Archive for January, 2022

Even more spectacular Rome in 3D

Monday, January 31st, 2022

History in 3D‘s odyssey to create the most detailed and accurate virtual recreation of ancient Rome as it was in the 4th century proceeds apace. It’s been years and more years will pass before the finished model, but their 2021 was incredibly productive. Right now, about 40% of the city has been completed, and that’s ongoing concurrent with other, smaller projects capturing not just ancient Rome but Greece as well.

The past couple of months have seen a wonderful profusion of new videos on History in 3D’s YouTube channel showcasing the results of last year’s hard work. While the ultimate goal is the model of 4th century Rome, they’re building virtual models of some of Augustan Rome as well, “excursions,” as they put it, back in time.

He’s a fly-through of the Augustan-era Roman Forum complete with painted polychrome statuary, glowing bronzes and the richly textured marble cladding of the city that Augustus famously said he had transformed from brick to marble:

This is fascinating glimpse into the House of Augustus and Livia on the Palatine, a compound Suetonius dismissed as “a modest dwelling remarkable neither for size or elegance, having but a short colonnade with columns of local stone and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements.”

The Augustan Campus Martius is another gem. It opens with a view of it as it was in the 4th century when it had been extensively built up, then contrasts it with the wide open spaces of the 1st century area. You get to see the Mausoleum of Augustus and Ara Pacis when they were new:

Moving forward a couple of centuries, here’s an excursion through the Baths of Caracalla, which even in their ruined state are some of the most spectacular remains of ancient Rome still standing. It is 13 minutes long and I wish it were longer:

This 8-minute fly-through of the main model of the city is a preview of what a masterpiece the finished work will be. The lighting, atmospheric effect, the meticulous detail of every tegula and bronze statue on the roofs and pediments of the Caput Mundi:

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Theriac not a cure for plague after all

Sunday, January 30th, 2022

Theriac was a complex medical preparation made from dozens of ingredients that was first devised as an antidote to all poisons and venoms: the fabled Mithridatium allegedly developed by Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, in the 3rd century B.C. The recipe was significantly expanded in the 2nd century by Nero’s physician Andromachus. To distinguish the updated formula from its ancient antecedent, the old one was renamed after its inventor and the new one became Theriac.

Once the recipes were split, Theriac’s prescribed uses multiplied and it became an all-purpose panacea. People used it to prevent and treat infectious disease, primarily Bubonic Plague, and it was a popular remedy well into the 19th century. It was made in large quantities during epidemics and was deemed so import that cities granted pharmacists official Theriac-making rights. Official production had to be transparent to the public to the point of printing and distribution of the recipe used in a production event.

Its wide range of ingredients include known narcotics like poppy and known poisons like sea squill, a leafy plant that makes an excellent rat poison that was first recorded as a medicinal plant in a 16th century B.C. Egyptian papyrus, one of the earliest surviving medical treatises. Since modern medicine and understanding of disease eclipsed the humors theory and sounded the death knell for Theriac’s regular use, Theriac has never before been pharmacologically analyzed to study its effects, if any.

Researchers in Poland determined to recreate and analyze Theriac to see if any of the properties of its individual ingredients appear in the finished product. The research teams used one of only two known surviving copies of a Theriac recipe elaborated by Paul Guldenius, an apothecary in Toruń, central Poland, who was granted permission to produce the official Theriac of the city. Guldenius published his 61-ingredient recipe on a one-sided printed flyer in 1630.

The main difficulty during our work was the correct translation of the names of the plants used by the apothecary, which had to be identified with particular care and matched with contemporary botanical nomenclature.

Theriac was prepared in a complex process involving many raw materials that were difficult to access. Their cost was very high, making the medicine one of the most expensive of its time. Although it was used in very small doses, the price of a single dose weighing about 4 grams was equal to the value of a chicken or a half goose. The preparation contained some ingredients that could have certain pharmacological effects, and some are considered poisonous today. Nevertheless, their amount in a single serving of the medicine was very small, e.g. in the case of the rather poisonous sea onion it was 50 times less than the dose considered safe today. As a result, our research indicates that Theriac used according to the recommendations of the time could not have been poisonous.

