Tomb of Romulus definitely not found: Part the First

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

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

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

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

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.