Maya altar found in Guatemala

September 14th, 2018

An engraved stone altar attesting to the political vicissitudes of 6th century Maya city-states has been found in La Corona, Guatemala. The limestone block is 4.8 x 4 feet and weighs close to a ton. It was discovered in the remains of a temple and can be precisely dated thanks to the inscription and the awesomeness of the Maya calendar to May 12th, 544 A.D.

The carved stone depicts a ruler of La Corona named Chak Took Ich’aak. His dynamic representation is on the top center of the stone. He holds a ceremonial bar, a symbol of leadership, shaped like a double-headed serpent. Emerging from each of the two heads are the patron deities of the city: Chak Wayis Chahk to the right, Yaxal Ajaw on the left side. On the right edge of the stone is a hieroglyphic inscription which includes the precise date. Lining the bottom edge is the head of a supernatural being adorned with aquatic plants.

In 544, La Corona was ruled by the Kaanul kingdom, the powerful Snake dynasty that was then centered in the city of Dzibanche (the dynasty’s seat moved to Calakmul around 580-590). La Corona under Chak Took Ich’aak was one of Kaanul’s allies/vassal city-states. He was still king almost 20 years after the inscription was dedicated when in 562 Kaanul defeated its greatest rival, Tikal. When Tikal fell, Kaanul gained control over all of Peten.

Like the Centipede dynasty king K’inich Bahlam II who would rule El Perú-Waka 100 years later, Chak Took Ich’aak cemented his alliance and position by marriage to a princess from the Snake dynasty. Dynastic marriages were an essential tool in the Snake kingdom’s box, tying a panoply of Maya cities around Tikal to the dynasty and forming a sort of political and military cordon to support Kaanul’s final assault. The Snake lords ruled Peten for two centuries after that victory.

[Tomas Barrientos, co-director of excavations and investigations], said the altar “fills in the gaps” and “pieces together the puzzle” of the Mayan culture’s political relationships.

“It’s a high quality work of art that shows us they were rulers entering into a period of great power and who were allying themselves with others to compete, in this case, with Tikal.”

La Corona “was the place where the most important historical Mayan political movement began to take shape.”


Unique Roman eagle-head basin found

September 13th, 2018

Archaeologists in Rijnsburg in the western Netherlands region of South Holland have discovered a unique eagle-headed basin from the Roman era. The site was being excavated in 2016 in advance of development of a new park when the team discovered a cremation grave from the late Roman period. Inside the grave were dozens of bronze fragments mixed in with cinerary remains of three individuals.

For more than a year restorers worked to puzzle the fragments back together revealing a bronze washing basin of exceptional quality. The bowl is shell-shaped, 16.5 inches in diameter with a rim four inches high. There are 33 ridges undulating across the bottom and wall. Those ridges become stylized wings where the wall transitions into the shoulders and neck of the bird of prey. The eagle’s head, its beak and eyes, are engraved in exquisite detail down to the tiny feathers on its cheeks. There are floral designs engraved on the bottom of the bowl and in a band marking the border between the wall and the wings of the eagle.

This was not locally produced. Objects of this quality and craftsmanship were not locally produced. It was probably crafted in a specialized workshop in Italy and made its way up north with a Roman officer stationed at the nearby limes, the northern boundary of empire. Only ten such vessels have been found in Europe. This is the first one from the Netherlands, and is entirely unique in its eagle decoration.

Archaeologists believe it predates the burial. Other artifacts found in the grave, like combs made in northern Germany, indicate the deceased were likely Germanic. Their remains were buried around 330 A.D., but the basin is at least 50 years older than the other grave goods and could have been made as early as 250 A.D. It was later reused as a cinerary urn because of its great value and beauty.

[Provincial archaeologist René] Proos said the find could have been used to bribe a Germanic tribal chief: Roman generals and diplomats tried to buy the loyalty of local chiefs with gold, jewellery and bronze and silver objects.

Historians assumed the Romans left the Netherlands in the 3rd century. However, says Proos, this find, along with others from the last ten years, could mean the Roman army settled in the area again at the end of third or the beginning of the fourth century, perhaps by bribing the local chiefs.

The basin is now on display indefinitely in the Netherlands in Roman times exhibit at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden. It has been 3D scanned and a model created so its remarkable features can be explored in detail.


