Lahun pyramid opens to public

Egypt has opened the 4,000-year-old Pyramid of Lahun to the public for the first time. The mud-brick pyramid near the city of Faiyum was built for 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senusret II who had done extensive works expanding water access and arable land in Faiyum during his reign (1897-1878 B.C.). He moved the royal necropolis to Lahun and built a workers’ quarter to house the people employed in the construction of the pyramid complex.

The pyramid was first excavated by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1889. The pyramid’s contents had been thoroughly looted by then (Flinders Petrie actually found the royal burial chamber via a tunnel dug by tomb raiders and only discovered the actual entrance by working backwards from there), but he did discover a gold and inlay royal uraeus in a flooded chamber, a piece of pharaonic regalia lost by the plunderers on their way out.

There are several unique features about this pyramid. Old and Middle Kingdom tombs typically placed the entrance on the north face, hidden behind a chapel. Senusret II had the chapel built in the usual location, but it concealed no entrance. Instead, the entrance corridor wasn’t in the pyramid; it was a vertical shaft under the tomb of a princess’ tomb 36 feet east of the pyramid’s south face. This was done to deter grave robbers, alas to little avail.

The pyramid was originally clad in white limestone with a black granite pyramidion topper. Some fragments of the latter have been found, but the limestone was stripped and reused for another construction project by 19th Dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II. Thousands of years of harsh elements did not improve its condition and extensive conservation had to be done to make it safe for visitors.

“The conservation work includes the removal of debris found inside the pyramid’s corridors and burial chamber and installing wooden stairs to facilitate its entrance,” Mostafa Waziri, General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in a statement.

“It also includes re-installing the fallen stones in the hall and corridor to its original location after restoration, as well as restoring the deteriorated stones of its floor and installing a new lighting system.”

First undisturbed Roman shipwreck found in Cyprus

The first undisturbed Roman shipwreck ever found in Cyprus has been discovered off the coast of Protaras. The resort town of Protaras is famed for its diving and is reputed to have some of the best dive sites in the eastern Mediterranean. It was two divers who found the wreck, volunteers for the University of Cyprus’ Maritime Archaeological Research Laboratory (MARELab). They notified the Department of Antiquities which quickly raised the funds for an archaeological exploration of the site.

It is the wreck of a Roman merchant vessel carrying a large cargo of amphorae. The ship is believed to have originated in Syria and Cilicia. The undisturbed field of amphorae and any other remains of the ship will shed new light on the history of maritime trade between Cyprus and the rest of the Mediterranean provinces during the Roman era.

A team of MARELab archaeologists, students and volunteers is now thoroughly documenting the wreck.

Drought reveals Bronze Age palace in Iraq

Drought has revealed a 3,400-year-old palace from the little-known Mittani Empire at the site of Kemune in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The remains were covered by the waters of the Tigris in the Mosul Dam reservoir until last autumn when low water levels exposed the mud-brick walls of a large structure. Archaeologists from the University of Tübingen and the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization (KAO) in cooperation with the Duhok Directorate of Antiquities sprang into action and launched an emergency salvage operation to excavate the remains.

The area has been submerged since the Mosul Dam was built in the 1980s making archaeological exploration nigh on impossible. Archaeologists knew there was a Mittani city at Kemune because receding waters in 2010 had exposed a few remains, including a Mittani cuneiform tablet and sections of red and blue wall paintings, but they weren’t able to fully explore the site. Last year’s drought gave the team a window of opportunity to excavate Kemune for the first time. 

Beautifully situated overlooking the Tigris Valley, the palace that is now underwater was built on a terrace above the river. The eastern bank of the Tigris was 65 feet from its wall. A massive mud-brick terrace was built against the palace’s west side as a sort of giant retaining wall to keep the grand building stable on the sloping riverbank.

As Ivana Puljiz of the Tübingen Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) reports, the site shows a carefully designed building with massive interior mud-brick walls up to two meters thick. She says some walls are more than two meters high and some of the rooms have plastered walls. “We have also found remains of wall paintings in bright shades of red and blue,” Puljiz says. “In the second millennium BCE, murals were probably a typical feature of palaces in the Ancient Near East, but we rarely find them preserved. So discovering wall paintings in Kemune is an archaeological sensation.” 

