Archive for August, 2019

Intact Tang Dynasty tomb found under playground

Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

A beautifully decorated intact tomb from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) has been discovered in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, Northern China. The site, formerly the playground of Xiaojingyu Primary School, is being redeveloped into a new sports field. At 8AM on August 16th, one of the workers partially exposed the tomb while digging new foundations. The team caught a glimpse of murals, pottery and a square stone, and alerted the Taiyuan City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Department.

The style of the murals and pottery identify the tomb as dating to the Tang Dynasty, specifically the period known as Sheng Tang, the dynasty’s peak of prosperity between 713 and 766 A.D., almost entirely under the rule of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756). Later periods would look back on this time as a pinnacle of cultural achievement, setting an aspirational standard in art and literature.

The size and quality of the murals and the engravings on the tombstone indicate the tomb belonged to someone of significant rank, although his or her name and identity has yet to be determined. The mural on the side wall depicts a noble lady followed by three attendants playing instruments and making an offering. The tombstone — the stone square first seen by the construction crew — is placed at her feet.

It seems there is also a second tomb next to this one, visible through the exposed corner. Further construction has been put on hold for now, but excavations cannot commence immediately because of the proximity of the school buildings. The city and the school will hold talks to determine how to proceed. Given the apparent size of the tomb, it’s possible the school building itself would have to be demolished in order to excavate beneath it, which means the students would have to relocate before the tombs can be safely explored.

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Fragment of Roman bronze military diploma found in Bulgaria

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

A small fragment of a ancient Roman bronze military diploma has been discovered in the ancient city of Deultum in southeastern Bulgaria. The diploma was a formal Roman document issued to a soldier from an auxiliary unit after he had completed 25 years of military service. It granted him a discharge from the army and full Roman citizenship. Any wives or children they had picked up along the way despite the prohibition against soldiers marrying would be legitimized and granted citizenship through this same diploma. The document was engraved on two bronze tablets joined by a hinge, which is the etymology of the word diploma, from the Greek “diploō” meaning to double or to fold in two.

The fragment discovered at Deultum is very small, measuring only 4 x 4 cm, but allows us to reveal much about the document it was part of. The diploma contained a copy of a decree by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, issued on July 17, AD 122, for honorary discharge of the soldiers from the auxiliary troops in the Roman province of Dacia Inferior, i.e. “Lower Dacia” (located in the central part of southern Romania). At that time, the province was governed by Cocceius Naso.

Deultum was founded around 70 A.D. as a settlement for veterans of the Legio VIII Augusta at a strategically significant location on the Sredetska River with direct access to the Bay of Burgas and the Black Sea. It was the first Roman colony established in what is now Bulgaria. One of the oldest legions in Rome, Legio VIII had served in Gaul, at Pharsalus and Egypt under Julius Caesar. It was reconstituted by his heir Augustus who gave it his cognomen. In 46 A.D., it fought under Claudius suppressing the anti-Roman revolt in Thrace and founded the military camp at Novae about 150 miles northwest of Deultum.

Emperor Vespasian settled the veterans of this venerable legion who had supported him during the upheavals of the Year of Four Emperors near an ancient Thracian town called Debelt or Develt, hence Deultum’s official name: Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium. The city grew and prospered, reaching its peak of territory and population during the Severan dynasty in the late 2nd, early 3rd century. It had large public baths, a well-planned city with excellent sewers, numerous temples dedicated to Greco-Roman deities and local gods and the right to mint coins. At least two emperors visited it in person.

 The newly discovered fragment reveals for the first time that even half a century after the founding of the colony, Roman emperors continued to settle veterans in Deultum in order to support the Roman presence and identity in a city surrounded by non-Roman population.

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7th c. Merovingian sarcophagus found in Cahors

Monday, August 19th, 2019

A Merovingian-era sarcophagus dating to the 7th century has been discovered in Cahors, Lot Department, southwestern France. Department archaeologists were excavating the courtyard of a public building in anticipation of future construction when they unearthed a large limestone coffin. The rectangular sarcophagus was topped with a four-sided gabled lid and was unbroken. The lid was still sealed to the box, its mortar joint unbroken. The find is unprecedented and of great significance to archaeologists because little is known about Merovingian Cahors. 

