Oldest die in Poland found at Celtic site

A 2,000-year-old die discovered at the site of a Celtic settlement in Samborowice, Silesia, this August is the oldest die ever discovered in Poland. The rectangular cuboid was carved out of bone or antler and is of a type found in much larger Celtic settlements in Austria, Bohemia and Moravia. It is rare to find dice like this one in a small settlement like Samborowice.

Due to the low probability of rolling the dice so that it lands on the smaller two sides, which are the bases, the values ​​3, 5, 4 and 6 were usually marked on the longer sides. There were exceptions to this rule, such as the duplication of some values. In the case of the Samborowice dice, the [long] sides were marked only with the two highest values, i.e. 5 and 6. We are not sure whether it was a forgery or whether the item was used for a game unknown to us today.

The Celts moved into the Lower Silesia area around 400 B.C. and inhabited the region until 120 B.C. The Celtic settlement in Samborowice is the only one in Poland to be regularly excavated, so it draws volunteers and students from around the world. Archaeologists from the Silesian Museum and the University of Wrocław have been leading excavations at the site for 11 seasons, this year braving heat-stroke inducing temperatures of 90F. Removing layers of soil and rock in full sun is heavy labor even when it’s not the middle of a heat wave. The team had to slow down the pace, but still managed to make some extraordinary finds.

The die was found in the remains of a semi-dugout building, a structure dug into the ground used by the Celts as workplaces for various crafts including weaving, metalsmithing, pottery making and horn carving. The die was probably not a work product, but rather used for leisure activity during downtime.

Another exciting find was an iron fibula, a brooch used to fasten garments. Fibulae from this era in Poland are typically heavily corroded and often survive only in fragmentary form. This example had the good fortune to get burned in antiquity. As it cooked, a layer of scale formed on the iron. It looks crusty and knobby, but that mineral crust preserved the brooch from corrosion. Conservators will remove the scale to reveal the intact iron underneath.

Rare 5,000-year-old tomb found in Orkney

Archaeologists have discovered a rare 5,000-year-old tomb containing the articulated remains of 14 individuals at a Neolithic site at Holm on the east coast of Mainland, Orkney. It consists of a stone cairn 49 feet in diameter at the end of 23-foot-long stone passage. Six smaller chambers adjoin the central cairn. This is a “Maes Howe-type” passage grave; only 12 others of this type of tomb are known on Orkney. Built with corbelled stone roofs that narrowed as they rose, Maes Howe tombs are considered the pinnacle of Neolithic engineering in northern Britain.

This masterpiece of prehistoric construction was almost destroyed without a trace. It is flat now, the towering height that once would have dominated the landscape lost to stone thieves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then in 1896, the son of a local farmer dug around the site, uncovering some remains of walls, a macehead and ball and eight skeletons. The finds were reported in a local paper as the ruins of a “chambered cairn,” but it was a passing reference with no specific location information.

Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, senior curator of Neolithic prehistory at the National Museums Scotland, came across the 1896 report and decided to seek out the tomb. A geophysical survey helped pinpoint the possible location of the tomb. A team of local volunteers and students led by Anderson-Whymark and Prof Vicki Cummings of Cardiff University hit paydirt and excavated the tomb in a targeted three-week dig.

Dr Anderson-Whymark said: […]

“It’s incredible to think this once impressive monument was nearly lost without record, but fortunately just enough stonework has survived for us to be able understand the size, form and construction of this tomb.”

Dr Anderson-Whymark said 5,000 years ago, the tomb would have been a prominent feature on the landscape, and likely to have looked similar to Orkney’s Maeshowe chambered cairn.

He said it was possible further discoveries, including more skeletons, could be made at Holm.

Prof Cummings said: “The preservation of so many human remains in one part of the monument is amazing, especially since the stone has been mostly robbed for building material.

“It is incredibly rare to find these tomb deposits, even in well-preserved chambered tombs and these remains will enable new insights into all aspects of these peoples’ lives.”

The human remains will be DNA-tested to discover if there are familial relationships between the people buried in the tomb. The tomb appears to have been used over a stretch of time, with bodies placed on top of older ones. Radiocarbon dating may answer how long the tomb was in active use.

