Archive for August, 2022

1,400-year-old iron folding chair found in Bavaria

Wednesday, August 31st, 2022

An extremely rare iron folding chair dating to around 600 A.D. has been discovered in the Bavarian region of Middle Franconia. It is only the second folding chair from the early Middle Ages ever found in Germany, and one of fewer than 30 found anywhere in Europe. It is one of only six made of iron.

Archaeologists unearthed the chair during the course of construction of a business park. It was discovered six and a half feet below the surface in the grave of an adult woman. The chair is 28 by 18 inches in its folded position and was deposited at her feet. The bone of an animal (probably the rib of a cow) was next to it. This was likely a meat offering. Remnants of paneling suggest she was laid to rest in a covered wooden chamber with a west-east orientation.

Initial osteological examination indicates she was around 40-50 years old at time of death. She wore a necklace of glass beads and chatelaine on her belt with two bow brooches, a disc brooch, a spindle whorl and a large millefiori glass bead.

Folding chairs included as grave goods have been interpreted as special indicators not just of social status or wealth, but of political office. The X-shaped chair, the sella curulis, was a potent symbol of rulership and magistracy in ancient Rome, and its association with aristocracy goes back even further to Pharaonic Egypt. Intriguingly, almost all of the 29 early medieval folding chairs found in Europe were discovered in women’s graves.

A second grave was discovered next to hers in a parallel orientation. This one belonged to an adult male who was buried with a rich array of grave goods as well, including a full set of weapons (lance, shield, spatha sword), a bone comb and a belt with a pouch and a bronze buckle.

The chair was removed from the grave in a soil block so that it can be excavated in the restoration workshops of the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments near Bamberg. It will be X-rayed to give archaeologists an excavation roadmap and to reveal the chair’s condition before it is fully exposed to the air.

Large bronze beast found at Sanxingdui

Tuesday, August 30th, 2022

Archaeologists excavating sacrificial pit No. 8 at the Sanxingdui Bronze Age archaeological site in Guanghan City, southwest China, have unearthed the largest bronze beast yet, and the only one of its kind.

The beast has a wide open mouth, tall, upright ears, a rounded body on short legs and a thick tail curling up and out from a high rump. On his broad chest is engraved a sacred tree of life, bronze versions of which have also been found inside the pits.

“The tree is engraved directly on it and can be seen as Sanxingdui people’s worship of the sacred tree, or has taken the sacred tree as a kind of divine presence,” said [team archaeologist Zhao Hao].

It also has unique feature never found before on a bronze mythological animal in the pit: a horn on its head with the figure of a man standing on it. He wears a long robe and has a clenched right fist. Archaeologists believe he may have been the beast’s driver or leader.

More than three feet long and three feet high at its highest point, it is unique among the bronze mythological creatures found in the sacrificial pits for its size. Before this discovery, the largest of the bronze beasts was just 11 inches long.

Not only is it the largest zoomorphic bronze unearthed at Sanxingdui, it is also the most complete. Only one of the figure’s arms and one of the creature’s ears are broken. The six pits at Sanxingdui were filled to the brim with thousands of objects made of bronze, gold, jade and ivory that were ritually broken and burned before burial by the Shu people around 3100 years ago. Of the approximately 13,000  objects recovered from the pits since excavations began in 2020, less than 2,500 of them were found intact.

Excavation of pit 8 is ongoing but is expected to be completed in little over a month.

Getty returns unique Greek terracotta sculptural group

Monday, August 29th, 2022

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is returning one of its greatest treasures to Italy: a group of life-sized terracotta statues of a seated poet with two sirens from the 4th century B.C. The sculptural group was bought by J. Paul Getty himself and has been on display continuously since 1976. An unrelated investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit following the loot-strewn trail of antiquities trafficker Gianfranco Becchina uncovered evidence that the sculptures had been illegally excavated and exported shortly before they were fenced to the Getty.

The sculptures were crafted around 350-300 B.C. in the Greek colony of Tarentum in the heel of Italy’s boot, today the region of Puglia. The sirens have the heads and torsos of women with the legs and talons of birds gripping rocky perches. They wear short, wind-swept chitons strapped over the breasts. The poet is seated and holding a plektron (a lyre pick) in his right hand. The lyre that was once in the crook of his left arm is lost. They are virtually complete, and even some of the hair curls broken off the head of one of the sirens are still with the group, so vanishingly rare a circumstance that it alone should have telegraphed that the group was dug up intact and smuggled out of the country. It was originally painted in vivid colors, and there are rare surviving traces of that original polychromy still visible on the terracotta surface.

