Archive for February, 2020

Georgia Gold Rush coin sets new record

Saturday, February 29th, 2020

A coin struck in 1830 during the Georgia Gold Rush has sold at auction for a record price of $480,000. The previous record set in 2013 was $329,000. The gold coin about the size of a modern nickel valued at $2.50 (a quarter Eagle) has been in private collections in the Midwest and West Coast since the 1970s. The new buyer is a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous except for one detail: he or she is from Georgia, so the coin is going back to its home state for the first time in at least 50 years.

The Georgia Gold Rush was sparked in 1828 when gold was discovered in Dahlonega, north Georgia, then Cherokee territory. Mining operations cropped up everywhere, illegal  incursions into Cherokee land. The Indian Removal Act legislating the forced relocation of all Native American nations east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma was passed in 1830, a direct result of the gold strike and the flood of white prospectors.

The area was short of currency. It operated largely on a barter economy, with banks keeping the limited number of coins imported to the area out of circulation so they could use them to pay import duties. Getting good value from gold dust and nuggets by bartering them was challenging, to say the least. Impurities in the raw material made weighing and assay inaccurate.

When the first gold rush in the United States, the Carolina Gold Rush of the early 1800s, had taken off, the US Mint set up a federal branch in Charlotte to process the raw gold into gold coins, but the federal response to the success of the Georgia mines was slow. Miners had to transport unrefined gold to the only national mint in Philadelphia for processing, a long, dangerous journey, and pay a steep price in express shipment and insurance charges.

Enter Templeton Reid, a silversmith, machinist, inventor, clockmaker and gunsmith who lived and worked in Milledgeville, then the capital of the state of Georgia. He had the idea of starting up a mint to convert the raw gold into coins of $2.5, $5 and $10 dollars, matching the denominations of the US mint’s gold Eagles. To that end, he built an apparatus that struck coins from gold dust, boldly stamped “GEORGIA 1830 GOLD” on the obverse, and the minter’s name “T. REID,” the value and “ASSAYER” on the reverse. This was the first private mint since Ephraim Brasher of New York’s foray into doubloons in 1787.

Reid’s mint opened in Milledgeville in July 1830, moving shortly thereafter to Gainesville, about 10 miles from the epicenter of the gold mining district. His coins quickly went into circulation and things were going well for minter and miner alike until August 16th, 1830, when a letter to the Georgia Courier by an anonymous writer calling himself “No Assayer” claimed that he had had one of Reid’s $10 coins assayed at the federal mint and found that its real value was $9.38. The $2.50 and $5 coins were similarly short. He accused Reid of making what I guess he thought was a usurious profit of 7% which, even if true, would have been on the very low end of the costs incurred by miners to send their gold to the Philly mint, while offering enormous advantages in speed and convenience of the conversion.

Reid wrote an incensed rebuttal to these accusations which was published on September 11th, 1830. No Assayer came back at him on September 20th, this time upping the ante to accuse Reid of violating the Constitution of the United States and of offensively suggesting that “the Mint of the United States, managed by men of strictest integrity, and chosen for their knowledge in the science of mineralogy, and bound by the oaths and bond for their faithful discharge of the duties connected with the department of government, is beyond a doubt wrong.”

The anonymous writer never offered proof of his putative mint assay and the newspaper just printed the back-and-forth without investigation or comment. In truth, Reid put more gold in his coins than the federal mints put in theirs and to ensure the most possible purity, he never added alloys. Any purity issues were inherent to the raw material and the result of limited technology Reid had access to in the assay of the miners’ gold.

Still, the damage was done. The public fight had tarnished Reid’s reputation and banks and shops began to refuse his coin. Three months after it opened, the Reid mint folded. It would eight years before the federal government opened a branch of the mint in Dahlonega. Reid went back to his previous business endeavors, building cotton gins, manufacturing and repairing gin equipment.

Out of thousands minted in those few brief months, today there are about 25 or so surviving $2.50 Reid coins, and fewer than 10 of the $5 and $10 ones. The one that just set the record is the only example of its issue in mint condition and is indeed the finest graded Templeton Reid coin of any denomination.


