Archive for February, 2021

Earliest surviving mummification manual discovered

Sunday, February 28th, 2021

There are numerous sources for the funerary rituals and spells Egyptians used to aid the dead over the threshold of the afterlife. They were written on papyrus and linen mummy wrappings, painted on coffins and carved on walls, texts now known collectively as the Book of the Dead. Mummification was an essential part of Egyptian funerary practice, the means by which the body would be able to rejoin the soul in the afterlife, but very little written material detailing the process has survived. Egyptologists believe this was deliberate, that the sacred art was transmitted orally from embalmer to embalmer.

Only two papyri dedicated to mummification were previously known, but now a third has been found in an unexpected context: in the middle of a medical text on herbal treatments and swellings of the skin. Written back and front over 20 feet in length, it is second longest surviving Egyptian medical papyrus. The Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg (so named between it is in two parts, one in the collection of the Louvre Museum and the other University of Copenhagen’s Papyrus Carlsberg Collection) dates to around 1450 B.C., which makes it the oldest of the three mummification papyri by a thousand years. It is the earliest known Egyptian herbal treatise. The section on mummification covers details the other two never address.

University of Copenhagen Egyptologist Sofie Schiødt has translated and interpreted the papyrus for her doctoral dissertation.

“One of the exciting new pieces of information the text provides us with concerns the procedure for embalming the dead person’s face. We get a list of ingredients for a remedy consisting largely of plant-based aromatic substances and binders that are cooked into a liquid, with which the embalmers coat a piece of red linen. The red linen is then applied to the dead person’s face in order to encase it in a protective cocoon of fragrant and anti-bacterial matter. This process was repeated at four-day intervals.”

Illustration of face embalming. Photo by Ida Christensen, University of Copenhagen.Although this procedure has not been identified before, Egyptologists have previously examined several mummies from the same period as this manual whose faces were covered in cloth and resin. […]

The importance of the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg manual in reconstructing the embalming process lies in its specification of the process being divided into intervals of four, with the embalmers actively working on the mummy every four days.

“A ritual procession of the mummy marked these days, celebrating the progress of restoring the deceased’s corporeal integrity, amounting to 17 processions over the course of the embalming period. In between the four-day intervals, the body was covered with cloth and overlaid with straw infused with aromatics to keep away insects and scavengers,” Sofie Schiødt says.

The papyrus is scheduled to be published in 2022.


Four-wheeled ceremonial chariot found at Pompeii

Saturday, February 27th, 2021

Today’s Pompeii news is even showier than yesterday’s. A uniquely well-preserved ceremonial carriage has been discovered in a grand villa in the Pompeiian suburb of Civita Giuliana. The chariot is complete with four iron wheels, bronze and tin relief panels, carbonized wood elements and even the imprint of organic fittings like ropes and floral decorations.

This is an exceptional discovery, not only because it adds an additional element to the history of this dwelling and the story of the last moments in the lives of those who lived in it, as well as more generally to our understanding of the ancient world, but above all because it represents a unique find – which has no parallel in Italy thus far – in an excellent state of preservation.

Transport vehicles, including chariots, have been found at Pompeii, but this was something else entirely. Known as a pilentum, ancient sources including Livy and Virgil refer these carriages being used for special occasions (parades, festivals, sacred rites) only. The rear of the chariot is decorated with medallions that depicts satyrs, nymphs and erotes. Livy and Virgil mention their use by matrons and priestesses, so it’s possible it was used in rituals associated with womanhood, carrying a bride on her wedding day, for example.

Modern excavation of the luxury villa half a mile northwest of the city walls began in 2017 after looting tunnels were discovered. The dig has been exceptionally productive, unearthing the remains of the first complete horse ever found at Pompeii, a carbonized wood bed and two people, all of which were cast in plaster. The carriage was found in the portico facing the stables where the horse was discovered.

