Archive for August, 2022

Florence Baptistery apse, wall mosaics restored

Wednesday, August 17th, 2022

After five years of restoration, the eight internal walls of the Baptistery of Florence adorned with three different colors of marble inlay and magnificent mosaics have been liberated from scaffolding and can be seen again in all their newly-revived glory.

The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the governing body that administers Florence’s cathedral complex which includes both the Duomo and the Baptistery, began a comprehensive restoration of the internal walls of the Baptistery at the end of 2017 following repairs to the external walls and roof. The project was enormously complex. There are 12,000 square feet of marble inlay surfaces, more than 2,000 square feet of mosaics and more than 1,000 square feet of gold leaf.

The parietal mosaics were created in the 14th century as extensions of the motifs and pictorial style of the exceptional mosaics applied to the interior of the dome, which was still ongoing when work began on the apse.

The mosaics of the scarsella [the apse] differ from the parietal ones both in the narrative complexity and for the execution technique. In fact, in these mosaics, extremely minute tesserae were used and an extraordinary chromatic variety of glass pastes and other precious materials including coral – which to date does not appear to have been used elsewhere in mosaic art – branches or in cross-sections that form microscopic circular or teardrop shaped tesserae.

If the mosaics on the other seven internal facades of the Baptistery represent prophets, holy bishops and cherubs, those in the scarsella stage a rich iconographic program. In the vault the mirror images of the Madonna and the Baptist seated on the throne are represented, flanked by four telamons that support the large central wheel. This is divided into eight spokes, occupied by solemn figures of biblical patriarchs and prophets who foretold the coming of Christ, symbolized in the lamb in the center of the wheel with an epigraph, which translated from Latin reads “Here is almighty God indicated by the meek lamb”. Other figures of prophets appear in the intrados of the triumphal arch, while on the external ring there are represented busts of Apostles, Evangelists and Saints flanking the Baptist in the center.

The vault and triumphal arch of the apse and the gallery of the matroneum were clad in marble originally, so when officials decided to install mosaics there too after the completion of the dome mosaics, Florence’s mosaicists had to invent a new technique to apply mosaics onto marble veneers. They used bespoke hollow terracotta tiles, each made to specific measurements, that were then cut and mounted to the marble walls with iron linchpins. Even the mortar was completely customized, closer to an adhesive than a traditional mastic.

The unique approach and materials posed an enormous challenge to conservators. The team started by collecting data, performing the first diagnostic analyses of the parietal mosaics ever done. They found evidence of the original techniques used to install the mosaics, questionable later repairs and materials like traces of gold leaf on one of the column capitals that suggests all of the capitals were originally gilded.

The restoration was repeatedly interrupted and delayed by the pandemic and ultimately cost 2.6 million euros, but that hasn’t deterred the Opera from moving forward with an even more complex project: the restoration of the mosaics on the Baptistery’s octagonal dome. They have designed a new restoration scaffold system of horizontal platforms supported by a central column. This will allow restorers to shift upwards as they focus on new surfaces while still keeping the dome visible from the ground.

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169 gold rings found in Copper Age grave

Tuesday, August 16th, 2022

A prehistoric hoard that is unique on the European archaeological record has been unearthed near Oradea in western Romania. Archaeologists discovered the Copper Age grave of a woman during construction of a new highway connector this spring. It contained 160 gold rings, two gold beads, 800 bone beads and a multi-spiral copper bracelet. Before this discovery, the total number of gold artifacts found in the entire Carpathian Basin (consisting of large parts of modern Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria) was only 150 pieces. That figure has now more than doubled in one fell swoop.

Detail of gold rings with one twisted. Photo courtesy Ţării Crisurilor Museum.The remains are currently undergoing radiocarbon dating, but the objects mark the woman as member of the local Tiszapolgár culture which flourished in Eastern and Central Europe between 4500 and 4000 B.C. Given the exceptional luxury of her funerary jewelry, she must have been someone of very high status.

The gold rings were found at the head of the burial and would have adorned her hair. Their total weight exceeds 200 grams (.44 pounds), which is an enormous amount considering it was alluvial gold, ie, painstakingly separated from the sand of a river via a washing process rather than mined in large quantities from veins of ore.

The gold, beads and bracelet are in the process of being cleaned and conserved. Researchers are hoping to be able to determine the geographic origin of the gold, to pinpoint if it was local or imported. Scientists in Romania and the Netherlands will help perform further analyses including DNA extraction. When studies and conservation are completed, the hoard will be exhibited to the public at the Ţării Crisurilor Museum in Oradea.

