Roman cemetery with unusual decapitations found

January 10th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered a Roman cemetery with an unusual number of decapitation burials in Suffolk. The skeletal remains of 52 individuals, men, women and children, were unearthed. About 40 percent of the burials found — including two ten-year-old children — had been decapitated and their heads deliberately placed between their feet or at their sides.

The team was excavating the site of a new housing development in Great Whelnetham, near Bury St Edmunds, known to have been a Roman settlement of the 3rd century A.D. The area has fine, sandy soil, a very poor preservation medium for organic remains, so they expected to find maybe the shadows of burials, the subtle impressions left in the ground after all of the bodies had disintegrated centuries ago. When the first exploratory trench revealed two largely intact skeletons, archaeologists were intrigued and widened the excavation to cover two large squares.

The wide trenches were necessary because of that sandy soil. Usually cemetery finds can be excavated by focusing on the grave cuts which mark the spot of a burial better than any X can mark the spot of a fabulous pirate treasure. The grave cuts disappeared completely in this soil, so in order to excavate the entire cemetery, they had to dig up a lot of ground. The work paid off and dozens more skeletons in good condition were unearthed.

It’s extremely rare to find so many decapitation and otherwise non-standard burials in a Roman cemetery in Britain. Traditionally, the Romans buried their dead on their back, bodies intact and significant religious and personal items interred with them. Most Roman cemeteries contain a few unusual or deviant burials, often the result of executions or death from an illness that was considered dangerous to the living.

According to archaeologist Andy Peachey, 60% of the graves at the site, which dates to the 4th century, could be classified as ‘deviant’ – placed in a manner which does not conform to the most common Roman burial rite. […]

Mr Peachey, from excavation company Archaeological Solutions, said the remains did not indicate executions.

“This appears to be a careful funeral rite that may be associated with a particular group within the local population, possibly associated with a belief system (cult) or a practice that came with a group moved into the area,” he said.

“The incisions through the neck were post-mortem and were neatly placed just behind the jaw – an execution would cut lower through the neck and with violent force, and this is not present anywhere.”

Less than a handful of burial grounds with such a high proportion of deviant burials have been discovered in Britain. The two other Roman cemeteries found in Great Whelnetham have the normal small proportion of deviant burials. Given that 60% of the burials in this cemetery deviate from the norm, the deviant largely was the norm for this community.

Peachey speculates that it could have been a local cult, absorbed like so many were by the Romans, that venerated the head as the locus of the soul, perhaps, or reserved it special treatment for some other reason. The other possibility, that these were a sub-group of the population who moved to Britain and brought their funerary traditions with them, may be confirmed or denied by staple isotope analysis of their teeth. It can pinpoint where people lived as children.

If it does turn out that they came from some far-flung area of the Empire, that opens up the possibility that they were slaves, an imported agricultural labour force. Osteological analysis has found that they were, as a group, healthy, well-fed and well-doctored. A few children died young, but there were more adults in what we would consider middle age and older. They were well-built with muscular arms and upper body and had no signs of malnutrition. They even had bad teeth indicating they had easy access to sugars and carbohydrates, the downfall of dental hygiene since time immemorial, but all the abscesses, lesions and areas of lost/extracted teeth were well-healed.

The results of the analyses will take at least six months. The remains have been moved to a museum laboratory for further study. When the report is complete, it will be published and all remains and artifacts deposited in the Suffolk County Council archaeological archive.

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Almost Back

January 9th, 2019

Thank you all for your well-wishes and kind words yesterday. I think they were the virtual equivalent of a cortisone shot because I’m feeling better already. JINX JINX WINGED PHALLUS WARD OFF ALL EVIL EYES PLEASE AND THANK YOU

Assuming the fascinus does its job, I’ll be back with an on-topic post tomorrow.

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Programming Note

January 8th, 2019

Pardon the radio silence, but I have been waylaid by what I am choosing almost euphemistically to call an athletic injury. Okay, I did too deep a squat and it laid me flat.

Please hold until I can type again.

