2,000-year-old luxury Roman villa found in Bavaria

The remains of a 2,000-year-old luxury Roman villa have been discovered in Kempten, Bavaria. Located on the western end of the ancient city near the temple district, the most desirable part of town, the domus was large, at least 8,600 square feet over two stories. It had screed floors, frescoed walls and private hot baths complete with underfloor hypocaust heating.

The most exciting thing about the finds for the archaeologists: They belonged to private stone houses. “You won’t find such private buildings in stone anywhere in southern Germany at this early time – at the beginning of the first century,” says Johannes Schiessl from the city archeology department of Kempten. That means: while elsewhere the Roman settlers still lived in wooden and clay buildings, the high society in Cambodunum apparently already resided in chic brick town houses.

What is today Kempten was founded as Cambodunum on the site of a Celtic settlement destroyed by the forces of Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus (father of the Germanicus usually associated with that cognomen) and his brother Tiberius in 15 B.C. In the first decade of the new millennium, the city of Cambodunum was built according to the typical Roman grid plan with major public buildings including baths, temples and a forum. It was the administrative center of the region and the seat of the Roman governor of the Roman province of Raetia. Cambodunum remained the capital of the province until 120 A.D. when Augsburg, aka the Roman colony of Augusta Vindelicum, was given the role.

Cambodunum is the oldest German city mentioned in writing, and the discovery of the luxury private domus underscores that the Romanization of Bavaria, the development of an urban culture mirroring Rome’s, began in Kempten. It also proves that the early city, which was believed to have been built largely out of wood, utilized high-quality stone and brick architecture for important civic structures and the homes of the wealthy.

The finds will be thoroughly documented and then reburied for their own protection. The ultimate goal, however, is to preserve the remains in situ for exhibition as part of the Cambodunum Archaeological Park, the largest Roman archaeological park in southern Germany and the only one with a Gallo-Roman temple complex that includes full-scale replicas of the ancient buildings.

Archaeological society snipes 1,700-piece Anglo-Saxon collection before auction

A collection of more than 1,700 Anglo-Saxon artifacts dating to the 6th and 7th century A.D. has been acquired by the Kent Archaeological Society just before it was to sold at public auction last Friday. The Ozengell Anglo-Saxon Collection includes a wide array of jewelry, buckles, weapons fittings, glassware and pottery found in excavations of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground near Ramsgate in Kent.

The first Anglo-Saxon artifacts were found at the site in 1846 during railroad construction. Many of those objects are now in museums including the World Museum in Liverpool and the British Museum. The objects amassed in the collection were unearthed from 192 graves at the Ozengell Anglo-Saxon cemetery between 1977 and 1981.

Some of the stand-out pieces of the collection include a gilt-silver disc brooch set with three wedge-shaped garnets, large numbers of amber and glass beads, a hemispherical glass bowl and two glass globular bottles with narrow necks, a pottery urn decorated with a linear pattern, another decorated with triangles and stippling, a circular incense vessel, copper, bronze and gilt-silver buckles, iron shield bosses, knives and a pair of tweezers with incised decoration. The collection was loaned to The Powell-Cotton Museum from 1983 through 2010. Only a selection of the massive collection was ever displayed.

After the Ozengell Collection was returned to the owner, he sold four glass pieces from the collection at auction in 2011. Eleven years later, 50 boxes full of the remaining 1,700 pieces were offered in a single auction lot at Roseberys in London with a pre-sale estimate of just £12,000-15,000 ($14,000-17,000). Before the hammer could fall, however, a private sale was arranged to the Kent Archaeological Society. It complements and augments the society’s nationally important collection of Anglo-Saxon grave goods. Selected objects will go on display in concert with artifacts from the Kent Archaeological Society’s wider collection.

Roman gold coin, 1 of only 2 known, for sale

An exceptionally rare gold medallion issued by the emperor Maxentius around 308 A.D. that is one of only two known surviving in the world will be sold at auction next week. It is a quaternio, meaning a single gold coin worth four aurei, although of course it was not intended for circulation. It was a commemorative issue for Maxentius to celebrate his reconstruction of the Temple of Venus and Roma in the Eternal City.

The Templum Veneris et Romae was a double temple dedicated to the goddess Venus Felix, mother of Aeneas and through him of the Roman people, and to Roma Aeterna, the deity who was the personification of the city and larger state. The temple was constructed by Emperor Hadrian in 135 A.D., but he didn’t just order it built. He fancied himself something of a draftsman/architect and he personally designed the plans for this temple. They were not universally acclaimed, to put it mildly, and when Trajan’s revered architect Apollodorus of Damascus voiced his objections to Hadrian’s plan, the emperor had him executed and built it the way he wanted.

