Attic mummy is plastic with real human skull

September 27th, 2013

The mummy discovered by ten-year-old Alexander Kettler in his grandmother’s attic in Diepholz, northern Germany, in August is neither a mummy nor an ingeniously disguised crime victim. Forensic examination has determined that most of it is a plastic skeleton, possibly a medical school model, of recent manufacture topped with a genuine human skull.

The discovery process led scientists on a merry chase. First, Alexander’s father Lutz Wolfgang Kettler hefted the sarcophagus and other boxes into his Mercedes station wagon and drove the lot to the Archaeological Institute Berlin. The “artifacts” that were found along with the mummy case (an earthenware death mask and a canopic jar) were quickly dismissed as fakes, mainly because they look like they were made by 8th graders out of papier-mâché. Next the experts examined the bandages in which the mummy was wrapped and found they’re machine-made linen or cotton of 20th century manufacture. They did not unwrap the mummy on the off-chance that it might be genuine.

Lutz Kettler wanted to know more, so he took the mummy back home to Diepholz and booked a radiology appointment at a local hospital to see what was inside the wrapping without running the risk of damaging any human remains. CT scans and X-rays found what appeared to be a human skeleton of indeterminate gender inside the linens. The skull had a large arrowhead embedded in the eye socket and was wrapped with a metal “diadem” that looks more like a doubled up version of Björn Borg’s headband or those weird things scrunchy things people put on bald babies’ heads. The rest of the petite 4’10″ skeleton seemed to be wrapped in some kind of metal foil which made detailed X-ray analysis impossible. One neck vertebra was missing.

Even though they were unable to confirm whether the skeleton was genuine, the experts who examined it speculated that it might be a composite of several bodies. All they knew for sure after the radiography was that the skull was human. That’s where the authorities stepped in. With a confirmed human skull wrapped in 20th century bandages, police wanted the remains thoroughly examined by forensic experts. After all, wanting to cover up a crime could be a motivation for wrapping the bones in metal foil to keep prying X-rays away from an uncomfortable truth. The authorities confiscated the mummy from Kettler’s garage and brought it to Hamburg so forensic pathologists could determine just when and how this little fellow died.

The pathologists took the plunge and unwrapped the figure. They found it was not a real mummy, nor even a real skeleton. There was no metal foil, but rather a plastic skeleton sprayed with a metallic chemical that blocked X-rays from revealing the plastic within. The skull was real, but the dramatic arrowhead in its eyeball was a child’s plastic toy. The human skull and fake skeleton were packed in kitchen towels used as wadding. The skull shows signs of being a medical school preparation. A circular cut around the skull indicates it was sectioned and opened and then put back together with metallic tape, not baby head scrunchies.

With the forensic examination finding no body and a head that was probably from a med school cadaver, the police determined that there was no crime to investigate further. The Kettlers are still waiting to hear the results of some of the tests done on the skull to determine its age and origin, and Lutz Kettler is still keen to ascertain how this crazy amalgam wound up in his parents’ attic for decades.


Brazil emperor’s toothbrush found in Rio subway dig

September 26th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating the site of a future subway extension in Rio de Janeiro have unearthed more than 200,000 artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries. Many of them are in pristine condition, even fragile pieces like glass bottles and ceramic containers, and they have an illustrious provenance. There was a slaughterhouse on the site between 1853 and 1881, but before that archaeologists believe it was a garbage dump for the nearby imperial palace.

Garbage is often a rich source of archaeological treasure, and this landfill is an outstanding example of that having preserved decades, even centuries of material history of the imperial family and other area residents. It’s a massive combined record of the mundane and rarefied, mundane because they are consumer products like toothbrushes and water bottles, rarefied because what would be an everyday drug store purchase for us peasants was a bespoke, finely crafted and doubtless very expensive import for the emperors of Brazil.

The ivory toothbrush thought to have belonged to Dom Pedro II, who ruled over Brazil from 1831-1889, has turned brown with age. Its boar bristles are long gone, but the inscription remains legible: “His Majesty the Emperor of Brazil.” A round white porcelain pot emblazoned with “to the Queen of Portugal Maria of Saboia” is thought to have contained mint-flavored tooth paste made specially for the queen by a chemist with offices in London and Paris.