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Shrimp fishermen haul in wooden figurehead

Monday, August 15th, 2022

Fishermen casting their nets off the coast of the Wadden Islands, Texel, the Netherlands, hauled in not the delicious shellfish they expected, but a carved wooden head in exceptional condition. The crew of the shrimp cutter Wieringer 22 caught the sculpture on Tuesday, August 2. They named the head Barry and posted him on social media where he garnered an instant following.

Acting on advice from archaeologists, the crew placed the head in an eel tub filled with sea water to keep the wood from drying out and deteriorating while the ship was still out shrimping. On Thursday, August 4, the Wieringer 22 came into port where it was greeted by excited archaeologists.

The head is made of oak, which would under normal circumstances be susceptible to the depredations of shipworm, but the sculpture managed to avoid this fate by embedding itself in the sea floor after the wreck. The sediment prevented marine organisms from making a meal of the figurehead and kept it from rotting away. That coincidence is the only reason it is in such impeccable condition.

Michiel Bartels, a municipal archaeologist for that region of the Netherlands, told the Leeuwarder Courant that he believed the “very special discovery” came from a warship, possibly during the Eighty Years’ War, which stretched from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s.

Bartels told the outlet that the man in the carving was wearing a specific kind of headgear called a Phrygian cap. “This hat symbolizes freedom and independence,” he said. “The Phyrigians were enslaved by the Romans. Slaves were shaved bald. When released from slavery, [Phyrigians] wore a cap to hide their baldness and signify their freedom. During the Eighty Years’ War, the symbol came back as a sign of independence.”

Experts believe that Barry – as the crew members called the figure – adorned the stern of the 17th-century ship. “The most important thing is to conserve the sculpture and examine it,” says Ad Geerdink, director of the Westfries Museum. – Many ships from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) rest at the bottom of the Wadden Sea. It is too early to say what kind of unit the sculpture is from. Figures of this type, placed at the stern of ships, were to impress and speak about the origin of the vessel. It was such a frenzy at sea. And this figure fits well with this habit.

The hat could lead researchers in another direction, away from the political symbolism of the 80 Years’ War and towards a profession: whaling. The Rijksmuseum has a similar woolen cap in its collection. It was one of many discovered in the graves of 185 Dutch whalers and whale oil workers in the Spitsbergen archipelago in Norway. The caps not only kept the sailors and workers warm in the frigid climate, but were markers of identity, each knitted in different colors and patterns. The connection between man and hat was so pronounced not even death could sever it, and many of the Dutchmen were buried wearing their hats.

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2nd Roman bridge found over Aniene tributary

Sunday, August 14th, 2022

Just a few months after an extremely rare Rebuplican-era Roman bridge was discovered over the Fosso di Pratolungo tributary of the Aniene River in northeastern Rome, a second, much later bridge has been found less than 100 feet away. Archaeologists have been excavating the route of a planned enlargement of the Via Tiburtina within the municipality of Rome. They found the recently-discovered bridge on the opposite bank of the tributary from the Republican bridge. Its precise date is unknown, but it is from the Imperial era.

The bridge on the ancient Via Tiburtina crossed the Fosso di Pratolungo right before its confluence with the Aniene.  Excavations brought to light the central span of the bridge, a rounded arch made out of massive blocks of travertine. They were laid dry, using no mortar, joined together by rectangular projections on one block fitted into matching rectangular grooves on the adjacent block. The exterior was then reinforced with a layer of concrete.

The arch is missing its keystone. Archaeologists believe it was likely cadged in the Middle Ages when the bridge was partially demolished and enclosed by two walls 10 feet high coated with a layer of plaster on the exterior. The walls appear to have supported a ramp used to cross the tributary.

Researchers are investigating the connection between this bridge and the earlier one from the 2nd or 3rd century B.C.

The analysis of the historical cartography of this area highlights the convergence of several branches of the Fosso and of small tributaries, the course of which varied according to the eras. The stratigraphy then highlighted the remarkable alluvial layers that attest that the bridge crossed the Fosso at a critical point, subject since Roman times to frequent flooding and swamping phenomena.

The remains of the bridge will be protected and reburied as they are 13 feet below street level inside an aquifer and therefore cannot be moved. The expansion of the highway will not damage the archaeological material.