Smithsonian releases 2.8 million free images and more

Friday, February 28th, 2020

The Smithsonian Institution has released 2.8 million images from its digital collection for broad public use, and that’s just for starters. The Smithsonian Open Access initiative removes copyright restrictions from images and data, releasing its vast database into the public domain with a Creative Commons Zero license, meaning digital files can be used in any way, including for commercial purposes, without requiring permission or even attribution.

Museums like the Metropolitan, Getty and Rijksmuseum have been making high resolution images of their collections available online for personal or non-profit use in recent years, including the Smithsonian which already has more than 4.7 million images from its collection available for personal use. The Smithsonian Open Access program expands the scope of digitization by a cultural institution, extending the use license to CC0 for nearly 3 million of those images, plus much more.  Any digital asset owned by the Smithsonian — research data, text, sound recordings, 3D models and more — is being designated open access. More will be added on an ongoing basis, with more than 3 million images designated open access by the end of the year.

All of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives and the National Zoo contributed images or data to this launch. The program includes content across the arts, sciences, history, culture, technology and design, from portraits of historic American figures to 3D scans of dinosaur skeletons.

Visit the Smithsonian Open Access portal to search the digital collections for high-resolution 2D and 3D images. You can also browse by platforms like Learning Lab for K-12 educational resources and Figshare for research datasets. The Smithsonian has also published open-source tools for the creation of 3D content. Use Voyager to view one the museum’s 2,200 3D models or to author and publish your own.

Open access furthers the Smithsonian’s mission which has been the same since its founding in 1846: for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.“ Remarkably, the Smithsonian’s founder James Smithson, an English chemist and mineralogist who died in 1829, provided some blueprints for the initiative. His biographer Heather Ewing talks about Smithson’s view that the natural world could only ever be understood with many people participating in, assembling, and sharing information. Smithson used commonly found objects when conducting his experiments so others could replicate his experiments as he sought to understand everything from snake venom to ancient Egyptian pigments to improved methods for making coffee.

“It is only by exchange and mutual assistance that naturallists [sic] can possibly ever succeed in assembling together a collection of subjects of their study, which nature has made so numerous, and disseminated in such various and distant parts of the world,” James Smithson


Mystery of the Breton inscription still mysterious

Thursday, February 27th, 2020

The case of the mysterious inscription on a boulder on the Breton coast may have been cracked, but it still continues to puzzle. Visible only at low tide, the boulder in the village of Plougastel-Daoulas is inscribed with 20 lines of text in capital letters. There are also two dates, 1786 and 1787, and two drawings, a sailboat and a sacred heart. The dates seemed to indicate the age of the inscription, but the text itself was undecipherable. The letters were mostly from the regular French alphabet, but some were upside-down or reversed and there also appeared to be some Ø vowels found in Danish and Norwegian.

Local historians and archaeologists were stumped, so last year Mayor Dominique Cap of Plougastel launched a competition, appealing to historians, polyglots and cryptographers around the world to decipher the inscription. The entries would be judged by a jury of academics and an expert from Brittany’s archaeology department, and the most plausible solution awarded €2,000.

The competition caught on like wildfire. Thousands of emails were sent by would-be decipherers, with a final tally of 61 complete translations submitted from France, the US, Romania, Spain, Norway, Russia, Italy, Brazil and Thailand, among other countries. On Monday the municipality announced that two winning submissions had been selected by the jury: one from Celtic expert and retired English teacher Noël René Toudic and the other from local author Roger Faligot and artist Alain Robet. The winning solutions tell a similar story, but they’re quite different in their particulars.

Toudic departed from the premise that the inscription was written by a native Breton of limited literacy so he wrote phonetically. It is a memorial to a soldier named Serge Le Bris, engraved by his comrade Grégoire Haloteau. The key part of Toudic’s translation: “Serge died when, badly trained to row, last year his boat was overturned by the wind.” The years mark the date of Serge’s death and the date of the inscription.

Faligot and Robet’s proposed solution is also a memorial to a fallen friend. It is a more complex account of a tragedy and one not written in Breton.

Their translation does not contain names, but speaks of a somebody who was “struck and died” while “at sea at the heart of this violent storm” at a place “near the fortified beach”. The engraver also speaks of having “come to this country” and being taken prisoner.

