Archive for August, 2018

Largest, earliest cemetery in east Africa found

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the largest and earliest cemetery in east Africa built 5,000 years ago by herders around Lake Turkana, Kenya. Researchers from Stony Brook University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History excavated the site and discovered a dense grouping of interrals in a central cavity with scattered associated burials around it.

The Lothagam North Pillar Site, constructed and in active use between 5,000 and 4,300 years ago, consists of a massive platform 100 feet in diameter with a large funerary cavity in which the dead were buried over time. When the cavity was full, burials ceased and it was capped with stones. Megalith pillars were then placed on top of the cap and additional stone circles and cairns were added around the site.

The central cavity held as estimated 580 individuals, men, women, children, seniors. All of the burials regardless of sex, gender or age included grave goods and none of them were given more or more valuable objects. A wide variety of stones and minerals carved into more than 300 beads of many different forms were unearthed in the graves. Fashioning these handsome ornaments would have taken a lot of time, creativity and dedication, attesting that the people of the Lothagam North Pillar Site placed importance on aesthetics, individual style and adornment.

The grave goods are equally distributed over the burial ground, not concentrated in any area or areas, nor were any individuals interred in a manner meant to single them out for special attention and honor. They were tightly packed in the cavity. This indicates the pastoralists who built and used the monumental cemetery did not have a strong hierarchies in their society.

That is a highly significant find from a social history perspective because it contradicts the widespread notion that the construction of large public monuments and buildings was a function of stratified hierarchical societies, that a concentration of wealth and power and the desire to show them off were requirements for projects of this magnitude in early civilizations. The herders of Lake Turkana had an egalitarian society for hundreds of years.

“This discovery challenges earlier ideas about monumentality,” explains Elizabeth Sawchuk of Stony Brook University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Absent other evidence, Lothagam North provides an example of monumentality that is not demonstrably linked to the emergence of hierarchy, forcing us to consider other narratives of social change.”

The discovery is consistent with similar examples elsewhere in Africa and on other continents in which large, monumental structures have been built by groups thought to be egalitarian in their social organization. This research has the potential to reshape global perspectives on how—and why—large groups of people come together to form complex societies. In this case, it appears that Lothagam North was built during a period of profound change. Pastoralism had just been introduced to the Turkana Basin and newcomers arriving with sheep, goats, and cattle would have encountered diverse groups of fisher-hunter-gatherers already living around the lake. Additionally, newcomers and locals faced a difficult environmental situation, as annual rainfall decreased during this period and Lake Turkana shrunk by as much as fifty percent. Early herders may have constructed the cemetery as a place for people to come together to form and maintain social networks to cope with major economic and environmental change.

“The monuments may have served as a place for people to congregate, renew social ties, and reinforce community identity,” states Anneke Janzen also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Information exchange and interaction through shared ritual may have helped mobile herders navigate a rapidly changing physical landscape.” After several centuries, pastoralism became entrenched and lake levels stabilized. It was around this time that the cemetery ceased to be used.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Vanishingly rare Boston Tea Party cartoon for sale

Monday, August 20th, 2018

An extremely rare print of one of the most significant political cartoons of the Revolutionary War is going under the hammer at Heritage Auctions on Saturday. “Liberty Triumphant: Or the Downfall of Oppression,” attributed to New York engraver Henry Dawkins, was published between December 27th, 1773 and April of 1774, so anywhere from 11 days to four months after the Sons of Liberty dressed up like Indians and dumped East India Company tea into Boston harbor in protest of the Tea Act. There are only six other copies known, all in institutions.

The rather busy and caption-filled cartoon shows British politicians & merchants in league with the devil, on the left side, and American colonists (seven dressed as Indians representing those at the Boston Tea Party) on the opposing right side (labeled Boston, New York and Delaware Bay).