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17th c. wreck laden with lime found on Lübeck riverbed

Saturday, August 13th, 2022

Maritime archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 17th century trading vessel on the bed of the Trave River near the Baltic port city of Lübeck, Germany. The ship’s remains were first spotted in February 2020 during a routine survey of the Trave’s shipping channels when sonars detected an anomaly on the riverbed at a depth of 36 feet. Divers were finally able to explore the site in August 2021, and they alerted Lübeck cultural heritage authorities that they’d identified a likely shipwreck. Archaeologists from the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology at Kiel University were commissioned to examine the wreck site in detail in November 2021.

Over the last eight months, archaeologists have made 13 dives for a total of 464 minutes, photographing, filming and mapping all of the site. There were no cannons, so researchers were able to eliminate the possibility that it was a warship. They determined it was a sailing vessel carrying at least 150 large barrels of cargo. About 70 of them were found in their original location on the ship. The other 80 were adjacent to them. That means the ship sank straight down and stayed upright. It never listed or capsized.

The wooden planking was dated to around 1650, the late Hanseatic period when Lübeck was a center of maritime trade in northern Europe. This type of medium-sized sailing ship was a workhorse of the Baltic Sea trade network, but equivalent wrecks have only been found in the eastern Baltic Sea region. This is the first one found in the western Baltic.

The wood of the cargo barrels has rotted away, but happy archaeological coincidence, we know what they contained: lime, because it hardens to a rock-hard solid in contact with water, so while the barrels disintegrated, the cargo has survived for centuries. Lime was a key building material used to produce mortar and plaster in the Middle Ages and Early Modern era. The ship was probably loaded up with lime at a Scandinavian point of origin and then sailed for Lübeck but didn’t quite make it.

The wreck was found in the middle of the canal at a bend in the river which was notoriously challenging to navigate. It’s not clear what caused the vessel to sink. Archaeologists believe it may have run aground at the ben and sprang a leak. It sank on an even keel (probably thanks to being so effectively ballasted by its heavy lime cargo) and landed upright on the riverbed.

The remains of the ship and cargo are under threat today from erosion and shipworm. It is only a matter of time before it disappears completely, so Kiel University researchers are working the City of Lübeck to protect the wreck. The default posture is in situ preservation whenever possible, but with the rapid deterioration of this wreck, experts are looking at the possibility of salvaging the timbers and cargo and preserving them on terra firma.

Raising the ship from the riverbed will give archaeologists a chance to fully investigate the hull and its construction, and perhaps identify its origin. “The salvage will probably also uncover previously unknown parts of the wreck that are still hidden in the sediment,” [the head of Lübeck’s archaeology department Manfred] Schneider said, such as rooms for the ship’s crew in the stern that may still hold everyday objects from the 17th century.

Although Lübeck was a center for Baltic trade during the Hanseatic period, very few authentic maritime objects from that time had survived, Schneider said, so the discovery of almost an entire ship from this era is remarkable. “We have something like a time capsule that transmits everything that was on board at that moment,” he said. “It throws a spotlight on the trade routes and transport options at the end of the Hanseatic period.”

Here is raw video taken of the wreck during a dive:

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Olmec reliefs of “contortionist” rulers found in Mexico

Friday, August 12th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered two carved reliefs from the late Olmec period (900-400 B.C.) in Villahermosa, Tabasco, southeastern Mexico. The reliefs are carved from large round slabs of limestone 4.6 feet in diameter and weigh more than 1,500 pounds apiece. Each relief features a man wearing a headdress formed out of four corncobs, his face contorted in a grimace — mouths open and turned down, eyes wide. In the center of the headdress is an “Olmec cross,” a glyph of a jaguar that was a marker of elite status. The faces take up almost all of the real estate, bordered by footprints on the sides and arms crossed underneath.

The Olmecs are the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilization. They held sway over what is now Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast region from around 1600 B.C. until their extinction (for reasons unknown) in 400 B.C. Olmec culture is most famously associated with the colossal helmeted heads carved out of massive basalt boulders. The recently-discovered reliefs have features in common with the iconic heads.

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) was alerted to the existence of the reliefs in June 2019 by an anonymous tipster. They were in a private home in Villahermosa. After examination, INAH experts confirmed their authenticity. The homeowner said he had found them while leveling agricultural land on his farm in Tenosique.  (A very similar circular relief was found in Tenosique in 2000.) Archaeologists plan to survey the find site in hopes of narrowing down the date of the carvings.

Among the reliefs known from the late Olmec horizon (all from informal excavations), when La Venta emerged as the guiding center of the nuclear area of ​​this civilization, five of them represent figures of “contortionists”, one of which comes from Balancán and is exposed in the Regional Museum of Anthropology, in Villahermosa; another one, from Ejido Emiliano Zapata, and is in the Museum of the Archaeological Site of Pomoná; and three, from Tenosique, including the one registered in 2000 and these last two.

