Archive for May, 2018

Viking fire preserved largest Pictish fort

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

The 10th century Viking raid that destroyed the powerful Pictish hill fort of Burghead in Moray, northeastern Scotland, has the unintended consequence of preserving archaeological material that would otherwise have decayed into nothingness by now. The fire that razed the fort and ended more than three centuries of Pictish life at the largest and oldest fort in what is now Scotland charred organic remains and kept them from rotting.

Until recently, there hasn’t been a great deal of archaeological exploration of the fort site because it was presumed to have been largely obliterated. To paraphrase a famous pasquinade, Quod non fecerunt Vikingi fecerunt Scoti. When the modern town of Burghead was built between 1805 and 1809, more than half of the hill fort’s remains were destroyed. The elements and coastal erosion have been chipping away at everything else at an alarming rate.

In 2015, a team of archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen began excavating inside the defensive walls and several significant discoveries were unearthed, including a Pictish longhouse and a late 9th century Anglo-Saxon coin of Alfred the Great. This April the team for the first time turned their spades and brushes on the lower citadel and the sea-facing ramparts of the upper citadel. Much to their surprise, they found wood timbers in excellent condition in both locations. The timbers in the lower citadel were part of a massive defensive wall that would have been 20 feet high in its heyday.

[University of Aberdeen head of archaeology] Dr Noble explains: “We are fortunate to have the descriptions of the site written by Hugh Young in 1893. He describes a lattice work of oak timbers which would have acted as an enormous defensive barrier and must have been a hugely complex feat of engineering in the early medieval period.

“In the years that have passed since he made his observations, the Burghead Fort has unfortunately been subject to significant coastal erosion and the harsh North Sea environment.

“But when we started digging, we discovered that while the destruction of the fort in the 10th century may not have been good news for the Picts, the fact that so much of it was set alight is a real bonus for archaeologists.

“We have discovered that the complex layer of oak planks set in the wall was burned in situ and that the resulting charring has actually preserved it in amazing detail when ordinarily it would have rotten away to nothing by now.”

On the other side of the size scale, Pictish jewelry has been discovered at the fort, among them a bronze ring, a mace-headed pin and a hair or dress pin with a bramble design on the head. They’ve also had the good fortune of finding the fine archaeological resource that is old garbage. The team has unearthed several midden layers from the Pictish era which will shed new light on the daily lives of a people who left no written records. Here too remains have been unusually well preserved.

“What’s exciting is the level of preservation here. We’ve found animal bone which rarely survives in mainland Scotland because of the acidic soil. We are already getting really nice information about what people ate within the fort and we hope to extract a level of information we’ve not had for Pictish sites before.”

Excavations are over for the season. The University of Aberdeen team plans to return next year to work the coastal area which is under dire threat from erosion. The timber wall is less than five feet from the erosion line, so the next excavation will be under the pressure of a salvage mission.

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Man pinned by huge stone found at Pompeii

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

After the discovery of the first complete remains of a horse, the Regio V excavation in Pompeii has unearthed the skeletal remains of a man captured at a dramatic moment of death. He was attempting to flee the eruption of Vesuvius when he was struck by a massive stone that crushed his thorax and pinned him to the ground for 2,000 years.

Preliminary examination of the remains and context indicate that the victim, an adult male about 30 years of age, survived the first phase of the eruption in Pompeii, the heavy fall of pumice which caused the death of many of the town’s residents in roof collapses. He took refuge in an alley after the pumice fall had created a whole new ground level. His body was found at at the corner of the newly-unearthed Alley of the Balconies and the Alley of the Silver Wedding, but not at street level. By the time he got to that alley, the thick layer of volcanic stones had raised it to the height of the first floor, about seven feet above street level.

His choice of shelter could not shield him from the second phase of the eruption. He was hit by the pyroclastic flow of volcanic gasses knocking him off his feet and throwing him backwards. The gas cloud made a projectile out of a 300-kilo (660-pound) stone, possible a door jam, and shot it at his upper body. The top of his thorax was crushed and his head hasn’t been found yet. Archaeologists believe the remains of the skull, whatever tiny fragments may still exist, are probably under the stone block.

