Archive for July, 2019

Undergrad student finds unusual figurine in Peru

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

A Harvard undergraduate excavating the Moche archaeological site in San José de Moro, Peru, has unearthed a rare intact figurine. Second-year student Caroline Coolidge was digging in Peru as part of a summer archaeology program when she saw a little face peering up at her through the soil. Further excavation revealed an intact figurine in pristine condition, the first complete pottery artifact discovered this season.

The figurine dates to the transitional period between the decline of the Moche and the rise of the Lambayeque cultures in the area, about 1,000 years ago.

In addition to its pristine condition, what made Coolidge’s discovery so unusual was the absence of other objects nearby. “Typically, this type of artifact would be included in a burial,” she said, “but there were no burials found near it.” […]

Coolidge is eager to find out more about what her figurine might mean—archaeologists at the site suspect it may have been used as a fertility offering. [Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies Gary] Urton called it “an extraordinary piece” and “one of the most complete and beautiful figurines we have brought up from here in several years.” Coolidge plans to write about the artifact for her final class project and will study its composition and compare it with similar finds at the site in recent years, she said, to determine “its cultural significance and where it fits within the region’s chronology.”

Her exciting find on the five-week program, run by Pontifícia Universidad Católica del Perú in collaboration with the Harvard Summer School Study Abroad Program, has so inspired Coolidge that she has changed her planned course of study at the university. She will now either concentrate in archaeology or make it a “secondary field of study.” Is that what we called a minor in my day? It should be a second major at least, imho, given what a cool head start she got this summer.

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Earliest fragment from German vagina poem found in abbey library

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

Scholars from the Institute for Medieval Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) have discovered a fragment from a German medieval poem about the adventures of a virgin and her anthropomorphised vagina that is almost 200 years older than any other known version of this eroto-satirical epic. Christine Glaßner discovered the fragment in the binding of a codex held in the library of Melk Abbey, an imposing baroque structure overlooking the Danube in Austria’s Wachau Valley. It was nestled between pages 204 and 205 of the codex. 

The strip is long and skinny, 22cm by 1.5cm (8.7″x .6″), with just a few letters from 60 verses of  the poem. It was reused for its parchment in the binding of a Latin text. She recognized it as something of particular interest and Nathanael Busch from the University of Siegen identified it as a fragment from Der Rosendorn (The Rose Thorn).

The so-called “Rosendorn” (The Rose Thorn) tells of a virgin woman disagreeing with her talking vulva about which of them is most appreciated by men. Until now, it had been assumed that such openness regarding sexuality in the German-speaking world did not appear until the end of the Middle Ages, for example in the urban culture of the 15th century. The find from Melk, on the other hand, was written around 1300 and thus revises the previous research. It seems that 200 years earlier than previously thought, erotic poetry was written, recited and perhaps even staged. Apparently, such poems were rarely written down and have even more rarely survived to the present day.

Previously known from two extant copies, in the Dresden Codex and the Karlsruhe Codex, dating to the 16th century, Der Rosendorn was written by an unknown German-language author. It tells the saucy tale of a virgin and her vulva arguing over which of them is most appealing to men. The virgin argues her beauty is the draw. Her vulva argues that beauty doesn’t matter because she’s the one who provides all the pleasure. They decide to break up and prove once and for all which one of them is right. The vulva splits off by ingesting a “manic root” (symbolizing penetrative masturbation) and goes on her way. The separation is a disaster. The vulva is uncaringly used by every man she encounters; the virgin offers herself to a mob of men who trample her in their rush. In the end, they decide to become one once more. The narrator, a man who spied upon them from the beginning, is the one who reattaches them and he does so in the most obvious way you can imagine: he, uh, fornicates the vulva back into the woman.

The motif of a sentient vulva taking corporeal form independent of the woman she was once part of is seen in French and German medieval literature, a satirical counterpoint to the courtly romances of the period. The rose in the title is a symbol of female sexuality, and the initial setting of the poem — a walled garden where a virgin extracts rosewater from a rose bush and bathes in it — mirrors that of the 13th century masterpiece of courtly love literature, Le Roman de la Rose.

In March of this year, the fragment was carefully removed from the codex binding and is now preserved on its own in the fragment collection of the Melk Abbey Library. It is being studied now as part of the “Manuscript Census” of the Academy of Sciences and Literature Mainz at the Philipps University of Marburg.