The site has also yielded dozens of intact glass and ceramic bottles thought to have once contained water imported from Europe for the imperial family. Six sealed bottles still contain unidentified liquids that the team plans to send to a laboratory for analysis. Dozens of coins and pipes were also found, along with a golden ring and a tie tack.

Archaeologists believe the artifacts survived in such exceptional condition because the area was swampy and waterlogged. The wet conditions provided cushioning and protection for breakable objects like bottles and jars, keeping many of them intact without even a crack.

Excavations have been suspended for the time being for the construction of the new subway tunnels which are part of the city’s preparations for the 2016 Olympics. All the dig trenches have been covered with multiple layers to protect them from damage during construction and to clearly mark the sites. When the tunnels and stations are complete at the end of 2015, excavations will resume. Lead archaeologist Claudio Prado de Mello believes they’ve only scratched the surface, that there may be as many as 800,000 artifacts on this site.

The team of more than 30 archaeologists and historians will spend the next three years working on the vast store of artifacts they’ve unearthed. The finds will be cleaned and catalogued, the broken pieces and fragments will be collected and puzzled together. All the laboratory work is being underwritten by the company that won the subway building contract.


Daughter gets WWII medals, letter from father she never knew

September 25th, 2013

Twelve years ago, Donna Gregory was helping her then-husband go through his deceased grandparents’ home in Arnold, Missouri, when she came across a box in their bedroom closet labelled “War Department.” Inside she found a collection of documents, clippings and medals belonging to Army private first class John Farrell Eddington, including his Bronze Star, Purple Heart, draft card, dog tags, high school diploma and a letter from the War Department notifying the family that Private Eddington was killed in action in Italy on June 27, 1944. He was 25 years old.

In the box along with 16 letters he had written to his wife, Helen, there was one particularly moving letter Eddington had written to his infant daughter Peggy three weeks after she was born on February 5th, 1944. He was still training in Texas when he wrote the letter, but before he even got a chance to meet his beloved baby girl, John was deployed overseas. He died four months later, never having held little Peggy in his arms.

Touched and fascinated by the history and emotion inside the box, especially in the letter to baby Peggy, Donna Gregory took it home to St. Louis and researched the soldier off and on for the next dozen years. Gregory’s husband at the time had no idea who Eddington was or what connection he might have had to his grandparents. Eddington was born in Leadwood, Missouri, just 50 miles south of Arnold, but that tenuous geographical proximity is the only commonality we know of. Google and the library led her to some more details about John Eddington. She found that he was buried at the Jefferson Barracks in St Louis. Donna was able to trace Peggy to Nevada, but wasn’t able to find a current address.

A few months ago Donna picked up the search again, widening the parameters in the hope she could find John Eddington’s daughter before it was too late. She enlisted the help of friends and random Facebook people who read about the story and the crowdsourced effort worked. She found Peggy’s grandson, then she found her son, and then she found Peggy, now Peggy Eddington-Smith of Dayton, Nevada. Donna called Peggy and told her she had her father’s mementos and most poignantly, the letter he wrote her before he died.

Peggy was shocked. She knew almost nothing about her father other than that he had died in World War II. Her mother had been so devastated by John’s death that she couldn’t bear to speak of him. Helen never remarried because, as she put it the few times she spoke of him, she had once found the perfect man and would never again find the perfect man.

To present Peggy with her father’s things in proper style, Donna raised money to travel to Nevada. She also contacted the Nevada Patriot Guard to see if they could put her in touch with a World War II veteran in Dayton or environs so that he could be the one to place the Purple Heart in Peggy’s hands. The Patriot Guard found Navy veteran Quentin McColl, 93, to perform the duty and they organized a motorcycle escort to accompany Donna from Missouri to Nevada.

On Saturday, September 21st, Donna Gregory arrived at the Dayton Intermediate School gym. In a ceremony attended by Peggy Eddington-Smith, her family, members of Veterans of Foreign Wars who had fought in World War II, local dignitaries and residents, Peggy received her father’s Purple Heart, Bronze Star, personal documents, replicas of his dog tags, gold star flags and the letters. Donna read the very special letter John Eddington wrote to Peggy aloud before giving it to her.

The first page was written to Helen. John hoped she wouldn’t find it “silly” that he was writing to a baby who couldn’t read or understand his words. The next two pages were just pure sweetness from a doting Daddy. I was unable to find a transcript of the entire letter, sadly, but here are bits from various news stories:

My Darling Daughter,

You have never seen me or may never see me for some time. I’m sending you this so that you will always know that you have a very proud daddy somewhere in this world fighting for you and our country.

