7th c. B.C. chariot burial found in central Italy

A high-status Iron Age chariot burial has been discovered in the town of Corinaldo, near the Adriatic coast of Le Marche in central Italy. All human remains had decayed, but a profusion of exceptional grave goods date the burial the Orientalising period, between the late 8th century and early 6th century B.C.

The site, slated for construction of a new sports complex, was identified as archaeologically significant first by aerial photography, then with non-invasive geomagnetic and electrical resistance surveys that gave the excavation team key information on where to open trial trenches. They unearthed a large funerary area (half a hectare, ca. 54,000 square feet) with three large ring ditches. Roman tombs were also found there, but ring ditches long pre-dated them. In the central ring ditch was a pit surrounded by a circular moat almost 100 feet wide, a perimeter that may indicate there was once a tumulus atop the burial. The grave itself is 10.5 by 9 feet and contains a mass of objects, among them a bronze helmet, iron skewers, bronze vessels, more than a hundred ceramic vessels and an iron-wheeled chariot.

The wealth of grave goods, the chariot and the likelihood that the burial was once covered by a mound point to the deceased having been a member of the aristocratic elite of the Piceni, an Italic people who inhabited central and northeast Italy between the Appenines and the Adriatic before the rise of Rome. Little is known of the Piceni Culture in northern Le Marche, so the richness of this discovery will shed new light on the people who dominated the prehistory of the area. The pottery alone indicates active trade between the Piceni of this area and what is now northern Apulia (the heel of Italy’s boot).

Ongoing investigations at the site and analyses of the archaeometric, environmental and archaeozoological material will strengthen our understanding of the site’s importance in terms of its chronology, ‘structural’ characteristics and ritual or cultural aspects. They will also reveal contemporaneous relationships within the broader populated landscape, promising new insights into the role of the Nevola Valley in the Iron Age settlement dynamics of the Marche region. Inevitably, questions remain about certain aspects of the tomb’s morphology, including the possible existence of a covering mound as opposed to a circular ditch and bank, perhaps supplemented by standing stones or timber uprights.

Still under debate, too, is the unknown position of the body within the royal tomb. Comparison with similar aristocratic interments farther to the south suggest differing possibilities, perhaps with the body placed at a higher level immediately above the grave goods, or within a shallow pit nearer the centre of the ring-ditch; the royal corredo (funerary assemblage) at Corinaldo did not occupy that central position or yield any skeletal material. In either case, it seems probable that the body was placed somewhere at or near the ancient ground surface. If so, it would have had little chance of surviving the centuries of subsequent ploughing that have removed all traces of any above ground mound.

Buried treasure found in ruined synagogue

Archaeologists have discovered a treasure chest of Judaica in the 18th century Old Synagogue of Wieliczka, southern Poland. A team from the Institute of Archaeology of Jagiellonian University dug a narrow test trench next to an interior wall when they encountered the remains of decayed wooden box with metal objects visible. They extended the trench to explore further and found a literal treasure chest full of hundreds of metal objects that had been nested inside each other and packed closely together.

The wooden crate was approximately 30 inches high, 28 inches wide and 50 inches long. It contained about 350 objects, most of religious significance, from the 19th century.  The contents include pieces of four or five brass chandeliers, a silver goblet decorated in a floral motif, five silver candlesticks (two of them Hanukkah), a large metal vessel (probably tin), two large bronze vessels with decorative handles, a silver badge from a Torah with an attached pointer and silver finials from the Torah scroll rods.

Surprisingly, the treasure chest also contained 18 Austro-Hungarian army cap badges worn by infantry officers. The double-headed eagle crest bears the initials of Emperor Franz Joseph, which dates them to the second half of the 19th century or early 20th century. The demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 led to the creation of the Second Polish Republic out of the territories gobbled up by the Hapsburgs during the partitions of the 18th century, so it seems highly unlikely that the cap badges would have been secreted away with precious holy treasures during World War II. This indicates an earlier burial date.

It seems incongruous that they would be included in a cache of precious materials from the synagogue itself. Because all of the badges were found at the bottom of the crate, dig supervisor Dr. Michał Wojenka hypothesizes that 18 army caps were used to line the crate and that the textiles rotted away leaving only the badges.

Wieliczka is one of Poland’s most popular tourist destinations today thanks to its famous labyrinthine cathedral of a salt mine, in continuous operation for 800 years. The Jewish community in Wieliczka dates almost that far back, and indeed several Jews administered the salt mines on behalf of the Hungarian crown for two centuries before laws banning their involvement in the salt trade (and others) were passed in the 16th century. These and subsequent laws prohibiting Jews from doing business and living in Wieliczka were not evenly enforced under the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth so in reality there was a continuous Jewish presence.