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“I went to Rome and all I got you was this lousy stylus”

Monday, July 29th, 2019

An iron stylus inscribed with a quip reminiscent of many a hokey souvenir t-shirt has been found in central London. One of thousands of exceptional Roman treasures unearthed during the Museum of London Archaeology excavation of Bloomberg’s future European headquarters, the inscription makes this stylus unique. Inscribed Roman styluses are extremely rare finds anywhere in the empire, and the length and wit of this one makes it a stand-out piece.

The pens were used to write on wax-coated wooden tablets, more than 400 of which were discovered at the Bloomberg dig, extremely rare survivals that were preserved in the waterlogged soil of the lost Walbrook river.  MOLA archaeologists also found more than 200 styluses in that same excavation, and only this one had an inscription.

When it was first discovered during the 2010-2014 excavation, corrosion obscured the inscription making it illegible. The fact that it could be recovered at all is a tribute to the Walbrook’s powers of preservation. For years MOLA conservators have worked painstakingly to bring its clever wording back. Epigrapher Dr. Roger Tomlin was able to decipher and translate the tiny lettering:

‘ab urbe v[e]n[i] munus tibi gratum adf(e)ro
acul[eat]um ut habe[a]s memor[ia]m nostra(m)
rogo si fortuna dar[e]t quo possem
largius ut longa via ceu sacculus est (v)acuus’

‘I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift
with a sharp point that you may remember me.
I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able (to give)
as generously as the way is long (and) as my purse is empty.’

In other words: the stylus is a gift to remind the recipient of its sender; the sender acknowledges that it is a cheap gift and wishes that they could have given more.

The stylus dates to around 70 A.D., when Londinium was a thriving commercial and administrative center. The inscription is a glimpse into the links connecting people even at the outer edges of the empire with the Caput Mundi.

The conserved stylus is going on display for the first time at the Ashmolean Museum’s Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition.

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More about Iron Age warrior grave

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

Just a quick link today because I’m travelling. Museum Crush (which is consistently awesome and you should read regularly) has an excellent article about the unique Iron Age warrior grave found in West Sussex in 2008. It’s full of details about the discovery from one of the archaeologists on the scene and has the best photographs I’ve seen.

NO I AM NOT JEALOUS. Okay yes I’m totally jealous.

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Coin collection buried by Holocaust victim found

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

The search is on for the legal owner of an exceptional collection of coins found in a cellar in Hungary that was buried by someone who almost certainly died in the Holocaust. The coins were found in the town of Keszthely 120 miles southwest of Budapest this February when the current homeowners were digging a hole in a cellar. They dug out five glass jars, each filled with coins and carefully sealed. The jars held 2,800 gold and silver coins from all over the world ranging in date from antiquity to the 20th century.

Almost half of the coins are from Pannonia, which was a province of the Roman Empire that covers modern-day western Hungary, according to Ferenc Redo, an archaeologist and coin expert.

The others are mostly antique coins from around the world, including pre- and post-revolutionary France, 19th century German territories, and both Tsarist- and Soviet-era Russia.

Many are from even farther afield, including South America, Africa, Asia and British-ruled India.

The house where the collection was found was in the ghetto in 1944 and given the presence of early 20th century coins, it’s almost certain they were buried by their Jewish owners in the desperate hope they might return to reclaim them at the end of the war.

The homeowners turned the coins in and they are now in the custody of Keszthely’s Balatoni Museum. There was also some jewelry stashed with the coins, some engraved. The engraving provides a key clue to the possible identity of the collection’s owners: the Pollak family, successful traders who lived in Keszthely before World War II.

The Holocaust struck like a whirlwind in Hungary. Even though Hungary had passed draconian anti-Jewish laws for decades (it was the first European country to do so after World War I), the government resisted Nazi pressure to expel/deport/murder its Jewish citizens on the grounds that the “Jewish problem” would be better solved by slaughtering them after the war was over, because their labour and skills were needed during the war.

That’s how Hungarian Jews managed to survive most of the war without being destroyed. Ghettoized, entrained, marked and immiserated, most assuredly, but still alive. As late of the spring of 1944, there were 800,000 Jews in Hungary, one of the largest extant Jewish communities in Europe at that time.

That changed in March 1944, when German forces occupied Hungary. The tides of war had turned against Germany and the Hungarian government was actively making peace overtures to the Allies. Hitler wasn’t having that, so the relatively hands-off alliance ended and occupation began.