Osteological examination on his legs found lesions indicating a serious bone infection. This would have made walking extremely painful and physically challenging. Given his disability, he would not have been able to escape readily on foot in the lead-up to the eruption.

This is the first human victim of the calamity discovered in the Regio V excavation. It comes as a surprise to archaeologists because the area has been excavated twice before, once in the 19th century and again in the early 20th, but they missed this man and the stone block that may have crushed and decapitated him before the thermal shock of the pyroclastic flow sealed his fate.

“This exceptional find, – declares Massimo Osanna – reminds us of an analogous case, that of a skeleton discovered by Amedeo Maiuri in the House of the Smith, and which was recently studied. These were the remains of a limping individual – he too was likely impeded in his escape by motor difficulties, and left exposed at the time in situ.

Beyond the emotional impact of these discoveries, the ability to compare them in terms of their pathologies and lifestyles as well as the dynamics of their escape from the eruption, but above all to investigate them with ever more specific instruments and professionalism present in the field, contribute toward an increasingly accurate picture of the history and civilisation of the age, which is the basis of archaeological research.”

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Hamilton-Burr dueling pistols on rare public display

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

The original pistols used by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the 1804 duel that claimed the life of the first Treasury Secretary are temporarily on display at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. The long-barreled Wogdon & Barton pistols used in the infamous duel are privately owned and very rarely exhibited. They have never been exhibited in Washington, D.C. before.

These pistols didn’t belong to Hamilton or Burr. They were owned by John Barker Church, husband of Angelica Schuyler Church, sister of Alexander Hamilton’s wife Eliza. After their most infamous starring turn, the pistols were kept in the Church family at Belvidere, the Federal-style mansion built by John Barker in southeastern New York state.

They were sold in the 1930s to Manhattan Bank which, in a poetic coincidence, had been founded by Aaron Burr in 1799 to compete with Hamilton’s Bank of New York. Two decades later the Bank of Manhattan merged with Chase National Bank to form Chase Manhattan and eventually it would be bought by JPMorgan Chase. The most notorious of all dueling pistols are now the property of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and they can be seen, should you have high finance to transact, on the 8th floor of JPMorgan’s global headquarters at 270 Park Avenue, formerly the Union Carbide tower (soon to be demolished, just by the by).

NB: Burr would later claim that the pistols were his, but witness testimony and the rules of the code duello make that extremely unlikely. As the challenged party, Hamilton had choice of weapons and location, and from the comments made to people by his deathbed over the course of the day it took him to die from the gut shot Burr had delivered, he knew the pistols well. He had a tragic personal reason for this beyond the fact of them being his brother-in-law’s. The pistols were the ones used in the 1801 duel between Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip and George Eacker. Philip was killed on the same dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey, where Hamilton would take that fatal shot three years later.

Alexander Hamilton: Soldier, Secretary, Icon, the exhibition that features the pistols, examines the life and enduring legacy of the man through original artifacts as well as iconographic depictions after his death. It’s at the National Postal Museum, so as you might expect, the pistols and portraits are displayed alongside correspondence and postage stamps as well as revenue stamps. The exhibition opened May 25th and runs through March of 2019, but the pistols will only be on display until June 24th.

Anybody who isn’t likely to have a chance to hang out at JPMorgan global headquarters needs to get to DC with a quickness to see the dueling pistols. You can make a Hamilton-themed event out of it as the Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical, debuts at the Kennedy Center in June.


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Ancient Corinthian helmet found in Russia

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient Corinthian helmet in a grave on the Taman Peninsula in southwest Russia on the north shores of the Black Sea. The helmet is fragmented and corroded, but its face plate, even buried on its side, is instantly recognizable as the iconic emblem of Greek warriors from Athena to Pericles. This is a Corinthian helmet of the “Hermione” group which dates it to the first quarter of the 5th century B.C.

