Archive for April, 2018

Bones of prehistoric horse found in Utah backyard

Monday, April 30th, 2018

A family in Lehi, Utah, inadvertently unearthed the skeleton of an Ice Age equine while working on landscaping project in their backyard. Laura Hill and her family were prepping the backyard for a new lawn when the backhoe they’d rented revealed animal bones. Hill thought they were historic, maybe the remains of a cow or horse that had belonged to one of the pioneers who settled the Utah Territory in the 19th century.

A few months later, Laura Hill visited Lehi’s Thanksgiving Point Museum of Ancient Life and approached museum paleontologist Rick Hunter to tell him about the bones in her yard. Hunter assembled a team of scientists and volunteers to examine and fully excavate the find.

They quickly determined that it far predated pioneer Utah. The small horse is 14,000 to 16,000 years old, which means it roamed the area during the Pleistocene Epoch when most of what we know today as the state of Utah was covered by Lake Bonneville. It is therefore rare to find a land mammal like a horse from this period.

The Thanksgiving Point team spent Tuesday excavating the bones. The horse — which Hunter described as about the size of a Shetland pony, but built stockier — was mostly a complete skeleton. The horse was laying on its left side with its front legs tucked under and back legs straight out.

“This is some of the best articulation I’ve seen,” Hunter said, explaining that means the horse’s bones were still intact. “It tells us that the sediment covered it almost immediately after it died. The thing was just beautiful.”

Hunter also is excited about how much bone he and his team have to work with.

“In dinosaurs, if we find 20 percent of the bones, we’re excited,” he said Thursday as an assistant chipped rock away from a large dinosaur bone in the lab. “But we have more of this guy. I estimate we have about 85 percent of it here.”

The bones have not even mineralized yet, although they are remarkably well-preserved thanks to the sandy soil they’ve been embedded in for thousands of years. Now that they’ve been excavated, they will dry out rapidly which poses a conservation danger. The rate of drying has to be controlled to ensure the bones don’t become brittle.

After the bones are fully dry, they will be coated with consolidants that will harden them and preserve them for long-term storage and study. Preliminary osteological examination has already discovered that the horse had arthritis in his back and there is evidence of bone cancer in one ankle. That suggests the animal was of advanced age.

Once the bones are stable and have been thoroughly researched, documented and put back together, the skeleton, dubbed the Hill Horse, will be displayed at the museum. That could take up to a year, but the Hill family is already riding high.

Hill’s children and nearby neighborhood kids all got to participate in the archaeological excavation, with Hunter guiding them and teaching them along the way.

“It could not have been cooler for my kids. They were so good with them. It was fun to have them here,” Hill said of Hunter’s team. “It totally inspired my kids to be into paleontology and archaeology. It’s all become really real.”


Look inside a cuneiform tablet

Sunday, April 29th, 2018

The Netherlands Institute for the Near East (NINO) at the University of Leiden has the largest collection of cuneiform tablets in the Netherlands, upwards of 3,000 tablets ranging in date from 2,500 to 4,000 years ago. Some of the tablets are still enveloped in the original clay covers which served as a means of data protection. The majority of cuneiform tablets document financial transactions, inventory, a wide assortment of business, religious and government records. If the inscription was exposed, figures could be easily be changed by simply dunking the tablet in water to soften it a little. Such records would be under constant threat of fraud and forgery. The outer clay layer made it impossible to alter the document without breaking the envelope and making the interference unmistakably clear.

When the study of cuneiform tablets began in earnest the 19th century, archaeologists had no qualms about breaking the hard candy shell to get to the chocolaty text within. These days destruction in the name of knowledge acquisition is no longer an acceptable approach to archaeological materials. Technology has made non-invasive methods of investigation not only possible, but exponentially superior to the crude bull-in-a-china-shop methods of yore. Synchroton light, lasers and CT scanners can see far better than the human eye.

To that end, NINO researchers have enlisted the aid of the micro-CT-scanner at Delft University of Technology to see into the clay tablets that still retain their envelopes. The micro-CT scan generates a 3D model of the object in sections and in enough detail that the surface of the tablet within the clay cover can be read.


Roman skeletons found under hotel swimming pool

Saturday, April 28th, 2018

Human remains from a Roman burial ground have been discovered underneath the swimming pool of a defunct hotel in York. Builders working on the redevelopment of the historic Newington Hotel into seven housing units came across the bones and experts from the York Archaeological Trust, on site to survey the restoration, excavated the find.

