Archive for October, 2021

Wari human sacrifices found in Lambayeque temple

Monday, October 25th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of 29 individuals, including three children and an adolescent, in the Huaca Santa Rosa de Pucalá archaeological site in the Lambayeque region of northwestern Peru. The four young people were sacrificial offerings, buried in front of the temple when the Wari-era enclosure was built between 800 and 900 A.D. These are the first human sacrifice victims from the Wari culture that have been discovered in Lambayeque.

Huaca Santa Rosa de Pucalá was an important ceremonial complex, used and altered over the centuries by the Cupisnique, Mochica, Wari and Lambayeque cultures who occupied the area. The Wari temple with its characteristic D-shaped enclosure was discovered in late 2019. Follow-up excavations were derailed by the pandemic for almost two years. Archaeologists returned to work the first of September.

Only the burials of the children and adolescent are from the Wari period. The other 25 individuals were interred in graves of pressed clay and in burial chambers in a temple from the Mochica culture. Archaeologists also found a pitcher decorated with Mochica imagery, a bottle in Early Sicán or Proto-Lambayeque style and a tumi, an Andean knife with a blade in the shape of a half moon. Remains of camelids and eight guinea pigs sacrificed for ritual purposes were unearthed as well.

The excavation has also revealed that there was a temple on the site dating back to the late Formative Period (900-200 B.C.). Built with mud brick walls with clay maces embedded inside, the construction is different from any other temple found before in Lambayeque. The upper storey of the temple had elaborate floors and ceilings made of vegetal material. There is evidence that objects were burned here, likely in ceremonial contexts.

These discoveries rewrite the cultural history of Lambayeque. The Wari center of power was the Ayacucho area in the central Andes, so their construction of a temple so far out of their stomping grounds is evidence they had a wider sphere of influence than previously realized. The Formative Period temple was built by people with local and mountain links, indicating coastal communities interacted with mountain communities between 400 and 200 B.C.

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Tiepolo drawing of gnocchi clowns found in attic

Sunday, October 24th, 2021

A drawing by Rococo master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo has been rediscovered in the attic of Weston Hall, the Northamptonshire seat of the literary Sitwell family. The pen, ink and wash drawing depicts a group of Punchinelli, a buffoonish commedia dell’arte stock character that Tiepolo drew repeatedly from the late 1720s through the early 1760s. This is an earlier example, dating to the early 1730s, and is one of the largest, most populated and most detailed of the three dozen or so Tiepolo Punchinello drawings.

Tiepolo, in contrast to his son Domenico, who shows Punchinelli engaged in everyday activities in his Divertimento per li Regazzi, portrays his Punchinelli making and eating gnocchi, and suffering from the excesses of overindulgence. The subject derives from a regional festival, “venerdì gnoccolare”, which took place in Verona on the last Friday of Carnival.

George Knox, the Tiepolo art historian, suggests that this drawing is among the earliest of the Punchinello drawings because of its fine line and delicate, even use of wash. He further proposes that this drawing may be linked stylistically with the studies for the Villa Loschi at Biron, executed around 1734. The present drawing, and others of this period, undoubtedly mark the moment that Tiepolo’s draftsmanship assumes its mature form.

The drawing was acquired by Sir Osbert Sitwell at a Christie’s auction of the famous collection of Old Master drawings of the late London banker and art collector Henry Oppenheimer in July 1936. For some inexplicable reason, the drawing wound up forgotten in one of Weston Hall’s attics. It was only rediscovered last year when Henrietta Sitwell, Osbert’s grand-niece, found it leaning against the attic wall and peeled back the bubble wrap it was swaddled in to find a surprise Old Master.

The Tiepolo drawing will go under the hammer at Dreweatts auction house with the other contents of Weston Hall at a two-day sale on November 16th and 17th. It has been conservatively estimated to sell between £150,000-£250,000 ($207,000-344,000), but a comparable piece sold at auction in New York in 2013 for $542,500, so even the high end of the range is something of a low-ball figure.