Initially, these helmets completely covered the head and looked like a bucket with slots for the eyes. The helmet completely protected the head, but limited the view to the sides, so it is believed that the warriors in such helmets, as a rule, fought in the phalanx and the warrior did not need to follow the movements of the enemy from the side. Later helmets began to be done so that the soldier had the opportunity to raise the helmet and slide back.

The northern coast of the Black Sea was colonized by Greek settlers who, starting in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., built a series of independent polities along the coastline. By the 5th century B.C., the cities were part of the Bosporan Kingdom, a Hellenistic kingdom ruled by two successive dynasties until it became a Roman client state in the 1st century B.C.

The Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IA RAS) has been excavating a late Bronze Age necropolis two miles outside the village of Volna for three years. It contains about 600 burial mounds (kurgans), making it unusually large for the period and area. Many of the kurgans in the necropolis hold the remains of Bosporan noblemen and warriors.

More of them have been unearthed in the 2018 dig season. The team discovered multiple graves of cavalrymen on the edge of the necropolis just outside its boundaries. The warriors are buried with their weapons and their bridled horses. They are believed to do date to the same time and were likely all interred as part of the same funerary rite towards the end of the 5th century B.C.

It’s the Corinthian helmet that caused the greatest stir, however, because it is only the second such helmet found within the boundaries of the former Russian Empire; the other was discovered in a burial mount near the village of Romeykovka, Kiev province, in the 19th century. None have been found in the Greek colonies on the northern coast of the Black Sea, although sculptural representations of them have, as have numerous other artifacts imported from Greece, both high value and quotidian.

Helmets of any type are rare finds, the kind of thing only high-ranking warriors would have been buried with.

Head of the Department of Classical Archeology IA RAS Vladimir Kuznetsov believes that the helmet indicates the social status of the warrior. “Apparently, this is a warrior who died in the battle and was buried not in his native city, but near the place of his death. That’s why the grave is not a crypt, but a simple burial. The helmet testifies to his status as a full-fledged citizen of some kind of polis, most likely one of the Bosporan cities, and also about a certain level of well-being, “Vladimir Kuznetsov said.

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1000-year-old mummy bundle found in Peru

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

Researchers from the Université Libre de Bruxelles’s Center for Archaeological Research (CReA-Patrimoine) have discovered a mummy bundle in nearly pristine condition at the archaeological site of Pachacamac about 25 miles southeast of Lima, Peru. Preliminary analysis based on the layers, the tomb style and its location indicate it dates to 1000-1200 A.D. A sample from the bundle is in the process of being radiocarbon dated now.

Pachacamac was founded around 200 A.D. and existed until the arrival of the Spanish. The archaeological site has the remains of monumental buildings — three major temple step pyramids, later step pyramids believed to be palaces for the secular rulers — and cemeteries, but has been severely damaged by looters and the elements. Because of all this damage, the discovery of so intact a mummy bundle in situ is extremely rare.

The excavation was part of the Ychsma project, named after the indigenous people of the area. After nine weeks of work, this year’s dig was almost over when the team discovered the bundle in large structure believed to be a sanctuary to the ancestors. The sanctuary had been used extensively by the pre-Inca residents of Pachacamac for funerary purposes and was studded with tombs and mummies. Most of the burial chambers were emptied out in the wake the Spanish conquest and what the looters didn’t get, water infiltration did.

They had only found a few funerary offerings during the previous nine weeks, wooden false heads once part of mummy burials, pottery, most notably groups of Spondylus shells and beads. They were imported from Ecuador and were expensive trade items. They also had great religious significance as symbols of fertility and abundance associated with the waters brought in by El Niño. The team was pleased with these finds and never expected to discover an intact burial chamber holding an intact mummy in its intact bundle.

