Archive for November, 2020

Head of Hermes found in Athens sewer

Friday, November 20th, 2020

A marble bust of the Hermes, messenger of the gods, has been discovered during sewer construction in Athens, Greece. It is estimated to date from the end of the 4th century or early 3rd century B.C., when it was originally part of a herm, a rectangular pillar with a sculpted bust on top and genitalia at the base. Crews found the head on Friday, November 13th, built into the south wall of a modern drainage duct.

The newly-discovered bust is typical of the Hermes Propylaeus (Hermes of the Gateways) type created by ancient Greek sculptor Alcamenes in the mid-5th century B.C. and frequently copied throughout the Greco-Roman world. Alcamenes was known for blending elements of Archaic style from the 6th century B.C. with the greater expressive naturalism of Classical period. His Hermes couples the stylized curly hair and beard of an Archaic kore with the differentiated facial features of the Classical. Also typical of the Archaic style, Hermes is depicted in mature age. His iconography would shift in the later Classical and Hellenistic periods to depictions of the deity as a lissome young man.

Because Hermes with his winged sandals was the god who protected travelers on their journeys, herms were erected at boundaries, crossroads, gateways and graves. This herm was originally a crossroads or gateway marker in Athens and was recycled for use in the sewer drains many centuries later.

The work is in good condition despite its checkered past, and is now in the care of the Ephorate of Antiquities.


16th c. soldier found in Lithuanian lake

Thursday, November 19th, 2020

Underwater archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 16th century man and his kit at the bottom of Lake Asvejas in eastern Lithuania. The skeletal remains were found at a depth of 30 feet near Dubingiai Bridge, one of the longest wooden bridges still in use in Lithuania. Marine archaeologists uncovered bones, an iron sword, two knives with wooden handles and a spur. The armaments suggest the individual was a soldier. It is the first discovery of its kind in Lithuania.

This was not a burial. No evidence has been found yet indicating how he died, but whatever caused his demise, his body sank to the bottom of the lake. All of the bones were found in situ. Protected by a layer of clay and sand sediment, some of the young man’s accessories also managed to survive– his leather boots and fragments of a thin leather belt.

The lakebed was being surveyed before structural work replacing the bridge’s rotting wood beams with metal ones. Archaeologists and amateur divers worked together to survey the site. The remains were found during an inspection of the bridge’s supports.

A previous survey in 1998 had revealed that another bridge once stood in the same place, dating to the 16th or 17th century — around the time that the medieval soldier died, [marine archaeologist Elena] Pranckėnaitė added.

“For now, we assume that those discovered human remains could be linked with the former bridge leading to Dubingiai castle, which was situated on the hilltop on the shore of Asveja Lake,” she said.

The human remains have been recovered and now being studied at the Faculty of Medicine of Vilnius University. The archaeological material is being conserved and analyzed by experts at the National Museum of Lithuania.


The put-your-warring-lords-to-work rules

Wednesday, November 18th, 2020

Researchers at Kumamoto University have discovered a rare early Edo-period document regulating conduct at an expansive construction project used by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu to reel in his fractious lords. Issued by the head of the powerful Hosokawa samurai clan in January of 1608, the document lists 13 articles of behavior to be observed by everyone contracted to work on the reconstruction of Sunpu Castle. Its aim was to prevent conflict from breaking out on the worksite.

A seasoned warrior and daimyo (feudal lord) from a cadet branch of the imperial family, Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1646) was the clan leader during the early Edo period. He and the 5,000 troops at his command played a key role at the 1600 Battle of Sekigahara in which Tokugawa Ieyasu consolidated his power and the shogun rewarded Tadaoki for his support with even more lands.

To bring the fractious lords under the control of the newly-established Tokugawa shogunate, Ieyasu initiated major construction projects, in one fell swoop rebuilding castles and defenses damaged during the wars and making the daimyos pay for it, sapping their funds and independence. The code of conduct delegates all authority on the project to superintendent Masazumi Honda, one of the shogun’s top allies and newly-minted daimyo, and four Hosokawa vassals. The next articles ban all fighting within the clan on pain of death, watching a fight between opposing clans, let alone participating in one, or forcing any servants who run away to another house to return until after construction was finished.

