Archive for November, 2022

Peru mural that evaded looters’ clutches rediscovered

Wednesday, November 30th, 2022

Archaeologists have rediscovered a unique pre-Hispanic mural in Lambayeque, Peru, that was believed to have been destroyed by looters more than a century ago.

The mural was painted on the wall of a temple by the Lambayeque culture (900-1350 A.D.) a thousand or so years ago. A temple was known to exist at the site, but it was covered with dense foliage and had not been explored. At Easter in 1916, it was targeted by huaqueros, looters who dig up temples in Peru looking for saleable artifacts. At that time there was a “tradition” among huaqueros to celebrate Holy Week by sacking the temples of the “gentiles.” They didn’t come across any of the gold and silver artifacts they were hoping for in their looting tunnel, so they decided to just demolish a wall with a vividly colored mural they had exposed with their digging instead. They were stopped in the nick of time by authorities.

Ethnographer Heinrich Brüning, who took thousands of photos of Peruvian antiquities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lived in Lambayeque. When he heard of the new discovery, he photographed the mural and the temple, now dubbed Huaca Pintada after the mural. The thwarted looters decided to take their revenge and destroy the mural anyway. As far as anyone knew, the huaqueros had succeeded in their despicable aims and the only evidence of the mural remaining were Brüning’s pictures and field notebooks.

For a hundred years, those photos were all scholars had when studying the unique iconography of the Huaca Pintada mural. The temple is on private property and the owners did not allow excavations. The family had lived next to the huaca since the 19th century and considered it their duty to care for it. After the disaster with the looters, they were not keen to expose the ancient site any further. In 2018, Swiss archaeologist Sam Ghavami and his Peruvian colleague Christian Cancho managed to persuade the owner to allow them to perform the first archaeological excavation of Huaca Pintada. On October 11th of this year, the third season of digs, the team hit paydirt: a 100-foot wall painted in brilliant red, yellow, white, lucuma (an orangey yellow named after a Peruvian fruit), black, brown and blue.

It turns out the looters had only found a few panels of a far larger mural. It depicts a procession of warriors marching towards a deity with birdlike features. Above the procession is a river carrying fish to the valley. The style of the painting combines elements of the Lambayeque culture and its Moche (100-850 A.D.) ancestors, marking an important transitional phase in northern Peruvian art.

“It’s an exceptional discovery, first of all, because it is rare to unearth wall paintings of such quality in pre-Colombian archeology,” said Sam Ghavami, the Swiss archeologist who led excavations that uncovered the mural in October. […]

The painted images “appear to be inspired by the idea of a sacred hierarchy built around a cult of ancestors and their intimate links with the forces of nature,” said Ghavami.

Barn converted to baths found at Rutland Roman villa

Tuesday, November 29th, 2022

The excavation of the Roman villa in Rutland, East Midlands, where the spectacular (and spectacularly bloody) Trojan War mosaic was discovered in 2020, has unearthed a new surprise: a large barn that was converted into residential quarters complete with a three-room bath facility.

The Trojan War mosaic is one of the most important mosaic finds ever made in England and the site was immediately granted protected status. The mosaic itself has been reburied for its protection, but University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) in partnership with Historic England returned to the site this year to expand the excavation and learn more about the villa that houses such a unique example of ancient art from the waning days of Roman rule in England. The information and artifacts gathered will be essential to understanding the full context of the mosaic and ensuring its long-term preservation.

This year the ULAS team used data from a geophysical survey to plan an excavation strategy that would reveal different sections of the villa. They dug a series of trenches down the length of the site, unearthing a huge aisled building approximately 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. Originally a timber barn, the building was rebuilt in stone in the 3rd or 4th century and terraced into the hillside, protecting it from the elements. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of agricultural and industrial production on the eastern end of the building. The western end was a residential space. It was converted to this purpose at some point in its history, the open barn partitioned to create multiple rooms on multiple floors.

On the southern side of the building is a remarkable bath complex with caldarium (steam room), tepidarium (warm room) and frigidarium (cold pool). The tile stacks of the hypocaust underfloor heating are still present, and are also in situ at the base of the walls, meaning that this complex didn’t just have heated floor and pools, but heated walls too. There’s even the base of a water tank attached to the exterior walls, likely a rainwater catchment system collected from the roof of the building.

This year’s excavation also returned to the triclinium, the dining room where the Trojan War mosaic was found in the main building of the villa. The team was able to discover the cause of a slump of the floor on the long side of the room: an old boundary ditch. The villa was built over it and subsidence of the soil caused the floor to sink. Pottery found inside the ditch dates it to the 2nd century, an indication of the age of the site. The excavation revealed that the main building was also a conversion. It too began as an aisled building that was later added to in stages. The triclinium was one of those additions.

