Roman bathing basin found in Swiss spa town

A Roman bathtub that was part of an ancient spa has been discovered in the Swiss city of Baden. It was unearthed during new pipeline installation in Baden’s downtown Kurplatz and is in unusually good condition complete with finely worked entry steps. Archaeologists believe it dates to the second half of the 1st century or early 2nd century. It was connected to a much later lime concrete conduit that piped the water from the hot springs to the basin.

Baden was founded by Romans as Aquae Helveticae around 20 A.D. after the discovery of hot springs on the left bank of the Limmat river a few miles from the legionary camp of Vindonissa (modern-day Windisch). A civilian settlement grew around the mineral baths. It was burned by the legions during the upheavals of the Year of the Four Emperors (69 A.D.), but was quickly rebuilt in stone this time. The basin dates to the time of that reconstruction.

The highly mineralized waters always at a comfortable 47° C (117° F) combined with its riverbank location and short distance from Zurich (less than 15 miles) made Aquae Helveticae a popular and easily accessible destination throughout the Roman period and beyond. Even during times of decline, like when the troops left Vindonissa in the early 2nd century, the Roman baths were in continuous operation. In the 4th century a defensive wall was built to protect the baths after the onslaught of Germanic incursions in the mid-3rd century.

While there is no surviving documentation of the use of the thermal baths after the collapse of the empire, but archaeological evidence does suggest at least some of the Roman facilities remained in operation through the 9th century. By the 13th century, Aquae Helveticae had been rebuilt with new bathing facilities and a new name: Baden, the Middle German word for baths.

Most of the ancient Roman city and bath facilities lie under the modern spa town. The remains of three bathing basins and few structures confirm that the medieval thermal baths and the modern ones were built over the Roman site and within its perimeters. With so little material to go by, the question of whether the Roman bathing infrastructure was in continuous use after the Fall is still an open one. The newly-discovered basin is a key clue, especially with the conduit pointing to it having been used after the late medieval reconstruction of Baden.

The basin is thought to be part of Baden’s legendary open-air St Verena Baths that were used from the Middle Ages well into the 19th century. But the find was probably only used early on, and at some point during its history the St Verena Baths were made smaller and the Roman bath forgotten, archaeologists believe.

But it remains important for the town’s spa history because it may provide a clue to whether there was continuous use of the baths between Roman and Medieval times, which has not yet been proven.

“We are very happy that we have further evidence of a 2,000-year-old bathing history [in Baden],” added [Andrea] Schaer, who is leading the archaeological project.

Also found was the structure that captured the spring water, which was built in the Middle Ages, but directly on the original Roman structure.

Bingewatching Irving Finkel

I was searching the archives for something entirely unrelated when Irving Finkel playing the Royal Game of Ur against Tom Scott showed up in the results. Of course I had to watch it all over again because that video is pure joy. That drove me to seek out and rewatch his all-too-short video on how to raise the dead the Neo-Babylonian way. It only whetted my appetite, so off I went to the British Museum’s YouTube channel to see if there are any other Finkelgems out there, and there are. And how.

So first, there’s a whole video dedicated to his deciphering of the rules tablet of the Royal Game of Ur. Halfway through he whips out the cutest artifact of childhood history nerdery I’ve ever seen: a copy of the Royal Game of Ur gameboard that he made with his own hands when he was nine. It’s freaking amazing, of course.

Next, in a return to the eternally popular theme of dealings with the dead, is a discussion of ghosts in Mesopotamia culture. Killer pull-out quote: “I would like to see a ghost. I’ve never seen one; it’s very annoying to me.”

Ghosts weren’t the only problem supernatural creatures ancient Mesopotamians had to counter, contain and appease. In this video Irving Finkel talks about one of the gnarliest supernatural beings in ancient Mesopotamia and how one gnarly demon could ward off the depredations of another. I don’t want to include any spoilers for a five minute video, but one of those beasties played a small but key role in a classic Hollywood horror and Finkel at long last redeems his reputation.