The portico is an exceptional find in its own right. It had two levels opening onto a courtyard. The ceiling collapsed during the eruption of Vesuvius, but its wooden beams were carbonized and preserved by the intense heat, leaving the interlaced network of timbers on the ground in their original positions. A door on the southern end of the room which opened from the portico to the stable was also preserved. Analysis of the ceiling wood found it was English oak, widely used in the Roman era for structural purposes. The door was found to be beechwood.

The ceiling timbers were removed for conservation and it was in the layers beneath that the iron chariot emerged. Archaeologists first encountered the curved iron top edge of the carriage. Its large size and shape telegraphed that the object was a significant one, and as the excavation proceeded at a cautiously slow pace over the course of weeks, its unprecedented importance was revealed. Its survival is nothing short of miracle. The chariot managed to avoid getting obliterated by the collapse of the ceiling in 79 A.D. AND the tunnels dug by the looters were within a hair’s breadth of hitting it. They would have torn it apart like locusts had they known.

From the moment it was identified, the excavation of the chariot has proved to be particularly complex due to the fragility of the materials involved and the difficult working conditions; as a result, it was necessary to proceed by means of a micro-excavation conducted by the restorers of the Park, who are specialised in the treatment of wood and metals. At the same time, whenever a void was discovered, plaster was poured in as part of an attempt to preserve the imprint of the organic material that was no longer present. Consequently, it has been possible to preserve the shaft and platform of the chariot, as well as the imprints of ropes, thus revealing the chariot in all of its complexity. […]

With the in situ micro-excavation completed, the various elements of the chariot have been transported to the laboratory of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, where the restorers are working to complete the removal of volcanic material which still engulfs certain metal elements, and to begin the lengthy restoration and reconstruction of the chariot.


Pompeii fresco restored to glory

Friday, February 26th, 2021

An elaborate fresco adorning a garden wall in the House of the Ceii has been restored to splendor after more than a century of deterioration caused by the elements, poor maintenance and faulty restoration techniques.

Excavated between May 1913 and August 1914, the House of the Ceii is notable as a rare surviving example of a home from the later Samnite era (2nd century B.C.). Its fine paintings were more recent additions, commissioned in the decades before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. An electoral slogan painted on the façade promotes the campaign of Lucius Ceius Secundus for duovir (one of two judicial magistrates), and archaeologists believe he was the owner of the home when the frescoes were added to its small viridarium (pleasure garden).

On the east and west walls are Nilotic scenes — pygmies, crocodiles, hippopotami and buildings in Egyptian style on the banks of the Nile — and individual figures — one carrying a basin, one walking with a stick — in natural landscapes. The north wall, the large focal wall of the viridarium, was painted with an vivid menagerie of wild animals. Against a rocky lake landscape, animals red in tooth and claw hunt each other down: a lion chases a bull, dogs attack a boar witnessed by a second boar while two deer flee ahead of them, a leopard attacks two rams. All around this animal combat are trompe l’oeil architectural elements painted to look like marble reliefs, urns, fountains, statues with garlands forming the border. Along the bottom of all three painted walls are a profusion of greenery and birds against a deep red background.

This is a fine example of the Fourth Pompeiian Style which was the dernier cri in the decade before the eruption. It featured large-scale landscapes, still lives and scenes from mythology framed in faux architectural elements with ornamental motifs. Similar scenes of wild hunts have been found in the amphitheater of Pompeii and the homes of the very wealthy. Its presence in the House of Ceii may have been an attempt to recreate the kind of wildlife parks created by Eastern kings and adopted as status symbols by the richest Romans.

The lower parts of the frescoes were particularly susceptible to damage from the capillary effect drawing water up from the ground. The moisture leaves salt deposits on the surface (efflorescence) which causes severe damage to the paint layer. Over the past year, conservators have undertaken a program of consolidation to keep as much of the paint layer attached to the backing as possible, and cleaned the deposits by both chemical and mechanical means. The most stubborn efflorescence could only be removed with a laser.


