Triple Hecate confiscated from smugglers

July 9th, 2019

Police have recovered a striking Roman-era marble statue during a smuggling bust in Turkey’s southwestern Denizli province. Two vehicles were being followed as part of a police investigation into antiquities smuggling. Anti-smuggling and anti-organized crime police units pulled the cars over, searched them and the statue was discovered inside one. Four individuals were detained on suspicion of violations of the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage Law.

The reports in the press are meager with little in the way of detail. The sculpture is sketchily described as three-headed statue of a beautiful woman with torches and wings, but I don’t think that’s accurate. For one thing, each head has its own body, albeit squared at the side. You can tell from the Doric chiton they each wear that it’s three individual figures, not a single three-headed lady. The central female figure holds a torch in each hand, the side figures hold torches in one hand. The reliefs on the back described as “wings” just look like their second arms to me. They’re very roughly hewn with the draping lines indicating the short sleeves and Playmobil style gripper hands, so I can see why someone might consider them winglike.

This is a triple Hecate. Hecate was a protective deity, guardian of gates and crossroads, often depicted holding double torches and as a threesome, handy when you’re keeping watch over all lines of approach. Pausanias, in his 2nd century travelogue Description of Greece, claims that the 5th century B.C. sculptor Alcamenes was the first to create a triple statue of Hecate. If so, he started a trend that would outlast ancient Greece and Rome and still be going strong in artistic motifs by the likes of William Blake.

The worship of Hecate was widespread in Thrace and Anatolia. It may have even originated there and spread to Greece later. Hecate was a particular favorite of the ancient city of Byzantium who would become in its later Roman incarnation the capital of one empire, then the capital of another and is today the city of Istanbul.

Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, flush from a number of military successes, turned his attention to the Hellespont in 340 B.C., and besieged the city of Perinthus on the Sea of Marmara west of Byzantium. Perinthus, perched on a high slope with strong walls and stone houses jammed close together to act as a secondary barrier once the walls were breached, defended by the allied forces of Athens and constantly resupplied by Byzantium, proved too tough a nut for Philip to crack.

Hoping to choke off Perinthus’ support and take advantage of the absence of many of Byzantium’s troops, weapons and war machines, Philip peeled off half his army from the siege of Perinthus and hit Byzantium. His strategem failed. Neither city fell and Philip was forced to make a truce with them and their allies. Plutarch attributes Philip’s loss to skill of the Athenian general Phocion. Diodorus Siculus chalks it up to Philip giving up when a bunch of other Greek cities sent reinforcements to break his sieges.

The account of 6th century chronicler Hesychius of Miletus, on the other hand, posits a less terrestrial explanation for Philip’s defeat. It was a dark and stormy night. The moonless sky was a perfect setting for a sneak attack by Macedon’s troops. All of a sudden, a bright light illuminated the heavens and the city’s dogs barked loudly. Byzantium’s defenders awoke and fended off Philip’s soldiers, defeating the Macedonian decisively. The great light was the work of Hecate protecting her most devoted adherents with the aid of the animal most sacred to her, the dog. The dramatic end of the siege was commemorated with a great statue overlooking the Bosphorus of Hecate Lampadephoros, the lamp-carrier.

Triple Hecates have been found throughout the Roman Empire, and Turkey, which has a solid claim to the origin of the cult, is certainly no exception. There’s a beautiful example in the Archaeological Museum in Antalya 140 miles southeast of Denizli. It’s very similar to the one recovered by the police, only the recent discovery lacks its handsome proportion and attention to detail. It’s the budget option, basically.

The confiscated statue is now in the hands of archaeologists at the regional museum who will study it further.

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Operation Night Watch begins today

July 8th, 2019

Operation Night Watch, the Rijksmuseum’s ambitious research and conservation project of Rembrandt’s massive masterpiece begins today, July 8th, in full public view. The monumental oil painting will remain in place instead of being moved to a lab. An ultra-transparent glass chamber has been erected around it to allow conservators and the complex technology they’ll be using to work in controlled condition even as visitors get a clear view of the action.

Never before has such a wide-ranging and thorough investigation been made of the condition of The Night Watch. The latest and most advanced research techniques will be used, ranging from digital imaging and scientific and technical research, to computer science and artificial intelligence. The research will lead to a better understanding of the painting’s original appearance and current state, and provide insight into the many changes that The Night Watch has undergone over the course of the last four centuries. The outcome of the research will be a treatment plan that will form the basis for the restoration of the painting.