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Gallic diatretic glass vase reveals a waxy, fragrant secret

Saturday, October 23rd, 2021

The exceptionally rare diatretic glass vase discovered in a paleochristian necropolis in Autun, central France, last year has been pieced together by conservators, and it’s even rarer than it first appeared to be.

The vase was discovered inside a massive sandstone sarcophagus, one of six found in the necropolis, at the feet of the deceased individual. The necropolis was in use between the early 3rd and the middle of the 5th century, and the glass vase dates to the 4th century.

It is made of a reticulated glassware, an elaborate ornamental style featuring interlacing lines of glass in relief. Just 4.7 inches high and 6.3 inches in diameter, the vase is one of only 10 complete examples of Roman reticulated glass known to survive, and the only example ever found in France. It also unique for its inscription: the phrase VIVAS FELICITER (live in happiness) written in large deep relief letters.

While it was complete, and large enough pieces survived to make the inscription legible to the naked eye immediately upon discovery, the vase was broken into numerous fragments. The complex restoration was performed by experts at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz, Germany. Solving the puzzle took five months of work.

The restoration revealed an egg-and-dart band between the rim and the inscription. The base is decorated with a complex filigree featuring eight heart-shaped ovals that form a circular rosette. It also revealed a separator character, a v-shaped pointed arch crossed at the apex and incised with horizontal ribs, at the end of the inscription.

The letters are in excellent condition, although it seems the letter C was added in a later repair. The glass in the replacement C has the same chemical composition as the other letters, so it was made at the time the vase was made, but it has a matte finish that is different from the rest of the inscription. Something must have happened during the letter’s production that required it to be remade. The unsuitable C was melted back down and now has a slightly altered look and texture.

It was composition analysis that exposed the vase’s most surprising secret. Impregnation analyses found a mixture of plant and flower oils were used in the recipe, as was ambergris. Known as whale vomit, ambergris is a waxy substance formed in the intestinal tract of sperm wales that is found very rarely, almost always on beaches, and sells for astronomical sums. Today it is used as a fixative in perfumes, and ancient Egyptians are believed to have burned it like incense, but there are no references to it in classical Greek and Roman sources.

The first European scholar to write about ambergris is believed to have been Byzantine Greek physician Aëtius of Amida. The first important Christian writer on medicine, he mentioned ambergris in his great compilation of Greek medical knowledge written in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Aëtius included it as an ingredient in spikenard, an expensive perfume referenced repeatedly in the Bible and held to have medicinal properties. As the oil Mary, sister of Lazarus, poured on Jesus’ feet and wiped with her hair (John 12:3), in Christian Europe spikenard was used in the church.

The ambergris found in the diatretic glass vessel is the oldest example of its use on the archaeological record.

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Restored grape harvest mosaic goes on display

Friday, October 22nd, 2021

A mosaic from late antiquity depicting a donkey carrying a basket full of grapes while a vineyard worker leads him by the bridle will be going on display in Antakya, Turkey, for the first time nearly 20 years after it was excavated.

The mosaic was first discovered in 2002 after looting activity in the Mazmanlı Quarter of Hassa district, 50 miles northeast of Antakya. A rescue excavation revealed the full 64 square feet of the mosaic which had originally adorned the floor of a church dating to the 5th or 6th century. It was moved to the Hatay Archeology Museum‘s warehouse in 2016. Since this summer, a team of six conservators have been working to remove the protective plaster it was encased with when it was lifted, reattaching loose tesserae and stitching the entire mosaic together from the sections it was divided into during the recovery process.

The mosaic’s iconography attests to the importance of viticulture in the Amik Valley in the Late Roman Period, but the history of grape and wine production in what is now the Hatay Province of Turkey goes back even further than that and continues through to this day. The museum hoped to have the mosaic on display to bring in the Grape Harvest Festival on September 6th, but restoration took a full a six months.