Ancient Chinese face cream made of beef fat, stalactites

Thursday, February 25th, 2021

Analysis of a jar of face cream unearthed in an ancient tomb in northern China has revealed it was made of beef fat and minerals derived from white stalactites in limestone caves. Found in the tomb of a nobleman from the Spring and Autumn Period (ca. 771-476 B.C.), this face cream is the earliest evidence of use of cosmetics by a Chinese man.

The cream was inside a small bronze jar discovered in tomb M49 at the Liujiawa archaeological site, capital of the Zhou Dynasty vassal state of Rui (700-640 B.C.). The tomb’s funerary furnishings included a set of bronze weapons identifying the deceased as a man of aristocratic class, and the ornately decorated bronze jar which was placed in the outer coffin near the man’s head. Just over two inches high, the vessel is u-shaped with two handles and a lid. The lid was still snugly sealed.

These types of vessels have been found before in tombs from the Early Spring and Autumn period, and archaeologists have hypothesized that they held cosmetics, but it could not be confirmed scientifically. The discovery of a sealed jar made it possible to analyze the contents to determine whether they were indeed cosmetics.

When the jar was opened in laboratory conditions, it was found to contain lumps of a yellowish-white material. The substance was analyzed with a variety of technologies including mass spectrometry, X-Ray diffraction, isotope analysis, acid extraction and scanning electron microscopy. The results revealed that the white particles consist primarily of monohydrocalcite (MHC) while the yellowish element was a lipid. MHC is mostly found in lake deposits or caves, and the isotope values pointed to the latter. Analysis of the fatty acids in the lipid sample identified it as ruminant animal fat, likely bovine.

MHC in a soft mud form known as cave moonmilk was harvested from limestone caves, perhaps as part of Taoist ritual. Caves held symbolic significance as the womb metaphors and stalactites were believed to have been formed from the liquid souls of hills. The glossy whiteness of the best stalactites were compared to the most precious jade and valued for their medical as well as cosmetic properties. Stalactites and moonmilk were collected, ground, dried and processed to create the most pure powders.

Cosmetic manufacturing had already become a specialized industry for the supply to the nobility in the early stage of the Spring and Autumn Period, and the involvement of a sorcery/alchemy‐related ingredient (e.g., the collection of cave minerals) enriched the aestheticism with mystic elements. In fact, historical records from the pre‐Qin period described face whitening through cosmetic use as a source of cultural pride. The whitened face with unnatural complexions could conceal defects on the skin and mask a layer of luminous homogeneity, enhancing the facial bilateral symmetry in contrast with the black eyelashes and black hair. Also, the whitened face eliminates wrinkles, creating an identity of youthfulness and beauty with a manner of majestic which is appealing to the aristocratic class.

Another interesting point lies in the male’s use of white cosmetics, which has scarcely been described since the Spring and Autumn Period (mostly female figures were described). In accord with our findings, historical records also suggested the pre‐Qin period (pre‐221 bce) was an emerging era for white makeup cosmetics advocating facial attractiveness with white luminance. This aesthetic taste of the aristocratic class involving cave minerals reflected the increasing awareness of aesthetics and metaphysics in the Spring and Autumn Period that had influenced the subsequent aesthetic taste in history. […]

Residue analysis verifies the earliest cosmetic cream product in China: not only has it pushed back the historical description for cosmetic use of ruminant adipose fat (most likely cattle fat) to the early phase of the first millennium bce, but also it highlighted the special MHC use resulting from the exploitation of cave minerals along with the Taoist School Cave Cultus which adds mystic elements to the aestheticism of cosmetics. The special ingredients and the popularization of similar bronze vessels disclosed the rise of an incipient cosmetics industry in the Spring and Autumn Period which still acts as an important part of our daily life. This archaeological residue study showed that apart from being a culinary ingredient, animal products were also explored in the handcraft industry of cosmetics‐making. It has also deepened our knowledge of natural mineral usage, revealing a special aesthetic taste in the early Iron Age of ancient China and has contributed to the worldwide study of cosmetics development.