Archaeologists passed an endoscope through a crack in the stone to establish whether the sarcophagus’ contents were intact. They confirmed that skeletal remains were undisturbed inside the coffin before attempting to open the heavy lid. On Tuesday, August 13th, the limestone lid was strapped to a mechanical digger and carefully raised.

Forensic anthropologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) worked with the Lot archaeologists to excavate and examine the burial. Initial analysis found the remains belonged to an elderly woman with the tell-tale lesions of osteoarthritis on her bones.  There were no grave goods inside the coffin which is a common feature of Christian burials.

The find site is believed to have been on the property of a monastery founded by Desiderius (aka Didier) of Cahors, a 7th century aristocrat with close ties to Merovingian royalty who in his role as bishop of Cahors built multiple churches and monasteries in the area. Desiderius was renown for building in the Roman style — cut stone blocks rather than wood, wattle and daub — and he founded at least one convent for women. The sarcophagus appears to have been placed in a passageway (possibly the cloister), an indication that she must have been someone of importance.

The bones have been removed from the sarcophagus and will be studied further at an INRAP laboratory. The remains will be radiocarbon dated to narrow down when the woman died. The preliminary dating to the 7th century is based on layer archaeology. Ongoing excavations have found pottery from the period and what is believed to be the remains of an old kitchen.

The sarcophagus and its lid are destined for the Musée de Cahors Henri-Martin, currently closed for renovations with reopening scheduled for early 2020. The museum is named after impressionist painter Henri-Jean Guillaume Martin and is known for its collection and temporary exhibition of work by artists from the 20th century to the present, but it also has a significant collection of archaeological artifacts from the region.

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Inscription links ancient temple to town

Sunday, August 18th, 2019

An inscription discovered at the site of the temple of Artemis on the Greek island of Euboea is the first to include the ancient name of the town: Amarynthos. This fragmentary inscription conclusively links the sanctuary of the goddess Artemis to the site mentioned by ancient sources and long sought by archaeologists.

The 1st century geographer Strabo identified the temple’s location as seven stades (about a mile) from the city of Eretria. Starting in the 19th century, archaeologists used Strabo’s directions as the departure point in what would prove a fruitless century-long search for the ancient temple. In 1964, a team from the Swiss Archaeological School working with the Greek Archaeological Service began excavating in Eretria looking for the Artemis sanctuary. They were as unsuccessful as their predecessors had been, until Swiss archaeologist Denis Knoepfler found a key clue: some stones typical of ancient Greek temple construction that had been reused in a Byzantine church. They suggested the sanctuary might not have been in the city of Eretria.

Starting in 2007, the Swiss mission moved further afield to study the surrounding territory of the city. At the foot of the Paleokeliski hill five miles east of Eretria, one mile east of the modern fishing village of Amarynthos, they unearthed a monumental portico from the 4th century B.C. In 2017, the team surveyed areas inside the portico and finally found hard evidence pointing to this having been the Artemis sanctuary. The most explicit source was an underground fountain made in the Roman era from recycled statue bases and architectural blocks. Those statue bases had surviving inscriptions, including one dedicated to Artemis, her twin brother Apollo and their mother Leto.

The newly unearthed inscription was also one of the statue bases reused to make the fountain. What remains of it reads “of Artemis in Amarynthos,” nailing down the identification of the temple complex as the famous sanctuary of Artemis which was one of the most important centers of worship in Greece from the 6th century through the 2nd century B.C.

In 2017 inscriptions and seals with the name of Artemis were found, but the [city] name is being read for the first time this year. The fact is particularly significant because the remains of the prehistoric settlement excavated in the 70s and 80s in the same area by the Greek Archaeological Service can be identified with the Mycenaean toponym “a-ma-ru-to” mentioned in Linear B tablets found in the Mycenaean palace of Thebes. The name “Amarynthos” has been in use in the same location for over 3000 years.

The 2019 excavation has been able to take advantage of the December 2018 demolition of a modern house that was infelicitously located above the central sanctuary of the temple. A geophysical survey revealed the foundations of monumental construction in an east-west orientation. Its state of conservation is poor making it difficult to identify, but archaeologists believe it was the main altar of the sanctuary.

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Pristine Constantine gold solidus found in Somerset

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

An exceptional gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, the first of its type ever discovered in Britain, will be sold at auction by the finder and landowner. It was discovered by a metal detector hobbyist in June of this year in Wanstrow, Somerset. June 7th was the first time he’d searched that field near an old Roman road. Wielding a second-hand metal detector, he first found a Roman brooch and some pieces of lead ore (the Roman road was used to transport lead from nearby mines). Then, a foot under the surface, he found a single gold coin.

