Archive for July, 2020

Rare jewelry mold, medieval artisan district found

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020

A salvage archaeology excavation in Chur, the capital of the Swiss canton of Grisons, have unearthed a stone jewelry mold and other evidence of a busy medieval artisan district. The molds was used to produce jewelry and religious objects. It is an extremely rare find, the first of its kind in the canton. The only comparable examples ever found in Switzerland were discovered far to the north and northwest of Grisons in Bern, Basel, and Winterthur.

The uneven square measures 9 x 8.3 x 3 centimeters (3.5 x 3.3 x 1.2 inches). One side has two stamp matrices with Christian iconography — a crucifix and a circle with a cross in the center — that would have been used to make pendants, buckles, medallions. There is also a cavity that would have made a small hoop, likely for earrings. The other side of has another circle with a cross in the center, plus templates for an eagle and an annular brooch. It dates to between the 9th and 11th centuries.

Archaeologists have been excavating the area near the former Sennhof penitentiary since March in advanced of a renovation. Two previous excavations in 1984 and 1990 discovered the remains of settlements and tombs that confirm the area was continuously inhabited from the late Bronze Age through the present. This year’s excavation has shed light on the medieval city.

Currently an excavation team of the SAG is examining a south-east part of the built surface, where inconspicuous structures have been brought to light in the form of postholes, pits and tombs, as well as a significant use of stone paving. Particularly noteworthy are the high number and type of finds found. It is a large quantity of animal bones (mostly horses) and semi-finished products and carvers’ production waste. Among the objects there are also bars in non-ferrous metals, spindles, glass slag and similar fragments. From the combination of simple wooden constructions and finds in specific material, it can be assumed that the area served as a laboratory for various craft activities during the High and Low Middle Ages.

One of the oldest settlements in Switzerland, Chur prospered in the second half of the 10th century thanks to its location at the confluence of several Alpine trade routes and the Rhine. The local producers of highly portable jewelry, trinkets and other crafts had access to those markets.

The jewelry mold is now undergoing thorough study and analysis for scientific publication. The objects discovered in the excavation are tentatively scheduled to go on public display in an exhibition, Commerce and Artisanship between the Lake of Constance and the Alpine Rhine, at the Chur museum in 2023.

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‘Screaming mummy’ died of a heart attack

Monday, July 20th, 2020

CT scans of a mummy dubbed the “screaming woman” due to her evocative open mouth have revealed that she died suddenly of a heart attack and the mummification process preserved her expression and posture at the moment of her death.

She was discovered in the late 19th century in the mortuary complex of Deir el-Bahari on the west bank of the Nile across Luxor. Her body was part of the Royal Cache, a tomb containing the remains of 40 royal mummies from the 17th through the 21st Dynasties. They were hidden there by 21st Dynasty priests to prevent them being pillaged by grave robbers. In an all-too-common irony, the Royal Cache was discovered in the early 1870s by a tomb robber whose family lived richly off the proceeds for years before the authorities busted them and found the tomb. Hieratic writing on her linen bandages identify her as “the royal daughter, the royal sister of Meret Amon.” It was a relatively common name among pharaonic princesses, so it’s unclear with Meret Amon from which dynasty she was.

Another individual found in the Royal Cache whose wide-open mouth earned him the matching monicker of the “screaming man” was recently discovered to be Prince Pentawere, son of King Ramses III. He was forced to hang himself after conspiring in the assassination of his father and was condemned to eternal punishment by being wrapped in sheep skin instead of embalmed and snugly swaddled with linen bandages.

The screaming woman suffered no such ignominy. She was treated with the traditional care of royal mummification rituals, wrapped in linen and embalmed. Her position is unusual, however. While all the other respectfully mummified royalty in the cachette were positioned in solemn dignity with their jaws closed and their bodies straight, her head is turned to the right, her legs crossed at the ankle.

Egyptologist Zahi Hawass worked with Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at Cairo University, to answer some of the questions about the screaming woman. They examined it with high-resolution CT scanner in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The scan found that she was in her 60s when she died and suffering from severe atherosclerosis, thick plaque deposits that collect inside arterial walls which restrict and ultimately block blood flow.

The CT scan showed that she suffered from atherosclerosis of the right and left coronary arteries, neck arteries, abdominal aorta and iliac arteries, as well as the arteries of the lower extremities.

Cardiac diseases, especially coronary artery disease, are the leading cause of sudden death in adults in the modern period.