Domus with marble “carpet” found in Nîmes

Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a richly decorated Roman villa from the imperial era in Nîmes, southern France. The find site is slated for development, and a preliminary survey indicated the presence of Roman remains. The subsequent excavation unearthed parts of two Roman villas from the 1st-2nd century, and while the boundaries of the dig were limited to the area of the future apartment building, almost the entire reception room of one domus was revealed.

The room is richly appointed. One section of the floor is decorated with hexagonal tiles laid in a honeycomb pattern. At one end is a square mosaic “carpet” in the opus sectile style. An array of different multicolored marbles from all over the Empire were cut into shapes and inlaid in a checkerboard pattern.

In an extremely rare find, the painted plaster coating decorating two walls of the room had collapsed inwards onto the floor. The back of the plaster was scored in chevron shapes to aid in adhesion, and trace materials stuck to the back indicate it was applied to earthen walls. The face of the plaster layer is frescoed in large panels of red with black inter panels.

Neighboring spaces underscore the luxurious features of the domus. Four pilae stacks (stacks of square tile used to raise the floor to allow heated air to circulate underneath it) are the telltale remnants of a private bath. One room’s concrete floor is decorated with marble cabochons inset in a grid pattern. In the courtyard are the remains of a semicircular fountain basin originally covered with prized white Carrara marble.

Settled since the Bronze Age, the Roman city Nîmes was founded in the 1st century B.C. as Colonia Nemausus, a colony for retired veterans of Julius Caesar’s Egyptian campaigns named after the principle deity of the local Volcae Arecomici people. The domus was found 300 or so feet from the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple dedicated to August Caesar’s grandsons Gaius and Lucius in the first years of the first century that is so intact and so beautifully restored it looks like a replica.

Located in the heart of historic Nîmes, the remains of the villas have been much damaged and interfered with by subsequent construction. Even so, archaeologists hope studying the surviving structural and decorative elements will shed new light on the buildings and their organization in the block of the Roman city.


Small Viking hoard with huge brooch declared treasure

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021

A hoard of jewelry from the Viking era found on the Isle of Man has been declared official Treasure. The objects are small in number but large in significance and one of them is large in the literal sense too.

The hoard was discovered last December by Kath Giles, a retired police officer, while metal detecting on private land. The first thing she found when he brushed away the soil was a spherical terminal of a brooch. The rest of it — a long pin and a hoop — emerged next, followed by a braided gold arm ring and pieces of a broken silver armband.

She notified Manx National Heritage and archaeologists identified the objects as Viking jewelry dating to around 950 A.D. Viking gold and silver jewelry have been found on the Isle of Man before, but this is the first time this type of gold arm-ring and brooch have been unearthed on the island.

The gold arm ring is made of three thick rods of gold plaited together. The terminals are joined by flat band decorated with a stamped dot pattern. It was extremely valuable in the Viking era when gold artifacts are rare, worth the equivalent of 900 silver coins.

The pin is a thistle brooch of ball type, named after the ball-shaped terminals and pin head with brambling decoration reminiscent of the bushy little flower. The brambling — tiny cones that just out from the cast silver ball — were created by making diagonal criss-cross cuts and then punching out some of them. The example in the hoard has incised designs along with the brambling on the head and terminals.

It is a giant of a jewel, with the pin approximately 20 inches long and the hoop about eight inches in diameter. Originally a Celtic form of normal size, these types of penannular brooches were prized by the Vikings who settled in Ireland and put their own stamp on the Celtic design, greatly increasing their size and decreasing their decorative intricacy. They were signifiers of wealth and status, so the bigger the better, as far as the Vikings were concerned, even though it made them notably impractical as fasteners. Because of their massive size and weight, they could only have been worn on very thick outerwear like furs or skins. The pin was worn at the shoulder with the sharp point facing upwards.

