Archive for May, 2020

17th c. artillery weapon found in Croatian fortress

Monday, May 11th, 2020

A rare bronze artillery weapon has been discovered in the 14th century fortress of Nečven in Croatia’s Krka National Park. The mačkula was found during conservation work on the remains of the hexagonal tower to the right of the fortress entrance. It is in excellent condition.

The mačkula is a mortar-launcher that holds great significance in Croatia’s cultural history. While military technology has long since left it behind, the mačkula is still used today in heritage events, particularly the Sinjska alka, a descendant of knightly jousts held in the town of Sinj to commemorate the unlikely victory of a tiny band of a few hundred Croats and Venetians against an overwhelmingly huge Ottoman force of 60,000 on August 14th, 1715.

In the event, which was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2010, horsemen race at a full gallop and drive a lance through an iron hoop (the alka) mounted 11 feet from the ground. The ring is made of two concentric circles connected by three spokes in a Y-shaped configuration. Points awarded depending on which opening the lance goes through. If it goes through one of the bottom two segments left and right of a spoke, the rider earns one point. If it goes through the top wedge, he gets two points. Driving the lance through the tiny central circle earns the horseman three points.

Every time a competitor drives his lance “u sridu” (in the middle) of the alka, a shot is fired from a mačkula. Multiple mačkula shots ring out after the tourney when the winner is proclaimed.

“The mačkula is another valuable finding that will complete the Krka NP archaeological collection and contribute to the valorisation of the cultural and historical heritage of our region,” Nella Slavica, director of the Public Institute of Krka National Park said.

Slavica says that the conservation of the Nečven fortress is a long-lasting project to preserve heritage along with preparatory activities for the future construction of a 462-metre pedestrian suspension bridge over the Krka River connecting Nečven and Trošenj fortresses.

You can hear the shot and see the smoke from a mačkula being fired at the Sinjska alka in this video at the 1:33 mark.

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Little but luminous in Basel

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

The Kunstmuseum Basel reopens on Tuesday, May 12th, allowing visitors to enjoy a little-known aspect of Renaissance art: small-format stained glass paintings created by Old Masters like Hans Holbein the Younger. Very few of these works survive today, but for a brief period in the 16th century they were wildly popular in Switzerland and southern Germany, donated by organizations and prominent individuals to adorn civic buildings, monasteries, churches, universities and guildhalls.

Beyond its immediate artistic appeal, the genre is of great interest in both a historical and a sociocultural perspective. Stained glass paintings were commissioned by institutions such as the estates of the Old Swiss Confederacy (today’s cantons), monasteries, and guilds as well as individuals. Donating such a work was a common and widely recognized act of social communication, lending lasting expression to alliances, friendships, and honors. That is why virtually every stained glass painting prominently features the donor’s coat of arms. The imagery surrounding this central element varies widely and includes depictions of religious themes as well as personifications and allegories, representations of professions, and motifs and scenes from Swiss history.

The Kunstmuseum Basel has more than 20 of these rare stained glass paintings in its permanent collection, and close to 400 of the preparatory drawings used to create the glass pieces. For the Luminous Figures: Drawings and Stained Glass Paintings from Holbein to Ringler exhibition, curators selected 20 of the most significant paintings and 70 preparatory drawings. Other museums — the Victoria and Albert in London, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, and the Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum, Zurich — loaned works for the exhibition as well.

On display are the earliest surviving preparatory drawing for a glass painting (dating to around 1470/80) and striking pen-and-ink prep drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger and other masters. The museum was able to pair up a few of the preparatory drawings with the finished glass paintings, bringing them back together again for the first time in five centuries.

As usual with museum exhibitions, there are a number of associated events on the calendar where people can learn more about stained glass in general and this very specific and localized expression of the medium. One extremely cool event really sets the “luminous figures” in their precise historical and cultural context. It’s a guided tour of Basel Town Hall (built between 1504 and 1514) and the Schützenhaus (the firing range built in the 1560s by Basel’s Riflemen guild that was in continuous use until 1899 and is now a restaurant that I very much want to patronize) which still have their original stained glass paintings in situ.

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19,000 trafficked artifacts seized in worldwide busts

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

A massive joint international law enforcement effort has resulted in the arrest of 101 suspects in the traffic of antiquities and the recovery of more than 19,000 works of art and archaeological artifacts. The investigations involved Interpol, Europol, the World Customs Organization and national police forces from 103 countries all over the world, including Spain, Colombia, Romania, Argentina, Chile, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Afghanistan and Italy.