“It is a very important work. I’d even say one of the most important in the [Getty Museum’s] collection,” Getty Museum director Timothy Potts said in an interview. “So it will be a loss as to what we can represent about the art of the ancient classical world, in this case southern Italy in the late fourth century B.C.”

Potts said the work is especially unique because of its scale, quality and subject matter — it suggests the mythical story of Jason and the Argonauts, which would make the sculpture’s seated man, who plays a harp-like instrument, Orpheus.

“It’s just extremely rare and there’s nothing similar in our collection, or closely similar in any collection,” Potts said. “It does leave a hole in our gallery but with this evidence that came forth, there was no question that it needed to be sent back to Italy.”

The group was one of the last archaeological treasures acquired by J. Paul Getty before his death in June of 1976. He wrote in his diary entry from March 6th, 1976:

Bought the following objects: [long list of antiquities, their cost and who he bought them from.] A group of 3 Greek statues made in Tarentum at the end of the 4th c. B.C. They represent a singer Orpheus seated and 2 standing sirens, $550,000 from Bank Leu. All these naturally were on Frel’s recommendation.

Bank Leu was a bank in Zurich, a classic middleman for the traffic in looted antiquities. Frel was Jiří Frel, the Getty Museum’s antiquities curator at the time. The 550K Getty paid for the terracotta group is the equivalent of about  $3 million today, but its current market value was assessed by the Trafficking Unit as $8 million.

The group has been removed from display and Getty experts are now figuring out how to ship the fragile objects to Italy without damaging them. Custom equipment will be involved. The sculptures will be repatriated to Italy next month. After a short stint on display at Rome’s new Museum of Rescued Art, the group will go on permanent display in their hometown of Taranto.

Unique 1910 synagogue mural restored

Sunday, August 28th, 2022

After 112 years, 36 of them spent enclosed behind a false wall, a unique mural that once decorated the Chai Adam synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, has been rescued, restored and put on display.

The Chai Adam congregation commissioned Lithuanian immigrant sign-painter Ben Zion Black to create the mural in 1910. Black was paid $200 (the equivalent of $5,314 today) and completed the large-scale triptych on the apse of the synagogue plus other ceiling paintings in just six months. He brought the Jewish Lithuanian artistic tradition he learned in the Old Country to Vermont, a style that initially caused consternation among the congregants who took issue with the bright colors and some of the imagery (musical instruments, angels).

Painted with oils on plaster in a boldly outlined style, the mural features a faux theatrical proscenium with a Decalogue supported by lions rampant center stage. The Ten Commandments are crowned and beribboned and Hebrew words on the ribbon read Keter Torah (Crown of the Torah), a phrase from the Talmud. The panel is topped by a sun with wide rays reaching the edges and floor. Dramatic layers of theatrical curtains drape over four columns and frame the central composition. Between the columns a forested landscape fades into the distance. Puffy clouds in a blue sky float over the  proscenium arch.

Synagogue murals were a popular tradition in Eastern Europe between the early 18th century and World War I, but they never took root in the United States. As far as anyone knows, the mural in the Chai Adam Synagogue is the only example in the US. The murals in European synagogues were destroyed by arson in the Holocaust, and there are only a handful of examples of the art form left anywhere in the world. The Burlington piece is the only surviving Eastern European-style synagogue mural in the US, and the only known survivor of Jewish Lithuanian remaining in the world. It’s also the largest surviving example of Lithuanian Folk Art in the world. (The Nazis didn’t like folk art even when it wasn’t Jewish, so they destroyed it at every opportunity.)

In this case, neglect appears to have been the key to its survival. Chai Adam merged with the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in 1939 and the original building with mural still in place was put to several different uses (carpet store, warehouse). When the building was sold in 1986 to developers who converted it into apartments, the new owners agreed to wall up the art instead of demolishing it. It saw the light again in 2012, when Burlington’s Jewish community removed the wall to assess the condition of the painting. The mural had suffered.

The plaster was in poor condition and paint was flaking off in many sections. The plaster was stabilized and a conservator worked to reattach the paint. Then a temporary structure was built so that the building’s roof could be removed, the mural’s lathes reinforced, and the artwork could be encased in a metal frame for the move in 2015 by crane and then truck to the current Ohavi Zedek Synagogue.

