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.


Da Vinci’s Codex on Flight of Birds at Smithsonian

September 17th, 2013

Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds will be on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., from September 13th through October 22nd as part of its The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic first flight. The codex usually resides in the Bibliotecha Reale in Turin, Italy, and rarely travels, so this a special opportunity to see one of Leonardo’s most important notebooks in the context of the history of human flight.

The Codex on the Flight of Birds is a bound notebook of 18 two-sided pages that Leonardo covered with sketches and notes in his characteristic mirror script. In it he examines how birds fly, principles of aerodynamics and what kind of machine might be able to duplicate natural flight. Leonardo wrote it in 1505-6, almost 400 years before the Wright brothers’ flight, and he made prototypes of several of the machines drawn in the notebook, none of which worked, alas. Still, the concepts he explored — like how air acts like a fluid when it moves over a bird’s wing or how a bird’s center of gravity and center of pressure are different — are some of the building blocks of aeronautics.

The notebook is a modest eight by six inches in size and will be displayed in a custom case for conservation and security purposes. Since visitors obviously won’t have the chance to put their grubby hands on the codex itself, the museum has set up interactive stations with digitized versions of the notebook. People can leaf through every page using a touch screen and see the details in high resolution. A full English translation of every page will illuminate the backwards Renaissance Italian script.

“For Leonardo, art was the foundation of engineering, and engineering was an expression of art,” said Peter Jakab, chief curator of the museum. “The artist who painted the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’ was a Renaissance visionary who saw the modern world before it was realized.” Jakab, an expert in early flight, is also serving as the curator of the special exhibition.

“The exhibition of Leonardo’s Codex at the Smithsonian, including in an electronically readable and scrollable format, is truly a unique event,” said the director of the Biblioteca Reale, Giovanni Saccani. “In fact, the Codex has rarely been exhibited outside the library, although in 2012, a reproduction of the document together with Leonardo’s self-portrait were fastened on a microchip and carried to Mars aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover—leading Leonardo’s genius on a mission to conquer space.”

One of Leonardo’s drawings in another manuscript is of an ornithopter, a plane with wings that flap like a bird’s. A full-size model built from da Vinci’s sketch by an Italian manufacturer is also on display in this exhibition, along with the original Wright Flyer of 1903 in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection and reproductions of several other earlier and later Wright kites and aircraft.

Here’s a quick intro to the codex narrated by curator Peter Jakab:

Important note: Not specifically flight-related but nonetheless extremely cool is the Leonardo self-portrait that is second only to Vitruvian Man in its frequency of use in history-of-man-and-science collages and documentaries. It too is part of the Bibliotecha Reale’s extensive da Vinci collection, and they loaned it to the Smithsonian for this exhibit along with the Codex on the Flight of Birds.


1000-year-old Wari feather hangings at the Met

September 16th, 2013

Peru; reportedly from Corral Redondo, Churunga Valley
Wari; 7th-10th century
Feathers on cotton, camelid fiber, 28 3/4 x 83 1/2 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

Twelve massive feather panels made by the pre-Inca Wari people of Peru at least 1000 years ago and possibly as long as 1,400 years ago have gone on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The panels in the Feathered Walls: Hangings from Ancient Peru exhibition, 10 of which are in the Met’s permanent collection while the remaining two are loans, will adorn the 88-foot-long wall between the ancient South American art galleries and the modern art galleries, an ideal transition for pieces of ancient Peruvian art whose solid colors and sharp geometries have such a contemporary aesthetic.

The feather panels were discovered in 1943 by workers making adobe near the town of La Victoria in the Churunga Valley along the southern coast of Peru. In an enclosure known as Corral Redondo after three concentric walls that encircles it, workers first encountered Inca artifacts and human remains before unearthing six to eight humaniform ceramic jars (conflicting reports have muddied some of the details) decorated with mythological subjects. The jars were three to four feet high and each contained 12 rolled up feathered panels for a total of 96. It was the largest discovery of ancient Peruvian featherwork ever made.

Kept safe in their jars from the depredations of insect, climate and the salty ocean air, many of the panels were found to be in excellent condition. The average size of the feather panels is seven feet in width and two feet and a half in height. They were all made using the materials and stitching method. On a foundation of plain-weave cotton, body feathers from the blue and yellow macaw were individually knotted onto strings and then stitched onto the cotton panels in overlapping horizontal rows. Along the top is a woven band made from camelid fibers with braided ties attached to the upper corners. It’s those ties that strongly suggest the panels were used as wall hangings rather than, say, garments or blankets. Hung against the rough grey walls common in Wari architecture, these brilliant, refined color blocks would have transformed a humble space into a suitable setting for ceremonial purposes.