This intricate global cooperation launched 300 individual investigations in a coordinated crackdown that focused on taking down organized crime networks that loot archaeological sites and museums and pillage  war-torn countries.

Spanish police busted three traffickers and recovered precious objects smuggled out of Colombia. The most unique among them is a gold mask made by the Tumaco people on the Pacific coast near what is now the border between Colombia and Ecuador. They thrived in the area between the 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. and are renowned for their goldwork, especially their 3-dimension gold figurines made of sheet gold. Tumaco figurines and finely decorated jewelry were among the confiscated objects. Another nine suspects were arrested in the Spanish operation and Roman archaeological materials  — a carved limestone lion, a architectural frieze and three columns — recovered.

While the busts were going down at Madrid’s Barajas airport and elsewhere in the country, police in Colombia worked the investigation on their end. Raids in Bogotá recovered another 242 pre-Columbian artifacts. It is the largest seizure of cultural patrimony objects in Colombia’s history.

In Argentina, the Federal Police Force seized 2,500 ancient coins by investigating one single online sale. The Latvian State Police took second place in the coin seizure stakes by confiscating 1,375 of them. Customs officers in Afghanistan intercepted and seized 971 cultural objects just before they were smuggled out of the country destined for Istanbul.

Law enforcement officers paid particular attention to the monitoring of online market places and sales sites, as the Internet is an important part of the illicit trade of cultural goods. […]

During what was called a ‘cyber patrol week’ and under the leadership of the Italian Carabinieri (Arma dei Carabinieri), police and customs experts along with Europol, INTERPOL and the WCO mapped active targets and developed intelligence packages. As a result, 8,670 cultural objects for online sale were seized. This represents 28% of the total number of artefacts recovered during this international crackdown.

“The number of arrests and objects show the scale and global reach of the illicit trade in cultural artefacts, where every country with a rich heritage is a potential target,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “If you then take the significant amounts of money involved and the secrecy of the transactions, this also presents opportunities for money laundering and fraud as well as financing organized crime networks,” added the INTERPOL Chief.

“Organized crime has many faces. The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks. You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generate big money. Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet – either as a source, transit or destination, it is crucial that Law Enforcement all work together to combat it. Europol, in its role as the European Law Enforcement Agency, supported the EU countries involved in this global crackdown by using its intelligence capabilities to identify the pan-European networks behind these thefts,” said Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s Executive Director.

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Sinkhole in front of Pantheon reveals Hadrianic pavers

Friday, May 8th, 2020

A sinkhole that opened up in the piazza in front of the Pantheon has revealed seven pavers from the second century A.D. The travertine slabs are about 30 x 35 inches wide and one foot thick and located seven feet under the current street level. They are intact, in good condition and in their original alignment, preserved from centuries of city build-up by a layer of fine pozzolana, volcanic ash that the Romans used to make their famously indestructible cement that could set under water.

Hadrian built the Pantheon we know today around 125 A.D. on the site of an earlier Pantheon that had burned down in 80 A.D. It was rebuilt by Domitian and that one burned down too in 110 A.D. Because that first temple was built by Marcus Agrippa in honor of his and Augustus’ victory at the Battle of Actium (31 B.C.), Hadrian had the distinctly unimperial modesty to inscribe the new and improved version to the originator: M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit,” meaning “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this] when consul for the third time.” It’s likely construction began under Trajan (r. 98-117 A.D.). The design that features what is still to this day the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world bears the hallmarks of Trajan’s genius architect Apollodorus of Damascus and some of the bricks used in the construction are emblazoned with stamps from Trajan’s time. Hadrian finished the job. We think the current Pantheon was dedicated in 126 A.D., but we don’t know for sure because Hadrian gave all the props to Agrippa.

As part of the reconstruction of the Pantheon, the square in front of it was also raised and enlarged. The travertine pavers, some of which had been rediscovered earlier before during utilities work in the 1990s, were installed at that time. Researchers were able to extrapolate the size of the piazza at the time of its reconstruction by Hadrian. It was much larger than it is today.

The trench where the pavers were found will now be handed over to the water utility for repairs and then the  archaeological investigation will continue. Earlier this week the Soprintendenza Speciale Roma, which oversees the cultural heritage of the Eternal City, resumed restoration activities on a limited basis. Next week they will expand to additional sites.