In its new home, conservators restored damaged sections of paint and cleaned the entire mural, revealing its original vibrant color and detail. Paint was also matched and added where it had fallen off. That work took place this and last year, during the coronavirus pandemic, when the building was largely unused.

The conservation was completed earlier this year and the restored mural was unveiled in all its vibrant glory at a ceremony on June 28th. Public tours are scheduled to begin this October. Private tours can be booked online now.

Tiny votive pot found at Troy

Saturday, August 27th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a tiny votive vessel in the ancient city of Troy that dates to the Hellenistic era. Just three centimeters (1.2 inches) high, it is the smallest container ever unearthed at Troy. It dates to the Hellenistic era, around 2,300 years ago.

The ancient city of Troy had already entered literary immortality centuries before this wee pot was made. The Illiad was written down around the 8th century B.C., but it was transmitting a far older oral tradition. The conflict that formed the kernel of truth inside the epic poem would have taken place in the 12th century B.C. during the Late Bronze Age collapse that felled civilizations all over the Mediterranean and Near East.

The earliest archaeological layers of Troy go back to 3500 B.C. when it was a small hilltop settlement. It evolved into a heavily fortified citadel that was regularly destroyed and regularly rebuilt and expanded, creating a stratigraphic crepe cake. Troy VIIa, destroyed in battle around 1180 B.C., is believed to be the Homeric Troy.

After yet another rebuild/destruction cycle, Troy was rebuilt by Greek immigrants around 700 B.C., reusing earlier walls. This iteration of the city, labelled Troy VIII,  lasted until 85 B.C., throughout the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods. By the Classical period (5th and 4th centuries B.C.), Troy had become a popular destination for tourism and pilgrimage, and by the 3rd century B.C., the city was largely transformed into a sacred site. Visitors would leave votive offerings to Troy’s mythic heroes and deities at the city’s temples. The tiny pot was one of them.

Neolithic seal with bull heads found in Turkey

Friday, August 26th, 2022

Stamp seal with stylized bull heads and impression. Photo courtesy Halil Tekin.A unique seal incised with stylized bull heads facing each other has been unearthed at the Domuztepe Mound, a Late Neolithic settlement in southeast Turkey. The button-shaped stamp seal features two animal heads mirroring each other on the surface of an oval serpentine stone. Around the edge is a border of radiating straight lines.

Domuztepe is the largest known settlement of the Halaf culture, a farming society that occupied northern Mesopotamia and Syria between around 6100 B.C. and 5100 B.C. They are renown for the unusually high quality of pottery they produced from local clay. Their painted polychrome ceramics were so highly prized they spread throughout the region, likely traded by the elites. The pots were decorated with finely-executed geometric or animal designs in brown, red and/or black (both iron oxide pigments) against a buff background.

The Halaf culture is responsible for the earliest known stamp seals on the archaeological record. Halaf seals were typically simple circles or rectangles incised with intersecting grid lines and chevrons. One example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is notable for having a zoomorphic shape believed to represent a hedgehog, but the surface design is still a simple grid with exes in each cell.

The newly-discovered seal employs a motif previously only found on pottery: the bull or buffalo head. The shape of the horns and head painted on the pottery is different from the design on the seal. It could be that one style is meant to represent domestic cattle and the other water buffalo, but they could also both be domestic bulls with two different, highly stylized designs.

[T]he bullheads visualized on different materials are mostly accepted as the representative of the species known as domestic cattle (Bos Taurus) in the Near East. On the other hand, it is possible that the species in the samples shaped both as a paint decoration on pottery and by scraping on seal impressions is a water buffalo (bos bubalis). Since archaeozoological studies have not been completed yet, it is premature to say that water buffalo was domesticated in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Domuztepe is located, in the 7th-6th millennium BC.

Largest phallus relief found in Córdoba

Thursday, August 25th, 2022

A bas relief of a hefty phallus more than a foot and a half long has been discovered on the wall of a Roman-era structure at the archaeological site of El Higuerón in Nueva Carteya, a town 30 miles southeast of Córdoba, Spain. The symbol, which Romans believed warded off the evil eye, was carved into the front of a massive limestone cornerstone at the base of a tower-like structure. Its impressive endowment makes it one of the largest phalluses known from the Roman world — certainly the largest one measured and documented — which is saying a lot because the Roman world was bristling with phalluses.