Peru; reportedly from Corral Redondo, Churunga Valley
Wari; Carbon-14 date 660-870 (95% probability)
Feathers on cotton, camelid fiber, 27 1/4 x 84 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

Four of the panels in the Met’s collection have been radiocarbon dated to between 600 and 1000 A.D, placing them firmly in the period of Wari hegemony in south coastal and highlands Peru.

Feathers, particularly those from colorful birds, were a highly valued material in ancient Peru, and featherwork was likely one of the most treasured of Wari art forms, which also include other types of fine textiles, polychrome ceramics, exquisite personal ornaments made of precious materials, and small-scale sculpture.

Such portable luxury goods were markers of wealth and power, and because the Wari, like other ancient Andean peoples, did not use a writing system, they also played an important role in expressing, recording, and preserving concepts about the human, natural, and supernatural realms. The bold minimalistic design, striking formal sophistication, and superb craftsmanship of the panels have appealed to modern sensibilities, serving as inspiration for twentieth-century artists such as Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning, who acquired one of the works presented in the exhibition.

By the time the discovery was published in English-language publications in 1958, the featherwork hangings were described as a buried cache, but according to original workers cited in early Spanish-language publications, Wari mummy bundles were found buried along with the ceramic jars. They were burned on the spot by the finders, presumably for religious reasons. If the panels were indeed buried along with people, they may have been offerings left at the grave of a very high status personage or a human sacrifice.

Twenty-three of the panels were acquired by Nelson Rockefeller who gave them to the Museum of Primitive Art, a now-defunct museum in New York he founded to house his collection of the art of indigenous peoples of Africa, Oceania, the Americas and early civilizations of Europe and Asia. The museum closed in 1976 and its permanent collection transferred over to the Metropolitan. Nelson Rockefeller died in 1979. He bequeathed the Wari feather hangings to the Met.

Peru; reportedly from Corral Redondo, Churunga Valley
Wari; 7th-10th century
Feathers on cotton, camelid fiber, 29 1/4 x 83 5/8 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979


Virtual tours of Jamaica slave uprising, HMS Victory

September 15th, 2013

I’ve got two hot tips for you today because I idled away large amounts of time sleeping, watching silent movies like a big nerd and enjoying the two virtual tours mentioned in the title like an even bigger nerd. The subjects are not related; the only thing they have in common is that their heyday was the 18th century.

The first tour uses documentary and map research to plot every stage of the 1760-1761 Jamaican slave uprising. This is so cleverly put together. You have the option of using a terrain map or political map as the base. If you want, you can explore each phase of the revolt by clicking on the timeline before, but the best thing to do is to click play in the upper left hand corner and just allow yourself to see the movements as they happened. I’m not usually the press play type. I like to click forward and back on my time, thank you very much. In this case, however, being taken on the voyage is a million times better than just clicking around, because you see the geographic links between each stage and flare-up of insurrection.

Historians have long debated whether the Jamaican slave insurrection that started in 1760 and continued for another 18 months was a spontaneous uprising, carefully planned by slaves across the country or a mixture of both. The end-result was devastation: 500 slaves killed, 500 deported to Africa, 60 white people killed and thousands of pounds in property destroyed. What this cartographical analysis found is that there were three major uprisings within the 18 months, that there were strategic choices made by rebellion leaders along with more spontaneous, disorganized outbursts.

It’s an impressive collaborative effort between historians and cartographers that has produced an attractive, easy to follow, surprisingly dynamic, information-rich resource on a complex period. I kind of want a map like this of everything now.

The second time sink is more of a literal virtual tour since you get to see with your own eyes the complete wreck site of the HMS Victory, First Rate Royal Navy warship that sank off the coast of Plymouth in 1744 and that was the predecessor to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s ship of the same name. The wreck was discovered by treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration in April of 2008.

The remains of the HMS Victory are 246 feet deep underneath a shipping lane beset by strong tides. There’s no chance of visiting the site in person, so Odyssey Marine has created a photomosaic map of the vast debris field complete with high resolution video captured by remote submersibles. Start here to follow the Virtual Dive Trail. Click on any of the outlined areas and you’ll see an incredibly clear photograph of the wreck. Click on “dive” in the upper right header and a pop-up window opens with video of the area and a description of what you’re seeing.

