Archive for July, 2020

Dog-handled authepsa found in Die

Friday, July 31st, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a rare copper authepsa, a vessel used to heat water, in an excavation around the cathedral of Die in the Drôme department of southeastern France. A team from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) was excavating a location on Place de la République where a tree was going to be planted when they unearthed the remains of an ancient building. It was built in the second half of the 1st century and destroyed in a fire at the end of the 2nd century.

It is 47 cm (18.5 inches) high and consists of two compartments: a reservoir for liquid and a heating chamber. The tank has a capacity of about a gallon and was made of a single very thin (2 mm) piece of copper alloy. The heating chamber runs diagonally from the base of the vessel through the center and is welded to a two-inch hole in the side of the belly through which hot coals were fed to heat the liquid in the reservoir. The opening in the base of the heating chamber is plugged with a copper hemisphere held in place by two transverse iron rods that perforate the base. This blocked the coals from falling out of the chamber while still providing an exit route for the ashes. The vessel was mounted on an annular base with two small square vents.

The neck is fashioned into a pouring spout. A cast pouring handle is soldered to the body with a lead-tin mixture. The handle is highly decorative, shaped as dog with his muzzle resting on his front paws. The shape of the vessel and the base is of a type used to heat water for use in personal ablutions. They were easy to carry and could be used out of doors, so it’s also possible it was used to serve a mixture of water and wine.

Authepsae of this type are extremely rare. Only six are known to be extant, and this is the second ever found in Gaul. The pot itself can’t be absolutely dated, but the other one discovered in Gaul roughly dates to between the 1st and 3rd century A.D. The unusual dog-shaped handle might held narrow down the date range once it’s cleaned and restored. Some charcoal found in the heating chamber was radiocarbon dated to 130-260 A.D.

There is archaeological evidence of settlements in the Die area dating back to the Neolithic, but urbanization only kicked off in the 1st century A.D. under Roman rule. By the early 2nd century, Die was a thriving capital of the Gallic Vocontii people and would take on even greater prominence around the turn of the 3rd century as a religious center for the cult of mother goddess Cybele. The authepsa was a luxury item and must have belonged to one of the city’s elite. The room in which it was found had important painted wall decoration, confirming that it was the home of a wealthy person.

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Core reveals source of Stonehenge sarsen stones

Thursday, July 30th, 2020

The core drilled out of one of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones in 1958 has answered one of the ancient site’s greatest mysteries: the source of its sarsen megaliths is West Woods in Wiltshire, 15 miles north of Salisbury Plain.

The smaller bluestones have been identified as coming from the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales and the Altar Stone (the central megalith in the circle) from the Senni Beds of east Wales 200 miles from the Salisbury Plain, but the origin of the massive sarsens has been debated by historians for four centuries. The prevailing theory since the 16th century is that they were transported from Marlborough Downs about 20 miles north of Stonehenge, mainly because that’s where you find the most and largest sarsens in Britain today.

Weighing an average of 20 metric tons and up to 23 feet high, the sarsens are so huge that moving them and installing them in the circle was an enormous undertaking in the 3rd millennium B.C. (or any time, for that matter). There were originally about 80 sarsen megaliths. Only 52 remain today, 15 of them in the iconic Trilithon Horseshoe. One of the trilithons in the horseshoe, uprights 57 and 58 and lintel 158, had collapsed in 1797. In 1958, the Ministry of Works re-erected the trilithon. The uprights had longitudinal fractures, so to reinforce the cracked stones so they could bear the weight of the lintel, three holes an inch in diameter were drilled all the way through the meter-thick width of the stones 57 and 58 and metal ties inserted into the holes.

The whereabouts of two of those cores are unknown. They were considered waste material at the time, and the one only survived because Roger Phillips, then employed with diamond cutting firm Van Moppes, kept it as a souvenir after he bored it out of Stone 58. After prizing it and carrying it with him across the world for decades, Phillips donated it to English Heritage in 2018.

What was trash in 1958 is archaeological treasure today, and researchers immediately jumped on the opportunity to study the core, the sarsens in situ and sarsen boulders in the wild, so to speak. University of Brighton researchers scanned each of the 52 extant sarsens using non-invasive portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (PXRF) to determine their chemical composition. Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and ICP–atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES) were then used to analyze the core from Stone 58 and a sampling of sarsen stones from 20 areas in southern Britain. By comparing the chemical signatures, researchers were able to determine the likely source of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge.