Imaging techniques, including macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (macro-XRF) and infrared reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS), will help determine its current condition, and macro X-ray fluorescence scans will analyze the chemical make-up of the paint literally millimeter by millimeter. Each scan takes 24 hours and the team will have to do 56 of them to cover the whole work. The data will allow researchers to create an insanely detailed map of the pigments used in every layer, revealing any changes in composition and shedding new light on Rembrandt’s painting process.  

The high-resolution photography will be absolutely unprecedented. There will be 12,500 photographs taken ranging in resolution from 180 to 5 micrometres. No painting this size has ever been photographed as so high a resolution. Researchers (and the rest of us peering over their shoulders) will be able to study details invisible to the naked eye. 

The Night Watch will be removed from its frame for the initial research phase and placed on a bespoke easel. It will keep the work stable while experts study the entire canvas using two platform lifts to access every part of the masterpiece. 

For those of us who can’t attend in person, the Rijksmuseum website will offer video of the work in progress. There will also be special events on social media for the public around the world to learn more about the project. Those kick off today with an Instagram Live chat with Katrien Keune, head of Science at the Rijksmuseum. It starts at 5PM (11AM EST). If you have any questions about the research into the Night Watch and the conservation, pop over to Instagram and ask it.

You can see the extremely cool glass-walled enclosure built and the painting mounted in this time-lapse video:

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Original Apollo 11 moon landing film for sale

July 7th, 2019

The only surviving, first-generation film of the Apollo 11 moon landing is being sold at auction on July 20th, the 50th anniversary of that one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. This isn’t the iconic but grainy-as-hell footage that was broadcast live on television. This is what was shown on the screen at Mission Control in Houston and it is complete.

The lot consists of three 10.5-inch metal reels of videotape recorded at at Mission Control, Manned Spaceflight Center, Houston, Texas. The tapes run 45:04, 49:00, and 50:15 minutes, encompassing the entire lunar landing process including nine minutes at the beginning of the first tape when Mission Control was waiting for the Westinghouse TV camera mounted on the Lunar Landing Module’s (LM) Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly to be deployed on the lunar surface. Once the camera had captured the Neil Armstrong’s first steps, he and Aldrin recovered it from the MESA and mounted it on a tripod for the wider shots. 

This primary witness to mankind’s greatest technological achievement was inadvertently rescued by an engineering student from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, from the destruction visited upon the slow-scan videotapes of the historic first moon walk and preserved ever since. Viewed only three times since June 1976 (perhaps the only times since they were first recorded late in the evening on 20 July 1969 at NASA’s Mission Control Center, Houston, Texas), these three reels of 2-inch Quadruplex videotape justify a statement made during the mission by Capsule Communicator Charlie Duke to Apollo Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. Duke had told Collins, who was aboard Columbia in lunar orbit, that he was just about the only person in the world without television coverage of his crewmates’ planting of the United States flag on the moon. In response, Collins asked, “How is the quality of the TV?” “Oh,” replied the CAPCOM, “it’s beautiful, Mike, it really is.”

If these videotapes do not quite transport viewers to the lunar surface with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they certainly put you in front of the big screen monitor at Mission Control on the evening of 20 July 1969, with images clearer and with better contrast than those that the more than half-billion-person television audience saw on their home sets. Home viewers watched video that had been transmitted over a 1,600-mile relay of microwave transmission towers to the major television networks in New York City, with each transfer causing a bit of deterioration to the picture quality. In contrast, Mission Control saw the same video that is on these 2-inch quad videotapes: moving pictures sent directly to Houston from closed circuit TV transmissions from the lunar surface beamed to 64-meter-diameter radio telescopes at the Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek Observatories in New South Wales and Canberra, Australia, respectively, and NASA’s own similar-sized antenna in Goldstone, California.

It’s mind-boggling to think that such a historic treasure trove survived entirely by happenstance instead of being hoarded and lovingly conserved, but that’s what happened. When Gary George was an intern at the NASA Johnson Space Center in 1976, he went to a government surplus auction at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. For the prodigious sum of $217.77, he purchased a lot of 1,150 reels of magnetic tape once owned by NASA.

Some of the tapes were a reel-to-reel kind then used by television stations. Since it was expensive and re-recordable, George planned to sell them to local stations. He did sell some of them. The smaller format tapes most got tossed. It was his father who suggested he keep the videotapes with the Apollo 11 label, and thank the stars above Gary George listened to Dad. 