The dining room had been built as an extension to the main villa, suggesting that the owners wanted a special area for feasting as they gazed over the Iliad mosaic.

The new excavations also revealed additional mosaics in the corridors leading to the dining room, including one with a kaleidoscopic geometric design.

John Thomas, the deputy director of the University of Leicester archaeological service, said: “It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this Roman villa complex to our understanding of life in late Roman Britain. While previous excavations of individual buildings, or smaller-scale villas, have given us a snapshot, this discovery in Rutland is much more complete and provides a clearer picture of the whole complex.

Original polychrome paint found on Duomo sculptures

Monday, November 28th, 2022

Restoration of the marble reliefs on the north façade of the Duomo of Florence has revealed original polychrome paint on an exterior sculpture of Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels. The sculptures date to 1359-1360 and are mounted in an arched niche above the Porta dei Cornacchini, the door in the north wall of the cathedral. While the marble in the background is colorful — the Duomo is famous for the white, pink and green marble cladding that gives the cathedral its distinctive look — the sculptures themselves were previously believed to have been left the natural white of the marble.

The marbles of the north façade were in dire need of conservation, having suffered extensive erosion from rainwater runoff, deposits of surface dirt, black sulfurous encrustations and bird poop galore. Since restoration work began in September 2021, experts from the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore have cleaned more than 10,000 square feet of marble. The process revealed extensive traces of the paint, including the brown iris of Mary’s left eye, the blue-green color inside her mantle, red on the outside of her mantle and a rich damask pattern on the garment worn by the Christ Child. This is the first time such large sections of polychrome paint have been found on an exterior sculpture of the Duomo. Previous finds were just tiny glimpses — a few dabs of gilding and light blue on other sculptures.

Earlier attempts at restoration did more harm than good to the original colors. A coating of brown oxalate applied directly to the surface of the marble in the 1950s has darkened over the decades, obscuring the traces surviving paint. Conservators removed the layer of fluorosilicate over the oxalate, but decided to keep the oxalate in place because it protects the surface of the marble even as it darkens it.

The museum has said that this sculpture group was most likely not the only one on the Duomo in polychrome, though now they appear to be marble white.

The find has led to the image of the Duomo as one in color, with white, green, and pink on the exteriors and red and gold mosaics on the facade.

“The exciting find of multiple colors of the figures on Porta dei Cornacchini of the Florence cathedral,” said Duomo museum director Timothy Verdon. “It reminds us that Florence at the end of the 14th century and beginning of the 15th was a very colourful city. The cathedral also had painted statues with gilding on the wings of angels and on clothing – thus, a celebration. A celebration that we forgot and are beginning to rediscover.”

See the conservators at work cleaning decades of filth off the sculpture in this video:

 

Gold disc brooch found in 7th c. Basel grave

Sunday, November 27th, 2022

An excavation of the Kleinbasel neighborhood of Basel, Switzerland, has brought to light 15 graves, some of them richly furnished, from an early medieval burial ground. The presence of a burial ground from this period had been known since the 19th century, so a rescue archaeology excavation was undertaken in the area before installation of new utility pipes. Earlier this year the excavation unearthed the 6th century grave of a young girl buried with a dazzling array of about 380 beads. The recent discoveries prove that the cemetery was more densely populated than archaeologists realized.

One of the highlights of the newly-discovered graves is that of an elite young woman who was about 20 years old when she died in the 7th century. The grave was damaged during construction in the early 20th century. The skull is lost, as is the body below the knees, but the riches she was buried with remain. The grave contained a rare gold disc brooch made of a base plate made of a non-ferrous metal that was then topped with gold. The disc was then adorned with gold wire filigree and inlayed with green garnet gemstones and blue glass. The brooch likely held together a cloak, now gone, at her neck. She was also wearing a necklace made of 160 glass, amethyst and amber beads (or had them sewn onto the collar or bodice of her garment). There was also a leather strap decorated with metal crosses that terminates in a large amber pendant. Around her waist was a belt with an iron buckle and a silver tongue. Hanging from the belt was a chatelaine with pierced Roman coins, metal artifacts and a bone comb.

Other notable graves found in the current excavation include a child’s grave containing a large silver inlay belt buckle, metal belt fittings, scissors and a comb, and a stone cist grave containing the skeleton of an adult man. The man’s face bears the unmistakable evidence of violent blow from a sword. Amazingly, the man survived the disfiguring injury as he died after it was fully healed.