The palace ruins are preserved to a height of some seven meters. Two phases of usage are clearly visible, Puljiz says, indicating that the building was in use for a very long time. Inside the palace, the team identified several rooms and partially excavated eight of them. In some areas, they found large fired bricks which were used as floor slabs. Ten Mittani cuneiform clay tablets were discovered and are currently being translated and studied by the philologist Dr. Betina Faist (University of Heidelberg). One of the tablets indicates that Kemune was most probably the ancient city of Zakhiku, which is mentioned in one Ancient Near Eastern source as early as the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BC). This indicates the city must have existed for at least 400 years. Future text finds will hopefully show whether this identification is correct.

The Mittani Empire ruled the northern Tigris-Euphrates territory from around 1475-1275 B.C., although its power declined sharply after 1350 B.C. when the Mittani kings became vassals of the Assyrian Empire. Its history, chronology, rulers, conflicts and alliances are known almost entirely from non-native sources — Egyptian, Hittite and Assyrian — and from a few surviving inscriptions. Most Mittani archaeological material has been unearthed from only three ancient sites — Tell Brak (Syria), Nuzi and Alalakh (Iraq) — that were minor towns at the edge of the empire. The discovery of a major structure like this palace, complete with cuneiform tablets, is of enormous archaeological significance. 

Bronze Age mace head found in Poland

A Bronze Age mace head found near the town of Dukla in southeastern Poland may be the oldest non-local artifact ever discovered in Poland. It was unearthed by metal detectorists on June 1st and its advanced age and unusual provenance was recognized by an archaeologist called to the scene. 

Krzysztof Wiśniewski, a truck driver at the open pit mine, is a member of the Galicja Exploration and Historical Association, a group of metal detector enthusiasts who organize search campaigns with all proper permits issued by the government. This campaign was seeking artifacts dating to the Second World War as there was believed to have been battles in the area during the German invasion in September 1939. They found some remains from World War I — a British uniform button, Austro-Hungarian buckle — a few shells and coins from the World War II era, but nothing particularly notable.

Then Wiśniewski saw a bronze object sticking out of the ground. At first he thought it was part of a candlestick or maybe a knob that had broken off some agricultural machine. When he went in for a closer look, however, he noticed the patina looked older. Others from the group crowded around to look at the piece, being careful not to touch it while they considered what it might be. They then called in Dr. Wojciech Pasterkiewicz from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Rzeszów to examine the find in situ.

Even the expert was stumped by the find. He could think of no comparable artifacts found in Poland. Regional archaeological authorities were notified and a team of archaeologists dispatched to the find site for a more thorough excavation and exploration. Metal detectorists helped cover more ground in the area. Nothing else was found, making this one unique prehistoric object not just the stand-out artifact, but pretty much the only one there.

After researching the artifact, Dr. Pasterkiewicz believes it is a Bronze Age mace head dating to around 1000 B.C. No similar pieces have been found in Poland before, but there are comparable items found in the Middle East and other parts of Europe. A mace head from the Luristan region of western Iran dating to 1600-1000 B.C. with a similar albeit less pointy star-shaped design sold at auction last year. The best stylistic match is a late Bronze Age Hallstatt A culture mace head found near Cherkasy in central Ukraine. It dates to between 1200 and 1000 B.C.

The mace head would have been hafted to a wooden handle and used as a bludgeoning weapon or as a symbol of authority. How it made its way to southeastern Poland is unknown. 

“The Dukla Pass is a convenient low-ground passageway through the Carpathian mountains from current-day Slovakia to Poland so it is no surprise that a foreign army may have moved along it in the distant past,” Pasterkiewicz speculated.

“It could have simply been lost, or maybe it was used in battle,” he added.

Given the lack of any other prehistoric materials at the find site and how shallow its burial, I’m not sure the idea of a foreign Bronze Age army marching through Dukla is the likeliest explanation. It seems more of an una tantum, perhaps something lost much later by a collector. Or hell, maybe the archaeologists got it all the way wrong and it really is a tap or a handle or a valve dial.