Allison [Fox, Curator for Archaeology for Manx National Heritage] said:

“Vikings arrived on the Isle of Man in the 800s, firstly trading and eventually settling.  Kath’s hoard can be dated on stylistic and comparative grounds to around AD 950, a time when the Isle of Man was  right in the middle of an important trading and economic zone.  But elsewhere to the east and west, Viking rule was coming to an end and perhaps this encouraged further Viking settlement on the Island.  The Viking and Norse influence remained strong on the Island for a further three hundred years, long after much of the rest of the British Isles.

The arm-ring, brooch and cut armband are all high-status personal ornaments and represent a large amount of accumulated wealth.  Finding just one of these items would be of significance.  The fact that all were found together, associated with one single deposition event, suggests that whoever buried them was extremely wealthy and probably felt immediately and acutely threatened.”

The hoard went on temporary display in the Viking and Medieval Gallery at the Manx Museum. It will be assessed by a committee of experts to determine its value and conserved before permanent display is arranged.


Munch wrote The Scream was “painted by a madman” on The Scream

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

A graffito in the orange sky of Edvard Munch’s first version of The Scream declaring it “Can only have been painted by a madman” has been identified as an addition by the artist himself. Painted in 1893, The Scream was on display in Copenhagen in 1904 when the handwritten line was first noticed by a Danish art critic. He assumed one of the visitors to the exhibition had written his disapproval of the maker on the work. Later art historians posited that Munch was the author, but scholars as recently as 2008 have disputed that he was the writer of the inscription.

Experts at the National Museum of Norway have taken advantage of the closure of the museum during renovations to conserve and study The Scream. Examination under a microscope confirmed that the pencil lines were written on top of the dried paint after the painting was finished, but the inscription is faint and hard to read. Photographed in infrared, however, the carbon from the pencil graphite stands out from the brightly painted background making detailed handwriting analysis possible. The analysis left no doubt that Munch authored the inscription.

It was likely written around two years after he made the painting. Munch exhibited The Scream in Norway in October 1895. By then it had already been seen in several other countries, but this was the first exhibition of the work for the Norwegian public. It did not go well. One art critic wrote that The Scream showed that Munch was not “a serious man with a normal brain.”

There was much buzz about the subject of the painting being Munch himself screaming in his madness. Speculation on his mental state was rife a discussion of the exhibition at the Students Association in Kristiania. One medical student, Johan Scharffenberg, armchair diagnosed Munch as insane based on his work. Munch followed all this chatter and it troubled him deeply.

“We know that he we was very upset when critics of his work questioned his sanity and called his paintings a disgrace,” National Museum curator Mai Britt Guleng told ARTnews. “Mental illness was a sore point for Munch because there was a history of mental illness in his close family.”

Both Munch’s father and sister suffered bouts of depression, and the latter was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. By his own admission, Munch had neither a happy childhood nor a smooth adult life. “Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life,” he once wrote. Exacerbated by his alcoholism, Munch was finally hospitalized after a nervous breakdown in 1908.

He explicitly wrestled with depression, loss, and anxiety in his paintings, which often featured phantoms of lost love and family. According to a diary entry, Munch conceived of The Scream while walking out at sunset in Kristiania where, upon viewing the blood red clouds, he sensed an “infinite scream passing through nature.”

Guleng believes the inscription was added after the Kristiania discussion, so late 1895 or early 1896. His intent in writing it can’t be scried with infrared. It could have been an ironic statement spurred by all the critics calling him crazy, or an impulsive reaction to his own concerns that they might be right.

The Scream will be back on public display when the new National Museum opens in 2022, alongside Self-Portrait with Cigarette, the painting that Scharffenberg presented as proof that Munch was not of sound mind.


Southern Urals warrior found in Scythian burial mound

Sunday, February 21st, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered an unusual resident in a Scythian burial mound in Rostov, southwestern Russia: a warrior from the Southern Urals. He was buried with an Scythian leader in the 4th century B.C., but the central burial was looted in antiquity leaving his bodyguard as the stand-out discovery.