Did it therefore have therapeutic properties? A full answer to this question still requires precise analyses of the reconstructed preparation. Still, preliminary findings indicate that the possible effectiveness of Theriac was based mainly on the placebo effect. Although there is no lack of substances showing therapeutic effects in this medicine with the recommended dosage, their amounts are far from sufficient to have a real impact on human health.

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

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Happy 177th anniversary to The Raven!

Saturday, January 29th, 2022

Edgar Allen Poe’s immortal poem The Raven was first published 177 years ago today. When last the Nevermore was uttered on these pages it was eight years ago and the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, had launched a Kickstarter to preserve the most magnificently evocative illustrations submitted by artist James Carling in 1882 for a special edition of Poe’s masterpiece that would instead be illustrated by Gustav Doré. 

Carling created 43 watercolor and ink illustrations, defying what had become a very conventional, posed approach to illustrating the scenes and motifs of The Raven. He “reproduced mentality and phantasm” instead of depicting a stanza like a stage set and believed that Poe would have recognized what he was trying to accomplish. “I feel that Poe would have said that I have been faithful to his idea of ‘The Raven,’ for I have followed his meaning so close as to be merged into his individuality.”

Illustration by James Carling for Poe's "The Raven"The illustrations were exhibited to the public only once many years after his death by his brother. They were very well-received but remained unpublished and little known. When his brother passed away, the set was sold by his heirs to the Poe Museum in 1937, where they went on display as the jewel of the collection for decades before their deteriorating condition required that they be removed from view in 1975. In 2013, the museum launched a fundraising campaign to conserve the fragile watercolors. They came just over $8,000 short of their goal of $60,000, sadly.

Part of the goal of the conservation project was to have them photographed in high resolution and published in a book dedicated to his drawings. I didn’t know until today that despite the Kickstarter closing just shy of the goal, they must have gotten their full funding somehow, because the book exists! Not only that, but it has existed since 2015. That’s the best news you can get on The Day of The Raven.

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Greek hypogeum under Naples to open

Wednesday, January 26th, 2022

The Ipogeo dei Cristallini, an ancient Greek necropolis carved into the tufa stone underneath Naples, is opening to the general public for the first time this year, giving visitors the opportunity to see a treasure trove of Greek funerary art and architecture.

The earliest coastal settlement of what would become Naples was established by Greek colonists from Rhodes in the 9th century B.C. and grew in wealth in population as an ally of fellow Greek city Syracuse. It was conquered by Rome in the 4th century B.C., but maintained its strong Greek culture even as the Roman elite flocked to build elegant villas on the beautiful Neapolitan seaside.

For hundreds of years the Greeks of Neapolis buried their high-status dead in hypogea dug entirely out of the tufa of the city’s hills. Later the Romans made use of them as well, carving niches out of the walls of the old Greek tombs to hold cinerary remains and digging new hypogea. They were reused again as Christian catacombs.

They fell into disuse after repeatedly mudslides buried the rooms and were eventually forgotten. A select few have since been rediscovered and preserved, the Ipogeo dei Cristallini among them. It was found in 1889 when the landowner, Baron Giovanni di Donato, was looking for water under his palace on Via Cristallini. Four chambers were excavated and a flight of steps built down into the hypogeum which was now 40 feet below ground level thanks to all those mudslides.

The Cristallini Hypogeum was built in the late 4th, early 3rd century B.C. Every chamber was carved out of the living tufa, sculpted to look like real homes with architectural features like steps, columns, benches and ceiling beams. The dead were laid to rest in sarcophagi carved to look like beds, complete with plump pillows. The only element that was not carved out of the tufa is a relief of a gorgon that was carved separately and mounted high on the wall of one of the chambers, looking down at the sarcophagus beds.

