Reconstruction confirms accuracy of Fayoum child mummy portrait

A facial reconstruction of the mummy of a young child has revealed that his mummy portrait was remarkably realistic. Mummy portraits, a funerary tradition specific to Greco-Roman Egypt, were painted on wood boards and placed over the face of a linen-wrapped mummified body. There are about 1,000 known mummy portraits extant today, most of them discovered in the Fayoum area of Lower Egypt, but less than 100 of them are still attached to their original mummy.

Because of the realism and individualized features of the portraits, they are believed to be representations of the faces of the deceased, but few studies have been done on matched portraits and mummies, and in the ones that have created facial reconstructions from the embalmed remains, the results have varied. Most of the portraits were (pardon the pun) dead ringers for the mummy; a few seemingly bore no resemblance.

The most recent study is the first to compare a child mummy to its portrait. The subject in question has been part of the collection of the  Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst (SMAEK) München since 1912 when it was donated to the Royal Bavarian Collection of Antiquities by renown archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie. Petrie had unearthed it himself the year before during an excavation at Hawara, the entrance point to the Fayoum oasis.

The mummy is 30 inches long and artfully wrapped with criss-crossed linen bandages adorned with gilded plaster buttons. The portrait depicts a young child about three or four years old with large brown eyes and brown hair. X-rays identified the child as male. The hair is curly with two braids woven from center to ears just above the hairline.

Researchers CT-scanned the mummy and reconstructed the skull from the scans. They then used the scan data and 3D software to reconstruct the eyes, skin, nose and soft tissue. The reconstruction artist was not allowed to see the portrait or even get anything information about it so as not to influence the rendering.

The facial reconstruction shows a child with typical infantile facial features very similar to those of the portrait. On the biometrical level, the proportions between the dimension of the forehead to the eye line, the distance to the lower nasal aperture and the mouth opening were exactly the same between portrait and reconstruction. However, differences existed between the width of the nasal bridge and the size of the mouth opening with both being more slender and “narrow” in the portrait than the virtual reconstruction. […]

There are, however, certain distinct differences between portrait and face: on a subjective level, the portrait appears slightly “older”; on a biometric level, the width of the nose and the mouth are smaller in the portrait than in the face, which might explain the perceived difference in age.

Flinders Petrie thought the portraits were made ante-mortem because they had all been cut down to fit the mummy and because he found one that hadn’t yet been attached to a mummy. Some current scholars have also proposed that the portraits were made from life. While that makes sense for adults, it seems unlikely that so young a child would have a death portrait ready to go just in case. There is evidence of pneumonia in his lungs, so its seems he was stricken by a sudden fatal illness.

The study has been published in the journal PLUS One. It’s a good read and has excellent supplementary materials, including four videos of different stages of the reconstruction process.

Germanic princely grave found in Migration Period cemetery

The richly furnished grave of a Germanic prince buried with 11 animals and six women has been discovered near the village of Brücken-Hackpfüffel in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. It dates to between 480 and 530 A.D. and was the central tomb of a large burial mound, now eroded.

The remains of the illustrious personage buried in the central grave have not been found yet. A soil block containing metal pieces believed to have been part of a cauldron was removed for excavation in laboratory conditions. The cinerary remains of the tumulus owner may have been buried inside of it. It must have been of major importance, because the six women were buried around the cauldron in a radial alignment like the rays of the sun. It is not yet known if they were deliberately killed or sacrificed themselves to accompany the deceased into death. The animals — cattle, horses, dogs — were buried after the central occupant was interred and the mound built, likely offerings to honor the deceased.

The burial mound is part of a Migration Period cemetery that was discovered by chance during construction of a chicken breeding facility. Almost 60 graves have been discovered. Grave goods excavated so far include the figurine of a Germanic deity, a glass bowl with swirl decoration in pristine condition, a glass spindle whorl, silver gilt fibulae, an iron sword and shield boss and a gold coin minted during the reign of Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno dating to around 480. The glass objects bear the signature manufacturing technique of Gallo-Roman workshops on the Rhine.

The fibulae were of a type produced by the Lombards, Alemanni and the Thuringii. The most elaborate of the fibulae still includes a fragment of textile that was captured and preserved by corrosion of the metal. Analysis of the fragment may narrow down its provenance. If it from a light cloak, it’s likely Lombard as their territories were more southerly.

By a stroke of archaeological good luck, the cemetery was in a depression on the landscape. Over the years, layers of soil built up over it, so even though the site has seen centuries of agricultural use, the graves were never damaged. They weren’t even any hints of their presence on the surface, so they’ve been preserved from the depredations of looters.

Excavations in situ and in the laboratory are ongoing. The precise location of the cemetery is being kept under wraps for security purposes.