Adolf Eichmann came in and did his monstrous thing. With the sickening efficiency that had become his trademark, he divided the country into six zones and emptied each in turn of its Jews. Deportations began on May 15th. Between then and July 8th, 440,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps, mostly Auschwitz.  Three thousand people a day, every day for six weeks, arrived on cattle cars at Auschwitz, 90% of them killed on arrival. The influx was so great that the crematoria could not keep up.

According to the 1941 Hungarian census, there were 755 Jews in Keszthely, about 6% of the town’s total population. On May 15th, 1944, 768 Jews from 319 families were locked into the ghetto, a few blocks centered around the town’s handsome 19th century neoclassical synagogue. On June 20th, 719 of the Jews (the rest used for slave labour) were moved to the Zalaegerszeg ghetto, then to Auschwitz. Twenty-two members of the Pollak family, five of them children, were among them. By the time the deportations ended in July, 829 Jews had been deported from Keszthely. When the war was over, only 64 of them had survived. Today just a dozen Jews live in Keszthely.

The museum plans to digitalise the collection and enlist archivists and historians to scour the Pollak family tree in search of descendants.

If no owner can be found, the collection will revert to ownership by the state.

“We also hope the exhibition will spread the word about the coins, and that a legal owner will turn up,” Havasi said.

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Six standing stones found in Switzerland

Friday, July 26th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered six Neolithic aligned standing stones in downtown Sion, Switzerland. The site on the Avenue du Petit-Chasseur was being excavated in advance of construction of a new apartment building. With the 3rd millennium B.C. dolmen of Le Petit-Chasseur less than a quarter mile down the road, the future development gave archaeologists an opportunity to explore one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe.

Several dolmen (dry stone collective tombs) and dozens of anthropomorphic stelae have been found in the area since the first dolmen was found in 1961. No dolmen were found this time, but the six standing stelae in a double row were.

Three of the recently found standing stones are engraved with markings. The biggest find is a stone weighing nearly two tonnes bearing a representation of a male figure wearing geometrically patterned clothing and with a sun-like motif around his face.

One of the stones also has a number of small circular depressions on its surface, something that has not been found before in Valais but has been found at a site in Aosta in Italy.

The stone decorated with cupules found at Saint-Martin-de-Corleans in Aosta dates from the same period, around 2500 B.C.

Archaeologists observed that some of the megaliths appear to have been deliberately broken and deposited. Others are incomplete. It’s possible that later builders re-used the standing stones in whole or in part. Indeed, the earliest dolmens discovered at Petit-Chasseur had walls made of engraved slabs.

This summer’s finds at Petit-Chasseur open new avenues of investigation to explore the megalithic structures of late Neolithic Sion and the complex societal rituals connected to them.

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6.5-foot sauropod femur found in France

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

The massive thigh bone of a sauropod has been found in France. Researchers from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris discovered the femur at the paleontological site of Angeac-Charente near Chateauneuf-sur-Charente in southwestern France. Unearthed in a thick layer of clay, the bone is in excellent condition. It is 140 million years old, 6.5 feet long and weighs 500 kilos (1100 lb), as much the average horse.  A large pelvic bone was also found in the same clay layer near the femur.

Ronan Allain, paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in Paris, added: “We can see the insertions of muscles and tendons, scars.

“This is a very rare find as large pieces tend to collapse on themselves, to fragment.”

Angeac-Charente is the richest site of dinosaur fossils in the country, with more than 7,500 bones found there from an estimated 45 different species of dinosaur since excavations began in 2010, including bones from stegosaurs and a herd of ostrich-like dinosaurs. In addition to whole fossils, more than 66,000 bone fragments have been found there, as well as plants and dinosaur footprints. The site is near the vineyards of Cognac where the famed eponymous brandy is produced, but in the Jurassic the area was a marshland, ideal conditions for capturing, preserving and mineralizing the bones of gigantic animals and other organic remains.

Sauropods first appeared in the Triassic, but became widespread in the Late Jurassic period. They are the largest known herbivorous dinosaurs are among the largest animals ever to roam the earth. The femur is so large that it will take a week to recover and require a crane to raise.

National Museum of Natural History paleontologists are working to reconstruct a sauropod skeleton from the fossils recovered at Angeac-Charente. So far they have more than 50% of a complete sauropod, a composite of bones from several individual specimens unearthed at the site.

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Do you know this face?