It was carefully wrapped with protective materials on site and transported to the laboratory where researchers will have the opportunity to study it non-invasively without removing the bundle. They plan to use X-rays, axial tomography and an assortment of imaging methods to create a 3D reconstruction of the mummy and its wrap. The reconstruction will allow them to explore the bundle, any artifacts placed inside of it and the mummy itself. Its burial position will be visible, and if all goes well, a full examination of the individual’s anatomy — age, gender, illnesses, overall health, maybe even cause of death.

The Ychsma project excavations this year bore fruit in other significant ways too.

The other structures that were excavated are also related to worship: the first one, an Inca monument intended to host pilgrims and rituals, was built in several phases, each identified with a series of offerings such as seashells and precious objects. The last structure explored was probably one of the ‘chapels’ for foreign pilgrims, referred to by Spanish monk Antonio de la Calancha in his 17th-century description of the site. There, the excavations also uncovered many ‘foundation’ offerings, including vases, dogs, and other animals, as well as a platform with a hole in the centre, where an idol was likely placed. The complex appears to have been designed around this idol, involved in religious activities with pilgrims.

According to researchers, all these discoveries indicate that Incas made considerable changes to the Pachacamac site, in order to create a large pilgrimage centre on Peru’s Pacific coast. “Deities and their worship played a major part in the life of Pre-Colombian societies,” concludes Peter Eeckhout. “The Inca understood this very well, and integrated it into how they wielded their power. By promoting empire-wide worship, they contributed to creating a common sense of identity among the many different peoples that made up the empire. Pachacamac is one of the most striking examples of this.”

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Hawaiian carved god donated to museum

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

A carved wooden ki’i (a temple image figure) depicting the god Ku has been donated to Honolulu’s Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and is now home after at least 80 years of exile. Its past is obscure. The known ownership history starts in the 1940s when it was bought by Pierre Vérité who passed it down to his son, Paris art dealer Claude Vérité.

The Vérité collection was auctioned at Christie’s Paris in November 2017 with the ki’i as the signature piece gracing the cover of the catalogue. It was purchased at the auction by Marc Benioff, the Chairman and CEO of Salesforce, and his wife Lynne for $7.5 million. They donated it to the Bishop Museum “for the education and benefit of [Hawaii’s] people.”

Hawaii has a profound spiritual and historical connection to this figure and its brethren. The ki’i is 20 inches tall and depicted in warrior pose — knees bent, calves flexed, hands clenched at the back of the thighs. The mouth is open in a grimace shaped like a figure eight, teeth bared and jaw jutting forward. He wears a head crest hanging down at the sides towards his shoulders. These are the classic elements characteristic the Kona style of carving, created by artists in the Kona area of the Big Island during the reign of King Kamehameha I (1782-1819).

The first king of Hawaii as we know it today, Kamehameha unified the islands, previously ruled by different chiefs constantly at war with each other. Before he became king, he served at the royal court of the island of Hawaii under his uncle and then his cousin, under whom he was appointed guardian of Ku, (Ku-ka’ili-moku in Hawaiian, meaning “the god Ku, the island snatcher”) the Hawaiian god of war.

He would maintain a strong identification with this deity as he conquered the fractious islands and fought his way to the throne. Once he was king, Ku temple figures exploded in popularity. These were sacred effigies, representing both the deity and the king, and the carvers were themselves considered to be performing a religious role rather than a purely artistic one.

Christie’s experts were amazed by the quality of the piece. It is the kind of thing found only in museums nowadays, so they were thrilled to discover one in a private collection. According to the auction house’s Head of African and Oceanic Art Susan Kloman, it is comparable in craftsmanship and cultural significance to this exceptional ki’i of Ku in the British Museum, except the one in the BM is five times taller (105 inches in height) and is missing his hands. On, and we know how it got there. Missionaries brought it back from their voyage to Kona in 1822.