The second half of the code provides a glimpse into the life of the soldier class (ashi-garu) mobilized for the project. Alcohol (sake) was strictly prohibited. They could bring their own food (bento), but were not to drink more than three small flat sake cups (sakazuki) of alcohol (Article 6). When going to town, they were supposed to declare the nature of their errand to the magistrate and obtain a permit (Article 7). Meetings with people from other clans or the shogunate were strictly forbidden (Article 8). Hot baths in another clan’s facilities were not allowed (Article 11). Sumo wrestling and spectating were strictly forbidden during the period of the project, and violators would be punished (Article 12). On the round trip between Kokura and Sunpu, workers were to travel in groups as indicated on an attached sheet (Article 13). This purpose of this historical document was to maintain peace at the project site and vividly conveys the aspects of the samurai society during its transition from a time of war to peace and prosperity.

This is the third known document recording behavioral rules during the work on Sunpu Castle. The first was promulgated by Mori Terumoto, lord of the Choshu clan and one of Ieyasu’s former enemies, but contains very similar language. The third is a verbatim copy of the Choshu document created by Maeda Toshinaga, lord of the Kaga clan. Researchers believe the daimyos were going off a sample rule set sent them by the shogun.

The code of conduct was written on two sheers of danshi paper, a thick white mulberry paper first produced in the 8th century that would become the preferred medium for official documents, ceremonial rites and court poetry. The sheets were joined together to make a large, expensive manuscript worthy of the dignity of head of the Hosokawa family. Kumamoto University researchers have conserved the fine paper, repairing a break in the join between the danshi sheets and restored their prized whiteness.


Rare glass vase found in Gallic tomb

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered an exceptionally rare diatretic vase, a highly ornamented style of reticulated glass, in a paleochristian necropolis in Autun, central France. Only 10 complete examples of diatretic vases from the Roman era are known to have survived. This is the only one ever found what used to be ancient Gaul. The last one was found in the 1970s in North Macedonia.

This one is absolutely top of the line, inscribed above the elaborate decoration with the phrase VIVAS FELICITER (live in happiness). It is petite at 4.7 inches high and 6.3 inches in diameter. While it is damaged and there are many fragments, they have all been recovered and conservators will be able to stitch it back together.

Autun was founded as Augustodunum by the Emperor Augustus as the capital of the Aedui people in the 1st century A.D. The necropolis being excavated was built outside the city’s east walls in the early 3rd century and became Augustodunum’s main cemetery. Since excavations began this summer, more than 230 burials have been unearthed. There is a great diversity of burial types, including mausoleums, coffins with tile roofs, five massive sandstone sarcophagi and 15 lead coffins. One sandstone sarcophagus had a lead coffin inside of it. No inscriptions have been found to identify the dead of late ancient Autun.

The most grand sarcophagi contained appositely grand grave goods. A set of jet pins dating to the 4th century were found in burial 162, a pair of gold earrings in the lead coffin of a child and a gold ring inset with a cabochon garnet in the burial of a child or adolescent. A set of 4th century carved amber pins of such high quality and in such impeccable condition that there are no comparable groups in the archaeological record.

They were found at the feet of the individual buried in sarcophagus 43. That sarcophagus also contained a fragment with gold threads from a textile that has disintegrated, but its dye had leached from the textile leaving a tell-tale purple tint on the sediment. This is likely the fabled Tyrian purple derived from the murex sea snail. Another grave, grave 45, also contained a fragment of textile woven from gold threads.

The fine coffins and grave goods indicate that there were people of great wealth and status in Augustodunum.


