Hellenistic pebble mosaic found in Sinop

A pebble mosaic floor from the early Hellenistic era (4th-1st c. B.C.) has been discovered in Sinop, Turkey, on the southern shore of the Black Sea. The mosaic features a winged Eros figure in the corner of the central panel with palmette and wave motifs in the borders. It dates to the middle of the 4th century B.C. Archaeologists believe it paved the floor of a wealthy family’s dining room.

The floor was unearthed at the Balatlar Building Complex, a structure in the historic center of Sinop used variously as residences, public baths, a monastery and a church continuously from the Hellenistic era well into the 20th century. Excavations at the site began in 2010 and since then architectural features and artifacts from its many stages of occupation have been discovered. This is the first pebble stone mosaic found at the site in 11 seasons of digs. They are rare in buildings from the Classical and Hellenistic periods.

The city of Sinope was founded by Greek colonists from Miletus in the 7th century B.C. It established trade relationships with other cities on the south coast of the Black Sea and extended them inland to great prosperity between the 4th and 1st centuries B.C. The Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who carried a lamp in daytime looking for “an honest man,” was from Sinope.

Excavation of the mosaic floor is ongoing. After that, the floors will be stabilized and conserved with the ultimate goal of exhibiting it in situ as part of the Balatlar Building Complex archaeological park.

Metin Süren, the director of Culture and Tourism in Sinop, expressed the significance of this finding and said, “Sinop holds great importance in terms of its mosaic heritage. Previous excavations have already uncovered several magnificent mosaics in different locations. However, the ongoing excavation at the Balatlar Building Complex, which has been diligently carried out by the ministry for over a decade, has now brought us to a remarkable mosaic layer composed of pebble stones. These mosaics can be traced back to the Hellenistic period, offering a fascinating glimpse into the city’s ancient past.”

Video tour of new Largo Argentina site

Ancient Rome Live has just uploaded a great video tour of the refurbished Largo Argentina site guided by Darius Arya. The ten-minute video gives an overview of the stages of the site, highlighting each of the four Republican temples, the smattering of remains from the Curia of Pompey where Caesar was stabbed to death (albeit not actually on that spot) and the remains of medieval residential and church buildings. 

The cats get their due first, of course — priorities — and then Darius walks through of the site in a couple of different directions, highlighting the layers of Rome from different eras on view in this one archaeological park. They cut in a couple of fascinating photographs taken when the site was first excavated in the 1920s, including the exceptional discovery of the marble head of a colossal acrolithic statue. (Acroliths had wooden bodies with the head and extremities not covered by clothes made of marble or stone.) The tour ends with the newly-opened space under the current street, previously storage areas inaccessible to the public, now converted into a gembox of a museum exhibiting artifacts discovered there and explaining the site’s layered history.

Here’s something I didn’t know courtesy of Darius’ narration: the section of the Curia Pompeiana that overlapped with what would become the square in the middle of Large Argentina was destroyed in the imperial era, replaced by a public latrine. A really nice one too! Long and roomy to accommodate many a Roman call of nature at once. 

Flea market find is medieval hand cannon

A cylinder of metal bought at a flea market for less than $25 has been identified as an extremely rare medieval hand cannon and sold at auction last Thursday for more than $2,500. The cast bronze cylinder is 17 cm (6.7 inces) long and 4 cm (1.7 inches) wide at its widest end. The bore is 1.7 cm (.7 inches) in diameter. It is a triple-ring cast cannon with a flared muzzle.

“It really is a remarkable find,” said Charles [Hanson, owner of Hansons Auctioneers]. “Originally this cannon would have been mounted on wood with a powder bag and ram rod. It evolved to become a match-lock firearm with trigger.

The seller found the bargain of their lifetime at a flea market in Hertfordshire. They spent less than £20 for it, thinking it would make a cool decoration for their garden rockery (which it most certainly would). It was spotted in the rockery by appraisers from Hansons Auctioneers who recognized it as a metal barrel firearm made in Europe between 1400 and 1450.

Gunpowder was invented in China in the 9th century, and weapons that utilized it were widespread by the 12th century. Most of them were forms of bombs, but the fire lance, a spear with a barrel strapped to it capable of firing projectiles, was the precursor to the hand cannon. The oldest confirmed hand cannon, the Heilongjiang hand-gun, dates to 1288. At almost eight pounds, it was a heavy device for a hand weapon and the fire lance remained the more popular firearm until the invention of the musket in the early 16th century.

From China, gunpowder and powder-based weapons migrated to Europe, likely introduced by the Mongols during their invasion of the Turkic states and Eastern Europe in the mid-13th century. The earliest known hand cannon from Europe is the Loshult Gun, a cast bronze gun dating to around 1330-50 discovered in Sweden. Its bottle shape and flared chamber suggests it shot iron bolts or arrows rather than stone or metal balls. It’s also far heavier than the earlier Chinese iterations, weighing in at 22 pounds.

The first written record of hand cannons in England dates to 1473, but there are records of their use in France in the late 14th century and surviving examples going back to the 1380s. The Hundred Years’ War saw to it that the English were thoroughly exposed to the latest and greatest weaponry available in France. The rock garden hand cannon predates the English written account and is closer in age to the French examples.