The auction house took a minute sample from the statue to radiocarbon date it and to find out which wood it is made of. It’s wood from the genus Metrosideros, or ohi’a wood, a tree found in the mountains of Hawaii and Oceania. The dating results weren’t very precise as they are “wiggles” in the conversion tables from this period, but the two most likely ranges are 1798-1891 and 1717-1780. The stylistic evidence makes the early part of the 1798 range most likely. The Bishop will continue to study the piece and run additional tests in the hopes of discovery a more accurate date.

The image will be a centerpiece in a new exhibition at Bishop Museum opening in February 2019, following the close of the Hawaiian season of peace known as Makahiki. Museum researchers will continue to study the carving while planning for the exhibition, which will explore the multiplicity of stories surrounding the ki’i. In addition, the Museum plans to hold a carving workshop and symposium prior to the exhibition, during which contemporary artists, scholars and the community will engage with the ki’I and other images in the Museum’s collections to increase awareness, scholarship and understanding of Native Hawaiian history, culture and practices.

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Rare Roman sarcophagus goes on display

Friday, May 25th, 2018

The Roman sarcophagus unearthed last year at Harper Road in Southwark, central London, has gone on display at the Museum of London Docklands. It is part of a new exhibition dedicated to how Romans in ancient Londinium dealt with their dead. The sarcophagus will keep company with the remains, inhumed and cremated, of 28 Roman-era Londoners discovered in ancient cemeteries and more than 200 grave goods.

Only two other Roman sarcophagi have been found in situ in London, so this discovery gave researchers a rare opportunity to study a high end Roman burial in its context. The lid was pushed off to the side and the sarcophagus was filled with soil. Archaeologists believe it was looted in the 17th century, likely after it was discovered accidentally during construction work. The bones were crudely pushed over to one side of the coffin and one of her arms was thrown out of the coffin, perhaps to strip it of jewelry.

Filled with heavy clay, the sarcophagus weighed a ton and a half. It was carefully raised and moved to the Museum of London to be excavated in laboratory conditions. Archaeologists knew its valuables had been removed by the tomb robbers, but metal detectors did register the presence of something metallic. That proved to be a single flake of gold, thought to be part of an earring, and a jasper cameo that the robbers had missed.

Some spectacular funerary artifacts will be showcased in the exhibition, including a Roman face pot used as a cinerary urn, a jet pendant carved with the face of Medusa and a gold ring with an engraved gemstone depicting two mice eating together, likely the country mouse and city mouse from Horace’s Satires. The most valuable in monetary terms may be a millefiori glass dish that was found with cremated remains in Roman London’s eastern cemetery in 2009. The remains had been interred in a wooden container with the dish. It’s in exceptional condition and a very rare object in Roman London or the western Empire as a whole. It would have cost many times a soldier’s yearly salary when it was new.

There are a number of events scheduled in connection with the exhibition. This weekend a workshop will be held exploring the historical context of the Southwark sarcophagus and giving guests the opportunity to make their own mini sarcophagus. It won’t be carved out of stone, though, so harumph.

The Close to the Bone workshop held this June, on the hand, sets my nerdy little heart to pounding.

Immerse yourself in this hands-on workshop where you will learn different ways and techniques of identifying biological profiles of individual skeletons, as well as exploring unique details inside the Roman Dead exhibition with our exhibition trail. Explore 2D and 3D facial reconstruction techniques with the guidance and knowledge of professionals from Sherlock Bone.

You’ll also learn all about the work, processes and ethics behind the Museum of London’s Centre of Human Bioarchaeology, which was established in 2003 to curate and research the human remains excavated in the City and the Greater London area. With over 20,000 pieces of human remains in the museum’s collection, our Curator of Human Osteology, Dr. Rebecca Redfern, will share studies and insights resulting from this unique and captivating collection with you.

The Roman Dead exhibition runs from May 25th through October 28th. There is a minimum age — visitors must be at least eight years old — and admission is free.

