Scandinavian warriors found in medieval graves in Poland

Four richly-adorned graves found in a medieval cemetery in the village of Ciepłe, Eastern Pomerania, Poland, contained the remains of Scandinavian men, not the early Piast elite. The burials date to the time of the first king of Poland, Bolesław I the Brave (b. 967 – d. 1025) and were located in the center of the cemetery. They are the oldest of the 60-plus graves unearthed thus far and stand out for their high quality and their grave goods.

The bodies were buried with extensive weaponry and horse fittings indicating the deceased were warriors. There were finely decorated swords, knives and spearheads, and complete sets of horse tackle (spurs, stirrups, bits, buckles). Other grave goods found in the graves include coins, combs, a set of scales with weights, metal and wood utensils.

The graves would have been special in their own right even if they had not been so full of funerary goods. They are chamber graves, which are very rare in the archaeological record of medieval Poland. Two of them were made of horizontal logs connected in the corners with cog joints, and the other two with vertical piles in the corner. The pile graves also featured huge coffins, the largest of their kind ever found in Poland. All four of the burials were oriented along the North-South axis, another unusual feature in Polish graves from this period. The group of burials was surrounded by a fence or palisade and was never interfered with, suggesting the locals remembered and respected the deceased.

The cemetery was excavated between 2004 and 2014, and the four central burials generated much discussion between archaeologists and historians. There was debate over who the deceased had been, where they came from, whether they were Piast elite or possibly from Scandinavia or Western Europe where chamber graves from this period are well known. Now researchers have answered this question thanks to stable isotope and DNA analysis of bone samples from the remains. The four were indeed from Scandinavia, likely Denmark.

According to Dr. Wadyl, settlements in the area of Ciepłe were founded by Bolesław I the Brave. For the growing early Piast state, the settlement of people was one of the means to gain control and sovereignty over the eastern part of Pomerania and the extremely important and prospective Vistula route.

“The deceased buried in the central part of the cemetery represented the then social elites, as evidenced by the monumental structure of their graves and rich equipment. They probably belonged to a group of elite riders, but their role was probably not limited to the function of warriors,” Dr. Wadyl said.

Dr Wadyl believes that they collected taxes from the local population for the benefit of the Polish ruler. “This is indicated by scales with sets of weights found with two of the dead buried in chamber graves, and with the other two – touchstones used for assaying precious metal alloys, at the same time, indicating access to these metals and participation in trade,” he added.

Scallop used as Roman makeup case

A team of archaeologists has analyzed the contents of a scallop shell found in a 1st c. A.D. grave and found traces of makeup. The scallop shell was discovered in 2000 at an excavation in Mérida, the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania which was founded in 25 B.C. as the veteran colony of Augusta Emerita. The dig unearthed several funerary structures, cremations and inhumations at a site that in Roman times would have been outside the city’s northeast gate on the road to Colonia Metellinensis (modern-day Medellín).

Six burials were excavated. One of them was a rectangular pit dug out of the rock in which the remains of an individual were cremated. Within the pit archaeologists found fill generated by the combustion of the funerary pyre — cremated bone, charcoal and fragments of ceramics, iron nails and tacks from the funeral bed. On top of this layer were grave goods, placed around the perimeter of the pit after the fire had gone out, including two ceramic vessels of local manufacture dating to the second half of the 1st century, a fine blue glass vase with muscle shell decoration, four small glass unguentaria and a complete Pecten maximus shell, its two halves sealed by a hinge.

About 4 inches long and wide, both halves of the shell were in good condition. Two holes were pierced through the flat side with matching ones on the convex side. A metallic wire would have been run through them and tied together to keep the shells closed and protect the contents. Inside the scallop was soil that had filled the cinerary pit, a fragment of silver thread and a small oblong ball of bright pink hue distinct against the brown earth.

That pink ball indicated the scallop shell had been transformed into a pyxis, the ancient Greek name for a vessel,  typically cylindrical in shape, used to hold cosmetics. Thus researchers have dubbed it a “bivalve malacological pyxis,” which has now vaulted into the top bracket of my favorite phrases of all time. (In related how-did-I-live-this-long-before-hearing-this news, the two sides of a scallop shell are called valves, hence “bivalves.”)

Shells were strongly associated with women going back to prehistory, the shell serving as a metaphor for female sex organ, a metaphor still in active use in numerous languages. There are examples of shells being used to hold cosmetics going back to 2500 B.C. Ur, and the trend continued in the Roman era, with seashells and shell-shaped cosmetic boxes made of amber, bone, glass or precious metals found at sites in Italy and Spain.