Study the Book of Kells in free online course

September 12th, 2018

The Book of Kells, the 9th century illuminated Gospel manuscript that is one of the greatest masterpieces of medieval calligraphy and illumination (if not the greatest), is on display at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, but you can’t check it out or leaf through it, for obvious reasons. As Ireland’s best known and beloved cultural treasure, it is kept in a secure, climate-controlled display case.

The Book of Kells exhibition is artfully curated with large blow-ups of key pages of the manuscript so people can get a good look at some of the book’s contents in replica form. Visitors get an information leaflet and can rent audio tours. There are no guided tours and no photography is allowed.

Trinity College Dublin has created an online course for the many, many people around the world thirsty to see more of and learn more about the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece is a four-week course offered through FutureLearn free of charge to all comers.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has been designed by academics from the School of Histories and Humanities, the School of Religion and staff from the Library. Using the Book of Kells as a window the course will explore the landscape, history, theology, and politics of early medieval Ireland and explore how that past is understood in modern Ireland. Rachel Moss, Associate Professor in the History of Art and Architecture, and one of the course designers, commented: “Every year the campus of Trinity fills with expectant visitors, keen to see the world famous Book of Kells for themselves. There are few experiences to beat the experience of gazing on these precious pages, and imagining who else has shared that privilege over the past 1,200 years. The longer you dwell, the more detail reveals itself, and the more intriguing the manuscript becomes.”

“In this course we look forward to being able to share the manuscript with those who have yet to see it for themselves, and share it again with those that have. The course will bring the learner beyond that initial encounter to explore its minute and intricate art, how it was made and what it might have meant to its makers. The course will not just dwell in the past. The manuscript is extraordinary in the way in which it has managed to grip the public imagination up to the present day. Despite centuries of scholarship, new research continues to disentangle some of the enigmas that it presents.”

A different aspect of the book will be the focus of each week, exploring how it relates to the wider context of Irish art. The course will cover the illumination and calligraphy as well as the substance of the Latin Gospel text and the physical object of the book itself. I hope some of the new research addressed in the course is the study of parchment that was able to extract DNA from Staedtler Mars eraser crumbs. Trinity College Dublin was part of the research team.

At the end of the course learners will be able to explain the function and meanings of medieval Irish art; understand how medieval manuscripts were made and engage critically with methodologies and scholarly debates which have shaped interpretations of the period. The course will also equip learners with knowledge of the distinctive features of the Irish Church in this era and an understanding of the visual, theological and historical characteristics of medieval material culture.

The course starts on my birthday, October 8th. Is that not the best present a history nerd could ask for? Downright auspicious, I call it. Register for The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece here.


Tomb of Mehu opened to visitors for 1st time

September 11th, 2018

The tomb of Mehu in the the Saqqara necropolis is open to visitors for the first time since it was discovered in 1940 and it was worth the long wait. Mehu was a vizier at the court of Sixth Dynasty pharaoh Pepy (ca. 2300 B.C.), a position of great power in the pharaonic administration. His tomb was designed to bear eternal witness to his high rank. It is a mastaba, a mud brick rectangular structure with a flat roof, of monumental size in a prime location 20 feet south of the southern enclosure wall around the step pyramid of Djoser.

When it was excavated by an Egyptian mission led by Egyptologist Zaki Saad, the tomb was found to contain one long, narrow corridor with six chambers. A sarcophagus and lid were found in the main burial chamber, but it was what was on the walls that made the greatest impression. Mehu’s name and titles were inscribed there; he had 48 of them, including “the scrub of the royal documents” and “Head of the Juries.” The accolades were enhanced by exceptional paintings covering the walls of four of the chambers.

Dr. Mustafa Waziri Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said that the tomb is one of the most beautiful in Saqqara Necropolis because it still keep its vivid colours and distinguished scenes. Among the most strange scenes is the one depicting the marriage of crocodiles with the existence of a turtle.

Among the most important scenes shown on walls are those featuring the owner of the tomb during hunting in jungle or fishing as well as those showing the good harvesting scenes, cooking and dancing acrobatic dance, which was not previously shown in Saqqara before the sixth Dynasty.

Another inscription of major archaeological significance is the name of the deity Khenti-Amentiu, an early iteration of Osiris. Before the discovery of the tomb, references to Khenti-Amentiu had only been found in Upper Egypt. Mehu’s walls were the first evidence that he was worshiped in the Nile delta as well.