The meter-long core had to be cut in half lengthways, alas. English Heritage kept one of the half-cylinders. The others was cut into three samples for testing. The trace element signature comparison of Stone 58 with the sarsen boulder samples eliminated all but West Woods in southeast Marlborough Downs.

Overlooking the Kennet Valley to the north, West Woods covers a ~6-km2 area and comprises a plateau rising to 220 m above sea level that is dissected by two narrow valleys. The area once contained a dense concentration of sarsens, including a sarsen train mapped by the Ordnance Survey as recently as 1924. Most of the stones were broken up and removed from the mid-19th century onward. However, many large boulders remain, both in valleys and on high ground, and sarsen extraction pits are common, particularly in the northern woodland. West Woods lies within a concentration of Early Neolithic activity, being close to Avebury, numerous long barrows, and the causewayed enclosure at Knap Hill. Evidence of Mesolithic through Iron Age occupation has been recorded in the area, including a 40-m-long Early Neolithic chambered long barrow, sarsen standing stones, a sarsen polissoir used to sharpen stone axes, and prehistoric fields where now-wooded ground was previously open, cultivated land.

Why, in a region with the greatest density of extant sarsen stones in Britain, West Woods was selected as the primary source for the Stonehenge sarsens is unclear. Its significance most likely derives from the size and quality of the stones present there, making the area an important location for Neolithic people. Its topographic position on high ground south of the Kennet and its relative proximity to Salisbury Plain would also have made it an efficient place from which to obtain the sarsens. West Woods is located ~3 km south of the area where the majority of antiquaries and archaeologists have looked for Stonehenge’s sarsen quarries and, thus, lies slightly closer to the monument at ~25 km in a direct line.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read here.

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8,000-year-old graves found in Sofia

Wednesday, July 29th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered four Early Neolithic graves in the Slatina district of Sofia, Bulgaria. Two graves from the same period were found at the site last year. These are the earliest burials ever unearthed in Sofia.

The graves were discovered during an rescue excavation in advance of a new housing development, but excavations have taken place in the area off and on for three decades. Archaeologist have recovered artifacts — ceramic vessels, loom weights, a spindle — and remains that are evidence of a settlement that was continuously occupied for 500 years, from the late 7th to the mid-6th millennium B.C. The newly discovered graves date to the beginning of the 6th millennium.

During the excavations, archaeologists from the National Archaeological Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences came across a double grave – most likely a man with a child.

The other remains are of a woman lying on her stomach and of a man who was laid out in a very special way – one of his hands remained under the skeleton

The skeletal remains will be studied further in a Bulgarian Academy of Sciences laboratory. They will be DNA tested in the hope of establishing if there was a familiar connecting between the individuals.

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Anglo-Saxon eyesalve cuts swath through bacterial biofilms

Tuesday, July 28th, 2020

One of my all-time favorite stories has an update. In 2015, microbiologists at the University of Nottingham collaborated with an Anglo-Saxon expert from the university’s English department to recreate a 10th century recipe for a salve purported to treat eye infections. The combination of onion, garlic, wine and bovine bile steeped together in a bronze or brass vessel was then tested on flourishing cultures of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and found to be a MRSA-killing machine. The individual ingredients did nothing; the control batch minus the vegetable ingredients did nothing. The full salve obliterated 999 Staphylococcus cells in 1,000, both for in vitro cultures and in vivo on infected mice. Even a diluted version of the salve was a powerful weapon. It couldn’t kill MRSA, but it blocked the bacterial cell-cell communication it needs to damage tissue.

The results were exciting but the research was in its infancy five years ago. Now the team has published a new paper on the use of Bald’s eyesalve on a range of pathogens in biofilms, communities of bacteria that form a protective shield that is to all intents and purposes impossible to destroy no matter how many antimicrobials you launch at it. Most pharmacological studies of plant ingredients focus on isolating active compounds and using them against planktonic (free-living) bacteria cells which are easier to kill than biofilms. This study explored the antimicrobial properties of the mixture.