“Because of the war situation between Britain and France over to the independence struggle in America, there were lots of naval battles just outside the bay,” explains Faligot, author of 50 books, including a history of Brest published in 2016.

“You had lots of prisoners from Wales, Cornwall and England. Not necessarily English-speakers, but also speaking Celtic languages.”

Faligot believes the engraving may be the work of a Welsh prisoner who spoke a language very similar to Breton in order to honour a companion.

“He wanted to do something to say that his friend had drowned that way, and it was extremely sad. He’s also furious with the navy or the army, because he thinks they’re responsible for what happened.”

Neither winner was able to translate the entirety of the inscription, so there’s more work to do. The town also wants to research the names in Toudic’s solution to see if there are any records of a Serge Le Bris and Grégoire Haloteau from the late 18th century.


The not-tomb of Romulus: Part the Third

Wednesday, February 26th, 2020

In 2019, Boni’s “crate” captured the attention of Patrizia Fortini, an archaeologist with the Parco Archeological del Colosseo, who was studying his turn-of-the-century excavation records. Boni’s description and the drawings he made, like a cross-section illustrating the stratigraphy of the casket and cylinder in relation to the curia and other finds, underscored that this simple tufa box must have held great importance to be located in the very heart of Rome’s political and religious life. The shrine is in a direct line to the Lapis Niger only yards away, another indicator of its symbolic importance. Fortini also deduced from the drawings that the box was inside a designed structure, ie, a hypogeum or an underground temple.

In November 2019, the excavation began. The Bartoli staircase was dismantled, revealing the nucleus of the ancient staircase Boni had found and structural elements of the portico that had once faced the Curia Julia. Behind a brick wall built by Bartoli to protect the site, the team rediscovered the tufa sarcophagus and cylindrical block.

Both are made of Capitoline tufa quarried in situ, which is about as local a material as you can get, and which attests to their great age. As Rome’s territories expanded, they turned to richer sources of stone outside the city center instead of gutting the soft, friable tufa out of the Capitoline and Palatine. Large blocks of grey tufa on the south and west sides may have been part of the structure of the hypogeum itself.

As far as what might link this empty sarcophagus with the cult of Romulus, the biggest clue comes from a lost ancient text by the prolific polymath Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27 B.C.) who wrote at least 74 works in more than 600 volumes on many topics including the Latin language, philosophy, what in the Middle Ages would become known as the nine liberal arts, architecture, agriculture, religion and history. His chronology of the consuls established the founding date of Rome as 753 B.C. and while there were plenty of other proposed dates, Varro’s is the one that stuck.

The only complete work of his that has survived is Three Books on Agriculture, in which, as an aside to illustrate what a genius this guy was, he postulated the existence of microscopic creatures that enter the body and cause disease. We have only fragments from his Antiquities of Human and Divine Things, mostly quotes in Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, full name: On the city of God against the pagans, a rebuttal of the widespread belief that the sack of Rome in 410 was the result of the abandonment of the city’s traditional gods. Smaller quotes from Varro’s Antiquities can be found in a number of surviving ancient text. In one from a scholia (scholarly annotation) of Horace’s Epodi XVI, Varro states that Romulus was buried behind the Rostra. That’s where the hypogeal chamber with the sarcophagus is located.

Making a conclusive link between this find and the symbolic Tomb of Romulus is likely impossible, as there are simply too many variables and unknowns. This incredibly long-winded extendopost only scratches the surface of them. Nonetheless, it’s a discovery of great antiquity and significance.

Excavations will pick up again at the end of April. Archaeologists will be looking at the stratigraphic section on the west side of the chamber in particular. They will also look under the Curia Julia itself. Bartoli noted that there were two trapdoors in the Curia. Both are in line with hypogeum and monumental blocks of tufa are visible through them today. It’s possible those blocks were part of the underground temple’s back wall.


The not-tomb of Romulus: Part the Second

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

The legends of the founding of Rome have come down to us from ancient chroniclers, but the earliest extant accounts we have come from the 2nd century B.C., more than 600 years after the supposed events. Those authors refer to earlier histories, now lost, but it doesn’t exactly help identify any potential kernels of truth. It just adds to the cacophony of unknowns.

