Large medieval gaming piece found

A large medieval “tableman,” aka gaming piece, has been unearthed from the site of a medieval timber-framed building in Bedfordshire. Its size and decorative style suggest it dates to between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Crafted from a cattle mandible, the Bedfordshire piece is 6 cm (2.36 inches) in diameter. It was cut in a circular shape (a central dimple suggests a lathe was used to form it) and then decorated with concentric circles and the ring-and-dot design commonly found on Roman dice and game pieces as well as medieval ones.

Tablemen are so called because they were likely used to play various tables games (with ‘tables’ derived from the Latin tabula, meaning board or plank). In these games, two players would typically roll dice and move their pieces across rows of markings; an example still played today would be backgammon.

Tables games have developed over time and in the Roman period duodecim scripta was likely one of the first to be introduced in Britain. This game uses three rows of twelve markings, although little information has survived regarding gameplay. It is likely that the game ‘tabula’ was refined from duodecim scripta and continued to be played into the medieval period. Tabula is much more similar to backgammon and uses two rows of twenty-four points.

The Museum of Gloucester has a spectacular tabula set from the 11th or early 12th century that is the earliest surviving board and complete set of game pieces known to survive. It was discovered in Gloucester at the site of a Norman castle in 1983, and consists of 24 obelisk-shaped points (the strips pieces moved around on like in backgammon) and 30 pieces carved out of red deer antler and bone. The points were originally inlaid into a wood board, the eponymous tabula, that did not survive.

The Gloucester pieces are intricately carved with different depictions on each one, among them a horseback rider, a hanging man, an archer, an elephant, a manticore, a fiddler and a centaur with a bow and arrow. They are smaller than the Bedfordshire piece, averaging a diameter of 1.75 inches. None of them have ring-and-dot decoration, not even in the borders, but several of the points from the board do.

Buddha statue found at Isis Temple in Egypt

A marble statuette of the Buddha has been discovered at the Roman-era Temple of Isis in Berenike on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. It dates to the 2nd century A.D. when the Red Sea ports of Roman Egypt were crucial stops on the trade networks linking the Roman Empire to India. This is the most definitive archaeological evidence found of Buddhism in ancient Egypt.

Egypt was at the center of a trade route that connected the Roman Empire with many areas of the ancient world, including India. There were several Roman-era harbors on the Red Sea coast of Egypt involved in this commerce, the most important of which was Berenike. Ships from India arrived there with products, such as pepper, semi-precious stones, textiles, and ivory. At Berenike, they were offloaded, and the cargo was transferred to camels that conveyed the goods across the desert to the Nile. Other ships then transported the merchandise to Alexandria and, from there, to the rest of the Roman Empire.

Found in the forecourt of the temple, the figure is 28 inches high and depicts Buddha standing holding part of his draped robe in his left hand. Around his head is a halo with sunrays that represents his radiant mind. A lotus flower (a symbol of purity) grows by his left foot. The workmanship of the carving is very fine.

The marble is of very high quality and was quarried from an area south of Istanbul. It was carved by local artisans in Berenike who sold their wares to the international merchant community. An Indian trader (or traders) likely acquired this figurine as a votive offering to dedicate at the Isis Temple.

Archaeologists also found two 2nd century coins from the central Indian Satavahana dynasty (2nd c. B.C. – 3rd c. A.D.) in the temple precinct, and a Sanskrit inscription dating to the rule of the emperor Philip the Arab (244–249 A.D.).

3rd c. wooden mask found in Osaka

A wooden mask dating to the early 3rd century has been discovered at the Nishi-Iwata Ruins in Osaka. It is only the third known wooden mask from the period ever discovered in Japan. It was found last June during a survey excavation in advance of construction of an extension of the Osaka Monorail. The mask was in a sedimentary flood layer 9.5 feet beneath the surface, preserved the wood in near-perfect condition by the waterlogged terrain.

The mask was carved from a solid piece of cedar and is about 12 inches long, seven inches wide and .8 inches thick at its thickest point. The front of the mask has holes cut out for the eyes and mouth and an angled projection from between the middle of the eyes to right above the mouth for a nose. A small hole on the right side was likely used to run a string through so the mask could be mounted.

The mask is very heavy and the back of it is flat, so it probably was not worn over the face. Other wooden objects from the same period, including the carbonized blade of a hoe and planks from a water bucket were discovered nearby. Archaeologists believe therefore than the objects were used in harvest festivals to petition the gods

Kaoru Terasawa, director of the Research Center for Makimukugaku, Sakurai City, in Nara Prefecture, said the mask was probably displayed at festivals because it is too heavy to wear.

