Archive for August, 2016

Hercules Room restoration begins

Sunday, August 21st, 2016

Thanks to a generous grant from the Silvano Toti Foundation, the Hercules Room of Rome’s Palazzo Venezia is now getting a much-needed restoration. The Palazzo Venezia was built in the middle of the 15th century at the behest of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II. The stones used to build it were taken from the Colosseum, just a short jaunt to the southeast. One of the first buildings in Rome with Renaissance architectural elements, the Palazzo Venezia would outlive many later Renaissance buildings which were damaged or destroyed by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

In 1564 the Pope granted use of the palace to the Most Serene Republic of Venice for its embassy. From the end of the 18th century until World War I, it was the seat for the Austrian ambassador to the Holy See. At war with Austria-Hungary, the Italian state claimed it in 1916. Benito Mussolini claimed the Map Room in the Palazzo Venezia for his office and many a newsreel captures him speechifying from the balcony to adoring crowds below. He even built a secret bunker in the basement.

Today the palace is a national museum, home to thousands of works of art. While the building was modified repeatedly over five centuries, it still holds many original decorations from the 15th century. The Hercules Room is perhaps the most sterling example, with its frescoes depicting the Labours of Hercules and elaborately carved and painted wooden ceiling. Located on the piano nobile (the first floor where the receiving and private rooms of the noble family were), the Hercules Room was at one end of the Pietro Barbo’s apartment. Once he was elevated to the Throne of Saint Peter and got new digs in the Vatican, the room was used to store pontifical vestments. The highest part of the walls are decorated with eight panels displaying scenes from the Labours — Hercules and the Nemean lion, Hercules and Antaeus, Hercules with one of Geryon’s head of cattle, Hercules and Geryon, Hercules slaying the dragon Ladon, guardian of the Apples of the Hesperides, Hercules and the Ceryneian Hind, Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds, and lastly, Hercules and the centaur Nessus. Frescoed between the Labour panels are little putti, garlands, architectural motifs and the coat of arms of Pope Paul II.

Some past scholars have attributed to the great master of perspective and antique motifs Andrea Mantegna who famously frescoed the exquisite Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. Others attributed them to an unnamed artist at the pontifical court. The artist remains unknown today, although scholars believe he was probably from northern Italy. The restoration and study of the frescoes will give experts the opportunity to revisit the authorship question.

The restoration is expected to take four months, from July to October. They will be a busy four months. On the agenda are the cleaning of the frescoes, the strengthening of the plaster layer and paint layers, revising past restorations and disinfecting and disinfesting the wood ceiling. Restorers will also investigate the techniques used in the original painting of the frescoes.

Restorers Isabella Righetti and Rita Ciardi told ANSA that renovation work is urgently needed because of repeated and heavy-handed work carried out in the past. […]

The restorers also said dried pigments used in previous restoration works hid the artworks’ original colors.

“By cleaning them, we hope to rediscover the polish of the paintings, which were supposed to look like large windows that were open towards the outside”.

Free guided tours of the room will be offered to the public starting in September so visitors will have the chance to view the restorers at work.


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Roman port in Albania much larger than we knew

Saturday, August 20th, 2016

A team of international researchers has found that an ancient Roman port in Albania is much larger than archaeologists realized. Led by Peter Campbell of the University of Southampton and Neritan Ceka of the Albanian Institute of Archaeology, the expedition’s aim was to assess the ecological health of the coastal waters and the condition of submerged archaeological sites from Butrint on the southern tip of the country near the border with Greece, north along the Adriatic to the Bay of Vlorë.

The remains of the ancient city of Triport are for the most part submerged in the waters near the modern port city of Vlorë. It was first discovered by archaeologists in the 1920s who documented Greek and/or Roman stone structures including the beginnings of a large wall and a road. Surveys in the 1970s and 80s discovered an ancient fortress and its defensive walls. It was inhabited from the 6th c. B.C. to the 2nd A.D.