Here, for example, is Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus writing in the 1st century B.C. (Roman Antiquities I.72):

But as there is great dispute concerning both the time of the building of the city and the founders of it, I have thought it incumbent on me also not to give merely a cursory account of these things, as if they were universally agreed on. For Cephalon of Gergis, a very ancient writer, says that the city was built in the second generation after the Trojan war by those who had escaped from Troy with Aeneas, and he names as the founder of it Romus, who was the leader of the colony and one of Aeneas’ sons; he adds that Aeneas had four sons, Ascanius, Euryleon, Romulus and Remus. And Demagoras, Agathyllus and many others agree with him as regards both the time and the leader of the colony. But the author of the history of the priestesses at Argos and of what happened in the days of each of them says that Aeneas came into Italy from the land of the Molossians with Odysseus and became the founder of the city, which he named after Romê, one of the Trojan women. He says that this woman, growing weary with wandering, stirred up the other Trojan women and together with them set fire to the ships. And Damastes of Sigeum and some others agree with him. But Aristotle, the philosopher, relates that some of the Achaeans, while they were doubling Cape Malea on their return from Troy, were overtaken by a violent storm, and being for some time driven out of their course by the winds, wandered over many parts of the sea, till at last they came to this place in the land of the Opicans which is called Latinium, lying on the Tyrrhenian sea. And being pleased with the sight of land, they hauled up their ships, stayed there the winter season, and were preparing to sail at the beginning of spring; but when their ships were set on fire in the night and they were unable to sail away, they were compelled against their will to fix their abode in the place where they had landed. This fate, he says, was brought upon them by the captive women they were carrying with them from Troy, who burned the ships, fearing that the Achaeans in returning home would carry them into slavery. Callias who wrote of the deeds of Agathocles, says that Romê, one of the Trojan women who came into Italy with the other Trojans, married Latinus, the king of the Aborigines, by whom she had three son, Romus, Romulus and Telegonus, . . . and having built a city, gave it the name of their mother. Xenagoras, the historian, writes that Odysseus and Circê had three sons, Romus, Anteias and Ardeias, who built three cities and called them after their own names. Dionysius of Chalcis names Romus as the founder of the city, but says that according to some this man was the son of Ascanius, and according to others the son of Emathion. There are others who declare that Rome was built by Romus, the son of Italus and Leucaria, the daughter of Latinus.

If you think that was a long quote, consider that that’s just the paragraph about the Greek historians, and he didn’t even include all of them. He goes on to relay some of the conflicting stories and dates in Roman accounts. (A moment of silence for all these books we will never get to read.)

By the time of the late Republic, the Romulus legend was thoroughly ingrained in Roman culture. Although chroniclers still debated the veracity of various elements and versions, they expressed no doubt on the historicity of Romulus himself. There were several important cult sites dedicated to the founder: the temple to Jupiter Stator built by Romulus after the peace with Titus Tatius, the wild fig tree the twins had been found under was transplanted to the Forum, the humble wood and thatch house Romulus had built for himself on the Palatine still stood and would continue to be a noted city landmark at least into the 4th century A.D., the Lapis Niger, an ancient shrine in the Forum featuring a truncated tufa pillar inscribed in Latin so old that nobody in the late Republic could read it, was alternately said to mark the spot of Romulus’ death or grave, that of his adoptive father Faustulus, or that of Hostus Hostilius (father of the third king, Tullus Hostilius), who had died heroically fighting off the Sabines.

The question of Romulus’ death was just as much debated as every other aspect of the founding. Livy and Plutarch relay accounts that, accompanied by mighty thunderclaps, Romulus was assumed bodily into heaven and became the god Quirinus, protector of Rome. They also proffers another possibility: that that was just a story told to appease the masses after Romulus’ sudden disappearance, when really the senators had killed Romulus, cut his body into small pieces and smuggled chunks of him in the folds of their togas to dispose of the evidence of their regicide.

The lack of a physical body was no barrier to a tomb, however. A cenotaph — an empty tomb memorializing the dead — or heroon — a shrine dedicated to a hero built over his ostensible tomb — required no bodily remains, and whatever the real origins and ages of these relics of Romulus, they were revered as sacred sites.