And so the tapes lay fallow but safe until 2008 when George learned that NASA was trying to find the original videotapes of the Apollo 11 moon landing. He contacted NASA but they weren’t able to sort out how even to view the tapes to see what was on them. He did his own research and found a video archivist capable of playing the tapes. In October of 2008, the video was viewed for the first time, possibly ever, and they were pristine. They were played again that December in order to be digitized. They were played one more time by Sotheby’s experts in preparation for the auction.

Meanwhile, NASA gave up on trying to locate the original videotapes of the SSTV high-resolution recordings they had so inexplicably taped over. Instead, they had CBS Television’s footage restored and upconverted in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 EVA. Now they have the chance to right this wrong, but it’ll cost them. The pre-sale estimate for the tapes $1,000,000 – 2,000,000.

By the way, that entire auction is a space nerd’s paradise. Be sure to browse the catalogue if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ll take the command module pin from Apollo 9, all of the rocket, satellite contractor and advertising models, and at least one of the prototype space suits. Oh, and the Mars globe too.

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Two rare boat graves found at Uppsala vicarage

July 6th, 2019

Two extremely rare boat graves have been discovered in an excavation of a vicagare in the village of Gamla Uppsala outside of Uppsala, southeastern Sweden. The location of yearly Things, religious celebrations, royal residences and burial mounds from prehistory through the Middle Ages, Gamla Uppsala is one of the most important archaeological sites in Sweden, so when the Swedish Church planned to build an addition to the vicarage, archaeologists from the National Historical Museums surveyed the construction site.

First the team unearthed a well and basement from a late medieval building. Underneath those remains, they found the two boat graves, burials in which deceased were inhumed in a boat dug into the ground and covered with soil. They date to the Viking era (800-1050 A.D.) or the Vendel Period (550-790 A.D.), the centuries bridging the Migration Period and the Viking Period. This is a sensational find, as only 10 known boat graves have been discovered in all of Sweden, and it’s been 50 years since the last boat grave was found.

One of the two was damaged, likely when the late medieval basement was built, but the other is intact. It contained the skeletal remains of an adult male buried in the stern of the boat. He was interred with valuable personal belongings including a sword, spear, shield and an ornate comb.

The bow of the boat held the remains of a dog and a horse. Iron fittings from the horse’s gear were still in place. The horse and dog probably belonged to the man and were slain and buried with him to accompany their master into death.

Remains of the boats were also discovered. Iron rivets have survived, and even more rarely, so has some of the wooden planking. The damaged boat burial appears to have been the largest, with an estimated length of at least 23 feet. The elements from the boats are of particular archaeological importance because they may reveal whether the vessels were old or specifically manufactured for funerary purposes.

The untouched grave is a boon for archaeologists because this will be the first time they have an opportunity to use the latest and greatest technologies and scientific analyses on a boat grave. There is so much we can learn from the smallest samples of soil, organic material, bone and metal that wasn’t even a remote possibility 50 years ago.

While the studies are ongoing, a selection of the finds will be on display this summer at Gamla Uppsala Museum and this fall at the Historical Museum in Stockholm.

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Lewis Chessman sells for $929,000

July 5th, 2019

The long-lost Lewis chessman has sold at a Sotheby’s auction for £735,000 ($929,000). The warder from the famous medieval set believed to have been made Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th or 13th century, set a new world record for a medieval chesspiece sold at auction, which should surprise absolutely nobody given how iconic the Lewis Chessmen have become. No word yet on who the lucky buyer is. All we know is it’s an “anonymous bidder.” I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s a museum and they’re just preparing an official announcement.

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World’s largest mosaic opens to the public this year

July 4th, 2019

The world’s largest intact mosaic will open to the public this year in Antakya, Turkey, as part of the newly built Antakya Museum Hotel.  The 1,300-year-old, 9,000-square-foot mosaic was discovered in 2010. Archaeologists believe this vast mosaic with intricate geometries was the floor of a public building in the ancient city of Antioch. It was damaged during a series of major earthquakes in 526 and 528 A.D., but some of that damage only enhances its spectacular visual qualities because the mosaic remained connected to the floor and mostly intact even as the foundation itself undulated wildly.