Fashionably late, the mosaic is now scheduled to make its dramatic debut next month in the temporary exhibition hall of the Hatay Archeology Museum. The Mosaic of the Vine Harvest will go on display with the replica of a Late Roman Period mosaic depicting the harvest of the other agricultural product of the area with just as ancient a tradition of cultivation: olives.

“Our mosaic comes to the fore every year during the grape harvest in our Hassa. Based on this, we wanted to introduce it to the visitors. As part of our project ‘The Traces of Olives and Grapes Engraved in History Come to Light,’ the importance of olives in the Hatay region and their spread to Anatolia and Europe as well as the importance of grapes for our province will be explained in our temporary exhibition hall,” [museum director Ayşe] Ersoy added.

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Horses first domesticated in northern Caucasus steppes

Thursday, October 21st, 2021

The earliest domesticated horses on the archaeological record were discovered at Botai in Central Asia and date to around 3,500 B.C. They are not, however, the ancestors of any modern domesticated horse lineage. To pinpoint the unknown geographic origins of the domesticated horse, an interdisciplinary team of researchers embarked on the largest genetic study of horses to date, analyzing the skeletal remains of 273 equids from the Iberian Peninsula and other regions of Eurasia ranging in date from 50,000 years ago to 200 B.C.

The genetic information extracted from the remains was sequenced at the geneticists at the University of Toulouse III-Paul Sabatier and the University of Évry, and then compared to the genomes of modern domestic horses. The study found that the ancestor horses of all domesticated horses in existence today were first domesticated in the northern Caucasus steppes.

Thanks to the large battery of statistical analyses carried out, it has been possible to establish that between 2,200 and 2,000 BC, a drastic change took place in which the genetic profile existing in the Pontic steppes began to spread beyond its region of origin, thus replacing in a few centuries all wild horse populations from the Atlantic to Mongolia.

According to L. Orlando, “this replacement in the genetic composition of Eurasian populations is associated with significant genomic differences between this new type of horse and the horses of the populations that disappeared. On the one hand, this new type of horse from the steppes of the northern Caucasus had a more docile behaviour and, on the other hand, a more robust constitution in the vertebral skeleton”. The researchers suggest that these characteristics triggered the successful selection of these animals, at a time when horse travel was becoming widespread in Eurasia.

According to Pablo Librado (CNRS), first author of this research, “this study has also shown that the distribution of this new type of horse in Asia coincides with the appearance of light carts and the spread of Indo-Iranian languages. In contrast, the migration of Indo-European populations from the steppe zone to the heart of Europe during the third millennium BC did not use this new type of horse as a vector for its expansion. This result demonstrates the importance of also incorporating the genetic history of animals when analysing the dimension of human migrations and intercultural contacts”.

Interesting to note, there is no evidence that the movement of horses westward was connected to horse-back warfare. Rather, a decline of population in the late Neolithic made space for the pastoral horse-breeding peoples like the Yamnaya culture of the steppes.

The study also solved another horse-related mystery: the origins of the tarpan horse, aka the Eurasian wild horse, which went extinct in the first decade of the 20th century. The tarpan genome was a mixture of native European horses and wild ancestors in western Ukraine, not a feral offshoot of modern domesticated horses or a hybrid of domesticated horses and Przewalski’s horses from Mongolia, the only surviving wild horses in the world and critically endangered.

The study has been published in the journal Nature and can be read in its entirety here.

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Diver finds 900-year-old crusader sword

Wednesday, October 20th, 2021

An amateur scuba diver has discovered a 900-year-old sword believed to have belonged to a crusader knight off the Carmel coast of northern Israel. Shlomi Katzin found the sword on a dive last Sunday. It and other artifacts had been exposed by shifts in sands after a storm.

It is encrusted in shells and marine life that attached themselves to the oxidizing iron of the sword. The three-foot blade and foot-long hilt are intact underneath the thick concretions, and archaeologists believe it was well-preserved in the steady temperature of the Mediterranean water.