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Buff woman is earliest-known burial in lower Central America

January 7th, 2019

The remains of a woman discovered at the Angi shell-matrix site near Monkey Point on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua are the oldest-known human remains in lower Central America.

The site was first excavated in the 1970s, but archaeological exploration of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast in general was limited. That has begun to change in the past 10 years as a concerted effort has been made to survey and thoroughly document ancient sites. The Angi shell-matrix site was revisited in 2013 as part of this project with the aim of assessing its condition for conservation purposes. The excavation made it possible to fully document the statrigaphy of the midden and collect deposit samples, including ones that could be radiocarbon dated. The layers were made of shell (bivalve and snail), charcoal and sediment with a few fragments of ceramics found in the upper layers.

Seven and a half feet under the surface, archaeologists unearthed (unshelled?) the skeletal remains one adult buried in a shallow oval pit on its back with legs bent over the torso and arms at the sides of the body near the feet and pelvis. It was undisturbed, found in the position in which it was buried.

The body was placed over a layer of small fragments of basalt inside the pit. Underneath the basalt rocks was a base layer of charcoal-rich sediment. That was fortuitous material because not enough of the collagen in the bones had survived to make direct radiocarbon dating possible. Instead archaeologists were able to test samples of the sediment and thereby date the burial to 3900 B.C. That makes it the earliest archaeological feature ever recorded on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua as well as the oldest human remains in the area.

With permission of the local indigenous communities, archaeologists removed the skeletal remains to the Historical Cultural Museum of the Caribbean Coast (BICU–CIDCA). Osteological analysis determined the individual was a woman between 25 and 40 years old at time of death. She was 4’11” and powerfully built.

Despite the woman’s small stature, she had “strongly developed musculature of the forearm — possibly from rowing or similar activities,” [study author Mirjana] Roksandic said. Even today, local people are adept rowers.

“While we were in the village of Bankukuk Taik, [study co-researcher] Harly Duncan introduced us to a Rama elder who rowed that very day for 4 hours to visit family,” Roksandic said. “She was 82 years old. Kids as young as 9 rowed around Rama islands in a dugout.”

Moreover, like other people who eat a fair amount of shellfish, the woman had extensive wear on her teeth, Roksandic said.

Given that few ancient human remains are found in tropical places, little is known about the indigenous cultures of lower Central America, Roksandic said. While ancient people who build shell mounds are often fishers, gatherers and horticulturalists, “without further study of the site, it will not be possible to ascertain who they were and why the burial was placed there and what is the significance of this particular individual,” Roksandic said.

There’s a tight deadline on additional study of the site. Canal construction and other development will have a profound impact on the Monkey Point’s archaeological sites.

The study, published in the journal Antiquity can be read in its entirety online here.

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National Museums Scotland acquire rare sea clock

January 6th, 2019

The Bruce-Oosterwijck longitude pendulum sea clock, one of only two examples in the world, has been acquired by National Museums Scotland. The clock is the first mechanical attempt to crack the case of how to calculate longitude during long transatlantic voyages. It didn’t work. Scientists, naval experts and clockmakers would spend another hundred years trying to solve the problem of longitude, but this first failure marks a pivotal moment in maritime history.

Latitude (the north-south position) can be calculated by the height of the sun and stars in the sky; navigators had that one figured out thousands of years ago. Longitude (the east-west position) was a much harder nut to crack because it required a timepiece that could keep accurate time during a voyage that would allow sailors to calculate how far east or west they’d traveled from their point of origin.

Alexander Bruce, 2nd Earl of Kincardine, commissioned the clock in 1662 from The Hague clockmaker Severyn Oosterwijck. The pendulum clock had only been invented a few years earlier and was by far the most accurate timepiece ever created up until that point. (It would remain the most accurate timekeeper until the 1930s.) Oosterwijck had played an important role in its development by horologist Christiaan Huygens. Since the pendulum kept such precise time for so long, perhaps it could solve the longitude problem.

The first practical pendulum clock was invented in 1656 by the Dutch mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens (1629–95). He then turned his attention to the creation of an accurate sea clock for the determination of longitude.

