Bronzes from sacred baths to go on display

The 24 Etruscan and Roman bronze statues discovered at the ancient sacred baths at San Casciano dei Bagni in Tuscany will go on display for the first time later this month. After months of meticulous restoration in a laboratory in Grosseto, the bronzes will go on display in the Quirinale Palace in Rome on June 22nd.

Dating to between the 3rd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., the bronzes were left as votive offerings by visitors seeking cures for a myriad of illnesses from the deities believed to inhabit the hot springs of the thermal baths. Petitioners left coins and figurines of body parts in need of healing. People with the deepest pockets left larger, whole-body statues of the shrine’s deities, including Hygieia and Apollo, and of the afflicted.

The baths were abandoned and deliberately sealed by toppled columns in the 5th century, but hundreds of years’ worth of votive statuary were preserved in the hot, muddy basins of the sanctuary. The ancient baths were rediscovered in 2019 and excavations unearthed thousands of coins and body part offerings.

The whole-body statuary emerged from the pools during excavations in October of 2022. It is the largest group of bronze statuary from ancient Italy ever discovered and the only one recovered in a single archaeological exploration of its original context. Engraved with inscriptions in both Etruscan and Latin, they form a unique corpus recording the transition between the decline of Etruscan influence in central Italy and the rise of Rome.

One of the most spectacular finds was the “scrawny boy” bronze, a statue about 90 cms (35 inches) high, of a young Roman with an apparent bone disease. An inscription has his name as “Marcius Grabillo”.

“When he appeared from the mud, and was therefore partially covered, it looked like the bronze of an athlete … but once cleaned up and seen properly it was clear that it was that of a sick person,” said Ada Salvi, a Culture Ministry archaeologist for the Tuscan provinces of Siena, Grosseto and Arezzo.

The inscription also refers to another six or 12 statues left at the sanctuary by Marcius Grabillo. When excavations resume in late June, archaeologists hope to discover the rest of the Grabillo collection.

Salvi said traces of more unusual offerings were also recovered, including egg shells, pine cones, kernels from peaches and plums, surgical tools and a 2,000-year-old lock of curly hair.

“It opens a window into how Romans and Etruscans experienced the nexus between health, religion and spirituality,” she said. “There’s a whole world of meaning that has to be understood and studied.”

The statues will be exhibited at the Quirinale through October 22nd. After that, they will travel to other museums around the country before settling into their permanent home, a new museum housed in a 16th century palace overlooking the pools.

Silver in 4,600-year-old Egyptian queen’s bracelets came from Greece

A new study of silver bracelets discovered in the tomb of 4th Dynasty Queen Hetepheres I has revealed the silver was imported from Greece 4,600 years ago. Lead isotope analysis narrowed the silver’s source to the Cyclades, with the Lavrion mines in Attica as the second most likely place of origin.

Hetepheres I was the wife of 4th Dynasty pharaoh Sneferu and mother of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Her tomb was discovered at Giza in 1925 in the shadow of her son’s pyramid. Although her white alabaster sarcophagus was empty, likely robbed of its precious contents, the tomb contained a wealth of grave goods including gilded furniture, jewelry, gold vessels and the oldest intact set of canopic jars ever discovered in an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Perhaps the most notable of Hetepheres’ funerary furnishings were found inside the remains of a wood box covered with gold sheeting. It held a collection of 20 deben-rings, bracelets worn ten to an arm. Some of them were fragmentary, but even with some corrosion and loss, the queen’s bracelets were and remain to this day the largest collection of silver artifacts from early Egypt found. They were crafted of silver inlaid with turquoise, lapis lazuli and carnelian in the shape of butterflies.

The style and materials of the inlay are Egyptian, but not the silver. Old Kingdom silver is very rare. Egypt has no native silver ore deposits and silver artifacts don’t make a consistent appearance on the archaeological record until the Middle Bronze Age (around 1900 B.C.). Queen Hetepheres I’s bracelets were a testament to her great wealth and status.

A hundred years after their discovery, the bracelets have for the first time been subjected to compositional, mineralogical, microscopic and isotopic analysis.

“The origin of silver used for artefacts during the third millennium has remained a mystery until now,” said Dr Karin Sowada, from the Department of History and Archaeology at Macquarie University. “This new finding demonstrates, for the first time, the potential geographical extent of trade networks used by the Egyptian state during the early Old Kingdom at the height of the Pyramid-building age.”

The silver was likely acquired through the port of Byblos on the Lebanese coast and is the earliest attestation of long-distance exchange activity between Egypt and Greece.

The research team included leading scientists from France and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where several bracelets are located. Their analysis also revealed the methods of early Egyptian silver working for the first time.

“Samples were analysed from the collection in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the scanning electron microscope images show that the bracelets were made by hammering cold-worked metal with frequent annealing to prevent breakage,” said Professor Damian Gore from Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences.

The findings have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and can be read here.