“The Carmel coast contains many natural coves that provided shelter for ancient ships in a storm, and larger coves around which entire settlements and ancient port cities developed, such as Dor and Atlit,” explains Kobi Sharvit, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Marine Archaeology Unit. “These conditions have attracted merchant ships down the ages, leaving behind rich archaeological finds. The recently recovered sword is just one such find.”

The site where the anchors and the sword were found has been monitored by the Israel Antiquities Authority since June, when it was first discovered by Boaz Langford and Rafael Bahalul. The site’s finds are very elusive, since they appear and disappear with the movement of the sands.

The sword is now in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s conservation laboratory where it will be cleaned and studied before it is put on public display. 

Here is video from Shlomi Katzin’s GoPro camera when he found the sword.

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Microscope Darwin gave to his son up for auction

Tuesday, October 19th, 2021

A microscope gifted by naturalist Charles Darwin to his 14-year-old son Leonard is being sold by the family almost 200 years after Darwin acquired it. The microscope, complete with all accessories in its original 3 x 3.5″ mahogany case, is the only Darwin microscope ever offered at auction. Little wonder, as there are only six surviving microscopes known to have belonged to Charles Darwin (including this one).

It is the oldest one of the six, made by Charles Gould for the firm of instrument-maker William Cary around 1825. The Gould Improved Pocket Microscope was comparatively inexpensive and rapidly became so popular that it was endlessly copied, patents be damned. It was originally designed for observing microorganisms in water which was all the rage in the 1820s. Viewing the “animalcules” in water was literally entertainment and people paid for it. Travelling showmen used portable microscopes like this one to show off all the beasties people were shocked and fascinated to discover they’d been drinking all their lives.

Darwin was into the hobby too, so much so that initially it was actually a detriment to his studies. This very microscope is believed to have been the one he used to blow off med school.

Charles Darwin’s research career began with his investigation into the sea creatures being dredged up from Scotland’s Firth of Forth while trying to avoid his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin’s studies of these strange ‘zoophytes’ began in 1826 and reached a successful conclusion in the spring of 1827, when he presented his first scientific paper to the University’s Plinian Society. These dates coincide with the appearance of the present microscope on the market, which was designed by Charles Gould for the firm Cary around 1825. Of the six surviving microscopes associated with Charles Darwin, four are known to have been acquired later (two in 1831, one each in 1847 and around 1848), and the other cannot be used for studying marine invertebrates. In this early research Darwin was contributing to Robert Grant’s radical reinterpretation of the animal kingdom, in which apparently simple creatures – like the ‘zoophytes’ – were understood to be at the beginning of a natural order that led up to Homo sapiens. This preoccupation with the ‘first’ creatures was picked up again by Darwin in the crucial period during and immediately following the Beagle Voyage.

By the time Charles gave Leonard the scope it was already 30 years old, but he took the same joy in it as his father had when collecting water from the Firth of Forth instead of studying medicine. Four years later, Leonard was a committed microscopist, as Charles recorded in an 1858 letter to his eldest son: “Lenny was dissecting under my microscope and he turned round very gravely & said ‘don’t you think, papa, that I shall be very glad of this all my future life.'”

The presale estimate is £250,000-350,000 ($354,000-483,000), and when the hammer falls at Christie’s on December 15th, that estimate is very likely to be exceeded.

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World’s oldest ghost found on back of cuneiform tablet

Monday, October 18th, 2021

Well, the oldest known drawing of a ghost, at any rate, although who can say whether he haunts the tablet to this day. The fine line drawing incised on the back of a 3,500-year-old Babylonian tablet depicts a male ghost bound at the wrists and being led by a woman to the afterlife. It is an illustration of the cuneiform text on the obverse which explains how to get rid of a ghost who has attached himself to someone and won’t let go because he’s desperate for love.

The tablet was acquired by the British Museum in the 19th century. Half of it is missing and the cuneiform was originally mistranslated, so it was deemed comparatively unremarkable and has never been exhibited. Nobody even noticed the figures on the back because they are so faint they can only be seen under bright light when viewed from directly above it. Enter the one, the only, the living legend, Dr. Irving Finkel.