It’s nice to see a glimmer of normalcy on the horizon. This is what the Pantheon and Piazza della Rotonda looked like 10 days ago from a drone’s eye view.

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Prince’s seal found at Ming battlefield site

Thursday, May 7th, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed an incredibly rare gold seal belonging to a prince of the Ming Dynasty at the site of a 17th century battlefield in Jiangkou Township, Sichuan Province, southwest China. The square seal is made of all but solid gold (95%) and is four inches square and more than an inch thick. On top is a large knob handle in the shape of a tortoise. The characters on the underside of the seal read “Shu Shi Zi Bao.” Shu is the Ming-era name for the modern-day province of Sichuan and “Shi Zi” is the title for the first son of a prince.

The Jiangkou Chenyin historic site on the banks of the Minjiang river was pilfered by looters first. In 2016, police opened an investigation after a proliferation of extremely rare gold and silver Ming artifacts began to pop up on the black market. The investigation bore rich fruit — 10 looting gangs and 70 traffickers were busted, hundreds of artifacts recovered — and the subsequent archaeological investigation bore even richer fruit. Within two months, the 2017 dig discovered more than 10,000 artifacts. The 2018 and 2019 seasons unearthed another 42,000.

Objects retrieved include earrings, finger rings, bracelets, clasps, bullion, coins, and decorative objects in gold and silver. One gold coin is a medallion bearing the name of rebel leader Zhang Xianzhong who would have gifted it to a subordinate for a military success. Some of the silver bullion is stamped with the name of the local government under Zhang’s brief rule. A Ming-era firearm discovered last year was joined this year by the discovery of lead balls of different sizes.

The gold seal of Zhang Xianzhong, the most important artifact from the site that was looted, sold to a private collector and recovered by police in 2016, was discovered in two parts. The tiger handle had broken off cleanly from the square seal. The gold seal discovered in this year’s dig, on the other hand, has multiple cut marks and was found in several pieces. The writing is also more worn than the pristine writing on Zhang’s seal. Much of the damage was likely inflicted before it fell in the river when the prince’s seal was looted by Zhang’s forces.

These rich finds are of archaeological significance beyond their artifact value because they add important information to what we know about Ming Dynasty metal craft, fiscal systems, military technology and governance during the troubled final years of its rule that gave rise to Zhang Xianzhong and the peasant revolt he joined.

This year’s dig was the last. The artifacts will be conserved and stored for now while a new museum is built to house the massive collection of precious Ming objects. Construction is slated to begin at the end of the year and is expected to be completed in three.

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Mummification workshop reveals new info on the business of death in Egypt

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020

Analysis of the finds made in a mummification workshop discovered in the Saqqara necropolis has shed new light on the ancient Egyptian business of death.

The mummification complex was discovered in near the 5th Dynasty Pyramid of Unas, between the pyramids of Sekhemket and Djoser. It is far newer than the Old Kingdom pyramid complexes, dating to the 26th Dynasty (ca. 664-525 B.C.). A central shaft 40 feet deep was discovered in 2018. Archaeologists had to remove 42 tons of sand and rock filling the shaft before reaching a large chamber with a high ceiling. It too was filled with sand and rocks, but scattered in the fill were thousands of pottery fragments.

Once the chamber was cleared of all debris, archaeologists realized it was not a tomb, but rather a workshop for the mummification of the dead. It had a large incense burner, drainage channels for blood and a natural ventilation system, key features for dealing with the effluvia and smells of dead bodies.

The room had a raised, table-like area and shallow channels cut into the bedrock along the base of one wall. In one corner, a barrel-sized bowl was filled with charcoal, ash, and dark sand. An older tunnel—part of a network of passages that honeycomb the rock beneath Saqqara—moved cool air through the space.

The pottery fragments have proven to be a treasury of information as well.

Over the past year, pottery experts were able to piece together the ceramic sherds, reconstructing hundreds of small bowls and jars, each one inscribed with a label.

“Every single cup or bowl has the name of the substance it held, and the days of the embalming procedure it was used,” [University of Tübingen Egyptologist Ramadan] Hussein says. “Instructions are written directly on the objects.”

These finds are hugely significant because while the Egyptians left behind a great deal of information on their burial practices in writing and in paintings on tomb walls, very few mummification workshops have been discovered. When Egyptologists began scouring the sands for ancient remains, they were only interested in big ticket finds — pharaonic treasure, ideally. Working spaces were of no interest and were either overlooked or destroyed in the attempt to get into more “valuable” tombs.

