Largest Old Kingdom obelisk fragment found in Saqqara

October 11th, 2017

A joint French-Swiss archaeological mission has discovered the tip of an obelisk from the Old Kingdom in the necropolis of Saqqara. At more than eight feet in length, the red granite fragment is largest piece of an Old Kingdom obelisk ever found. Archaeologists estimate that the complete obelisk was around 16 feet high. A groove around the top of the obelisk, the pyramidion, indicates that it was originally capped with copper plates or gold foil so it could reflect the sun and shine brightly during the day.

An incomplete inscription on one side of the obelisk identifies it as dedicated to 6th Dynasty Queen Ankhnespepy II (ca. 2350 B.C.), wife and mother of multiple pharaohs.

Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Ahram Online that the artefact was found at the eastern side of the queen’s pyramid and funerary complex, which confirms that it was removed from its original location at the entrance of her funerary temple.

“Queens of the 6th dynasty usually had two small obelisks at the entrance to their funerary temple, but this obelisk was found a little far from the entrance of the complex of Ankhnespepy II,” Waziri pointed out, suggesting it may have been dragged away by stonecutters from a later period.

Most of the necropolis was used as a quarry during the New Kingdom and Late Period.

Kneeling Statuette of Pepy I, ca. 2338-2298 B.C.E. Greywacke, alabaster, obsidian, copper, 6 x 1 13/16 x 3 9/16 in. (15.2 x 4.6 x 9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 39.121. Ankhesenpepy II was no stranger to powerful women. Her mother Nebet was the first female vizier in Egyptian history (that we know of, at least), appointed by Pharaoh Pepy I. There would not be a second woman to hold that position until the 26th Dynasty. Both of her daughters married and gave birth to pharaohs. Ankhesenpepy I and II married their mom’s boss Pepy I. After his death, Queen Ankhesenpepy II married her sister’s son Pharaoh Merenre Nemtyemsaf I, which is why she also went by Queen Ankhnesmeryre II. According to the South Saqqara Stone annals which record the reigns of Sixth Dynasty pharaohs, Merenre reigned for about a decade and was succeeded by his and Ankhesenpepy II’s son Pepy II.

Pepy II was a young boy when he acceded the throne, no older than six, and it’s likely that his mother served as regent in the early years of what would become a very, very long reign (spanning at least seven decades and possibly as long as 88 years). A beautiful alabaster statue now in the Brooklyn Museum portrays them both as rulers. The mother, much larger than her boy king son, holds him in her lap. His small size and position on his mother’s lap indicate his youth, but they are formally posed, each looking forward in different directions, and he is adorned and titled with the ornaments of his office. He wears the nemes headdress with the cobra of a pharaoh, and an inscription under his feet declares him “King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Pepy II, beloved of the god Khnum, given all life, like Re, forever.” An inscription under Ankhesenpepy’s feet reads: “Mother of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the god’s daughter, the revered one, beloved of Khnum, Meryre-anhknes.”

A relief of Ankhesenpepy at the ancient site of Wadi Maghareh on the Sinai Peninsula depicts her as the same size as her adult son, a meaningful distinction in Egyptian art. While there are no explicit references to her regency in the archaeological record, this iconography and the realities of a six-year-old pharaoh strongly suggest she was the effective ruler until he came of age, and thereafter continued to hold an elevated place at her son’s court. The size of her funerary pyramid, built during Pepy II’s reign, also attests to her unique importance. It is second only to his in size.

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Update: John Quincy Adams daguerreotype sells for $360,500

October 10th, 2017

A daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams taken in March of 1843 by photographer Philip Haas sold at a Sotheby’s New York auction on October 5th for $360,500, including buyer’s premium. This exceeds even the high end of the pre-sale estimate of $150,000–250,000, not a surprising outcome given the rarity and historical significance of the image. There were four active bidders duking it out, driving up the hammer price. As of yet there has been no announcement about who placed the winning bid and unless it’s an institution or a collector who plans to loan it out or do something else public with it, there’s a good chance there never will be any such announcement.

The Haas daguerreotype is the earliest known surviving original photographic portrait of a US president. Two earlier daguerreotypes of presidents were taken, one of William Henry Harrison in 1841 around the time of his inauguration, the other of John Quincy Adams in 1842. Neither of those originals are extant, as far as we know. The Harrison portrait exists only as reproduction created around 1850; the first J.Q. Adams portrait is lost.

Adams gave this half-plate to his friend and fellow member of the House of Representatives Horace Everett who had been sitting for his own daguerreotype portrait in Haas’ Washington, D.C. studio when Adams arrived to have his redone. It has remained by descent in the Everett family all this time, nobody realizing that it was a picture of the sixth President of the United States. The seller assumed the man in the portrait was Horace Everett until he was told of its real subject and historical significance.