The quality is insane. I don’t know how that lit it so effectively but you can see bronze cannons, iron ingots, wooden planks, the large rudder, everything like it’s in your living room, assuming your living room has a vaguely blue cast to it.


Dirty scrap metal turns out to be Viking silver

September 14th, 2013

In April of 2012, David Taylor was helping his brother-in-law Andrew Coulter remove stones from his newly plowed field in Inishargy near Kircubbin, County Down, Northern Ireland, when he spied a muddy piece of metal perched on a rock. Its distorted open ring shape captured David’s interest. He picked the piece up and found it was soft metal which made him think it might be an object worth keeping, perhaps an expensive piece of machinery. When he brought it back home and cleaned it, his wife thought it was just some dirty scrap, an old discarded U-bolt bracket that David should throw in the trash.

David was still intrigued by its shape, however. He thought it might be a bracelet, although he had no idea what period it might date to. He took some pictures of the object and sent them to local museum experts. They recognized it as a Viking arm ring, a very rare discovery in Ireland.

On Monday, September 9th, a Belfast Coroner’s Court inquest officially declared the ring treasure trove. It’s composed of 90% silver with trace quantities of copper and gold and was manufactured between 950 and 1100 A.D. It weighs 45 grams, almost two Viking ounces, and would have been used by the Vikings not just as adornment but also as currency.

The Annals of Ulster note that monasteries and churches in the county were raided by Vikings in the 9th century, and there were constant battles between the Danes, Norse and Ulster kings. By 970 A.D. relations between the Vikings and native Irish had stabilized, however archaeologists speculate that the arm ring did not originate in the area, but rather in Shetland or the Orkneys where there were large Viking colonies. Not that there weren’t Viking settlements in Ireland. Dublin was awash with them, and in Northern Ireland there were notable ones at Ballyholme near Bangor and at and Strangford village, both in County Down.

John Sheehan, archaeologist from University College Cork, told coroner Suzanne Anderson that the field where the ring was found lay close to the remains of a medieval church.

He explained that religious sites were often used as a storage place for valuable items.

With clashes between Viking settlers and native Irish commonplace, the expert suggested the ring may have been taken out of Scandinavian hands.

“Maybe it fell into Irish hands and as a result of that ended up deposited for safe-keeping at a church site but then got lost,” he said.

The arm ring will now be assessed for market value by the UK Treasure Valuation Committee, comprised of experts from the British Museum and other institutions. Once a fair monetary value is assessed, the closest local museum, in this case the Ulster Museum, will be given the opportunity to purchase the piece. The money will be divided 50/50 between the finder, David Taylor, and the landowner, his brother-in-law Andrew Coulter. David is hoping the Ulster Museum acquires the arm ring because he thinks it’s important that the rare discovery remain in the place where it was found. That’s what makes it so rare.


Tomb of 7th c. Chinese female poet, politician found

September 13th, 2013

The tomb of one of ancient China’s most powerful and accomplished women, 7th century poet, politician and imperial consort Shangguan Wan’er, has been found near the airport in Xianyang City, Shaanxi province, northwest China. The tomb is approximately 118 feet long, 33 feet deep, has five skylights and vaults off a central corridor. It was badly damaged at some point, probably in antiquity, and not just by casual looters. The destruction of her tomb appears to have been part of a deliberate campaign by political enemies. Few artifacts were discovered — no precious metals or human remains — but the ones that did survive are important: a set of ceramic horsemen on their steeds and a memorial tablet inscribed with an epitaph identifying the tomb as that of “the late Zhaorong [imperial consort] Madame Shangguan of the Great Tang dynasty.”

Shangguan Wan’er (664–710) was born to privilege but in turbulent times. Her grandfather Shangguan Yi was chancellor under Emperor Gaozong. The year his granddaughter was born, Shangguan Yi got in trouble with Empress Wu. Emperor Gaozong had expressed concern about her ever increasing power at court and his chancellor advised that the empress be deposed. When Empress Wu found out, her weasel husband blamed it all on Shangguan Yi. She and her allies accused the chancellor of conspiring with the crown prince to overthrow the emperor and had the lot of them, including Shangguan Yi and his son, Shangguan Wan’er’s father Shangguan Tingzhi, executed.