Captions at the bottom serve as a “key” to the people and symbolic figures depicted. The men on the left side are, for the most part, representatives of the East India Company, along with Philadelphia Loyalist Dr. John Kearsley, Jr. The men in the lower right are colonial merchants who opposed the Tea Party, but deem it better to acquiesce, now that the deed is done. “The people have discovered our design to divide them, & we shall never be able to regain their confidence.” The Goddess of Liberty says “Behold the Ardor of my sons and let not their brave Actions be buried in Oblivion.” The lead Indian exclaims “We will secure our freedom, or die in the Attempt.”

Henry Dawkins was a colorful character, and by colorful I mean shady as all get out. Born in England, he set up shop as an engraver in New York. After printing the seminal cartoon celebrating the Boston Tea Party, he was contracted by the New York Provincial Congress to engrave plates for the new Continental currency. Then something went awry and he found himself doing a stint in the city jail for reasons that have been lost in the mists of time, but given his future shenanigans it’s likely an extra-legal use of his engraving prowess was involved.

While he was incarcerated, one Israel Youngs was a frequent visitor, and when Dawkins was released in early 1776, Youngs invited him to visit the duplex home he shared with his brother Isaac in Huntington, Long Island. According to Henry Dawkins’ testimony to a New York Provincial Congress committee in May 1776, Israel repeatedly entreated him to engrave fresh plates so they could profit from the brisk business in counterfeit cash that had sprung up since the Colonies had begun to print their own paper money to raise funds for the war effort.

British authorities and Loyalists made a point of spreading counterfeit bills as a form of economic sabotage. It worked, too. The value of Continental bills cratered and almost a century would pass before the United States issued paper currency again in 1861 under pressure from an even more brutal war.

His English birth thus cast even more suspicion on Dawkins’ activities at the Youngs house. Dawkins had chests of his specialized engraving tools at the home, yet claimed to be supporting himself on past income. One of the Youngs had tried to buy paper in Huntington only to find that it “would not do.” Isaac was overheard telling someone that he would pay off all his debts that summer in Continental Currency. Israel Youngs was the only person allowed to bring wood up to Dawkins’ attic room. It didn’t take much for such glaringly obvious clues to lead people to the glaringly obvious conclusion. Another English-born man, Charles Friend, reported them for counterfeiting and in May of 1776 Captain Jeremiah Wool of the New York militia arrested Dawkins, the Youngs and their kinsman Isaac Ketchan.

Dawkins confessed all. He fingered Israel Youngs as the ringleader, claiming Israel had solicited him to create plates of 40-shilling Connecticut bills, thirty-dollar Continental currency and 42-shilling Massachusetts bills. The Connecticut and Massachusetts ones were printed on a rolling press hidden in a garret and signed in red carmine ink by Israel Youngs. The Continental bills were more complicated to produce because they required special paper that could only be acquired with great difficulty in Philadelphia and Dawkins said he never knew if they’d manage to secure that paper.

The New York Provincial Congress committee convicted Dawkins and in June 1776 he was sentenced to pay a hefty fine and imprisonment in an Albany jail. The Youngs brothers and Isaac Ketcham (tasked with buying the paper in Philly) were also convicted. Israel Youngs, who denied all knowledge of the plot and his brother were sentenced to jail in Litchfield, Connecticut, but Israel only served a few months because he bribed a jailer and escaped in November of 1776. He tried to go back to Long Island but everyone hated his counterfeiting ass now, so he had to move to New Jersey.

Henry Dawkins was not so fortunate in his jailers. From his prison in White Plains (Albany fell through), he sent a petition dated October 19th, 1776, to the Provincial Congress literally begging for death.

