Summer solstice at Pompeii

June 23rd, 2020

The sun was hiding behind the clouds up at Stonehenge this year, but it was a lens-flarin’ spectacle at Pompeii.

The Via di Nola and Via dell’Abbondaza face the sun at summer solstice. They are aligned within less than half a degree of the solstice sunrise azimuth. This is a feature seen in other Roman cities, including Pompeii’s neighbor Herculaneum. Ancient writers record that it was customary to orient a town’s main street, the Decumanus, towards to sun where it rises on a day of special significance to the town. Solstice sunrise was a special day for many Roman towns and forts. Archaeologists suspect the origins of the practice goes back to the Etruscans whose religious rituals the Romans absorbed.

Already at the beginning of the last century, antiques and archaeological research investigated the urban orientation of Pompeii and its relationship with astronomical orientations and the sun. As part of the wider program of studies on the cities of Campania, the doctoral course of the Department of Letters and Cultural Heritage of the University of Campania, combining astronomy and archeology and moving from scientific data, investigates the ancient urban systems, from Capua to Calatia to Sorrento. The Archaeological Park of Pompeii opened its doors shortly before dawn to the small group of scholars composed of Carlo Rescigno, Michele Silani, Carmela Capaldi and Ilaria De Cristofaro. The sun, on the day when it ‘stays’ longer in the sky, arose from the tip of the mountain on Via di Nola and dell’Abbondanza and from these streets it was photographed in its blinding halo. The city of Athena and Apollo, of Diana and Venus, is also told by the lines, apparently silent, of its many orientations. And documenting the city, the summer solstice was celebrated in a Pompeii illuminated by the first light of dawn, immersed in history and in its many possibilities of knowledge.


Rare whale bones found in Leith

June 22nd, 2020

Two bones from a whale that may date as far back as the medieval period have been discovered in Leith, Scotland. Archaeologists surveying the site of a new tramway unearthed the rare bones earlier this year between the post office and a scrap yard on Constitution Street. They are the radius and ulna from the fin of a large adult male sperm whale and are a matched pair. They have not been radiocarbon dated yet because a pandemic rudely got in the way, but the archaeological context suggests they could be as much as 800 years old, dating to the earliest days of Leith’s settlement.

Located at the mouth of the Leith river on the Firth of Forth coast just north of Edinburgh, Leith has served as the city’s major port since the 12th century. Shipbuilding and whaling were two of its major industries from inception, the latter continuing well into the 1960s when ships had to go far afield to Arctic and Antarctic waters to find any whales left to kill.

Amongst possible theories are that they were brought back in the 19th or 20th century as a memento as part of Leith’s historic whaling industry, that they came from the remains of a whale beached locally and were subsequently dumped there or that they were part of medieval deposits left there during the reclamation of the site in the 17th to 19th centuries, perhaps dating back to the medieval period.

Other finds of note made during the exploration include an iron cannonball likely dating to the 17th century when the defenses of this area of Leith were reinforced during the Civil War, the remains of large stone wall that may have been part of a seawall built in the 16th or 17th century.

When the archaeological work began in November 2019, the team took down a wall from a graveyard that was established on the site in 1790 and in so doing discovered a large charnel pit with tightly stacked bones. This was probably created when graves were disturbed during the construction of utilities on Constitution Street in 19th century. The graveyard itself will be excavated later this year.

City archaeologist John Lawson said: “Our work to excavate the area as part of preparatory work for the Trams to Newhaven project has offered really interesting glimpses into the area’s history, over the past three to four hundred years, and we’re endeavouring to conserve that.

“Discoveries like the whale bones have been particularly fascinating and exciting. These bones provide a rare glimpse into and also a physical link with Leith’s whaling past, one of its lesser known maritime industries and one which in the 20th century reached as far as the Antarctic. Given the circumstances of how they were found it is possible that they may date back to the medieval period, and if so would be a rare and exciting archaeological discovery in Edinburgh.”