“I believe the mask represented a ‘spirit of a head,’ which was believed to be a god in the shape of a human and representing the authority of Okimi. I imagine that powerful people who were influenced by the ceremonies of the Yamato Kingship used the mask at festivals,” Terasawa said.

Okimi is the title of the head of the Yamato Kingship, a political alliance of powerful families centered in present-day Nara Prefecture that prevailed from the third to the seventh century.

The mask will go on display at the Prefectural Museum of Yayoi Culture in Izumi City from April 29th to May 7th.

1st c. surgeon buried with his tools found in Hungary

Archaeologists have unearthed the grave of a 1st century man buried with high-quality surgical tools near Jászberény, central Hungary.

The grave was discovered last year in an excavation of a site where Copper Age and Avar artifacts had been found on the surface. A subsequent magnetometer survey identified an Avar-era (6th-9th century A.D.) cemetery with several rows of graves. Inside one relatively shallow grave were the remains of a man between 50 and 60 years old at the time of death. Metal tools found in the grave were quickly recognized as Roman surgery implements. The tools had been packed in two wooden chests and buried at his feet. (An animal had disturbed one of the tools, shifting it up towards the head of the deceased, but otherwise the tools were where they had been before the wood decayed.)

The chests contained pliers, needles, tweezers and copper alloy scalpels decorated with silver inlay and equipped with replaceable steel blades. A grinding stone was found at his knee. Wear and tear on it indicates it was well-used, perhaps for compounding medications.

A complete medical kit is a rare find anywhere in the Roman world, but exceptionally rare in the outer limits of empire. When this kit was interred in the 1st century, the Pannonian Basin was still an actively contested area. In fact, some scholars believe that the Sarmation Iazyges people who migrated to the westward to the area in the first half of the 1st century did so with Roman support to act as a client kingdom buffer against the Dacians.

No immediately visible evidence of trauma or disease was found on the bones. There is also no evidence of whether the surgeon was a local man with the wealth and access to acquire so fine a toolkit, or a doctor who came to the area with the Roman legions. Samples of the skeleton will be subjected to stable isotope analysis and DNA analysis in order to investigate any health conditions he may have had and determine whether the doctor was of local origin.

First figural depictions of Tartessian culture found

An excavation at the Bronze Age site of Casas del Turuñuelo in western Spain’s Badajoz province has unearthed the first figural representations of human faces from the Tartessian culture (8th-4th century B.C.). Archaeologists discovered five figural reliefs dating to the 5th century B.C. Two of them are almost complete and depict female faces wearing large hoop earrings typical of Tartessian goldsmithing. The other three are fragmentary, but part of a helmet on one of them identify it as a warrior figure.

The Tartessos civilization was a Bronze Age culture of Southern Iberia. At its greatest influence, Tartessos settlements spread through what are now western Andalusia, Extremadura and southern Portugal. Some ancient sources, including Herodotus, refer to Tartessos being an important city on the coast of Spain known for its metalwork and strong cultural and trading ties to the Phoenician colonies in the region.

The Phoenician influence on the Tartessians is seen in the archaeological material. The first evidence of the Tartessian language were inscriptions found in a Phoenician necropolis in the 1920s. Ornate metal objects — gold jewelry, belt buckles, diadems — found in Tartessian contexts such as the exceptional Aliseda Treasure found in Cáceres, display the Phoenician techniques of granulation, filigree and welding as well as Phoenician deities and imitation Egyptian motifs that were big sellers for Phoenician traders in luxury goods during the Orientalizing Period (8th-7th centuries B.C.).

Most Tartessian sites are settlements and tombs. Casas del Turuñuelo is an architecturally innovative sanctuary that is unique on the Tartessian archaeological record. The reliefs were found on the eastern entrance of the site leading into the courtyard where the remains of a large-scale animal sacrifice (16 horses, two bulls and one pig) were found in 2017. It is the largest mass sacrifice of animals documented in the ancient western Mediterranean, an expensive offering to the gods to seal the temple before its deliberate destruction.

The sanctuary’s reliefs of female figures are not only the first figural depictions of Tartessian people, they are also the first depictions of Tartessian gold earrings, previously only known from archaeological finds like the Aliseda Treasure. Archaeologists believe the quality and detail in the reliefs indicate they are representations of female deities, although they could also be aristocratic women.

This extraordinary finding represents a profound paradigm shift in the interpretation of Tartesus, traditionally considered an aniconic culture for representing divinity through animal or plant motifs, or through betyls (sacred stones). Lastly, the finding only further influences both the importance of the site and the importance of the Tartessian culture in the Guadiana valley during its last moments.