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Medieval iron hoard found in Slovakian oven

October 9th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a hoard of 10th century iron hidden in a medieval oven in the village of Bojná, western Slovakia.

The Slavic inhabitants of the region hid it in a stone oven at the beginning of the 10th century. Iron was in that era was a very precious metal; as the metal “hrivna” it was used for currency.

“The surprising discovery consists of 36 hrivna, bridle bits from a horse harness, two keys from a Slavic settlement and other iron objects,” said head of research in Bojná Karol Pieta from the Archaeological Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Strategically located at the foot of the Považský Inovec mountain range where a pass through the mountains connects the Váh and Nitra river basins, the town’s history long predates the presence of the actual town. The first historical records alluding to Bojná date to the 15th century, but the area was dotted with hill forts defending the pass under the Slavic kingdom of Great Moravia (833 – ca. 906/907).

One of those hill forts, today known as Bojná I – Valy, has been found to be a rich source of archaeological materials even predating the Great Moravian fortifications. The oldest writing in Slovakian history were found there, Latin inscriptions dating to the late 8th, early 9th century, the earliest days of Christianity in the area. It was in the 9th century when Great Moravia was at its zenith that the fortress became a hive of activity. The remains of several blacksmith shops from this period have been unearthed and their work products have been found by the thousands — farming and craftsmen’s tools, battle axes, knives, swords, seaxes, horse fittings, chain mail, spurs. Some of the weaponry and armature is gold and silver plated, evidence of the presence of a significant number of elite warriors.

Reconstruction of 9th century Slavic dwelling on the foundations of the original, Bojná I – Valy fortress, 2015. Photo by Karol Pieta.The fort was conquered in the early 10th century by invading Hungarians who burned it down. It was never rebuilt and the people who had lived and worked there moved on, leaving behind their cached valuables in the rubble. The stone oven containing the iron pieces was found on the west side of the Great Moravian-era fortification. They had been placed in an earthenware vessel and then stashed in the oven, a brilliant hiding place when there’s a real threat of fire and destruction looming. In fact, it was so effective that archaeologists found the vessel intact and undamaged, unmoved even. It stood in the same exact spot where some 10th century Slav left it doubtless in the hope of recovering his treasures when the carnage was over.

Archaeologists are currently working on a reconstruction of the east gate of the Bojná I – Valy fortifications. This 9th century Great Moravian monumental gate was enormous with a tower 40 feet high and thick defensive walls to match. The hill fort already has a few modest reconstructions — three private dwellings — from its heyday, but the hope is the added drama of the reconstructed 9th century gate will draw tourism to the site. Construction is scheduled to be complete in the middle of next year.

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Jeremy Bentham’s head goes back on display

October 8th, 2017

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, father of utilitarianism, relentless advocate for social and political reforms from public education to animal rights to the rehabilitation of prisoners to women’s suffrage, wanted his body to be of use to humanity after he had finished with it. In keeping with what would become the key principle of his philosophical viewpoint, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” he decided that his dead body should be employed for the public good 63 years before he vacated it.

It was 1769 and Bentham, then just 21 years old, included a codicil in his will that his body be left to his friend and kinsman physician George Fordyce for dissection and preservation. He explained his reasoning in that document:

“This my will and special request I make, not out of affectation of singularity, but to the intent and with the desire that mankind may reap some small benefit in and by my decease, having hitherto had small opportunities to contribute thereto while living.”

The public dissection aspect was a challenge to the widely-held revulsion at the idea of cutting up a human body even though the surgical profession was then growing by leaps and bounds from it barber-chair origins and the proliferating medical schools were desperate for anatomical specimens. Bentham’s position was typically utilitarian: why, he reasoned, should corpses not be converted from potential sources of anti-social evils (the spread of disease, overcrowded burial grounds, the financial strain of funeral and interral driving the poor into debt, prison, penury) into sources of great benefit to society? And what greater utility could a dead person provide than to give anatomists the opportunity to learn and teach life-saving skills? Instead of being a societal pathogen, the cadaver would be an instrument of healing, a role only it could play.

But there was another instruction Bentham had for his body after death. He wanted his head to be preserved by such means as to ensure that his looks remained fundamentally unchanged, and joined to his skeletal remains in a tableau he called an Auto-Icon. He would become his own statue, he noted with delight, so there would be no need for marble effigies and solemn funerary monuments.