Here’s Cassius Dio’s account (Roman History, LXIX.4) of their animosity and its fatal conclusion:

[T]he true reason was that once when Trajan was consulting him on some point about the buildings he [Apollodorus] had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted with some remark: “Be off, and draw your gourds. You don’t understand any of these matters.” (It chanced that Hadrian at the time was pluming himself upon some such drawing.) When he became emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man’s freedom of speech. He sent him the plan of the temple of Venus and Roma by way of showing him that a great work could be accomplished without his aid, and asked Apollodorus whether the proposed structure was satisfactory. The architect in his reply stated, first, in regard to the temple, that it ought to have been built on high ground and that the earth should have been excavated beneath it, so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position, and might also have accommodated the machines in its basement, so that they could be put together unobserved and brought into the theatre without anyone’s being aware of them beforehand. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella. “For now,” he said, “if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so.” When he wrote this so bluntly to Hadrian, the emperor was both vexed and exceedingly grieved because he had fallen into a mistake that could not be righted, and he restrained neither his anger nor his grief, but slew the man.

The temple was huge, built on a platform 475 feet long and 330 feet wide along the Sacred Way on the slopes of the Velia hill next to the Colosseum. More than 100 feet high, it was the largest temple in the city and for centuries one of the most important shrines in the empire. Construction of the temple is what spurred the removal of the colossal statue of Nero, which gave the Flavian Amphitheater its nickname. (The machinery Apollodorus talks about being stored in the temple were the apparatuses used in the spectacles at the amphitheater.) Hadrian took a non-standard approach to temple design, placing the cellae (the rooms where the images of the goddesses dwelled) back-to-back instead of side-by-side. This was a bit of an anagram pun on Hadrian’s part. AMOR (love) is ROMA spelled backwards.

When the temple was heavily damaged in a fire in 307 A.D., Maxentius rebuilt it. He did not follow in Hadrian’s architectural footprints, but instead had it reconstructed in the apdsidal form with vaulted ceilings that was typical of early 4th century Rome. He replaced the burned wooden ceiling with a stone coffered vault and doubled the thickness of the walls to support it. He also redid the cellae so they conformed to the classical design that Hadrian had eschewed. Most of the temple was destroyed in an earthquake in the 9th century and the church built in the ruins, but the remains of the cella and vaulted apse still stand today.

Maxentius made this project the cornerstone of his imperial identity. For four years, the rest of his reign until his death in battle against Constantine in 312 A.D., he struck widely circulated bronze and silver coins depicting himself on the obverse and the goddess Roma sitting in a hexastyle temple on the reverse. The inscription on the reverse, CONSERVATOR VRBIS SVAE, means “preserver of his city,” and Maxentius certainly strove to earn the title. He poured money into the renewal of Rome, restoring old public buildings and constructing new ones.

In addition to the circulating coins, the emperor had special issue ultra-valuable, ultra-fine commemorative gold medallions made conveying the same sentiment. The one coming up for auction features the bare head of Maxentius facing left on the obverse, and Roma seated on a shield decorated with the she-wolf and twins Romulus and Remus. A winged Victory stands on a globe in Roma’s hand. The pre-sale estimate is $100,000 – $200,000, but it could well go much higher. An even finer issue of an eight-aurei medallion featuring Maxentius on the reverse as well, holding a scepter and receiving a globe from Roma, set a new world record for Roman gold coins when it sold at auction for $1.4 million in 2011.

Maxentius would be the last emperor to live in Rome, but his dedication to the physical fabric of the city was forgotten, largely by design of his successor. Constantine issued a damnatio memoriae decree against Maxentius, destroying all public references to him, including the inscriptions on the buildings he had restored or constructed. Constantine took all the credit for them instead, propped up by Christian writers villainizing his former rival as a tyrannical brute and lionizing Constantine, who built a new capital a thousand miles away and named it after himself, as Rome’s reviver.

Byzantine shopping, dining district found in Ephesus

In the ancient city of Ephesus on what is today the west coast of Turkey, archaeologists have discovered an early Byzantine business and dining district that met a sudden violent end in 614/615 A.D. A thick fire layer points to the means of its demise. That layer is also responsible for the preservation of the contents of the rooms, providing a unique snapshot of the shops and pubs of Byzantine Ephesus.

The Ephesus area has been settled since the 7th millennium B.C., and the Greek city was built by colonists in the 10th century B.C. It thrived as a center of commerce and was one the most important and populous cities of Roman Asia Minor. It was also a center of the Early Christian church from the mid-1st century. Under Byzantine rule, Ephesus was second in importance only to Constantinople. The city’s fortunes took a heavy hit from invading Goths (263 A.D.), the silting over of its Aegean harbor in the 7th century, several sackings by Arabic forces and the Seljuk Turks. By the time it was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1425, Ephesus was a sleepy village, soon to be abandoned.