Excavations were first carried out at El Higuerón between 1966 and 1968, revealing a walled Iberian town dating to the 5th century B.C. The Iberian settlement was destroyed by the Romans when they defeated Carthage and conquered the area at the conclusion of the Second Punic War in 206 B.C. They built a tall tower-like structure on top of the ruins.

The latest excavation began this month. The team’s goal is to clean the perimeter wall, which is the oldest remnant of the Iberian city, and to excavate the large tower building.

The team of archaeologists refer to the structure at El Higuerón as a “monumental Roman building” with perimeter walls six feet thick (1.8 meters) made of large limestone blocks. Underground storerooms for agricultural products have been discovered, along with various construction materials like fragments of stucco, Roman concrete (opus caementicium), black and white blocks, tiles and storage containers with lids. This year, the archaeologists are focused on excavating an access point through one of the facades to the tower, in addition to cleaning the perimeter wall, “which is one of the more massive features of the site,” according to [Director of the Historical Museum of Nueva Carteya Andrés] Roldán.

The building was abandoned by the Romans during the first century Flavian dynasty, and later renovated by the Moors during their Iberian reign. The Moors eliminated parts of the structure that that were not useful, such as the underground storerooms, and reinforced weak areas like the access door. When the Christians drove out the Moors in the 13th century, the building was abandoned and forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1960s.

In less than a month of excavations, archaeologists cleared the ancient wall thoroughly enough to reach the Iberian-era foundations. They also unearthed a lime floor inside the tower, a cobblestone floor just outside the tower and evidence of repeated alterations to the access point of the building from the original Roman door to the medieval one that is still extant today.

The site has been known since its rediscovery, but a smattering of walls amidst hills of olive trees did not draw much attention, positive or negative. Now that there’s a giant phallus in the picture, the curious, careless and greedy have come calling. Now the local police and Guarda Civil have had to secure the site, especially at night, to keep the archaeological remains safe.

The municipality of Nueva Carteya has acquired the land to ensure the long-term protection of the structure and its contexts. The ultimate aim is to create an open-air archaeological park accompanied by an on-site museum to display the artifacts recovered there.

New fibula types found in prehistoric graves in Bosnia

Wednesday, August 24th, 2022

An archaeological excavation of the Kopilo burial ground in central Bosnia has discovered new forms of jewelry in several Bronze Age graves.

Kopilo is a hilltop settlement about 40 miles west of Sarajevo that was founded around 1300 B.C. It was a farming community on a plateau 2000 feet above sea level and was occupied continuously for a thousand years. Skeletons of pigs, cattle and goats have been found indicating livestock breeding. The pre-Illyrian Bronze and Iron Age culture that settled the site was known for its network of fortified hilltop settlements and metallurgic skill, but its funerary practices were little known. The Kopilo site has been excavated since 2019, but until 2021, only two tombs had been found.

The settlement’s necropolis was finally discovered in 2021. This year the entire burial ground has been systematically excavated and documented. The tombs were built of stone surrounded by an outer ring of stone. Each contained two to five burials. The necropolis was in continuous use from the 11th to the 5th century B.C. Archaeologists have unearthed 46 graves containing the remains of 53 individuals. They were buried on their sides in the crouch burial position with legs and arms slightly bent. A small vessel was often buried at the head of the deceased. Early examinations of the osteological remains show a disproportionate number of young children indicating a high child mortality rate. Grave goods include pottery, bronze jewelry, glass beads and iron weapons.

The jewelry includes bronze fibulae in never-before-seen shapes. In addition to the new forms of jewelry now introduced for the first time, archaeologists also found some of the earliest worked iron objects in Bosnia, proving iron metallurgy was active at the site as early as the 9th-8th century B.C.

Burials include both cremations and inhumations, which is very unusual in Bronze Age Europe. There is also evidence that the bones were moved over time, likely when graves were reopened for later inhumations as there were a number of double and even triple burials.

The skeletal remains will be subjected to staple isotope analysis and ancient DNA analysis to determine any kinship relationships between the dead, where they were born and raised, what they ate and what diseases they suffered.

Bones of saint king of Hungary identified in ossuary jumble

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022

Archaeologists have identified the bones of Saint Ladislaus, 11th century King of Hungary, amidst a jumble of bones from more than 900 individuals, stored in an ossuary in Székesfehérvár, central Hungary. This makes him the only known saint to have relics that are scientifically confirmed as his osteological remains.