“I love you so much,” the letter said. “Your mother and daddy … are going to give you everything we can. We will always give you all the love we have.”

Eddington urged his daughter to “always treat your mother right. You have the sweetest mother on the Earth.” He closed the letter by writing, “I love you with all my heart and soul forever and forever. Your loving daddy.”

General sobbing ensued. Peggy, who had told reporters before the ceremony she wasn’t going to get “super-emotional,” abandoned that plan.

“The letter gave me more knowledge of who he was,” she told The Associated Press. “He poured out his heart to me, and a lot of men don’t put that kind of emotion in writing. I’m just overwhelmed by everything, trying to absorb everything.”

Then this happened:

Almost everyone in the crowd in the Dayton Intermediate School gym broke down when the VFW commander called roll for members who served in World War II.

Each old soldier shouted “Here sir.” Then he called for Pvt. John F. Eddington. There was silence. He called for Eddington again. A member replied that Private Eddington was killed in action.

Then the shots of a 21-gun salute rang out outside the gym, and taps was played in his memory.



Head of Aphrodite found during excavation of mosaic

September 24th, 2013

The dramatic 1600-square-foot Roman mosaic discovered last year in the ancient town of Antiochia ad Cragum on the southern coast of Turkey continues to bear fruit. Archaeologists excavating the part of the mosaic that was left underground at the end of the last digging season found a life-sized marble head of Aphrodite face down in the soil. The head has been damaged — there are copious chips on the nose, right eye, cheek and chin — and no matching body was found.

This one beaten up head is of disproportionate historical importance because it’s the only piece of monumental sculpture unearthed in eights years of excavations.

The new discoveries add evidence that early residents of Antiochia – which was established at about the time of Emperor Nero in the middle of the first century and flourished during the height of the Roman Empire – adopted many of the trappings of Roman civilization, though they lived in relative isolation a thousand miles from Rome. In the past, scholars believed the region’s culture had been too insular to be heavily impacted by Rome.

Yet [University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor of art history Michael] Hoff and his team have found many signs that contradict that belief.

“We have niches where statues once were. We just didn’t have any statues,” Hoff said. “Finally, we have the head of a statue. It suggests something of how mainstream these people were who were living here, how much they were a part of the overall Greek and Roman traditions.”

Lime kilns have been found near the site which suggests the statuary that once inhabited the niches of Antiochia ad Cragum were burned to make the slaked lime used in concrete. The rise of Christianity in the area in the 4th century may have also played a part as pagan iconography, including statues and figural reliefs, was a particular target of destruction.

The head of Aphrodite wasn’t the only exceptional discovery this season. The team excavated the western half of the large mosaic surrounding the marble-lined swimming pool that was partially unearthed last year. They cleared the pool and found two stairways leading into it and benches along the inner sides. They also found that the elaborate mosaic floor was used as a base for a glass-blowing furnace in the middle of the fourth century, around the same time the lime kilns were in use. Because of these later finds, the date of the mosaic has been moved forward to the late second or early third century.

As if that weren’t enough for three month’s work, the archaeological team also discovered a second mosaic just south of the pool. They excavated a mound where toppled columns were visible above ground and found a square mosaic floor of geometric designs, fruits and flowers. The layout of the remains suggests this structure was a Roman temple which makes the floor even more unusual a find because mosaics floors are rare in Roman temples.

“Everything about it is telling us it’s a temple, but we don’t have much in the way of to whom it was dedicated,” he said. “We’re still analyzing the finds. But the architecture suggests heavily that it was a temple.”

While the larger bath plaza mosaic features large patterned areas, the temple mosaic uses smaller tesserae to compose geometric designs, as well as images of fruit and floral images amidst a chain guilloche of interlocking circles. The temple mosaic measures about 600 square feet.

Both mosaics will eventually be conserved and protected so visitors can enjoy their beauty in situ. For now, conservators repaired some of the damaged areas with a dedicated mortar then covered the mosaics with a conservation blanket and a heavy layer of sand to keep them safe from the elements and looters.


Museum buys Kelly Clarkson’s Jane Austen ring

September 23rd, 2013

The cabochon turquoise and gold ring that was bought at auction last July by singer Kelly Clarkson will not be departing English soil after all. A local museum has raised the funds to buy it from the singer and keep it in the country.