Two months before his death he reaffirmed this long-held position attaching a memorandum to his latest will that left his body, the duty of public dissection and creation of the auto-icon to his good friend and disciple in utilitarianism Thomas Southwood Smith.

I direct that as soon as it appears to any one that my life is at an end my executor or any other person by whom on the opening of this paper the contents thereof shall have been observed shall send an express with information of my decease to Doctor Southwood Smith requesting him to repair to the place where my body is lying and after ascertaining by appropriate experiment that no life remains it is my request that he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame in the manner expressed in the paper annexed to this my will and at the top of which I have written ‘Auto-Icon.’

The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of the time employed in writing I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me. The Body so clothed together with the chair and the staff in my later years borne by me he will take charge of And for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be affixed thereon and also on the labels on the glass cases in which the preparations of the soft parts of my body shall be contained as for example as in the manner used in the case of wine decanters my name at length with the letters ob. followed by the day of my decease.

Three days after Bentham’s death on June 6th, 1832, Dr. Smith followed his mentor’s instructions to the letter. Scholars, doctors, men of letters and other luminaries were invited to the dissection held at the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine. Again as instructed by Bentham, Smith delivered a lecture “on the Usefulness of Knowledge of this kind to the Community” over the dead body before proceeding with the dissection.

Once the anatomical demonstration was over, he went ahead with the auto-icon preparations. He made a skeleton of the bones of Bentham’s body. The philosopher’s head was preserved by putting it over sulphuric acid in a sealed cabinet. An air pump circulated the fumes, drawing out the fluids and drying the head completely, just as Bentham had discussed in his Auto-Icon memo. What Bentham hadn’t planned for was that his head came out looking like the Cryptkeeper’s long-lost twin. A little color adjustment was not going to be able to fix that.

Smith saw that putting so ghastly and unrecognizable a head on top of the stuffed and dressed skeleton would not be in keeping with Bentham’s intent, so he commissioned a wax model of Jeremy’s head from Jacques Talrich, a French artist who created a realistic impression using an 1828 bust, a portrait painted from life by Henry Pickersgill and Southwood Smith’s own memorial ring, one of 24 Bentham had made before his death bearing his profile and a few strands of hair that he willed to his closest friends. Some of Bentham’s hair from his Cryptkeeper head was embedded in the avuncular and warm Ben Franklin-esque wax head.

Continuing to pay scrupulous attention to Betham’s instructions, Smith created the auto-icon. The skeleton was stuffed and dressed, topped with the realistic wax head and put in Jeremy Bentham’s preferred chair. In one hand he held his favorite walking stick, Dapple. The whole set piece when then placed in a mahogany and glass display case. Southwood Smith kept the whole shebang in his New Broad Street home until he moved to a smaller place in 1850 and had no room in which to keep his friend’s mounted remains. He arranged to donate it to the University College London (UCL) which holds Jeremy Bentham as a spiritual founding father because so many of the co-founders were his followers.

Now the UCL had this remarkable effigy and relic of its philosophical role model and had no idea what to do with it. Putting him on open display seemed … awkward. Locking it up … rude? So they stuck the auto-icon in a back room and took people to see him by enquiry only. Dr. Smith wrote to a friend that “the authorities seem to be afraid or ashamed to own their possession.”

Smith was right. Bentham’s auto-icon was all but forgotten until it was rediscovered in the university’s anatomical museum in 1898 by Professor George Thane and curator T. W. P. Lawrence. They described their examination in this freaking amazing report. Seriously one of the greatest all-time reports. (I realize now I totally should have saved this story for Halloween.)

January 3, 1898
We opened the case containing the figure of Jeremy Bentham, and took out the latter. It was rather dusty, but not very much so. The clothes were much moth eaten, especially the undervest, and if taken off it would probably have been impossible to get the last on again. We undid the clothes, and found that they were stuffed with hay and tow, around the skeleton, which had been macerated and skilfully articulated. Both hands are present inside the gloves -the feet were not examined.

In place of the head is a wax bust, which is supported on an iron spike. The head was found, wrapped in cloth saturated with some bituminous or tarry substance (a sort of tarpaulin) and then in paper, making a parcel, in the cavity of the trunk-skeleton, being fastened by strong wire running from the ribs to the vertebral column. On unpacking this the head itself was found to be mummified, dried, and prepared, by clearing any suboccipital soft parts, so that it looks not unlike a New Zealand head. In the sockets are glass eyes. The atlas, which had been macerated, is fastened in its natural place below the occipital bone. At the top of the head is a small hole in the skull, where the tip of the spike had doubtless come through, and round the hole is an impression formed by a circular washer and nut which had fitted the screw on the end of the spike, and by which the head was formerly fixed on the trunk.