The presence of the burial mound was first noted by archaeologists in 1976, but thorough professional excavations only began last September. An initial geophysical survey revealed that the mound contained a profusion of burials from different periods, and the subsequent excavation confirmed the range of dates, with the oldest artifact a stone axe from the Cimmerian period (8th-7th centuries B.C.).

When the archaeologists reached the central burial 18 feet below the surface, all that was left of the Scythian ruler buried there was one skull. Of his grave goods, only five amphorae remained. The plunderers missed his attendant, however. The man was exceptionally tall, about 6’6″, and his skeletal remains indicate he was ritually killed to accompany his master in death.

His burial was richly furnished. He wore a very fine gold chain, and a full complement of weapons were by his side: a slingshot, a quiver, arrows, two spears, darts and iron sword with a hilt wrapped in gold foil. There is also a Greek lekythos vessel for incense or oil. Above him are the remains of a horse.

It was the sword that provided the first clue to the man’s origin. Even though the blade was heavily corroded, archaeologists identified it as a type used by the nomadic peoples of the Southern Urals at that time. Other objects confirmed his origin. The horse wore a deer-shaped nosepiece typical of the Urals or Altai mountains. A large bronze cauldron with horizontal handles is also typical of the Southern Urals. Scythian cauldrons had vertical handles.

Sergey Lukyashko, Ph. D, professor from the Don State Technical University, commented on the find: “As we can see, this burial is not typical. Here we see many eastern artefacts, but also objects from the Greek world. We have a hypothesis, that these people have come from the east, however, we cannot say for certain judging by just this one burial.”

The artefacts and the warlord’s remains will be sent for anthropological research to the Institute of Archaeology (Russian Academy of Sciences), where the scientists will determine the man’s age and place of birth.


Celtic business in the front, party in the back

Saturday, February 20th, 2021

A Celtic figurine discovered at the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire is sporting a distinctive mullet, a possible indicator of hair styling fashion in Late Iron Age Britain. The 1st century A.D. copper alloy object is just two inches high and depicts a male figure holding a torc in his hands. He has oval eyes typical of Celtic design, a moustache and keeps his hair trimmed extra short in front, straight and long down his neck.

The figurine was unearthed in July 2018 during the excavation of the Late Iron Age settlement at Lamp Hill. Volunteer metal detectorists scanned the excavation ditches and found the tiny mulletted man. The piece was at first believed to be a representation of the Celtic fertility god Cernunnos, but now that it has been cleaned and studied by specialists, it’s clear that he does not bear the attributes of Cernunnos. He may be a deity of unknown type with his Iron Age Billy Rae Cyrus look a distinguishing characteristic of a god with no other recorded likeness. He may also be a simple anthropomorphic figure whose hair reflects the tonsorial trends of his time.

It was not originally designed as a freestanding piece or cult figure. It was a decorative fitting, probably the handle of a spatula. The circular recess inside the torc probably held an inlay that is now lost.

Chris Thatcher from Oxford Archaeology East explained: “Finds such as this give a rare and fascinating insight into aesthetics and symbolism in the latest Iron Age. The extent to which his hairstyle is typical of contemporary styles will never be known for certain. However, we think the combination of him holding a torc – associated with status – and forming the handle of a spatula – either used to mix medicines, or wax for writing tablets – speak of influence and power. The fact that he was found on a site with so much other evidence for it being a local hub is wonderful and appropriate.”


Renovation of Seville tapas bar reveals 12th c. bathhouse

Friday, February 19th, 2021

Renovations of a Seville tapas bar have uncovered the remains a 12th century Islamic bathhouse with uniquely rich decorations. The Cervecería Giralda in the historic center of Seville has been one of the city’s most popular bars since it opened in 1923. The building has soaring vaulted ceilings supported by four columns, typical of the medieval bathhouses or hammams, and there are records going back to 1281 referencing a bathhouse that had existed in the area, but there was no archaeological evidence to confirm this was it, and the building was widely thought to be more Neo-Mudéjar (ie, Moorish Revival) than the genuine article.