Lucca crucifix is Europe’s oldest wooden statue

June 21st, 2020

A revered crucifix in the Cathedral of Saint Martin in Lucca has been discovered to be hundreds of years older than previously believed, making it the oldest surviving wooden sculpture in Europe. The Volto Santo (Holy Face) di Lucca is a monumental sculpture more than eight feet long depicting Christ on the cross. It is itself a holy relic and as such has never been radiocarbon dated before because the testing requires taking samples and destroying a part of the cross.

This year marks the 950th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral. As part of program of events to celebrate its venerable history, the Cathedral of San Martino asked the Institute of Applied Physics and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics to analyze and date the sculpture. Technology now allows for radiocarbon dating extremely small samples, so for the first time, permission was granted to remove tiny bits for testing. Four samples were taken from different places on the crucifix — three of the wood and one fragment of canvas affixed between the wood and the paint in a technique known as incamottatura. They were carefully treated and cleaned to remove any organic residues or varnishes that might alter the data. The dates of all the samples converged around the early 9th century, but the possible range goes back as far as the late 8th century to the middle of the 9th.

That early potential date sets off a frisson of excitement, because it matches the legend behind the sculpture. According to the traditional tale relayed in a 12th century manuscript, the statue was carved by Nicodemus, the Pharisee who helped Joseph of Arimathea wrap the body of Jesus after the crucifixion, but as he was Jewish and therefore prohibited from depicting a human visage, angels carved the face of Christ, hence the “Volto Santo” even though it’s a full-bodied sculpture.

For 700 years it remained hidden in the city of Ramla, modern-day central Israel, where it was rediscovered by a northern Italian bishop named Gualfredo during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. An angel came to him in a dream and told him where to find it. He had it loaded onto a ship at Jaffa and put it out to sea without a crew or sails, praying that it would reach Christian lands. It reached the town on Luni the northern coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. John I, Bishop of Lucca, was visited by an angel in a dream and told to fetch the Volto Santo from Luni. The feat accomplished, he brought the statue to Lucca in 782, the second year of the reign of Pepin, son of Charlemagne, as King of Italy.

Its first appearance on the historical, rather than hagiographic, record is when Bishop Anselmo da Biaggio presented it to the cathedral of Lucca at its consecration in 1070. Art historians have long thought based on the carving style that the sculpture now in the cathedral was made after that date, that it was a mid-12th century copy of a lost original that was the kernel of truth in the legend.  The C-14 results prove that it is not a later medieval copy, but the original Volto Santo and it could even date to the time when legend says it arrived in Lucca.


Livestream summer solstice at Stonehenge

June 20th, 2020

Stonehenge is closed right now and won’t open until next month, leaving hundreds of disappointed pilgrims and tourists who would otherwise have flocked to the ancient site to see the dawn break over the Heel stone. English Heritage is offering an alternative experience open to everyone in the world: a livestream of sunset today and sunrise tomorrow morning.

The sunset broadcast begins in less than two hours, 8:26 PM GMT (4:26 PM EDT). Sunrise kicks off at a bracing 3:52 AM GMT, which will be shortly before midnight tonight EDT. The video streams will go live a half hour beforehand.

If weather cooperates, and so far it looks good, this is going to be a unique opportunity to view Stonehenge’s interactions with the sun on the longest day of the year because English Heritage will have cameras set up to capture the scene to its best advantage and there will be no people there to get in the way. This is what it looked like last year, just to give you an idea of what a mob scene it usually is:

To join in the remote revelry, simply go to English Heritage’s Facebook page. You don’t need to sign up, sign in or do anything at all other than click and watch. If you’d like to enhance your enjoyment of the moment by learning more about Stonehenge and summer solstice, the excellent weekly English Heritage podcast recently dedicated an episode to it which you can listen to here.

If you aren’t able to view the livestreams, the recorded videos will be posted later on English Heritage’s Facebook page.