It seems that games were Irving Finkel’s first historical loves. In this video he tells an absolutely heart-warming story of how he was so enamored of the Lewis Chessmen when he saw them at the British Museum as a boy that he spent years buying the beautiful artisan crafted replica chess figures that were then available in the museum gift shop. His family was of modest means and he could only afford to get one at a time on special gifting occasions like Christmases and birthdays. There are 32 pieces in the Lewis chess set, so it took a long time to get the set. In fact, he was still out seven pawns when he got his doctorate. His father bought the last seven for him as a present when Dr. Finkel earned his title.

This touching story then takes an unexpected turn that literally made me laugh out loud. Irving Finkel is not just one of the world’s foremost cuneiform experts, the translator of the oldest game instructions in the world, adorned with a razor-sharp wit and epic beard, but he is an absolute master of shade.

Back to his area of curatorial expertise. Here,  plucked from the very marrow of my unspoken dreams, is Dr. Finkel giving a lesson in how to write cuneiform to Tom Scott, his cheerfully hapless opponent in the Game of Ur, and Matt Gray on the steps of the British Museum. He shows them how to make the wedge-shaped marks with a simple rectangular stylus on a tablet of wet clay and makes it look easy.

Finkel follow up with another lesson inside the museum to a nice fellow named Nick who played a key cameo role in the Lewis Chessmen video. This one-on-one tutorial can get into more detail and I have to say Nick’s finished “Ashurbanipal” after 25 minutes is downright respectable. I’d be thrilled with that result myself.

That would be a top notch home school project, btw. Print copies of the cuneiform code page from the Cuneiform book by Irving Finkel and clay tablet curator Jonathan Taylor, make some play dough with common pantry ingredients and cuneiform your name or Ashurbanipal’s or the dog’s and then bake the tablets in a 200F oven for half an hour to harden them for display. Embed a magnet in the back and Ashurbanipal could be holding up your kids’ drawings on the fridge.

I’ll close with a lecture Finkel gave to the Royal Institution on the history of cuneiform writing. At almost 40 minutes, it is a deeply satisfying jaunt into the material and delivered with his inimitable panache. This man is an international treasure.

Gilt-bronze shoes found in Silla grave

Archaeologists have discovered a pair of gilt-bronze shoes in a Silla tomb in Hwangnam-dong, Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province. This type of shoe dates to the late 5th-6th centuries and is extremely rare. Only 21 pairs of Silla gold shoes have been found before, and the last time a pair was discovered was in 1977. That tomb was also in the Gyeongju area which was the capital of the Silla Kingdom.

The metal of the shoes has t-shaped cutouts on the surface and round gilt-copper decoration. These were not made for taking a stroll around town. They were used for funerary rituals as the elegant shoes the deceased would be wearing when they transitioned to the afterlife.

The gilded shoes were found during the excavation of tomb No. 120, a number assigned to the archaeological site during the period of Japanese rule (1910-1945), but it was not investigated at the time and construction of private homes damaged the remains of the tomb. In May of 2018, Cultural Heritage Administration and city archaeologists began an excavation to determine how much was left of No. 120.

The dig unearthed another two tombs to the north and south, dubbed No. 120-1 and 120-2.  The gilt shoes were in 120-2. Archaeologists also found other valuable artifacts in 120-1 and 120-2: a silver belt decoration, horse harness fittings, a saddle, bronze, earthenware and iron pottery. The silver belt ornament was discovered on the side of the deceased’s leg.

The excavation is still in the early stages. Archaeologists plan to complete the investigation of 120-1 and 120-2 before turning their attention to No. 120. As the original mound of 120 is twice the size of the off-shoots, if there are any artifacts and remains inside, they probably belonged to someone of higher rank.

Bronze swan full of liquid found in Chinese tomb

A 2,000-year-old bronze pot in the shape of a swan filled with more than three liters of an unknown liquid has been unearthed in the city of Sanmenxia, in central China’s Henan Province. It was discovered in a tomb found during an archaeological survey at the site of an urban renewal project. It is the first bronze swan-necked pot ever found in Sanmenxia.