The structures were initially thought to be part of the supportive infrastructure of the port. Later investigations found that the large walls originally encircled the lower city. When sea levels rose, the port and lower city were submerged. Archaeologists have mapped about 12 acres of the site over the past century. This season divers found an additional eight acres of ancient structures under water.

The results suggest Triport was a harbour for a large settlement during the Roman period, perhaps associated with the ancient city of Aulon (now Vlora). Triport offered ships safe anchorage in both the sea and Narta Lagoon, and connected to ancient cities like Aulon and Apollonia through major Roman roads. […]

Peter Campbell comments: “We found indicators of ancient sea level change, Greek and Roman trade (4th BC – 7th AD), and contemporary environmental data. But one of the most significant discoveries was the larger submerged remains – prompting us to rethink the importance of Triport as a Roman harbour.

“Albania has some of the most important waters in the Mediterranean. This coastline was vital for ancient trade and it continues to be significant as the convergence zone for species from the Adriatic and Ionian seas.”

The survey discovered copious evidence of the long history of active trade along the Albanian coastline. Amphorae, bellwethers of trade in the Mediterranean thanks to their eminently datable styles, have been found dating from the Hellenistic Period through the early Middle Ages. There are anchors galore, made of stone, lead and iron. The team also found common consumer goods like dishware, water jugs and imbreces and tegulae (curved and flat roof tiles). The artifacts were not recovered, but left in situ for future explorations.

What was retrieved from the ancient underwater structures is even more valuable than amphorae and anchors: information that illuminates the history of coastal shifts.

Ancient archaeological sites such as cities, harbour structures, and quarries around southern Albanian showed submergence up to 150 cm, due to a number of geological processes. Peter Campbell comments: “The Albanian coast is incredibly dynamic and we have found excellent indicators of sea-level change such as tidal notches to sunken cities and harbours. This lets us reconstruct the coast in the past, which tells us how different parts are changing through time and may change in the future.”

[youtube=https://youtu.be/zwJd8m6zxm0&w=430]

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Ötzi used wild, domestic animals for clothes

Friday, August 19th, 2016

Hot on the heels of the protein analysis that determined the animal products used to clothe Iron Age mummies, researchers at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman have discovered new information about Ötzi the Iceman’s couture. The Iceman died and was naturally mummified in the gelid Öztal Alps about 5,300 years ago. The glacier that preserved his body and much of his clothes and accessories isn’t the acidic environment of the Danish peat bogs, but 5,300 years in ice still takes a toll on the structure of leather and fur. Since 1992, researchers have attempted to identify the animal source of the Iceman’s couture by microscopic analysis, peptide analysis of keratin and collagen content, and in 2012, the first genetic analysis extracted mitochondrial DNA from fragments of leather that could not be connected to a specific garment.

A new DNA study has expanded on those earlier studies, taking samples nine samples of leather and hide from the Iceman’s coat, leggings, fur hat, hay-stuffed shoes, loincloth and quiver. They were able to sequence the full mitochondrial genomes of each sample and thus identify the animals from which the materials originated.

The sample from Ötzi’s quiver, which was previously believed to made of chamois leather, was in fact from roe deer hide, although researchers cannot exclude the possibility that the quiver was made from the hide of more than one animal so there could be chamois areas that haven’t been sampled yet. The hat was made from brown bear. The rest of his wardrobe was crafted from domestic animals. A sample from a leather strap on one of the shoes was made from a cattle hide. His leggings, which were thought to be made from wild wolf, fox or dog, were actually made from goat hide. The loincloth, previously believed to have been made from goat hide, was in fact sheep hide. The hide coat was made of a mixture of goat and sheepskin, stitched together from the skins of at least four animals.

The species of goat and sheep are genetically closer to modern domestic sheep than wild ones, which is why researchers believe these were domestic goats and sheep rather than trapped or hunted wild ones. In fact, the species of all the domestic animals — cattle, sheep and goat — used to make the Iceman’s attire are members of haplogroups frequently seen in the same species that live all over Europe today.

