theater is finally set to reopen in October after over six years of troubled reconstruction. The theater was originally scheduled to reopen in 2009, but the date was pushed back repeatedly under a cloud of accusations of subcontractor improprieties. It looks like the end is finally in sight, however, and judging from the pictures, the new old Bolshoi will be gorgeous, which it better be because it has cost roughly $660 million, 16 times over the original estimate.

This makes the third major renovation the theater has seen since it opened in 1825 as the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow. The first one was after it burned down in 1853 leaving only the exterior walls and the main colonnade standing, and the second after it was bombed during World War II.

Restored hall inside the BolshoiThis reconstruction is the biggest of them all since it involves a complete rebuilding from the ground up — architects estimated that a full 75% of the structure was in precarious condition — removing the bizarre and inexplicable alterations the Soviets abused the poor building with, and restoring all the decorative elements, from red velvets to coats of arms, to their glamorous tsarist origins. Given all that, it’s perhaps understandable that this restoration has taken more than twice as long as the 1853 one. I’m sure the whole massive embezzlement and fraud situation and the government having to fire and replace several shady subcontractors didn’t help either.

Wall ornament with initials of Tsar AlexanderThe company said some 3,500 construction workers are still busy adding sophisticated electronic and hydraulic devices, redesigning the stage floor to ease the ballet dancers’ pain and completing an underground stage located just 30 meters (yards) from a metro station.

“Directors could do things that were impossible before,” said Summa Capital’s spokesman, Mikhail Sidorov. […]

Worker restores 19th c. statue inside BolshoiSoviet founder Vladimir Lenin wanted to close the ornate theater, which he saw as a symbol of decadent aristocracy, but the Communists ended up using the theater for party gatherings. Lenin’s death was announced from the theater’s stage, and the troupe was twice awarded the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s highest award.

While the ballet and opera corps enjoyed generous benefits and tirelessly toured the world, the building’s acoustics were crippled by the remodeling of the hall and the filling of a gigantic hollow resonator under the orchestra pit with concrete.

Not just the acoustics were crippled by that crazy concrete fill. The stage was raised and glued to the block leaving no give whatsoever in the floor. The original wood floor was flexible, built on nine wooden supports. It not only resonated along with the music, but it provided an appropriately enveloping surface for dancing. Since the 1920s, the world-famous dancers of the Bolshoi Theater have had to dance on concrete in their headquarters. This is not kind to their already busted feet.

The Soviets also lifted the orchestra platform, installed the electric house lighting apparatus under the stage and extended the stage floor over the orchestra pit, thereby ensuring that a good chunk of the pit was inaccessible to the orchestra. That made some operas impossible for the Bolshoi to stage, like most of Wagner’s repertoire and a goodly portion of Strauss’s, because they couldn’t seat all the necessary instruments.

Restorers at work in the audience hall of Bolshoi, giant chandelier and sconces wrapped in protective plasticThe reconstruction has also rebuilt the wooden ceiling above the audience. It was originally a hanging ceiling that vibrated and reflected sound, distributing the sound evenly all over the house. The Soviets tightened the soundboard to the framework, which is the architectural equivalent of squashing the back and front of a violin together and expecting it to play anyway. Why they did all this crazy stuff, I do not know, but I suppose we should be glad they didn’t just knock the whole thing down like Lenin wanted.

The theater is scheduled to open on Oct. 2, 2011 with a production of Glinka’s 1842 opera Ruslan and Lyudmila based on Pushkin’s epic poem of the same name.