The infant Shangguan Wan’er and her mother Lady Zheng survived the palace intrigue but were enslaved. Lady Zheng saw to her daughter’s education and the child’s literary abilities became evident at a young age. She was 13 years old when Empress Wu encountered her poems and was so impressed with her abilities that she appointed the teenager her personal secretary. Shangguan Wan’er was 19 years old when Emperor Gaozong died in 683 and Empress Wu became first the power behind her sons thrones, and then, after deposing both of them in turn, the power in the throne. She declared herself emperor in 690, officially ending the Tang Dynasty and starting the Zho Dynasty.

As the empress/emperor’s secretary, Shangguan Wan’er wielded genuine political power. She drafted imperial edicts, handled petitions from imperials officials and served as an adviser to Empress Wu on matters of state. Many of the articles about this find describe her as China’s first female prime minister because her role was so prominent and she was so close to the empress that in effect her position was more akin to a prime minister than a scribe.

In 705, Empress Wu was deposed in a coup and replaced with Emperor Zhongzong, one of the sons she had deposed. Shangguan Wan’er ably changed sides and became one of the new emperor’s concubines, at the Jieyu or 14th rank. He recognized her skills too, so Emperor Zhongzong utilized her experience and famously beautiful prose in the drafting of edicts. She had several affairs with members of the royal family and became a confidante of Emperor Zhongzong’s wife Empress Wei. So powerful a figure was she at this court too that she was singled out for arrest during a failed 707 coup attempt. The next year the emperor promoted her to Zhaorong, a sixth rank concubine.

The emperor died suddenly, probably of poisoning, in 710. In the month after his death, Empress Wei’s faction set up a system where she would rule as regent for her son. Shangguan Wan’er’s part in this cunning plan was to draft a fake pre-dated will in which Emperor Zhongzong left the throne to his son and the regency to the empress dowager. The exclusion of Li Dan, Prince of Xiang, from this plot ensured its failure. Li Dan’s son launched a plot to overthrow the empress. This coup Shangguan Wan’er did not survive. She attempted to buy her survival by handing over Emperor Zhongzong’s original will, but it didn’t work. She was dragged out of her home and beheaded on the spot.

Despite the coups and power shifts that kept the court hopping for years, Shangguan Wan’er’s gifts were readily acknowledged by subsequent emperors. In 711, her titles were posthumously restored to her and a few years later the emperor had her literary works collected and published.

There’s some decent video of the tomb in this news story and some photographs in this slideshow.


Fossil of fatal dinosaur combat to be sold at auction

September 12th, 2013

A pair of exceptional dinosaur fossils discovered on private land in Montana in 2006 will be going up for auction at Bonhams in New York on November 19th, and scientists aren’t too thrilled about it. The pre-sale estimate is $7 million to $9 million, an exorbitant sum for an institution, so the fossils and all the unique information they contain might be lost to science should they be snapped up by a private collector with deep pockets.

The fossils capture two extremely rare dinosaurs in what appears to be the moment they killed each other 67 millions years ago. The carnivore, Nanotyrannus lancensis, left some of his teeth in the skull and neck of the herbivore Chasmosaurine ceratopsian. In turn, Nanotyrannus’ chest and skull are crushed from a powerful blow to the side, perhaps a well-placed kick from Chasmosaurine. Nanotyrannus lancensis is either a relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex or a juvenile. This is one of only two examples of the species ever discovered so there’s still debate about whether it’s a separate pygmy tyrannosaur genus or a young T. Rex. Chasmosaurine ceratopsian is closely related to the Triceratops.

This is only the second known fossil to preserve two dinosaurs in a fight. In the other example the two dinosaurs are small, about the size of greyhounds, and they’re nowhere near as complete. The Montana dueling dinos are huge. They are both eight feet high, the ceratopsian 17 feet wide and the lancensis 22 feet wide. They are so well preserved that there are pockets of what could be skin from both animals still attached.

From the Bonhams press release:

The “Dueling Dinos” have the potential to radically advance modern paleontology, and illuminate the mysteries of life during the Cretaceous Age. Their superb preservation in fine-grain, loosely consolidated sandstone allowed them to remain intact despite the weight of the sediment that buried them. The specimens were removed in large, plaster-jacketed sections of earth, safeguarding the spatial relationships in which the bones were found. Both dinosaurs also exhibit extremely rare preserved soft (skin) tissue, offering spectacular possibilities for cellular research.

Additionally, the “Dueling Dinos” may hold the key to answering one of the most puzzling questions for paleontologists today. Presently, researchers are divided over whether Nanotyrannus’ are their own genus, or whether they are simply juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rexes. The Nanotyrannus involved in the “Dueling Dinos” is only the second example ever found, and by far the most complete, offering the best hope to date of answering this pressing scientific question.