By Polish law, archaeological artifacts are property of the state while finders and landowners receive a finder’s fee. The Dukla mace head will be analyzed for metal content which might tell us the origin of the ore and a date range for its casting. Once it has been studied, it will go on display in a museum in Rzeszów.

Ruby Slippers conserved, reunited

The iconic Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in the 1939 cinematic classic The Wizard of Oz now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) have been conserved using funds raised in a Kickstarter campaign. The fundraiser was launched on October 17th, 2016, with a goal of $300,000. More 5,300 leapt at the chance to help revive the shoes and the goal was reached in less than a week.

In the two and a half years since the Kickstarter, backers have been getting regular updates on the conservation process, glimpses into a very complex, painstaking approach to studying, cleaning and stabilizing the Ruby Slippers. The NMAH blog has posted an overview of the painstaking conservation of the shoes.

When examined under a microscope, the sequins show themselves to be more intricate than they seem at a glance. They are composed of four layers: two outer layers of red cellulose nitrate coating with a silver backing under the top layer and a gelatin interior. The silver backing is what makes the sequins sparkle in the light. The nitrate coating has flaked off some of the sequins with time and use, but the museum did not repair the loss as it is part of their history as a working costume and witnesses to their age.

Objects conservator Dawn Wallace instead cleaned every single sequin on both shoes. The loose dirt was removed with a small, soft brush. The deeper-set grime was sucked up using a tiny vacuum attached to a pipette. Every thread tying the sequins was examined for weakness and when necessary strengthened with a single strand thread of red silk. They’re invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen in extreme close-up. Wallace also flipped upside-down sequins so that the reflective side was up and realigned ones that had shifted in position.

There were several pairs of Ruby Slippers created for the movie by famed costumier Adrian. The Smithsonian’s was used for the dance sequences and skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. They have felt padding on the bottom of the soles to muffle the sound of them striking the wood set. The ones used to click the heals together for the camera close-ups had no felt.

The different materials of the shoe — the leather, the netting, the threads — even the layers of the sequins all have different preservation needs. That makes determining the proper light, temperature and humidity conditions extremely challenging. A portion of the $300,000 raised was dedicated to the design and production of a new display case with sophisticated environmental controls to preserve the shoes.

The refreshed Ruby Slippers returned to public display in their new state-of-the-art case on October 19th, 2018.

One of the happiest ancillary benefits of the years spent conserving the Smithsonian’s Ruby Slippers is that the very specific expertise developed in the process could be used to confirm the authenticity of the pair stolen from The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 2005. The Smithsonian does not authenticate artifacts, but when the FBI asked them to compare the ruby slippers recovered in 2018 to the ones in the NMAH agreed.

Investigating the materials and their condition, Wallace noticed many consistencies with the museum’s pair. But it was a clear glass bead on the bow of the left shoe that, for her, confirmed her initial reaction.   

Wallace had also spotted clear glass beads painted red while peering through a microscope during conservation work on the museum’s pair. Analysis and interviews with Hollywood costumers indicated that the painted-bead replacements were likely repairs made on-set during filming. 

“To me, the glass bead painted red was a eureka moment,” Wallace said. “That’s a piece of information that hasn’t been published anywhere and, as far as I know, isn’t widely known. It’s a unique element of these shoes, and spotting that bead was a defining moment.” 

Wallace also found that the wear, fading and flaking on the sequins of the recovered shoes matches that on the museum’s shoes, something that could not be counterfeited. 

But the most amazing discovery was the two pairs are even more closely related than anyone imagined they could be.

The museum’s pair is not identical. The heel caps, bows, width, and overall shape do not match; the shoes were brought together from two separate sets. But in examining the recovered shoes, conservators found the left to the museum’s right and the right to the museum’s left. When temporarily reunited, the four shoes created two matching pairs.

Conservators suspect the two pairs were mixed up by those nimcompoops at MGM when the studio sold off its patrimony at the 1970 auction.