“The five monuments have in common the representation of large faces, possibly of local rulers, who also practiced contortionism not in a playful sense, but ritual. By adopting the position in which they appear portrayed –which reduces the irrigation and oxygenation of the blood to the brain–, the characters reached trance states in divinatory ceremonies, and that conferred powers on them.

“It is possible that these faces evolved and derived in the Mayan ajaw altars , such as those of the Caracol site, in Belize, which tells us about the permanence of this theme for more than three centuries, already for the Early Classic and Late Classic periods. (495 to 790 AD). The word ajaw means ‘he who shouts’, ‘he who commands’, ‘he who orders’; and in these Mayan monuments the mouth stands out, a feature that must come from Olmec times, especially from these circular reliefs of ‘contortionists’ that are portraits of local chiefs”.

The reliefs will be transferred to the Museum of the Archaeological Site of Pomoná in Tenosique, which will then become home to the lion’s share of Olmec “contortionist” reliefs.

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Folded gold diadem found in Tamil Nadu burial urn

Thursday, August 11th, 2022

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has discovered a burial urn containing a gold diadem and numerous iron objects at the Adichanallur archaeological site in Tamil Nadu, India. The diadem was found in a massive earthenware urn eight feet in diameter. The urn was filled with soil, and the diadem was at the bottom of the urn along with a complete skeleton and other grave goods.

[T]he urn contained a number of objects that were made of gold, bronze or iron. As many as 20 iron objects — two inside and 18 outside the urn burial — were unearthed. On the outside, it contained 11 arrow heads, two spear heads, one hanger, an iron plate, a chisel and a long spear of 1.75 metre with a decorated handle.

The bronze objects included a circular sieve, a cup with a stand, and two bowls. Interestingly, the cup had a moulded decoration. The urn also had a number of pots, and red and black earthen wares of varying sizes. As per the ASI expert, the urn also contained paddy husks.

Clay jar burials were first encountered at Adichanallur in 2004. So far 169 urns containing human skeletal remains and rich grave goods have been unearthed at the site. Radiocarbon dating of the human remains revealed that they were buried between 905 and 696 B.C.

Scottish archaeologist Alexander Rea, the first Superintendent of Archaeological Survey of Southern India, found numerous gold artifacts, including 20 diadems, in his excavations of Adichanallur between 1899 and 1905. He documented the find site of the diadems with meticulous detail in his 1902 excavation report.

This year the ASI surveyed the area pinpointed by Rea in the 1902 report with satellite mapping before excavating in the hope they might expand on Rea’s exploration and find any archaeological treasures he missed. The burial urn containing the diadem was discovered 27 days after digging commenced.

The diadem doesn’t look like one anymore. It has been repeatedly folded up leaving it just 3.5 cm (1.4 inches) long. This was done deliberately, a ritual destruction of the diadem after the death of the wearer so that nobody would be able to wear it after him.

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Medieval kitchen stocked with cookware found in Moravia

Wednesday, August 10th, 2022

The remains of a well-preserved medieval kitchen fully stocked with clean cookware have been discovered in the town of Nový Jičín, northern Moravia, Czech Republic. The kitchen was found under a private home adjacent to the northern side of the town’s historic walls in an archaeological survey before renovation. It dates to the early 15th century.

Based on its location, [Pavel Stabrava from the local Novojičín Museum] believes that the house would most likely have belonged to a burgher family, a social class equivalent to the medieval bourgeoisie.

“Since the house was located near the town walls, this would have been a less wealthy burgher family. The richest burghers would have lived in so-called ‘beer court’ houses around the town square.”

The stone foundations of a log house were uncovered beneath the paved courtyard of the Renaissance-era floor in the back of the house.  Within the area bounded by the foundations were the charred remains of a wooden floor. In one corner of the room was a brick oven with a raised hearth. On the hearth was a full set of cookware, complete with lids, and a wooden spatula. The dishes had been washed and put up to dry on the hearth. On the wooden floor near the furnace, archaeologists also found an iron grate, deformed by a much hotter fire than the kind food was cooked over, plus hundreds of glass beads from a necklace, a padlock, a three-tined pitchfork and a spearhead.

The find is exceptionally rare, because city houses were renovated and rebuilt many times over the centuries, and the construction of modern utility infrastructure typically destroyed any remains of earlier townhomes under the ground. It’s a total fluke that this one kitchen survived at all, let alone in virtually untouched condition.