MAY IT PLEASE YOUR HONOURS: The subscriber, humbly relying on the known goodness and humanity of this honourable House, begs leave to lay his complaint before them, which is briefly as follows:

That your petitioner was about six months past taken upon Long-Island for a trespass of which this House is thoroughly acquainted, as by the instigation of Israel Youngs he was led away to perform an action of which he has already sincerely repented. And as your petitioner was torn away from his only son, who is left among strangers, without any one to support or protect him during the inclemency of the approaching winter; as his unhappy father hath since the first day of his being taken had but one shirt and one pair of stockings to shift himself, and as he hath been afflicted during his imprisonment at the White-Plains with the worst of enemies — hunger, and the nauseous stench of a small room where sometimes twenty persons were confined together, which hath introduced a sickness on your distressed subscriber, which, with the fatigue of travelling, hath reduced your unhappy petitioner to a state of despondency; — he therefore, being already weary of such a miserable life as his misconduct hath thrown him into, humbly begs for a termination of his sorrows by a death to be inflicted in what manner the honourable House may think fit. The kind compliance of this honourable House will ever lay an obligation on your Honours’ distressed, humble servant,
HENRY DAWKINS.

They did not accede to his request. It’s not clear exactly when he was released, but released he was because, believe it or not, in early 1778 he was back on his grind, working for the same government that had convicted him of counterfeiting. Henry Dawkins engraved the first official coat of arms of the State of New York, the same design that would be printed on the reverse of New York’s issue of the 1882 National Bank Note.

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Gold horse head shines on public display

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

The gilded bronze horse head from a 1st century equestrian statue found in Waldgirmes, central Germany, is going on public display for the first time since it was unearthed in 2009. It’s been through a lot in its 2000 years, first getting dismembered by Germanic tribesmen making a point about the transitory nature of imperial power in the wake of their annihilation of Rome’s legions at the Battle of Teutoborg Forest, then getting thrown in a deep well, then getting dug up by archaeologists, then spending years undergoing painstaking conservation while the owner of the land where it was found took the state of Hesse to court to geometrically expand his compensation.

When I posted last month about the outcome of the trial (the court sided with the landowner), there were no recent photos of the horse’s head so I had to grudgingly make do with one taken in 2010 in the early stages of conservation. Very grudgingly. Most extremely grudgingly. All that gnashing of teeth can now be forgotten because Hesse has finally put the horse head on public display. The new exhibition opens Sunday and was previewed for the press on Friday. That means those of us not afforded the opportunity to see the gloriously golden equine in person benefit from the release of new photographs of it on display.

The Saalburg Roman Fort museum is the lucky recipient of the refreshed head. Built in the early 2nd century A.D. under the reign of the Emperor Trajan, the fort overlooking the Limes (the frontier of the Roman Empire) did sentry duty for 150 years before the frontier got too hot and the troops were withdrawn. The ruins of the Saalburg were rediscovered and excavated in the mid-19th century. Between 1897 and 1907, the fort was reconstructed by order of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It became an open-air museum and research facility surrounded by the remains of the Roman settlement which was also partially reconstructed. Today it is the only museum in Hesse that is entirely dedicated to the area’s Roman history.

Saalburg’s permanent exhibition has been updated and redesigned over the past few years, and the Waldgirmes head will be its centerpiece. The museum has created a wall-height poster depicting the original size of the full statue. The head alone is two feet long and weighs 33 pounds, so the statue was an impressive sight when it was intact. Another large panel explains how the horse head was excavated from a wooden barrel at the bottom of well shaft 36 feet deep.

That was just the beginning of the hard work. While the waterlogged anaerobic environment preserved the gilded bronze head, it did have some thorny condition issues mostly posed by the nature of gilding itself. The corrosion of the bronze manifested on the gold surface which, as on any gilded object, is extremely thin. Conservators struggled to remove those corrosion products without also removing precious gold. Patches of acrylic resin were applied to strengthen a few areas and then the entire piece was given a coating of resin for its protection. The conservation team made a conscious choice not to re-gild areas of loss.