Founded in 300 B.C. by one of Alexander the Great’s successor generals Seleucus I Nicator, Antioch was the capital of the Seleucid Empire until it was conquered by Rome in 63 B.C. and became the seat of the governor. Its location made it a hub of trade between the Mediterranean and the East. At its peak, Antioch had a population of half a million and was so important that it was considered a rival first to Alexandria and then to Constantinople as the second most important city in the Empire.

Today Antakya is internationally known for the great number and high quality of mosaics that have been found under its streets. The Hatay Archaeological Museum has a collection of Roman mosaics that is without peer, most of them lifted from excavations and conserved indoors. So it was not unexpected when construction of a new hotel revealed a spectacular late Roman mosaic. The approach taken to its preservation, however, diverged from the well-trodden path of earlier discoveries.

The sheer enormity of the mosaic required a different plan of action. Instead of lifting the mosaic, or part of it, or covering it for its own protection and building over it, archaeologists and architects worked together to create a hybrid: a museum hotel. The Antakya Museum Hotel, located near the Church of St. Peter, a crusader-era church built around a cave believed to be one of the earliest Christian churches in the world, would be built using the archaeology of the site as a lodestar.

EAA-Emre Arolat Architecture placed structural columns along the a former riverbed that crosses through the middle of the site and outside the perimeter of the mosaic. They built a platform on top of the columns to house the hotel’s amenities — ballroom, conference rooms, pool, gym — with passageways and viewing points for guests to view the incredible archaeology beneath them. The rooms are prefabricated units stacked on top of each other, which reduced the amount of on-site construction and the potential damage to the mosaic. The walkways and bridges that connect the rooms create an open space where the archaeology is in sight throughout the building.

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Execution chains found at gallows site in Poland

July 3rd, 2019

An excavation of a centuries-old gallows site in Żagań, western Poland, has unearthed extremely rare execution chains used in public hangings in place of rope. The site is known as Gallows Hill because it was the gibbet used for public executions from the 16th to the 18th century. The condemned would be hanged or decapitated and their bodies left to rot, very visible examples of the fate any potential criminals had to look forward to should they choose to break the law.

One of the two chains found is fragmentary, with only a single link extant. The other has four links and archaeologists believe it was complete. That would make it the third complete execution chain ever discovered in Poland.

Lead archaeologist Dr. Daniel Wojtucki from the University of Wrocław believes the iron chains were used to ensure the dead bodies would hang for a good long time, rotting away gradually in full public view. Rope frays and breaks, especially when it has been subject to the stress of a weighted drop, but chains will easily outlast the decaying corpse. Iron nails used to attach the ropes or chains to the gallows were also unearthed.

According to others – for example Magdalena Majorek, who leads the excavations in Żagań together with Bartosz Świątkowski, archaeologist from the University of Gdańsk – they were used mainly for people who committed serious crimes.

“Chains of this type constrained the larynx, so this execution method was very painful” – the researcher adds.

According to the researchers, one of the chains was used during the execution of the death sentence issued in September 1716 by the Prague Appeals Chamber. Dr. Wojtucki estimates that the execution took place at the turn of 1717.

There are no precise records tallying up the number of people executed on Gallows Hill. Researchers estimate the figure was at least in the dozens, and the excavation unearthed thousands of bones and bone pieces. Among the findings were skulls and individual bones, but also one intact inhumation burial. That individual had been decapitated and his head placed between his feet.

The site didn’t just hold the remains of the executed criminals. This year’s dig uncovered two burials parallel to each other with a respectful distance between them, the kind of plots you’d find in a cemetery. Convicts were not afforded that privilege. Archaeologists believe these were suicides. Unable to be buried in the consecrated ground of the churchyard, they were interred in the other place of the dead.

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New Bronze Age cairn found near famous one in Anglesey

July 2nd, 2019

Archaeologists excavating a burial mound near the 5,000-year-old passage tomb of Bryn Celli Ddu have unearthed a 4,000-year-old cairn. Bryn Celli Ddu is famed for its passage tunnel that aligns with the rising sun on summer solstice. Excavations of the area around the tomb have revealed that it was a site of great ritual significance for thousands of years, generations returning to make their mark on the landscape their ancestors had marked before them.

This is the fifth consecutive year of excavations at the site. The digs and ground-penetrating radar surveys have revealed several structures and artifacts buried around the passage tomb, including rock art, a Neolithic pit circle, pottery and stone tools. Bryn Celli Ddu was first built in the Neolithic era as an earth embankment and ditch surrounded a stone circle and then added to and altered over the course of centuries. The stone circle was replaced with a chambered tomb, a corridor leading to an eight-foot burial chamber whose contents include human bones, flint arrowheads and a large pattern stone carved in a curvilinear design. On the summer solstice and only on the summer solstice, the rising sun shines through the passageway and light the octagonal burial chamber.