The woman born with Rome

A city as built up and continuously populated as Rome hides its most ancient secrets well, and there is almost nothing from the period around the traditional founding of the city (April 21st, 753 B.C.) to be seen in its famous archaeological sites and museums. As of this month, that is no longer the case. The Roman National Museum is opening a gallery dedicated to exhibiting funerary objects from Rome’s earliest years that have spent decades unseen in the stores of the Baths of Diocletian.

The exhibition is the culmination of a two-year program focused on stabilizing, cataloguing, analyzing and restoring objects and remains unearthed from the large 8th-7th century B.C. necropolis on the Via Laurentina, the ancient road that connected Rome to Lavinium, near the medieval Castello di Decima. The site has been excavated since 1971 and hundreds of graves have been discovered. Perhaps the most archaeologically significant of them, Tomb 359, was discovered in 1991, removed in a soil block and then locked up in a wooden case for decades.

Tomb 359 was exceptional for the number of luxury artifacts in the grave and for its unique deposition inside the trunk of a tree. That is why archaeologists removed it whole, to conserve its precious context, rather than excavating it in situ. The soil block would not be excavated for another 30 years.

Finally in 2021, Tomb 359 was cleared and conserved. The two-year process revealed the presence of human remains, previously believed to have decomposed in the soil. They belonged to a young woman who died around 730 B.C. when she was between the ages of 18 and 24. She and Rome were born, therefore, at the same time.

She was buried in a garment festooned with jewels: a necklace of bronze pendants shaped like animals and humans, large rings attached to the gown with bronze and amber brooches, silver hair ornaments and more. A full banquet service with sacrificial knives, skewers for cooking meat, bronze and ceramic drinking vessels was also interred with her. There are objects of Etruscan and southern Italian origin in the grave goods. The amber in her brooch was imported from the Baltic Sea.

The contents of Tomb 359 and other artifacts from Rome’s first two centuries will be on display at the Baths of Diocletian through September 3rd of this year.

Anthropomorphic pendant in bronze. Photo courtesy the Roman National Museum.

Area Sacra, site of cats and Caesar’s assassination, opens to public

The site in the historic center of Rome where Republican temples and Pompey’s Theater were the backdrops to the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. has opened to the public for the first time. The cats who have long dominated its decrepit walkways and piles of disorganized ancient stones have a much tidier, informative and navigable new setting from which to blink lazily at their fans.

Funded by luxury jewelers Bulgari, the redevelopment of the archaeological site began in 2021 with the aim of making the sunken square in the middle of one of Rome’s busiest piazzas a walkable, coherent space instead of a litter-strewn, weed-choked jumble of broken stones and unidentifiable ruins.

The promotion and press leans heavily on its being the site where Caesar was assassinated, but that’s something of a fudge. Only a tiny sliver of Pompey’s massive theater complex on the Campus Martius, completed in 55 B.C., is visible at the Largo di Torre Argentina. It’s a section of a tufa base under the edge of the Curia Pompeiana where the Roman senate temporarily held meetings after a fire in 53 B.C. devastated the senate house in the Forum. The entrance to the curia that was the actual scene of the crime lies beneath the Teatro Argentina, an 18th century opera house that overlooks the archaeological site from across the street.

The remains of the structures that give the Area Sacra its name are much older than the theater, ranging in date from the 4th to the 2nd century B.C. There are four temples, dubbed A-D because nobody is sure which deities they were dedicated to. Temple C is the most ancient and is believed to have been devoted to the fertility goddess Feronia. Temple A was next, built in the mid-3rd century B.C. Temple D dates to 2nd century B.C. and is the largest of the four. The temples were damaged by a fire that devastated the city in 111 B.C. A new floor was installed over the rubble and Temple B was built after the fire. B is the only circular temple in the Area Sacra. The travertine slab flooring you see now was installed by the emperor Domitian in 80 A.D. after yet another fire.

The temples were abandoned in the 5th century and mined for construction materials. There is evidence of large tufa blocks having been reused within the former Area Sacra in the 8th and 9th centuries, but these were likely dwellings. A church was built in the 9th century and the remains of some of its 12th century alterations, including a Cosmati pavement, still survive.

The growth of the city eventually overwhelmed even the medieval structures and the Area Sacra was forgotten. It was rediscovered in 1926 during construction of new buildings. Crammed into the middle of modern Rome’s criss-crossing streets and tram lines, the temple area has never been set up for visitors to enjoy. People have had to content themselves with looking down into the pit from the modern street level.

The redesign now makes it possible for visitors to go down into the area and explore it via an accessible elevator and walkways. There are no barriers, fences or scaffolds obscuring the view. Everything is even on one plane so people with mobility aides can maneuver easily. Two new spaces have been opened up exhibiting an array of sculptural, architectural and funerary artifacts discovered at the site during the demolitions of the 1920s. Informational panels in Italian and English recount the history of the site from antiquity to the 20th century. Two large panels created for the vision impaired and blind include Braille descriptions and two 3D printed objects made from scans of the originals — a marble fragment with a relief of a bird pecking a fruit and the colossal head of a female cult statue.

The new raised walkways, exhibition space, informational panels and lighting system will have no effect on the cats who have colonized the area since it was fully exposed in 1929. They will have the same free run of the place and their sanctuary is safe behind a wall on the Via Arenula side of the piazza.