Now on the grounds of an early 20th century architectural fantasy dubbed Bory Castle, the ossuary was connected to the city’s basilica whose remains are open to castle visitors as the Medieval Ruin Garden. The basilica was the heart of the capital of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. Thirty-seven kings were crowned there and 15 of them buried there. The crown jewels of Hungary were kept there. The Holy Crown of Hungary was kept there. The literal throne of Hungary was kept there. The cathedral was pillaged by invading Ottoman forces in 1543 and the royal graves plundered. Only the tombs of King Béla III (r. 1172-1196) and his first queen consort, Anna of Antioch, were left undisturbed.

Researchers from the University of Szeged extracted DNA samples for 400 bone remains and compared them to DNA they had previously recovered from the remains of King Béla III. The DNA testing matched the bones of Saint King Ladislaus to those of his descendant from five generations later.

King Ladislaus I ruled Hungary from 1077 until his death in 1095. He was a warrior king, stabilizing a country riven by religious and political conflict in the wake of King Stephen I’s attempt to Christianize the kingdom in the beginning of the 11th century. He finished the job Stephen had started, forcibly suppressing traditional religious practices and firmly establishing Christianity as the sole religion of the realm. When he conquered Croatia, he did the same there.

A supporter of the Papacy in the Investiture Conflict between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, the King founded monasteries and churches, and directed the establishment and operation of bishoprics in all of his territories. He was getting ready to go on crusade when he died. For his efforts in spreading Christianity both at sword-point and as an effective administrator, he was canonized by Pope Celestine III in 1192. Because he was born and raised in Krakow after his father, King Bela I, was forced by a rebellion to flee Hungary, Ladislaus would become the patron saint of Poles living in Hungary.

The DNA study of the ossuary remains also revealed the bones of Andrew II of Hungary, son of Béla III and Anna of Antioch. They plan to identify even more Hungarian royals using a DNA sample from John Corvinus (1473-1504), natural son of King Matthias (1443-1490) and his mistress, and from the skull of Mary of Hungary, Queen of Naples (ca. 1257-1323).

The ultimate goal is to recover the bones of royal family members and rebury them in marked graves. A secondary goal is to make facial reconstructions of the kings of Hungary. All of the skulls recovered from the ossuary have been scanned for that purpose. Combined with DNA information on hair/eye color, the reconstructed faces will then be made available to view through VR devices.

Hiker finds Viking brooch from woman’s burial

Monday, August 22nd, 2022

A hiker camping in the Scandinavian Mountains of central Sweden discovered a Viking brooch from what is likely the first female burial from the Viking Age ever found in the Swedish mountains. Eskil Nyström was setting up his tent at a spot above the tree line last year when he found something sticking out of the soil. It was so clotted with earth at first he thought it was a mine, but when he removed the dirt around it he saw it was non-explosive artifact. A year passed before he brought it to the Jamtli regional museum in Östersund where experts identified it as a disc brooch from the 9th century.

Jamtli archaeologist Anders Hansson followed up right away and inspected the find site. There were no markers above ground, no stone cairns or burial mound, to pinpoint a grave. The metal detector signalled strongly, however, so Hansson dug a small hole. Just an inch below the surface, he found soot, burned bones and one more brooch.

These are the remains of a cremation burial from the Viking Age, and the two large brooches indicate it was a woman’s grave. She had been placed over a cold fire pit and covered with a thin layer of soil. Her body was cremated, leaving behind fragments of charred bone and the fibulae that pinned her garment at each shoulder.

“You get the feeling that these people were on their way somewhere when the woman died. The burial took place here, where the woman took her last breath. They could have taken the woman home where they lived, but instead, they make a cremation pit on the mountain,” Hansson told TT.

Hansson says the female Viking tomb is richly equipped.

“It’s really pretty. It is completely socially and religiously correct. The Viking woman took all her most precious objects to the grave, but there are no monuments, burial mounds, or cairns. It’s just flat hill. This grave is thus different compared to Viking graves in Iron Age settlements,” Hansson explained

Only five other Viking burials have been found in the mountains, all of them men. The find site of the woman’s grave is on a pilgrim’s path so even though it was a serious hike above the tree line, there was a religious incentive that might have spurred a woman of high status to sport two large, intricate fibulae while huffing and puffing up a mountain.

The grave will be thoroughly excavated next summer.

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