Only Roman imperial letter in Bulgaria revealed

Monday, November 16th, 2020

An imperial letter from the Emperor Septimius Severus to the city of Nicopolis ad Istrum in Roman Dacia (modern-day northern Bulgaria) has gone on public display for the first time in centuries. It is the only intact letter from a Roman emperor ever discovered in Bulgaria and survived because it was carved on a two-ton slab of limestone 10 feet high. The inscription was rediscovered in 1923 broken into four large and several small pieces, the fragments blackened by fire. The pieces have been kept at the Veliko Tarnovo Museum of History since their discovery, but they were only puzzled back together recently. Epigraphers have now completely translated the 37 lines of the inscription, and the stele has been reinstalled in its original location at the archaeological park near Veliko Tarnovo.

The slab was inscribed with the text of the letter in 198 A.D. and erected in the city agora so the public could read it. At some point it was toppled, probably in the 5th century when the city was destroyed by Attila the Hun. It was written at the end of a turbulent period replete with violence and uncertainty as acclaimed emperors vied for the purple and paid with their lives.

Nicopolis officials had good reason to curry favor with Septimius Severus. They had supported one of the other imperial contenders and picking a side was a very dangerous wine-in-front-of-me game in the Year of the Five Emperors (193 A.D.). Cassius Dio records that when the news of Commodus’ assassination in December of 192 A.D. spread to the provinces, several governors had the bearers of the news arrested, not because they were pro-Commodus, but because they didn’t want to be seen as being in favor of his death should the report prove untrue. Commodus’ successor Pertinax, inspired by the example of Marcus Aurelius, was a judicious, humane emperor for the 87 days he got to reign before his virtue pissed off the Praetorian Guard so hard they killed him. They then sold the throne to the highest bidder, literally holding an auction in the palace in front of the decapitated head of Pertinax on a spike. The corrupt and debauched senator Didius Julianus won.

That put Cassius Dio, a senator and eye-witness to these events, in a scary WIFOM position of his own.

As for us senators, when the news was brought to each of us individually and we ascertained the truth, we were possessed by fear of Julianus and the soldiers, especially all of us who had done any favours for Pertinax or anything to displease Julianus. I was one of these, for I had received various honours from Pertinax, including the praetorship, and when acting as advocate for others at trials I had frequently proved Julianus to be guilty of many offences. Nevertheless, we made our appearance, partly for this very reason, since it did not seem to us to be safe to remain at home, for fear such a course might in itself arouse suspicion.

Septimius Severus was in Carnutum, modern-day Austria, with his legion when they heard about Pertinax’s fate. His troops proclaimed him Emperor and Septimius marched on Rome to claim the imperial throne. Julianus dispatched Praetorians to intercept Septimius Severus and his legions, but they were crushed (or fled). On June 1st, Julianus was killed by order of the Senate. Severus took the throne, adding Pertinax’s cognomen to his regnal name in honor of the man he considered to be the last legitimate emperor. He executed the Praetorians who had participated in the assassination and restaffed the guards with troops loyal to him.

The fight was far from over, however. Other pretenders —  Pescennius Niger in Syria, governor of Britannia Clodius Albinus — were gunning for him and it another four years would pass before Septimius killed Albinus and took undisputed control of the empire. Nicopolis had to wade into this political quicksand of violence, intrigue and shifting alliances long before the final battle made it clear who would come out on top, and Septimius Severus was not merciful to his opponents or their supporters.

So the city did what it had to do to placate the Emperor: shower him in cash. They “donated” 700,000 denarii to Septimius Severus. In return for their generous gift, the Emperor sent a nice thank you note.

Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus,

Conqueror of Arabia and Adiabene, and Greatest Conqueror of Parthia

Son of the deified Marcus Aurelius Pius, the victor in Germania and Sarmatia

[Marcus Aurelius], brother of the deified Commodus, grandson of the deified

Anthonius Pius, great-grandson of the deified Hadrian, and descendant of

The deified Trajan, the victor in Parthia, and of the deified Nerva,

Supreme priest, holding the tribune power for the sixth time,

Eleven times proclaimed emperor, twice consul,

Father of the fatherland, proconsul, and Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antonius Augustus [Caracalla], son of

Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus,

Conqueror of Arabia and Adiabene, and Greatest Conqueror of Parthia,

Grandson of the deified Marcus Aurelius Pius, the victor in Germania and Sarmatia,

[Marcus Aurelius], great-grandson of the deified Anthonius Pius,

Descendant of the deified Hadrian, the deified Trajan,

The victor in Parthia, and of the deified Nerva, with tribune power and proconsul,

Greet the archons, the city council, and the people of Nicopolis ad Istrum.