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Large Greco-Roman building found north of Cairo

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

A large building from the Greco-Roman era has been unearthed at an ancient site near the village of Sa El Hagar about 75 miles north of Cairo. The red brick structure may have been part of a bath complex. Other artifacts recovered by the mission include a number of pottery vessels, terracotta figurines, a statue of a ram, bronze tools and a fragment of a hieroglyphic relief.

Some coins were also unearthed, one of them of particular note. It’s a gold coin in excellent condition depicting the crowned profile of King Ptolemy III on the obverse and the Land of Prosperity on the reverse. It was minted during the reign of his son Ptolemy IV (244 – 204 B.C.) as a memorial to his predecessor. It weighs 28 grams (one whole ounce) and is just over an inch in diameter.

Known as Sais by the ancient Greek, the city has a fascinating history. It is thought to have been a cult center for the worship of the war goddess Neith as early as the 1st Dynasty (ca. 3100 B.C.), but almost all of the early dynastic remains were destroyed by farmers who used the ancient mud bricks to make fertilizer. Archaeological evidence from its heyday as the capital of the 24th and 26th Dynasties has survived. One inscription documents the presence of a medical school for women at Sais’ Temple of Neith. The pharaohs ruled from the royal palace at Sais until the Persian invasion in the 6th century.

Greek chroniclers and philosophers put Sais at the nexus of their own and Egyptian mythologies. They identified Neith with their warrior goddess Athena. Herodotus claimed that Osiris died there. Diodorus Siculus said the city was built by Athenians in the mists of time before the great deluge sent by Zeus to punish people for their constant wars. Plato wrote that the Athenian statesman Solon was told the story of Atlantis by an Egyptian priest in Sais.

Jean-François Champollion visited Sais in September of 1828 on his second expedition to Egypt, the first since his groundbreaking 1822 translation of the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. He wrote in a letter that, funds permitting, he planned to come back to Sais to excavate it, but those plans did not come to fruition. He died unexpectedly in 1832 at the age of 41 and never did return to Egypt. Some Egyptologists believe that the Rosetta Stone was originally part of the great temple at Sais which was destroyed in the 14th century. Parts of its inner chamber were moved to Rosetta and Cairo, so it’s possible albeit unprovable.

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Bog find sheds light on war practices of Germanic tribes

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

When last we dropped in on the excavation at the Alken Enge bog in East Jutland, Denmark, archaeologists had found the remains of an estimated 200 men killed around 1 A.D. and thrown into a part of Lake Mosso which has now receded leaving the peat bog. The discovery of arranged bones, notably four pelvises on a stick, was evidence that the remains were deliberate sacrifices, not discards after battlefield cleanup. A newly published report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences updates and expands on the discoveries and their larger significance.

All together, 2,095 bones and bone fragments from 82 people were unearthed. Extrapolating from that figure based on the distribution of the remains increases the earlier estimate of people buried in the bog to 380, almost all adult men. The preponderance of unhealed sharp-force trauma indicates they died in battle, and the lack of previously healed wounds of this type means they were not seasoned fighters. Weapons found in the excavation — spearheads, an axe, fragments of swords, shields, iron knives — confirm the military nature of the clash. Metallurgic analysis found that the weapons were manufactured from local Jutish raw materials.

Gnaw marks on the bones indicate the bodies were exposed for six months to a year after death before the skeletal remains were deposited in the lake. There were also cut and scrape marks on the bones, evidence that the remains were treated before they were carefully arranged and deposited. This systematic and stylized approach to a clearing of the battlefield likely had a ritual purpose.

There are only a handful of other battlefields from the the turn of the millennium known, all in Germany and none of them with significant human remains. They are also thought to be the result of clashes between Germanic tribes and Roman forces pressing northwards. The Alken Enge excavation is the sole known example we have of large-scale human remains and from an intra-German battle.

Alken Enge provides unequivocal evidence that the people in Northern Germania had systematic and deliberate ways of clearing battlefields. Practices of corporeal dismemberment, modification, and bone assemblage composition suggest a ritual dimension in the treatment of the human corporeal remains. Taphonomic studies indicate a postmortem exposure interval before a deposition in the lake of 0.5–1 y, which is unprecedented in relation to the known burials and bog bodies.