Unfortunately, selling them for multi-millions isn’t exactly a boon to science. I find it downright odd that the auction house would emphasize their scientific significance when publicizing their sale to the highest bidder. It’s not like the sellers, the ranchers who own the land in the Hell Creek sedimentary rock formation of Montana where the dueling dinosaurs were found, have stipulated that all buyers must make the fossils available for research. This sale could very well end all scientific investigation of the specimen.

The owners did attempt to sell the fossils directly to museums before they put them up for auction, but their asking price was insane. The Smithsonian was given the chance to bid privately starting at around $15 million. They declined. The American Museum of Natural History received a similar offer which it too declined because of the exorbitant price and because it prefers to display dinosaurs excavated by the museum. The Field Museum of Chicago was also offered the duelers which it declined due to the expense, and this is the museum that paid $8.36 million at auction for Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex which currently holds the record for most expensive dinosaur ever sold.

Maybe one of those institutions who didn’t have $15 million might be able to scrape up half that for the auction, but those pre-sale estimates could easily be blown away in active bidding. Let’s just hope that whoever buys the fossils is willing to grant the scientific community access to it.


Mass grave of dismembered bodies found at Uxul

September 11th, 2013

A 1700-year-old mass grave holding the dismembered and decapitated remains of 24 people has been discovered in the ancient Mayan site of Uxul. Researchers from the University of Bonn were exploring the Mayan drinking water system when they came across a 344-square-foot artificial cave that had been used as a reservoir just before it was converted into a charnel house. The floor of the cave was completely clean from when it held drinking water to supply the city during the dry season.

“Aside from the large number of interred individuals, it already became apparent during the excavation that the skeletons were no longer in their original anatomical articulation”, says the archaeologist Nicolaus Seefeld, who studied the sophisticated water supply system of Uxul for his doctoral thesis and discovered the mass grave. All of the skulls were lying scattered around the interior of the cave, in no relation to the rest of the bodies. Even the majority of the lower jaws were separated from the heads. In contrast, detailed examination determined that the limbs of the legs and hands were in some cases completely preserved. “This observation excluded the possibility that this mass grave was a so-called secondary burial, in which the bones of the deceased are placed at a new location”, says Nicolaus Seefeld.

By “completely preserved” he means that some sets of legs, feet, hands and arms were found still fully articulated. That would not have been possible if the bones had initially been buried elsewhere and then moved to the cave. The articulated remains suggest that the deceased were killed all at once rather than over time, and then dismembered and placed in the reservoir.

The body parts were scattered around the space and then covered with coarse gravel and a sealing layer of clay. This burial method kept the bones in excellent condition. Because of the fine state of preservation, osteological analysis was able to identify the sex and age of 15 of the 24 sets of remains. There were 13 men and two women ranging in age from 18 to 42 when they died. Evidence of violence — hatched marks on the vertebra from decapitation, unhealed skull fractures from a blunt instrument, a number of cutting marks, possibly from stone hatchets, on many of skulls.

Some of the teeth had jade inserts, an indicator of high social status, but others showed signs of the long-term malnutrition and tooth decay that tend to afflict the poor. Archaeologists have not yet been able to determine if the dead were residents of Uxul or if they were victims of a war with a competing Maya city. The elite of Uxul weren’t in a good place in the seventh century when the mass grave was filled. The city was conquered and absorbed by my favorite Mayan dynasty, the Snake Lords of Calakmul, during this time. The local nobles were stripped of their titles and replaced with Snake Lord allies. Perhaps some of them were diced up and tossed in a dry reservoir too.

Stable isotope analysis of the enamel and dentine of the teeth might be able to answer that question. Isotopes like oxygen, strontium, lead, carbon and nitrogen become fixed in the teeth when they develop in childhood in percentages and combinations that are unique to a given area. By analyzing the teeth for the presence of stable isotopes, scientists can discover a great deal about the diet and movements of the teeth owners in their youth.

As it stands, the mass grave is strong evidence that the Maya dismembered their prisoners and/or enemies, something depicted often in Mayan art but rarely found in the archaeological record.


Roman chain mail found on 3rd c. German battlefield

September 10th, 2013

When the third century A.D. battlefield was discovered at Harzhorn, 60 miles south of Hanover, Germany, in 2008, it upended the conventional historical wisdom that Rome withdrew its legions permanently to the Rhine-Danube border after their devastating loss at the Battle of Teutoborg Forest in 9 A.D.