The face is clean shaved-hair scanty, grey and long.
(Signed) T. W. P. LAWRENCE and G. D. T.

Yes, Southwood Smith stashed Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head inside his skeleton’s chest cavity. Is that not the greatest real-life Washington Irving story you’ve ever heard? So practical too! I’m sure Bentham would have been delighted to have his rib cage serve as a handy storage compartment for his head.

Anyway, the auto-icon stayed in the anatomy museum for the next few decades before passing into the possession of the UCL library in 1926. The mummified head became part of the display. It was placed on a platter between the auto-icon’s feet, oddly enough. It would be another 13 years before Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon finally got a thorough restoration, and by then it was 1939 and London was getting to be a very dangerous place. He was moved to two different locations for his safety after the war broke out, only returning to UCL after it was over.

The head was removed from its peculiar position on the floor of the cabinet between the effigy’s feet before World War II, nobody is sure exactly when. It was placed in a display case of its own on top of the auto-icon cabinet, only returning to its former surroundings for the length of a photo session in 1948. It hasn’t been publicly displayed since then and only recently has it begun to receive the punctilious conservation attention it needs. So delicate that ambient movement alone can cause hairs to fall out, Jeremy Bentham’s head is now kept locked in a safe under strict security protocols in environmentally-controlled conditions at the university’s Institute of Archaeology. Only rarely are select researchers allowed access.

For a few months this fall and winter, however, he’s back and has such wonders to show you.

What does it mean to be human? Curating Heads at UCL, which is a pretty great name for an exhibition (although I think it would have been punchier using just the two words: Curating Heads), runs at UCL’s Octagon Gallery from October 2nd, 2017, through February 28th, 2018. Bentham’s remarkable auto-icon is a lens through which visitors can see the changing attitudes towards the display of human remains, the complexity of the issues, the cultural biases and taboos which delimit what human remains are displayed and why. There are events and lectures connected to the exhibition, including one on a favorite topic of mine, extracting and sequencing ancient DNA and what we can learn from it.

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Copper axe blade found in Switzerland matches Iceman’s

October 7th, 2017

Analysis of a copper axe blade found in Switzerland in 2008 has revealed that it matches the copper axe carried by Ötzi the Iceman, the traveler who was felled by an arrow 5,300 years ago in the Ötztal Alps on the border between modern-day Italy and Austria and was frozen in the ice until some German tourists stumbled on him in 1991. Ötzi is Europe’s oldest human mummy and has proven a seemingly endless font of knowledge about Copper Age Europeans, every new approach, study and technology adding more pieces to the puzzle.

Last year, researchers discovered that the Iceman’s copper axe blade was remarkably pure at 99.7% copper and very much to their surprise, was mined in the Colline Metallifere area near Campiglia Marittima in southern Tuscany. There were active copper mines in the Alps at this time, so the expectation was that Ötzi’s gear would have been produced locally. Instead, either the ingot or the manufactured axe head was traded hundreds of miles to the north of where it was mined or made.

The axe blade unearthed at the prehistoric site of Riedmatt, in canton Zug, Switzerland, in 2008 appears to have made much the same trip. Riedmatt was a small pile-dwelling village on the shores of Lake Zug and a rich density of archaeological remains were found in the small space protected by a coffer dam for excavation.

University of Bern researchers sampled the copper and found through Lead Isotope analysis that the material is virtually identical to that in axes used by Neolithic peoples to the south, most notably Ötzi. The copper was mined around Campiglia Marittima and made its way north from there over the Alps. It is half the weight of Otzi’s axe and shorter in length, but it shares the same distinctive trapedoizal shape.

Unlike Ötzi’s blade, which was complete with its yew haft and the leather strips binding the two parts together, the Riedmatt axe is the blade alone. Also unlike Ötzi’s, the Riedmatt blade is almost pristine, excepting a single notch and surface pitting from several thousand years spent underground. The Iceman used his a lot and there is evidence of extensive wear and regularly resharpening on the blade. The Swiss axe may not have ever been hafted; it’s impossible to determine because corrosion has eliminated any traces left on the blade of the joining. The finishing of the blade had been completed at the time of its deposition between 3250 and 3100 B.C. Archaeologists believe it may have been deliberately left on the lakeside as a ritual offering.

“It was a very efficient general-purpose ax, especially proper for woodworking,” said Gishan Schaeren, an archaeologist with the Office for Monuments and Archaeology in the Swiss canton (or state) of Zug. But in addition to chopping trees to build stilted houses, people could use these axs as lethal weapons, Schaeren added. […]

“Mainstream research normally does not consider the possibility of intense contacts between south and north in the Alps” during this time, Schaeren told Live Science in an email.