Using a combination of X-ray diffraction (XRD),  electron microscopy and chromatographic analysis, researchers detected no dyes or mineral pigments (red ocher, vermillion), nor was any mineral substrate in which a dye could have been fixed. It was largely composed of granite lacquer mixed with Rubia tinctorum pigment, color derived from the rose madder plant, and fixed with cold alum. This is an unusual recipe for Roman maquillage, and produces a shade that is much more pink than the orangey-red shades seen in mineral pigments.

Possible Civil War witch bottle found in Virginia

A glass bottle found at a Civil War-era site in York County, Virginia, may be a rare American example of a witch bottle. A team from the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR) found the bottle in a 2016 excavation of the site of Redoubt 9, now a median between a couple of exits off Interstate 64 near near Busch Gardens, but during the Civil War part of a line of 14 forts that formed the Williamsburg Line.

An outpost of Fort Magruder, Redoubt 9 was occupied by Union and Confederate forces at different times. When the Williamsburg Line was attacked by the Army of the Potomac in May of 1862, Redoubt 9 was being manned by the 6th South Carolina. They retreated and the Union troops commanded by General Winfield Scott Hancock took all the forts on the line and kept them until the end of the war.

The location of Redoubt 9 was lost over time and highway construction in the 1960s did some damage to the archaeological site. Luckily  most of it was under the median, so Redoubt 9 missed the full-scale destruction wrought on either side of it during the digging and paving of the eastbound and westbound lands.

The site was rediscovered as a Civil War battlefield in 2007 by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), but it wasn’t excavated and confirmed as Redoubt 9 until VDOT wanted to expand the lanes and engaged WMCAR to survey the site in 2016. The dig was surprisingly thorough considering it had to be conducted on a highway median as traffic roared away on both sides of them. They unearthed bullets, 10 fired and 11 unfired, a shrapnel fragment and two bullet cartridges; too thin a result to do any battle mapping. They also found objects attesting to the occupation of the site — buttons, bayonet scabbards, dishes, an empty champagne bottle, a brick-lined hearth, and next to the hearth, a glass beer bottle with a broken neck containing some rusty nails.

The bottle was manufactured by Charles Grove of Colombia, Pennsylvania between the 1840s and 1860s. The 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry occupied Redoubt 9 off and on from May 1862 to August 1863, whenever it looked like battle might be engaged along the Williamsburg Line. They would have been tasked with making any necessary repairs on the fortifications, so at first archaeologists thought the troops had just used an old bottle to hold nails when they reinforced the redoubt.

Upon further examination, WMCAR researchers now think it might be more than just an impromptu nail holder. Originally an East Anglian folk ritual that was brought to North America by colonists, a witch bottle was made by putting nails or other pointy hardware and anatomical contributions (urine, hair and nail clippings, navel lint) into a bottle and embedding in the wall or burying it under the floor near a hearth or doorway. The bodily detritus lured the witch, the tradition held, and the nails pinned her down. The heat from the hearth increased the power of the bottle’s counter-magic, forcing the witches to break the spell linking them to their victims and even killing the evil-doer.

“It’s a good example of how a singular artifact can speak volumes,” [WMCAR director Joe] Jones said. “It’s really a time capsule representing the experience of Civil War troops, a window directly back into what these guys were going through occupying this fortification at this period in time.” […]

Centuries later, there’s no way of knowing for sure if the artifact is a charm against evil spirits or just a bottle full of nails. Jones explained that most witch bottles contain relics of those who buried them. The afflicted would add nail clippings, locks of hair and even urine to witch bottles. The bottle recovered at Redoubt 9 was broken at the top, so Jones said it’s practically impossible to know who made it or what their real intentions were.

“Perhaps the nails in the bottle were put there not by enlisted men using the bottle as an expedient container, but instead by an officer who felt especially threatened occupying hostile territory,” Jones said. “Given the perceived threat of Confederate attack and general hostility of local residents, he had good reason to pull all the stops and rely on folk traditions from his community in Pennsylvania to help protect his temporary home away from home.”

And not just Pennsylvania. The descendants of European colonists from Maine to Georgia kept the late Medieval tradition alive. But perhaps because they can seem like random containers of old trash, witch bottles are very rarely reported. Almost 200 documented witch bottles have been found Britain, but the number on the record in the United States can be counted on the fingers of two hands.

Vesuvius turned a man’s brain to glass

The skull of a young man who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. has been found to contain the remains of his brain, but not in any of the mummified, saponified or even Heslington varieties seen before in an archaeological context. His brain was turned to glass.