According to British law, objects of cultural patrimony 50 years old or older and above a certain monetary value must be reviewed by an expert committee before they are licensed for export. If the committee finds that the artifact is of national importance, it recommends that the Culture Ministry block export to give a local buyer time to raise the purchase price.

On the recommendation of the committee, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey blocked the export of the ring because as one of only three surviving pieces of jewelry known to have belonged to Jane Austen (the other two are a topaz cross and a turquoise bracelet), it’s an irreplaceable cultural object. He gave British buyers until September 30th to come up with the £152,450 ($244,000) Clarkson spent on the ring. She agreed that she would willingly sell it so that the bauble could remain in England.

Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, the house where Austen wrote all six of her finished novels and lived for the last eight years of her life, was keen to secure the ring for the nation and for its permanent collection of Austeniana. The cross and bracelet that are the only other jewels confirmed as having belonged to Jane Austen are part of the Austen House Museum collection and the museum had in fact been one of the bidders for the ring at the auction. Unfortunately, the modest museum wasn’t able to stay in contention as the cost far exceeded the £30,000 pre-sale estimate. After the announcement of the temporary export block in August, Jane Austen’s House Museum launched a fundraiser to give them a second bite at the turquoise apple.

On Monday, just over a week before the September 30th deadline, the museum announced they’ve raised sufficient funds to purchase the ring from Ms. Clarkson. An anonymous donor got the fundraising campaign two-thirds of the way there by pledging £100,000 and Austen fans all over the world donated the remaining £52,450.

Mary Guyatt, curator, said “The Museum has been stunned by the generosity and light-footedness of all those who have supported our campaign to meet the costs of acquiring Jane Austen’s ring for our permanent collection. Visitors come from all around the world to see the house where she once lived and we will now take great pleasure in displaying this pretty ring for their appreciation.”

Kelly Clarkson, who had already accepted the museum’s purchase offer before the announcement was made, graciously responded to the news:

“The ring is a beautiful national treasure and I am happy to know that so many Jane Austen fans will get to see it at Jane Austen’s House Museum.”

The museum hopes Ms. Clarkson will go visit the ring she owned for a short but sweet time. It is scheduled to go on display at the museum come the new year.


Elite Etruscan grave found intact in Tarquinia

September 22nd, 2013

The intact tomb of an Etruscan aristocrat has been discovered in Tarquinia, a town about 50 miles north of Rome that was the first of the 12 principal cities of Etruria. The Tarquins who ruled Rome before the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of the Republic came from Tarquinia (called Tarquinii in antiquity), and the newly discovered tomb is adjacent to a large royal tumulus known as the Queen Tomb.

At just six feet in diameter, the new discovery is small compared to the Queen Tomb’s 130-foot diameter, but a location just a few feet away from the Queen’s imposing mound was so prestigious it was saved for the exclusive use of the royal family. The gentleman found buried in the new tomb is probably a prince, therefore, and perhaps even related to a Tarquin since the tomb dates to around 600 B.C., a period during which Lucius Tarquinius Priscus was fifth king of Rome (from 616 to 579 B.C.).

As with the Sarmatian tomb found this summer in Filippovka, the fact that the tomb was not assaulted by grave robbers ancient and modern, but rather has survived for 2,600 years without interference makes it an extremely important archaeological find. Tarquinia has several necropoli with a total of 6,000 tumuli. Those mounds have been targets for looters since they were first carved out of the volcanic tufa rock, so just like the Russian archaeologists, the Italians were expecting to encounter burglarized tombs with some artifacts left behind, not an intact one. The last non-tampered-with tomb in Etruria was found 30 years ago, and it had entirely collapsed so there was little data for archaeologists to retrieved.

The grave goods found inside this tumulus aren’t as glamorous as those found in the Sarmatian tomb or some of the more famous Etruscan burials like the Regolini-Galassi tomb, but an undisturbed context of an ancient people we still know so little about is worth more than piles of gold to archaeologists. The team of archaeologists from the University of Torino and the Superintendence for Archaeological Goods of Southern Etruria were hopeful that they’d find the tomb untouched when they found the stone slab blocking the entrance to the tumulus still perfectly sealed.