Hesse’s Science and Arts Minister Boris Rhein showered the conservators with praise at the press preview of the exhibition, noting that their precision work allows us to see the exquisitely life-like details captured by the sculptor. The anatomy of the horse — muscles, veins, nostrils, teeth, eyes — is crafted with a verisimilitude only a highly skilled craftsman and artist could achieve.

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3,800-year-old relief found in Peru

Saturday, August 18th, 2018


Archaeologists have discovered a 3,800-year-old wall with a large relief at the ancient site of Vichama in Peru’s Caral Archaeological Zone. The relief is one meter (3.2 feet) high and 2.8 meters (9.2 feet) long and features four human heads, eyes closed, entwined by two serpents. Where the heads of the two snakes meet in the center of the wall is a fifth head, not human but anthropomorphic with a wide-eyed face and five appendages. Experts believe it may be a representation of a seed putting down roots.

The wall is made of adobe bricks and was found in the antechamber of a public building believed to be a ceremonial hall. The building was remodeled and built up over the years until it reached an area of 9400 square feet. The structure faced Vichama’s agricultural fields in the Huaura Valley.

Vichama was an urban center of the Norte Chico civilization, the oldest in the Americas, which thrived in the coastal area of north-central Peru from around 3500 B.C. to 1800 B.C. Caral was the largest and oldest of Norte Chico’s settlements and may have been the oldest city in the Americas. Vichama was built in the last period of development of the Norte Chico culture.

Its remains were first unearthed in 2007 when the modern-day city of Végueta threatened to expand into the archaeological zone. Cultural heritage officials and the municipality made a deal to keep the site safe and thoroughly explore it. Excavations have been ongoing since then, and the unique art and architecture of Vichama attest to a major climate crisis that struck the area around 3,800 years ago. A succession of droughts lasting between 60 and 130 years caused widespread famine. Under too much pressure from famine and water scarcity, Caral was abandoned during the crisis. Vichama pulled through because it was just meters away from the ocean and was a major agricultural center as well, with fields extending the length and breadth of the right bank of the Huaura River. The combination of agriculture and fishing got its population through the hard times.

Archaeologist Ruth Shady, who oversees the site and announced the discovery, hypothesized that the serpents represent a water deity that irrigates the earth and makes seeds grow.

Shady said the relief was likely done towards the end of a drought and famine that the Caral civilization experienced. Other reliefs discovered nearby showed emaciated humans.

Archaeologists believe that the relief discovery reinforces the notion that these early humans were attempting to depict the difficulties they faced due to climate change and water scarcity, which had a large impact on their agricultural production.

This relief and other finds will be open to visitors on Friday, August 31st and Saturday, September 1st, the 11th anniversary of the start of excavations at the site.

On a side note, the gleeful face of the anthropormorphic seed reminds me that one of these years I have to make a set of emoticons for the blog that are pixel versions of highly expressive reliefs, masks, false heads, mummy portraits, mosaics, figurines, anything archaeological (and yes, of course that includes poop). I’ve come across enough pieces to ensure my archaeological emoticon team would be as diverse as it is educational.

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Buddha statue returned to India 57 years after theft

Friday, August 17th, 2018

A 12th century statue of the Buddha that was stolen from a museum in India 57 years ago has been found in London and is on its way back to India. The bronze statue with silver inlay was stolen from the Nalanda Archaeological Museum in eastern India in 1961, one of 14 important Buddha statues stolen in a single burglary.

Nalanda was the site of a Buddhist monastery that was a center of learning and pilgrimage from the 5th century until the early 13th when it was sacked by Mamluk armies. Monks came from all over Asia, as far east as Korea, to study the rigorous Vedic tradition of learning taught at the Nalanda monastery. After its sacking, the site fell into disuse and was gradually forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 19th century by the Archaeological Survey of India and subsequent excavations in the early 1900s revealed multiple monasteries, temples and artifacts, including the 14 sculptures of Buddha that would be stolen from the museum.