The design of the tomb indicates it dates to the turnover period between the late Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) and the early Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). Other artifacts found in the tomb include an iron sword, a bronze kettle and ladle and jade objects. These are fine pieces, but not the kind of rich furnishing you’d find in an aristocratic tomb. The deceased was likely a titled official but of comparatively low rank.

Most of the bronze vessels from this period were pot-bellied designs, wide in the middle with stovepipe necks. Animal forms are rare in pottery, more commonly seen in lamps like the goose lamp discovered in 2018 in a Western Han Dynasty tomb found in Luoyang, a Henan Province city 90 miles east of Sanmenxia. This one is definitely not a goose.

The archaeologists invited a senior veterinarian to help identify the shape as of a swan.

“The design resembles that of a mute swan,” said Gao Ruyi, a senior veterinarian with the Sanmenxia wetland park, adding that the beak of a swan is longer than that of a goose, which has been degenerated as a result of being fed by human beings.

Archaeologists speculated that the ancient craftsmen may have observed swans closely to create the pot in such a realistic shape.

“We can boldly estimate that swans may have appeared in Sanmenxia during the late Qin and early Han dynasties,” said Zhu.

The tomb found in Luoyang also contained a bronze vessel (the more typical pot-bellied kind) full of liquid. The pale yellow fluid was at first thought to be rice or sorghum wine which were known to have been used in Han funerary rites, but was later discovered to be a much rarer beverage: an “elixir of life” made of toxic minerals.

Archaeologists aren’t speculating on what the liquid in the swan’s belly might be. It is murkier and darker than the elixir, a muddy yellowish brown with precipitates at the bottom. It does not smell like alcohol; it reportedly smells like earth. A sample has been sent to a laboratory in Beijing for analysis.

Roman mosaic floor found under vineyard

An elaborate ancient Roman mosaic floor dating to around the 3rd century A.D. has been discovered under a vineyard in the town of Negrar di Valpolicella near Verona. The trenches dug so far reveal long uninterrupted stretches of mosaic pavements with polychrome patterns of geometric shapes, guilloche, wave bands, floral vaults and the semi-circular pelta.

The presence of a Roman villa at the Benedetti La Villa winery, still in operation today, was known since the 19th century. Indeed, the name of the winery is taken from the name of the contrada (meaning neighborhood or district), evidence of culturally transmitted knowledge of a grand villa there. The first remains were discovered during agricultural work in 1887. They were fragments of geometric mosaics, damaged in the course of the work, but the landowner dug down some more and discovered important figural mosaics depicting scenes of gladiatorial combat, two panels of Cupid driving a two-horse chariot and a religious ceremony. The panels were removed and the remains covered back up. Eventually the owner sold them to the city of Verona and they are now in the Archaeological Museum at the Roman Theater in Verona.

Even in 1922, when the first official archaeological dig took place there, there was no complete mapping and documentation performed. That dig unearthed three rooms paved with beautiful mosaic floors. There are dig journals, photographs and sketches, but at no point did the then-Archaeological Superintendency of Venice actually mark a map with a black x to record where they’d found what.

Numerous attempts were made in subsequent decades to find the villa and another smaller mosaic was discovered in 1975 and covered back up with soil for its preservation. Last summer, archaeologists returned to the site, digging long, skinny exploratory trenches among the terraced vines with the goal of systematically locating the full villa. They used the notes from the 1922 and 1975 digs, lacunose though they be, to ascertain the likeliest spots. At first they found walls, a stone slab pavement and steps believed to be part of the service area of the villa, so not a place where expensive mosaic flooring would be.

In August they unearthed the northernmost edge of the 1922 excavation and the first mosaic emerged. They had to stop there due to budgetary limitations and because it is a working vineyard, after all, and late summer/early fall is their busy season. Excavations resumed in October after the vintage and again in February only to be shut down by coronavirus quarantine. A week after excavations finally picked up again, archaeologists have hit paydirt.

Surveyors will liaise with the owners of the vineyard and the municipality “to identify the most appropriate ways to make this archaeological treasure hidden under our feet available and accessible”.

Technicians will need “significant resources” to finish the job. But local authorities have pledged to give “all necessary help” to continue with the excavation.