Garnet stone emerges from Harpole cross

Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) archaeologists have revealed a large garnet at the center of the silver cross from the exceptionally wealthy 7th century bed burial found at Harpole, Northamptonshire, England.

Discovered last April, the burial of an elite Saxon-era woman contained an ornate necklace with an unprecedented number of pendants made of garnets, semi-precious stones, Roman gold coins (all from the reign of Theodosius I, 379-395 A.D.) and glass pendants separated by gold wire spacer beads. The necklace is the largest, finest and most ornate example of its kind.

Another uniquely large and elaborate artifact was found on the torso of the deceased. It was removed in a soil block to be excavated in a conservation laboratory. An X-ray of the soil block revealed it contained a huge silver cross mounted on wood. The cross is too big to have been worn as a jewel. It may have been meant to be carried in processions or used as a devotional object on an altar.

The cross is a foot long from top to bottom and is adorned with more crosses. There are Canterbury crosses 4 cm (1.6 inches) wide at the end of the cross-arms arm and the bottom of the descending arm. At the center point of the crossarm is an equal-armed cross 8 cm (3.15 inches) wide. Between each of the arms of the central cross are oval human faces cast in silver with blue glass eyes.

MOLA conservators are currently micro-excavating the soil block, using the X-ray as a guide map. While the arms are still encased in soil, the square stone at the center has now been exposed. It is a pyramid square cabochon garnet and judging from the photograph, it is in excellent condition.

The burial dates to between 630 and 670 A.D. At that time, Harpole was part of the Kingdom of Mercia which was smack in the middle of converting to Christianity. The first introduction of Christianity to Mercia came in 628 when the pagan King Penda conquered Christian Saxon-held territories. Penda’s son Peada sealed the deal in 655 when he converted to Christianity and agreed to evangelize and convert his subjects as a condition of his marriage to Alchflaed, the daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria.

The woman buried in this grave had to have been Christian and someone of very high social status to boot. The size of the cross suggests she may have been a religious leader.

Man in Hercules suit found on Appia Antica

A life-sized marble statue of a Hercules figure has been discovered on the Appia Antica, the ancient road leading south out of Rome. He wears the skin of the Nemean lion, its open mouth on his head like a hat, its front paws tied at the clavicle like a scarf, its hind legs draped over his left arm. His facial features, however, do not match the iconography of Hercules. This is the portrait of a man wearing a Hercules suit.

The statue was not found in an archaeological excavation, but during construction of a new sewer line. The failure of a 19th century pipeline was causing sinkholes to appear in the Archaeological Park of Appia Antica, requiring drastic action over a wide area to repair. Archaeologists have been working with the utilities crews throughout the complex project. Weeks of earth moving had returned no archaeological materials when suddenly Hercules emerged 20 meters (65 feet) below street level.

The statue was unearthed on the second mile of the Appia Antica next to the Tomb of Priscilla (second half of the 1st century A.D.). It was found under the collapsed 19th century pipe that was being demolished by the earthmover. This was not its original location, but a secondary deposit. It was likely discovered during construction of the old sewer line and then just tossed into the soil layer underneath it. (There was zero archaeological oversight back then and people could well have chosen to simply bury the statue instead of going through the trouble of salvaging it.)

Without stratigraphic information, determining the age of the statue is difficult. Comparison to other artifacts is pretty much all archaeologists have to go on, and they’ve begun to research comparable works. They already have a hypothesis for the identity for the man behind the lionskin: the 3rd century emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, aka Trajan Decius.

During these very first analyses we found a decent resemblance between the portrait of our character in the costume of Hercules and Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, better known as Trajan Decius, who reigned from 249 to 251, when he was killed, along with his son Herennius Etruscus, in the Battle of Abrittus between Goths and Romans.

The face of “our Hercules”, although corroded, seems to share with the official portraits of Decius the “wrinkles of anxiety”, which recall Republican Roman portraiture and were aimed at representing the concern for the fate of the State, a virtue evaluated very positively in the high ranks of the empire. Other characteristic features are the treatment of the beard razor and the morphology of the eyes, nose and lips.

Decius was a senator and statesman before his soldiers acclaimed him imperator on the field, and during his brief reign, he made a priority of reviving traditional Roman virtues, religion and governance. He made himself consul every year, attempted to reinstitute the senatorial position of Censor (the magistrate who maintained the citizenship rolls) and promulgated the first official law persecuting Christians by demanding all Roman citizens sacrifice to Rome’s traditional gods for the safety and health of the emperor and empire.

