Archive for December, 2018

Bones of 5,750-year-old baby found in Argentina

Friday, December 21st, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the skeletal remains of a prehistoric infant in Ciudad de Mendoza, western Argentina. Researchers from the Natural Science Department of the National University of Cuyo discovered the bones unexpectedly when looking for the sterile layer of a previous dig in the archaeological region known as the Niño de las Cuevas (the child of the caves). It was given that moniker after the remains of a young child between three and five years old at time of death were found there in 2015. That’s the excavation the University of Cuyo was following up on when they encountered the bones of a second child in the same archaeological layer as and just a few feet away from the first.

The team unearthed a circle of carbonaceous sediment whose black color and texture was markedly different from the reddish clay of the site. Researchers first thought it was part of a hearth, so the excavation proceeded in a different manner than over the rest of the grid, with thin, delicate tools like brushes instead of more aggressive digging tools. After removing an inch of sediment, they found fragments of a tiny jaw. The dimensions made it clear that this was the jaw of an infant.

When the burial was cleared, the full funerary structure was revealed, a circle just under a foot wide with the remains placed inside on the red clay layer. Because it was found at the same archaeological layer as the child discovered in 2015, it’s likely to date to around the same time: 5,750 years ago. The latest discovery is smaller, however, so died younger.

The dig began less than two weeks ago on December 10th. One team member is still clearing the burial. Materials and remains will be analyzed and catalogued by the Human Paleoecology Laboratory. The bones of the infant will be radiocarbon tested so we know their age from direct examination. Stable isotope analysis will also be performed to discover where the child was from. Researchers will also attempt to determine the baby’s age, gender and cause of death.

Until the beginning of these studies there was only archaeological information related to the period of Inca domination (especially on a sacrifice of a child that was deposited in a high sanctuary located in the Aconcagua). Finding a skeleton was not expected by the group, since very few human skeletal remains had been discovered in high altitude environments. The result of the radiocarbon dating done on a fragment of one of its bones by AMS was also a surprise. The date obtained gives this individual an age of 5750 years. It is the oldest in the province of Mendoza and corresponds to a period in which the climatic conditions were more favorable to the current ones (a little warmer and wetter) in the mountain range according to pollen studies.

The regional archaeological information allows us to propose that the society from which this individual came had a hunter-gatherer economy and a band-like social organization. Surely it was small groups (between 30 and 50 people) that moved throughout the year, from lowlands to highlands and vice versa, to obtain the meat of animals that hunted (especially guanacos — Lama guanicoe) and vegetables that they collected.

“Having found this infant burial, it can be ascertained that it was the entire family group that moved (men, women and children) and that it is likely that the mountain range where it was left was part of a larger territory, a space of seasonal occupation to which it recurred,” said [anthropologist Víctor] Durán. Knowing where these ancient mountaineers came from and specifying aspects of their way of life is one of the major challenges of the research group. This new finding will allow expanding the ongoing studies that have placed the town of Las Cuevas in a position of great importance within the Archeology of the province and the country.”


Collapsing cliffs reveal exceptional dino tracks

Thursday, December 20th, 2018

Dozens of dinosaur footprints from multiple dinosaur species, the most diverse group of Cretaceous fossils ever discovered in the UK, have been found near Hastings on the coast of Sussex. More than 85 footprints from at least seven species (there are 13 different shapes but some were made by the same species) were identified by University of Cambridge researchers between 2014 and 2018, exposed by erosion of the cliffs after severe storms.

The prints range in size from less than inch to 24 inches across. They date to the Lower Cretaceous, left between 145 and 100 million years ago by herbivores and carnivores alike. There are prints from iguanodontians, an ankylosaur, an unknown species of stegosaur, likely sauropods and theropods. They are in such exceptional condition that the shapes and textures of skin, scales and claws are visible to the naked eye.

Look at this amazing iguanodontian claw. It’s like someone took a plaster cast of the fellow’s toe to make a realistic prosthetic.