This seminal archaeological find started off modestly in 2000 when two metal detector enthusiasts looking for the remains of a medieval fortress discovered what they thought was a twisted and gnarled medieval iron candlestick. They kept the piece for years, not paying it much attention, until in 2008 they took it to local archaeologist Petra Loenne who identified it as a Roman hipposandal. These are not common finds in Lower Saxony, hundreds of miles north and east of the Roman frontier. Loenne assembled a team of professional archaeologists and historians plus dedicated metal detector hobbyists to investigate the field in which the hipposandal had been found.

Over the course of three months during the summer of 2008, the team found a large ancient battlefield covering a mile of German forest. They recovered 600 artifacts just from the surface of the battlefield, including clusters of Roman sandal nails, spear tips from ballistae (Roman artillery crossbows) all pointing in the same direction, axes, wagon parts, arrowheads and coins. The coins were from the first half of the 3rd century A.D. and a fragment of wood still attached to the arrowhead was radiocarbon dated to the same period.

The discovery of so late a battlefield far beyond the Rhine-Danube border led to five years of excavations on the site. An astonishing 2,700 artifacts have been found thus far, and excavations are still ongoing. The most recent discovery was made by archaeologists from the Freie Universität Berlin who discovered several pieces of Roman chain mail. Chain mail has been found before in warrior burials, but these are the first well-preserved pieces of body armour found on a Germanic battlefield. The team has been excavating the edges of the battlefield in an attempt to determine the full extent of the fighting and whether there were distinct areas where the overall battle broke down into smaller individual clashes. The discovery of the chain mail suggests the battle may have been particularly intense along that edge.

The chain mail, which was found in several fragments, consists of thousands of small chain links with a diameter of about six millimeters. The iron in the rings, however, is largely decomposed. Chain mail was worn in battle by Roman soldiers of various ranks. Germanic warriors usually waived this protection; however, in Germanic burial grounds, remains of those laboriously produced armor can often be found. In this case, not only the object itself was an unusual find, but also the position in which it was found. It was located directly on the edge of the battlefield with probably the most intense combat action that could be detected on the Harzhorn hill.

“This discovery represents something fundamentally new for the Battle at the Harzhorn,” said [lead archaeologists Prof.] Michael Meyer. “This is the first time that an almost complete part of personal armor was found.” Meyer said it is possible that the chain mail was stripped from a wounded Roman soldier by his comrades because they wanted to dress his wounds and carry him away from the battle zone. It is conceivable that they left the chain mail behind. However, it is also conceivable that it was specifically laid down in a certain place by Germanic soldiers after the fighting was over, as an indication that this location played a special role in the fighting.

Two or three links from chain mail have been found on the Harzhorn battlefield before, but they were probably lost during combat. These are lumps from an entire chain mail shirt that was removed and carefully folded on the spot. The largest pieces are about as big as a hand; most of the fragments are much smaller. Much of the iron has degraded, but you can clearly see the mail rings and structure in X-rays.

The chain mail is still in the process of being fully excavated and cleaned. Once it’s been properly conserved, the chain mail will join its brethren at the State Museum of Braunschweig in Lower Saxony where the exhibition Rome’s Forgotten Campaign: Battle at Harzhorn is offering the public the first chance to see the Harzhorn finds on display. The exhibit tells the story of the discovery and explains the historical context of this battle.

According to ancient historians like Herodian of Antioch and the author(s) of the Historia Augusta, towards the end of the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus (r. 222-235 A.D.), the Rhine-Danube border was weakened by troop withdrawals. The emperor was using the legions in his Persian campaigns, a tactical choice the Germans were glad to take advantage of. Raids and incursions savaged Roman territory in the Middle Rhine. Alexander Severus returned from Persia, bringing together a large Roman force at Mainz.

Before engaging in battle, he sought to negotiate with the German enemy. His troops didn’t like that plan since it would have deprived them of additional wages plus their share of slaves and loot, so they mutinied. Alexander was assassinated by the troops who declared low-born career army officer Maximinus Thrax the new emperor. Maximus either went forward with Alexander Severus’ attack plans or his legions were attacked by the Germanic warriors on their way back to Mainz.

Until 2008, historians thought the ancient sources were, let’s just be charitable and call it embellishing, the facts on this point since there was no archaeological evidence to support a strong Roman combat presence so far east and north of the border. Harzhorn may prove to be the redemption of their reputation.





April 2014
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