While its existence was locally known (its ancient buildings were a ready source of stone for building and grinding into lime powder), systematic archaeological excavations of ancient Ephesus were not undertaken until the late 19th century. The Austrian Archaeological Institute has been excavating ancient Ephesus since 1898 (with the occasional pause for world wars, diplomatic tensions and pandemics).

The business district was discovered in an excavation of Domitian’s Square near the Upper Agora, the Greek and Roman city’s civic center. In late antiquity, the large Roman square had been partially built over with workshops, stores and purveyors of food and drink. So far, one smaller building covering an area of about 1830 square feet has been uncovered. That one building contained a cooking shop, a storage room, a tavern, a store selling terracotta lamps and Christian pilgrimage trinkets with its associated workshop and sales room. They were all doing gangbusters when disaster struck, because beneath the burn layer was an incredible profusion of objects, including thousands of pieces of crockery, food remains and coins. About 600 pilgrim bottles — small ampules for sacred relics that were perforated to be worn as pendants — have been found in the workshop, a discovery without precedent on the archaeological record.

The storage room was filled with vessels, many of them still with the remains of their original contents like cockles, oysters, salted mackerel, peaches, almonds, olives and pulses. There were sets of small pitchers and cups, used to serve customers in the adjoining tavern. Objects were pancaked on top of each other where they fell from their shelves, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the shelves and what they held before the collapse. Also inside the storage room were more than 500 bronze coins found together in a single group. These are either the savings or the cash in the register of one of the businesses. Most of the coins date to the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Phocas (602-610). The most recent coin in the hoard dates to 614/5 A.D., the reign of the Emperor Heraclius.

The date range of the coins is strong evidence that the event that destroyed the shopping and dining district of Byzantine-era Ephesus took place in 614 or 615.

“The archaeological findings show us a massive fire destruction that must have been sudden, dramatic and momentous,” explains [OeAW archaeologist] Sabine Ladstätter. “It will no longer be possible to determine the exact day of the destruction, but the evaluation of the fruits found will at least clarify the season.” Was it an earthquake? There is no evidence of this. The walls are neither shifted nor are the floors arched. No human remains were recovered either.

However, a number of arrow and lance tips were found, which provide evidence of a military conflict. It is fitting that coins found around the same time in the Turkish city of Sardis, around 100 kilometers from Ephesos, also indicate destruction. These were previously associated with incursions by the Persian Sasanids into western Asia Minor, but this has so far been controversial in research.

The new finds at Domitian’s Square could now solve a riddle of the history of the city of Ephesus. Ladstätter: “Although it has been possible to observe archaeologically up until now that the city drastically decreased in size in the 7th century and the standard of living had dropped significantly, the reasons for this were not clear.” than in previous centuries. “This turning point in the history of the city of Ephesos will probably have to be linked to the Sasanian Wars,” says the OeAW archaeologist.

Pilgrim bottle. Photo: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail.

Viking unhacked silver hoard found in Sweden

Sweden sees Norway’s Viking hack silver hoard and raises with a Viking hoard of silver jewelry and coins in pristine unhacked condition. The hoard was discovered in an excavation of the Viking settlement of Täby, outside Stockholm. It was cached under the wooden floor of one of the Viking Age (800-1050 A.D.) houses about 1,000 years ago.


The hoard consists of eight torc-style braided neck rings in exceptionally good condition, two arm rings, one finger ring, two beads and 12 coins perforated for use as pendants, 11 of them mounted with hanging loops. The coins had been placed in a linen pouch which was then added to the jewelry in a small ceramic pot. Fragments of the linen pouch have survived, giving archaeologists a rare opportunity to study an organic material.

“When I started to carefully remove the neck rings one by one, I had this extraordinary feeling of “they just keep coming and coming”. In total there were eight high quality torque-style neck rings, extraordinary well preserved despite having been made and deposited almost a thousand years ago. They looked almost completely new,” [archaeologist] Maria Lingström says. […]

The coins are a perfect example of the far-reaching connections and blossoming trade, which flourished in Viking Age Scandinavia. Several coins are of European origin, representing countries as England, Bohemia and Bavaria. In addition, the treasure consisted of five Arabic coins, so called dirhams. One of the European coins is extremely rare and was minted in the city of Rouen, in Normandy, France. It dates to approximately the 10th Century AD. According to Professor Jens Christian Moesgaard at Stockholm University, this type of coin has previously ever been identified from drawings in an 18th century book.

Here is a very cool video of the first neck ring being carefully loosened and removed from the ground. It’s rare to see these moments of an archaeological dig filmed and shared, for some inexplicable reason, even though it’s total popcorn material.