This year the team turned its attention to a mound 150 feet away from the passage tomb. They found the burial cairn was built in the Bronze Age — radiocarbon testing of some of the pottery unearthed in the mound returned a date of 1900 B.C. — but it looks like some of the artifacts it contains might be much older. Archaeologists found flint tools and a double kerb of massive stones, some weighing more than a ton. The cairn appears to be larger than its famous neighbor.

No evident human remains have been unearthed thus far, however it’s possible fragmentary remains might be discovered in the recovered material once it is analyzed.

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Roman child’s chamber pot found in Bulgaria

July 1st, 2019

In what must be a thrilling way to mark the 60th consecutive year of excavations at Novae, archaeologists have unearthed an ancient Roman chamber pot. The clay chamber pot is 20 inches deep with a flat bottom and wide flared top edge. There is no handle. The diameter is small enough to indicate it was meant for children, but it could also have been used (carefully) by adults in the household. A small person would have been able to perch on the flared edge of the pot and use it as a seat.

The pot was found on the south side of a 2nd-3rd century Roman villa. The bedrooms were located in that part of the house, which is where you’d expect a chamber pot to be found. A masonry channel runs on the other side of the room’s wall and a clay pipeline leading to a latrine at the southwest corner of the villa. No fragments of marble or stone from a latrine seat have been found. Archaeologists suspect the toilet seats were wood, an example of which so far has only managed to survive the millennia at Vindolanda.

Chamber pots are the kind of common-use object that would have been a widespread consumer good in the empire. They’re likely to have been found in significant numbers at Roman sites. Indeed, this is the fourth chamber pot archaeologists have unearthed just in this one villa, all of them relatively small and all of them in the southern part of the house.  It’s possible they were placed in the children’s rooms for nighttime use while the adults availed themselves more frequently of the latrine. Yet there is very little scholarship documenting chamber pot finds. Lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Pavlina Vladkova from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History believes this lacuna is likely an identification issue, that clay vessels used as chamber pots may not be definitely recognizable as such.

Novae began as a military camp, one of the important strategic outposts guarding the border of Moesia along the south Danube. Legions occupied the castrum from 45 A.D. until the invasion of the Huns in 441 A.D., and with them came business, families and a civilian settlement with major civic buildings, temples, public baths, shops and homes both humble and grand. This villa was definitely on the grand side.

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Lahun pyramid opens to public

June 30th, 2019

Egypt has opened the 4,000-year-old Pyramid of Lahun to the public for the first time. The mud-brick pyramid near the city of Faiyum was built for 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senusret II who had done extensive works expanding water access and arable land in Faiyum during his reign (1897-1878 B.C.). He moved the royal necropolis to Lahun and built a workers’ quarter to house the people employed in the construction of the pyramid complex.

The pyramid was first excavated by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1889. The pyramid’s contents had been thoroughly looted by then (Flinders Petrie actually found the royal burial chamber via a tunnel dug by tomb raiders and only discovered the actual entrance by working backwards from there), but he did discover a gold and inlay royal uraeus in a flooded chamber, a piece of pharaonic regalia lost by the plunderers on their way out.

There are several unique features about this pyramid. Old and Middle Kingdom tombs typically placed the entrance on the north face, hidden behind a chapel. Senusret II had the chapel built in the usual location, but it concealed no entrance. Instead, the entrance corridor wasn’t in the pyramid; it was a vertical shaft under the tomb of a princess’ tomb 36 feet east of the pyramid’s south face. This was done to deter grave robbers, alas to little avail.

The pyramid was originally clad in white limestone with a black granite pyramidion topper. Some fragments of the latter have been found, but the limestone was stripped and reused for another construction project by 19th Dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II. Thousands of years of harsh elements did not improve its condition and extensive conservation had to be done to make it safe for visitors.

“The conservation work includes the removal of debris found inside the pyramid’s corridors and burial chamber and installing wooden stairs to facilitate its entrance,” Mostafa Waziri, General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in a statement.

“It also includes re-installing the fallen stones in the hall and corridor to its original location after restoration, as well as restoring the deteriorated stones of its floor and installing a new lighting system.”

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