That, says [the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman’s Niall] O’Sullivan, shows that while Ötzi was likely to be from an agricultural or herding community, he was an enterprising chap. “It is possible that he might have used his hunting ability to capture and kill a bear, or it [could be] that he came across a dying bear and opportunistically took the skin and used it as leather,” says O’Sullivan. “It shows us that he was opportunistic and resourceful and used to the best of his ability the scarce resources which were available to him in a very harsh environment.”

The iceman, it seems, was also adept at a bit of make do and mend. “The Copper Age neolithic style of making leather was very primitive, clothing would have decomposed and degraded quite quickly under normal circumstances,” says O’Sullivan. “So he had to rapidly change his clothes and he was probably constantly renewing the clothes and augmenting it so that bits didn’t fall apart.”

In addition to the new information about Ötzi and Copper Age clothing revealed by this study, the results have wider implications for future analyses of ancient and prehistoric artifacts. The fact that full mitochondrial genomes were successfully sequenced from samples of degraded skins and furs more than 5,000 years old bodes well for their recovery in other organic archaeological materials.

The full report was published in Scientific Reports and can be read here.

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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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Protein analysis finds animal source of bog body clothes

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

Danish researchers have developed a new protein analysis that can identify the animal source of fibers in the clothing of bog bodies. Before now, the skins and textiles worn by the bodies mummified by thousands of years in bogs were too degraded to be conclusively identified, even the very well-preserved examples.

“With proteins, we could make a completely accurate species identification in 11 out of 12 samples and show that species identification that was carried out by microscopy on half of the samples was incorrect,” says lead-author Luise Brandt, who completed the research during her Ph.D. at the University of Copenhagen, but is now based at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

The new technique can for the first time help archaeologists to differentiate between goats or sheeps wool, for example, which would otherwise be difficult to do when studying hairs that had spent 2000 years in a bog, says Brandt. […]

According to Brandt, her method should help to identify how people selected the material from which to make their clothes, which may give an insight into the resources available at the time in that society.

“It’s important to know what kind of material you have chosen for what [purpose], and there were various skins that were particularly useful for different functions. It tells us whether they kept or hunted the animals at that time, and beyond the practical aspects, the choice of material also reflects their tastes, or a desire to send a certain signal through what they wore,” says Brandt.

Brandt previously tried to use DNA analysis to identify the material, but found that testable DNA did not typically survive after 2,000 years in a bog. The environment is so acidic that DNA strands degrade too much to be recovered. Proteins, on the other hand, were extraordinarily hardy, survived 10 times longer than DNA. Since the amino acids that make up proteins vary by animal species, protein extracted from ancient wool or leather can identify which animal the material came from.

Brandt’s study took 12 samples from 10 cloaks and one tunic (two samples were taken from one cloak because the two sections were different colors) of bog bodies in the Danish National Museum. All of the bodies were found on the peninsula of Jutland and date to around 2000 years ago. They include Huldremose Woman, who was discovered wearing an exceptionally well-preserved outfit of a skirt, scarf and two cloaks. Brandt was able to identify the animal source in 11 of the 12 samples: two cow, three goat, six sheep. The 12th sample was inconclusive because it could only be narrowed down to sheep or goat. The protein that distinguishes between the two did not survive.

The study indicates that the primary sources of materials for bog body garments were domesticated animals, not the skins of wild animals slain in the hunt, correcting a misconception about Iron Age Germanic peoples that has lingered since Tacitus who wrote in Germania that they “wear the skins of wild beasts.”

The protein analysis also revealed that the tunic belonging to a man found in Møgel bog near Jelling was made out of calf leather. Not only could the test distinguish between adult cow and baby, but it could narrow down the age of the calf from the last month of gestation through the first three months after birth. The key marker was hemoglobin, the protein found in red blood cells. The type of hemoglobin found in the tunic is produced only in the last month of pregnancy through the first three months after which it is replaced by another type.