Oldest Mithraeum in the West reopens

After a long closure due to COVID and an extensive program of restoration, the Mithraeum of Santa Maria Capua Vetere in Caserta, in the southern Italian region of Campania, has reopened to the public.

Conservators from the Central Institute of Restoration of Rome (ICR) and the University of Molise analyzed the frescoed surfaces of the walls and the microclimate within the Mithraeum as well as in rooms adjacent and above the sacred space. They installed a new energy-efficient lighting system which does not alter the temperature and humidity of the rooms or damage the integrity of the pictorial surfaces. There is also a new information system in the antechamber to the main cult room which gives visitors background on the religion, the Mithraeum and on the recent analyses of the frescoes.

The Mithraeum was built in a natural cavern at the end of the 1st century or beginning of the 2nd century A.D. It is the oldest Mithraeum in the West and one of the most important Mithraic sites in the world. The religion originated in Persia and was brought to southern Italy by merchants and traders from the East doing business at the port of Puteoli. Between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Mithraism evolved in the West from its Indo-Persian origins as a solar religion into a mystery cult with adherents throughout the empire, mostly soldiers, slaves and gladiators.

Capua was renowned for its gladiatorial school (its most famous alumnus was none other than Spartacus), and Mithraism took hold very early here. The cavern is located near the city’s great amphitheater that was second in size only to the Colosseum in Rome and was built around the 1st century A.D. Mithras makes an appearance on the amphitheater itself, as a bust carved onto the keystone of an arch in the arcade. The Colosseum numbered its entrances for traffic control; the Campanian Amphitheater identified its entrances by deity. Mithras is ranked with the likes of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Diana, Apollo, Mercury and Ceres on the amphitheater’s keystones.

The Mithraeum is underground. Visitors descend a flight of stairs into a narrow corridor that leads to a preparation room on the right, and the main cult chamber on the left. The Mithraeum is a rectangular room about 40 feet long and 10 feet wide. The long walls have benches carved out of the stone where the adherents sat. At the end of the room is an altar with a brilliantly colored fresco depicting the tauroctony, the slaying of the bull by Mithras. On the eastern wall is a fresco of the Moon holding the reins of a biga (a two-horse chariot) pulled by one black horse and one white one. The western wall features a bas relief of Cupid and Psyche. The ceiling is painted yellow and is decorated with red and blue glass paste stars. Originally the side walls would have been completely covered in paintings, but today only two torch-bearers and depictions of the stages or ritual purification of a new initiate remain.

The Mithraeum was found during construction in 1922. It was opened to visitors in 1937. Now that it has reopened, the conservation needs of the wall paintings are being prioritized, so only a maximum of 20 visitors a day will be allowed, and only for 20 minutes — 10 minutes in the antechamber where the information panels are, 10 minutes in the worship chamber.

Mexico City earthquake reveals colossal polychrome snake head

A colossal Mexica stone snake head sculpture unearthed in Mexico City last year is so well-preserved that almost all of its polychrome paint has survived in excellent condition. About 500 years old, the snake head still preserves the original color over 80% of its surface, making it the snake head with the greatest amount of surviving color ever discovered in ancient Tenochtitlan.

The snake head was discovered by a team from the Directorate of Archaeological Salvage (DSA) after a 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck Mexico City on September 19th, 2022. The colossal sculpture was exposed 15 feet under the east wing of the former law school of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City’s historic downtown. The head alone is six feet long, 3.3 feet high, 2.8 feet wide and weighs an estimated 1.3 tons.

It was not in its original context, but there were other architectural elements found nearby. The ground was muddy and waterlogged, a low-oxygen environment which preserved so much of the delicate painted stucco for five centuries. Saturated remains of ocher, red, blue, black and white decorate the scales, mouth, eyes and fangs of the serpent, a color palette frequently used by the Mexica on their religious images and temples.

The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) recovered the snake head the day after the earthquake. It is so massive and heavy it had to be raised with a crane and transported to the INAH conservation laboratory. The pigments used by the Mexica were derived from mineral and plant materials and are extremely fragile, so special measures had to be taken to protect the polychromy once the head was exposed to the air. A humidity chamber was constructed around it. The space is sealed with plastic liners that keep the relative humidity high. Sensors and data loggers monitor the levels at all times.