Somerset Finds Liaison officers identified it as an extremely rare coin struck in Trier in ca. 313-15. The obverse features a laureate head of Constantine I facing right. It is inscribed CONSTANTI-NVS P[ius] F[elix] AVG[ustus] (“Constantine Pius and Blessed Revered One”).

The reverse depicts the emperor draped, cuirassed, with a spear in his right hand and a shield on his left arm. He rides a horse at the gallop against two enemy warriors, one trampled under the foot, the other about to be speared as he loses his shield. It is inscribed VIRTVS AUGSTI N(OSTRI) (“The valor of our Emperor”) and under the battle is the mint mark PTR which stands for Percussum Treveris, meaning “struck in Trier.”

Not only is this particular coin a unique find in Britain, only four gold coins from the Tetrarchy period (the system of four rulers, two Augusti, two Caesars, established by Domitian in 293 A.D.) have ever been found in Britain. Even more astonishing, the solidus is in near-mint uncirculated condition.

For comparison purposes, here’s an example of the same coin in one of the finest ancient coin collections in the world, the Münzkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It has the same die axis alignment (in this case the alignment is 6 o’clock, meaning the reverse of the coin is upside down in relation to the obverse), but the Somerset coin is .42 grams heavier and .2 mm wider. It didn’t experience the wear and tear of circulation the way the Münzkabinett’s solidus did.

The solidus goes under the hammer on September 17th at Dix Noonan Webb. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-£12,000 ($12,000-$14,500).

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Drawing found under Virgin of the Rocks

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Researchers at London’s National Gallery have identified original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci under The Virgin of the Rocks. An earlier examination of the work in 2004/5 had found changes to the Virgin’s pose. Vague indicators of other figures in the composition were thought to be line changes between the original pose and the final one. A new analysis using the latest imaging technology revealed there were two compositions under the painting. In the initial design, the angel and Christ child were markedly different than they turned out to be in the end.

In the abandoned composition both figures are positioned higher up, while the angel, facing out, is looking down on the Infant Christ with what appears to be a much tighter embrace. These new images were found because the drawings were made in a material that contained some zinc, so it could be seen in the macro x-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) maps showing where this chemical element was present, and also through new infrared and hyperspectral imaging.

Why Leonardo abandoned this first composition still remains a mystery. The new research has shown how the second underdrawing, while aligning much more closely to the finished version, nonetheless displays his characteristic elaborations and adjustments from drawing to painting. For instance, the angle of the Infant Christ’s head was changed so that he was seen in profile, while some parts of the angel’s curly hair have been removed. Handprints resulting from patting down the priming on the panel to create an even layer of more or less uniform thickness can also be seen, probably the work of an assistant – but perhaps even by Leonardo himself.

It’s a particularly intriguing find given the complicated history behind the composition of the piece. Commissioned in 1483 by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception for their chapel abutting the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan, the painting as originally envisaged by the confraternity was a traditional Renaissance view of the Immaculate Conception — Mary, angels, an architectural setting — but Leonardo instead went his own way, creating a rocky, humid, cave-like setting and depicting the Virgin, the Christ Child and John the Baptist. This was his first commission in Milan; you’d think he might try to please his clients instead of blowing them off in favor of his own vision. The result caused some consternation among the confraternity and when Leonardo did not get paid the full amount, he sold the painting to a private buyer. That first version of the Virgin on the Rocks is now at the Louvre.

Ten years later, Leonardo began working on a second version, likely because the confraternity paid its balance. It was the exact same dimension (the arch-shaped frame was already made, after all) and the same subject, but with notable differences in composition and palette. The newly-discovered underdrawings are certainly in his hand, which is not the case for the application of the paint itself, so they uniquely show the false starts and evolution of Leonardo’s vision for the work.

Starting November 9, 2019, the National Gallery will host a new exhibition centered around The Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece takes an innovative approach to give visitors an immersive experience into the context of the painting and of its creator.