It seems that the “screaming woman” died suddenly while in her current body posture, with flexed crossed legs. Consequent to death, her head was tilted to the right side and her jaw dropped.

“We assume that the dead body of ‘the screaming woman’ might not have been discovered until hours later, enough to develop rigor mortis,” said Hawass.

“We assume that the embalmers likely mummified the contracted body of the ‘screaming woman’ before it decomposed or relaxed. The embalmers were thus unable to secure the mouth closed or put the contracted body in the state of lying down, as was usual with the other mummies, thus preserving her facial expression and posture at the time of death,” he said.

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“Vampire hunting kit” for sale

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

An ostensible vampire hunting kit is coming up for auction. The box is lined with crimson silk and divided into eight compartments of different size. Stashed within are a Bible (New Testament only), a percussion cap pistol, conveniently pocket-sized, three crucifixes, a pocket knife with a mother-of-pear handle and hallmarked sterling silver blade, a clear glass bottle holding shark’s teeth, a cobalt blue glass bottle with metal lid, three empty glass bottles, two sets of pliers, rosary beads and an ivory figurine of a wolf in monk’s robes holding a rosary.

Inset on the interior of the lid is an oval enamel painting depicting Christ rising from his coffin on a cloud with an angel holding the lid. To its left is the box containing the ivory figurine. The Bible was published in 1842. The bottles are late Victorian or Edwardian. The oldest part of the kit is the chest itself which dates to around 1780.

This is all fine and good, but where is the wooden stake? Or even a brick? I guess an iron ploughshare wouldn’t fit in the chest. And what is with the werewolf monk? It’s incongruous, to say the least. It looks like somebody assembled a random assortment of flea market tat to me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sold as a vampire slaying kit in the late 19th or early 20th century.

Those were actually a thing for a while, novelties sold to European travelers when the literary version of the vampire supplanted the distinctly unsexy folkloric traditions of vampirism. The vampire kits contained items deemed to be deadly like crucifixes, garlic and holy water. They did not typically include pocketknives. Good luck decapitating an immortal bloodsucker with that.

Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons Auctioneers, said: “People are fascinated by stories of vampires, hence their continued appearance in films and on TV today. They have been part of popular culture for more than 200 years. The publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819 had a major impact and that was followed by Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula.

“However, a belief in vampires and strange superstitions goes back even further and persists to this day. The task of killing a vampire was extremely serious and historical accounts suggested the need for particular methods and tools.

Almost nothing is known about the box’s history. The seller acquired it three years ago at an antiques fair “as a conversation piece,” and whoever buys it definitely needs to adopt the same outlook because there is zero evidence that this is a historic set, never mind assembled with the serious intent of anti-vampire defense. The chest is the best part, imo, but I’m not sure it’s good enough to justify the believe-it-or-not presale estimate of £2,000-3,000 ($2,500-3,770). The online bidding is open now. The hammer falls on July 21st. 

Speaking of believe it or not, here’s an episode of Ripley’s on the vampire hunting kits.

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Export barred for 4th c. mosaic of leopard attacking a gazelle

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

Panel of mosaic from a Roman villa at Dewlish, Dorset, second half of the 4th century A.D. Photo courtesy Edward Hurst.A fragment of a 4th century Romano-British mosaic depicting a leopard attacking a gazelle has been temporarily prevented from leaving Britain. Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage placed a temporary export bar on the artwork because it has been deemed an exceptional work from the Durnovarian (modern-day Dorchester) school of mosaicists. It hadn’t even left the county of Dorset for 1,700 years until it took a brief trip to London in 2019, so this would be a drastic move.

The leopard and gazelle pattern, guilloche pattern borders and small pieces of three adjacent panels were discovered between 1972 and 1974 during excavations of the Roman villa in Dewlish, Dorset. It was part of the pavement of Room 11, a large room that has an unusual rounded apse and was the largest room in the house. The villa replaced a 3rd century farmhouse and was expanded and upgraded in various phases of construction. The refurbishment of Room 11 took place in the second half of the 4th century and added the apse, hypocaust underfloor heating and the finest mosaics available in the county. Its most glamorous phase lasted only a few decades. Postholes in some of the mosaics found in the house indicate clumsy attempts to prop the roof up so it seems the fancy villa was dilapidated by the end of the century.

Its existence had passed into oblivious when Dewlish House, a handsome Grade I-listed Queen Anne/Georgian mansion, was built on the site in 1702 by Thomas Skinner. The remains of the Roman villa were first discovered there in 1740 when a storm uprooted a tree in the garden. The finds were poorly documented, but were contemporary reports say they included a mosaic. The remains were left open to the depredations of the curious and cupidinous and dug up further in 1790. Again, documentation was all but nonexistent. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the grounds were further churned up by agricultural work.