Mehu’s tomb was a family affair. Buried in two of the other chambers were his son Mery Re Ankh and grandson Hetep Ka II. This is another testament to Mehu’s power because most royal officials of his time were not allowed to be buried with their families. That privilege was usually reserved for the pharaoh. Both of Mehu’s descendants had important jobs and many titles, although nowhere near as extensive and important as their father/grandfather’s. Mery had 23 titles engraved on the wall of his chamber; Hetep 10.

The tomb has undergone a program of restoration to showcase the color and richness of the wall paintings. The Ministry of Antiquities has endeavored to stabilize the paint and develop a subtle, non-invasive but functional lighting system to allow visitors to see the beautiful 4,000-year-old art without damaging it.


Late Roman gold coin hoard found in Como

September 10th, 2018

A unique hoard of gold coins from the late Imperial era has been discovered in downtown Como, Lombardy, northern Italy. The coins were unearthed on Wednesday, September 5th, in an archaeological excavation at the site of the former Cressoni Theater which is being redeveloped. They were contained in a soapstone amphora which has a big chunk missing so the pile of glimmering coin within was clearly visible at first sight.

The amphora was transported to the conservation laboratory of the regional archaeological Superintendency where it is currently being excavated. The coins were tightly packed in little stacks. It will take a long time to complete the job because the contents have to be removed one piece at a time paying close attention to stratigraphy. Layer analysis will be key to determining if the coins were deposited in the same era or over a period of time.

So far 27 gold coins have been recovered and examined. They all date to the 5th century. Coins from this period are very rare because currency didn’t flow as efficiently through the imperial economic system. The quantity and quality of the coins are exceptional, especially for the late empire. The 27 were minted in the reigns of the Emperors Honorius (r. 384–423), Valentinian III (r. 425-455), Leo I the Thracian (r. 457-474) and his short-lived co-emperor Libius Severus (r. 461-465).

No such hoard has even been unearthed in northern Italy before. The gold is in an excellent state of preservation making the images and engravings on the coins and thus the engraver, year and sponsor relatively easily to discern.

There are an estimated 300 coins in the amphora (which is itself of major significance because it is of a previously unknown design), and not just coins. Archaeologists have reason to believe there may be other precious objects deep in the amphora hidden amidst the dense coin clusters, small pieces like pins, figurines and ingots. One gold bar has already been found and two other objects yet to be identified.

Whoever placed the jar in that place “buried it in such a way that in case of danger they could go and retrieve it,” said Maria Grazia Facchinetti, a numismatist — or expert in rare coins — at a Monday press conference.

“They were stacked in rolls similar to those seen in the bank today,” she said, adding the coins have engravings about emperors Honorius (r. 384–423), Valentinian III, Leon I, Antonio, and Libio Severo “so they don’t go beyond 474 AD.”

“All of this makes us think that the owner is not a private subject, rather it could be a public bank or deposit,” Facchinetti added.

The find site is just a few feet away from the forum of the Roman city where merchants, banks and temples would have done brisk cash business. It was also an elite residential neighborhood, however, so it’s not out of the question that a private individual rolled up his own wealth.


More treasure from Yukon. Kinda.

September 9th, 2018

Not as old nor as unique as the atlatl but in the category more traditionally held to be treasure is a cache of coins found in Dawson City, Yukon, by construction crews building a new recreational trail. The stack of 23 coins was found a foot under the ground. There are both Canadian and American coins ranging in date from 1864 to 1902.

“These are coins that would have been in common circulation during the [Klondike] Gold Rush,” said Christian Thomas, special projects archeologist from the Yukon government.

“You don’t find money usually, abandoned at some of these historic sites… people usually kept their money with them and wouldn’t abandon those kind of valuable objects,” he said.

It’s no treasure trove, though. The coins have a face value of about $9.50, which Thomas said would not have gone far in gold rush-era Dawson City, when a pound of butter was selling for about $5.

“They probably would have been worth more in Seattle,” Thomas said.

Apples were a dollar apiece in Dawson City in 1898. Eggs ran a whopping three bucks a pop. Thus proving the point so artfully articulated by Deadwood‘s Al Swearengen that the real money in a gold rush is to be made not by prospecting, but by selling crap to prospectors. Adjusted for inflation, the coins’ face value today totals about $243.