Between natural disasters, unnatural ones like the Gallic sack in 390 B.C., an ever-expanding population, normal wear and tear and shifts in fashion, the architecture of the city never stood still. The Lapis Niger was covered, at first after it was damaged in the sack, again, possibly by Sulla, and then entirely obscured by Julius Caesar’s major reorientation of the Forum. The massive markets, basilicas and forums of the Imperial age needed deep foundations, and much of Rome’s earliest archaeology must have been destroyed during those construction programs.

After the fall of Western Empire, the city cannibalized itself. Ancient structures were left to ruin, built onto, deliberately demolished or scavenged for their materials. Layers upon layers of construction, flood silt, disaster rubble built up over 1,500 years, raising ground level far above the earliest remains and creating a stratigraphic maze below.

The first to attempt to crack the complex conundrum of what was under the Forum from what era was archaeologist Giacomo Boni, director of excavations in the Roman Forum from 1898 until his death in 1925. Boni’s work was groundbreaking in more than the literal sense as he was the first to undertake a systematic analysis of the stratigraphy of the Forum, the archaeological nucleus of the city. He unearthed the two most ancient sites in Rome: a tufa shrine he identified as the Vulcanal and the Lapis Niger.

In his 1899 excavation, the results of which he published in 1900, Boni noted the discovery of a tufa coffin and cylinder under what was left of the ancient staircase in front of the Curia Julia.

3.6 meters [11.8 feet] from the nucleus of the staircase, a rectangular tufa casket or basin 1.4 meters long [4.6 feet], .7 meters [2.3 feet] wide and .77 meters [2.5 feet] high was found, in front of which rises a cylindrical trunk of tufa .75 meters [2.5 feet] in diameter.

The tufa case contained pebbles, shards of coarse pots, fragments of pottery from Campania, a certain amount of pectunculus valves [sea snail shells] and a piece of red colored plaster.

That’s all he had to say about it. Boni recorded the find but did not connect it to Romulus or any other ancient monument, and moved right along to record the myriad other finds he’d made in his pioneering excavation of one of the most archaeologically dense spots in the world.

In the 1930s, archaeologist Alfonso Bartoli was directed by Mussolini to peel the church additions off the Curia Julia and restore it as close as possible to its ancient design. He built a new staircase in front of it over the nucleus of the ancient one. And over the modest little tufa sarcophagus and cylinder Boni had unearthed.

Bartoli could so easily have done what 2,500 years of Roman builders before him had done and destroyed those remains in the process. They were deep underground, visually unremarkable, entirely out of sync with Mussolini’s fantasy of the shiny white marble imperial city, and basically unknown. Instead, he kept the shrine intact and safe, building brick pillars to sustain a soffit made of iron beams and perforated wooden planks.

Even though nobody knew about it, Bartoli’s protective structure was securely in place when the excavation team from the Parco Archeological del Colosseo began to retrace Boni’s steps in November 2019.


Tomb of Romulus definitely not found: Part the First

Monday, February 24th, 2020

Last Monday, Alfonsina Russo, director of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum, announced the discovery of a tufa sarcophagus and cylindrical stone under the Roman Forum believed to have been part of a shrine to Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. Its position in the stratigraphy of the Forum dates it to the 6th century B.C., making it one of the most ancient monuments in the city.

There wasn’t a great deal of information in the release about the find, and the combination of “sarcophagus” and “Romulus” generated a predictable spate of headlines about his tomb maybe having been discovered. The Daily Beast’s “Did Rome Archeologists Uncover Proof of Romulus?” was my favorite. You have to get halfway down the article before the clickbaity question it poses is answered, as it could only ever be, in the negative, even though the story reports on a press conference in which Russo explicitly stated, “This cannot be his tomb.”

But to nerds like me (and you, which is why you’re reading this), there’s plenty of nutritious meat on the bones of those ancient tufa remains without needing to coat them in a sugary BBQ sauce of what-ifs: the traditions and legends underpinning them, sure, but also their significance and connection from the early Republic to the Empire, how they were rediscovered in the modern era with the deployment of new archaeological practices in Rome’s most ancient heart, how they were covered back up during the 1930s as part of Mussolini’s program of recreating a Rome of imperial grandeur (but secretly protected when they could so easily have been destroyed), how they were re-rediscovered again using a combination of old excavation records and ancient sources.