The gorgon’s original polychrome paint is beautifully preserved, as are other painted elements like trompe l’oeil details on the beds, a red faux marble floor, red steps, blue and yellow stripes on the pillows, red, blue and white friezes, draped garlands, lit candelabras, a large golden patera with reclining figures of Dionysus and Ariadne. The mudslides that ended the tombs’ use had the happy side-effect of preserving the paint. Almost no Greek painting has survived, so the vivid colors and details are priceless glimpses of Greek mural art.

On the walls, meanwhile, are scrawled names in ancient Greek: lists of those buried inside.

The other three tombs are equally interesting, if not as spectacular. One was also frescoed, although the paintings have been damaged — it’s hoped that future restoration will bring them back to light.

In another lie six headstones, dedicated to the dead. Each lists the name of the deceased, and signs off with the inscription “khaire” — an ancient Greek greeting, akin to the “ciao” that modern Neapolitans use. […]

Elsewhere are sculptures of people, and traces of portraits — potentially dead ancestors, according to Paolo Giulierini, director of the National Archaeology Museum of Naples, which houses hundreds of finds from the tombs, including sculptures, vases, and carved symbols of resurrection, such as pomegranates and eggs.

The hypogeum is still under observation by archaeologists to assess its stability and environmental threats. The tomb will not be opened until the monitoring is complete and experts determine how many visitors should be allowed and how often. Restoration work will be ongoing even when the tomb opens.

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Bronze Age sword with rivets found in Slovakia

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

A Bronze short sword has been discovered in the bed of the River Váh near the town of Hlohovec in the southwestern Slovak Republic. The blade is 26 cm (10 inches) long and weighs 150 grams (5.3 oz) and had a handle made of organic material (probably wood) which has not survived. The rivets that once joined the handle to the sword are still in place, however. It dates to the 16th century B.C.

It was discovered by a local resident last summer when it was exposed by a sharp drop in the water level. At first he just thought it was a cool object and took it home. He soon realized it was an archaeological find and had it examined by an archaeologist at the local museum who confirmed its ancient age and reported it to the Trnava Office of the Monuments Board of the Slovak Republic.

These types of short-bladed swords or long-bladed daggers are typical of the Tumulus culture of the Middle Bronze Age in the Danube basin. They have been found in tombs, hoards and in rivers and other bodies of water, where they were deliberate depositions made for ritual purposes.

At the end of the Early Bronze Age the first metal swords began to appear in Central Europe, as a separate invention that most likely evolved from long bronze daggers. The sword from the Váh could serve as a very interesting developmental link between these two types of weapons, [Matúš] Sládok [of the the Trnava Office] argued.

The Monuments Board of the Slovak Republic is fairly new, established in 2002. In the twenty years since, four Bronze Age blades like this one have been found in the Váh and reported to the Trnava Office.

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Henry III gold penny sells for $873,000

Monday, January 24th, 2022

An extremely rare 13th century gold penny of 20 pence minted by King Henry III discovered last September by a metal detectorist has sold at auction for £648,000 ($873,000), far exceeding the pre-sale estimate of £400,000 ($546,000). It is one of just eight documented examples of the gold penny, four of them in museums.

The coin was found in a field in the village of Hemyock in Devon by Michael Leigh-Mallory, a metal detector aficionado who had just returning to the hobby after stopping for a few years when his children were born. He reported his find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but he didn’t realize how important the coin was until he posted a picture on Facebook and it was recognized by numismatist Gregory Edmund of auctioneers Spink & Son.

The penny depicts the crowned and enthroned king holding a scepter and globe on the obverse. It is inscribed “H / ENRIC / REX III” . The reverse features a long voided cross with five-petal rosettes and three pellets in each field between the cross arms. It is inscribed “WIL / LEM / ON L / UND,” referencing the name of the moneyer Willem of Gloucester (also known as Willem Fitz Otto) and the London mint where the coins were struck in 1257.

Henry III’s penny was the first gold coin issued by a king of England since Edward the Confessor (1042-66). Edward’s gold coins were more like medallions, however, intended for use as presentation gifts. Henry’s gold penny was an actual circulation coin valued at 20 pence.