We have seen your remarkable devotion declared in our decree.

As well-meaning and loyal people striving to receive a more

Favorable assessment in our eyes, you have clearly shown

That you share our joy from the recent events; you have also conducted

Mass celebrations at the news for our successes – the common peace

Which has arrived for all people thanks to the victory

Over the barbarians who constantly embolden themselves to attack the empire,

And the joint leading of the state by the two of us in just collaboration,

Together with the legal Caesar [Geta] belonging to our family.

That is why we have read the decree with the due respect to

The monetary installment of 700,000 [denarii] as coming from well-meaning people.

Our friend and legate, the excellent Ovinius sent the decree.

(Septimius was not the descendant of Trajan or Hadrian. He was just borrowing their shine to lend legitimacy to his rule.) The well-meaning people of Nicopolis did not pay their extortionate bribe in vain. The city prospered under Septimius who visited it in person several times. His son Caracalla was not as big a fan. After he became sole ruler, Caracalla stripped Nicopolis ad Istrum of its titles, its responsibility for the imperial cult and its ability to mint its own coins. They were restored after his death.


Gjellestad ship emerges

Sunday, November 15th, 2020

The excavation of the Gjellestad Ship, the first Viking ship burial mound to be excavated in Norway since 1904, has exposed the surviving structure of the ship. We’ve only seen its outline in a ground penetrating radar scan before, a pointed oval in the middle of a dark circle that marks the circumference of the mound that was built around it. Now the wooden skeleton of the ship itself is visible.

The ship was constructed around the 9th century and dug into a pit. Someone very important was laid to rest inside of it and then a mound was built on top to attest to the high rank of the deceased. The longship was an estimated 65 feet long when new. About 63 feet of its length (and 13 feet of its width) remains, with the losses concentrated and the front and back of the boat.

The excavation began at the end of June and time is of the essence because samples taken from the keel found the wood was ravaged by fungal growth and in imminent danger of disintegration. To preserve the fragile wood after it has been exposed to the air, the team drapes it in perforated plastic sheeting covered with wet cotton canvas. That keeps the soil and wood from drying out. Artifacts have been removed in soil blocks for excavation in laboratory conditions.

The most common artifact unearthed so far are nails, the iron nails with heads and square plates hammered to the end known as clinker plates. These plates were the fasteners, the means by which the planks of clinker-built ships were kept together. As most of the ship’s wood decayed in the soil, the iron nails remained, albeit damaged and fragmented by a millennium of corrosion. Last month, a whole row of nails was uncovered on the southern end of the ship, the area where the planks from stem to stern were nailed to the prow. A corresponding line of clinker nails was also found in situ on the northern section of the ship. Their discovery in their original positions will provide new information on how the ship was built.

While human remains have yet to be found, animal bones have been discovered the middle of the ship. Their large size suggests they belonged to an ox or horse that was ritually buried with the elite individual. The animal bones are located in the area of the boat where the central burial chamber would have been placed. The site has been interfered with, probably by looters when the tomb was still comparatively young, certainly by agricultural activity in the 19th century when the mound above the burial was destroyed to make way for planting. The upper parts of the boat were heavily damaged and archaeologists feared the funerary chamber was lost as well. The discovery of the animal bones gives hope that there might be something to find down there after all, because while the top layer of bones are in poor condition, the lower layers are much better preserved.

Follow the adventures of the Gjellestad excavation in this blog on the Viking Ship Museum’s website. Also, here is Kristofer Hivju, aka Tormund Giantsbane from Game of Thrones, looking like joy incarnate as he aids in the excavation.