The moisture will gradually be reduced to allow the snake head to slowly dry. This will ensure the water that has accumulated in the pores of the rock will rise to the surface slowly, preventing fading of the color, cracks and crystallization of the mineral salts. The stabilization process is expected to take until early next year.

The sculpture’s “sheer size is impressive, as well as its artistry,” but the survival of the colors is remarkable, said Frances Berdan, a professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University, San Bernardino who was not involved with the excavation. “The survival of black, white, red, yellow, and blue paints is particularly interesting — one gains a good image of the visual impact of such sculptures as they were arrayed about the city center,” Berdan told Live Science in an email.

In addition to its preserved colors, the snakehead’s size is notable, said Bertrand Lobjois, an associate professor of humanities at the University of Monterrey in Mexico who is not involved in the excavation. The “first time I saw this serpent head, I was dazzled by its dimensions,” he said in an email.

Lobjois also praised the conservation work that allowed the colors to survive, noting that “the conservation process allows us to appreciate the naturalistic approach of figuration” the Aztec artists used.

Long-rumored looted hoard recovered, transferred to museum

A precious hoard of silver jewelry from the second half of the 10th century has been transferred to the Podlaskie Museum in Białystok decades after it was looted near Brańsk, eastern Poland. The treasure was confiscated last year in a coordinated operation by police, tax and cultural heritage authorities. It was in limbo until prosecutors determined there would be no trial as the statute of limitations had run out. Now the hoard has been allocated to the museum for study, conservation and display.

The treasure consists of 45 pieces, including richly decorated silver half-moon pendants (lunulae), silver earrings with highly decorated semi-circular bottom half and long chain pendants, silver beads decorated with nodules and granulation, a bracelet, a ring, fragments of a bronze chain and several glass beads. The craftsmanship is of extremely high quality, and experts believe it may have been the work of Byzantine jewelers that reached Poland through Russia or of local jewelers influenced by Eastern techniques. The earrings and beads are similar to ones found in other jewelry finds from the period, most notably the treasure of Góra Strękowa.

The lunulae are particularly impressive. They were made by casting a bar of silver, placing it between sheets of leather and tapping it repeatedly with oval hammers. The sheet was trimmed to shape with scissors or saws. A template was likely used to ensure the shape was symmetrical. It was reinforced by soldering strips to the underside of the lunula and then the edges were smoothed. The maker would then decorate the lunula with filigree, granulation and nodules. These were extremely expensive prestige objects, worn as the central element of a necklace that had other pendants, beads and gems added to it.

The 45 objects in the hoard had all been placed together in a small decorated ceramic vessel. The vessel survived and is also part of the collection.

There had been rumors that a medieval treasure had been illegally excavated in the Brańsk area in the 1990s, but only in 2022 did conservation authorities get a tip about the treasure’s whereabouts. They alerted law enforcement and the subsequent investigation revealed the collection of thousand-year-old jewelry was in the hands of a Brańsk resident who claimed he had received them from his wife’s grandfather. The grandfather-in-law told him he had personally found the hoard in the ruins of a castle dating to the 11th-14th centuries.

The grandfather died in 2001, so whenever he looted the hoard and gave it to his daughter’s family, it had to have been before 22 years ago. The statute of limitations for the theft (grandpa’s original looting) and appropriation of stolen goods (grandson-in-law’s receipt of the illegally obtained objects) is ten years, so the Bielsko prosecutor’s office could no longer take either case to court.

The hoard was officially delivered to the Podlaskie Museum by the Podlasie Provincial Conservator of Monuments on Wednesday, October 18th.

“This is a unique set of monuments,” Aleksander Piasecki, an archaeologist from the Podlasie Museum, told PAP. He emphasized that he had not seen such a well-preserved set of monuments and – as he added – “it is a nicely preserved complex from the second half of the 10th century associated with contacts with Russia.”

The archaeologist noted that now this unique complex will be subjected to specialist research and conservation in order to determine the origin and chronology of the monuments. He added that the archeology department would then like to display the jewelry; is to be included in the permanent exhibition.