Basel was founded as a Celtic oppidium, or fortified settlement, in the 1st century B.C. The Romans built a military camp on the site of the settlement and by the end of the 1st century A.D., it was absorbed into the Roman province of Germania Superior. Roman control weakened in the 3rd century, but the troops along the Rhine managed to repel invasions from the Germanic Alemanni confederation several times in the 4th century. The Alemanni finally won around 406 A.D., settling throughout the Swiss Plateau. They and the Franks after them occupied the old Roman castle and the town’s fortunes were revived. It was minting its own coins in the 7th century and was made a bishopric in the 8th. The Roman castle was converted into Basel’s first cathedral. What is today the Kleinbasel area was the castle/cathedral hill, the nucleus of the early medieval settlement.

Healthy snacks, grilled meats at Colosseum tailgates

Saturday, November 26th, 2022

An excavation of the Colosseum’s sewer systems has revealed the ancient Roman versions of Cracker Jacks and ballpark franks and it’s melon and mutton. The study aims to learn more about how the ancient sewer and hydraulic systems operated under the Flavian Amphitheater with a particular focus on solving the mystery of how the underground was flooded during water spectacles. In January 2021, wire-guided robots were sent to video record and laser scan the drains and sewers under the arena. A year later, a stratigraphic excavation of the south collector of the sewer network began, clearing 230 feet of muck that contained archaeological treasure in the form of ancient garbage.

Sewers are often constipated with archaeological material from the very bowels of daily life in the ancient city, and the sewers under the Colosseum contain a unique variety of organic remains left by both the spectacles and the spectators. The excavation of the south collector brought in a rich harvest: the discarded remains of chestnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, figs, peach pits, plum pits, cherry pits, olive pits, blackberries, elderberries, melon seeds and grape seeds, evidence of the snacks consumed by the audience in the bleachers during the games. They didn’t just have snacks in the stands. It seems spectators rigged up braziers so they could grill up some meat, mostly pork and mutton, as they watched people and animals being butchered for sport.

Remains of animals who starred in the games were found as well. There were bones of bears of different sizes, possibly used in acrobatic displays, lions, leopards, ostriches and deer, likely used in the venationes (staged animal hunts). There were also dogs of different sizes. The smallest was less than a foot in height, but stocky and strong, a predecessor of the dachshund. Remains of plants that grew in the Colosseum showed a wide degree of biodiversity, ranging from blackberries to boxwoods and laurels. Some of the plants were spontaneous growth (the international animal and human feces spread led to hundreds if not thousands of different non-native plants taking root in the Colosseum); the evergreens were probably deliberately planted for landscaping.

The excavation also recovered artifacts. As you would find under the sewer grates of the sports arena today, there’s a lot of spare change down there. Archaeologists unearthed 53 bronze coins from the Late Imperial era, and a rare orichalcum sestertius struck in 170-171 A.D. to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the ascension of Marcus Aurelius to the imperial throne. Personal objects found include bone game dice, a bone pin and clothing elements (shoe nails, leather, studs).

I can’t embed this video from the Facebook page of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum, but do yourself a favor and follow the link because it shows urban spelunkers from the organization Roma Sotterranea (Underground Rome) exploring the sewer, squeezing through uncomfortably tight, mucky spaces and pointing out the brick stamps inscribed with the names of the makers which identify the period when that stretch of construction or repairs was done.

Celtic gold hoard coin stolen in museum heist

Friday, November 25th, 2022

A hoard of Celtic gold coins from the 1st century B.C. was stolen in a daring smash-and-grab burglary from the Celtic and Roman Museum in Manching, southern Germany. Thieves made away with 483 coins in the early hours of Tuesday, November 22, and Bavaria’s State Criminal Police Office have launched an international investigation to find the perpetrators and the treasure they stole.

At 1:17 AM, several fiber optic lines were cut at a telecom hub a kilometer away from the museum, severing internet and telephone service to 13,000 homes and businesses in Manching, including at the Celtic and Roman Museum. This also cut off the alarm linking the museum’s security system to the police. Exactly nine minutes later at 1:26 AM, an emergency exit at the museum was pried open and two display cases made of bulletproof safety glass were broken into. At 1:33 AM, the thieves disappeared into the night with the entire hoard of gold coins. Nobody noticed the loss until the museum staff arrived for the work day. Police were alerted and arrived around 9:45 AM.

The largest Celtic gold find to appear in the 20th century, the hoard was discovered in 1999 years ago at the site of an ancient Celtic settlement in Manching. Found in a sack buried under the foundations of a building, the bowl-shaped coins were struck from Bohemian river gold, evidence of how Iron Age Manching was connected to trade networks in central Europe.