This discovery suggests that the skins of domesticated animals may have been as important to Iron Age Danes as the meat and dairy they produced.


“I think that the smoking gun was the haemoglobin. We can see that they went to great lengths to make the garments and choose the right skin,” says Brandt.

“But now we can see that they used calfskin for the tunic, which could suggest that the skin was a really important part of why they slaughtered young animals and that it was an important product,” says Brandt.

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Obsidian biface cache found in Willamette Valley

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

A rare cache of Native American two-faced stone tools known as bifaces has been discovered on private property in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The landowner, who prefers to remain anonymous, discovered the obsidian pieces with the telltale flaked edges of flintknapping while digging a pond and notified the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office. Assistant State Archaeologist John Pouley excavated the find site and unearthed a total of 15 blank trade bifaces, tools shaped by flintknappers for trade but left incomplete.

“For starters, we wouldn’t know the site existed if the landowner hadn’t reached out to our office to report the find,” Pouley said. “Aside from the importance of his stewardship, the biface cache is additionally a rare type of archaeological site.

“Of approximately 35,000 recorded archaeological sites in Oregon, few, likely less than 25, consist of biface caches, he added. “Of the known biface cache sites, it is believed to be the first recorded in the Willamette Valley.”

Archaeologists were able to trace the origin of the obsidian from its chemical composition to Obsidian Cliffs in the Central Oregon Cascades more than 100 miles east of the Willamette Valley. The rough shaping was done there. It’s not clear how they ended up in the valley in the traditional territory of the Santiam Band of the Kalapuya. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation were consulted by archaeologists during the dig for insight into the artifacts and their movements.

Blank bifaces are rare. The vast majority discovered are finished tools — hand axes, knives, spear tips, arrowheads — stockpiled and buried. Biface caches have been found all over the world dating back as far as 20,000 years ago. Sometimes they appear as burial offerings in a funerary context. Other times they are buried in isolated locations probably for storage purposes with the intent of later retrieval. The Willamette Valley cache is of the latter type and is between 1,000 to 4,000 years old.

There is no equivalent of the UK’s treasure trove law in the United States. All archaeological objects (save for Native American human remains and related funerary objects) found on private land belong to the landowners. The Oregon State Historic Preservation Office doesn’t know what the landowner plans to do with the bifaces. He can keep them, donate them to a museum or another institution or a tribe. He could sell them, for that matter, but given his responsible reporting of the find, which he was in no way legally obligated to do, perhaps he’ll take the more civic-minded approach. He already took advantage of the unique opportunity to have middle school students observe the excavation as a field trip.

The cache gave them a tangible piece of history, said a teacher who accompanied the students to the site. Adding, “When we study the history of ancient native peoples of this area, we can now speak more fully to a complexity of culture — trade routes, the manufacturing of goods, migratory patterns–and then point to artifacts like those found here and show our students the evidence.”

Pouley plans to publish a formal archaeological report in a peer-reviewed journal and he will also share his findings with those students and the rest of the pre-K through 12th grade Abiqua Academy.

You can get a glimpse of the excavation of the 15th biface in this video:
[youtube=https://youtu.be/uykpM12iSdE&w=430]

In this one Assistant State Archaeologist John Pouley discusses the biface cache:
[youtube=https://youtu.be/jkoNCyXuvZs&w=430]

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Skeleton may be ancient Greek human sacrifice

Monday, August 15th, 2016

The skeleton of a teenager unearthed on Mount Lykaion in the central Peloponnese region of Arcadia may be evidence that repeated references to human sacrifice in Greek mythology, literature and philosophy may have some truth to them. According to local legend, Zeus was born and raised on Mount Lykaion (Mount Ida in Crete is more commonly cited as his birthplace) and the mountain was sacred to him. Lycaon, the legendary first king of Arcadia, was said to have built a sanctuary to the god on the mountain and sacrificed a human baby to him, spilling its blood on the altar. Other versions of the story have Lycaon roasting parts of his own son or grandson and feeding them to Zeus as a test of his divine powers.