He thinks Copper Age people should be given more credit.”We have to consider that people who traveled in the Alps had a very profound knowledge of the landscape and its conditions due to their experience with hunting, herding and exploring natural resources in these areas,” he said.

Stronger links to southern Europe, Schaeren added, could explain certain styles of rock art, pottery, burial customs and other phenomena seen in the north.

The find has even larger implications that upend commonly held positions about how metallurgy developed in this area of Switzerland in the 4th millennium B.C. Because local production of copper artifacts seems to have cratered after 3500 B.C. — a smattering of copper objects and crucibles from this time have been found north of the Alps, the frequency increasing again only after around 2600 B.C. — scholars have long thought that the local copper mines must have been exhausted and as a consequence the metal had lost its appeal, perhaps even come to be treated with hostility, by the Neolithic peoples living in the regions between Lake Constance and Lake Zurich.

From the initial results of the study published in this paper (pdf):

However, the copper axe blade of Zug-Riedmatt with its link to metallurgical traditions south of the Alps demonstrates that copper metallurgy at the end of the 4th millennium BC on the Swiss plateau is not to be understood as a very humble end-of-range model of the earlier metallurgy (3800-3500 BC) north of the Alps. In fact, this metallurgy is a new kind derived from the hotspots of metallurgical innovation in the regions of the Tyrrenian-Ligurian coast. This contradicts the theory proposed in Artioli et al. (2017, 9–11), in which the Alps are depicted as “a neat cultural barrier separating distinct metal circuits”. The as yet unpublished isotopic analyses of the copper finds from Lake Biel confirm our theory that Italian ores played a major role in lake-side dwellings north of the Alpine divide (Löffler, in press). The copper axe blade of Zug-Riedmatt accentuates a multitude of contemporaneous cultural bonds to the south, which seemed to be unconnected and had been underestimated until now (Röder & Gross, 2007, 230–236). Furthermore, it challenges the evolutionistic and one-track perceptions of a time that marks a watershed in early metallurgy.

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Irma canoe could date to the 1600s

October 6th, 2017

Researchers have wasted no time studying the dugout canoe churned up in Brevard County, Florida, by Hurricane Irma and rescued by photographer and local history buff Randy Lathrop. The first round of radiocarbon dating results are in and they tease a solid likelihood that the canoe is much older than Lathrop thought it might be. Or younger. Or a little of both.

According to the Florida Division of Historical Resources archaeologist who examined it and performed the radiocarbon analysis, there is:

• A 50 percent probability the wood used to make the canoe dates between 1640 to 1680.

• A 37.2 percent probability the wood dates between 1760 to 1818.

• An 8.6 percent probability that it dates to 1930 or later.

“It is important to note that this gives us the probability of when the log used to make the canoe died or was cut down,” said Sarah Revell, Florida Department of State spokeswoman.

“The canoe has some interesting features, like the presence of paint and wire nails, that indicate it may have been made in the 19th or 20th century, so this adds to the mystery,” she said. […]

Revell offered some possible explanations. In one scenario, the canoe was made in the 1800s or 1900s, but from an old log. Or, perhaps the canoe was made in the 1600s or 1700s, saw use for many years, and was modified over time. Then again, though the probability is lower, someone could have crafted the canoe during the 1900s, she said.

“Florida has the highest concentration of dugout canoes in the world. We have more than 400 documented dugout canoes in our state. Each canoe is important in that it adds to our database and helps fill out the picture of how people used these canoes over thousands of years,” Revell said.

“This canoe is unique in that the radiocarbon dating indicates the wood is very old, but it has features that indicate it is more modern — so it is a bit of a mystery,” she said.

The Bureau of Archeological Research (BAR) will be doing some additional testing on the paint as they begin conservation protocols to keep the wood from drying out. The aim is to put the canoe on display in Brevard so it can be enjoyed in the community where it was found. That won’t happen until the wood is stabilized and that can take more than a year, even for a smaller piece like this canoe.

While it is being cleaned and soaked in a bath of polyethylene glycol for months, the canoe will still be able to be studied by researchers near and far. It has already been laster scanned and documented in high resolution detail to generate a 3D model that will give scholars, conservators, experts and educators the opportunity to virtually examine the canoe. This will help with every aspect of the study — determining its age, origin, design style, condition, conservation needs — and in future education efforts. This video shows University of South Florida Libraries 3D imaging experts working with local archaeologists to scan the dugout canoe.