8,400-year-old dog burial found in Sweden

The remains of a dog buried 8,400 years ago have been discovered in the Stone Age settlement at Ljungaviken, Sölvesborg. Objects found with it are believed to be grave goods, suggesting the dog was a beloved companion and colleague. It is one of the oldest dog finds ever made in Sweden, and the only one found in the middle of a Neolithic settlement.

The bones have been examined by an animal osteologist, but he was unable to identify its breed as there is no modern dog directly comparable. The closest he could get was to say that it was “like a powerful greyhound.”

“We hope to be able to lift the whole dog up in preparations, ie with soil and everything, and continue the investigations at Blekinge Museum’s object magazine.” says project manager Carl Persson at Blekinge museum.

“A find like this makes you feel even closer to the people who lived here,” he continues. “A buried dog somehow shows how similar we are over the millennia – the same feelings of loss and loss.”

When the settlement was inhabited (around 6,700-5,700 B.C.), the site was beachfront property on a small island or peninsula. The site was probably used only part of the year, in the summer and autumn, prime seasons for fishing and seal hunting. Paleobotanical finds indicate wild plants like melons and raspberries were foraged for food. Rising sea levels flooded the beach, covering the settlement with layers of wet sand and preserving it in good condition for thousands of years.

Archaeological surveys in 2015 discovered evidence of 56 different structures — hearths, postholes, pits — from the Stone Age and later materials from the Bronze and Iron Ages. The dog was buried among the Stone Age remains.

Gallo-Roman wine vat found in Touraine

Archaeologists have discovered a Gallo-Roman wine vat from the 2nd century near the village of Vaugourdon in Touraine, central France. A team from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) found the vat during an excavation of the site of a future fishery when they unearthed a deep rectangular pit built of roof bricks and lime mortar making it water-tight.

The Loire river valley is one of France’s top wine producing regions, with a history of viticulture that goes back to the Roman era. If the presence of grape juice is confirmed from presence of tannins in residues on the brick, this vat will be the earliest direct archaeological evidence of wine production in Touraine.

Winemaking in Roman Gaul, especially in this period, was predominantly based in the Mediterranean south of the country, and most evidence points to it creeping north to areas such as the Loire much later in the Roman period; as late as the 3rd century AD.

The famous saint, Martin of Tours, is a patron of vintners, vine-growers and winemakers and his wine-related hagiography is firmly linked to the area. He is credited with encouraging the spread of viticulture throughout the Touraine region, introducing Chenin Blanc and supposedly his donkey ‘discovered’ pruning by nibbling the foliage of a monastery’s vineyard (though there is an Ancient Greek myth where Aristaeus discovers this by watching a goat do the same thing).

But St Martin lived in the 4th century AD so this new site is as much as two centuries older.

The discovery of one winemaking site does not prove that viticulture was a large, flourishing industry in the Loire during this period of course but it does (potentially) show that limited viticulture was a reality and much more widespread in early Roman Gaul than former evidence suggested.

INRAP archaeologists have also discovered the foundations of a large villa near the vat. Fragments of marble and a well-preserved hypocaust system indicate this was a luxurious, expensive home. Its possible dates range from the 1st through the 3rd century A.D., so it may or may not be connected to wine production, but it likely belonged to a wealthy farmer, possibly absentee, who employed and housed numerous people on the estate year-round.

Farmer plows up a runestone

A few years ago, Lennart Larsson was plowing a field on his farm in Hellerö, near Loftahammar, southeastern Sweden, when his tractor collided into a stone. It was large — six and a half feet long, more than three feet wide — and flat, so Larsson figured he’d set it aside as it might prove useful in the future. He move it to the edge of the field and there it remained until days ago. He was building a new staircase for an outbuilding and thought that large flat stone was just the thing for the job. When he raised it with an excavator, for the first time he noticed there were runes carved on the underside.

The Larssons contacted experts at the Västervik Museum who viewed the piece and confirmed it was a rare runestone. Runologist Magnus Källström then examined and translated the carving. The runes read: “Gärdar erected this stone for Sigdjärv, his father, husband of Ögärd.” In the center of the stone is a cross, which coupled with the inscription indicates this was a funerary stone, a memorial monument placed on the family’s property a few kilometers from the village burial ground. Around the text is a zoomorphic figure biting its own tail. The rounded style of the animal carving suggests a date of the first half of the 11th century.

The stone is believed to have fallen where it was originally placed. It is in very good condition, despite centuries of active agricultural use of the land above and around it. This stone is of national significance, and is a particularly important find for the region as the inscription names three individuals from different generations of a prominent family who lived at the site during the Late Iron Age. Previous finds of silver coins and a silver armband made in Gotland in the 11th century are evidence of the family’s wealth. The female name Ögärd has never been seen before, making it of notable interest for linguistic research.

The stone will now be cleaned and conserved. Authorities hope to put it on display in its original location in Hellerö, but it has a crack that threatens its stability which must be secured first. The county administrative board will then decide on its ultimate disposition based on the advice of conservators.