Biofilm infections of wounds (e.g. burns, diabetic foot ulcers), medical implants (e.g. artificial joints, catheters), the lungs (e.g. in cystic fibrosis) and other body sites impose a major health and economic burden and can be effectively untreatable. Non-healing, infected foot ulcers, which can be a complication of diabetes, provide an especially sobering example. Even if the infection is apparently successfully treated, there is a high chance of recurrence and an estimated 50% of those affected die within 5 years of ulcer development. Management of diabetic foot ulcers costs the UK’s NHS £650 M per year. […]

Each of Bald’s eyesalve ingredients has known antimicrobial properties or compounds (onion and garlic, bile, wine). We explored the contribution of all four ingredients to both planktonic and biofilm activity of Bald’s eyesalve to build a picture of their relative contributions. Planktonic activity appeared almost entirely attributable to garlic. However, tests against S. aureus Newman biofilms, grown in a synthetic wound model, showed garlic exhibited no antibacterial activity in this more clinically-relevant setting. In fact, no preparation which omitted any one ingredient possessed full activity in the biofilm assay. This confirms our previously published finding that Bald’s eyesalve anti-biofilm activity is contingent on the presence of all four ingredients.

The Voltron force of Bald’s eyesalve was able to completely eradicate planktonic cultures of a number of bacteria including  P. aeruginosa, A. baumannii, E. cloacae, S. maltophilia, S. aureus, S. epidermidis, S. pyogenes and MRSA. It was also able to slaughter cells in biofilms S. aureus Newman, A. baumannii and S. pyogenes. Interestingly, while the salve was effective against planktonic cultures of P. aeruginosa, E. cloacae and S. maltophilia, it was ineffective against their biofilms. This discovery underscores how important it is to include biofilms in any studies of antibacterial compounds because being able to kill planktonic cultures bears no relation to being able to break down biofilm.

Because people asked in the comments five years ago (and are still asking today), here’s the recipe for Bald’s eyesalve used by the research team.

Garlic and onions were purchased from supermarkets or greengrocers. As lab work continued throughout all seasons of the year, and was conducted in two locations (Warwick and Nottingham), it is possible that different varieties of garlic and onion, or the same variety grown in different locations, were used in different batches of the eyesalve. The outer skin of the garlic and onion (sourced from local greengrocers) was removed. The garlic and onion were finely chopped, and equal volumes of garlic and onion were crushed together using a mortar and pestle for 2 min. Various sized batches of Bald’s eyesalve were used throughout this paper, ranging from final volumes of 30 ml–400 ml, the average weight used was 14.1 ± 1.5 g of onion and 15.0 ± 1.3 g of garlic per 100 ml of Bald’s eyesalve.

The crushed onion and garlic were then combined with equal volumes of wine (Pennard’s organic dry white, 11% ABV, sourced from Avalon Vineyard, Shepton Mallet) and bovine bile salts (Sigma Aldrich) made up to 89 mg·ml−1 in water and sterilised by exposing to UV radiation for 10 min (Carlton Germicidal Cabinet fitted with a 2537 Å, 8-W UV tube). The mixture was stored in sterilised glass bottles in the dark at 4 °C for 9 days, after which it was strained and centrifuged for 5 min at 1,811 g. The supernatant was then filtered using Whatman 1,001–110 Grade 1 Qualitative Filter Paper, Diameter: 11 cm, Pore Size: 11 μm. Filtered Bald’s eyesalve was stored in sterilised glass vials in the dark at 4 °C.

A little more specific than Oswald Cockayne’s original instructions in the incomparable Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England and not exactly easily reproduced in the home. Still, at least the proportions are there for any adventurous souls.

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Gold diadem found in Roman sarcophagus in Izmir

Monday, July 27th, 2020

A Roman sarcophagus containing a gold diadem was discovered during construction in Izmir, Turkey. Workers came across the stone coffin when digging a foundation in the historical district of Konak and reported the find to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. A rescue excavation unearthed the sarcophagus with lid containing human remains, fragments of ceramic and fragments of a gold diadem. The crown was removed for study and conservation while the sarcophagus was fully excavated in situ.

It has not been radiocarbon dated yet, but archaeologists believe the sarcophagus and remains are from the 2nd century A.D., a period when ancient Smyrna was at its peak prosperity under the Roman Empire. The diadem is extremely rare and indicates the deceased was a member of the ruling class.

The settlement on the Gulf of Izmir dates back to the Neolithic, making it one of the most ancient settlements of the Mediterranean. The Greek city of Smyrna was founded there around 1,000 B.C. and at least by the second half of the 7th century B.C., there was a planned city built on a grid. It prospered through agriculture and trade, rising to become one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean basin.

Old Smyrna was destroyed by Persian forces under Cyrus the Great in 545 B.C., and would not be refounded until Alexander the Great defeated the Persians under Darius III in 333 B.C. It was absorbed into the Roman Asia Province two hundred years later and by the 1st century A.D. had reclaimed its place as a major urban center. Hadrian visited Smyrna in the 124 A.D. and Marcus Aurelius rebuilt it after an earthquake in 178 A.D. Most of the Roman-era structures that survive in the city date to the Aurelian reconstruction.