And here is the end-result of that effort, a highly accurate 3D model that can be turned and zoomed and seen every which way:

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More Bronze Age gear found on Swiss Alpine pass

October 5th, 2017

In the same pass in the Swiss Alps where the Bronze Age wooden lunchbox with wheat residue was discovered, archaeologists have unearthed more prehistoric artifacts that may have been part of the Bronze Age equivalent of an Alpine survival kit. Last month, experts from the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne Lötschen Pass unearthed assorted tools dating to the Bronze Age.

They’ve known there was something there since 2011 when Beat Dietrich, the guardian of the pass, notified them he’d seen artifacts exposed in the melting glacier. Archaeologists recovered some of them, including what would later prove to be the Bronze Age lunch box containing coarsely ground flour, the next summer. When the brief clement weather closed, the remaining objects were covered by snow and continued to be so for five years. It was only in September of this year that archaeologists were able to fully excavate the find site and remove the artifacts they had been unable to get to in 2012.

So now, on top of the box, the fragments of bows, three flint arrowheads, a cow horn vessel and snippets of leather recovered from the earlier dig, archaeologists can add four fragments of bows, more strips and bands of leather, broken arrows, pieces of birch bark and a cord made from animal fibers with a horn button.

Archaeologists believe this may well have been gear carried by the same mountaineer trudging through the Bernese Alps 4,000 years ago. His box of comestibles was supplemented by a bag in which he carried his bows and arrows. All those strips of leather and birch bark fragments could have been used to create a quiver or backpack kind of container.

Even if the objects didn’t all belong to one person, the discovery of so much Bronze Age mountaineering gear is unique. Dating to around 2,000-1,800 B.C., they are the oldest artifacts ever found in the pass.

The melting of the glaciers has also revealed later finds from the Iron Age, Roman era, Middle Ages and modern times, including human remains of people lost in the mountains decades ago. An archaeological survey performed by researchers in Bern has unearthed a wooden artifact of indeterminate purpose dating to Roman times, wooden stave buckets from the Middle Ages and a wood vessel from the Iron Age that bears traces of fire. Researchers believe it may have been used to carry embers through the mountains so people could quickly make fire in all weather conditions.

The range of dates and artifacts in these discoveries underscore that the Lötschen Pass has been used consistently by human travelers between the Bernese Oberland and the Valais for at least 4,000 years.

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New video of wreck of Mars warship

October 4th, 2017

The wreck of the 16th century Swedish warship Mars, flagship of King Eric XIV (r. 1560-1568), son of Gustav Vasa, first of his dynasty and first king of an independent Sweden, has been captured in defiance of visibility conditions at the bottom of the Baltic in a crystalline combination of footage and 3D rendering.

In an ironic twist that isn’t all that ironic given the length of time involved, King Gustav Vasa had begun to build a permanent, state-run Swedish navy (as opposed to the medieval system of drafting merchant vessels for war duties as needed) with ships he bought from the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. After his death in 1560, his son Eric picked up where Dad left off, investing heavily in the development of a navy that could protect his crown, still tenuous given his father’s rebellion. Grasping at straws of legitimacy wherever he could find them, Eric slapped all those numbers after his name, claiming descent from ever so many Erics before him, real or legendary, related or not.

His Danish cousins were not impressed. They considered him a usurper just like his father. One of Eric’s solutions was to ramp up Swedish naval strength to control trade on the Baltic. Big ships were a key part of this plan. In 1561, he engaged master shipwright Holgerd Olsson to build the biggest ship yet. It was Eric’s idea to call it the Mars after the Roman god of war, telegraphing even more clearly his bellicose intent. Mars was completed in the fall of 1563, just in time for the fireworks. Also known as the Makalös (Matchless), the ship was big, the largest ever up until that point on the Baltic. It was said to be longer than Lübeck’s cathedral of St. Peter.

The Danes didn’t appreciate Eric’s ambitious encroachment on their turf in the lucrative Baltic market and neither did Lübeck. In 1563, the conflict escalated into the Northern Seven Years’ War. It was Sweden against Denmark–Norway, Lübeck and the Polish–Lithuanian union. Sweden’s navy was already intimidating compared to its rivals. It had 38 ships, 16 of them large warships. The Mars was armed with at least 100 guns, perhaps as many as 200, depending on which source you believe. Its heavy artillery enabled it to fight at a distance, eschewing the old-fashioned boarding followed by hand-to-hand combat tactics that had dominated naval warfare for so long.