Come partition and the Habsburg reign, many of the anti-Semitic laws were abolished and Jews were granted rights to live, work and worship in Wieliczka. That notwithstanding, the wave of pogroms that broke out in the Polish territory of the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century spilled over to Austria-Hungary as well and anti-Jewish riots roiled Wieliczka in 1889 and 1906. The treasure could have been hidden during that period to keep it safe from would-be desecrators, or perhaps in the first winter of World War I when the Russian army occupied Wieliczka during the battle for Kraków in December 1914.

The Jewish community thrived in the interwar period, growing to 4,000 people, half the population of the town. It was obliterated in World War II, most of them slaughtered at Belzec. The few who survived Nazi extermination did not return to Wieliczka. The synagogue building, severely damaged by the Nazis, was used as a warehouse after the war.

The building is now on the register of historic landmarks but it is in terrible condition. It doesn’t even have a proper roof anymore. Archaeological and architectural examinations have been taking place since last fall in preparation for an ambitious renovation of the synagogue. The field work is essential to the restoration because, believe it or not, there are no extant photographs of the Old Synagogue as it was before its destruction in World War II.

This find is an incredibly huge fluke because the test pit was small and had the team chosen to dig a couple of feet to the left or right, the treasure would never have been found. With so little remaining of Wieliczka’s 600 years of Jewish history, the crate of Judaica is priceless.

Rare Iron Age warrior grave found in Sussex

A rare Iron Age grave furnished with weapons has been discovered in Walberton, West Sussex. The site of a future housing development was being excavated by a team from Archaeology South-East (ASE) when they unearthed the grave dating to between the Late Iron Age and the early Roman era (1st century B.C. – 50 A.D.).

No human remains were found, disintegrated over time in unwelcoming soil. A roughly rectangular dark stain on the soil is all that’s left of the wooden bed or container that the deceased was interred on or in. At one of the short ends of this stain, just outside its perimenter but well-within the grave itself, were four pottery vessels made from local clay. They are utilitarian items, of a type that would have been used to make and store food in the 1st century. Between two of them was a spearhead. At the other end of the grave were additional metal pieces, their form and function currently unknown.

Along the long side of the stain there was an iron sword inside a scabbard made of an organic material (as yet unidentifed). The scabbard was decorated with a copper alloy mount at the mouth. Initial conservation and X-rays of the sword reveal the mount was an elaborate, detailed ornament that would have stood out dramatically when worn.

Warrior burials from this period are extremely rare in Sussex, and with so little data to go on, their cultural significance is unclear.

Jim Stevenson, the ASE archaeologist who is managing the post-excavation investigations into the burial, said: “There has been much discussion generally as to who the people buried in the ‘warrior’ tradition may have been in life.

“Were they really warriors, or just buried with the trappings of one?

“Although the soil conditions destroyed the skeleton, the items discovered within the grave suggest that the occupant had been an important individual.”

Studies of the grave and its contents are ongoing.

Mummy was stabbed in the back, study finds

A new study of a famous mummy that has been the centerpiece of the Ulster Museum in Belfast since 1835 has revealed that she was murdered by being stabbed in the back.

The mummy and her sarcophagus were acquired in Thebes in 1834 by Thomas Gregg, a wealthy lawyer and owner of Ballymenoch House in Holywood, today part of metro Belfast. Like many wealthy European tourists, Gregg sought out a human souvenir on the thriving Egyptian mummy market. The country was well-stocked with thousands of years worth of remains to dig up for the trade in mummies, a trade established in the Renaissance when mummy became an essential ingredient in any respectable pharmacopoeia. The market expanded geometrically in the early 19th century as the fashion for all things Egyptian exploded in the wake of the Napoleonic wars.

Gregg had it shipped by boat to Belfast and donated it to the Belfast Natural History Society, now the Ulster Museum. On January 27th, 1835, the case was opened and the mummy unwrapped before a riveted audience. Mummy “unrollings” were a popular entertainment in the 19th century, and the inscribed case, fine linen wrappings and well-preserved remains complete with auburn curls generated much buzz in the media and among scholars at the time.