The İzmir No: 1 Cultural Heritage Preservation Board decided to announce the area as a third degree archaeological site due to the fact that the “pieces may belong to more than one sarcophagus burial in the area” and “the area provides important data about the range and the necropolis of the ancient Smyrna settlement.”

According to the decision, before the construction permit is granted in the excavated area and the surrounding area, drilling excavations will be carried out and a review will be made by the experts of the İzmir Museum Directorate.

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Cromwell’s cut-and-paste in the Great Bible

Sunday, July 26th, 2020

Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s favorite and chief minister until he met a sharp end, played an outsized role in the English Reformation’s violent severing of relations with the Catholic Church. He led the charge on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, ordered destruction of all artwork, church decoration, relics and books he deemed idolatrous/superstitious/popish (Oxford’s entirely library was destroyed) and chaired the synod that established Church of England doctrine. The Great Bible of 1539, the first authorized edition of the Bible in English, was commissioned by Cromwell who then ordered its distribution. On September 5th, 1538, the crown, ie, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell, issued an injunction that every parish in England and Wales buy a copy of the Bible in English and set it up “in sum convenient place” so that all parishioners could read it. The first printed copies of the first national Bible, known as the Great Bible due to its large size, went on sale in April of 1539.

Two luxury presentation copies were printed, one for King Henry VIII and for Thomas Cromwell. These were luxury editions, with parchment pages instead of paper and the illustrations, black-and-white woodcuts in the standard copies, elaborately hand-painted to look like illuminations. Henry’s copy is in the British Library. The Cromwell copy is now in the Old Library of St John’s College, Cambridge.

The frontispiece of the Great Bible was not what you would call subtle about its propagandistic purpose. The dominant figure, larger than everyone else and enthroned above the title is Henry. Jesus is crammed uncomfortably into a small cloud-lined gap above him. He doesn’t even have space to raise his head so it sort of flops on his shoulder. Just below to his right is a much smaller Henry VIII, his imperial crown on the ground, kneeling in the presence of God. Banderoles contain biblical passages from Isaiah and Acts of the Apostles that heavy-handedly replace King David with Henry as the man God has chosen to fulfill his will. Kneeling Henry replies in his banderole with a quote from Psalm 118, speaking as David.

Archbishops, their mitres on the ground, and courtiers, hats in hand, flank the grand enthroned Henry on both sides as if they were apostles or angels to his Christ. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury on Henry’s left and Thomas Cromwell on his right receive the Verbum Dei (Word of God) directly from the king. In the second tier, they, now wearing their chapeaux, pass the Bible to (hatless) parish priests and nobility. They (hats on) then deliver it to the grateful masses at the bottom who cheer “Vivat Rex” and “God Save the Kynge.”

The message is clear: Henry is second only to God in spiritual authority and it is he, through his personal gift, who transmits the word of God to his people. The Byzantine hierarchies and Latin texts of Roman Catholicism hold no sway in Henry’s England. His people can read the Word for themselves.

Cromwell’s high station would soon come crashing down. He backed the wrong horse after the death of Jane Seymour and Henry was disgusted with Cromwell’s choice of Anne of the Cleves for wife #4. He had to go through with the wedding so as not to piss off the Germans, but their marriage was never consummated and was annulled July 9th, 1540. Thomas Cromwell was executed for heresy and treason on July 28th, 1540. His heraldic insignia, originally in a roundel at his feet, were excised from all editions of the Great Bible printed after July 1540.

The frontispiece for Henry’s lavish presentation copy went beyond the mere excision. Both iterations of Cromwell — him receiving the Bible from Henry and then passing it to the lay nobility — were painted over entirely by a grey-haired gent, possibly his successor as Lord Privy Seal John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, and the empty roundel that had held Cromwell’s coat of arms filled in with a floral accent.

Now researchers have discovered that there were alterations made to Cromwell’s copy too. Queen Mary University of London historian Dr. Eyal Poleg and Dr. Paola Ricciardi of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum turned an x-ray spectrometer a high-powered digital microscope to the title page. They discovered the face of Cromwell distributing the Bible was covered with someone else’s visage painted onto vellum and pasted on top of the original.