When the Mars and other Swedish warships went up against the fleets of Denmark, Lübeck and the Polish–Lithuanian union off the coast of the Swedish island of Öland on May 30th, 1564, at first Mars seemed to dominate the field. With those big guns of hers, she disabled the Danish flagship Fortuna and sank the Lübeckian ship Alte Bark. The Danish and Lübeckian commanders realized they would have to board her or face certain defeat. On day two of the engagement, they managed to do just that. The only problem is the Mars was on fire. The enemy crews only had enough time to board her and initiate looting procedures before they were all blown sky high in an explosion so powerful that it shot the ship’s mainmast straight up in the air like a crossbow bolt. The Mars sank quickly, taking many coins, cannons and lives to the cold Baltic seafloor with it.

After decades, centuries even, of fruitless searches, in 2011 the wreck of the Mars was found near Öland 250 feet below the surface of the water. Even though it went down in such a spectacular fashion, it was in excellent condition. Its guts were exposed in the explosion, but the wood has been perfectly preserved by the Baltic’s slow currents, cold water and lack of woodworm.

From its discovery in 2011 through 2015, marine archaeologists have been studying the wreck under very difficult conditions. It’s so deep and cold, visibility is literally zero and it’s not possible to dive in a regular way. They needed a special mix of gases to protect them from the bends, and documenting the wrack in total darkness required specialized scanning equipment.

Over the course of several years, a research team led by Johann Rönnby, professor of maritime archaeology at Sweden’s Södertörn University, has photographed and scanned the 453-year-old wreck Mars, the legendary flagship of Swedish King Erik XIV. […]

The Mars wreck site was discovered in 2011 by Rönnby’s team near the Swedish island of Öland. Initial investigations of the vessel, lying at a depth of 250 feet, indicated that a combination of slow currents and a dark and cold environment helped to facilitate the stunning preservation of the wooden warship.

National Geographic helped fund the research, so keep your eyes peeled for the story to air on its cable channel. Meanwhile, here’s a taste of the breathtaking footage and rendering drawn from a site that requires hand-held Klieg lights to see even a tiny part of it.

Deep Sea Productions filmed the exploration of the wreck for a documentary. Below is a brief introductory video to the production and a surprisingly enjoyable clip of reenactments from the film. I’m not a fan of what I deem to be an overreliance on reenactments in history documentaries because I find them a cheesy shortcut to generate feeble “action scenes” as if the history itself couldn’t possibly keep bums in seats. I have to admit these look not too bad. (Still not good tho.)

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Yeovil Hoard on display at Museum of Somerset

October 3rd, 2017

A hoard of 3,339 Roman coins unearthed in March of 2013 has gone on display at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton, just a hop, skip and a jump from where they were found in Yeovil.

The hoard was discovered neither by archaeologists nor by metal detector enthusiasts. This one was found by bulldozer driver Mark Copsey who was moving masses of earth during installation of a fake turf hockey pitch at the Yeovil Recreational Centre. We have his exceptionally keen eye to thank that the hoard wasn’t scattered to the four corners of the earth and the vessel destroyed. After he leveled the old hockey field, he looked back upon his works, ye mighty, and saw a green stain on the newly exposed surface of the soil. Upon further investigation, he saw coins and the remains of the pot (the top of it had been sheered off by the bulldozer). He contacted South West Heritage Trust who sent experts to explore the find site. The coins he had already picked up and put in a sealed bag were sent along to the British Museum for examination. The in situ coins and greyware vessel fragments were raised en bloc and excavated in controlled conditions in the BM lab.

Conservators found that all of the coins date to the 2nd-3rd centuries A.D., most to the 3rd. The most recent coins in the hoard date to around 270 A.D., which is probably around the time they were buried, a period of turmoil in Britain when usurpers created a splinter “Gallic Empire” and ruled as rivals to the official Roman emperor. The overwhelming majority of the coins, 3335, to be precise, are base silver coins. Out of that number, only 165 are silver denarii. The rest are less valuable radiates which became the most circulated denomination in the 3rd century. The remaining four of the 3,339 coins are large brass sestertii. In the 3rd century, four sestertii were worth a single silver denarius.

Coin stack with textile fragments still attached by corrosion. Photo courtesy the Somerset County Council.At least some of them had been stacked in little piles and wrapped with textiles before being buried in the pot. In one of those great archaeological flukes that descend upon us all too rarely, the corrosion from the metal created a sort of caked-on crust that ensured the survival of fragments of organic textiles even though the ground wasn’t waterlogged or a peat bog or extremely dry or extremely cold.

The hoard contains a large array of different coins struck under different emperors (40 emperors and empresses, to be precise) some of them of significant historical note. There’s a series of coins struck in 248 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Philip I which commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the city of Rome. Their reverse sides depict exotic animals — hippos, elephants, lions — thousands of whom were slaughtered in the games celebrating the millennium birthday.