Dr Irving Finkel, curator of the Middle Eastern department at the British Museum, said the “absolutely spectacular object from antiquity” had been overlooked until now.

“It’s obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable. You can imagine a tall, thin, bearded ghost hanging about the house did get on people’s nerves. The final analysis was that what this ghost needed was a lover,” he said.

“You can’t help but imagine what happened before. ‘Oh God, Uncle Henry’s back.’ Maybe Uncle Henry’s lost three wives. Something that everybody knew was that the way to get rid of the old bugger was to marry him off. It’s not fanciful to read this into it. It’s a kind of explicit message. There’s very high-quality writing there and immaculate draughtsmanship.

“That somebody thinks they can get rid of a ghost by giving them a bedfellow is quite comic.”

Finkel was the first to decipher it correctly and recognize it as a ghost magic text complete with visual aid on the reverse. The instructions explain how to “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed.” Spoiler: dress a woman in red, equip her with a bed and he’ll fall right into the trap.

The ritual involves making figurines of a man and a woman: “You dress the man in an everyday shift and equip him with travel provisions. You wrap the woman in four red garments and clothe her in a purple cloth. You give her a golden brooch. You equip her fully with bed, chair, mat and towel; you give her a comb and a flask.

“At sunrise towards the sun you make the ritual arrangements and set up two carnelian vessels of beer. You set in place a special vessel and set up a juniper censer with juniper. You draw the curtain like that of the diviner. You [put] the figurines together with their equipment and place them in position… and say as follows, Shamash [god of the sun and judge of the underworld by night].”

The text ends with a warning: “Do not look behind you!”

As you may or may not recall, Finkel shared his gleeful appreciation of Babylonian ghost lore in a wonderful video I posted four years ago. (No word on whether he received all the chameleon bristles, frog claws and left wings of grasshoppers he needed to raise the dead according to the recipe on that tablet.) That enthusiastic embrace of ancient ghost-related ritual, not to mention Finkel’s vast intellect and witty writing style, are sure to be on full display in his forthcoming book on ancient Mesopotamian belief in ghosts. The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies is set for publication on November 11th but not yet available for pre-order anywhere (and yes, I checked). You can get your Finkel fix earlier than that at a British Museum webinar discussing the history of Assyrian ghostology on October 28th, the perfect amouse-bouche for a Halloween candy binge.

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Roman lead figurine is warrior, not slave

Sunday, October 17th, 2021

New research into a 1st century A.D. Roman lead figurine found in Wall, Staffordshire, almost 100 years ago has found that it does not represent an enslaved African as archaeologists originally thought, but rather a warrior. The tell-tale clue had been overlooked: a small socket in his right hand that would originally have held a weapon, probably a bronze spear.

Now part of the parish of Wall in Staffordshire, the Roman site of Letocetum was founded as a temporary military marching camp in the late 40s A.D., the early ears of the Roman conquest of Britain. The first timber fort was built around 55 A.D. during the campaign of governor Aulus Didius Gallus against the rebel Brigantes king Venutius.

(Juicy sidenote: His rebellion was really against his ex-wife Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes and ally of Rome, who had scandalously divorced him to marry his lowly armour-bearer Vellocatus. She wasn’t Venutius’ consort; she had inherited the crown in her own right, so when she dumped him she remained queen. He went to war to wrest leadership of the Brigantes out her hands and that meant fighting Rome too when they came to her defense. He had no particular beef with them.)

A hilltop fort was built around 58 A.D. to garrison Legio XIV Gemina. They moved on within a couple of years, but the fort only grew in importance because it occupied a central position at the junction of the Roman military road network, linking Watling Street (which ran northwest from the Kentish coast to Wroxeter, Shropshire) and Ryknield Street (which ran south to north from Gloucester to York). It was reconstructed several times. In the late 1st century, a large public bathhouse and a mansio, a sort of private inn that lodged imperial officials traveling the roads, were built. The Roman remains visible above-ground at the site today are parts of the baths and mansio.