Huygens collaborated with Bruce on the project, with the Scot introducing a number of new features to the Dutchman’s designs before having four sea clocks made, two of them by Severyn Oosterwijck.

By the end of 1662, Bruce’s initial sea-trials were proving promising. More formal sea-trials were carried out, with reports suggesting that the clocks had performed exceptionally well.

However, these reports eventually proved to be inaccurate. Captain Robert Holmes, who had been entrusted with the trials of the clocks (though his attention was clearly more devoted to plundering Dutch merchant shipping), had reported implausible success beyond even the best hopes for the clocks. Samuel Pepys was asked to investigate, and it transpired that the glowing reports were entirely fictitious. Despite the optimism of the 1660s and extensive discussions over patents and profits, the new marine timekeepers turned out not to be the solution that had been hoped for.

Its mission failed, the Bruce-Oosterwijck clock fell into obscurity. It was probably used as a normal household clock from around 1670 through 1972 when it appears again on the record. It was valued as a late 17th century pendulum clock, but its true significance wasn’t discovered until recently.

Thanks to sizeable grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund, National Museums Scotland was able to acquire the Bruce-Oosterwijck sea clock. It will go on permanent display in the Earth in Space gallery at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

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The Shield of Achilles

January 5th, 2019

Here’s one for my excellent mother who can never get enough of decorative silver, the more insanely elaborate the better. Coming up for sale for five million dollars or so is the Shield of Achilles, a spectacular masterpiece of 19th century silver. London silver dealers Koopman Rare Art will be offering it at the TEFAF Maastricht this year.

While it does have four rings at the rim and in the center for attaching leather straps, tt’s not actually a shield, although it could probably be used as one in a pinch (by someone with an arm of Hellboy-like strength). It’s a huge silver-gilt charger three feet in diameter weighing 46 pounds. It was cast and chased with scenes from the eighteenth book of The Iliad of Homer in which Achilles receives new armour forged by Hephaestus himself after his dearest friend Patroclus is killed wearing his previous set.

A couple of excerpts of the very detailed description of the shield from Robert Fagles’ outstanding translation of The Iliad (Book 18, 572-579, 670-686):

And he forged on the shield two noble cities filled
with mortal men. With weddings and wedding feasts in one
and under glowing torches they brought forth the brides
from the women’s chambers, marching through the streets
while choir on choir the wedding song rose high
and the young men came dancing, whirling round in rings
and among them flutes and harps kept up their stirring call —
women rushed to the doors and each stood moved with wonder. […]

And he forged on the shield a heard of longhorn cattle,
Working the bulls in beaten gold and tin, lowing loud
and rumbling out of the farmyard dung to pasture
along a rippling stream, along the swaying reeds.
And the golden drovers kept the herd in line,
For in all, with nine dogs at their heels,
Their paws flickering quickly – a savage roar! –
A crashing attack – and a pair of ramping lions
had seized a bull from the cattle’s front ranks –
He bellowed out as they dragged him off in agony.
Packs of dogs and the young herdsmen rushed to help
But the lions ripping open the hide of the huge bull
Were gulping down the guts and the black pooling blood
While the herdsmen yelled the fast pack on – no use.
The hounds shrank from sinking teeth in the lions,
They balked, hunching close, barking, cringing away.

The shield was designed and modelled by John Flaxman, one of the leading sculptors of the Regency period who took extensive inspiration from classic motifs and played a significant role in popularizing the Neoclassical style. This piece is the highest expression of his embrace of classical design. He follows Homer’s description meticulously. In the center of the shield is Apollo driving his chariot of the sun. The marriage feast and the lions attacking the cattle are there, as are the other elements — the fight and court appeal, the siege and battle, the harvest of crops and grapes to make wine, a Cretan, the ocean.

It took a lot of effort to come to fruition. Flaxman first submitted a design for the charger to silversmith Philip Rundell of Rundell, Bridge & Rundell in 1810. Then he worked another seven years on the design, altering it until it achieved his vision. He made the model in 1817 and after a few bronze versions, the silver-gilt version was finally produced in 1819. It was bought by King George IV in 1821 who would give it the honor of being the centerpiece of his coronation banquet buffet.

