Dog-handled authepsa found in Die

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.

Core reveals source of Stonehenge sarsen stones

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.

8,000-year-old graves found in Sofia

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.

Anglo-Saxon eyesalve cuts swath through bacterial biofilms

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.

Gold diadem found in Roman sarcophagus in Izmir

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.