Because this is such a fascinatingly complicated story, my paltry attempt to break down some of those complexities will take a chronological approach, starting with legend as it brushes up against history, and then archaeology, both its practice and the material culture it uncovered.

Let us go then, you and I, back in time to the legendary founding of Rome. You know the story, I’m sure, of how the twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the virgin priestess Rhea Silvia and the god Mars, were condemned to be drowned in the Tiber by her irate uncle. As so often happens in these tales, the people tasked with the unpleasant duty of infanticide chickened out and left the babies next to the banks of the river at flood. There they were found by a lactating she-wolf who suckled them under the shade of a wild fig tree until a swineherd named Faustulus happened by and took them home to raise as his own. They grew into strapping lads keen to found a new city. In 753 B.C. (the traditional date arrived at hundreds of years later by historians following the line of consuls back to the mythical days and using the years of the Olympic Games as a lodestar), Romulus chose the Palatine hill for his, Remus the Aventine. When Remus mocked his brother’s new boundary wall by jumping over it, Romulus killed him. Within that blooded boundary the city of Rome grew, populated first by the exiles and assorted undesirables from neighboring communities, then with Sabine women acquired through treachery and rape, its territory expanded in wars with surrounding tribes.

It was one of those wars — the violent reaction to Rome’s assorted undesirables having kidnapped Sabine maidens and forced them into marriage — that spurred the creation of what would become the very nucleus, political, religious and historical, of the city of Rome. The Sabines had spent a year preparing for this fight. By then their daughters were married to and had children with their abductors and had no desire to see either side slaughtered. When the Sabine women rushed the battlefield pleading that their families and husbands make peace so they would be neither widows nor orphans, the Romans on the Palatine and the Sabines occupying the Capitoline citadel met in the valley between them and laid down their arms. They signed a peace treaty and came together with Romulus and Sabine King Titus Tatius as co-kings of a united people.

That valley between the hills would grow and evolve over centuries into the Roman Forum, incarnating in its geography the blurry lines between myth and history. The Curiate Assembly, created by Romulus who divided his new city into tribes (curiae) for the purpose of political representation, met there to vote and hold public meetings in the comitium, an open-air space located in what is now the northwest corner of the Forum. Speakers would address the assembled from what would become known in the 4th century B.C. as the rostra, a platform facing the comitium. On the north side of the comitium across from the rostra the first Senate house, the Curia Hostilia, was built by King Tullus Hostilius (r. 673-641 B.C.).

Whatever was left of this ancient building during the turbulent days of the later Republic was demolished by dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. In its place and taking over a solid half of the comitium, Sulla built a much larger curia to accommodate the Senate whose membership he had doubled. That one was burned down in 52 B.C. when it was used as an impromptu funeral pyre for Publius Clodius Pulcher after he was killed by the gladiatorial goon squad of his political enemy Titus Annius Milo. It was rebuilt by Sulla’s son Faustus, but was converted into a temple in 44 B.C. by Julius Caesar who built a new Senate house, the Curia Julia, between it and the rostra. It still stands today, albeit extensively rebuilt under Domitian and having spent 1500 years as a church.

It is in front of the Curia Julia, 12 feet beneath the masonry nucleus of the long-gone ancient staircase, that archaeologists discovered the tufa sarcophagus.


Programming Note

Sunday, February 23rd, 2020

I’m a tad under the weather so there will be no post today, but I shall make it up to you with an incredibly prolix article that I’ve been working on since Monday. It’s one of those things that was going to be a normal report on a find but then I fell into a crazy research wormhole so now it’s huge and still unfinished. Stay tuned!