The event was presided over by the Reverend Edward Hincks, who when not occupied by his clerical duties had dedicated his considerable intellectual prowess to learning and deciphering ancient languages, including Persian cuneiform, Akkadian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics. He translated the inscriptions on her coffin which revealed her to be Takabuti, a married woman between 20 and 30 years of age, who died around 600 B.C., the late 25th Dynasty. Her father was Nespare, priest of Amun, her mother Tasenirit.

Takabuti has been a fixture of the museum’s Egypt gallery ever since and one of its most popular exhibits. The mummy has been extensively studied. In recent years she’s gotten new x-rays, CT scans, hair sample analysis and radiocarbon dating. The most recent study included DNA analysis and new, more detailed  CT scans.

The scans show a clear stab wound in the upper back of her chest wall near her left shoulder that was the cause of death. Material seen in previous scans that had been thought to be her heart was in fact material the embalmers packed into the fatal wound. Her genetic haplotype, H4a1, has never been found before in Egyptians, modern or ancient.

The team, whose findings are made public on the 185 year anniversary of Takabuti’s unwrapping in 1835, also show that her DNA is more genetically similar to Europeans rather than modern Egyptian populations.

The team show Takabuti had an extra tooth – 33 instead of 32 – something which only occurs in 0.02% of the population and an extra vertebrae, which only occurs 2% of the population.

And Takabuti’s heart, previously thought to have been missing, was identified by the state of the art technology used by the researchers as intact and perfectly preserved.

Elongated Etruscan goes on display in San Gimignano

The Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano is famed for its stunning array of medieval towers. While only 14 of the 72 tower houses built by competing noble families as symbols of their wealth and military strength survive today, they make an indelible mark on the town and preserve the medieval architectural character which has been lost in the larger, more developed cities like Florence and Siena. Today zoning regulations prohibit the alteration of historic buildings and spaces, keeping the center of the town’s medieval layout — from streets to squares to structures — remarkably intact.

But the town itself long pre-dates the era that has come to characterize it. A new exhibition at the Archaeological Museum of San Gimignano turns the spotlight on the town’s ancient history, and it features a never-before-seen artifact from its Etruscan past: a dramatically elongated Hellenistic statuette of a magistrate making an offering. The figurine was discovered in 2010 during construction work on private property on the hillside that leads from San Gimignano to the Elsa river valley. Crews carrying out the digging work first noticed traces of bright green, then saw a long, flatish piece of bronze. That green rectangle turned out to be a bronze figure of a man placed face-down in prone position.

The renovation ceased while regional authorities organized an excavation which revealed an extraordinary Etruscan open-air sacred space in active use from the 3rd century B.C. until the 2nd century A.D. The figurine was buried next a large stone square monolith that served as an altar for religious rites. There are extant traces of fire on the stone from burned offerings. Archaeologists recovered coins, ceramic fragments and unguentaria. The sacred area was next to a spring, so might have been dedicated to a water/earth deity.

The statuette, remarkably intact in virtually pristine condition, depicts a highly stylized elongated figure dressed in a toga draped over one shoulder, his right arm, chest and torso exposed, reaching below his knee. He is shod in flat-soled calcei booties with laces crossed over his feet and around his ankles and lower shins. In his right hand he holds a phiale mesomphalos (a libation vessel with a bump in the middle because the underside has a hollow you put your finger in to steady the flat plate when pouring out liquid offerings). His left hand, attached to his body, is turned palm-out. His facial features are finely detailed, his hair combed forward, his eyes large, his lips full over a pronounced chin dimple. The toga over bare chest, shoes, his posture and the phiale identify him as a magistrate engaged in a ritual offering.

It is an Etruscan votive figurine which can be dated from its stylistic elements to the middle of the 3rd century B.C., made by the artisans of neighboring Volterra who were renown for the bronze casting skills. A piece in this style found in Volterra in the 18th century was dubbed the “Shadow of the Evening” because of his loooong stretched out body and normal sized head. This figure has been yclept the Shadow of San Gimignano, or the Offeror. Elongated Etruscan bronze statuettes are rare, and at more than two feet tall and weighing almost five pounds, the Shadow of San Gimignano is an exceptional example, larger, heavier and more detailed than comparable works. It is also the only one excavated from a sacred context.

Almost 10 years after its discovery, the Shadow of San Gimignano has gone on public display for the first time. Hinthial: The Shadow of San Gimignano opened last month and will run through May 31, 2020. Hinthial means sacred or soul in Etruscan, and the exhibition is structured as an immersive voyage through an Etruscan/Roman sacred landscape with the Offeror as its culmination.