There’s no chance of identifying the owner. Anybody could have buried them in that spot. At the time of the gold rush, that area of town, known as the Menzies Addition, was in the bustling downtown where masses of people came and went all the time. They don’t call it a rush for nothing. The residents were largely transient folks with temporary gigs like day labourers and miners who had come to Dawson City with high hopes of striking it rich in an instant only to find nothing but drudgery and bare subsistence. Most of them would give up and leave within a year.

None of the buildings from that time have survived because they were largely transient too. There are no extant property records either, which means no surveyed plots, clear property lines, or real estate sale/lease contracts naming names. The documents that do exist are property tax records. They tell many a sad tale of foreclosure after foreclosure, indicating the transitory nature of settlement in Dawson City during the Yukon gold rush.

The coins are being kept in the Dawson City town safe for now while they await their final disposition. They may wind up at the Dawson City Museum.


Roman mosaic floor found in Switzerland

September 8th, 2018

Construction of a new water pipe in Avenches, Switzerland, has unearthed a Roman mosaic floor of high quality and technique. The mosaic is about five feet by five feet and consists of geometric, floral and animal designs surrounded by a border of yellow tesserae. The thick border is dotted with larger marble tiles of different colors cut into irregular shapes. In the center of the mosaic is a medallion featuring two birds perched on a kantharos (a drinking cup).

The Roman settlement of Aventicum was founded around 15 B.C. and became a provincial capital as was an official colonia. It was a trade hub whose prosperity shows in the remains of several large-scale public buildings including an amphitheater, a theater, a temple complex and baths. The area where the pipeline is being installed was an outlying neighborhood along the ancient road between the western gate and the city’s temple complex. Judging from the remains of dwellings that have been found there, it was a wealthy enclave.

It has been only archaeologically surveyed a few times before now. The area under the Avenches bypass road was first excavated in the 1960s when the old road was widened. The remains of a temple enclosure, a sanctuary portico and the ancient town’s main road were discovered then, as were the remains of several buildings along the Roman road. Four years ago there was a significant dig 500 feet away from the current site and a handful of trenches were dug in 2005 and 2008.

The new dig covers far more ground. Since work on the municipal project began in April, crews have dug a trench a third of a mile long and archaeologists from the Roman Site and Museum of Avenches (SMRA) have been on site the entire time to monitor the work. The mosaic floor was part of a building built on the side of the decumanus maximus (the main road through town).

The mosaic is still in situ for now. The pipes will continue to be installed there and any ancient remains left in place will be damaged or even destroyed. In this case, the mosaic will be cleaned and documented before it is moved to the Roman Museum of Avenches.


Complete atlatl found in Yukon’s melting ice

September 7th, 2018

A helicopter pilot who had just dropped off some researchers at the melting Yukon ice patches near Carcross, Canada, found an incredibly well-preserved atlatl at the base of one of those ice patches. It’s not just the spear tip, but the entire hurling weapon from pointy front to the butt of the shaft. It is the first complete atlatl ever found in Yukon, as far as we know.

A few moments after the researchers he had flown to the site set out to explore the area, the pilot spotted the spear. He called out to them that he’d found something they should look at.

At first, Jennifer Herkes didn’t realize what had been found — she thought it was a piece of an atlatl dart.

“I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s neat,'” she recalled.

Then she saw it wasn’t just a piece — it was the whole spear.

“My heart rate started increasing, and I got goose bumps all over. I’d never seen anything like that before, it was amazing,” said Herkes, who is the heritage manager for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in Yukon.

“The feathers, the sinew, the sap they would have used as, like, a glue to attach the stone point to the wood shaft — all of it is completely intact.”

The find is of immense historical significance. It is at least 1,000 years old and because every element is present, it can shed unique light on how the Indigenous people of Yukon made and used weapons, how they hunted, what materials were available to them and more.

Then there’s the cultural significance.

“When you have a full complete spear like that, it really allows people to connect with their heritage and what their ancestors were doing on the land, thousands of years ago,” she said.

“Everybody gets really excited. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to pull my phone out to show pictures to different people. It’s a pretty great way to bring the community together.”

It’s a pretty great picture. The spear looks like it was made yesterday. In order to keep it looking so pristine, the atlatl has been placed in cold storage. That will keep it from decaying. It did thaw, however, when the ice patch it was embedded in melted, so it will require attention from conservators to ensure its long term preservation. The Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Cultural Services Branch of Yukon’s Department of Tourism and Culture will study how best to conserve it.