And the sunrise (albeit a little short on sun):


Museum acquires Roman lead pig ingot of national importance

June 19th, 2020

An inscribed Roman lead pig designated of national importance has been acquired by the Wrexham Museum. It was discovered last September by metal detectorist Rob Jones in a field near Rossett, northeastern Wales. He dug up a corner of the object, saw that it had an inscription on it and alerted the local finds liaison officer.

Archaeologists from the Wrexhamn Museum and Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust fully excavated the find and surrounding area. The object turned out to be a large lead ingot or pig. It is a rectangle on the long sides with a trapezoid cross-section. At its maximum dimensions, it is 21 inches long, 6.3 inches wide and 4.3 inches high. Some of the lead is missing from one end of it and there are copious cut marks on the surfaces. It weighs 140 pounds.

Lead was mined and processed in several areas of the new province including in north-east Wales where lead processing sites have been excavated near Flint, presumably smelting ores extracted from the nearby Halkyn Mountain. A number of lead ingots of slightly later date are known from these works, often marked with the name of the local pre-Roman tribe called the Deceangli.

Susie White, the local Finds Officer (NE Wales) commented “It has been suggested in the past that similar exploitation took place in the Wrexham area around Minera and particularly Ffrith, where there is a known Roman site, although clear evidence is absent, probably as the result of more recent mining activity.

“We don’t yet know where this ingot has come from and we will probably never know where it was going to. However given the find spots of other ingots from Britain of similar date, it may have been destined for continental Europe, perhaps even Rome itself. The object could tell us a great deal about this important period of our past, a period which is still poorly understood in this area of the country.”

Fewer than a hundred such lead ingots from Roman Britain are known today, and the inscription on this one makes it undisputably one of a kind. It is almost intact, missing only the very beginning which we can interpolate easily from the information in the rest of the inscription. It reads: CAES ^ AVG ^ BR͡IT ^ X ṂAGVL ^ F̣VSVM ^ OP I͡N ^ P͡ROV ^ T͡R͡EB͡E͡L ^ MAXIMO ^ LEG ^ AVG. In full words: [Neronis] Caes(aris) Aug(usti) (plumbum) Brit(annicum) (e)x Magul(…) fusum op(eribus) in prov(incia) Trebel(lio) Maximo leg(ato) Aug(usti). Translation: (Property) of Nero Caesar Augustus, British (lead) from Magul(…), smelted at the works in the province when Trebellius Maximus was imperial legate.

Inscription on Roman lead pig, mid-60s A.D. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Marcus Trebellius Maximus served as governor of Britannia under Nero from 63-69 A.D. In the wake of the Boudiccan revolt of 60/1, Trebellius’ aim was to pacify and stabilize Britain and get to the business of exploiting the province’s rich mineral resources, one of the main motivations for Claudius’ conquest of the island.

He is known from ancient literary sources, primarily Tacitus who mentions him in the Annals, Agricola and the Histories, but very few inscriptions from the empire record his name. This is the only archaeological reference to Marcus Trebellius Maximus ever discovered in Britain.

It is among the earliest dated inscriptions recording Roman seizure of Britain’s mineral wealth and testifies to its rapid exploitation following the spread of Roman power across the island. The production of the ingot presupposes prospection for metals, expropriation of mining sites and the mobilisation of labour, forced or voluntary, to mine and process metal-rich ores. The inscription also illustrates the bureaucratic control exercised over the production of valuable metals.


Hercules Segers motherlode online

June 18th, 2020

Visionary printmaker of the Dutch Golden Age Hercules Pieterszoon Segers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638) inspired artists whose names are much more famous than his today, most notably Rembrandt van Rijn who was an avid collector of Segers paintings and prints. Very few Segers works are known to survive today — 183 unique impressions from 53 plates and 18 paintings — and the Rijksmuseum has the largest single collection of them with 74 impressions, two oil sketches and one painting.