The Hastings area is famed for its fossils. The first Iguanodon was discovered there in 1825; more recently the first fossilized dinosaur brain tissue was found in 2016. It is one of the richest sources of dinosaur fossils in the UK, but fossilized tracks are rare. While some dinosaur footprints have been spotted along its cliffs before, none of them were this varied, complex and well-preserved.

Even though dinosaur footprints may not have the drama of whole-body fossils, they can give scientists a lot more information about the way dinosaurs actually lived and interacted than their mineralized bones alone can.

“To preserve footprints, you need the right type of environment,” said [study co-author Dr. Neil] Davies. “The ground needs to be ‘sticky’ enough so that the footprint leaves a mark, but not so wet that it gets washed away. You need that balance in order to capture and preserve them.”

“As well as the large abundance and diversity of these prints, we also see absolutely incredible detail,” said [study co-author Anthony] Shillito. “You can clearly see the texture of the skin and scales, as well as four-toed claw marks, which are extremely rare.

“You can get some idea about which dinosaurs made them from the shape of the footprints – comparing them with what we know about dinosaur feet from other fossils lets you identify the important similarities. When you also look at footprints from other locations you can start to piece together which species were the key players.”

The footprints have revealed new information. There are prints from a dinosaur species not previously known to have inhabited the area during the Lower Cretaceous. Researchers also find the imprint of small plants growing inside the footprints, evidence of how dinosaurs effected this environment, giving plants a nice, watery trough in which to grow.

The study has been published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.


Discovering Caravaggio’s Saint Catherine

Wednesday, December 19th, 2018

One of the greatest masterpieces in the collection of Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza is Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Michelangelo Merisi, also known as Caravaggio. Commissioned by his early patron Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte around 1598, Saint Catherine is depicted in luxurious Renaissance garb kneeling next to the spiked breaking wheel that was supposed to kill her, the sword that did kill her after the former broke upon her touch and the martyr’s palm, all symbols of her martyrdom.

This painting and another commissioned by del Monte, The Lute Player, now in the Wildenstein Collection, are set in the same type of rooms as earlier works like The Fortune Teller and The Cardsharps, but the background walls are much more dense and inky tones, the scuro half of the chiaroscuro effect that would become so inextricably associated with Caravaggio’s genius. The strong directional light illuminating Catherine’s face and upper body is the chiaro bit. He upped the contrast in this piece, using the light flesh tones and white blouse to make Saint Catherine stand out in the penumbra, creating dimension and depth.

Saint Catherine has been part of the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza’s collection since 1934 when it was bought at a gallery in Lucerne after one of the Barberini family’s patrimony fire sales. Museum conservators have just completed a complex program of study, cleaning and restoration of the painting, returning to Catherine the full impact of Caravaggio’s mastery of light and shadow.

The primary focus of the work was the removal of many layers of varnish added to the work over the centuries. To ensure that original was preserved, microsamples of the paint were taken and analyzed to identify the materials Caravaggio used and assess their condition. Macrophotographs, raking light examination, X-rays and infrared reflectography were all used to reveal previously unseen details of the artist’s composition and technique. For example, raking light illuminated incisions in the first paint layer, a method Caravaggio used to figure out where to place the volumes (shapes, curves, lines) of the composition.

Conservators also discovered that Catherine’s dress started out red before the artist painted a dark charcoal grey over it. X-rays showed that Caravaggio changed his mind on hand placement too, as the saint’s left hand is veritably bristling with fingers underneath the top layer. The wheel is different as well, but that wasn’t a change in plan. Caravaggio drew the complete wheel first to make sure it would fit before painting over it to create the break representing Catherine’s miraculous destruction of the means of her martyrdom.

The deep blue of the robes was created by combining lapis lazuli, azurite grains, cochineal red, charcoal black, lead white and earth pigments. The lapis in particular was a very expensive ingredient, evidence of the financial support he got from the Cardinal.