Over the course of three months, they unearthed evidence of approximately 75 graves and the skeletal remains of more than 60 individuals. The graves were shallow which had made them more susceptible to the ravages of later agricultural and construction activity. Layers of medieval plough soil were found above the graves, some with fragments of bone and pottery, and home construction in the 1820s disturbed the burials as well. Only 10% of the skeletons were discovered intact, but thankfully those 10% were in good enough condition for osteological examination and stable isotope testing to tell us more about how the regular folk of Roman York lived.

Even before the medieval and modern earth-churning, the cemetery was in use for so long that newer graves cut through poorly marked older ones.

From the surviving graves, however, we can begin to build a detailed picture of how the cemetery may have looked. At first glance, the image is decidedly chaotic: rather than lying in regimented rows the graves crowd together, oriented towards all points of the compass and frequently intercutting.

As for who was buried there, this was a demographically diverse cemetery, populated by both men and women, and individuals of all ages from infants to elderly adults – although they seem to have been broadly of the same social class.

The discovery of the Roman graves at this site does not come as a surprise. The road is an offshoot of the main Roman road that ran between York and Lincoln, and Roman burials were largely concentrated along roadsides. The property nearest the city was the most expensive, used by the elite to showcase their extravagant tombs. The farther away from the city they got, the more modest the graves.

The burials at what would become the Newington Hotel on Tadcaster Road were in the latter category. The people under the swimming pool were buried in simple graves with no elaborate markers. Their grave goods consisted almost entirely of inexpensive earthenware pottery. Only two of the graves held anything else. One contained a jet pin, the other the remains of a copper alloy head ornament. These inexpensive objects were likely part of the deceased’s funerary styling, not separate grave goods. Still, the pots that were found in graves are in excellent condition, practically mint. Archaeologists suspect they were bought for the funeral rather than pieces the deceased used in their lifetimes.

Cemeteries have been found before in this area. An excavation at nearby Trentholme Drive in the 1950s — one of the first burial grounds from Roman Britain to be fully published — revealed a cemetery that archaeologists now believe was part of a larger complex that included the Newington Hotel graves.

The dig site will be open to the public on June 22nd from 1-2PM.


Largest known child sacrifice found in Peru

Friday, April 27th, 2018

The remains of more than 140 children and 200 young llamas have been unearthed at a Chimú Empire site on the northern coast of Peru. It’s the largest known mass sacrifice in history.

While incidents of human sacrifice among the Aztec, Maya, and Inca have been recorded in colonial-era Spanish chronicles and documented in modern scientific excavations, the discovery of a large-scale child sacrifice event in the little-known pre-Columbian Chimú civilization is unprecedented in the Americas—if not in the entire world. […]

Huanchaquito-Las Llamas (generally referred to by the researchers as “Las Llamas,”) first made headlines in 2011, when the remains of 42 children and 76 llamas were found during an emergency dig directed by study co-author Prieto. An archaeologist and Huanchaco native, Prieto was excavating a 3,500-year-old temple down the road from the sacrifice site when local residents first alerted him to human remains eroding from nearby coastal dunes.

By the time excavations concluded at Las Llamas in 2016, more than 140 sets of child remains and 200 juvenile llamas had been discovered at the site; rope and textiles found in the burials are radiocarbon dated to between 1400 and 1450.

The tell-tale marks of sacrificial killing are on their skeletal remains. There are cut marks on the sternum, dislocated ribs, likely from when they were pulled apart to access the heart.
The lack of hesitation marks suggests this was done by a very practiced and steady hand or hands. The children were between five and 14 years old, most of them between eight and 12. The llamas were even younger, less than 18 months old.

The evidence indicates all this killing took place at one extended event rather than having been spaced out over time.

The investigators believe all of the human and animal victims were ritually killed in a single event, based on evidence from a dried mud layer found in the eastern, least disturbed part of the 7,500-square-foot site. They believe the mud layer once covered the entire sandy dune where the ritual took place, and it was disturbed during the preparation of the burial pits and the subsequent sacrifice event.