The figurine is believed to have been discovered in the 1920s at a 1st and 2nd century burial ground on Watling Street, which is today on the west side of Wall but was outside the town walls of Letocetum. The find was not made in a formal excavation and was not recorded at the time, but archaeologists believe it was a grave good interred with cinerary remains. The bottom half of it is partially melted, something that could have happened when the ashes from the funeral pyre were scattered in the grave over the goods.

Just over two inches high, the figurine wears armlets on his upper arms and a necklace of beads. It was the seemingly pained expression on his face that spurred the original interpretation of the figure as slave bent over in suffering. While distorted from the heat, the legs appear to be crossed as if he were sitting on the ground. In the 1990s, with many more examples of Roman artworks depicting African figures known, the figurine was reassessed and his cross-legged posture reinterpreted as a seated wrestler as seen in many comparable examples discovered in Continental Europe.

The spear socket was spotted only this year when the figurine was photographed in great detail.

With the addition of a spear we can now see that the figurine stood upright, holding out his weapon, rather than sitting with legs folded as previously suggested. The image of an African man shown with his spear appeared in art in the Classical period as well as more recently, and is often called the African Warrior. The figurine from Wall is now reinterpreted as a representation of that persona.

As to how the figurine came to be at Letocetum, it is very unlikely that this piece was made in Britain, though once they had been introduced, metal figurines were made here. The Wall figurine is sufficiently unusual to indicate that it was made on the Continent, but it may have come from somewhere much closer to the Mediterranean than Gaul.

During the Roman invasion of Britain huge numbers of people travelled here, originating from many different parts of the Empire. While we do not have a clear provenance for the figurine, the evidence that it was used as a grave good at Wall suggests one possible history – that an individual acquired this unusual piece of art on the Continent, travelled thousands of miles with it, and was buried with it in a foreign land.

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7th c. B.C. shipwreck illuminates trade in early Magna Grecia

Saturday, October 16th, 2021

The uniquely well-preserved cargo of an ancient shipwreck found in the Strait of Otranto sheds new light on the early history of the Greek colonization of southern Italy. The wreck was discovered in 2019 at a depth of 780 meters (just shy of a half mile) on the Adriatic seabed off the coast of the Salento area in southern Apuglia. To investigate that deep under water, marine archaeologists from the National Superintendence for Underwater Cultural Heritage employed a submersible Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) armed with the latest technologies used in underwater exploration by the oil and gas industries. It was able to uncover part of the wreck and recover 22 ceramic vessels from Corinth dating to the first half of the 7th century B.C.

Archaeological material documenting the early stages of Mediterranean trade in the Greek and Illyrian colonies of southern Italy are rare finds in underwater contexts, and since so much commerce then like now took place throughout the Mediterranean basin, the discovery an intact load of cargo is a uniquely rich source of data for researchers. The objects are now in the National Superintendence’s restoration laboratory in Taranto.

The 22 vessels consist of three amphorae of Corinthian A type, 10 Corinthian skyphoi, four Corinthian hydrias, three trilobite oinochoai and one coarse ceramic jug of a very common Corinthian type. One of the large amphorae, which was partially broken, still contained a remarkable curving stack of nested skyphoi. There are at least 25 of them, plus fragments from other cups. More may be revealed when the thick deposits of marine sediment are removed from the pithos.

That sediment has archaeological value as well. Researchers will analyze organic and plant residues that may have been trapped in the sediment for evidence of what the vessels transported. One of the Corinthian A amphorae has already been found to contain numerous olive pits.  Based on remote documentation of the site, there are still about 200 artifacts scattered on the seabed. The Culture Ministry plans to systematically recover them all.

This video has some cool footage of the robotic arm of the ROV recovering fragile ceramics from the wreck site.

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