Whatever the sacrificial method, Zeus was less than pleased, transforming Lycaon into a wolf in punishment. The wolf king’s name is the root of lycanthropy and elements of the myth were incorporated into literary and folk traditions about werewolves. The 2nd century geographer Pausanias in his Description of Greece recounts the myth and finds it persuasive even though later embelishments gave the truthful Lycaon origin story the ring of falsehood.

It is said, for instance, that ever since the time of Lycaon a man has changed into a wolf at the sacrifice to Lycaean Zeus, but that the change is not for life; if, when he is a wolf, he abstains from human flesh, after nine years he becomes a man again, but if he tastes human flesh he remains a beast for ever.

Werewolf lore aside, there is an ancient sanctuary of Zeus on the southern peak of Mount Lykaion at almost 4,600 feet of altitude. Since 2004, the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, a collaboration of the Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the University of Arizona, has been surveying and excavating the site, exploring both the upper sanctuary, the sacrificial altar at the peak, and the lower sanctuary, a large complex of monumental buildings including a hippodrome, stadium, baths and an administrative building. The Lykaia festival and games were held there to honor Zeus. They found evidence of use of the Mount Lykaion site — early Helladic pottery sherds — dating back 5,000 years, although there is no indication Zeus was worshipped that early.

There is, however, unmistakable evidence of copious animal sacrifices at the upper sanctuary from at least the 16th century B.C. in the Mycenaean period until around 300 B.C.: an ash altar 100 feet broad built up over more than a thousand years of burnt offerings. Tens of thousands of animals, mainly goats and sheep, were sacrificed and burned there for Zeus’ pleasure. This summer, the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project discovered a man-made stone platform. Neaby in the ash altar, they found a human burial, the first ever discovered at a sanctuary positively bursting with animal remains.

The skeleton was on its back in a narrow trench dug into the ash and charred earth. The remains are in good condition, almost intact save for the upper part of the skull which is missing. They belong to an adolescent, probably male. He was laid out on an east-west orientation and both north and south sides of the trench are lined with field stones. More stone slabs cover the pelvis. This burial method is very unusual. Ceramics found buried with the body date to the late Mycenaean period, around the 11th century B.C., during the transition from the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age.

David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona, who participated in the dig on Mount Lykaion said classical writers linked the remote peak with human sacrifice. According to legend, a young boy would be sacrificed with animals, before the human and animal meat was cooked and eaten. “Several ancient literary sources mention rumours that human sacrifice took place at the altar but up until a few weeks ago there has been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site,” said Romano.

“Whether it’s a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar … so it’s not a place where you would bury an individual,” he said. “It’s not a cemetery.”

The remains will be studied for confirmation of age, sex, date and hopefully any indications of cause of death. Even if additional analysis is inconclusive, only 7% of the altar has been excavated in four years, so future excavations may answer some questions about how the ancient Greeks sacrificed to their gods. The Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey will continue to excavate the site until 2020.

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Lost Dürer engraving found in French flea market

Sunday, August 14th, 2016

An 500-year-old engraving by Albrecht Dürer lost since World War II turned up in flea market in France. A retired archaeologist and art collector found copperplate engraving entitled Mary Crowned by an Angel at a stall of assorted tchotchkes in Sarrebourg in northeastern France close to the German border. Priced to move at just a few euros, the engraving had been acquired by the stall owner at a home clearance sale. Mary Crowned by an Angel

The buyer recognized it as a Dürer engraving and quickly bought it. When he examined it more closely, he saw a stamp on the back from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Being a responsible, law-abiding type, he looked it up in the database of the German Lost Art Foundation which registers cultural items that were illegally seized usually by Nazis but also by other looters from private owners and institutions. The entry in the database confirmed that it was stolen and the new owner decided to return it to the museum. He and his wife went to the museum in person, long-lost Dürer engraving in hand, and gave it back.