The charred wood floor remains are evidence that the original medieval house was destroyed by fire, possibly in 1427 when the city was burned by Hussite forces in the Fourth Crusade of the Hussite Wars. The Hussites besieged Nový Jičín and overran it, burning the wooden buildings and massacring civilians. The kitchen and its clean cookware were probably hastily abandoned by the homeowners fleeing for their lives.

The artefacts are now in the process of conservation, after which they will be stored in the depositories of the Novojičín Museum. Pavel Stabrava hopes that further planned excavations around the exterior of the house will reveal more about the medieval town and its inhabitants.

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First inscription mentioning “Gordion” found in Gordion

Tuesday, August 9th, 2022

An inscription bearing the name of the Phrygian capital of Gordion has been discovered in the remains of the ancient city about 40 miles southwest of Turkey’s capital, Ankara. The name is known from ancient sources, but this is the first inscription ever found to mention the name “Gordion.”

Gordion was the capital of the kingdom of Phrygia which ruled Western Anatolia area from the 12th century B.C. until the Persian conquest in the 7th century B.C. According to legends cited by ancient historians like Herodotus and Arrian, Gordion was founded by Gordios, maker of the intractable knot that Alexander the Great “untied” so handily by slicing through it. Gordios’ son and successor was the King Midas who turned everything he touched into gold. They were already legendary figures by the time of Homer, but the archaeology of the site indicates it was part of the Hittite Empire in the Bronze Age, not an independent kingdom.

A historical King Gordios succeeded by his son King Midas do make an appearance in the 8th century. The historical Midas built what would become known as the Midas Mound Tumulus in around 740 B.C. for his father Gordios. At 180 feet high and almost 1,000 feet in diameter, it is the second-largest burial mound in Turkey. It was excavated in the 1950s and its double-layer wood and limestone funerary chamber was found with rich furnishings and food offerings still intact. (A few years back, a rather tasty mead-beer hybrid was recreated from a chemical analysis of the residue inside one of the cauldrons found in the chamber.)

Gordion faded in the Hellenistic period but was still populated during the Roman period when its location on a major road lent it significance. After the 4th century, there is little evidence of occupation except for limited habitation of the citadel mound in the 13th and 14th centuries. A small village west of the citadel was the only settlement in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The ancient city was rediscovered during construction of the Berlin-Istanbul-Baghdad railroad in 1893. Archaeologists Alfred and Gustav Körte who excavated the site in 1900 were convinced it was Gordion but they never found any conclusive archaeological evidence to prove it. Subsequent archaeological explorations also came up empty-handed. Until now.

The team found a Phrygian stone inscription in the area called “the outer city” in Gordion this year. The inscription, dated to the years when Greek King Antiochus I (281-261 B.C.) reigned in the Hellenistic Period, is the first and only inscription in which the name Gordion is mentioned.

The inscription, which is thought to be related to a tumulus tomb, is also notable for being the longest inscription ever found in Gordion. It features a Persian male name, as well.

The stone is now being conserved and the inscription fully translated before publication.

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Unique Scarborough Roman complex reburied

Monday, August 8th, 2022

The large Roman complex with a unique never-seen-before layout unearthed in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, last year has been reburied for its own protection. It was discovered in an archaeological survey at the site of a new housing development. The complex includes a circular central room with four rectangular rooms leading off it in a rough cross shape. There are also a bath house and other outbuildings. It may have been a villa or a religious building, or both at different times, but whatever its purpose, the quality of design and construction are so high it could only have been the handiwork of the top architects and craftsmen in Northern Europe.

When the find was first revealed, housing developers Keepmoat had already redesigned the project to move a planned open greenspace to the archaeological site. That way construction could continue around it without disturbing the Roman remains. Keepmoat was in discussions with Historic England about how best to manage the site for the long term as well. They planned to apply for designation as a national historic monument and to integrate it into the public open space of the development in such a way as to protect it while still making it accessible to the public.

Unfortunately time was not on their side. As soon as the find was announced, the remains proved vulnerable to predators. The fenced-in site was broken into by “nighthawks” (illegal metal detectorists who operate under cover of darkness) literally hours after the story hit the press on April 14th. Thankfully the damage was mostly to the fence and land around it, not to the ancient structures, and Keepmoat increased security in response.

More than a year has passed since then, and following Historic England’s recommendation, Keepmoat has now reburied the archaeological remains. They do plan to do something on the greenspace to explain the ancient treasure beneath its topsoil.

A Keepmoat spokesperson said: “To inform visitors of the significance of the findings, we have submitted a landscaping design to the Local Planning Authority which will incorporate an interpretive depiction of the remains.”

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