Viking fire preserved largest Pictish fort

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.

Man pinned by huge stone found at Pompeii

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.”

Hamilton-Burr dueling pistols on rare public display

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.

Ancient Corinthian helmet found in Russia

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.

1000-year-old mummy bundle found in Peru

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.”