Discovering Caravaggio. Technical study and restoration of Saint Catherine of Alexandria is now on display at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. The restoration is as much of a part of the exhibition as the masterpiece itself.

The show includes X-ray images and infrared reflectograms which illustrate the most interesting aspects of the work performed, explain the methods used, and attest to the excellent quality of the painting. It also features a video of the entire restoration process, the most significant discoveries, and interesting details of the painting.

With this exhibition the Museum, aware of the interest aroused by restoration work, sets out to familiarise visitors with the working methods used by restorers, who are essential to deciding on the most appropriate treatments in each case and a source of important information for art historians. Knowledge of the techniques and materials used by artists is essential to be able to decide on which processes to use to halt the deterioration of artworks. Discovering the most intimate aspects of artistic creation furthermore provides an insight into the artist’s mind and period, as well as better-grounded arguments for understanding the creative process.

The exhibition is a short one, just six months long. It opened December 17th and closes May 26th, 2019.


4,500-year-old stone circle recorded by archaeologists

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

A recumbent stone circle in Aberdeenshire that has been known to locals since it was erected thousands of years ago has been identified and recorded by archaeologists for the first time. This type of circle, characterized by a large horizontal stone placed (hence “recumbent”) between two upright stones, is unique to northeast Scotland. They were built around 3,500-4,500 years ago and are well-known features of the landscape, which is why it’s so unusual to find one that has never been documented by archaeologists. If it had been in ruins, obscured by the landscape and hard to see on the surface it would explain how professionals didn’t know about it, but this one is complete, intact and perched on a well-maintained hill.

It stands on farmland in the parish of Leochel-Cushnie and it was a member of one of the families that have been farming in the area for generations, Fiona Bain, who alerted the Aberdeenshire Council’s Archaeology Service to the existence of the stone circle.

Neil Ackerman, Historic Environment Record Assistant at Aberdeenshire Council, visited the site along with Adam Welfare, Alison McCaig and Katrina Gilmour from Historic Environment Scotland (Survey and Recording).

While fitting the Recumbent Stone Circle model, this is a slightly unusual example, they say.

Describing the monument, Mr Welfare said: “In numbering ten stones it fits the average, but its diameter is about three metres smaller than any known hitherto and it is unusual in that all the stones are proportionately small.

“It is orientated SSW and enjoys a fine outlook in that direction, while the rich lichen cover on the stones is indicative of the ring’s antiquity.”

Mr Ackerman added: “This amazing new site adds to our knowledge of these unique monuments and of the prehistoric archaeology of the area. It is rare for these sites to go unidentified for so long, especially in such a good condition.”


Tudor coin hoard goes on display

Monday, December 17th, 2018

A hoard of silver coins minted during the reigns of Henry VIII and all of his children has gone on display in the Ludlow Museum at The Buttercross in Shropshire. The coins were discovered by three metal detectorists in November of 2015 who reported their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The hoard was declared treasure and after a campaign that secured funding from the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Headley Trust and Friends of Ludlow Museum, in 2018 it was acquired by the Shropshire Museum Service.

The hoard is a small one of just 20 coins, likely the contents of a single purse. The finders noted that the coins were found close together in the top soil, evidence that they had spent most of their underground life in a container before being scattered and the container lost or degraded beyond recognition. The coins are sterling silver, following the standard for coinage of their era. One of them is a fragment of a coin from the late reign of Henry VIII or to the beginning of the one of his son Edward VI, struck in posthumous honor of Henry VIII. Some of the breaks are modern, suggesting there may be more of the broken coin at the find site.