The skeletal remains of an adult male about 25 years of age when he died were discovered in a small room believed to be the caretaker’s bed chamber in the Collegium Augustalium, the headquarters of the cult of the deified Augustus,  in 1961. The bones were on top of a bank of volcanic ash from the eruption. Pieces of the wooden bed he had been lying on were visible inside the bank. He was found in prone position face down, or rather what-was-left-of-his-face down. The heat of the pyroclastic surge had made his skull burst. Section of his exploded and charred skull were found in a rough semi-circle around the top of the bed. The bones of his chest were encased in a solidified spongy mass, likely formed by the combination of lungs and organs with volcanic material. Small bits of pumice are embedded in there.

The entrapped chest was unique for a victim of Vesuvius’ 79 A.D. eruption, as was another feature: a glassy black material filling the cranial cavity and encrusted on the inner surface of the bone fragments. While there were areas on the left tibia and a rib fragment that were partially glass-like in appearance, they were much less glossy and largely retained their original structure.

University of Naples Federico II forensic anthropologist Dr. Pier Paolo Petrone was studying the Collegium Augustalium remains when he noticed the black glassy texture in the cranium.

“I noticed something shining inside the head,” he told the Guardian. “This material was preserved exclusively in the victim’s skull, thus it had to be the vitrified remains of the brain. But it had to be proved beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry analysis of the protein content of the glassy material in the cranium found fatty acids that are specific to brain tissue, suggesting that Vesuvius turned this man’s brain was to glass.

From the results published New England Journal of Medicine:

Proteomic investigation of the glassy material inside the skull identified several proteins that are highly expressed in human brain tissues (Table S1). Adipic and margaric fatty acids, components of human hair fat from sebum, were detected exclusively in the glassy fragments (Table S2) but not in the adjacent ash or in charcoal from the archaeological site. Fatty acids that are typical of human brain triglycerides were also found in the putative brain material. These substances are common to animals and plants (Table S3); however, no evidence of plants or animals was found at the site from which the victim was recovered.

Features suggesting a maximum temperature of 520°C were detected on charred wood from the Collegium (Fig. S5). This suggests that extreme radiant heat was able to ignite body fat and vaporize soft tissues; a rapid drop in temperature followed. The detection of glassy material from the victim’s head, of proteins expressed in human brain, and of fatty acids found in human hair indicates the thermally induced preservation of vitrified human brain tissue.

Vitrification is a rare phenomenon on the archaeological record. Most of the vitrified material that has been discovered is charcoal, dry wood that converted to glassy hardness in an inferno of around 310-530°C.

15th c. sauna found in Mexico City

Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have unearthed the remains of a pre-Hispanic sweat lodge dating to the 14th century. It was made out of adobe and tezontle, a local volcanic rock, and then coated with stucco. A large section of walls, the central tub and a bench along the side are extant. The sweat house would have been about 16 feet long and 10 feet wide when intact.

Known in Nahuatl as temazcals, these mud-brick or stone structures were domed sweat lodges with warm water pools or steam baths, a lower heat version of the Roman sudatorium. Unlike the Roman bathing practice, temazcals were used for ritual and medicinal purposes. They were also used by women in childbirth.

The temazcal was discovered in the La Merced neighborhood. The remains of the sweat lodge are the first concrete archaeological evidence that what is now La Merced was originally Temazcaltitlan, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tenochtitlan. It was known from written sources from the colonial era including  the Nahuatl-language Crónica Mexicayotl and Aubin Codex and the Sigüenza Map, a cartographic history of the migration of the Mexica  from Aztlán to Tenochtitlan.

The account of the settlement of Tenochtitlan in Crónica Mexicayotl describes the temazcal as pretty much the first thing built by the handful of nobles who founded the city before the wider population of Mexica followed. They had been violently expelled from Tizapán and fled to the swamps around the central lagoon of what would become Tenochtitlan. During the dangerous escape, Quetzalmoyahuatzin, daughter of one of the Mexica nobles, gave birth. The founders erected a sweat house there where they bathed her and themselves. The spot was named Temazcaltitlan after the temazcal.

The head of the INAH team that found the temazcal said the discovery is the first concrete evidence of Temazcaltitlan’s vocation as a center of bathing and purification.

Víctor Esperón Calleja said the neighborhood belonged to the district of Teopan (also known as Zoquipan), which was the first territory built on Lake Texcoco and occupied by the Mexicas. It is believed that the female deities of earth, fertility, water and the pre-Hispanic beverage pulque were also worshipped in Temazcaltitlan.

On the west side of the site, the INAH team unearthed the remains of an early colonial house with several rooms built over the temazcal. It was constructed using both pre-Hispanic and European techniques, so archaeologists believe it belonged to a high-status indigenous family in the immediate wake of the Spanish Conquest, between 1521 and 1620. A hundred years later under the Spanish Viceroyalty (1720-1820), a tannery was built on the site.

This video in Spanish (the auto-translate captions are, as usual, bad, but at least vaguely understandable) has great shots of the site.