Adjacent to the mummification workshop, in 2018 archaeologists discovered a burial shaft 100 feet deep with five chambers branching off from the bottom. It too dates to the 26th Dynasty. Inside were the remains of more than 50 mummies and skeletonized individuals, five massive sarcophagi, alabaster canopic jars, thousands of shabti figurines and a gilded silver funerary mask that was the first of its kind found in 50 years. After more than a year of excavation, a sixth chamber has now been found hidden behind a stone wall.

The sixth chamber contained four wooden coffins, one of whom belonged to a woman named Didibastett. While her coffin (and the other three) was in poor condition, a very unusual, even unique, feature caught the team’s attention: she had six canopic jars used to contain her embalmed organs. Standard mummification custom was to embalm only the lungs, liver, stomach and intestine which were then stored in four separate jars under the protection of the four sons of Horus. CT scans of the jars found that the two supernumerary ones do contain human tissue, exactly what kind is not yet known. A radiologist is examining the scans to identify which of Didibastett’s organs were embalmed against customary practice.

Perhaps she had a special contract with the folks at the mummification workshop, as the people interred in the deep shaft tomb — from the wealthy in expensive limestone sarcophagi to middle class Egyptians in wooden coffins to labourers simply wrapped in linen — were buried and their spiritual maintenance tasks performed by the embalmers. The mummification process, burial of the body and ongoing ritual upkeep of the dead were all revenue streams for the embalmers who were paid in cash or land by the surviving families. They offered a variety of packages for any budget.

Ancient Egyptian society included an entire class of priests dedicated to caring for the spirits of the dead. Their job description included maintaining tombs and praying for their departed owners. Some owned dozens of tombs, with hundreds of mummies packed into each one.

“People had to bring weekly offerings to the dead to keep them alive,” says Koen Donker van Heel, an Egyptologist at the University of Leiden who has spent years studying the legal contracts priests signed with the families of the dead. “Dead people are money. That’s basically it.”

The excavation of the Saqqara workshop and its finds will be explored in Kingdom of the Mummies, a four-part series on National Geographic starting May 12th in the US and going global next month.

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Pavers made from Jewish headstones found in Prague

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

Redevelopment of Prague’s historic downtown has revealed dozens of paving stones made from desecrated Jewish headstones. Wenceslas Square, the site of massive popular demonstrations during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, is one of two main squares in Prague and the heart of the city’s nightlife. As part of a revamp of the tourist district, the cobblestones paving its long rectangular expanse were raised. They were installed in the 1980s when the former Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. At that time, Leo Pavlat, the current director of Jewish Museum in Prague, found two paving stones with Jewish markings. When the plans to revamp the square became known, Pavlat’s recollections spurred the city council to allow observers from the Jewish community to survey the work on Wenceslas Square.

Rabbi Chaim Kočí, a senior official with the Prague rabbinate, witnessed workers unearthing cobblestones whose undersides revealed Hebrew lettering, the star of David and deceased dates. Other stones were blank but had polished surfaces that indicated they had also been taken from cemeteries.

Jewish leaders hailed the unearthing as proof of long-held suspicions that the communist authorities – who ruled the former Czechoslovakia for more than four decades during the cold war – had taken stonework from Jewish burial sites for a much-vaunted pedestrianisation of Wenceslas Square during the 1980s.

“We feel this is a victory for us because until now this was just a rumour. Maybe there were Jewish stones here, but nobody knew,” said Kočí, who had been at Wenceslas Square since early morning to witness the stones being dug up. “It’s important because it’s a matter of truth.

“We are making something right for the historical record. These are stones from the graves of people who were dead for maybe 100 years and now they are lying here. It’s not nice.”

Only small segments of the headstone markings can be seen because they were broken down into cubes. There are dates, Hebrew letters and stars of David visible, but no full names. The oldest visible date is 1877, the most recent is the 1970s. They were stolen from different cemeteries.

Synagogues and cemeteries were allowed to fall into disrepair under an officially sanctioned hostile policy towards religious institutions in general and Judaism in particular, making them vulnerable to looting.

František Bányai, the chairman of Prague’s Jewish community, said the discovery made him angry at the communist regime.

“More Jewish synagogues were destroyed in the area of the current Czech Republic during communist times than under the Nazis,” he said. “It was because of their special approach to religion. Anti-Judaism was official policy and all the Jewish committees were supervised and managed by control of the secret police. To be Jewish was negative from any point of view – but it was the same for the Christian church.”