The rest are intact and in similar condition of wear and corrosion. Several bear diagonal scratch marks left during an attempt at cleaning. They were probably individually selected by the collector to match the patina. The pattern of wear and tear on the coins suggest they were in circulation at the same time and little wonder given how high the Tudor turnover was between the end of Henry VIII’s reign and the beginning of Elizabeth I’s. They were all struck between 1544 and 1561 during the reigns of Henry VIII, (1509-47) Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary I (1553-1554), Mary I and Philip of Spain (1554-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

The fragment is a silver groat of Henry VIII/Edward VI, one silver shilling of Edward VI (1551-53), five silver groats of Mary (1553-54), five silver shillings of Mary and Philip (1554-58), two silver groats of Mary and Philip, five silver shillings of Elizabeth I and one silver groat of Elizabeth I. The date of the most recent coin in the hoard suggests it went to ground during or shortly after 1561. After four monarchs in 11 years, there would have been little reason to expect Elizabeth’s reign to be as long and stable as it became. In times of political turmoil, cash tends to get hidden.

The hoard has a face value of 14 shillings (or the equivalent of a labourer’s salary for around three weeks).

Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison officer, British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, said: “Hoards such as these are not uncommon and this example being found outside the historic town of Ludlow is evidence of its rich and powerful past. Ludlow was an important place in the 16th century, being a royal centre — Prince Arthur, 1st son of Henry VIII died in Ludlow castle in 1502. Such small caches as these are probably either purse losses, or possible secretly stashed money deliberately hidden and never recovered.”

The coins can be seen at the Ludlow Museum on Friday, Saturday and Sunday between 10AM and 4PM. Entry is a token £1 for adults.


Study rewrites the natural history of corn

Sunday, December 16th, 2018

A new study of corn’s DNA and archaeology has rewritten the natural history of its domestication and how it spread through the Americas.

For years, geneticists and archaeologists have deduced that teosinte’s transformation into maize began in the tropical lowlands of what is now southern Mexico about 9,000 years ago. The teosinte that grows wild in this region today is more genetically similar to maize than teosinte elsewhere in Mexico and Central America—though all remain separated from the domesticated crop by hundreds of genes.

In the southwest Amazon and coastal Peru, microscopic pollen and other resilient plant remains found in ancient sediments indicate a history of fully domesticated maize use by around 6,500 years ago, and researchers initially reasoned that the fully domesticated plant must have been carried there from the north as people migrated south and across the Americas.

“As far as we could tell before conducting our study, it looked like there was a single domestication event in Mexico and that people then spread it further south after domestication had taken place,” [Curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History Logan] Kistler said.

But a few years ago, when geneticists sequenced the DNA of 5,000-year-old maize found in Mexico, the story got more complicated. The genetic results showed that what they had found was a proto-corn — its genes were a mixture of those found in teosinte and those of the domesticated plant. According to the ancient DNA, that plant lacked teosinte’s tough kernel casings, but this proto-corn had not yet acquired other traits that eventually made maize into a practical food crop.

“But you’ve got continuous cultivation of maize in the southwest Amazon from 6,500 years ago all the way up through European colonization,” Kistler said. “How can you have this flourishing, fully domesticated maize complex in the southwest Amazon, and meanwhile, near the domestication center in Mexico the domestication process is still ongoing?”

Kistler, lead author of the study, and his multidisciplinary team reconstructed the evolutionary history of maize by comparing the DNA of more than 100 varieties of corn. It was broader in scope than any previous study, covering 40 varieties that had never been genetically sequenced before. Many of the different types of corn were collected by indigenous farmers and are preserved in Brazil’s Embrapa genebank. The modern corn was compared to 11 archaeological examples, nine of which have been newly sequenced for this study.

The results at first seemed contradictory, pointing in so many directions that researchers had to trace carefully to make sense of the data. As so often happens in natural history, the answer to the question of where maize was first domesticated and how it spread is that there is no one place, but several. When the genetic connections between the plants were fully mapped, researchers found multiple lineages each overlapping with teosinte to a different degree.