George IV’s chaser is still in the Royal Collection. Four more silver-gilt shields were made: one acquired by Frederick Augustus, Duke of York (now in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery), one by Hugh Percy, 3rd Duke of Northumberland (now owned by His Excellency Mohamed Mahdi Altajir), and one by William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale (now held by the National Trust at Anglesey Abbey). The last was made in 1823-24 and sold years later to Ernest Augustus, the fifth son of King George III of Britain, who acceded to his father’s title of King of Hanover upon the death of his elder brother William IV in 1837. His niece Victoria acceded to the throne of the United Kingdom. The shield was acquired by the new king in 1838.

So highly-regarded was the Shield of Achilles that after Flaxman’s death in 1826, fellow Royal Academy member painter Sir Thomas Lawrence described it in his eulogy for the sculptor as “that Divine Work, unequalled in the combination of beauty, variety and grandeur, which the genius of Michael Angelo could not have surpassed.”

That may or may not have been hyperbole, but Flaxman and Michelangelo had more than a few things in common. They were both child prodigies. Flaxman was 12 years old when he won the Society of Arts’ first prize for a medal he’d designed and modelled. He was 15 when he won another and exhibited at the Royal Academy. By the age of 20 he was gainfully employed modelling reliefs for Wedgwood pottery, and like Michelangelo, he was inspired by classical themes, creating some of Wedgwood’s most popular jasperware and basaltware with Greco-Roman motifs. His drawings of the art of antiquity made during a long sojourn in Rome because best-sellers and inspired decades of amateur imitators.

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Chinese bronzeware designs found on Stone Age reliefs

January 4th, 2019

Reliefs carved on stone walls at the Neolithic site of Shimao in Shaanxi, northern China, are strikingly similar to the characteristic motifs found on bronzeware made hundreds, even thousands of years later during the Chinese Bronze Age.

Shimao was built in around 2000 B.C., two massive stone walls encircling it at a time when most towns in the region only had earthen ramparts for defense. The walls average eight feet in thickness over perimeters of 2.6 miles for the inner wall and 3.5 miles for the outer. There are towers and gates dotted along their length. There is even precious jade packed into the walls, likely intended as protective talismans.

The site was discovered in 1976 but there was no thorough professional archaeological exploration of Shimao until 2011. Since then, excavations have unearthed more than 100 murals of geometric patterns on the inner wall, copious jade, the remains of animal sacrifices and the skulls of 80 women were found near the city gates, thought to have been ritual sacrificed before construction of the walls began.

About 30 carved reliefs were found in the most recently excavation. The majority feature geometric designs like the painted murals on the inner wall, but there are some unexpected and notable anthropomorphic creatures with monstrous faces, what look like tusks and arms posed like an animals’ forelegs. These beastly creatures are highly reminiscent of the designs on the bronze vessels of the Shang (1600 B.C.- 1046 B.C.) and Zhou (1046 B.C.- 256 B.C.) dynasties

“The beast-face patterns found in Shimao might have had a significant influence on the motifs of China’s Bronze Age,” Sun Zhouyong, president of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, said….

Researchers were working to find out whether there might have been a link between the people who carved the ancient stones and the craftsmen of the Zhou and Shang dynasties, the report said.

“The discoveries at Shimao are constantly challenging our understanding of early civilisations in China,” Sun said.

“We now have more reasons and confidence to infer that Shimao is a landmark discovery for China and east Asia.”

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Temple of flayed god found in Mexico

January 3rd, 2019

Archaeologists excavating the archaeological site of Ndachjian-Tehuacan in the central Mexican state of Puebla have unearthed the first known temple dedicated to the Aztec flayed god Xipe Tótec. The temple enclosure is 40 feet long and 11.5 feet high. Assorted architectural elements, two sacrificial altars and three sculptures carved from volcanic stone were found there: two of skinned skulls and one torso covered with the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim were found there. The temple was in use between 1000 and 1260 A.D.