What happened to the statue between 1961 and 2018 is unknown. It reemerged from the penumbra this March at an antiquities trade fair in London. Lynda Albertson of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) and Vijay Kumar from the India Pride Project recognized it as one of the 14 looted Nalanda pieces and called the Metropolitan Police. The Met’s Art and Antique Unit investigated and confirmed its identity. The dealer and owner do not appear to have realized they were fencing stolen goods — the statue has passed through many hands over the six decades since the theft — and they cooperated with the investigation and returned the object willingly so there will be no charges pressed against them.

On Wednesday, August 15th, India’s Independence Day, the statue was returned to Indian High Commissioner YK Sinha in London in an official ceremony.

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3,000-year-old footprint of teen found in Turkey

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered a human footprint left 3,000 years ago at the ancient fortress of Van Castle in southeastern Turkey. The print of a right foot is just over 10 inches long, the equivalent of a modern-day men’s size 9 (US) or 42 (European), and belonged to a young man of the Iron Age Urartu civilization which dominated this region of Anatolia from the 9th through the 7th century B.C. This is the first time since excavations began in 2015 that a print directly linked to an Urartu individual has been found at the site.

Van Castle was built in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., the heyday of the Urartian kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of Van. The clifftop fortress overlooked the capital city of Tushpa but it was not a defensive installation. Rather it was an instrument of regional control, one of multiple such citadels built in Urartu territory. Van is the largest of them all.

The citadel was constructed of a basalt stone foundation with mud brick walls, and the houses within its walls and in Tushpa were also made of mud brick. Archaeologists believe the footprint was left in wet mudbrick during the construction of one of those homes, likely by a male between 13 and 15 years of age.

A plaster cast of the footprint was taken in situ to ensure the long-term protection and preservation of the print. The original print was raised for further examination in laboratory conditions. Anthropologists will study the structure of the foot in detail. Once the research is completed, the print and cast will be delivered to the Van museum.

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New findings confirm temple of Artemis site

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

The long-lost sanctuary of Artemis Amarynthia was discovered in 2017 after more than a century of searching and ten consecutive years of excavations by the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece. This season’s findings confirm that the archaeological remains discovered last year are indeed part of the important ancient temple complex located about six miles from the prosperous town of Eretria on the island of Euboea in central Greece.

The previously excavated buildings are two galleries that define the temple from the east and north, as well as a sacred fountain. […]

The research was focused on the central site of the sanctuary to reveal the ancient temple and the altar. Significant finds in 2018, such as a copper quartz figurine, part of a statue of Artemis and a new sculpture base bearing the names of Artemis, Apollo and Leto, as well as another base, strengthen the view that the temple is in this area and is expected to be identified in the coming years.

The Swiss and Greek archaeologists also investigated the remains of earlier building phases dating from the 10th to the 7th century BC, such as an elongated building over 20 meters in length, dating back to the Early Archaic period, and resting on an arched building.

The monumental Archaic building with its powerful pilasters built over the Geometric-era arched structure would have dominated the landscape of Amarynthos at that time. It’s not certain what this building was used for, if it was an early religious site dedicated to the worship of Artemis or had a different purpose altogether. It has some architectural features in common with the temple of Apollo Daphnephoros of Eretria, but the temple to Apollo in use from the late Archaic through the Hellenistic period at Amarynthos and believed to have been connected to the famed temple of Apollo at Delphi has been found in another location well to the west.

The sanctuary of Artemis was all but destroyed in the 1st century B.C., its religious significance diminished to nothingness. Recent discoveries suggest there may have been a renewal of religious worship at the site in the 2nd century A.D. but if so, it was of short duration. By the 3rd century, the temple of Artemis Amarynthia was permanently defunct.

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Octagonal tomb from Mongol era found in China

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed an octagonal tomb from the 14th century with murals in excellent condition in Yangquan, east central China. Seven of the eight walls of the tomb are painted with murals while the eighth is taken up by the entrance. There were no human remains found inside, nor were there any grave goods that might identify who was buried there. One of the murals, however, depicts a husband and wife who are believed to have been the tomb’s occupants.