A proto-corn in the midst of becoming domesticated appears to have reached South America at least twice, Kistler said. By 6,500 years ago, the partially domesticated plant had arrived in a region of the southwest Amazon that was already a domestication hotspot, where people were growing rice, cassava and other crops. The plant was likely adopted as part of the local agriculture and continued to evolve under human influence until, thousands of years later, it became a fully domesticated crop. From there, domesticated maize moved eastward as part of an overall expansion and intensification of agriculture that archaeologists have noted in the region. By around 4,000 years ago, Kistler said, maize had spread widely through the South American lowlands. Genetic and archaeological evidence also align to suggest that maize cultivation expanded eastward a second time, from the foothills of the Andes toward the Atlantic, about 1,000 years ago. Today, traces of that history exist in the Macro-Jê languages spoken near the Atlantic coast, which use an Amazonian word for maize. […]

“This work fundamentally changes our understanding of maize origins,” said study co-author Robin Allaby from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick. “It shows that maize did not have a simple origin story, that it did not really form the crop as we know it until it left its homeland.”


Egypt unveils finely-decorated intact 4,400-year-old tomb

Saturday, December 15th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed an intact tomb from the 5th Dynasty in the necropolis of Saqquara that is replete with exceptional statuary and painted reliefs. Discovered 16 feet under a buried ridge, the entrance to the tomb was carved with a hieroglyphic inscription included the name and titles of the deceased: Wahtye, royal purification priest, royal supervisor, and inspector of the sacred boat under Pharaoh Neferirkare Kakai (reigned ca. 2446–2438 B.C.), the third king of the 5th Dynasty.

[Minister Khaled]Anany explained that the discovered tomb is exceptionally well-preserved and painted, with walls decorated with colourful scenes, showing royal priest “Wahtye” with his mother, wife and family as well as a number of sanctuaries with large colored statues of the priest and his family.

“It is the most beautiful tomb discovered this year” Anany said.

Secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the head of the excavation mission, Mostafa Waziri, said that the mission uncovered the tomb’s facade during its second excavation season in November, but was unable to enter it at that time because the doors were sealed.

Once past a narrow passageway, archaeologists entered a rectangular gallery 33 feet long, ten feet wide and just under ten feet high. Its advanced age is belied by the vivid color in the painted wall reliefs and on the many statues found inside the chamber. There are 18 large niches containing 24 painted statues of the priest and his family. On the lower part of the wall are 26 small niches with 31 statues of people standing or seated in the scribe position. They are all very similar, not to say identical, in facial features, so it’s possible they may represent a single individual, another priest or family member, yet to be identified.

In addition to statues and scenes depicting the Wahtye family, there are scenes of people engaged in their daily work — making pottery and wine, playing music, sailing boats, hunting, manufacturing funerary furniture and engaging in other religious rituals.

As exceptional as the decoration and condition are, the tomb will likely stun us further. The last of the debris was removed from the main room of the tomb on Thursday revealing five shafts within. One of them was unsealed and empty. The other four are still sealed, shut tight against thieves and the elements for 4,400 years. Archaeologists hope to find cool stuff inside when they start excavating the shafts on Sunday, with one shaft looking particularly promising.


Prized papyrus declared a forgery

Friday, December 14th, 2018

An ostensibly ancient document attributed to Greek geographer Artemidorus of Ephesos has been conclusively declared a fake after an extensive investigation by the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The ownership record was nebulous, a sadly common state of affairs for most of the papyri bought on the antiquities market. The claim was that the fragments of papyrus were part of a roll of random discarded documents that had been crumpled up together to stuff something, maybe an animal mummy. It was purported to have been acquired in the first half of the 20th century by Saiyd Khashaba Pasha and then lost or sold after World War II. It was exported out of Egypt legally in 1971 and imported into Germany by antiquities dealer Serop Simonian. The roll was unwrapped in Germany in the early 1980s and 200 document fragments were revealed, 50 of them from a single document.

It was puzzled back together and published in 1998. The recto consisted of three columns of prose, two drawings of bearded heads, 23 drawings of hands, feet and heads and a small section of a map. The verso was covered by more than 40 drawings of animals, each one named, and two more columns of prose.