Stele from lost kingdom boasting of defeat of Phrygia found by Turkish farmer

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020

A Turkish farmer discovered an ancient stele from a lost kingdom that boasts of having defeated the powerful kingdom of Phrygia.  Last summer, the farmer alerted archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (OI) who were surveying the ancient site of Türkmen-Karahöyük that he had seen a large stone with curious inscriptions when digging an irrigation canal the winter before. The team found the stone still in place sticking out of the water of the canal. They recognized the script as Luwian, an ancient  Indo-European language used in the area during the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Working under the Konya Regional Archaeological Survey Project, Osborne and UChicago students were mapping the site as part of the Türkmen-Karahöyük Intensive Survey Project, located in an area littered with other famous ancient cities. Just by walking around the site’s surface, they collected bits of broken pottery from three thousand years of habitation at the site—a rich and promising find—until the farmer’s chance visit pointed them to the stone block known as a stele.

Osborne immediately identified a special hieroglyphic marking that symbolized the message came from a king. The farmer helped pull the massively heavy stone stele out of the irrigation canal with a tractor. From there it went to the local Turkish museum, where it was cleaned, photographed and readied for translation.

The full inscription was deciphered by OI experts in Luwian script. It tells of King Hartapu, conqueror of the kingdom of Muska (aka Phrygia), courtesy of the storm gods who “delivered the kings to his majesty.” Linguistic analysis dates the stele to the late eighth century B.C. which is when Phrygia was ruled was King Midas.

This has of course given rise to many headlines about the local king defeating Midas, but that’s a bit of an equivocation. It’s not the legendary King Midas of golden touch and ears of an ass fame. If there was a real ruler named Midas who is the kernel of truth inside the legend, he lived long before the 8th century B.C. The first known historical ruler of Phrygia of that name (there are several) is recorded by ancient Greek and Assyrian chroniclers. Assyrian records of a King “Mita” of the Mushki (central Anatolian people associated with the Phrygians) date to between c. 718 and 709 B.C., the reign of Sargon II. Mita is first mentioned in 718 B.C. as being allied with an enemy of Sargon. Assyria defeated them, but nine years later Mita pled for aid from Sargon when his kingdom was attacked by Cimmerians, nomads from the Black Sea. Strabo writes in Geography I.III.21 that when the Cimmerians conquered Midas’ capital of Gordium, the king killed himself by drinking bull’s blood.

Setting the Midas issue aside, which is for the best as really there is no way of knowing if he was the king when this stele was inscribed and his name is only coming up because it’s so recognizable from an unrelated legend, the stele is important in what it reveals about the history of Türkmen-Karahöyük.

[N]ot quite 10 miles to the south is a volcano with a well-known inscription in hieroglyphics. It refers to a King Hartapu, but no one knew who he was—or what kingdom he ruled.

Now we know that Hartapu ruled Türkmen-Karahöyük, one of the largest cities of Asia Minor which at its peak covered 300 acres. Its ancient name remains unknown, but the OI’s Türkmen-Karahöyük Intensive Survey Project hopes to answer that question too.


350+ artifacts recovered from HMS Erebus

Friday, February 21st, 2020

In just three weeks, underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada have recovered more than 350 artifacts from the wreck of the HMS Erebus, one of the two vessels of the 1845 Sir John Franklin expedition that came to a tragic end. Between August 20th and September 12th, 2019, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team made 93 dives to the wreck, spending a total of 110 hours in the cold Arctic waters of Nunavut.

New gear made it possible for this season’s excavation to dive for longer periods. The diving support barge Qiniqtiryuaq (meaning “searching for some thing or person which was lost”) was moored with two three-ton anchors right over the wreck. Hoses from the barge supplied divers with air so they didn’t have to carry heavy tanks. Other hoses ran warm water into the divers’ suits. With these two key advantages, divers were able to double the average time spent exploring the wreck in each plunge. The barge also served as an on-site field lab where team members could immediately record every object brought to the surface.

This year’s excavation efforts focused on two areas along the port side of the lower deck – – an officer’s cabin for the third Lieutenant, and the captain’s steward’s pantry. Within these two adjacent areas, enclosed drawers in fitted cabinets and the remains of cupboards were found, in which a trove of stored artifacts were revealed. All newly discovered artifacts from HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are jointly-owned by the Government of Canada and Inuit.

Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team uses water induction dredges, trowels, and sometimes light hand-fanning to carefully remove sediments from around buried artifacts, exposing them for mapping, photography, and recovery.