It has been on display at the museum since 2006 and is its flagship attraction. The authorities fear that in its original form, the coin hoard will be impossible for the thieves to sell, and that even though their historical value tops 1.6 million euros, the coins will be melted down to sell for their mere gold value. Each coins weighs 7.3 grams for a total hoard weight of about four kilos, which at current prices would be worth about 250,000 euros.

Because of the delay in discovery of the theft, police missed crucial hours of investigations. There are now dozens of investigators working on the case.

Broken safety glass of the display cabinets where the treasure was held. Photo courtesy Frank Maechler/dpa.[Guido Limmer, the deputy head of Bavaria’s State Criminal Police Office] said there were “parallels” between the heist in Manching and the theft of priceless jewels in Dresden and a large gold coin in Berlin in recent years. Both have been blamed on a Berlin-based crime family.

“Whether there’s a link we can’t say,” he added. “Only this much: we are in touch with colleagues to investigate all possible angles.”

Bavaria’s minister of science and arts, Markus Blume, said evidence pointed to the work of professionals.

“It’s clear that you don’t simply march into a museum and take this treasure with you,” he told public broadcaster BR. “It’s highly secured and as such there’s a suspicion that we’re rather dealing with a case of organized crime.” […]

Limmer, the deputy police chief, said Interpol and Europol have already been alerted to the coins’ theft and a 20-strong special investigations unit, codenamed ‘Oppidum’ after the Latin term for a Celtic settlement, has been established to track down the culprits.

Many happy turkey returns!

Thursday, November 24th, 2022

I am taking the day off for feasting purposes. May you derive as much enjoyment as I from being elbow-deep in the cavity of a large bird. Happy Thanksgiving!

Coins with only mention of Roman “emperor” authenticated

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2022

Coins that are the only evidence of the historicity of the otherwise unrecorded Roman so-called emperor Sponsian have been found to be authentic 3rd century issues. The history of these coins is sketchy and there are some stylistic anomalies that have cast doubt on their authenticity since they first emerged in 1713. Plus, they portray an alleged emperor that appears nowhere else on the historical or archaeological record.

The coins were first documented by Carl Gustav Heraeus (1671–1725), Inspector of Medals for the Imperial Collection in Vienna, in March of 1713. He recorded the acquisition of eight coins found in Transylvania. Another 15 coins that match Heraeus’ description came to light starting in 1730, and scholars believe they were part of a wider assemblage that was sold to a number of different collections over the years, including The Hunterian museum at the University of Glasgow.

Among the four coins from the wider assemblage now in the collection of The Hunterian is one featuring the unknown “emperor” Sponsian. It is designed in the style of coins from the mid third century, but the design on the reverse is a copy of a Republican-era silver coin from the 1st century B.C. That reverse design would have been close to 400 years old when the Sponsian coin was made. That and other atypical features of the wider assemblage coins have led scholars to peg them as fakes, perhaps the work of a talented forger working in early 18th century Vienna who duped Heraeus.

A new study published in the journal PLoS ONE took a closer look at the Sponsian coin in The Hunterian using modern imaging techniques to detect evidence of forgery like artificial aging methods. The surface scratches and wear and tear on the coin could have been created by forgers abrading the coin, but earthen deposits were found on the coin, and forgers do not customarily cram or glue dirt onto their fakes.

They applied visible light microscopy, ultra-violet imaging, scanning electron microscopy, and reflection mode Fourier transform infra-red spectroscopy to the four coins and, for comparison, two undoubtedly authentic Roman gold coins.

The analysis revealed deep micro-abrasion patterns typically associated with coins that were in circulation for an extensive period of time. The researchers also analyzed earthen deposits on the coins, finding evidence that after extensive circulation, the coins were buried for a prolonged period before being exhumed. Together, the new evidence strongly suggests the coins are authentic.

Considering the historical record alongside the new evidence from the coins, the researchers suggest that Sponsian was an army commander in the Roman Province of Dacia during a period of military strife in the 260s CE.

So he wasn’t exactly a Roman emperor in the typical sense of the term. He was a local ruler of a relatively remote Roman province that happened to be a gold mining outpost, giving him access to the raw material for minting his own gold coins while the chaos of invasions distracted the legitimate emperors, such as they were during the Crisis of the Third Century.