The estate was commandeered for the first wave of US Marines who made their base there in preparation for D-Day. After the war the family attempted to lease it, but there were no takers and by the early 1960s it was in such terrible disrepair that it was slated for demolition. It was purchased in 1962 by financier Anthony Boyden who restored the derelict structure to its former splendor.

The first modern archaeological excavation took place in 1969. Led by Bill Putnam, that first dig was just a 4-day fieldwork project for his archaeology students, but it evolved into a decade-long survey that uncovered, among other treasures, the remains of exquisite mosaic floors in several rooms. The leopard and gazelle fragment was raised, mounted and apparently presented to the homeowner as a way-too-nice thank you gift for letting them excavate. This was unfortunately legal in the early 1970s. A few sections of the remaining mosaics were given to the Dorchester Museum. The rest of the mosaics Putnam’s team unearthed were reburied.

The Dewlish House mosaic fragment was acquired at Duke’s Auction in September 2018 by antiques dealer Edward Hurst for £30,000. He exhibited at the 2019 Masterpiece London art fair and appears to have resold it for a tidy profit as the export license request places its value at £135,000.

The Minister’s decision follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA). The committee noted that there were few mosaics from the Durnovarian school showing this quality and exceptional workmanship. It was also widely agreed that there was much to be learned about Romano-British mosaics from further research and study of the fragment.

The RCEWA made its recommendation on the grounds of the mosaic’s outstanding significance to the study of Romano-British art and history.

Committee member Leslie Webster said:

“The mosaic‘s spirited depiction of a leopard bringing down an antelope is a brilliantly accomplished image of nature red in tooth and claw; the soaring leap of the deer, and the precise delineation of the leopard’s muscular power and ferocious grace is a tour de force of the mosaicist’s art. Such a resonant image, with its origins in the art and mythology of the classical world and beyond, has travelled a long way to Dorset, to feature in the villa of a wealthy Romano-British landowner; it must have been the latest thing in up-market house decoration. The grand mosaic from which this fragment came, dominating the principal public room of the villa, was clearly designed to impress the spectator with the learning and cultural aspirations of its owner. Perhaps this exotic symbol of the hunt, popular elsewhere in the Empire but exceptional in Britain, and its implicit theme of domination, were also intended to suggest its owner’s status and power.”

“In the later years of the Roman era in Britain, the representational innovation and technical sophistication of this mosaic, and of others produced by the Dorchester school of mosaicists, give fascinating insight into the lives of local Roman magnates, in a period seen as one of change and decline; they open up many questions and opportunities for investigation. For us to lose it from Britain would be a great misfortune.”

I suspect the mosaic fell victim to downsizing as Dewlish House, with all its outbuildings, cottages and its magnificent 134 acre park, was put on the market in 2019. It’s still available today for the bargain price (seriously, I’d pay it if I had it, no haggling or anything) of £9,250,000.

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Colossal Atlas to stand again

Friday, July 17th, 2020

A colossal statue of Atlas that was toppled and buried centuries ago will stand again in front of the Temple of Zeus in Agrigento, Italy. The Titan was originally 26 feet high and was part of a group of about 40 that helped hold up the massive entablature of the Olympeion. It is now one of only two survivors. One of them has been recomposed and installed in the Regional Archaeological Museum of Agrigento where it takes up two storeys and makes people look like ants. The second is on the dusty ground next to the remains of the temple.

“The reinstalment of the statue of Atlas is the culmination of a more comprehensive restoration [of the temple],” says Roberto Sciarratta, director of the archaeological park.

“In the last decade, we’ve recovered and catalogued numerous artefacts that were once a part of the original structure … The goal is to recompose piece-by-piece the [entablature] of the Temple of Zeus to restore a portion of its original splendour.”

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was built around 480 B.C. to celebrate the Sicilian Greek colonies’ defeat of Carthage. Diodorus Siculus, writing more than 400 years after the events, said that after the Battle of Himera Agrigento “was crammed full of the captured” Carthaginians, so many that there were 500 prisoners of war for every Agrigentan. This vast new slave labor force was made to quarry stone and build ambitious public works — temples, large underground water conduits, a fish pool 4200 feet in circumference (that’s 8/10th of a mile) and 30 feet deep.