Segers’s prints are at the heart of the artist’s later fame. With an array of techniques whose identification has puzzled artists and scholars alike, he etched unusual colourful landscapes, seascapes, biblical scenes and other subjects. Rejecting the idea that prints from a single plate should all look the same, he produced impressions in varied colour schemes, on grounded paper or textiles, colouring his prints with the brush and altering his etching plates by adding lines in drypoint. Employing a variety of unusual techniques and materials, he turned each impression of his etchings into an individual work of art.

The collection formed the core of the landmark Segers retrospective exhibited at the Rijksmuseum in late 2016, early 2017 and subsequently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. That exhibition brought together almost all of the extant works known to exist today, including 110 prints and all 18 paintings. In preparing for the retrospective, researchers, scientists and art historians at the Rijksmuseum carried out an unprecedented in-depth study of Segers’ works. The study, which revolutionized understanding of his highly experimental techniques, was published in a new comprehensive oeuvre catalogue in 2017.

The Rijksmuseum has now made much of that information available for free in a new online collection catalogue. All of the museum’s Segers pieces can be viewed in the glorious high resolution to which the Rijksmuseum has made us accustomed with entries summarizing the results of the research and lending new insight into the artist’s process, materials and the dates of his works. The catalogue entries include all known information about the works from measurements to techniques to inscriptions and collectors’ marks usually found on the versos of prints. There are also links to works in the Rijksmuseum, other public collections and private ones that are connected in some way to the Segers prints.


WWII silver cache found in 14th c. castle

June 17th, 2020

A hoard of silver objects likely buried in World War II has been discovered on the grounds of a 14th century castle in Nowy Sącz, southern Poland. A group from the Nowy Sącz Historical and Exploratory Association were surveying a site near the castle tower when their metal detector alerted them to the presence of what turned out to be a rusted out chest. The crate was corroded almost to nothingness, but the treasure it contained was in excellent condition.

They first unearthed some paperwork — apparently passes and receipts — in poor condition. Under the pages the chest was filled with silver tableware, including goblets, stemware, cups, flatware, serving vessels and candlesticks. In total 103 silver objects were found in the disintegrating chest. The pieces date from the turn of the 19th-20th centuries and the design style identifies them as Jewish ceremonial art.

Local archaeologist Bartłomiej Urbański, who was present at the search site, said: “It is Judaica, probably from the turn of the 19th and 20th century, connected to Jewish ritual and was probably buried during World War Two.

He added: “Is it connected with the buildings that used to be in this part of the city, or was it stolen by the Germans, who were then unable to take it away?”

The town of Nowy Sącz was founded by Wenceslaus II of Bohemia in 1292, eight years before he became King of Poland. Its location near an important trade route to Hungary garnered it significant privileges. Wenceslaus replaced a wooden watchtower perched on a hill within the city’s fortifications with a castle. In the mid-1300s, King Casimir III the Great greatly expanded the royal castle, integrating it into the new defensive wall he had built around the city. This grander castle of Nowy Sącz had two corner towers, at least one other tower, a residential building with multiple stories, and probably a moat separating it from the city proper. For the next 300 years, Polish kings and queens and visiting Hungarian and Danish royalty stayed in the castle. It was devastated by fire twice, once in 1522, once in 1611. After the second fire, the castle was rebuilt and expanded again in Renaissance style by Count Sebastian Lubomirski and, after his death, by his son Stanisław. That phase ended in 1655 when the castle took heavy damage during the Deluge (Sweden’s invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). It was patched up a couple of times by Austrian authorities after the Partition, but it never really recovered.

It was rebuilt again on a much smaller scale in 1938 just in time for the Nazi invasion of Poland. German forces occupied the castle and used it as a barracks. Under German occupation, 20,000 Nowy Sącz Jews were forced into a ghetto. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and all of the town’s Jewish community was sent to slaughter in Bełżec extermination camp. German forces stored large quantities of ammunition at the castle and Polish resistance fighters blew up the depot in 1945, destroying what little was left of the castle. The tower was reconstructed one more time in 1959.