The map alone was priceless, the most ancient extant one from the Greco-Roman world and the only one found on papyrus. The quantity and quality of the drawings are unique among papyri. The prose is an oddly convoluted discussion of geography. Fourteen lines significantly overlaps a surviving fragment of text by pioneering geographer Artemidorus of Ephesos who was one of the main sources used by later geographers and historians like Strabo and Pliny the Elder whose works have survived. The works of Artemidorus are largely lost, surviving only in quotations from the works of later authors.

In 2004, it was acquired by the Compagnia San Paolo Art Foundation, the non-profit foundation of Turin’s Banco di San Paolo, for 2.75 million euros ($3,369,850). The fragments were sent to the Laboratoria di Papirologia of the State University of Milan for additional study and conservation. The foundation wanted to donate it to Turin’s famed Egyptian Museum, the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Egypt, but the then-director of the museum, Eleni Vassilika objected strenuously. She didn’t trust its provenance. To be more specific, she knew for a fact that Simonian trafficked in fakes having dealt with his shenanigans when she was director of the Hildesheim museum. She also knew that he had a nasty history of smuggling artifacts in through Switzerland, going so far as to saw the larger ones to make them easier to conceal in shipment.

Her superiors disagreed. Many prestigious, reputable experts attributed the papyrus to Ardemidorus of Ephesos. Radiocarbon testing found the papyrus dated to between 15 and 85 A.D. and the ink was judged consistent with the types produced in the 1st century. The issue was far from decided. Scholars continued to debate its authenticity. Luciano Canfora proposed in several papers, books and articles published from 2007 onwards that it was a fraud perpetrated by notorious 19th century forger Constantine Simonides. His contentions were hotly debated by scholars who pointed to the C14 dating of the papyrus and authentic-seeming stylistic elements as evidence of it being a real 1st century document, albeit an idiosyncratic one.

A 2013 publication by Canfora caught the attention of the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office which initiated an investigation in 2013. Five years later, the investigation has concluded that the preponderance of the evidence points indicates that the Artemidorus Papyrus is indeed a fake. The ink from the drawings, previously untested out of preservation concerns, is much more recent than the 1st century. The papyrus shows signs of having been placed on a zinc metal screen and then subjected to treatment with acids that transferred the zinc.

The documentation tracing its recent history — the legal export authorization from Egypt dated April 1971 in which it is destribed as “paper bag with partial images in gold,” the German government’s release of the papyrus at the time of the 2004 sale describing it as being nothing of value to cultural patrimony — dismisses it as worthless. Egypt appraised its market value as 20 lire.

Unfortunately nothing will come of this finding beyond a few red faces. The statute of limitations has long since expired, so the foundation is out 2.75 million euros and Serop Simonian will get off scott free.


Tiny Celtic god found at Wimpole Estate

Thursday, December 13th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed a tiny figurine of a Celtic god on the grounds of the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire. The Lamp Hill site was being excavated before construction of a new visitor center and parking lot on the National Trust property. Oxford Archaeology East started the dig in July and over the next three months discovered a Late Iron Age to Early Roman (ca. 100 B.C. – 150 A.D.) settlement that was much more extensive than they expected. There were dense layers of remains — livestock enclosures, agriculture, pottery making, homes — representing the variety of uses the land had been put to in antiquity.

Even with 19th century coprolite mining having damaged the center of the settlement, towards the outer edge of it archaeologists found two roundhouses, a corn dryer and a broken pot indicating that pottery was produced there. There was also imported pottery, fragments of a glass vessel and metalwork that suggest there was a significant trading network supplying Wimpole with goods. Military objects seem to have been particularly desirable. The settlement was rural, but it was located close to the Roman road known as Ermine Street (a derivative of its Old English name; the Roman name is unknown), which ran from London’s Bishopgate through Lincoln to York.

Approximately 300 metal objects were found during the excavation, including coins, horse harness fittings, Roman army uniform fittings, weapons, jewelry and iron nails. The stand-out metal piece is a copper alloy figurine two inches high. While the face has worn off, the individual is posed holding a torc, a posture typical of figures representing the Celtic fertility god Cernunnos.