Artefacts from the captain’s steward’s pantry included an abundance of ceramic tableware and beverage containers among other, more personal items such as clothing, a toothbrush with intact bristles and remnants of an accordion.

The captain’s steward was Edmund Hoar, a young man of 23 when Erebus began its ill-fated voyage. His job was to tend to the captain’s table so the pantry was where he stored what he needed to serve the captain’s meals. Archaeologists also found his lead stamp bearing Hoar’s name in the pantry.

One particularly stunning find preserved in the cold waters is a pair of epaulettes found in a cabin on the lower deck. It has to be confirmed, but archaeologists believe they have belonged to Third Lieutenant James Walter Fairholme. Other than that, the cabin was pretty much empty, as were the ship’s storage areas. Other spaces were still complete with furniture and filled cabinets.

The artifacts were removed from the barge and first transported to were to Gjoa Haven and Cambridge Bay so the Inuit elders whose oral histories were the key clues that made the original discovery of Erebus in 2014 possible could see the objects. Then they were transported to Parks Canada’s conversation laboratories in Ottawa for stabilization and further study.


Painting of Ra found inside 3,000-year-old coffin

Thursday, February 20th, 2020

A painting of the Egyptian sun god Ra has been found inside the coffin of  22nd Dynasty (945‒712 B.C.) priest Ankh-khonsu now at the Harvard Semitic Museum. When conservators opened the lid, they saw the image of the falcon-headed god, partially obscured by blackened resin that was poured over the coffin during the funerary rights, on the interior bottom of the case.

The coffin has been in the museum’s collection for 118 years, so you’d think its contents wouldn’t come as a surprise, but the mummy it once held was removed when it arrived at the museum and the closed coffin has been display most of the time since. It was opened again 30 years ago, but its interior was either not documented or the records were lost.

There was no risk of that happening this time. The coffin was opened in order to digitize it, part of a program to record every detail of the object and create a digital model that will allow museum visitors, the interested public and researchers around the world full access to Ankh-khonsu’s coffin without interfering with its display or conservation environment.

Despite the uneven texture of the area and the dark coating, Manuelian and his colleagues could see the yellow, orange, and blue painting and the hieroglyphs that read “Ra-Horakhty, the great God, Lord of Heaven” next to the figure.

As part of the project, Manuelian assembled an “all-star cast” of conservators, a professional photographer, and pigment sampling and residue and wood analysis experts to collect information and capture imagery of the coffin materials and adornments. Colleagues came from as far away as University College London and from just down the street at the Harvard Art Museums.

From the hieroglyphics on the coffin we know Ankh-khonsu was a doorkeeper in the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak in ancient Thebes (modern-day Luxor). It was a position he inherited from his father Ankh-en-amun. Two other 22nd Dynasty coffins in the museum, a painted wood one belonging to Mut-iy-iy  and a cartonnage one belonging to Pa-di-mut, were also opened, documented and scanned, but their records were more complete so no surprises were found.

Great flukes of history tangent!

The coffin was given to the museum by Theodore M. Davis (1838-1915), a wealthy lawyer, businessman and avid Egyptophile who spent the last 15 years of his life spending winters in Egypt and sponsoring excavations. The digs he funded in the Valley of the Kings unearthed 30 tombs: KV20, the original tomb of Thutmose I, KV43, tomb of Pharaoh Thutmose IV, and KV55, aka the Amarna cache, containing the remains of Pharaoh Akhenaten, among other notable finds.

The first three seasons of Davis’ excavations were conducted by Howard Carter, then the inspector-general of antiquities for Upper Egypt. Despite the many important discoveries his teams had made, Davis wanted more than anything to find an intact royal tomb and he came to believe that the Valley of the Kings, thoroughly plundered and recycled as its tombs had been over the millennia, was “exhausted” of any such treasure. He gave up the exclusive concession to excavate the Valley of the Kings in 1914. Who got it next, you ask? Why, that would be Lord Carnarvon. The rest, as they say, is history. Davis died in 1915 so he never saw his successor and his former dig leader hit the dirtiest of all paydirt when they discovered the untouched tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 six feet away from where Davis’ last excavation had stopped.





February 2020


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