A wide range of multi-sensory experiences will be presented across four separate rooms. Visitors will be able to step inside a similar chapel setting and see what art historical research suggests the painting’s setting may have looked like. They will be able to explore Leonardo’s own research, which informed the specific compositions in the painting. In addition they will see how Leonardo used his scientific studies to create strong effects of light and shadow in his painting. The modern process of discovery in a conservation studio, where the mysteries and secrets of a painting are uncovered, will also be brought to life with visitors being able to engage in detail with the latest findings underneath ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’.

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Palaiologos signet ring found in Bulgaria

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

Georgi Palaiologos signet ring, 14th century. Photo courtesy National History Museum.Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a 14th-century aristocrat from the Byzantine Palaiologos imperial dynasty at the Kaliakra Fortress in northern Bulgaria. The tomb’s occupant was identified by a gold signet ring inscribed with his name: Georgi Palaiologos.

The ring is of the Kaloyan type, named after the gold seal ring found in a grave near the Church of the Holy Forty Martyrs in Tarnovo that was associated with the late 12th century Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan but almost certainly belonged to a 14th century descendant with the same name. Georgi’s ring is much more impressive than Kaloyan’s, larger, heavier with more detailed engraving. The central image is a dove with a cross-hatched background. The inscription encircles it.

In 16 seasons of excavations, numerous burials of Kaliakran aristocracy have been unearthed at the fortress on the coast of the Black Sea. It was the capital of the Despotate of Dobruja in the 14th century, ruled by Balik, followed by his brother Dobrotitsa. They were allied to the Palaiologi. Balik supported Anna of Savoy, widow of Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos and regent for her minor son John V Palaiologos during the Byzantine civil war (1341–1347). After Balik’s death in 1347, Anna carved out a larger autonomous province for Dobrotitsa to rule and he ended up conquering much of Bulgaria. Dobrotitsa’s daughter (we don’t know her name) married Michael Palaiologos, son of John V. It’s therefore eminently possible Georgi was related to both the despots and the emperors.

In the grave, the archeological team uncovered rich gifts that made it possible to restore the ritual of sending the young dead. The funeral was carried out in the second half of the fourteenth century, with a pit formed on a rock with a stone enclosure. The nobleman was laid in a coffin with well-preserved traces. His face was covered with luxurious fabric, gifts and a glass vessel were placed on his body, in which, according to his beliefs, the tears of the mourners were collected.

Note to self: add a mourners’ tears goblet codicil to my will.

This year’s dig will conclude at the end of the month. Later this year the National History Museum in Sofia will publish the full catalogue of finds from 2018’s star discovery, the clay pot full of coins, jewelry and other valuables dubbed the “Tartar booty.”

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Boy discovers mammoth tooth at family reunion

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Jackson Hepner, 12, made an exciting find while exploring the banks of a creek on the property of The Inn at Honey Run in Millersburg, Ohio: a 10,000-year-old mammoth tooth. Innkeeper Jason Nies was hosting a family reunion at the bucolic location in Ohio’s Amish country on July 26th when his cousin’s son discovered the specimen. It was out of the water, partially buried in the mud on the left bank of Honey Run Creek.

“His dad and his uncle are both really into natural history and understanding nature,” Nies said. “They quickly jumped online and were Googling it, and that’s when we quickly found out this might be a mammoth or a mastodon tooth.” […]

“It’s just a neat find,” Nies said. “It’s not every day you get to touch and feel and see a mammoth tooth!”

Professors from Ohio State University, Ashland University and the College of Wooster verified the from pictures that it was a mammoth tooth.

Mammoth teeth are the biggest grinding teeth ever known to have existed, although the mammoths that roamed Ice Age Ohio were smaller than their Siberian counterparts and smaller than the mastodons who lived in the area at the same time. They were about the same size as modern African elephants. The newly-discovered tooth is an upper third molar and is more than seven inches long.

The Golgi apparatus-looking ridges on the plate (the top part of the tooth) would wear down over time. Replacements would grow in and the old, worn teeth shed six times over their 60-80 year lifespan. That’s why mammoth teeth are easier to find than mammoth bones, because one adult mammoth could lose a couple of dozen molars or more before it died.

Nigel Brush and Jeff Dilyard, geology professors at Ashland University, explored the creek bank after they confirmed the find was a mammoth tooth. They found no evidence of any other remains, so it’s likely the molar was a cast-off rather than a part of larger skeleton.