Xipe Tótec, meaning “Our Lord the Flayed One” in Nahuatl, was the god of life, death, rebirth, agriculture and war. He was one of the most important deities in pre-Hispanic Mexico and he was widely worshiped throughout western and central Mexico as well as in the Gulf, but no temples directly associated with his worship had been found before now.

Images of him have survived in statues and illustrations in codices. He was depicted wearing the flayed flesh of the sacrificed, the hands dangling from his wrists. His emergence from the rotting flesh symbolized the renewal of the seasons, like a snake shedding its skin or new plants coming to life after the desolation of winter. The codices also describe the sites where people were flayed as sacrifices to Xipe Tótec. The layout of the temple and the attributes of the sculptures match the descriptions in those sources.

On one sculpture, an extra right hand hanging backwards from the left arm of the torso symbolizes the skin of the victim that was left hanging after the ritual flaying, say the archeologists.

“Sculpturally it is a very beautiful piece,” said archeologist Noemí Castillo Tejero of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in a press release. “It is around 80 centimeters tall and has a hole in the stomach that was used, according to sources, to put in a green stone and ‘bring them to life’ for the ceremonies.”

Each skull is around 70 centimeters tall and weighs about 200 kilograms.

The important religious festival known as the Tlacaxipehualiztli, meaning “to put on the skin of the skinned one” in Nahuatl, was performed on two circular altars. One was used to sacrifice captives who first fought in gladiatoral-style combat. The other was used to skin them. The priest would then don the skin of the flayed. Because Xipe Tótec was associated with a number of diseases from acne to eye infections, worshipers would touch the flayed skin in the belief that it would cure illness. The skin was then deposited in holes. Two holes were found in the ground in front of the altars in the recently-discovered temple.

The sculptures have been recovered from the site and will be studied before being put on display at the Ndachjian-Tehuacán museum.

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Fishermen find medieval fishing baskets

January 2nd, 2019

Fishermen in Wales have discovered fishing baskets thought to be at least 600 years old in the Severn Estuary. Black Rock Lave Net fishermen found the baskets off the coast of Portskewett while walking their fishing grounds at low tide in the off season. The baskets had been preserved for centuries, buried in the silt and sand of the riverbank, and were only exposed by a recent storm.

This isn’t the first time the group have found artefacts such as these. However, as Martin Morgan, secretary of the fishery, explained, it is unusual to uncover so many baskets grouped together.

Mr Morgan said: “The baskets would have been baited and pegged to the estuary bed at low tide. The catch would have been green eels and lamprey.

“They are made of willow and hazel in an urn shape with a non-return built into the neck. The overall length is around two feet.”

They haven’t been dated yet, but baskets found before in that spot were radiocarbon dated by Reading University researchers to between the 12th and 15th centuries. The design is also characteristic of baskets from that era. The finders hope to get the newly-discovered baskets dated as well, but it’s a race against time because the wood deteriorates rapidly once it’s exposed to the air.

It is eminently fitting that these particular fishermen would recover ancestral tools of their trade. The Black Rock Lave Net Fishery is the last traditional salmon fishery left on Wales’ side of the Severn Estuary. The lave net method they employ — wading or boating into the shallow coastal waters and catching fish using hand-woven nets attached to wood poles — has been used on the estuary since at least the 17th century, and likely earlier. Basket fishing is older, but it was in use for an incredibly long time. The last basket fishery on the estuary closed in 1995, believe it or not.

This wonderful video documents the work of lave net fishermen today. It truly is living history.

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Happy New Year!

January 1st, 2019

I’ve had such a deliriously busy holiday season that I haven’t had the time to do a Year in History Blog History retrospective. To make up for that shameful oversight I offer you a preview of an attraction coming up in 2019: a new multi-part post. It’s been more than two years since I tackled the Harrison Horror series for Halloween so it’s high time I took on another one. It won’t be a Halloween story this time. It might not even be thematically linked to any specific holiday or date, which is odd for me because I love a theme show beyond the point of decency. It all depends on when I can get it all together.

I leave you with that tantalizing sliver of a glimpse into the future and the fondest wish that all your parties be joyous and your trips home safe from inebriated fools.

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