Similar figures of Cernunnos have been found carved in stone, but it is the first metal version to be discovered in Britain and shows strong links between the ancient people of Britain and the Roman legionnaires.

Stephen Macaulay, Deputy Regional Manager at Oxford Archaeology East, which carried out the excavation, said: “The face of the figurine has been rubbed away, but we see similar figures of Cernunnos, so it’s like finding a worn version of Jesus on a crucifix, it’s the shape you expect to see.

“He was an important God to the Celts, but this shows how accepting the Romans were of other religions, they often just merged the Gods with their own. The Romans really ran their empire like the British did, they would conquer and then reinstate the people who had already been in charge.

“The Wimpole story is interesting as it gives us a snapshot of local people living alongside the legionnaires as they travelled up and down the country along Ermine Street.”

The objects unearthed in this summer’s dig are being cleaned and conserved. They will be placed on display at Wimpole in future exhibitions.


1,500-year-old flax wick uncovered

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018

Researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority have uncovered a Byzantine-era lamp wick. At 1,500 years old, it is one of the oldest wicks of very few known to have survived. It was found at the ancient Byzantine site of Shivta south of Be’er Sheva, the flax material preserved by the arid climate of the Negev desert.

The wick was unearthed 85 years ago by American archaeologist Harris Dunscombe Colt who excavated Shivta in 1933-34. The ruins were first recorded in the 1860s and Leonard Woolley and his assistant T.E. Lawrence took detailed plans of the site in 1914-15, but Colt’s expedition was the first systematic archaeological exploration of the site. The city has elements of Nabatean influence, primarily their characteristic desert management irrigation and agricultural techniques found at a farm next to the urban site. Aside from a few 1st century B.C. Roman structures, the archaeological remains in the city itself — churches, wine presses, homes, government buildings — are Byzantine.

Only a brief report on the Shivta dig in the 1935 issue of Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly was ever published. The artifacts are now being studied for the first time as part of the Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program, a comprehensive examination of Byzantine settlements in the Negev led by University of Haifa professors. The wick was sent to the Israel Antiquities Authority laboratory for analysis last year.

Dr. Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who studied the wick says: “It seems that this rare find was preserved thanks to the dry climate in the Negev. Oil lamps played a key role in daily life in antiquity, illuminating homes and public buildings after sunset. Lamps made of pottery or glass are often found in archaeological excavations, but to find a wick from ancient times is rare. That’s because they’re made of organic fibers, which normally disintegrate quickly and disappear into the soil, as well as because they are so small and are usually consumed by fire.”

The wick was found in its holder – a small copper tube in which it was inserted when it was lit. Microscopic examination by Dr. Sukenik showed that the wick was made of linen, which comes from the flax plant and is known for its use in textiles and clothing as well as for wicks in oil lamps.

“The Mishnah [, the main book of Jewish legal theory], tractate Shabbat discusses what materials may and may not be used as wicks to light Sabbath lamps. There too, linen is mentioned as a high-quality material for wicks, because it burns long and beautifully. The Mishnah mentions other wicks, which were made of lesser quality materials and were therefore prohibited for use in Sabbath lamps. Among these were fibers made from the plant called Sodom’s apple, which to this day grows in the Dead Sea area. It seems that the inhabitants of Shivta also chose to light their public buildings with linen wicks. Because flax doesn’t grow in the Negev it probably came from farther north in the country through commerce,” Dr. Sukenik added.

This wick was made of lower quality flax fibers. It was just a few centimeters long and meant to be consumed by fire, so might as well use the cheaper linen. The longer, more expensive fibers were saved for making clothes. It would have been used in a glass lamp, a simple cup or bowl filled with oil that was slurped up by the linen and provide fuel for the light.

The wick in its bronze carrier and other artifacts unearthed by Colt and his team at Shivta will go on display at the Hecht Museum in Haifa staring January 24th, 2019.





December 2018


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