During his brief reign, he made his mark on Rome with public works, building a luxurious new bath complex on the Aventine frequented by the wealthy residents of the neighborhood. Little of it remains today, but two statues were recovered from the site and are now in the collection of the Capitoline Museums. One of them is an unusual monumental basalt statue of Hercules as a boy. He wears the skin of the Nemean Lion draped over his head, paws tied around his chest. He holds his iconic club in his right hand (only the handle of it remains) and the apples of the Hesperides and in his left. Presenting himself clothed in Hercules’ attributes would certainly be in keeping with Decius’ emphasis on promoting traditional Roman virtues.

Iron Age sacrificial deposits found in Poland

Votive deposits of bronze objects from the Iron Age have been discovered near the city of Chełmno in northern Poland. Dozens of bronze ornaments and numerous human bones were unearthed, the remains of sacrificial rituals that took place at the site about 2,500 years ago when the Lusatian culture inhabited the area. The important Lusatian fortified settlement of Biskupin lies just 60 miles southwest of the find site.

Today the area is farmland, but in the 6th century B.C. it was a lake. Leaving metal objects in bodies of water as offerings was a well-known practice in prehistoric Europe and more than 30% of the prehistoric artifacts found in Poland came from water sites. However this is the first lake site in Poland that contains both metal artifacts and human remains.

The lake eventually dried up into a peat bog whose anaerobic environment preserved the artifacts, bones and rare traces of organic materials like rope and textiles. The bog was drained to convert it into the farmland and agricultural work over the years has disrupted the archaeological material and when members of a metal detecting group who work with heritage authorities to survey potential sites of interests scanned the field on January 8th, they found a number of artifacts on the surface of the ground, churned up in recent plowing.

They alerted archaeologists from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń who excavated the site finding three distinct deposit groupings. Objects recovered include neck torcs, bangle bracelets, beads, spirals, large brooches with round spiral heads that look like novelty swirl lollipops, horse harness fittings and parts of a unique necklace decorated with fish tail pendants. Most of the objects are Lusatian in style, but there are a few pieces typical of the Scythian peoples in what is now Ukraine.

So far more than 100 fragments of human bone have been recovered. Lusatians cremated their dead and buried them in large urn cemeteries and these bones are unburned. That suggests they were deliberately sacrificed.

Researchers claim that human sacrifices may have been made due to population shifts and, by extension, invasions.

Dr. Gackowski explained that this happened due to the influx of nomadic peoples from the Pontic Steppe into the region, including the Scythians.

“These people, probably in order to ward off the violent changes associated with the arrival of new neighbours with a completely different organization, appearance and vision of the world, began to practice a variety of rituals,” he said.

The latest finds will now be sent to the University of Science and Technology in Kraków for examination and conservation.

Gold wire kept French countess’ teeth in her mouth

A study of the remains of Anne d’Alègre, Countess of Laval (ca. 1565-1619), has found that her teeth were kept in her head by gold wire.

Anne de Laval’s gold-rigged teeth (and the rest of her remains) were discovered in 1987 during an archaeological excavation of the basement of the chapel in the Vieux-Château de Laval. She was buried in an anthropoid lead coffin that was inside a wooden sarcophagus. A heart-shaped lead casket known as a cardiotaph was placed on the exterior coffin above her chest. Neither the coffin nor the urn had any inscription that might identify the owner.

The lead coffin was opened in a local funeral home, revealing a complete skeleton wrapped in a canvas shroud kept in place by hemp cords. The body had been expertly embalmed and was in good condition. There was enough archaeological and osteological evidence to identify the body as that of Anne d’Alègre. A study found her organs — brain, lungs, digestive tract — had been removed and replaced with aromatic herbs and berries. The cardiotaph contained a desiccated organic amalgam that was almost certainly a human heart with embalming materials.

In 2007, three more sets of bones were rediscovered in the château storerooms. One of them belonged to Anne’s son, Guy, Count of Laval (1585-1605), 20th and last of his name. He had died on the battlefield at just 20 years old. With him died the line and title of the Laval counts.

(And now the moment you’ve been waiting for: an extended, meandering, long-winded digression into the wars of religion that blighted France in the 16th century and ultimately took out the Laval family.

So Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on Halloween of 1517 and by 1521 the Reformation is making converts in France. Tensions rise and by the 1530s, the French crown is actively persecuting Protestants, from draconian anti-Protestant laws to massacres of thousands. In 1562, 50 Huguenot worshippers, five of them women, one a child, were slaughtered in their meeting house in Vassy by the troops of the Catholic Francis, Duke of Guise. This act is considered the starting point of the French Wars of Religion.

They continued at a staccato pace more than 30 years, stopping and starting as one aristocratic faction vied with another. Protestant Henry of Navarre ultimately asserted his legitimate claim to the throne of France, but he had to fight Catholic opponents to secure it. He finally quelled the objections of holdout areas by converting to Catholicism in 1593. The French Wars of Religion ended officially when King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes mandating freedom of religion in 1598.

Anne was born around 1565, the daughter of the Marquis d’Alègre. Her father had taken an opportunistic stance as the religious conflicts escalated. He was Protestant initially, but flipped to the Catholic faction in 1563, a year after Vassy. In 1575 he went back to Protestantism and then retired to live in Rome, ironically, where he died in 1580.

His daughter Anne was married to Guy XIX, Count of Laval, in 1583. Guy had been raised Protestant. His father was not just a devout believer, but the founder the first Calvinist church in Brittany. The House of Laval held rich fiefdoms in Brittany, Normandy and Maine and the family’s power and income were little harmed in the first three wars of religion. The Laval holdings were spared destruction in battle and they were not targeted by the extraordinary taxes levied to fund the war.

When the leader of the Protestant forces, the Prince of Condé, died in 1569, an uncle of Guy XIX, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, was appointed to lead the Huguenot forces. In the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, Gaspard was targeted for elimination by the Catholic faction and pulled from his bed and murdered.

Guy XIX fled France, traveling through Protestant-friendly countries from Switzerland to England. He returned to France in 1575 and settled in his chateau at Vitré where Protestantism had more popular support than at Laval. It was during a gap in active war that he married Anne. Two years later, their son, the future Guy XX was born.

Their marriage could not outlast the virulence of this conflict. Guy XIX was killed near the Huguenot-held fortress of La Rochelle in 1586. Baby Guy XX was just a year old at the time, so his mother wielded his power as his guardian and the Dowager Countess of Laval. France was now mired in the 8th War of Religion, and wee Guy was literally smuggled to the safety of the Protestant stronghold of Sedan by his grandmother who dressed as a peasant woman and carried him in her arms 61 miles from Reims.

The King himself tried to run custodial inference. The Lavals were one of the most powerful families in France, and Henry III wanted the baby to be brought back into the Catholic fold. He revoked Anne’s guardianship and appointed two Catholics his guardians instead. He confiscated all the property Guy XIX had left to his son. Henry III’s death did nothing to improve Anne and Guy XX’s circumstances. The ultra-Catholic governor of Brittany confiscated Laval lands and dedicated all of their revenues to the Catholic League. By 1590 Anne wrote to her cousin that their sources of revenue had been so effectively choked off that she and Guy scrambled to get enough to eat. Only with the Edict of Nantes did Anne get her son’s birthright back in 1599. She also remarried, 13 years after the death of her first husband, to the powerful Guillaume IV d’Hauteme, Marshall of France.

Guy traveled to Italy in 1604 and witnessed the miracle of the blood of San Gennaro in Naples then met with Pope Clement VIII. He declared to the Pope that he would abjure Protestantism and when he returned to France in 1605, that’s what he did, much to his mother’s horror. A few months later, he was dead, killed fighting in Hungary with the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II against Sultan Achmet I. His body and heart were returned to Laval for burial and they too wound up in the cross-hairs of religious conflict. It took another three years to settle the bickering over where his heart and body should be interred and for the funeral to finally take place. His mother did not attend the funeral ceremony, nor did any other Protestant.

As Guy XX had no children, no brothers, no relatives at all in line to inherit this important title and property, he should have made explicit arrangements before going off on a perilous journey to fight the Ottomans. He did not, so on his death his seigneuries were inherited by the La Trémoille family and the Laval dynasty ended.

Anne was still going strong, though. The Maréchal de Fervaque died in 1613 and Anne immediately started looking for husband number three. There were a number of suitors — the Prince of Joinville, the Duke of Chevreuse — as her fortune and social status made her a desirable partner. Her romantic life was the talk of Paris as was her daring fashion and carriage racing hobby. She never did get around to that third marriage. She died in 1619 after many months of illness. The canons of the Church of Saint-Tugal would not allow her to be buried with her husband, her son’s heart and all the past counts and countesses of Laval because she was Protestant. She was buried in the chapel of the Chateau de Laval instead.