Some of the murals show scenes of life in Mongol-ruled China. These include a band of musicians playing songs, tea being prepared, and horses and camels transporting people and goods, according to the paper.

Some of the people in the murals are shown wearing Mongol, rather than Chinese, fashion styles, the archaeologists noted. For instance, in one mural, a camel is being led by a man who “is wearing a soft hat with four edges, which was the traditional hat of northern nomadic tribes from ancient times,” the archaeologists wrote in the journal article.

“Mongol rulers issued a dress code in 1314 for racial segregation: Han Chinese officials maintained the round-collar shirts and folded hats, and the Mongolian officials wore clothes like long jackets and soft hats with four edges,” they wrote.

Two of the murals illustrated famous stories of filial piety, an important ethical precept in Confucianism of respect, care and deep empathic feeling for parents, elders and ancestors. These kinds of tales were collected in literary anthologies like The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. One of the murals depicts one of those 24 examples, the story of Guo Ju who decided to bury his own son alive so that their meager food supply would be sufficient to feed his mother. Guo Ju’s son was spared a terrible death when the father discovered a gold treasure in the hole he was digging for the grave.

The other filial piety-themed mural in the tomb takes the opposite approach to the same concept. Yuan Jue is the young son of a poverty-stricken family whose father decides to sacrifice Jue’s grandfather so that the rest of them will have enough food to survive a famine. Jue protests his father’s plan to leave his own father to die in the wilderness, insisting that should he go through with this cruel abandonment, Jue will do the same to him when the time comes. The father backs down and all of the family manages to pull through the famine.

The paintings are in very fine condition, with only architectural interruptions like a massive standing lamp built in to one of the walls. The pyramidal roof, painted with stars in the interior, has also made it from the Mongol era to the present in excellent fettle.

The tomb was first discovered in 2012 and published in Chinese four years later. That 2016 article has now been translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

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Pebble mosaic found in 4th c. BC Greek bathhouse

Monday, August 13th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered a pebble mosaic in a 4th century B.C. bathhouse in the ancient city of Ambrakia (modern-day Arta) in northwest Greece. The mosaic predates the bathhouse but matches it thematically, depicting animals and settings with connections to water.

Discovered during excavations of the Small Theater archaeological site, the mosaic adorns the floor of a circular space just northwest of the theater. It is more than 12 feet in diameter and was made using small white, off-white and dark river pebbles. The weren’t painted or treated, but shine from the natural polish imparted by untold aeons spent in the river current. Decorative accents were created using amber and red pebbles. One small section in the northwest section of the mosaic shows evidence of having been repaired in antiquity.

The mosaic is bounded by a spiral border one foot wide and in the center stars a five-tentacled octopus (pentapus?) with anime-large eyes. South of the cephalopod is a swan, wings spread as if attempting to take flight, with a rope around its neck that is held but a cupid figure standing on its right. In the southeast section is a dolphin with a cupid on its back. A female figure leads a swan in the west section, while in the northern section another cupid holds a swan by the leg. Also on the west side are two squirrels playing with something, toy or animal, that cannot be identified. To their right is a water fowl. The human figures have strips of amber pebbles over their torsos and arms, possibly representing scratches, and their lips are conveyed with pale yellow/cream pebbles. Facial features and details on the limbs are figured using very small pebbles.

A similar pebble mosaic floor was found under the eastern section of the theater in the 1970s. It also depicts winged cupids, swans and dolphins, but there are marked differences as well — the way the pebbles are embedded, the lack of color differences that convey dimension — which suggest it is older than the recently-discovered mosaic. It was raised in 1976 and moved the Archaeological Museum of Arta.

In a press statement, the Arta ephorate said the dating was based on architectural evidence and on comparisons with pebble mosaics found at the Ancient Corinth baths, dated to the mid-4th century.