After they removed the slab, the first thing they found were remains of a sacrificial offering on the ground by the entrance: a group of jars, vases and a bronze grater all used in funerary rites. The grater was used to grate flours and goat cheeses into a vessel of wine which would then be drunk or poured as a libation.

As the heavy stone slab was removed, [University of Turin Etruscanologist Alessandro] Mandolesi and his team were left breathless. In the small vaulted chamber, the complete skeleton of an individual was resting on a stone bed on the left. A spear lay along the body, while fibulae, or brooches, on the chest indicated that the individual, a man, was probably once dressed with a mantle.

At his feet stood a large bronze basin and a dish with food remains, while the stone table on the right might have contained the incinerated remains of another individual.

Decorated with a red strip, the upper part of the wall featured, along with several nails, a small hanging vase, which might have contained some ointment. A number of grave goods, which included large Greek Corinthian vases and precious ornaments, lay on the floor.

The vases and ornaments on the floor may have once been hanging on the wall like the little aryballos — a vessel for oils and unguents — which was so amazingly still hanging from its nail when the archaeologists opened the tomb. The heavier pieces are thought to have fallen due to structural failings of the tomb and/or seismic activity. Among the vases were seals which might help identify the deceased and fragments of what may have been armour.

The team is still cataloguing the artifacts. Once everything has been inventoried, a panoply of tests will follow. The organic remains of the food offerings will be analyzed. One of the artifacts, a small cylindrical bronze chest, will be opened to see what’s inside. (Archaeologists expect it to contain jewelry, if anything). The tomb itself will also be explored further, in the hope of discovering other organic elements from religious rituals and to conserve the paint which, while modest compared to the elaborate decoration of some of the 200 other tombs in Tarquinia with painted walls, might make the tomb of interest to tourists.


Lost Mary Pickford film found in barn, restored

September 21st, 2013

Their First Misunderstanding, a 1911 Independent Moving Picture Co. (IMP) short starring Mary Pickford in her first fully credited film appearance, will make its second debut more than a century after its first at a special screening on October 11th at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. It’s a milestone in Mary Pickford’s rise to global superstardom and in the development of the very concept of a movie star. This is the first picture in which she was credited as Mary Pickford rather than “Little Mary.”

Pickford had been working since 1909 for D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Company, cranking out a nickelodeon a week. Although Biograph never listed its actors’ names in the credits, a standard practice in the early days of the industry, Mary was soon very popular with audiences. Movie theater owners tapped into her popularity and advertised her presence in a film describing her as “The Girl with the Golden Curls,” among other nicknames.

She was just 18 years old when she left Biograph to join pioneering film producer Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company. Laemmle was instrumental in the birth of what would become the Hollywood star system, hiring away the most popular actors from companies where their work was uncredited and giving them marquee billing. He also perpetrated the first fake star death PR hoax in 1910 when he spread around the rumor that Florence Lawrence had been run over by a streetcar in New York City, only to later unveil with great fanfare that she was not dead, but rather shooting the upcoming IMP picture The Broken Oath, soon in theaters near you!

Laemmle poached Mary Pickford from Biograph just as he had Florence Lawrence: by guaranteeing her name billing. Mary also was allowed an impressive amount of control over her IMP pictures. She wrote the screenplay for Their First Misunderstanding and cast her newlywed husband Owen Moore as the newlywed husband in the film. The director is thought to have been the soon-to-be legendary Thomas Ince who also makes a brief appearance in the film.

Like many of the silent pictures from the 1910s and 20s, Their First Misunderstanding was lost, with no known copies in existence for decades. That changed in 2006 when contractor Peter Massie found seven reels of old nitrate film, empty film canisters and a 1934 Monarch silent film projector on the second floor of a barn in Nelson, New Hampshire. Massie was looking through the barn before tearing it down when he hit on this magical little jackpot. Being a film buff, he took the reels and projector home.

Massie contacted Larry Benaquist, founder of Keene State’s film program, to alert him to the finds. Benaquist thinks the films were in the barn because there were several summer camps in Nelson, including a boys camp near the barn in the 1920s. He believes the shorts were shown to the boys on movie night and then tossed in a corner and forgotten. It’s astonishing that the reels and the barn survived. Nitrate film is highly flammable and so are barns.

Last year Benaquist sent two of the nitrate reels which were stuck together to Colorlab, a Maryland company that specializes in restoring volatile nitrate film. They were able to separate the two and identify them: Their First Misunderstanding, and the 1910 Biograph film The Unchanging Sea which also stars Mary Pickford and of which there are plenty of extant copies.