If I disappear for a month after Christmas, this is why

Saturday, November 14th, 2020

A childhood dream of mine has been made flesh, or rather plastic brick. Just in time for people including yours truly to start begging for it for Christmas, LEGO is releasing its newest brick set: the Roman Colosseum. At 9,036 pieces, this is the largest set Lego has ever produced, colossal, you might say. The previous record-holder was the iconic Star Wars Millenium Falcon at 7,500 pieces.

One for the history buffs as well as the LEGO fans, this authentic LEGO brick recreation features many of the true-to-life details found at the real historical icon, including a recreation of the three distinct stories from the Colosseum, each made up of the columns of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders.

These columns have been faithfully recreated in LEGO brick form using a variety of creative building techniques, including decorative volutes that have been created using a re-coloured LEGO roller skate element that has been turned upside down to create an authentic look.

The Colosseum even includes 80 ‘ribs’ in the spectator stands (the exact same number as the original) and three different shades of brick to replicate the different columns and aging of the almost 2,000 year old landmark.

The LEGO Colosseum measures 10.5″ high, 20.5″ wide and 23.5″ deep and is built on an oval base. The base also replicates original features like the travertine paving stones and pine trees that lined the walkway In order to display architectural features like the orders of columns to their best advantage and convey the sense of monumentality in a miniature, the model’s cross-section is steeper than the proportion in the real Colosseum.

It makes for a striking display whether you position it with the northern side, the more complete wall with all the stories and columns, or the southern side whose low wall exposes the intricate interior from the elaborate hypogeum structures under the arena floor to the back of the vertically exaggerated north wall. Even though it’s huge, the LEGO Colosseum is still light enough to be easily picked up and examined. You can look through the arches, see the sunlight shine through them.

The set goes on sale November 27th, Black Friday, for $549.99, so unless Santa is a lot flusher than I thought, you can heave a sigh of relief that I won’t go AWOL after all. Buyers on Black Friday weekend will get a gift with purchase of a little chariot to go with your new Colosseum.


Then there’s this video. I just cannot even deal with how awesome it all is.


Color restored to temple of Esna

Friday, November 13th, 2020

The temple of Esna is a Greco-Roman era Egyptian temple decorated mainly in the Roman era (1st-3rd century A.D.). Only the pronaos (the front vestibule) of the temple survives today; the rest was lost in the Middle Ages.

The temple is in Esna, 60 kilometers south of Luxor in Egypt. Only the vestibule (called the pronaos) remains, but it is complete. At 37 meters long, 20 meters wide and 15 meters high, the sandstone structure was placed in front of the actual temple building under the Roman Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) and probably eclipsed it. The roof is supported by 24 columns, the capitals of the 18 free-standing columns are decorated with different plant motifs. “In Egyptian temple architecture this is an absolute exception,” says Tübingen Egyptologist Daniel von Recklinghausen.

The work on the elaborate decorations probably took up to 200 years. The temple of Esna is famous for its astronomical ceiling and especially for the hieroglyphic inscriptions. They are considered to be the most recent coherent hieroglyphic text corpus that has been preserved today and which describes the religious ideas of the time and the cult events at the site.

Its location in the middle of the city center probably contributed to the fact that the vestibule was preserved and was not used as a quarry for building materials as other ancient edifices were during the industrialization of Egypt. Indeed, the temple had become part of the modern city. Houses and shacks were built directly against some of its walls, in other places it protruded from a mountain of rubble, as can be seen on postcards from the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the first half of the 19th century, the hall served temporarily as a warehouse for cotton.

The inscriptions were studied and documented in the 1960s and 1970s by French Egyptologist Serge Sauneron, but the temple was so caked in thick layers of soot, dirt and bird poop that photography was deemed an unnecessary extravagance when the inscriptions were published. In 2018, a joint campaign of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities and the University of Tubingen’s Institute for the Cultures of the Ancient Orient was launched with the objectives of aiding in the cleaning and conservation of the temple and doing a full photographic documentation of the inscriptions and decorative elements once the layers of grime obscuring the original polychrome paint are removed.