The supervision of the excavations is carried out by archaeologist Nektarios-Petros Gioutsos and three conservators have already taken measures to preserve and stabilize the new find.

Arta, in western Greece, has been inhabited continuously from antiquity to the present, and the layered remains of older settlements are still visible in various parts of the present city. The Small Theater is situated in the center of the modern city.

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British Museum uncovers origin of looted objects, returns them to Iraq

Sunday, August 12th, 2018

Researchers at the British Museum solved a mystery both ancient and modern when they discovered the origin site of eight artifacts looted from Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Thanks to their efforts, the objects are now on their way back to Iraq.

The orphaned artifacts were in custody of the British Museum after having been seized in a police raid on a London antiquities dealer in May 2003. The dealer had no proof of ownership — I guess he hadn’t gotten around to forging a “Swiss private collection” document yet — or any other documentation about the artifacts, so they were confiscated by the authorities and were in storage for almost 15 years.

The cold case was heated up when the Metropolitan Police reformed its art and antiquities squad. The squad gave the objects to the British Museum this year in the hope that its experts might be able to figure out where the pieces came from so they could be repatriated. As it turned out, the British Museum was uniquely well-positioned to uncover the truth about these objects.

The eight artifacts consist of three fired clay cones with Sumerian cuneiform inscriptions, a fragment of a white gypsum mace-head inscribed in Sumerian, a polished river pebble with a cuneiform inscription in Sumerian, one red marble and one white marble stamp-seal amulet from the Jemdet Nasr period (ca. 3000 B.C.) in the form of a reclining sheep and one banded white chalcedony seal of a reclining sphinx from the Achaemenid period.

It was the three cones that gave the British Museum the information they needed to pinpoint the origin site. The all bore the identical Sumerian inscription, one that is also know from other inscribed ancient artifacts. It reads: “For Ningirsu, Enlil’s mighty warrior, Gudea, ruler of Lagash, made things function as they should (and) he built and restored for him his Eninnu, the White Thunderbird.” This inscription identified the cones as coming from the archaeological city of Girsu (modern-day Tello) in southern Iraq where the Eninnu temple once stood. The temple was sacred Eninnu’s patron god Ningirsu.

The great temple complex is in the Tell A area of Tello where ongoing excavations have found artifacts and remains elucidating the plan, size and design of the temple. Archaeologists from the British Museum have been excavating Tell A since 2016 as part of the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, a program set up in response to the IS destruction of cultural patrimony that trains staff from the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in the latest techniques of rescue archaeology. The initial survey of Tello in 2015 and 2016 found dozens of looter pits. They were shallow and appear to have been targeted, small-scale efforts probably done at night by a few individuals rather than the massive looting operations that ran roughshod over Iraq’s ancient sites in 2003.

The British Museum team at Tello found broken cones identical to those seized in London. Their shape was an imitation of tent pegs and they were originally placed in holes in the temple wall, offerings to the Sumerian Thunderbird, the lion-headed god who roared thunder and flashed lightning bolts from his body. That’s how the researchers were able to discover not just the site where the objects had been looted from, but the actual wall they had been inserted in originally.

On Friday, August 10th, the artifacts were officially returned to the Iraqi ambassador Salih Husain Ali in a ceremony at the British Museum.

Iraqi ambassador Salih Husain Ali … said the protection of antiquities was an international responsibility and praised the British Museum and its staff “for their exceptional efforts in the process of identifying and returning looted antiquities to Iraq. Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation of Iraqi heritage.”

St John Simpson, the assistant keeper at the Middle East department of the museum, said: “Uniquely we could trace them not just to the site but to within inches of where they were stolen from. This is a very happy outcome, nothing like this has happened for a very, very long time if ever.”

They will be returned to the national museum in Baghdad and reunited with many objects from the recent excavations, and may eventually be loaned to a museum near the site.

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