“We’ll do our best to keep it as fully intact as possible, because I think that’s where the true value lies — in being able to have that fully intact piece of history,” she said.


Medieval game board brick found in Vybord

September 6th, 2018

Archaeologists excavation the Vyborg Castle in Russia’s Leningrad Oblast near the border with Finland have unearthed a brick that was used as a game board in the Middle Ages. It appears that the game grid was engraved on the brick before it was fired. The brick was discovered in an underground passage in the northern section of the castle that connected the storehouse to the moat, and may even have extended all the way in to the city of Vybord.

The game board is for a game named tablei, which translates to “mill,” was similar to a Nine Men’s Morris. Two players with nine pieces each, one side black, one white, faced off over a simple grid.

In the game, each player aims to claim the other’s men, much like the pieces in chess. When a player builds a “mill” — a row of three men—on the grid-like board, they are rewarded with an opponent’s game piece. Once a player is down to just two men, they are unable to form mills and their opponent claims victory.

Located on the Finnish border with Russia, Vyborg Castle was built in the 13th century and extensively renovated in the 16th. It began to fall into disrepair in the 17th century and switched hands between Russia and Finland several times before being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944. Neither the USSR nor the Russian Federation did much in the way of upkeep of the once-vital strategic stronghold and its city. This is the first time a thorough, dedicated archaeological excavation has been done at Vyborg. Before then there were only small-scale surveys accompanying basic construction and repair work.

The dig has been exceptionally fruitful. Last month archaeologists found a bag full of 38 two-kopeck coins dating to the reign of Tsar Alexander I (1801-1825) under a parapet wall. They have also laser scanned the underground passage and made a 3D model of it.


14th c. Venetian gold ducat found in Sweden

September 5th, 2018

Archaeologists have a most unexpected discovery in an excavation of the medieval port town of Elleholm in southern Sweden: a 14th century Venetian gold ducat. It is the first coin from medieval Venice ever found in Sweden.

It was minted during the rule of Doge Andrea Dandalo, the the 54th doge of Venice who reigned from 1343 to 1354. On the obverse is a depiction of Jesus Christ surrounded by a pointed oval of light known as a mandorla (almond). The reverse features Saint Mark giving a standard to the Doge.

Elleholm is an island in the Mörrumsån river so small the town occupied pretty much the entire surface area. It was founded around the castle of Sjöborg and there is tree-ring evidence from the remains of a bridge that it was an active port already in 1343 even though it was only given official municipal rights in 1450. The castle is first mentioned in historical sources in 1424. There was excellent salmon fishing in the river and while the island was small, there was enough river around it to make viable shipping lanes.

The Blekinge region was Danish territory then. The Archbishop of Lund (Lund was a Danish diocese) inhabited the castle and owned the city until the Reformation kicked out the Catholic bishop in 1536 and Elleholm was transferred to the Swedish crown. It saw a lot of action in its short life. The city was raised in 1436 by the forces of Swedish nobleman Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson during his rebellion against the Kalmar Union (the union of Sweden, Denmark and Norway under one king, Eric of Pomerania). It was destroyed again in 1524 during the Scanian rebellion of Søren Norby in support of Christian II of Denmark who had been forced to abdicate the year before.

The see of Lund was suppressed in 1553 and by 1600 the once-prosperous port town was abandoned. It wasn’t ideally located for a major shipping center. It was upstream and so small that bigger ships couldn’t comfortably reach the island itself. With larger ships, larger cargoes and greater volumes of trade, successful ports had direct access to the sea. The city of Elleholm was never rebuilt and today there aren’t even any remains of it above ground.

It was only excavated once before in 1924 and that was a small exploration of the castle. Blekinge Museum and Kulturen, a folk history museum in Lund, began digging at Sjöborg in 2016 and have continued every season since then. Their discoveries have revealed a whole new picture of the history of this mysterious site.

The gold ducat and another artifact found in the dig — a Flemish lead seal dating to the first half of the 14th century — are evidence that Elleholm did international business from close to its inception, more than a century earlier than scholars previously believed it to be active.

“To find the first coin ever found in Sweden from the medieval Venice here, suggests it was an international trading port,” Marcus Sandekjer, head of Blekinge Museum, told The Local. […]

“Of course when you find coins from Italy in the Archbishop’s city, it’s tempting to think that it has something to do with ties to Italy and to the Pope,” Sandekjer said. “But that is just a hypothesis.”





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