Guy XX’s remains were exhumed when the church was demolished to make way for a new government building during the French Revolution. They were moved to the museum stores in the Vieux-Château de Laval, dodging the fate of so many scattered bones of French nobles.)

The new study focused on Anne’s teeth using the digital technology used in dental practices today to learn more about a rare and expensive practice of historic dentistry only available to the elite. Scans and imaging found she suffered from severe periodontal disease leaving her teeth rattling loose in her jaw. To keep them in place, the upper left jaws were tied with gold wire .4 mm thick. The upper incisor was replaced by a prosthesis that was tied in place by a gold wire .2 mm thick. The wear on the prosthesis indicates it was used for many years.

A “Cone Beam” scan, which uses X-rays to build three-dimensional images, showed that gold wire had been used to hold together and tighten several of her teeth.

She also had an artificial tooth made of ivory from an elephant—not hippopotamus, which was popular at the time.

But this ornate dental work only “made the situation worse”, said Rozenn Colleter, an archaeologist at the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research and lead author of the study.

The gold wires would have needed repeated tightening over the years, further destabilizing the neighboring teeth, the researchers said.

Long-term dental health was probably not her goal. She was willing to suffer all that pain and tightening so she didn’t look toothless. That third husband was still on the table, after all, and disfigurement of any kind in that era was deemed a reflection of moral failure. For Anne appearances mattered enough to endure the agony.

Longest sword in Japan found in 4th c. burial mound

The longest sword in Japan and a large bronze mirror that is also unprecedented in the Japanese archaeological record have been unearthed at the Tomio Maruyama burial mound in Nara. The burial mound (known as a kofun) and artifacts date to the second half of the 4th century.

The sword is 2.37 meters (7’9″) long and 6 cm (2.34 inches) wide, more than twice as long as the previous record-holder that was found in a late 5th century burial mound in Hiroshima. It is the longest iron sword ever found in East Asia. The sword is a serpentine shape. Only 85 serpentine swords have been unearthed in Japan, and this is the oldest of them. It was hammered and bent in six places to create the characteristic wavy effect. Traces of organic remains from the sheath and grip wrapping were found on the pommel, hilt and scabbard. Its extraordinary dimensions and shape are a testament to the advanced ironworking techniques of the Kofun Period (ca. 250-538 A.D.).

The bronze mirror is shaped like a shield, a form never before seen in a kofun, and it too is oversized by a lot. It is 64 cm (two feet) long and 31 cm (one foot) wide, making it the largest mirror of the period ever discovered. Its decoration is also unique. The back of the mirror is engraved with stylized dragons and geometric designs. A round projection in the center that looks like a shield boss is called a “chu” and it’s actually a handle. The reflective surface of the mirror is still smooth and polished.

The Tomio Maruyama Kofun is the largest circular burial mound in Japan. It is 109 meters (358 feet) in diameter. The site was looted in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and lost its top as well as some of the artifacts it contained. Municipal archaeologists have been studying the mound since 2018, first mapping it with aerial laser scans, then following up with excavation surveys which clarified the structure and dimensions of the mound.

Last fall was the fifth excavation season which focused on the Tsukuridashi area, a squared outcropping on the northeast side of the mound. Archaeologists found a grave pit that had been dug into a gravel layer before the completion of the burial mound. The grave pit contained a split coffin made of koyamaki (umbrella pine) wood five meters (16.4′) long. It was covered with clay.

The mirror was placed diagonally against the clay cover with the reflective surface facing outward. The sword was buried flat parallel to the clay cover.

Mirror and shields are considered to be tools to protect the dead from evil spirits. The sword is thought to have been enlarged to increase its power, and the possibility of its use as a battle tool is low, [city archaeologists] said.

The Tomio Maruyama burial mound, the largest in Japan at 109 m in diameter and dating back to the late 4th century, is thought to have belonged to a powerful individual supporting the Yamato rulers of the time.

The burial chamber where the discoveries were made is thought to have belonged to someone close to that person, according to Naohiro Toyoshima, an archaeology professor at Nara University. He also said that the ritualistic sword and the shield-shaped mirror may indicate that the individual was involved in military and ritualistic matters.