The Temple of Zeus was the most ambitious of them all. Even though its roof was never completed, the building was the largest Doric temple ever constructed. All this massiveness was constructed out of small sandstone blocks which makes it difficult for archaeologists to confirm its proportions and exact dimensions, as does the combined ruination wreaked by Carthage, natural disasters and mining of the remains for construction materials.

Here’s Diodorus’ detailed description of it, complete with awe-inspiring measurements:

The temple has a length of three hundred and forty feet, a width of sixty, and a height of one hundred and twenty not including the foundation. And being as it is the largest temple in Sicily, it may not unreasonably be compared, so far as magnitude of its substructure is concerned, with the temples outside of Sicily; for even though, as it turned out, the design could not be carried out, the scale of the undertaking at any rate is clear.   And though all other men build their temples either with walls forming the sides or with rows of columns, thrown enclosing their sanctuaries, this temple combines both these plans; for the columns were built in with the walls, the part extending outside the temple being rounded and that within square; and the circumference of the outer part of the column which extends from the wall is twenty feet and the body of a man may be contained in the fluting, while that of the inner part is twelve feet. The porticoes were of enormous size and height, and in the east pediment they portrayed The Battle between the Gods and the Giants which excelled in size and beauty, and in the west The Capture of Troy, in which each one of the heroes may be seen portrayed in a manner appropriate to his role.

The Atlases alternated with the columns. They stood on platforms a little more than halfway up the walls of the temple. Here’s a rendering of the side of the temple from Die griechischen Tempel in Unteritalien und Sicilien by  Robert Koldewey and Otto Puchstein (1899):

Here’s a model of the Temple of Zeus as it was in its heyday on display at the Regional Archaeological Museum:

Very little remains of the temple today — a few short walls, scattered blocks of stone, a couple of dramatically huge column capitals. I’m curious to see how they rig our Atlas friend to stand without a wall to mount it on like they have in the museum.

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Norwegian student finds evidence of Viking trade post

Thursday, July 16th, 2020

An graduate student in archaeology at the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway (UiT) has discovered evidence of a Viking Age trading post in the village of Sandtorg, in northern Norway. Armed with his trusty metal detector, Tor-Ketil Krokmyrdal unearthed a bar of payment silver, jewelry, large quantities of iron and weights. Analysis of the objects indicated some were imported from Ireland, Finland and the continent and as early as the 9th century. The finds make Sandtorg the oldest trading spot in northern Norway.

The village was known to have had a trading post since the early 13th century. The name itself is a clue. Sandr means “sandy” and torg means “square,” a common appellation for a marketplace. So the nomenclature attests to its history as a trading post on the sandy coast. What Krokmyrdal’s investigation found is that said history long predates the 1200s.

Sandtorg is on the shore of the Tjeldsundet strait and would have been a necessary stopping place for ships navigating the strong currents of the strait. Norse sagas suggest that local chieftains controlled Tjeldsundet and likely imposed duties on the shipping traffic as far back as the Iron Age. In the Viking era, that evolved into a trading post where goods were exchanged.

The sagas also reference the Sandtorg chiefs being involved in ship repair and building. The iron Krokmyrdal discovered may be connected to this practice as the quantity is significant. If the evidence of boat-building can be confirmed, it would be a unique find in Norway. At the very least we know there was an active smithy on the site.

Krokmyrdal’s supervisor, Marte Spangen, is impressed with his student’s performance.

“It is today quite unusual for master’s students to do their own fieldwork, and it is even less common for students to produce their own material,” she said.

According to her, the findings will increase the importance of metal detectors in research work.

“Krokmyrdal’s individual discoveries may be important for how we understand different exchange networks and, among other things, what kind of iron works took place in northern Norway,” Spangen mused.

Tor-Ketil Krokmyrdal has been granted permission from the National Heritage Board to continue his metal detector survey of the protected site. He will pursue archaeology as his career (his original plan was a career in “post and logistics” which I have no idea what that is) and will be part of the excavation team on the Hålogaland highway construction project.

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Remains of Aztec palace, Cortés’ home found under 18th c. building

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

Remains from the palace of Mexica emperor Axayácatl and the house Hernán Cortés had built on its ruins have been unearthed under a historic building in downtown Mexico City. National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) archaeologists dug under the floors of the northern half of the Nacional Monte de Piedad, a non-profit pawnshop established in 1775 to provide interest-free loans for the poor, between September 2017 and August 2018 in advance of foundation work to strengthen the historic structure. They discovered pre-Hispanic basalt slab floors dating to the reign of Axayácatl (1469-1481) and the remains of  Cortés’ residence in Tenochtitlan from the earliest days of the conquest ca. 1521.