“We are very grateful that, after more than 70 years, the work came to the hands of an art lover who did not keep his valuable find for themselves, but returned it to the public instead,” the museum’s director Christiane Lange said on Thursday.

How it got from Stuttgart 130 miles west to Sarrebourg is a mystery. It was likely stolen from storage at the end of the war in 1945 and crossed the border for a surreptitious sale. We know that at some point after the war it belonged to a former deputy mayor of Sarrebourg. None of the post-war owners can claim good faith since the stamp on the back of the engraving makes it clear that its legitimate owner was a museum.

At least the illegitimate owners treated it right, keeping it wrapped in paper and preserving it for 70 years. The engraving is in excellent condition, complete with the original matting. It depicts Mary holding a chubby baby Jesus (who looks, it must be said, distinctly over it all) while being crowned by an angel. It’s part of series of 15 engravings of Mary and the Christ Child Dürer printed at different times over the years.

The museum has not put the prodigal Mary on display yet. Officials are contemplating the best setting for their returned treasure. Perhaps a special Dürer exhibition is in order since the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart has an extensive collection of 250 prints by Dürer.

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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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Mexican sword tip from 1830s found at Alamo

Friday, August 12th, 2016

The excavation at the Alamo has unearthed an intriguing fragment from the same period of the doomed defense of the fort that has been immortalized in film, literature and legend. It’s the broken tip of a sword, a piece about six inches long from a type of sabre known as a briquet which was manufactured in France from the Napoleonic era through 1860 and was sold to the Spanish and Mexican infantry. It would have been issued to a non-commissioned officer in the Mexican army.

The object was discovered in the area of the south wall gate where the adobe bricks were discovered. That was considered the weakest part of the fort and it saw a great deal of military action, but this is the first confirmed military artifact recovered thus far at the south wall.

Military artifacts expert Sam Nesmith, director of the Texas Institute and Museum of Military History, identified it as a Mexican briquet. He dates by its design to between October 1835 and February 1836. Until December of 1835, the Alamo was held by General Martin Perfecto de Cos, General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, who ordered extensive modifications and fortifications, including strengthening the south gate right. After 56 days of siege, Cos surrendered San Antonio and the Alamo to Texian forces in December. Just a hundred men held the fort for the next two months. In the chaos of the period, requests for reinforcements went unfulfilled by the Texas government.

On February 23rd, Santa Anna, Cos and the Mexican army arrived in San Antonio and turned the tables. They besieged the Alamo for 13 days. On March 6, 1836, they attacked. Colonel Juan Morales was tasked with assaulting the south wall and gate with 100 infantry. The defenders, Davy Crockett and his Tennesseans, put up a strong fight, forcing Morales’ men to shift to the southwest corner of the palisade. They broke through there. Morales’ men turned the cannon onto the barracks and to the artillery installation on the roof of the Alamo church. Davy Crockett and James Bowie were killed in this assault.

If the dating proves accurate, this sword tip could have broken off during the famous battle itself. Nesmith doesn’t think so, though. The torquing and pattern of breakage suggested to him that the sword may have been being used as a tool in construction causing the tip to break. Somebody, perhaps during Cos’ fortifications of the wall in late 1835, could have reached for the sword as a handy device only to inadvertently break it. It wouldn’t be the first time. Another sword tip was unearthed in the Main Plaza in 2007 where Cos had his troops dig a defensive entrenchment in December of 1835.

The sword tip will go to the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas San Antonio. They don’t know yet if they will clean the corrosion to restore it to a more recognizably shiny-swordy condition. The process is expensive, so they’ll have to see if there’s room in the budget.

There’s an excellent video in which an archaeologist explains the tip fragment in detail here. I can’t embed it because of cursed autoplay, but it’s just a couple of minutes long and well worth a look.

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