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Original tile floors found in Jersey City City Hall

Monday, May 4th, 2020

Like many cities in lockdown, Jersey City, New Jersey, has been taking advantage of the closure of public facilities to do necessary repairs and upgrades that under normal circumstances would be disruptive to residents.  One of those tasks was the removal of sad 60s vinyl flooring from a corridor in the city hall. Mayor Steven Fulop tweeted Sunday that they found a happy surprise underneath: the glamorous original tile floor from 1896.

Jersey City’s City Hall was designed by Lewis H. Broome, city architect from 1880 until 1884 and future state architect of New Jersey. He entered a contest for the commission and his striking neoclassical design won. The cornerstone was laid on May 26th, 1894, and the mayor moved in to the new city hall in January 1896.

Today the grand façade with its granite and marble veneers, marble columns and pediments with allegorical figures in classical garb wielding shovels and pitchforks, is a popular backdrop for many a wedding photo and productions of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but when it first debuted the building was not received with universal acclaim, to put it mildly. Architectural Record absolutely savaged it in its “Architectural Aberra­tions” feature, an unsigned takedown of buildings the reviewer (New York Times editorial writer and architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler) deemed deficient in design. City Hall hadn’t even opened yet when it was brutalized in Architectural Record‘s July-September 1895 issue. A whole city block had been demolished to make room for the new building with a large landscaped park like the one in front of New York’s City Hall. This was its fundamental failing, according to the critique, that because Broome had attempted to “simulate a public building more solid and costly than his client can afford, with an array of cheap finery, the resulting edifice fairly reeks of vulgarity.”

[Broome’s] principal front has things enough for a front three times as long. At the centre, to begin with, there is a porch with two columns on each side, with composite capitals, inclosing a Romanesque entrance-arch with two nook-shafts on each side. Behind this portico rises a tower with three openings, which are two too many for its width, squeezed into its surface and extended through two stories with a most preposterous treatment of the interpolated transom. In this tower we have the “note” of the whole building. This characteristic is the squeezed and pinched appearance that comes from the designer’s effort to get more things in a given space than it will accommodate, and all that it can be made to hold by extreme crowding. […]

It remains to be added that the skyline is as tormented as the designer knew how to make it, mainly with cupolas over the towers bearing minarets, and entirely incongruous with any of the things below them, as many of these things are with each other. The culminating atrocity is that all this is cheap and imitative finery. Above and including the cornice all this ornament, excepting the urns at the corners in cast iron, is in sheet metal, the meanness and vulgarity of which are rather exposed than enhanced in the present state of the work by the fact that the pediments are faced with paper held in place with laths.

If one encountered this disreputable structure in Oshkosh he would say, how Oshkoshian ; in Peoria, how Peorian — it is so rude and raw a travesty of the architecture of civilization. As a matter of fact, it is in one of the oldest settlements of the United States and within a mile or less of it is a respectable dwelling erected in 1666. This is not the brutality of a blundering beginning, but the hopelessness of a completed degeneration. The building which expresses the municipal aspirations and standards of Jersey City, and which would disgrace a municipality of South Dakota by its crudity and vulgarity, serves to show how exceedingly thin is our veneer of “art.”

Schuyler may have had a point beyond mere gleeful acidity on the “cheap and imitative finery” issue. In 1897, a year after City Hall opened, Broome was indicted for a misdemeanor in office, specifically “giving a false certificate as to the materials used in the building.” New Jersey’s contention was that Broome’s commission by the state to build a city hall made him the holder of a state office and therefore he was guilty of official misconduct. Broome’s lawyers argued he was a contractor, not an office-holder and therefore he was only bound by the terms of his contract with the commissioners. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed and quashed the indictment. I couldn’t find any details about what the material deficiencies may have been and the court never addressed the question because they were just deciding on whether the charge of official malfeasance was valid.

If the cupolas are anything to go by, at least some of the quality concerns might have been valid. They were removed in 1955 after they were found to be structurally unsound. Even so, the rest of the building survived a major fire in 1979 and was extensively rebuilt over the next couple of decades. All of that work, a whole ass fire, and there are still hidden treasures to be found.

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Ancient Americans ate lots of oysters in bad times

Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

During a time of hardship, Native American peoples of the Southeast sought solace in oyster feasts, a new study has found. Analysis of archaeological remains on Roberts Island, a shell mound complex off the central west coast of Florida about 50 miles north of Tampa Bay, found that people gathered there for ceremonial purposes even when resources were severely curtailed by climate change.