The INAH team dug 12 test pits and unearthed the remains of a stone wall, plus flooring and column remains from the early Viceregal building. Archaeologists then excavated a neighboring room and discovered walls made of basalt and vesicular lava stones built on a basalt slab floor. These were built by order of Cortés after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521.  Underneath that floor was another one paved with basalt slabs, this one from Axayácatl’s palace. It was likely an outdoor space within the palace precinct.

By the time the Spanish arrived at Tenochtitlan in late 1519, Moctezuma II, son of Axayácatl, no longer lived in his father’s palace. It was known as the “Old Houses,” while Moctezuma resided in the “New Houses.”  He was gracious enough to allow Cortés and his men to live in his father’s palace. Big mistake, needless to say. Within months the palace was a military barracks and Cortés imprisoned a series of Aztec rulers, starting with none other than the guy who had rolled out the red carpet for them, Moctezuma II. He was still there when he was killed in the revolt after the Tóxcatl massacre.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan, Cortés ordered the destruction of the city’s royal and religious buildings, and he was more than thorough about it. The city’s survivors were forced to demolish their buildings to the foundation. Almost no walls higher than three feet were left standing, and the rubble was reused to construct nice new digs for the conquerors.

The evidence is embedded in the walls of Cortés’ house.

As an example of this, embedded in the façade of the southeast interior corner of the colonial room, two pre-Hispanic dressed stones carved with sculptures in high relief were found. They depicted a feathered serpent (Quetzalcóatl) and a headdress of feathers, and must have belonged to a panel of the Palace of Axayácatl. Also, another Mexica sculpture with the glyph that symbolizes the tianquiztli or market was recovered, in its place as part of a shaft.

Nacional Monte de Piedad officials are looking into how to preserve the discoveries as a layer cake of Mexico City’s history and make them accessible to the public.

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Homo erectus made a hand axe out of a hippo bone

Tuesday, July 14th, 2020

A rare bone hand axe made by Homo erectus has been discovered in Ethiopia. The tool was unearthed in the Konso Formation of southern Ethiopia in a sedimentary layer dating to the early Acheulean era around 1.4 million years ago. Comparison of the bone to other samples identified it as coming from the femur of a hippopotamus.

The team has discovered other Homo erectus hand axes at the site, but they are all made of stone. Only one other bone hand axe made by Homo erectus in this period has ever been found before. It was discovered in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and was made of elephant bone.

The hand axe is five inches long and was expertly flaked and chipped to create a sharp, straight cutting edge. This is difficult enough to accomplish with stone, requiring precision and understanding of how it will break. The difficulty level increases exponentially with bone as it doesn’t sheer off as predictably as flint, say. You also need a blank of significant size, a large chunk of bone from a large animal.

The hippo hand axe shows evidence of use. The edge near the tip has rounded and there are microflake scars, wear polish and striations. The striations are mostly oblique along the edge indicating the tool was used in the lengthwise motions of cutting/sawing typical of butchering.

Along with a variety of stone tools now recognized at several East African sites, the bone hand ax “suggests that Homo erectus technology was more sophisticated and versatile than we had thought,” [University of Tokyo researcher Gen] Suwa says. Taken together, these finds show that, perhaps several hundred thousand years earlier than previously known, the H. erectus toolkit consisted of items requiring a series of precise operations to manufacture, such as stone and bone hand axes, as well as simpler tools that could be made relatively quickly.

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Tomb of Cleopatra definitely not found

Monday, July 13th, 2020

A burial chamber containing two mummies that were originally covered in gold leaf has been unearthed at Taposiris Magna on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. The tomb was sealed, but water penetration left the remains in poor condition and largely disintegrated the gold leaf. For them to have been buried in such rich outerwear, they must have been individuals of high rank. This is being promoted as a key clue to the location of the tomb of Cleopatra. Spoiler: yeah no.

The head of the excavation, Kathleen Martínez, is actually a lawyer. From her own reading in her time off from running her legal practice Dominican Republic, Martínez developed a theory that Cleopatra’s tomb was at Taposiris Magna and persuaded Zahi Hawass to let her look for it. When she first pitched the idea to him in 2005, she said to give her two months and she’d find the elusive tomb of Cleopatra. Fourteen years of excavations later, the only thing connected to Cleopatra that has been found are 200 gold coins bearing her profile.