About 52,000 gold pennies were minted, but they did not get much use because they were widely believed to be undervalued, that the gold weight alone was worth more than the struck coin. They were soon withdrawn from circulation and a decade later Henry bought back the coins for 24 pence each and melted them down. No more gold coins would be minted in England for circulation until 1344 in the reign of Edward III.

The winning bidder is a UK private collector who has chosen to remain anonymous. The good news is he plans to loan the coin permanently to a museum.

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Youngest Roman amphitheater found in Switzerland

Sunday, January 23rd, 2022

Construction of a new boathouse on the Rhine in Kaiseraugst, outside Basel, Switzerland, has revealed the remains of a previously unknown Roman amphitheater that is the youngest that has ever been found in the Empire. Aaargau Canton archaeologists started excavating the site last month expecting to encounter material remains from a quarry that was abandoned in Roman times. They were surprised to find an oval ring of walls instead.

The walls encircle a hollow of the abandoned quarry and are about 165 feet long and 130 feet wide. A large entrance gate flanked on each side by smaller entrances was unearthed on the south side. A sandstone block from the threshold of another gate was found on the west side. Some of the walls have surviving plaster on the interior. Of the wooden bleachers only the impression of wooden posts they were built on remain.

The structure was adjacent to the Castrum Rauracense, the military fort built near the city of Augusta Raurica in around 300 A.D. when the Roman army had to redraw its defensive lines after the loss of Upper Raetian Limes in the Germanic invasions at the end of the 3rd century. The location next to the fort, the use of the abandoned quarry and the building materials use all point to the amphitheater having been constructed in the 4th century, which makes it the youngest known.

The good folks of the Basel Rowing Club will benefit greatly from this find. The plans for the boathouse have been redesigned to include the amphitheater’s remains. They will be left in situ, protected by a barriers while the new building is erected above them creating the coolest boathouse of all time.

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Oldest brewed tea leaves found in royal tomb

Saturday, January 22nd, 2022

The remains of tea leaves discovered in a royal tomb in Zoucheng, eastern China’s Shandong province, have been dated to 453-410 B.C., the early Warring States Period, making them the oldest known brewed tea in the world. The previous title-holders, discovered in 2005 in the tomb Emperor Jing of Han, are 300 years younger.

The leaves were found in an overturned porcelain cup during the 2018 excavation of tomb No. 1 at Xigang in the Ancient Capital City Site of the Zhu Kingdom in Zoucheng City. Archaeologists suspected at the time of the find that the charred remains of plant matter in the cup were tea. That was confirmed when scientific analyses — among them calcium phytoliths analysis, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and gas chromatograph mass spectrometry — compared the ancient matter to modern tea and steeped tea residue.

Their results show that the sample contains abundant calcium phytoliths identifiable as tea and that its FTIR spectra are similar with that of the modern tea residue.

They also detected caffeine, methoxybenzene compounds, organic acids, and several other compounds in both the ancient sample and the modern tea residue.

The Shennong Ben Cao Jing, the earliest surviving Chinese medical treatise written between 200 B.C. and 220 A.D., records a legend that tea was discovered as an antidote to poison by Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C., and references in agricultural almanacs from the Warring States Period refer to tea being used in religious sacrifices.

“Since ancient times, the Chinese people have always had the habit of drinking tea, but there is no physical evidence to prove when tea actually appeared, until the discovery of tea in the Han Yangling Mausoleum, which proved that Chinese tea has a history of at least 2,150 years, which has earned recognition from Guinness World Records as the oldest tea in 2016,” the scientists said.

“The identification of the tea remains in Zoucheng — the early stage of Warring States, approximately 2,400 years ago — has advanced the origin of tea by nearly 300 years.”

“Furthermore, the tea was found in a small bowl, providing additional evidence of the usage of tea.”

“Our results indicate that tea drinking culture may start as early as in Warring State period.”

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

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