1,700-year-old spider monkey found in Teotihuacan

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2022

Photograph of skeletal remains of sacrificed eagle (left) and spider monkey (right). Photo courtesy the Project Plaza of the Columns Complex.The remains of a spider monkey have been discovered in the pre-Hispanic central ceremonial complex of Teotihuacan, Mexico. Spider monkeys were exotic animals not native to the arid highlands of Central Mexico, and this one was likely a diplomatic gift from Teotihuacan’s Maya neighbors. Radiocarbon dated to the second half of the 3rd century A.D., the spider monkey is the earliest example of a primate in captivity in the Americas, and the first evidence of gift diplomacy between Teotihuacan and the Maya city-states in the Early Classic period (250-550 A.D.).

Located about 25 miles northeast of what is now Mexico City, Teotihuacan was a religious, cultural and commercial center in the Mexican Highlands from the 1st century until its collapse around 500 A.D. At its peak in 450 A.D., it was the largest and most populous city in the ancient Americas with a conservative population estimate of 150,000. Half of the people in the Valley of Mexico lived in Teotihuacan.

It was not ruled by dynastic kings like the Maya polities. We don’t really know what form of government ran Teotihuacan, but we know it had powerful warlords because in the late 4th century, one of them conquered the Maya power center of Tikal 600 miles away. Maya inscriptions record Teotihuacan contact with the Mayan world reached as far as Honduras, perhaps even conquering city-states there, and certainly spreading its cultural presence, notably its characteristic obsidian crafts and architectural styles.

The complete skeleton of the spider monkey was unearthed at the Plaza of Columns Complex of Teotihuacan. It is a sacrificial offering deposited at the temple with its hands tied behind its back and feet tethered together. This type of binding was common among human and animal sacrifice victims buried alive. Next to it were found the complete skeletal remains of a golden eagle, the skull of a puma, several rattlesnakes and ritual objects (greenstone figurines, shell artifacts, obsidian blades). The monkey was female and between five and eight years old at the time of death. Analysis of the remains found that it was captured before the age of three and lived in captivity for more than two years after that. It ate a diet of maize, arrowroot and chili pepper, all of which had to have been prepared for it by humans. Before its arrival in Teotihuacan, it lived in a humid environment and ate plants and roots.

This finding allows researchers to piece evidence of high diplomacy interactions and debunks previous beliefs that Maya presence in Teotihuacán was restricted to migrant communities, said [anthropological archaeologist Nawa] Sugiyama, who led the research.

“Teotihuacán attracted people from all over, it was a place where people came to exchange goods, property, and ideas. It was a place of innovation,” said Sugiyama, who is collaborating with other researchers, including Professor Saburo Sugiyama, co-director of the project and a professor at Arizona State University, and Courtney A. Hofman, a molecular anthropologist with the University of Oklahoma. “Finding the spider monkey has allowed us to discover reassigned connections between Teotihuacán and Maya leaders. The spider monkey brought to life this dynamic space, depicted in the mural art. It’s exciting to reconstruct this live history.”

The find has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be read in its entirety here.

How to move a quarter ton of Renaissance masterpiece

Monday, November 21st, 2022

London’s National Gallery recently moved a monumental altarpiece by Renaissance master Filippino Lippi. It is 6’8″ high, 6’1″ wide and weighs 526 pounds, so this was no easy feat. The team captured it on video to give people a glimpse of the complex systems and technologies requires to handle fragile works of this scale.

The altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Christ while Saint Jerome and Saint Dominic kneel at her feet. The setting is a hilly, verdant landscape. A lion fights off a bear on the left. On the right is a small church. Tiny figures of a man and donkey in the center background may be a reference to the family’s Flight into Egypt.

The tempera painting on poplar panel originally stood in the church of San Pancrazio in Florence. It was commissioned by the Rucellai family, wealthy Florentine wool merchants, around 1485 who installed it in the chapel adjacent to their personal funerary chapel. During the Napoleonic suppression of the churches in the early 19th century, the altarpiece was removed from the former church (San Pancrazio was made the seat of the city lottery in 1808) and returned to the Rucellai family who had originally commissioned it. They sold it to the National Gallery in 1857.

The National Gallery moved the altarpiece from Room 59 to Room 11 earlier this year. Room 11 is smaller and octagonal, which makes maneuvering the space challenging, but even removing it from the long, wide wall of Room 59 posed enormous risks. Thankfully the National Gallery’s staff is up to the task, having custom-designed mechanical aids capable of moving so large, heavy and priceless an artwork. These sorts of devices aren’t available at Lowe’s. As Thomas Hemming of the museum’s Art Handling Team puts it in the video, “Everything’s very bespoke because it’s a very niche kind of requirement to move pictures.”

Thanks to these custom rigs, paintings of all sizes can be moved quickly and securely through the building to a new location, and temporarily stored before they are reinstalled. It is very cool to see them at work.

Navigation

Search

Archives

November 2022
S M T W T F S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication