Unique vertical Zapotec tomb found in Oaxaca

Second burial chamber with ballgame muralsA Zapotec tomb with a unique vertical structure has been discovered in the Oaxacan archeological site of Atzompa. The three-chambered funerary complex is 1100 years old and is unlike any other Zapotec tombs discovered thus far. It was built above ground, one chamber on top of the other, whereas all other Zapotec tombs discovered to date have been under the floors of houses and palaces. Also, one of the burial chambers has some richly colored murals that refer to the Mesoamerican ballgame. Zapotec ball courts have been found before, but these are the first wall paintings with a ballgame motif discovered in a Zapotec tomb.

Atzompa was founded in the Late Classic period (650-900 A.D.) as a satellite city of the Zapotec center of Monte Albán. According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) press release on the find, the unique architecture and artistic motifs of this tomb suggest that Atzompa didn’t just duplicate the culture of Monte Albán, but developed their own forms of cultural expression.

Archeologists working at the entrance of a burial chamber at the archeological site of AtzompaNo human remains have been discovered so far (one of the three chambers has yet to be opened), but archaeologists believe the burial chambers must have been constructed for important personages because the complex is adjacent to the House of the Altars, a home for the town’s elite who probably had connections to the mother city of Monte Albán.

The first chamber is about eight feet wide, six feet high and 15 feet deep with a vaulted ceiling. It was created with large stone slabs placed over stone walls that bear the remains of stucco decoration. It appears to have been deliberately filled in with earth and stone in antiquity.

Detail of ballgame frescoThe second chamber is 15 feet deep and just one square meter tall and wide. The roof is flat, made from stone slabs, and the walls are covered with murals frescoed over a thin stucco layer. These are the paintings depicting the ballgame. They are abstract — no human figures playing ball are depicted — but the yellow shapes that look like a capital I represent the ball court. The small white circles covered with squiggles represent the game in play. The large white circles with the black outline are probably representations of the pelota, i.e., the ball. The smallest back wall — the center when you’re looking at the chamber from the entrance — has been damaged. Archaeologists speculate that area might have contained the name of the person buried in the tomb.

Fresco detailThe ballgame had ritual significance in every Mesoamerican civilization which played it. It was used to solve boundary disputes, as a proxy for war. The Maya linked the game to human sacrifice, playing rigged ritual ballgames where the pre-ordained losers would be sacrificed, sometimes even sacrificing professional players. Ball courts were thus literal portals to the underworld as well as figurative ones, where the eternal cosmological struggle between life and death, dark and light, good and evil, was played out over and over.

It makes sense that the game would appear in a funerary context, therefore, and indeed it has in a number of Mesoamerican cultures. The Oaxacan Zapotecs, however, depicted priests and priestesses performing rituals or people accompanying the deceased to the underworld in their funerary paintings. It’s only this one tomb that features the allegorical ballgame motif.

Pottery vessels, metate, a sea shell fragment in the second burial chamberArchaeologists also found an offering in the second chamber consisting of small pottery vessels, a turtle bone, an engraved turtle shell, a fragment of shell that they think was the eye of a sculpture or death mask, a jade bead and a miniature metate (a mealing stone or mortar). The third chamber has only been observed through a small opening at this point, but archaeologists have seen a partial roof canopy and some murals. Excavation of this chamber is about to begin.

As the first chamber indicates, it seems this tomb complex was intentionally damaged in antiquity. Experts think it was a ritual destruction performed when the city was abandoned at the end of the period, between 850 and 900 A.D. after the collapse of Monte Albán power. The Zapotecs would have seen this as the end of a cycle, and since important buildings were seen as having a life of their own, they would be emptied and cancelled out to properly close the cycle.

So far only INAH experts have worked on the site. Going forward, they will enlist Harvard scientists to analyze the artifacts. The pottery and animal remains will be radiocarbon dated. The paint in the murals will be sampled so the pigments can be identified.

An Iron Age olive pit in England

One of the neatest aspects of archaeology is how one small, seemingly pedestrian artifact can have a massive impact on our understanding of the past. Take a single olive pit, for example. It would be an entirely unremarkable find in southern Europe, no matter how old the pit was, and almost as unremarkable a find in Roman Britain. An olive pit from first century B.C. Britain, on the other hand, is a revelation.

Iron Age olive pit found in SilchesterArchaeologists from the University of Reading excavating the site of Silchester in Hampshire found a single olive pit in an Iron Age well. The layer it was found in has been firmly dated to before 43 A.D., the year of the Roman invasion of Britain under the Emperor Claudius, which means that the olive made its way to Iron Age England before the Romans did. Celery and coriander seeds were also found in the same well. Taken together they indicate that Britons were enjoying Mediterranean cuisine long before they had a direct link to it.