Two months after its discovery, the Yeovil Hoard was declared Treasure and valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee at £53,500 ($71,000). The usual practice is for a local museum to be offered the treasure contingent on their paying the assessed value as a reward to the finder and landowner. At first it looked like they might be in for a bumpy ride. One of Mark Copsey’s co-workers claimed it was a “group find” and that they all should get a cut, but the coroner’s inquest determined there was no basis for the claim. Copsey was declared the finder free and clear.

The Museum of Somerset declared its desire to acquire the hoard in no uncertain terms and launched a fundraiser. The South Somerset District Council, owners of the hockey pitch and rec center where the hoard was discovered, were very much in support of the goal of keeping the hoard close to where it was found. They decided to waive their rights to half the reward, leaving the museum with £26,750 to raise. They got donations from individuals, the Friends of the Museum of Somerset and grants from several art/cultural patrimony funds. It took more than a year, but the fee was raised in full and now the Yeovil Hoard will be exhibited in a local museum, albeit one that was recently renovated for millions of pounds and is now a state-of-the-art facility.

Coin of Philip I, lion reverse. Photo courtesy the Somerset County Council.Somerset has been on a long roll hoard-wise. The spectacular Frome Hoard, 52,503 Roman coins buried in a single pot, was found less than 30 miles northeast of Yeovil and is now on display at the Museum of Somerset, as is the Shapwick Hoard, discovered in 1998 and still the largest group of silver denarii found in Britain. The museum is also the permanent home of the Priddy Hoard, gold jewelry buried 1300-1100 BC. during the Bronze Age, and from the same date range, a twisted gold torc that is widely acknowledged as the finest piece of gold work ever discovered in Somerset.

Stephen Minnitt, head of museums at South West Heritage Trust, said: “Somerset has gained a reputation for the exceptional number of Roman coin hoards discovered in the county – these include the well-known Shapwick and Frome hoards.

“We are delighted that, thanks to the support of our funders and the district council, we have also been able to secure the Yeovil Hoard for the county.”

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Toys found in Roman-era child graves in Turkey

October 2nd, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed childrens’ toys in 2,000-year-old tombs in the ancient Greek city of Parion, located in the modern-day village of Kemer, in northwestern Turkey’s Çanakkale province. The small figurines were made of clay and are identifiable as grave goods for children because they were buried with them in small wooden coffins.

Grave goods from children's tombs, laid out for the press. Photo by Anadolu Agency.Parion, or Parium, was founded in 709 B.C. by Greek colonists, possibly from Eretria, the city in Euboea that just came up a couple of days ago in conjuction with the discovery of the Artemis sanctuary. In the 5th century B.C. Parion joined the Delian League, an association led by Athens ostensibly to unite in military defense against future Persian invasions but which Athens soon diverted to its own ends. The tensions that resulted between the Greek city-states by the end of the century led to the Peloponnesian War and the dissolution of the league.

At the time when the tombs were built, Parion was a Roman colony in its Asia province. It was a prosperous hub of the Aegean trade with two major harbours through which all goods bounds for what is today Istanbul passed.

Archaeologists have been excavating the site, including necropoli from various periods, since 2005. The necropolis from the Roman period includes burials of both adults and children. The children were buried in their own individual caskets, toys placed lovingly around their bodies. Some of them might have been favorite toys used during their lifetime. Others were a kind of posthumous present to send the child to the afterworld with plenty of things to play with. Others — symbolic animal figurines, deities, mythological creatures — had a religious function, to help the deceased with all their ritual needs to ensure a smooth transition to the other side.

Researchers have discovered toys and other articles during excavations at the ancient site, Professor Hasan Kasaoğlu from Atatürk University, who is the excavation leader at Parion, told the Anadolu Agency.

He noted that the toys were presented as “gifts for the dead” children and provide significant information about the sociocultural structure of the period.

For instance, Kasaoğlu highlighted that female figurines were found in tombs belonging to girls, while male figures were found in tombs belonging to boys.

“2,000 years ago girls played with ‘Barbie-like’ dolls, the same way they do now,” Kasaoğlu said, adding that although objects have changed shapes and features, humans have always had the same mentality.

That’s debatable, as this photograph captures rather succinctly:

Other child-sized artifacts have been recovered from the Roman necropolis at Parion. Less than a month ago the team unearthed a tiny earthenware vessel used to feed infants, the ancient version of the baby bottle which looks like a miniature teapot, complete with a wee handle and spout.

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