After so beleaguered an existence, only a smattering of walls a few feet high remain of the original 14th century structure. The town of   Nowy Sącz wants to rebuild the castle (yes, again) and convert the tower into a museum. The Sądecki Regional Development Agency contracted with the Nowy Sącz Historical and Exploratory Association to explore the castle ruins assisted by professional archaeologists. They were scanning for shrapnel and metal parts from the explosion when they discovered the silver cache.

The objects will now be transferred to archaeological conservators who will clean, conserve and catalogue them for future display in the local museum.


2000-year-old map carved into volcanic rock

June 16th, 2020

Thousands of years ago, an eruption of the Fuego de Colima volcano hurled a lava bomb nine miles south near the town of Colima, Mexico. The large basalt rock attracted the attention of local inhabitants who carved an elaborate petroglyph on the largest surface which faces the volcano that birthed it.

The stone, 5.5 feet high, between seven and nine feet wide and between two and 5.5 feet thick, is currently on private property. The presence of the petroglyph was reported to  the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) who dispatched a team of specialists to register the find on June 7th. They determined that it was a “stone map,” a carved overview of the area with topographical, geographical and population markers.

The identification is based on the designs and patterns and a comparison with other similar petroglyphs found in the region. At least three different techniques were used — polishing, pecking and wearing — to represent different features of the volcano’s landscape. Carved hollows represent populated villages and towns. Lines represent water routes down the mountainside.

Inspection of the map has been conducted by Archaeologist Rafael Platas Ruiz who has found that some features also correspond with the geographical landscape of the southern slope of the Colima volcano, with ravines and rivers clearly apparent.

Rafael Platas Ruiz said: “Without a doubt, these ‘map-stones’ helped to understand and facilitate the management of the land. Furthermore, they were a way of preserving knowledge from one generation to another, at a time when writing did not exist in the territory that is today Colima”.

Archaeologists estimate the carving was done between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., the Late Preclassic and Early Classic periods, based on the motifs and carving techniques. Ceramic sherds found nearby are much more recent, dating to the  Chanal or Postclassic Colimense phase (1000–1500 A.D.), but they were churned up over centuries of sugarcane cultivation so there is no usable stratigraphic context.


Happy birthday, Alfa Romeo!

June 15th, 2020

Venerable automaker Alfa Romeo celebrates its 110th anniversary in less than 10 days. In honor of the occasion, the company has released an e-book about its history from car models to its iconic logo incorporating the famous dragon eating a man, the emblem of the Visconti family which once ruled the city of Milan.

The first car was manufactured in 1910 when the company was still an acronym, A.L.F.A. (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, meaning “Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company”). The 42 HP could reach an impressive-for-the-time top speed of 62 miles per hour. Fifty of them were sold in the first year. The engine was strong enough to power a prototype biplane made of bicycle tubes.

A.L.F.A. built on the success of the 42 HP and quickly grew. By 1915 it had 2,500 employees manufacturing three models. Then came World War I. The factory was converted to wartime production — aircraft engines, munitions, compressors — until 1919 when Alfa resumed car production. With the new cars came a new name as Nicola Romeo, an engineer and entrepreneur who had acquired a majority of shares in 1915 and all of them by 1918, added his name to the brand. The first car to come off the line bearing the Alfa Romeo imprimatur was the 1921 Torpedo 20/30 HP.

This was the decade when Alfa made its bones in racing. Its first racing team included a certain Enzo Ferrari as a driver. Alfa’s innovations won it the most prestigious races of the time, the Le Mans, Mille Miglia and a myriad Grands Prix. They also made for some amazing looking cars, ones like the Tipo B Aerodinamica (1934) and the 8C 2900 Le Mans (1938) that wouldn’t be remotely out of place in a superhero’s secret cave lair.

Automobile production came to a halt again during the Second World War, but when it resumed in April 1945, it resumed with a bang. The first post-war Alfa Romeo was the Freccia d’Oro (Golden Arrow) produced in 1947 and beloved by crowned heads and Hollywood stars alike. Icons like the Spider and Giulia followed.