Child skeleton found in Pompeii’s Central Baths

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

The skeletal remains of a child killed in the calamitous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. have been discovered in Pompeii’s Central Baths complex. The find was unexpected, a fortuitous discovery during work to strengthen and restore the complex that had already been extensively excavated in the 19th century. It’s also unusual from a stratigraphic perspective, because it was found just 10 centimeters underneath an entrance area instead of under a thick layer of pumice fall, another created by the pyroclastic flow of superheated gases and volcanic material and a top layer of ash sealing everything below. The child was covered only by the pyroclastic layer, not the pumice or ash.

While the structures in the rest of the city experienced roof collapses from being pummeled by hot pumice for hours (many Pompeiians died from being crushed under busted roofs, not from the direct effects of the eruption), the area of the Central Baths where the child was found appears to have kept its lid. The pyroclastic flow must have come in through the windows, which is like something out of The Blob only way, way scarier.

First to emerge was the child’s skull, followed by the articulated bones of the body. Because of its in situ, intact discovery, archaeologists were able to make an educated guess that the child was seven or eight years old at the time of death and that he or she had fled into the baths seeking refuge from the eruption. It’s a lucky that the find site was excavated in 1877-8 but the burial was not disturbed at that time, not dug up, no plaster cast made. That’s probably due to the ancient pyroclastic material being too difficult at that time to create a cast, and making the castings was the top priority.

“Pompeii is at a turning point for archaeological research,” says Massimo Osanna, Director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, “not only for the exceptional discoveries that give strong emotions as in the case of this discovery, but above all because it has consolidated a new model of scientific approach that deals with the interdisciplinary excavation investigations. A team of specialized professionals such as archaeologists, architects, restorers but also engineers, geotechnicals, archaeobotanists, anthropologists, vulcanologists work steadily, side by side and with the support of cutting-edge technological resources, so as not to leave any scientific element to chance, and then reconstruct in the most accurate way a new piece of history that, through the excavations, is returned to us.”

The Central Baths, located at the intersection of Via di Nola and via Stabiana, develop on the space of an entire block, the insula 4 of the Regio IX, made available by the leveling of pre-existing buildings, probably damaged by the earthquake of 62 AD. Their construction is later than that date and at the time of the eruption it was not completed. The entire complex is the subject of consolidation (treatment of holes, consolidation, perforation of the lesions, restoration of the walls, restoration of sill levels and thresholds, replacement of architraves) and restoration (revision and restoration of walls and walls of plasters, cleaning and restoration of the flood, of the tanks and of the staircase; restoration of the tubules in the calidarium) started last January.


Britain’s oldest gold bought at car boot sale

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Some of Britain’s oldest gold has been declared treasure two years after it was found in a box of assorted watch parts bought by John Workman at the Berinsfield Car Boot sale in south Oxfordshire. The Oxford Coroner’s Court ruled on April 17th that the folded gold strip dating to the Early Bronze Age qualifies as treasure on the grounds of its prehistoric age and its high percentage of precious metal content.

The number of objects of this age and type discovered in Britain can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand. They date to around 2400-200 B.C., which make them the earliest gold artifacts in Britain. The strip is now in two pieces but that happened after it was folded and lost. Even put together the two pieces do not make up the complete original and because there is no find site or any way of locating it, the odds of finding missing fragments are infinitesimally small.

There are punched dots along the edge of the tapered end and three circles pierced through another terminal in a triangular shape. These could be decorative features or evidence that the gold was once mounted to something — a scabbard, jewelry, clothing. A similar strip found near Winchester in 2000 and now in the collection of the British Museum is also perforated at the terminal in a triangular shape.

Mr Workman spotted the unusual piece and showed it to friends who had interest in metal detecting and was encouraged to get in touch with the British Museum.

[Oxfordshire Finds liaison officer Anni] Byard described the piece as ‘exceptionally rare’ and said ‘very rare doesn’t seem to do it justice’.

She added: “As soon as I heard about it I knew it was Bronze Age and realised it was pretty unusual and quite rare.

“Because they are so rare we don’t know what they would have been used for, it could have been on the side of a sword or could have been worn around the neck as jewellery. We just don’t know.”

Now that it has been ruled official treasure, the gold strip is property of the crown and will be assessed for fair market value. A local museum will be given first dibs at acquiring it for the assessed value, the award to go to the finder. The Oxfordshire Museum is keen to secure the piece for the county. The monetary value won’t be prohibitive. The Winchester strip was valued at £2,000, and while this piece is a little larger and gold has increased in value since then, it should still be well within reach of the Oxfordshire Museum. Its historic value, of course, is inestimable.