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

The North Carolina Office of State Archaeology has been stumped by an artifact found in a field near Newton Grove, North Carolina, and is asking for help in identifying it. The sandstone sculpture was discovered by Tom Giddens while ploughing his field. He moved the slab to the side and kept on ploughing.

When he was done, he turned the stone over and saw that it had a face carved on the front. He alerted the Office of State Archaeology to his discovery.

“It is definitely a rare find, which is why we presently don’t know how old it is or who made it. It is made of sandstone, which is of medium hardness and therefore does not require specialized tools to carve,” [Assistant State Archaeologist Mary Beth] Fitts said of the sculpture.

The piece is large at 22.2 x 15.75 inches and appears to have some carving on the back as well as the face on the front. There’s a line along the bottom side that seems to define a chin.

Archaeologists are hoping that someone out there knows of a comparable artifact. A similar piece might shed light on when this one was carved and by whom. In aid of that, the NC Office of State Archaeology has created and shared a 3D model of the sculpture.

If this congenial fellow looks familiar, let the Office of State Archaeology know on their Facebook page or via email.

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Unique goods from Iron Age warrior grave to go on display

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

The unique funerary furnishings of a late Iron Age warrior found in West Sussex will go on display for the first time at Chichester’s Novium Museum in January 2020. The grave was discovered in 2008 during an excavation  in advance of a new housing development in North Bersted, near Bognor Regis, West Sussex. Archaeologists had found evidence of occupation — boundary ditches, postholes, building remains — from the Bronze Age through Roman times, but the grave was entirely isolated, not part of a settlement or cemetery. It was discovered just 16 inches beneath the surface.

He was buried in supine position orientated northwest to southeast. Aligned at the end of the grave above his head were three large intact pots. Analysis of the pottery, which was new when buried and was probably made in Normandy, dates the grave to 50 B.C. Against his right side were a bronze shield boss, bronze helmet, a spearhead, a sword, deliberated reheated and bent as a ritual “decommissioning,” its scabbard and two sheets of elaborate bronze latticework.

Iron bars and pieces therefrom were found overlying the grave crosswise. These are the remains of iron hoops which bound the deceased’s coffin and an addition iron-framed structure that was placed on top of the coffin. No remains of the wood from this coffin were discovered.

At first archaeologists thought the bronze latticework may have been part of the shield decoration as they were too big to be cheek-pieces for the helmet, but additional study found that it was actually a headdress, a ceremonial modification for a military helmet. In its day, the headdress would have gleamed like gold and been adorned with plumes of horse hair.

Nothing comparable to this grave has been found anywhere else in Britain. The bronze  headdress is unique, and the sword is of a type entirely unlike the ones in the British Isles of the period.

The remains shifted after deposition, but not due to interference with the grave which was undisturbed. The skull was found left of the body and the left humerus had shifted a foot and a half away from the scapula. These shifts could have been caused by the weight of the shield and other bronze pieces after the body had begun to decompose, or he may have been propped up on a pillow, now rotted away.

The skeleton was not in good condition. The surviving bone was soft and brittle, and the cancellous bone (the spongey type of bones found in the vertebrae, ribs, pelvis, hands and feet) was to all intents and purposes gone, extant only as stains in the soil. That soil was lifted for excavation in the laboratory in the hope of finding bone fragments; there weren’t any. The left side of the lower body was in the best state of preservation. The green staining explained why: the bronze of the artifacts he was buried with had helped preserved the bone it touched.

Even with the damage to the remains, osteological analysis determined that the man was about 5’4″ tall and was between 30 and 45 years old when he died. He experienced hardship when he was a boy — grooves on his teeth are evidence of childhood malnutrition or an acute illness like high fever — but his early challenges did not keep him from living an extremely active life as an adult. Strong muscle and ligament attachments on the legs indicate habitual horse riding and on the right humerus indicate his right arm was far more developed than his left. Given the grave goods, this is likely the result of extensive weapons training and use. There was no evidence of trauma, healed or perimortem on any surviving part of his skeleton. Fun fact: he had no wisdom teeth. Not removed or lost; they never existed. It’s a genetic thing.

His origins are unclear. He may have come from eastern England and fought in Gaul, or he may have been a Gaul who ended up in Britain. The design of the headdress is distinctly Celtic. That and the Norman pottery points to him having spent time in Gaul. It’s possible the warrior made his way to Britain from the continent as part of a Roman contingent or as part of the Gallic anti-Roman resistance. Or both at different times, for that matter.