But it’s the prototypes that thrill me the most. The 1952 prototype Disco Volante (“flying saucer”) really does look like it should be dropping from the belly of a mothership. The greatest discovery in this ebook for me, however, is the 40-60 HP “Aerodinamica,” which was a private commission from Count Marco Ricotti in 1914. It was made entirely of lightweight aluminum and was shaped like a torpedo with porthole-style windows. The chassis and engine were exactly the same as the ones in the 40-60 HP production series, but the body was a pioneering attempt to harness the principles of aviation design for a land-going vehicle. It could reach a top speed of 86 mph, 12 miles faster than the standard 40-60 HP, thanks to its unique body confirmation. The tear-drop shape earned it the moniker Siluro (“torpedo”) Ricotti.

Alas, Count Ricotti chose … poorly. He had the car modified, some might say butchered, into a goofy roofless excursion vehicle. What was left of it after that did not survive. Alfa Romeo sought to remedy this cruel state of affairs and in 1979 commissioned an exact replica of the great Siluro recreated from the original designs. Recreating that torpedo body was more challenging as it had been produced by a separate company, the Carrozzeria Castagna, and no original designs for it exist. The Carrozzeria Castagna did have a photo in its archives of the Siluro’s manufacture, which gave the reconstruction team the information needed to replicate an accurate skeleton and external form. The new Siluro, a copy of the original in all its details including the unbelievable “damascene” finish of the aluminum, is now on display at the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese, Milan. The museum reopens after the long Italian lockdown on June 24th, Alfa Romeo’s 110th birthday.


Longhouse remains rewrite Iceland’s settlement history

June 14th, 2020

The Landnámabók (the Icelandic Book of Settlement) records that the first Norse settler on Iceland was one Ingólfur Arnarson who left Norway in 874 and built a farmstead on the site what is today Reykjavík. Remains of longhouses from around that time have been discovered under the city, as we know from the high-precision dating made possible by the layer of volcanic tephra ash deposited in 871 A.D. (plus or minus two years margin of error) by an eruption at the Torfajökull volcano field. A site on the Stöðvarfjörður fjord has not one but two structures that significantly predate the tephra ash and the official settlement of Iceland.

Archaeological remains were discovered at the Stöð farm by accident in 2003 and the first excavations began in 2015. Since then, archaeologists have found the remains of two structures, both of them under the tephra layer. They are Viking Age longhouses. The most recent one dates to between 860 and 870 and is 103 feet long, conspicuously larger than other early Settlement Era longhouses found in Reykjavík. The one discovered during hotel development in 2015 was 66 feet long.

Excavation leader Bjarni F. Einarsson:

“It is also the richest longhouse ever excavated in Iceland. We have found 92 beads and 29 silver objects, including Roman and Middle-Eastern coins.” The bead horde at Stöð is twice as large as the next two largest found in Iceland combined. In fact, it is one of the very largest ever found at a Viking-Age site in all of Scandinavia.

The older of the two longhouses is even huger at approximately 130 feet long. Radiocarbon analysis of barley grains found in the longhouse layer dates it to around 800 A.D., seven decades before Ingólfur Arnarson set food on Iceland’s shores. The younger farmhouse was built within the collapsed walls of the older one.

Bjarni’s theory is that the older longhouse was a seasonal hunting camp. He believes such camps were operated in other parts of Iceland as well. “We have found several sites in Iceland where we can confirm human presence before the year 874. The site on Aðalstræti in downtown Reykjavík is one. Another is Vogur in Hafnir [Southwest Iceland].”

Seasonal camps would have played a vital role in the settlement of Iceland, extracting valuable resources and thus financing further exploration and settlement. Recent paleoecological research suggests the valuable resource that drew them there was walrus ivory. Walrus ivory was in high demand in Europe in the ninth century, as were the animals’ blubber and hides. It was also valuable: a single walrus tusk was worth the annual wages of one farm worker.

The very name of the farm supports Einarsson’s position. Stöð means camp or base.





July 2020


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