Mosaic looted from Cyprus church repatriated

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

In the aftermath of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the island’s cultural patrimony was ravaged by looting, particularly in the Turkish-controlled area of Northern Cyprus. The northeastern Karpass peninsula was heavily targeted by heritage despoilers, with thefts going on for years after the invasion. The church of Panagia Kanakaria in the village of Lythrangomi, an extremely rare survival of a 6th century monastery church famed for its Byzantine mosaics, was pillaged by Turkish occupation troops in 1979. Its mosaics of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and apostles, iconographically unique masterpieces of Early Christian mosaic art, were stripped off the walls and sold to antiquities buyers who didn’t give a damn about the brutality underpinning their acquisitions.

The looting was reported to UNESCO, other international heritage and policing organizations. Experts in Byzantine art were also notified so they could keep an eye out for the mosaics in institutions and collections. In 1983, two of the Apostle medallions that once adorned the apse of the church were located by a London art dealer and returned through Germany.

In 1988, US dealer Peg Goldberg bought four Panagia Kanakaria mosaics for $1 million. She then turned around and tried to sell them to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, but the Getty was suspicious and alerted Greek Cypriot authorities. The Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus filed a restitution claim in an Indianapolis federal court. Goldberg fought back, but her look-the-other-wayism was so egregious — the dealer claimed he had found the priceless mosaics “in an abandoned church,” she knew one of the middlemen was a convicted art forger, she only inspected the mosaics for a moment in the middle of the Geneva airport — that the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana sided with the plaintiffs and ordered the mosaics returned to the Church. They were repatriated in August of 1991 and are now in the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia.

Turkish art dealer Aydin Dikmen was arrested in 1998 for having sold the looted Kanakaria mosaics to Peg Goldberg as well as other artifacts ripped from the walls of churches and monasteries. Greek Cypriot police and Department of Antiquities officials suspect him of having been instrumental in the savaging of Cyprus’ patrimony after the invasion and then spending decades selling his ill-gotten gains.

Another of the missing medallions, the one depicting the Apostle Thomas, was found in Dikmen’s possession during a police sting in October of 1997. Thaddeus was found the month before that. The hands of Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary were found the month after that. More of them have been recovered since, leaving only two Apostle medallions still missing.

Now one of those last remaining two, a vividly colored depiction of St. Andrew, has been recovered and repatriated to Cyprus.

The mosaic was found in 2014 by the art historian Maria Paphiti. The last buyer of the mosaic acquired it as part of a larger collection of artworks in 2010. She asked Paphiti to prepare an exhibition for her pieces.

Paphiti told her about the origin of the mosaic and after a long period of negotiations, the owner finally agreed to hand it over to the Church of Cyprus without litigation and for only a symbolic sum.

Dr Andreas Pittas, president of Medochemie and Roys Poyiadjis, a Cypriot businessman, based in New York, covered the cost and restoration.

During the ceremony, the Medal of Apostle Andreas, the highest distinction of the Archbishopric of Cyprus was awarded to Paphiti, Poyiadjis and Pittas for their contribution to the repatriation of the mosaic.

I hope it doesn’t take another four decades to find the last mission medallion, St. Mark.


UofT acquires oldest English-language book in Canada

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library celebrated World Book Day today by announcing the acquisition of the Caxton Cicero. Printed in 1481, only four decades after the invention of the printing press in the West, the volume is believed to be the oldest English-language book in Canada, and it’s certainly the oldest in the library’s collection, eclipsing the previous record-holder (a copy of The Golden Legend printed by Caxton in 1507) by a quarter century.

William Caxton, the man who introduced movable type to England, included three translated Latin treatises in the untitled book: De Amicitia (“On Friendship”) and De Senectute (“On Old Age”) by Marcus Tullius Cicero, and De Nobilitate (“On Nobility”) by early 15th century humanist Giovane Buonaccorso da Montemagno the Younger. This was the first book by a classical ancient author to be translated into English, as well as the first Renaissance humanist author translated into English.

Unlike The Golden Legend, of which thousands of manuscripts and printed editions survive, there are only 13 known extant copies of the Caxton Cicero.

At the end of the first text, Caxton includes a colophon […], which is an imprint by the printer that includes information about the book’s publication.