The Library of Congress, which has largest collection of movies by Mary Pickford, funded the restoration, to the tune of an estimated $9,000. It is money well spent. Despite having been stuck to another film and left in the open in a barn for nigh on a century, almost the entire picture has been restored. There are a few spots with missing frames where the action skips, but it doesn’t impede understanding. The restored film is considered complete.

You’ll have to head to New Hampshire on October 11th with $5 in hand to view the entire film. Here’s a clip from the restored Their First Misunderstanding to tide you over. The picture quality is mind-blowing for any 100-year-old film, even more mind-blowing when you consider it was stuck in unhealthy gelatinous co-dependence with The Unchanging Sea for decades.


7-year-old finds dugout canoe during scuba lesson

September 20th, 2013

Seven-year-old Koen Ergle found a dugout canoe that could be hundreds, even thousands of years old, while taking scuba diving lessons with his grandfather in Owen Lake in the Ocala National Forest east of Ocala, Florida. Former Marion County sheriff Ken Ergle and his grandson Koen were scuba diving in eight feet of water when Koen saw a piece of dark wood. His grandfather dismissed it as scrap from an old dock, but the boy insisted they investigate.

“He was on my secondary respirator and I could hear him making noises and pointing to the wood,” Ken Ergle said. “I started fanning the sand off and still wasn’t quite sure what it was.”

Koen said it looked like a canoe.

After two weekends of digging, what emerged was indeed a nearly 20-foot long canoe.

“This is very complete, this is in very good shape. These are the ones we can really learn from,” said Julia Byrd, senior archaeologist for the Bureau of Archaeological Research, Division of Historical Resources, who was on site Thursday.

There are still indications in the wood of how the canoe was crafted. Charred areas in the dug-out are remnants of the burning that was done to hollow out of the log and make a suitably concave interior.

Julia Byrd photographed the canoe, took detailed measurements and samples. The samples will be analyzed to determine which wood the canoe is made out of and to radiocarbon date it. Native Americans lived in the area starting 15,000 years ago, so the canoe could be pre-historic or from more recent history. A shard of Native American pottery was discovered near the canoe and it’s in a style dating back 2,000 years, but that could be a coincidence.

The Ergle family has donated the canoe to the Marion County Museum of History and Archaeology.

“We are just tickled that the family decided to donate it to the museum. What we are trying to do is get nice quality finds from Marion County. This is an extremely good quality find,” said Lee Brown, who is affiliated with the museum.

Next up for the canoe is two years of drying. The moisture must be extracted very gradually to ensure the wood doesn’t warp and crack. This can be done using PEG like with the Mary Rose, freeze drying like with La Belle or low, long heat like with the bog oak kiln. In this case, however, experts will be wrapping it in plastic to ensure it dries slowly.


Unique Medusa mosaic revealed before restoration

September 19th, 2013

The unique mosaic of Medusa in the Odeon amphitheater of Kibyra, an ancient Hellenistic city in southwest Turkey’s Burdur Province, has been revealed for the first time since it was discovered in 2009. In order to preserve it, the vast marble mosaic was covered in five layers of sand and gravel. Those layers have now been removed to allow restorers to assess its condition and devise a detailed restoration plan for next year. Once restoration is complete, the mosaic will be covered with glass to protect it while still making its special beauty accessible to visitors.

What makes this piece so unique is a combination of size, design, location, materials and subject. So yeah, basically everything about it. The mosaic is 11 meters (36 feet) wide and fills in the entire orchestra area in front of the stage. In the center is a circular face of Medusa with a nimbus of wavy hair and serpents. From the central panel radiate geometric plates paired in contrasting colors that look like large feathers stretching all the way to the edge or the orchestra semi-circle. Marble plaques, some as slender as a single a millimeter thick, in red, white, green, brown, blue, red, grey and veined combinations of each form the design, a mosaic style called opus sectile which uses larger, irregularly shaped pieces rather than the small square tesserae used in the opus tessellatum style. It was created in the mid-third century A.D.

This is the only opus sectile Medusa known in the world. It’s the largest mosaic in Anatolia. It’s one of the best preserved of its size with 95% of the original material extant. It’s also the only Medusa mosaic found in the orchestra section of a Roman amphitheater.

