Roman ship discovered off Croatian coast

A 2,000-year-old Roman wooden boat has been discovered in the shallow waters of the Adriatic off the coast of central Croatia. The boat is about 10 feet wide and so far marine archaeologists have uncovered about 30 feet of its length. The edges of the boat have been ravaged by shipworms, but the bulk of the hull has survived in good condition, preserved under layers of sand.

The wreck was found in 2021 when maritime archaeologists spotted Roman coins on the seabed next to a single wooden board. They returned to the site this year and excavated the find site, revealing the hull. It was less than seven feet under the surface of the water, buried among the remains of the Roman port town of Barbir.

“The ancient port of Barbir near Sukošan was discovered in 1973, and for a long time it was documented only on the surface, thanks to research by archaeologist Boris Ilakovac. In 2017, new, more serious work began in the area, in parallel with the research on a Roman villa on the mainland, which was significantly damaged due to modern construction. Luckily, part of the site under the sea is well preserved,” said [Mladen Pešić, director of the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar] who is also the head of this extensive research project.

Since excavations resumed five years ago, archaeologists have focused on the Roman pier, some of which is still visible above the water today. The team discovered that the pier was built in two phases: in the 1st century A.D. and then extended in the 4th century.

The vessel has been labelled and documented, but the work is not finished yet. The team will return to the site next year and continue to excavate the boat. Meanwhile, they have released some beautifully clear video of the work they did underwater. It’s not often you get to see marine archaeologists go about their business in ideal visibility conditions.

Update: Maxentius coin sells for $312,000

The gold quaternio struck by the emperor Maxentius around 308 A.D. to celebrate himself for rebuilding the Temple of Venus and Roma in Rome sold at auction on November 2nd for $312,000, well above its pre-sale estimate of $100,000 – $200,000.

Another Roman gold medallion minted for a less virtue-signaling purpose also sold at the same coin auction. It is an eight aurei medallion, so a single gold coin weighing eight times the amount of a circulation aureus, but it sold for $63,000, a fifth of the price of the quaternio. It was minted in Milan in 268 A.D. by a brand-new emperor, Claudius II. His predecessor Gallienus had been assassinated by one of his officers while besieging Milan to quash yet another attempted usurpation. The troops then acclaimed Claudius emperor.

There were rumors that Claudius was in on the assassination, but if so, he was unusually kind to the allies and family of the man he killed to snatch his throne. He spared Gallenius’ supporters from reprisals and focused instead on fighting the Gothic invasion of Rome’s Balkan provinces. To accomplish his military goals, Claudius had to ensure the loyalty of the army. The best way to accomplish that, established by centuries of tradition at this pont, was to buy it. The price to buy off the officers was 10 gold aurei each, an enormous sum. The highest-ranking and most influential officers received their bribes in the form of these gigantic gold medallions.

The eight-aurei medallion of Claudius II features the laureate cuirassed bust of the emperor on the obverse and the goddess Concordia holding the standards of the legions on the reverse. The inscription on the reverse reads CORCORDIA EXERCITVS, ie, “harmony in the army,” because that was exactly what he was buying. Claudius was famous for his strength as a wrestler and in hand-to-hand combat. He once reputedly punched a horse in the face and knocked out its teeth. He was a direct man, to put it mildly, and called them as he saw them even on his giant bribe coins.

It worked, though. In 270, Claudius led the army to a massive victory over the Goths at the Battle of Naissus in modern-day Serbia. He was granted a triumph and the cognomen Gothicus. He didn’t get to enjoy either, but not because of treachery among the officer staff. Plague took his life before the bloom was off the rose. He was immediately deified and heavily mourned in spite of (or perhaps because of) his all-too-brief reign.

Largest group of ancient bronzes in Italy found at sacred baths

A group of 24 bronze statues in exceptional condition have been discovered in the excavation of the ancient sacred baths at San Casciano dei Bagni near Siena. They date to between the 2nd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., making this the largest store of bronze statuary from ancient Italy ever found. It is so significant a find that it is comparable, according to Director General of Museums Massimo Osanna, to the sensational discovery of the pair of 5th century B.C. bronze warriors off the coast of Riace in 1972.

The hot springs and mineral waters of San Casciano dei Bagni were believed to cure all manner of illnesses and conditions via the intervention of deities versed in the medical arts, like Hygieia (goddess of health), Apollo (god of healing and diseases) and Asclepius (god of health). By bathing in the hot springs, the devout believed they were in direct contact with the gods. Those who could afford to, left figurines of bronze and terracotta representing an ailing body part, or offerings of shiny new coins struck at the sanctuary’s official mint. More than 6,000 coins have been recovered already.

The Etruscans built the first sanctuary at the site at least as early as the 3rd century B.C. and it was expanded into a much larger complex by the Romans in the early 1st century. It was closed in the 5th century A.D. and the basins sealed with toppled columns. The effigies of the gods and votive figurines, left by generations of worshippers, however, were not disturbed.

Since excavations of the sanctuary began in 2019, archaeologists have found numerous votive offerings shaped like body parts (uteruses, penises, arms, legs, ears) that were left at the sacred site by petitioners seeking healing. Larger, whole-body statuary emerged from the pools in the first weeks of October. The hot, muddy basins preserved the metal, leaving many statues intact. Among the large statues are effigies of Hygieia, a snake wound around her arm, a nude of Apollo and a togate youth.