The tooth is at The Inn right now, but Jackson Hepner has written to Nies: “I would like to have my tooth back in my hands as soon as possible. I want to show my friends.” Damn right he does. Nies plans to give Jackson the tooth later this week, but he hopes to get it back at some point so it can go on display at The Inn. (Technically the landowners own all finds made on private property.)

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Two intact tombs found in Mycenaean cemetery

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

Two intact Bronze Age tombs have been discovered in Aidonia cemetery near Nemea in Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula. Both chamber tombs date to the late Mycenaean period (1400-1200 B.C.) and were found complete with human remains and grave goods.

The Aidonia cemetery contains rock-cut chamber graves dating to the Mycenaean era (17th-12th century B.C.). They are of consistent design, each made of three sections: a road or pathway leading to an entrance leading to the burial chamber. The early Mycenaean tombs held richer and more extensive grave goods — jewelry, gold, weapons, luxury ceramics — while the late period chambers had more modest offerings. The newly-discovered tombs contained mainly pottery — figurines, clay vessels, false amphorae, basins — and smaller objects like buttons.

The tombs were reused over the centuries, with the primary (original) burials followed by secondary ones. One of the newly-discovered tombs contained two primary burials and 14 secondary ones. The other tomb contained three primary burials only and was not reused due to the entrance having been blocked by the collapse of the roof soon after its construction.  As with the older intact tomb discovered last year, that collapse kept it from being reused and thousands of year later saved it from looters by sealing off and obscuring the entrance.

The Mycenaean-era cemetery was discovered not by archaeologists but by looters in 1976. They plundered its ancient grave goods with shameless brutality for two years, with rival tomb raiders getting into literal shootouts at the site until the country put armed guards on the site in 1978 and the first official excavation began. The 1978-1980 and 1986 excavations unearthed 20 tombs, 18 of which had been looted.

While the pitched battles and overt despoiling of the cemetery ended when the government took over, the looting never did entirely stop. In 2016, the  Corinthian Ephorate of Antiquities launched a new excavation program by an international team of researchers to systematically explore the site. The team discovered a new cluster of tombs, most of which had been pillaged, likely in the early 2000s.

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Sorcerer’s toolbox found in Pompeii

Monday, August 12th, 2019

A trove of amulets, figurines, jewels and decorative pieces made of Egyptian faience, bronze, bone, amber, amethyst, stone, glass and crystal has been unearthed at Pompeii. The remains of wooden chest with bronze hinges were found in an excavation of the House of the Garden in Regio V, the same elegant villa where in 2018 a charcoal inscription indicating the eruption of Vesuvius took place on October 24th instead of the conventional August 24th date. The find site was not in the elegant part of the house, but rather in a corner of what is believed to have been a service area.

Traces of the wood and the imprint of a box were preserved in the volcanic alchemy of that fateful day. The objects excavated from the imprint include two mirrors, numerous beads, a glass unguentarium, small phalluses, gemstone and glass intaglios (an artisan at work engraved into a carnelian, violet glass inscribed with the head of Dionysus, a dancing satyr engraved on an oval of clear glass, a spike of wheat carved out of amber), bronze bracelets, bronze bells, faience and amethyst scarabs, human and animal figures, buttons and a skull carved out of bone.

The contents mark the chest as more than a simple jewelry box, although there are numerous pieces of personal adornment that would have been worn by a woman like the amber beads and bronze bracelets. The figurines, scarabs, skulls, phalluses and other objects were protective amulets, figures and symbols with apotropaic value (ie, the power to ward off the evil eye, curses, etc.). Phalluses and Harpocrates, the Greek syncretic version of Horus, son of Isis and Serapis, were common presences in Roman households as protectors of children and mothers. Wheat was a symbol of prosperity. The chiming of bells chased away bad luck. The closed fist, the skull, the scarabs were all good luck charms.

In this villa, archaeologists found the remains of 10 victims of Vesuvius’ fury, among them women and children. Researchers are attempting to establish the connection between the 10, whether they were related, with DNA analysis. It’s possible that the chest of treasures belonged to one of these women. It was unlikely to be the property of the lady of the house because there was no gold at all in the box, and a member of this wealthy family would certainly have owned gold pieces as it was de rigeur among the moneyed elites of Pompeii in 79 A.D.

The artifacts have been conserved and will soon go on display in a new exhibition dedicated to the style and manufacture of jewels unearthed in Pompeii.

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