Professor Michael Fulford, from the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology, said: “These plant foods were all cultivated in the Mediterranean region and literary evidence shows they were part of Roman cuisine. Whilst the import of olive oil and wine during the Late Iron Age is evidenced at Silchester and elsewhere throughout southern Britain, we were unaware that olive fruits and seasonings were also being imported – until now.

“Topics such as global food trade, food security and self-sufficiency may seem like issues only for the present day, but this unique discovery shows just how sophisticated Britain’s trade in food and global links were, even before the Romans colonised in the first century AD.

“We take these culinary treats for granted but over 2000 years ago trade in these foodstuffs would have been essential, at least for the wealthy tribal aristocracy of Iron Age Britain. A journey to Britain from the Med would have taken several weeks, either by sea around the coasts of Spain, Portugal and France, or overland through France. This is the first olive from Iron Age Britain!”

The olive pit shows signs of charring, which may have helped it survive the next two millennia. Professor Fulford hopes they will find more olive pits indicative of a wider trade in luxury Mediterranean foods, but they could easily have rotted away.

The Silchester Eagle, ca. 1st century A.D.Silchester has been a source of fascinating discoveries since the Victorian era. The site of an important Roman-era town called Calleva Atrebatum, Silchester exploded on the archaeological scene in 1866 when Reverend J.G. Joyce found a cast bronze eagle in the forum basilica between two burnt layers. He thought its exquisite detail marked it as the imperial standard of a Roman legion which had been removed from its staff and hidden in the rafters of the basilica during an attack on the city. When the basilica was burned down, the eagle went down with it. It was this discovery and Joyce’s theory about it that inspired Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth and ever so many sub-par movies.

Professor Fulford thinks Joyce’s interpretation of the archaeological data was incorrect. According to his analysis, the two burnt layers date to the time of the basilica’s construction (early second century A.D.) and from smithing fires once the building was in use. He thinks the eagle dates to the early first century A.D. and was once part of a larger statue, an attribute of the god Jupiter or a Roman emperor. A hundred years later, the eagle, now missing its wings and its deity, was incorporated into the foundations of the basilica as a sacrifice or for good luck.

Silchester dog bonesSpeaking of sacrifices, an unusual number of complete dog skeletons have been found buried in Silchester since Fulford’s University of Reading teams began excavating in 1997. They appear to have been buried deliberately over a span of two centuries, sometimes very carefully positioned. Three of them are of two dogs buried together, one of a dog buried with a human infant, and one of a dog standing up. Earth was packed in around his feet and legs to ensure he remained in that posture in the grave. We don’t know if they were sacrificed or buried after natural death.

Silchester toy dog burialLast year they discovered yet another dog burial, this one of a tiny toy dog only 11 inches (29 centimeters) high at the shoulder. It was not a puppy but a full-grown lapdog, likely another luxury import from the continent. It was discovered buried in a natural resting posture in the foundations of a large Iron Age house, a house that is at least 164 feet long (50 meters) and may turn out to be the largest Iron Age building ever discovered in Britain. The owner must have been a highly prominent citizen, possibly the chief. Again, archaeologists can’t tell if the dog was killed deliberately as a sacrifice or it just died in time to be buried in the foundations of the house.

Another discovery in keeping with the dog theme but with a far more entertaining spin is a folding knife or shaving razor that has an elephant ivory handle carved in the shape of two dogs having sex. It was made in the second century and again was a continental import, possibly from Italy, France or Germany. It is a unique find in the Roman world.

Folding knife or razor with ivory handle in the form of mating dogs, 2nd c. A.D. Detail of the mating dogs from the front

There’s tons of information about the history of Silchester and excavations current and historic on the University of Reading’s website. The excavation blog is excellent. There are many pictures of the Somme-style mud pits the poor archaeologists have to deal with thanks to the crazy rain England has been experiencing this summer. If you’re in the neighborhood, they welcome visitors during the excavation season.

48 tons of silver recovered from WWII shipwreck

Silver bars found on the Gairsoppa wreckControversial US treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration announced Wednesday that it has recovered 48 tons of silver bullion from the wreck of the British cargo steamship SS Gairsoppa. The ship was carrying 2,600 tons of pig iron, 1,765 tons of tea, and 220 tons of silver ingots when it was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo on February 17, 1941. Although it was a merchant ship not a military one, it was transporting some government-owned bullion along with its private cargo, and the latter was insured by the British government under the War Risk Insurance program. The owners received a payout of £325,000 ($510,000) in 1941, which then gave the state rights to the cargo should it ever be recovered.