Largest stone coffin found at Yoshinogari Ruins

The largest sarcophagus tomb yet has been discovered at the Yoshinogari ruins, an archaeological site from the Yayoi period (ca. 5th c. B.C. – 3rd c. A.D.) in the Saga Prefecture in Kyushu, Japan. The tomb dates to the late 2nd century to the middle of the 3rd century. At 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) long and 1.7 meters (5.6 feet) wide, the sarcophagus pit is much larger than any of the other 18 found at the site. They are usually about two meters (6.6 feet) long, and before this, the longest was 2.7 meters (8.9 feet). The stone sarcophagus itself is 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) long and .65 meters (2 feet) wide at the widest point.

The lid is composed of four stone slabs engraved with numerous linear symbols, including Xs and hashes. These are believed to have apotropaic properties, to ward off evil and keep the deceased safe. They appear to have worked in this case. The tomb has not been opened yet, but it is intact and undamaged, so archaeologists believe it was never looted and may contain historically important grave goods.

The Yoshinogari site is vast, covering approximately 40 hectares, and has been excavated continuously since its discovery in 1986. It contains the remains of settlements, granaries, bronze casting workshops, a watchtower, a mound burial and more than 3,000 jar burials. The mound and jar burials are from the early and middle Yayoi period. The recently-discovered sarcophagus tomb is the only late Yayoi grave discovered at the site thus far.

It is solitary, not part of a larger burial ground. It was discovered at the top of a hill where a Shinto shrine was built much later. The area had never been excavated before because of the shrine, but it was relocated last year, opening up the possibility of excavation. The grave is located on a high point with a magnificent view, and would have been a prime burial location. The deceased must have been an influential person.

The site — which is a national park and includes replicas of the ancient settlement and other attractions — is currently open to the public. Excavation of the sarcophagus tomb resumes next week. Archaeologists plan to open the lid of coffin and investigate its contents.

Runic/Latin inscription on church wall is legal debt

An inscription in both runic and Latin script on the wall of the Sønder Asmindrup Church near Holbæk on the eastern Danish island of Zealand has been identified as a legally valid proof of debt from 800 years ago.

The inscription consists of two lines of text. The top line is written with runes in Old Danish and was deciphered in 1909. It reads “Toke took silver on loan from Ragnhild.” The bottom line was written in both runes and Latin letters in an idiosyncratic way, so scholars were not able to decipher it.

Until now. National Museum of Denmark runologist Lisbeth Imer worked with medieval Danish document expert Anders Leegaard to translate the second line. It reads: “2. May in the year of salvation 1210.” That means Toke’s loan from Ragnhild was dated, and that makes the inscription a legally enforceable document, unique on the Danish archaeological record and extremely rare internationally. Only three similar examples are known: a road use contract on a parish church on Gotland, Sweden, a land sale on a wall in St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, and a judgement on a debt case in the church of Saint Panteleimon in Galich, Russia.

Corresponding legal documents are typically only preserved on parchment and from the very highest social strata – often only because they are found preserved in a younger copy. The new discovery shows that there was a widespread writing culture in the Middle Ages.

“Until now, we have had almost no knowledge of how agreements were made, or to what extent writing was used. Our knowledge of it has, so to speak, been in the dark, and there have been only a few and scattered testimonies about the use of writing. The inscription in Sønder Asmindrup shows that written agreements were made among what we must believe were ordinary farmers at an early stage in the Middle Ages – we simply did not know that before,” says Lisbeth Imer.

It’s also a unique testament to how commoners in a rural parish crafted legal contracts comparable to the kind of work done by professional scribes for the elites. The promissory note was in two writing systems with Roman date suggests it was authored by someone educated in at least two languages. This was likely the priest or other clergyman associated with the parish church.

At court, people usually wrote in Latin and with letters, while church inscriptions are mainly written in the mother tongue and with runes. And where the king’s documents almost all have to do with the state’s interests, the inscription in Sønder Asmindrup deals with ordinary farmers out in the countryside.

“Precisely that makes it so interesting, because it shows that writing was probably more used and widespread than we have otherwise thought. The promissory note is a serious use of writing, it wasn’t just a name scrawled on the wall for fun. It shows that a fairly advanced use of writing also took place out in the countryside, and it is not something we have seen such good examples of before,” says Lisbeth Imer.

Ancient quarry found in Malta

An ancient stone quarry has been discovered during work by the Water Services Corporation between the town of Żejtun and Marsaxlokk Bay in southeastern Malta.

Because the site is close to the megalithic multi-period temple complex of Tas-Silġ, an archaeologist from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage was present to monitor the trenching work. He recognized the large rectangular cut blocks were archaeological remains and notified the Superintendence. The trenching works were stopped while archaeologists excavated the find.

Still bearing visible toolmarks, the stone was in the process of being cut into ashlar blocks when the quarrying work ceased. The sides of the rectangular stones were cut, but the bottoms were still connected to the bedrock. Unfortunately no associated objects or remains were discovered to help date the quarry. Based on the ashlars that had not been fully cut out of the bedrock and the type of quarry that it is, archaeologists believe it was active in the classical era (5th c. B.C. – 5th c. A.D.).