Built and maintained by a small group of local residents, Roberts Island and Crystal River, its larger, more glamorous ceremonial site next door, drew people of different cultural groups who traveled long distances to celebrate there. As with other ancient Native American ceremonial sites (Poverty Point for example), the Roberts Island complex was a gathering place of immense social and cultural diversity. It was built after the decline of Crystal Island around 650 A.D., and remained in regular use until around 1050, one of the last of the ancient religious sites that had once flourished all along the Eastern seaboard.

It consists of three platform mounds arranged in a rough triangle forming a central plaza between them where people would gather to watch the ceremonies taking place atop the mounds. The mounds were originally pyramidal, built from midden materials that were deposited one basket at a time. The bases of the mounds covered thousands of square feet in area and the mounds could reach more than 30 feet in height, so they must have taken a huge number of basketsfull to build.

The locals who built and maintained Roberts Island hosted thousands of visitors who descended upon it for a month or two out of the year to participate in community feasts and religious celebrations, including burials and marriages.

Researchers collected samples from mounds and middens at the two ceremonial sites, identifying the species present and calculating the weight of the meat they would have contained. They found that feasts at Roberts Island featured far fewer species. Meat from oysters and other bivalves accounted for 75% of the weight of Robert Island samples and roughly 25% of the weight from Crystal River. Meat from deer and other mammals made up 45% of the weight in Crystal River samples and less than 3% from Roberts Island.

[Lead study author C. Trevor] Duke said evidence suggests that Roberts Island residents also had to travel farther to harvest food. As sea levels fell, oyster beds may have shifted seaward, possibly explaining why the Crystal River population relocated to the island, which was small and had few resources.

“Previous research suggests that environmental change completely rearranged the distribution of reefs and the ecosystem,” Duke said. “They had to go far out to harvest these things to keep their ritual program active.”

No one knows what caused the widespread abandonment of most of the region’s ceremonial sites in A.D. 650, Duke said. But the production of Weeden Island pottery, likely associated with religious activities, ramped up as bustling sites became ghost towns.

“That’s kind of counterintuitive,” he said. “This religious movement comes on really strong right as this abandonment is happening. It almost seems like people were trying to do something, create some kind of intervention to stop whatever was happening.”

Man, this makes me miss my local $1 oyster happy hour even more than I did before. The study has been published in the journal Southeastern Archaeology.

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Bronze Age chieftain burial found under skate park

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

The remains of a Bronze Age chieftain interred with unprecedented animal offerings and a second man buried in a seated position have been unearthed in Lechlade-on-Thames, Gloucestershire, southwestern England. The burials were discovered in 2017 during an archaeological survey in advance of construction of a skate park. Radiocarbon analysis of the bones dates both men to around 2200 B.C.

The chieftain was identified as an important, wealthy leader by the unusually prolific animal remains found in his grave. The skulls and hooves from four different cattle were discovered. Head and hoof cattle burials have been found before — it was a Bronze Age funerary practice seen across Europe — but all of the ones unearthed in the UK before this were single cattle burials with one skull and one hoof from one animal.

Artifacts buried with the chieftain include a copper dagger with a whale bone pommel, a stone wrist guard, an amber bead and a strike-a-light kit composed of a flint and iron pyrite. These grave goods are characteristic of Beaker culture burials. The one thing he was not buried with was the actual Beaker pot after which the culture was named. Archaeologists think this noticeable absence indicates the deceased performed a specialized function in his community, one not connected with the symbolism of the Beaker pot.

The chieftain grave was found in the center of a circular ditch. The terrain is flat now, but at the time of the burial it was a barrow with soil mounded inside the ring ditch. This design is also typical of Beaker cultural burials. Within the circular enclosure next to the central grave were the remains of an older man. He was 50-60 years old when he died.

“He was buried in an unusual ‘seated’ position — his legs were present extending downwards towards the base of his grave pit,” [Foundations Archaeology archaeologist Andy] Hood said. “We haven’t found a direct parallel elsewhere in Bronze Age Britain.”

Most people buried in Bronze Age Britain were arranged in a crouched position on their sides, as the chieftain was. So the older man’s proximity to the chieftain, as well as the man’s lack of a Beaker “package” and strange burial position, may remain a mystery for the ages.

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