The printed text states that the book is “imprinted by me simple person William Caxton into English at the pleasure, solace and reverence of men growing into old age.” The writing in ink below the statement is likely a person practising their handwriting, trying to emulate the type – likely from the end of the 15th century, says [interim head of rare books and manuscripts at Fisher Library, Pearce] Carefoote.

Through clues buried inside the book, one can trace the history of the Caxton Cicero back to one of its first owners, Thomas Shupton – thought to be a monk during the time of Henry VIII. It was then given to 16th-century politician Sir Robert Coke, who passed it on to his nephew. After his nephew’s death, the book was given to Sion College in London, which kept it until 1977 when it was bought by Mexican author Roberto Salinas Price through a rare book dealer.

U of T acquired the text from Price’s estate, which was made possible by many donors, led by the B.H. Breslauer Foundation and with the support from the University of Toronto through a matching grant.

In a random but satisfying numerological coincidence, it is the 15th millionth book in the Fisher Library collection. It will be of inestimable scholarly value to students of the classics, Renaissance, the history of the English language (Caxton’s publications were instrumental in establishing the primacy of the London dialect, standardizing English and spreading literacy), the physical object of the book and more. Library staff also plan to digitize the book so that it can be accessed by interested parties all over the world.


Marcus Aurelius head found at Kom Ombo Temple

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

Dashing off a quick one tonight — little more than a picture, truth be told — due to extreme business/tiredness, if you’ll forgive me.

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a bust of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius at the Temple of Kom Ombo, about 600 miles south of Cairo. The team was working on a groundwater reduction project at the temple when they came across the sculpture. The head is made of marble and is very finely carved, depicting the emperor with his characteristic wavy hair and beard. The find is noteworthy because statues of Marcus Aurelius are very rarely seen in Egypt, and this one is a particularly quality example.


Happy Birthday, Rome, from the Antonine Wall.

Saturday, April 21st, 2018

It’s April 21st, the traditional founding day of the city of Rome when, according to legend (one of them, anyway) Romulus ploughed a furrow laying out the boundaries of the city, sacrificed to the gods and became the first king of Rome by popular acclaim. Ancient sources vary on the date of this mythical event (in fact, archaeological evidence indicates Rome has been inhabited since Paleolithic times, ca. 14,000 years ago) but for the past couple of thousand years the most widely accepted date for the founding is 753 B.C., which makes the Eternal City 2,772 years old today.

It was a comparative baby of 895 years old when its legions built the Antonine Wall across the width of Scotland, a series of defensive ramparts, ditches and forts marking the furthest northwestern boundary of the empire. The soldiers left distance stones, slabs with reliefs and inscriptions documenting how much of the wall they’d built, features unique to the Antonine Wall.

A new study by University of Glasgow archaeologist Dr. Louisa Campbell has found that those distance slabs, now worn down to their natural sandstone, were originally painted in bright red and yellow. She used X-ray and laser technology to analyze the Second Legion’s distance stone, found at Summerston Farm in the 17th century.

Inscribed with a dedication to Antoninus Pius (“For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country, the Second Augustan Legion completed [this work] over a distance of 3666.5 paces”), the stone depicts Roman cavalry with two captives on the left of the inscription, and an eagle on top of a capricorn (emblem of the Second Legion) on the right. It is currently on display at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum.

Dr. Campbell used portable X-Ray Flourescence and Raman Spectroscopic technology to analyze the traces of pigment remaining on several distance stones, including the Summerston stone. They identified a limited palette of vibrant red and yellow that was used as visually impactful propaganda that would have conveyed a clear message to indigenous peoples about the power and strength of the Roman empire.

There is a clear format to the application of pigments in the Roman Empire with specific colours expected to appear in certain contexts, eg reds in letters and Roman cloaks and military standards, different colours of red depicting spilled blood of indigenous captive warriors and ochres probably applied in layers to provide life-like skin tones, as evidenced on marble statuary.

There is even evidence for red on the beak of the Roman eagle which Dr Campbell suggests symbolises the eagle feasting on the flesh of her enemies.

A base layer of gesso was applied to the stones in the first instance which was then painted onto, but conservation practices appear to have negatively impacted the survival of these exquisite sculptures.

This is innovative work that has not previously been attempted. It presented some challenges which have now been mitigated and the next phase of the research seeks to determine whether other stone statuary, including Pictish symbol stones and other early medieval sculpture was adorned in colour.






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