At the time, nobody knew exactly where the ship went down. Only one of the 85 crewmen survived the disaster, and data was thin. The UK attempted to salvage the cargo once before in 1989, but the contracted company was unable to locate the wreck. In 2010, the UK Department for Transport opened the Gairsoppa salvage contract to a competitive tender process. Odyssey won. Under the terms of the agreement, Odyssey gets to keep 80% of the net value of all the salvaged silver after expenses. That means their expenses are paid from the government’s 20% cut. It’s an incredibly sweet deal, but the UK is up for it because they stand to make tens of millions of pounds on their outlay of £325,000 71 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, that payout would be worth approximately £14,290,250 ($22 million) in today’s money, so the odds are good that they’ll come out well in the black by both relative and absolute standards.

Last summer, Odyssey found the wreck three miles deep in the North Atlantic about 300 miles west of Ireland. Its depth and the treacherous conditions of the ocean posed a significant challenge to recovery efforts. They spent the autumn and winter months assembling specialized equipment for the salvage — they don’t specify what those tools are, probably because they don’t want to make it easy for anyone else to follow in their footsteps — then began recovery operations on May 31st of this year.

So far, they have recovered 1,203 silver bars; that’s approximately 1.4 million troy ounces and about 43% of the insured bars. Adding in the government-owned bullion, the quantity recovered thus far is about 20% of the total silver cargo. The haul has been moved to a secure facility in the UK and JBR Recovery Limited has been contracted to process and monetize the shipwrecked bullion.

Odyssey is also working a second salvage contract for the British government. While looking for the Gairsoppa last year, they found the World War I steamship SS Mantola which was sunk by another German U-boat torpedo on February 8th, 1917. It too was carrying silver bars, although considerable fewer of them (600,000 total ounces of silver versus Gairsoppa‘s 7,000,000). The Department for Transport awarded Odyssey the contract to recover the Mantola’s loot as well for the same 80% deal. When they’re done with the Gairsoppa salvage, Odyssey will move on to the Mantola which is about 100 miles away and 1.5 miles deep.

This is footage of the Mantola wreck recorded by Odyssey’s remotely operated underwater vehicles last summer:


15th century bra found in Austrian castle

The bra as we know it today — with cups for each breast and back and/or shoulder straps — was invented in the second half of the 19th century in a number of configurations under different names. The term “brassiere” took off when it got a mention in a 1907 issue of American Vogue, and brassieres themselves were fully established in retail outlets by the end of World War I. Before that, women wore corsets or chemises or, going back into antiquity, tied straps over or under their breasts, to contain them in the former case or enhance them in the latter.

A treasure trove of Medieval garments discovered in Lengberg Castle, East Tyrol, Austria, has advanced the era of the bra 500 years or so. The clothes were discovered during the course of renovations which began in the summer of 2008. In 2009, researchers discovered a vault filled with dry materials behind a wall in a second floor room.

The fill had been packed in layers, among them twigs and straw, 200 coins, 160 cardboard playing cards, metal fragments, bones, glass, pottery sherds, carpentry scraps, writing scraps, leather shoes and fabric, lots and lots of fabric. The final tally was more than 17 boxes filled with 4,000 sundry fragments. From that massive cache, 2,700 of them were fragments of woolen, silk and linen textiles. Archaeologists thought they must have been placed in the wall when a second story was added to the castle in 1485. Radiocarbon dating on some of the fabric fibers confirmed the age: these were extremely rare surviving textiles from the late 15th century.

The surviving fabric was mainly linen, some of it used to make entirely preserved garments like shirts with pleats on the collars and sleeves and fabric buttons. The small cuff circumference suggests those shirts were for children or women. Some of the linen pieces were linings of wool garments, including the crotch of a pair of red and blue men’s pants. A complete pair of linen underpants that look like a string bikini were also menswear. Exceptional examples of needlework lace were found decorating some of the seams, suggesting those garments had been worn by the masters and mistresses of the house before being put to use as a wall filler.

Four pieces out of the 2,700 drew the particular attention of historians because of their cut and sewn cups. Two of them are highly fragmented but appear to have been bustiers of sorts, a bra with visible shirt elements under the breast and providing some cleavage coverage above. The bottom hems are decorated with braided lace stitching which in addition to being pretty also provide additional support under the breasts.

The third “bra” looks a lot more like modern bras with two broad shoulder straps and a possible back strap, not preserved but indicated by partially torn edges of the cups onto which it was attached. The knot in the shoulder straps is secondary. This “bra” is also the most elaborately decorated with needle-lace on the shoulder straps, sprang-work between the two cups and, like the two aforementioned “bras”, a finger-loop-lace and needle-lace at the lower end.

The fourth “bra” is the one that resembles a modern bra the most. At the first assessment this garment was referred to in German as “Mieder” (= corselette in English) by the excavating archaeologists. It can also be described with the term “longline bra”. The cups are each made from two pieces of linen sewn together vertically. The surrounding fabric of somewhat coarser linen extends down to the bottom of the ribcage with a row of six eyelets on the left side of the body for fastening with a lace. The corresponding row of eyelets is missing. Needle-lace is sewn onto the cups and the fabric above thus decorating the cleavage. In the triangular area between the two cups there might have been additional decoration, maybe another sprang-work.