The estimated MNI in Alken Enge significantly exceeds the scale of any known Iron Age village community and presupposes that the fighting groups of men were recruited from a large area beyond its immediate hinterland.

The preponderance of young adult males suggests that a selected group ended up in the wetland area. High incidences of perimortem trauma show that the conflicts were extremely destructive in character, with consequently comprehensive slaughter.

Overall, the Alken Enge find is exceptional of the period, but it anticipates the comprehensive postbattle weapon depositions from the second to fifth centuries AD in Northern Germania. In this way, Alken Enge provides a new, yet older, testament to the history of the militarization of the Northern Germanic societies and stresses the formative significance of the expansion phase of the Roman Empire at the turn of the era.

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Baby’s hand mummified by copper coin

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

A study of the partially mummified remains of an infant found in southern Hungary has identified it as the first reported instance of mummification entirely by copper. The remains were unearthed during excavations that took place between 1982 and 1992 in a Late Medieval churchyard in the village of Nyárlőrinc. Almost all of the 541 graves excavated at the site dated between the 12th and 16th century, but a few solitary burials took place through the 19th century when the cemetery was no longer in official use but remnants of the church walls were still standing.

The infant’s remains were found in a ceramic pot buried at the edge of the cemetery. In its mummified hand was a copper coin minted between 1858 and 1862, which narrows down the burial date to sometime inside that four year range, 150 years after the cemetery fell into disuse. After their excavation, the remains were put in a box separate from the pot and coin and were forgotten about until 2005 when János Balázs and Zoltán Bölkei of the University of Szeged rediscovered them and noted the unusual mummified right hand and section of dorsal skin.

The bones are tiny — the baby was no more than 11 to 13 inches long and weighed one or two pounds — which made it a pre-term infant gestated no more than seven lunar months. The baby was born premature and was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. The hand is one of the smallest and youngest mummified human remains ever discovered. Because the little body was placed in a clay pot and buried in the abandoned cemetery in the second half of the 19th century, researchers hypothesize that the baby was not baptized and had to be interred in secret.

Mummified human remains are rare in Hungary and most of them are intentional rather than spontaneous (the Vác mummies being the most salient exception). Of the few spontaneous mummified remains found in Hungary, this is the only known example of a neonate/perinate.

The bones Dr. Balázs found were so small they could have been confused with a rat’s. Several, including some vertebrae, a hip bone and the leg bones were stained green. Both forearms were green as well, but the right one was still covered in desiccated flesh. The skin near the back was also mummified and embedded with five vertebrae pieces. Most of the ribs, a shoulder bone and two humerus bones were not discolored. […]

Archaeologically speaking, green bones are not uncommon at grave sites. Bronze or copper jewelry can often discolor skeletons as they degrade, and Dr. Balázs thought the child’s body came in contact with some sort of metal. But how did that mystery metal object end up near its tiny hands?

That mystery was solved when the team discovered that the nearby Móra Ferenc Museum also had boxes in storage from the Nyárlőrinc dig. Inside those boxes the researchers found the ceramic pot and the corroded copper coin. Records indicated this was the pot the perinate had been buried in and that the coin had been found right next to it.

Testing of the remains and comparisons with the remains of two other infants found in the graveyard revealed exceptionally high copper levels that could not be justified by contact with the soil or the ceramic pot. Concentrations of copper in the bones of the mummified perinate were 497 times higher than the concentrations in other mummified remains recorded in the published literature.

The team concluded that before the child was placed in the pot and buried, someone put the copper coin into its hand. Many cultures in antiquity have buried their dead with coins as a way to pay a mythical ferryman to take their souls into the afterlife.

In this case, the copper’s antimicrobial properties protected the child’s hand from decay. Along with the conditions inside the vessel, it helped mummify the baby’s grasp.

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