The results have been a revelation. The cleaning revealed iconographic features — a wedjat-eye gradually exposed in stages representing the phases of the moon, new Egyptian constellations, details of clothing, inscriptions rendered in paint rather than carved in relief so Sauneron never ever knew they were there. The painted inscriptions on the astronomical ceiling record the name of previously unknown Egyptian constellations. The cleaning of a column capital revealed intricate depictions of grapevines and date palms that are striking for their verisimilitude and for the information they provide of the temple’s original color scheme — red, yellow, green, blue.

The restoration project continues even under the looming shadow of COVID. When a new section is cleaned, it is photographed and documented.


Mosaic floor of Roman villa found in Turkey

Thursday, November 12th, 2020

Elaborate mosaic floors from a 1st-2nd century A.D. Roman villa have been discovered in the town of Kadirli, a town in Osmaniye Province on the Mediterranean coast of southcentral Turkey. One of the central panels features the named portrait of a woman who may have been the owner of the villa. There are also floors with intricate geometric patterns, with detailed scenes from mythology and of men on horseback at hunt. These are the only mosaics depicting human figures ever found in Osmaniye Province.

Modern-day Kadirli is believed to be located near the ancient city of Flaviopolis in what was then the imperial Roman province of Cilicia. Very little is known about the Roman town. Ptolemy notes it in passing in The Geography, but just as a dot on a map with no further information.

The first Roman-era mosaics were discovered at Kadirli in 2015 during a survey of the site of planned construction. Archaeologists found the remains of a public bath and a mosaic floor featuring animals — a leopard, a bull, a deer, a lion — outlined by elaborate geometric motifs. The quality of the mosaics was high, comparable to the world-famous mosaics at Zeugma, the ancient Commagene, which boasts the largest mosaic museum in the world. The site was declared a protected area and excavations have continued ever since.

Last year a figure holding a bunch of grapes in his right hand and a partridge under his left elbow was discovered. A radish in the bottom left of the panel was the first evidence of radishes being grown in the district in the 1st century. Another panel featured a man standing next to three amphorae of graduated size. All of these mosaics will be preserved in situ for exhibition.


Medieval metal faces found in Poland

Wednesday, November 11th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered 200 metal and ceramic artifacts from the Middle Ages in the village of Poniaty Wielkie, east-central Poland. The artifacts are remarkably varied, ranging from jewelry to devotional objects to spurs, and date from the 11th to the 12th/13th century.

Two pieces are of particular note: a copper alloy fitting in the shape of a surprised face, and a small lead plate shaped like a placid/sleeping/contented face. The lead object may have been a seal. The Home Alone face was likely a garment fitting or belt buckle as it has clear mounting holes on the ears. These types of artifacts have not been found in what is now Poland before. They are stylistically similar to pieces made by the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian borderlands.

The area was known to have been settled in the Middle Ages, but it was never archaeologically excavated until 2019 before construction of new gas reservoirs. Two seasons of digs revealed evidence of the medieval town’s commercial activities — furnaces, wells, slag and partially finished metal goods.

Despite the fact that the settlement was situated within the borders of the then Polish lands, many monuments that have been discovered there so far come from the eastern territories, including in Rus, the discoverers point out.

According to [lead archaeologist Jakub] Affelski, the settlement in Poniaty Wielkie could play several roles: perhaps it was a metallurgical center that produced items for nearby castles in Nasielsk and Pułtusk. This is evidenced by the found fragments of slags and metal semi-finished products. In turn, numerous metal seals indicate that it was used for large-scale trade. It is unclear for researchers why there are so many metal objects left in the settlement, which were highly valued at the time. – There is no indication that its end was brought by the invasion – we found no evidence of armed aggression. It is still a big puzzle for us – he concludes.





November 2020


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