The most exceptional elements, as far as I’m concerned, are the color combinations and the details of Medusa’s face. I think it looks incredibly contemporary. The eyes, nose, mouth and hair could have been drawn by Lucien Freud or Edvard Munch. I love opus sectile — the 4th century Tigress Attacking a Calf from the Basilica of Junius Bassus, now in the Capitoline Museums, has been a favorite of mine since childhood — but it usually has fairly distinct colored sections that are almost paint by numbers in their sharp outlines. Look at the rings the make up the irises and pupils, the crimson in the corner of the eyes and lips, the grain in the marble of the hair. This Medusa has a completely different feel than the tiger because of its remarkably organic composition.

If you think that this post was essentially an excuse to post this picture, you are correct. Such a spectacular piece of art, and a striking figure to border a performance stage. Odeons were small amphitheaters built for musical shows — concerts, contests, poetry recitals — that often had roofs for acoustic purposes. The Kibyra odeon had seating for 3,600 and was used not just as a theater, but as a legal court and legislative chamber during winter when the roof made it the most comfortable building for public use.


Intact Sarmatian burial found strewn with gold

September 18th, 2013

Last month, archaeologists excavating a mound in the Filippovka burial ground in the Orenburg region of Russia’s Southern Ural steppes discovered a rare intact burial from the nomadic Persian-speaking Sarmatian people who lived in the area from around 500 B.C. until 400 A.D. The burial ground has 29 funerary mounds, known as kurgans, almost all of which have been thoroughly excavated by archaeologists since the 1980s and thoroughly plundered by looters since antiquity. Archaeologists still work the site and have found important artifacts from Sarmatian daily life like hunting tools, household goods, but they thought there was no chance of finding any intact burials.

Mound 1, aka the Tsar Tumulus, where the most recent discovery was made was excavated in 1986 and a large collection of jewelry, glassware, weapons and 26 stylized carved wooden dear covered in gold sheet was discovered. It became a signature treasure of the Sarmatian archaeology, giving historians a whole new understanding of the Iron Age nomads of the steppes, and has traveled to some of the world’s greatest museums. This summer the archaeological team from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology returned to Mound 1 to explore the eastern section of the kurgan which the original excavation had overlooked. They had no expectations of discovering flashy artifacts; the goal was to find out everything they could about the mound and to determine how best to defend it from conservation threats.

Instead, five meters (16.4 feet) under the surface in a passage near the entrance the archaeologists were welcomed by a cast bronze cauldron more than three feet in diameter with two looped handles on the sides and two top handles in the shape of griffins facing each other beak to beak. Underneath the mound they found the burial chamber, miraculously untouched with its human remains and artifacts lying exactly where they were left 2,500 years ago.

A small wicker chest that is thought to be a vanity case was found near the skull. It was filled to the brim with items including a cast silver container with a lid, a gold pectoral, a wooden box, cages, glass, silver and earthenware bathroom flasks, leather pouches, and horse teeth that contained red pigments.

Nearby lay a large silver mirror with gilded stylized animals on the handle and embossed decoration on the back with the image of an eagle in the centre, surrounded by a procession of six winged bulls.

The garments were decorated with several plaques, depicting flowers, rosettes and a panther leaping on a saiga’s (antelope) back. There were also 395 pressed pieces of gold leaf sewn onto the breeches, shirt and scarf. A fringed shawl was held together with a golden chain and the sleeves of the shirt were embellished with multicoloured beads, forming a complex geometric pattern. Two cast gold earrings decorated in places with cloisonné enamel were found in the area of the temporal bones.

They also found stone palettes, gilded needles, bone spoons and decorated pens that are thought to make up an ancient Sarmatian tattooing kit, a wooden bowls with gold handles shaped like bears, gold rings, a decorated glass vessel of Persian manufacture, a quiver of bronze-topped arrows and so much more. More than 1,000 artifacts were found in this one burial.

Because of the wicker chest/beauty case, the mirror, bracelets, earrings and other jewelry, archaeologists initially thought the remains were of noble woman. Initial osteological analysis, however, indicates the skeleton belongs to male around 40 years old when he died. Only a DNA test can determine the sex of the person buried in this tomb of wonders.

Once the artifacts are fully cleaned, conserved, catalogued and studied, they will go on display in an Orenburg museum.





April 2014
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