Sprang is needlework construction similar to netting that provides a natural elasticity, an ingenious construction element for a 532-year-old bra.

Doctoral student Beatrix Nutz will be analyzing the textiles in more depth. In addition to microscopic analysis of the fabrics, she also plans to do DNA tests CSI-style to hopefully determine which gender might have worn the garments, and to do chemical analyses of the pigments.

Sealing her awesomeness, Beatrix Nutz has also translated a stanza of Meister Reuauß, a 15th century German satirical poem which is very much on point:

Many a woman makes two bags for the breasts with
it she roams the streets,
so that all the guys look at her,
and see what beautiful breasts she has got;
But whose breasts are too large,
makes tight pouches,
so it is not told in the city,
that she has such big breasts.

Rich tomb of Three Kingdoms warrior found

Three Kingdoms tomb of a warrior, Xiangyang, China, ca. 220 A.D.The richly adorned tomb of a warrior from China’s Three Kingdoms period (ca. 220-280 A.D.) has been discovered in Xiangyang, central China. Archaeologists first unearthed the tomb in 2008, but it has only recently been published in the English-language journal Chinese Archaeology which is why we’re hearing about it now.

The warrior was laid to rest alongside his wife in a multi-chambered brick tomb with a domed roof. He and his wife were buried in wooden coffins that have long since rotted away, leaving behind their skeletal remains. Scientists estimate that the warrior was about 45 years old when he died, and the wealth of artifacts left to accompany him in the afterlife indicates that he was a fighting man of considerable status. The artifacts discovered date the tomb to the early Three Kingdoms period, around 220 A.D.

Hollow bronze locks inscribed "Made by Yan"Some historians date the period to the fall of the Han Dynasty in 184 A.D., but its formal start is 220 A.D., the year the last nominal Han Emperor Xian was forced to abdicate and the third kingdom, Wei, was founded by Cao Pi, self-styled emperor and the son of the legendary General Cao Cao. Cao Cao occupied Xiangyang in 208 A.D. and used it as the base of operations for his attempted conquest of former Han territories south of the Yangtze River. His invasion was thwarted at the Battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208/209 A.D., but he, and later his son, retained control of Xiangyang which was even more strategically significant once it was right on the border with the enemy kingdom of Wu.

Given the richness of the unnamed warrior’s burial, its early date and the military importance of Xiangyang, he may well have served under Cao Cao or Cao Pi themselves.

The artifacts discovered are not just beautiful, although they certainly are that, but are also of notable historical importance. First and foremost is a life-sized bronze horse. It is 5.3 feet long by 5.3 feet tall making it the largest of its kind ever discovered in China. The detail is exquisite. He is depicted with his mouth open, his ears pricked up and pointed forward, his mane short and upright. It’s possible that the statue depicts an actual horse the warrior rode in life and wanted to have with him in the afterlife.

3.4-foot-tall pottery model of a mansionAnother piece of great interest to historians is a glazed pottery model of a two-story mansion. The model is about 3.4 feet tall and includes details like the knockers on each of the two gate doors. Miniature pottery houses were popular in the Han Dynasty, but this level of detail and multiple stories are very rare even from the more stable earlier period. Since few remains of the buildings from late Han, early Three Kingdoms have been found in the archaeological record, all we have to go on is descriptions in the literature of the era and the pottery miniatures found in tombs. A model of such size and detail is therefore priceless to students of ancient Chinese architecture.

Jade pig falling asleepThe treasures found in this tomb go on and on, gold and silver disks, crystal and agate beads, gold bracelets, just to name a few.

Among the finds is a jade pig figurine, his snout finely detailed, the tiny animal having apparently gone to sleep. Another work of art shows a glazed pottery figurine of a dog barking furiously while standing on all fours.

Yet another piece shows a beastly tomb guardian, his long tongue sticking out and, grossly enough, “a crawling animal is attached onto the tip of the tongue,” [archaeologist Liu] Jiangsheng writes.

Bronze crossbow triggerThere are also bronze and iron weapons, including a bronze crossbow trigger which is in excellent condition despite its advanced age, as well as a bronze mirror decorated on the back with stylized imagery of a phoenix, the one-legged mountain demon/rain god Kui and two inscriptions: “To benefit the descendants forever” and “May the holder get the position of the Three Dukes,” the three most important officials in ancient China, just underneath the emperor. Inscribed bronze mirrorInterestingly, it was Cao Cao who abolished the positions of the Three Dukes (Chancellor, Imperial Secretary, Grand Commandant of the Military) and integrated them all into a single Imperial Chancellor in 208 A.D.

For more pictures of the extraordinary contents of the tomb, see the LiveScience photo gallery.