The discovery of two dozen bronze sculptures is so significant because most of them were destroyed in antiquity, melted down for reuse. They are also a unique record of the transition between the decline of Etruscan influence and the dominance of Rome. Etruscans, as with the other Italic peoples losing the battle (military, political and cultural conflicts with Rome , assimilated Roman culture and adopted Roman lifestyles. The statues illustrate this transitional period in their design style and in the inscriptions that were carved onto the bronzes in both Latin and Etruscan. The inscriptions contain the names of members of powerful Etruscan families like the Velimna of Perugia and the Marcni outside Siena who dedicated statues to the sacred pools.

The town of San Casciano has big plans for this unique sanctuary. It will be converted into an archaeological park, and the 16th century palace overlooking the pools will become a museum exhibiting the thousands of archaeological treasures recovered from the site.

Coins in Tupperware. Photo courtesy Italian Culture Ministry. Statue of youth. Photo courtesy Italian Culture Ministry. Head of a statue. Photo courtesy Italian Culture Ministry. Head of youth recovered from muddy pool. Photo courtesy Italian Culture Ministry.

Rare Ogham inscription found on Pictish stone

The remains of a Pictish carved stone cross slab with a rare inscription in the early medieval ogham language have been discovered in Old Kilmadock Kirkyard near Doune in Scotland. It is one of only 30 known ogham inscriptions found in all of Scotland, and the first discovered in the Forth Valley.

The surface of the stone was first uncovered by volunteers from the Rescuers of Old Kilmadock (ROOK) in 2019, but it wasn’t until September of this year that volunteers and archaeologists were able to fully excavate the slab, exposing its edges and the ogham symbols. The stone is 47 inches high and 32 inches wide with a rounded top. The surface of the stone is carved with a knotted cross. The terminals of the enlaced scrolls are shaped like bird heads. They have sharply curved beaks like flamingos, but if they are representations of actual birds rather than stylized abstractions, they are probably pelicans in piety, popular symbols of Christ’s sacrifice.

Kilmadock is one of central Scotland’s oldest graveyards. It dates to the 9th century, but the Pictish cross slab predates the kirkyard. It was raised between 500 and 700 A.D. on a mound overlooking the Rover Teith. Archaeologists believe there was a monastery on the site at the time. The presence of ogham characters on the cross slab suggests the monks may have been literate.

Dr Kelly Kilpatrick, an historian and Celticist who specialises in epigraphy, will attempt to decipher the newly discovered inscription using photogrammetry to create a 3D model of the stone. She said: “It’s a hugely important find. It tells us that in the early medieval period there were literate people here who could read and write, potentially in Latin, but who were also familiar with the ogham alphabet.

“As soon as it was found I took one look and said ‘that’s ogham’. The inscription is likely to go all the way around, although I can’t be certain until the stone is lifted. They tend to say personal names. I can say with reasonable confidence we’ve got some e’s and t’s in there.”

ROOK has started a fundraiser with a goal of £5,000 for the conservation of the stone. It has to be raised before experts can even begin to translate the inscription, for one thing. The slab is fragile with heavy fragmentation of the carved surface requires specialist care to remove it from the kirkyard, clean it, dry it and sterilize it to kill all plant/moss/root material before puzzling the fragments back together. Click here  to donate to the cause.

Oldest book in the Americas at the Getty

The Códice Maya de México, also known as the Grolier Codex, is the oldest surviving book in the Americas. It is one of only four known Maya codices that survived the book-burning zealotry of the Spanish occupiers, and the only one to have survived the centuries since the conquest on the continent where it was made. It is now on display at the Getty Center Museum, its first return to the United States since it made its public debut at the Grolier Club in New York in 1971.

The book was painted by a single artist on paper created from the inner bark of fig trees (amate paper) then coated with gesso to prep the surface for painting. It is painted on only one sideThe text records the movements of Venus over its 584-day cycle as the Morning and Evening Star.

The story behind its discovery reads like fiction. It involves a mysterious plane ride to an unnamed destination somewhere in Chiapas where the codex was sold to a Mexican collector by looters who claimed to have found it in a cave. Because of its extreme rarity, some unusual characteristics not seen in other codices and a find story so implausible it would make Indiana Jones blush, the Grolier Codex was long believed to be a forgery.

Mexican authorities restricted access to the fragile codex and scholars had to rely on photographs to study the book. In 2017, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) enlisted an international team of researchers to do the first scientific analysis and testing of the codex. Tiny samples of the pages confirmed that the bark paper was made of authentic amate fibers, and that the edges were not cut with metal tools, so it wasn’t ancient paper that was reused by forgers. A section of Maya blue pigment extracted from indigo plants with a local clay confirmed that the painting was ancient too. (The secret to Maya blue was lost after the Spanish conquest and the pigment was only synthetically recreated in the 1980s.) Finally, the study dated the book to between 1021 and 1154, older than the three Maya codices now in European museums and therefore the oldest surviving book in the Americas.

The Códice Maya de México is one of the greatest and most delicate treasures in Mexico City’s Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia. It almost never leaves the safety of its room.  A year after it was first exhibited in public at the Grolier Club in New York City in 1971, the Mexican government confiscated the codex. After that, it was exhibited exactly twice at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. It hadn’t been to the United States since and it had never been to Los Angeles before it went on display at the Getty Center Museum last month. The exhibition runs through January 15, 2023.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Getty has created a fascinating video about the codex’s creation with a focus on the traditional Maya craft of making amate paper from the bark of fig trees.