In Book 4 of Commentarii De Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar claims that Britons had consistently sent support to the Gauls during the Gallic Wars, and that therefore he was going to put a fleet together to just check things out across the channel. Ask a few questions here and there, look around, you know, sort of get the lay of the land. Backed by a couple of legions and as many ships as he could lay his hands on, of course. When the Britons caught wind of his plans they sent ambassadors to beg Caesar for mercy in advance, “to promise that they will give hostages, and submit to the government of the Roman people.” Ever magnanimous, Caesar agreed and sent one of his top men, the Belgic chieftain Commius, whom he had appointed king of the Atrebates, to escort the ambassadors back to Britain and keep the locals from getting antsy should a Roman army happen to land on their shores. That was in 55 B.C.

Three years later Commius, betrayed Caesar’s legate Titus Labienus, had switched sides and fought with Vercingetorix at the Siege of Alesia. In 50 B.C., he would strike a deal with Rome and head back to Britain where he founded Calleva Atrebatum, modern-day Silchester in Hampshire, about 60 miles northwest of Bognor Regis. So it’s entirely plausible that the North Bersted warrior was one of Commius’ contingent come to settle only to be thwarted by death.

Dr Melanie Giles, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Manchester, told PA: “It really is absolutely a unique find in the British Isles and in the wider continent, we don’t have another burial that combines this quality of weaponry and Celtic art with a date that puts it around the time of Caesar’s attempted conquest of Britain.

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Intact Renaissance shipwreck found in Baltic Sea

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

An international team of researchers has discovered an intact shipwreck from the late 15th, early 16th century in the Baltic Sea. Nursed in the cold bosom of the Baltic, the ship is in exceptional condition and has a solid claim to being the best preserved Early Modern Period shipwreck to be discovered in our times.

The shipwreck was first spotted as a blip on a side-scan sonar in 2009 during a survey the Swedish Maritime Administration. The anomaly on the seafloor was noted as a likely shipwreck which is not surprising as the cold Baltic is full of them; it wasn’t pursued further at the time. Earlier this year that blip took more concrete form when a robotic camera dispatched by commercial seabed surveying firm MMT to investigate a potential undersea route for the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline captured video of a wooden ship.

In March, MMT experts, post-graduate students and maritime archaeologists from the University of Southampton, from the Maritime Archaeology Research Institute of Södertörn University, and students from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm working on Artificial Intelligence applications to improving robotics functions in dark, cold underwater conditions came together to explore the shipwreck. Using the state-of-the-art ROV Surveyor Interceptor, the team illuminated the wreck and took thousands of high-resolution photographs. Those were then stitched together with photogrammetric technology to create an extremely accurate, detailed composite of the ship from every possible angle.

From their examination of the wreck, archaeologists believe it dates to the Renaissance, making it earlier than the Henry VIII’s ill-fated flagship the Mary Rose (1545) or the Swedish warship Mars (1564). Even in the cold, woodworm-less waters of the Baltic, a ship of this age is an extremely rare discovery. The later ships were larger, stronger and there were a lot more of them getting into trouble during the Northern Seven Year’s Wars (1563-1570). It has the great archaeological advantage of not having blown up like the Mars did, or having been severely damaged in any other way.

Her hull structure is preserved from the keel to the top deck with all of her masts and some elements of the standing rigging still in place, including the bowsprit and a rudimentary decorated transom stern and other elements of the ship rarely ever seen such as the wooden capstan in place and bilge pump. Still on the main deck, an incredible and rare find, the ship’s tender boat, used to ferry crew to and from the ship and leaning against the main mast. A testament of the tension on human relationships of the time are the swivel guns, which are still in place on the gun deck. 

The design of the ship is very similar to depictions of the Danish warship Gribshunden which went down off the coast of Ronneby, Sweden, in 1495. It burned down, however, so there are very scant extant remains. The name of the newly-discovered ship has not been found yet. The team has dubbed it Okänt Skepp, meaning “unknown ship.”  

The team plans to return to the shit to explore it further and retrieve one of the wooden planks for dating. Dendrochronology (tree ring analysis) can date wood with extraordinary precision, so if all goes well, a single timber could tell us the date of the wood within a year of its tree having been felled. That would 

Here is footage of the shipwreck being scanned by the ROV, followed by a 360 video of the photogrammetry model. In conclusion, this ship is awesome.

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