The descendants of Roman baths, hammams served the same hygiene and socialization functions as their predecessors as well as performing a religious role as facilities for the full-body ablutions mandated in the Quran for ritual purification. There were hundreds of them in the Muslim-ruled cities. In Spain, Christian rulers who conquered those cities frequently destroyed the bathhouses, built over them or converted them to other uses.

Seville became the capital of Al-Andalus under the Almohad Caliphate which ousted the Almoravid dynasty in a series of battles between 1146 and 1173. They conquered Seville early, transferring the capital from Cordoba to Seville in 1150, but their rule would be short-lived. Seville was conquered by Ferdinand III of Castile in 1248.

Much of Seville’s extant Moorish style architecture was actually built by Christian rulers who appropriated the aesthetic even as they demolished or radically altered the original structures. Today there is only a smattering of original architecture from the Almohad period, including the Giralda bell tower of Seville Cathedral, formerly a minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville, the Patio del Yeso (Courtyard of Plaster) in the Alcázar royal palace, the Patio de los Naranjos, once part of the mosque and now annexed to the Seville Cathedral.

As the name suggests, the Cervecería Giralda is only feet away from the former mosque. The earliest documentary evidence of a bathhouse at the site dates to 1281 and refers to the “baths of García Jofre” adjacent to the cathedral being donated to the Church by King Alfonso X. By the 17th century, the great vaulted building’s history as a hammam was already forgotten. A major reconstruction divided the high ceilings of the warm room into two stories, replaced the original columns and closed the skylights. Historians contended it was the remains of an ancient amphitheater rather than a bath, or a newer construction from the 15th-16th century done in Moorish style.

Fran Díaz, the architect in charge of the modernization project, was labouring under that same misapprehension when he began renovations last year. He was disabused of the notion when probes behind the false ceiling revealed the presence of skylights known as luceras, decorative cutouts in the ceiling characteristic of hammam architecture. In the wake of the discovery, renovators stepped back so archaeologists could take over to fully explore the remains of the bathhouse.

Skylights in the vaulted ceiling. Photo courtesy Fernando Amores.They found 88 skylights in several different shapes — eight-pointed stars, six-pointed stars, octagons, quadrifoils — that are far more elaborate than those found in other Muslim baths of the period. An entirely unprecedented discovery were geometric murals. Nothing like them has been found before in the Iberian peninsula. Painted in red ochre against a white background, the latticed pattern likely represented water. Large sections of it have survived on the walls and ceilings. Archaeologists believe that the entire bathhouse from ceiling to floor was originally painted with these decorations. This is the only known hammam with surviving original wall and ceiling painted decoration. The only other examples of integral decoration in bathhouses stopped at the baseboards.

Entrance to main room of Cervecería Giralda with 12th century vault and geometric murals. Photo by Paco Puentes, El Pais.The main space of the bar was the hammam’s warm room. One wall opens into a smaller rectangular space with a barrel-vaulted ceiling that was originally the bathhouse’s cold room. That’s where the skylights are. What is now the kitchen area was the hot room, but most of the original structure was destroyed so all that remains is a partial arch. That the skylights and priceless murals survived at all is thanks to Vicente Traver, the architect who renovated the building in the early 20th century. He could have torn down what was left of the bathhouse, or redone it so invasively that little of the original elements remained. Instead he created the false ceiling and protected the fragile remains.

The discovery of the baths spurred a new concept for the renovation of the bar. To preserve the 12th century marvel while still making the space a functioning bar, architectures installed a metal cornice above Traver’s wall tiles. Renovations are scheduled to be completed next month, after which the Cervecería Giralda will reopen with a newly fabulous interior that maintains the striking features of the early 20th century renovation that have become integral to the establishment’s character with the magnificence of the original Almohad hammam.





February 2021


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