Dr Poleg believes the change was made to shore up Cromwell’s position with Henry who still had doubts about the move towards Protestantism. He said: “In the original title page, Cromwell is associating himself with the person distributing Bibles. This was a very dangerous position to be in because Henry was not fully supportive of the new Bible. Cromwell realised this so he tweaked the images to place himself receiving a Bible from Henry. He would have employed an artist to add in a portrait of himself receiving the Bible from Henry.

“It’s been done so professionally that a microscope and a good light source are needed to see it. It’s painted on a separate piece of vellum and then glued on. This makes it the last known portrait of Cromwell before his execution. Cromwell is often seen as a reformer who moved the country very ardently in the direction of Anglicanism and here he is shown as someone who understands politics very well, and actually tries to position himself in the right location. He was very much aware of Henry’s hesitation regarding the Bible and he’s very good at playing the political game. This adds to our growing understanding of Cromwell and the uncertain course of English Reformation.”

Researchers also spotted another change likely intended to curry favor with the king. Cromwell had a miniature portrait of Jane Seymour, the queen who had finally given Henry his male heir and died from it, pasted over one of the commoners, a woman with three children at her feet.

Dr Poleg said: “The page was manipulated to present Henry with an image of Jane Seymour. Cromwell was using Jane to persuade the King of the value of the Bible. When the Bible was produced, Jane had recently died, so she was still Henry’s beloved Queen. And because she had given birth to their son Edward, putting her in a scene with children makes a lot of sense.”

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Prehispanic glyphs, stele found on Puebla mountaintop

Saturday, July 25th, 2020

Residents of the village of Santa Cruz Huehuepiaxtla, Puebla, southeastern Mexico, have discovered two Prehispanic stele and dozens of glyphs carved on stone. They were in a remote location at the summit of the Cerro de la Peña mountain.

Archaeologists had to hike a rocky trail, much of it at a steep incline, for two and a half hours to reach the find site 2800 feet above sea level. They documented the two stele and 87 glyphs carved into the hilltop rock.

Believed to have been carved by Zapotec or Teotihuacán people, the archaeological relics have been dated to about 500 AD. Archaeologists believe that the site at which they were found was dedicated to a god of the underworld[, Mictlantecuhtli].

The best preserved stelae shows a person with horns and claws dressed in a loincloth. There are also stones engraved with images of an iguana, a bird that appears to be an eagle and a dios murciélago, or bat god, in the form of a woman.

The survey at the summit has revealed evidence of a ceremonial complex with seven pyramids and a ball court. The inscriptions on the stone slopes of the hilltop are written in the logographic ñuiñe script of the Mixteca Baja area in south-central Mexico. The Mixteca people occupied an area encompassing the modern-day states of Geurrero and Puebla, and the summit of the Cerro de la Peña affords an expansive view of the Mixteca territory. In 500 A.D., the complex of religious temples and royal palaces would ruled all they surveyed.

Glyph carved on rock at summit of Cerro de Peña. Photo courtesy EFE.

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And three partridges in an apple tree

Friday, July 24th, 2020

The exceptionally intricate Roman mosaic floors discovered in the village of Yavru, Turkey, have gone on display at the provincial capital Amasya for the first time in seven years.

Archaeologists discovered the remains of a Roman villa in July of 2013 during an rescue excavation of a site targeted by looters. Large sections covering a total of 258 square feet over two rooms of the villa were found in excellent condition. A dynamic checkerboard of swirls, chevrons, triangles, zigzags, waves and other geometric patterns reminiscent of kilim rug motifs is unique on the archaeological record. The mosaic in the adjacent room features a central panel of an apple tree with three partridges enjoying its fruit.

Located in a valley in the mountains above the central south coast of the Black Sea, Amasya has the ideal temperate climate for growing fruits and is famous for its apples. The mosaic’s apple tree is a visual record of how far back the city’s association with its most famous agricultural export goes.

Archaeologists believe the villa was built around the early 3rd century by a wealthy farmer. The elite villa was converted into a church in late antiquity and later abandoned. The mosaics were raised in 2013. After extensive conservation, they were installed in the Amasya Archeology Museum against a photographic backdrop of the walls of the structure.

On a side note, when I wrote about the discovery back in 2013, all the available photos of the mosaic in situ were unnaturally brightly colored. I actually color-corrected them to tone that down a little because it was just so obviously wrong, something I have never done before or since, but I had nothing to go by to determine appropriate saturation, so they were still far too bright. Even accounting for lighting differences, it warms the cockles of my picture-obsessed heart to finally see the real palette after so many years.