Very little archaeological material directly related to Cleopatra has survived, most of it consisting of coins issued during her reign. The written sources have no information about the location of her tomb. Plutarch’s description of her mausoleum focuses on the riches it contained and the great drama of her and Mark Antony’s final days. He does say that Octavian allowed Cleopatra to be embalmed and entombed with Mark Antony in the royal tomb, but nothing about where it was.

Alexandria itself was hit hard by natural disasters. What was once the royal palace of Alexandria is under water now, as is much of the ancient city, and what didn’t sink was cannibalized for building materials. The dynastic tomb of the Ptolemies was built inside the palace precinct.

Located 20 miles west of Alexandria, Taposiris Magna was an important port town in Ptolemaic Egypt. A large limestone temple was constructed there by Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221-204 B.C.), who also built the dynastic tomb in Alexandria. It was dedicated to Osiris (hence “Taposiris”) and was believed to one of the spots where Osiris’ dismembered body parts were buried after his murder by his brother Set.

Martínez’ theory is that Cleopatra built a mausoleum for herself and Mark Antony in the temple precinct because she identified strongly with the goddess Isis, consort of Osiris, and would have wanted them buried together as incarnations of the deities. As for how she would have accomplished this without Octavian’s knowledge when he ordered her buried with Mark Antony in Alexandria, she arranged it with priests before her suicide. Once Octavian moved on, the priests moved both bodies to a secret tomb under the Taposiris Magna temple courtyard.

In a decade and a half of excavations, not only has the fabled tomb not turned up, but in all fairness, neither have any others. The chamber with the pair of mummies is the first tomb ever found inside the temple.

The mummies have been X-rayed, establishing that they are male and female. One suggestion is they were priests who played a key role in maintaining the pharaohs’ power. One bears an image of a scarab, symbolising rebirth, painted in gold leaf.

In conclusion, two priests were found buried at a temple that continues to show no evidence whatsoever of the presence of the tomb of Cleopatra.

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Rare element solves mystery of Roman clear glass

Sunday, July 12th, 2020

The Edict of Diocletian, aka the Edict on Maximum Prices, was issued in 301 A.D. in a failed attempt to control the runaway inflation that plagued the empire after decades of currency debasement during the Crisis of the Third Century. It established maximum wages for labor and maximum prices for more than 1,200 products from kidney beans to timber to the famous purple dyed silk (150,000 denarii a pound for that bad boy, more than twice the price of gold). Today the edict survives in fragmentary inscriptions only, but enough of it is extant to serve as a uniquely rich source of information about Roman economics, trade goods and buying power.

Among the products on the list are different types of glass. Alexandrian clear glass is the most expensive at 24 denarii a pound, 30 for cups and vessels. Judaean clear glass cups and vessels cost 20 denarii a pound. Pliny noted in Natural History that “the highest value is set upon glass that is entirely colourless and transparent, as nearly as possible resembling crystal” and Alexandrian was the top of the line in clear glass.

Roman-era glass furnaces have been discovered in the Levant, producers of the Judaean glass. No such furnaces have been found in Egypt so archaeologists have long debated whether the so-called Alexandrian glass was really made there. Researchers have only been able to generally infer ancient glass is Egyptian because it doesn’t match the products from the Syro-Palestinian furnaces and from higher concentrations of titanium dioxide found in Egyptian sand. The first criterion is passive at best, and the second excludes high quality sand deliberately chosen for its low levels of iron oxides (and therefore titanium dioxide) that was available to Egyptian glassmakers during the Roman period.

That obstacle has now been surmounted with the help of the rare element hafnium. Researchers subjected Roman glass sherds to strontium, neodymium and hafnium isotope analyses. They found distinct hafnium isotope signatures in the glasses made with Egyptian sand and the ones from the Syro-Palestine coast.

“Hafnium isotopes have proved to be an important tracer for the origins of sedimentary deposits in geology, so I expected this isotope system to fingerprint the sands used in glassmaking”, states Gry Barfod. Professor at Aarhus University Charles Lesher, co-author of the publication, continues: “The fact that this expectation is borne out by the measurements is a testament of the intimate link between archaeology and geology.”

Hafnium isotopes have not previously been used by archaeologists to look at the trade in ancient man-made materials such as ceramics and glass. Co-author Professor Ian Freestone, University College London, comments, “These exciting results clearly show the potential of hafnium isotopes in elucidating the origins of early materials. I predict they will become an important part of the scientific toolkit used in our investigation of the ancient economy.”

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

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