 Apple tree detail today. Photo courtesy DHA.

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Look inside the Gjellestad mound

Thursday, July 23rd, 2020

It hasn’t even been a month since the first excavation of a Viking ship burial mound in Norway in 100 years began, and fascinating new data is already coming to light thanks to soil analysis and digital technology.

Researchers from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) and the University of Oslo have analyzed five soil samples from the Gjellestad ship burial seeking clues to how the burial mound was constructed. The samples were taken during last year’s test excavation from the ship burial trench itself and from four different sites in the mound.

The analyses show that the construction and use of the mound is carefully planned and executed. It wasn’t simply placing the ship with the deceased on land and shoveling soil over it, according to NIKU researcher and archaeologist Lars Gustavsen.

“Here, the area of the mound has been carefully prepared by removing topsoil so that the intact subsoil was exposed. It is this subsoil that we see in the GPR data as a distinct black area around the grave itself.”

“Our analysis shows that this is soil that has been formed on-site; and the characteristic dataset signature must therefore be due to the fact that the mound covering the grave has changed the physical properties of the soil – likely due to soil compression from the heavy mound” Gustavsen continues.

The mound itself was made of turf or sod, not topsoil. Researchers were able to determine that it was not local, that all the turf used to form the mound was brought in from the outside. This was a complex, well-planned operation that appears to have followed an established procedure seen in other large ship burial mound.

The IT department at Østfold University College has been able to convert the findings from the geophysical surveys and excavations into a remarkable digital representation of the  Gjellestad ship site. The site is far more complex than just the one burial mound and with the exploration of the site still in its early stages, archaeologists have been working continuously with the IT team to update them with the latest information, correcting details and revising errors to ensure the 3D model is as accurate as humanly possible.

All their efforts have paid off with an interactive rendering of the site’s history. After a pretty cool intro of Viking ships braving the cold dark ocean waters, the Gjellestad site appears. You arrow through an overview of the site’s use from the Bronze Age onward, showing the cycle of construction and destruction of longhouses and how the mounds proliferated on the landscape.

If you click “open map” in the lower left corner, you can navigate to select spots to find out more about them.  If you click on the ship, you get a fly-in tour of how it was built, including an illuminating cross-section showing how the turf was layered to protect the ship and keep it vertical while the mound was built up around it. There are links to videos about the 2019 excavation, the discovery of the ship’s keel and nifty 3D ship viewer. You can manipulate the ship to see it from all directions.

The quality of the rendering is top-notch. They didn’t ruin it by trying to create believable humans puttering around, but there are some awesome sheep. Fine details include hearth fires and their smoke, tree leaves moving in the wind, the variety of grasses and the quality fencing.

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Iron Age butter dish, butter found in loch

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

The Scottish Crannog Centre is a living history museum with a reconstructed crannog and demonstrations of Iron Age woodworking, spinning, weaving, music, cooking and other activities of daily life on Loch Tay in Perthshire, central Scotland. A wealth of archaeological material has been recovered from the loch bed over the years, rich remains of the Iron Age people who lived in the lake’s numerous crannogs (wooden roundhouse on stilts) 2,500 years ago. The crannogs had a limited lifespan and when their stilts could no longer hold them up, they and all their contents collapsed into the water. The anaerobic conditions of the lake preserved organic remains in remarkable condition.

One of the objects retrieved is a wooden butter dish complete with remnants of butter. Scottish Crannog Centre archaeologist Rich Hiden:

“When they started excavating, they pulled out this square wooden dish, well around three quarters of a square wooden dish, which had these really nice chisel marks on the sides as well as this grey stuff.”

Liped [sic] analysis on this matter found that it was dairy material, with experts believing it likely originated from a cow.

Holes in the bottom of the wooden dish further suggest that it was used for the buttering process.

Cream would have been churned until thickened until it splits to form the buttermilk, with a woven cloth – possibly made from nettle fibres – placed in the dish with the clumps of cream then further pushed through to separate the last of the liquid.

The SCC was scheduled to open this year on March 29th, but was thwarted by a certain pathogen that shall remain nameless. With lockdown restrictions now easing in Scotland, the Scottish Crannog Centre reopens to visitors on August 1st. In the meantime, the museum’s YouTube channel has produced a weekly series of videos illustrating the crannog’s history in 10 objects. They’re on number eight now, a beautiful swan neck pin. The butter dish was the fifth in the series and while the video is all too brief, you get to see what the dish would have looked like intact and how it was used.

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