Roman cornu mouthpiece found at Vindolanda

September 21st, 2022

An extremely rare mouthpiece from a Roman cornu — a long, curled horn — has been discovered beneath the remains of the ancient officer’s club at the Vindolanda Roman fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Made of copper alloy, the mouthpiece was found over a Hadrianic-era (117-138 A.D.) workshop floor. The stratigraphy dates it to 120-128 A.D.

The cornu (Latin “horn”, both musical and animal) was an instrument around 3m long, curled into a letter ‘G’ shape and was commonly supported by a wooden pole, allowing for some of the weight to be held on the shoulder. Cornua are depicted in many Roman settings on imagery with military, ceremonial and entertainment use.

Vindolanda is famed for the thousands of fragile organic artifacts recovered intact from its anaerobic water-logged soil, most famously almost 800 wooden letter tablets recording the daily lives of Vindolanda’s military and civilian residents. More than 7,000 leather objects and 1,500 wooden ones have been found in excavations at the site, including thousands of leather shoes, the only surviving Roman wooden toilet seat and the only surviving pair of Roman leather boxing gloves. Even in the midst all this archaeological pulchritude, the cornu mouthpiece stand out as the only one of its kind discovered at Vindolanda.

A cornu was a G-shaped brass instrument without holes or valves. It was played by controlling air flow, similar to a French horn. Its design was of Etruscan origin, but the Romans made it their own a military signalling device. Cornicenes played loud notes to convey orders to the army on the march and in battle. Several large examples were found in Pompeii and exact replicas have been used to reproduce the sound of Roman armies at war.

(Side note, found while investigating the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s replica of the Pompeii horn: an 1888 Duke cigarette company trade card with a bijou version of a cornu encircling the soft shoulder of a pinup girl.)

One of the replica Pompeiian cornua will celebrate the discovery of the mouthpiece with a live performance at Vindolanda this Sunday by musician Letty Scott. The mouthpiece has undergone conservation and will soon go on display at the Roman Army Museum of Vindolanda.

Here is a great video of musician Abraham Cupeiro putting one of the Pompeiian replicas through its paces.

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Statue of young Hercules unearthed in Philippi

September 20th, 2022

A larger-than-life statue of young Hercules has been found in the Greek city of Philippi. It dates to the 2nd century A.D. and is in unusually good condition despite suffering some damage. The club and the right arm are fragmented, and the right leg below the thigh is missing, but the head is intact, as are the torso and the tell-tale skin of the Nemean Lion. On top of his abundant mane of curls is a wreath of vine leaves tied around his head by a band that dangles down his neck and shoulders.

Originally founded as Crenides by colonists from the island of Thassos in 360 B.C., the town was conquered by Philip II, King of Macedon, and refounded in 356 BC as Philippi. It leapt into prominence thanks to its neighboring gold mines and important position on the royal route crossing Macedonia.  Little remains of the Greek city today. It is famed as the site of the final battle between the armies of Caesar’s partisans Octavian and Mark Antony and those of his assassins Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus in 42 B.C. Philippi prospered under the Roman Empire, continuing through the fall of the Western Empire and, centuries later, the fall of Byzantine Empire. It was abandoned only after the Ottoman conquest of the 14th century.

The team of students and archaeologists from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki discovered the statue on the eastern side of one of the ancient city’s main thoroughfares at the point where it intersected with another major axis stretching north. Where the two streets met they widened into a square. There was a large structure on the square, likely a fountain, which survives only in fragments. The Hercules statue was the piece de resistance of this central structure.

The fountain/building is much younger than the statue that adorned it. It is Byzantine, dating to the 8th or 9th century A.D. They simply reused a piece of local statuary that was still in good shape to decorate the square.

We know from the sources as well as from the archaeological data that in Constantinople statues from the classical and Roman period adorned buildings and public spaces until the late Byzantine period.

This find demonstrates the way public spaces were decorated in the important cities of the Byzantine Empire, including Philippi.

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Roman sundial found in ancient Aizanoi

September 19th, 2022

Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman-era marble sundial at the ancient site of Aizanoi in modern-day Çavdarhisar, eastern Turkey. It is the first sundial ever found in Aizanoi and dates to the early imperial period, around 2,000 years ago. Made of white marble, the sundial is almost intact with only a few missing fragments. It is 18 inches high and 17 inches wide and beautifully preserved with all its original lines and inscriptions. The dial curves over an acanthus leaf base on top of a pedestal in the shape of animal paw.

The sundial emerged in an excavation of the Roman bridges and bank walls on the river (the Penkalas in antiquity; today known as the Kocaçay) which ran through the middle of the ancient city of
Aizanoi. The project’s ultimate aim is to raise the water level of the river enough to run boats between the two bridges. Since 2019, archaeologists have been removing stones, sculptures and other architectural features that over the centuries had accumulated on the riverbed and bank. More than a thousand shaped and carved stones — headless statues, bodiless heads (none of them matching), blocks from the balustrades and parapets of the bridges — have been recovered so far.

In antiquity, sundials were installed in public spaces like the city agora or temple precinct so people could tell time, serving as town timekeepers.

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Gold mask found in Shang Dynasty tomb

September 18th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a gold mask more than 3,000 years old at Zhengzhou Shang City archaeological site in Zhengzhou, Henan province, central China. Older than the gold mask found in the Sanxingdui Bronze Age sacrificial pit last year, this is the first gold mask dating to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.) ever discovered.

The mask was found in a tomb in the mid-Shang Dynasty cemetery in the southeast section of the archaeological site. It was one of more than 200 funerary objects in a large tomb belonging to a Shang Dynasty noble. At 10,000 square meters, the tomb was about the size of a New York City block and the artifacts it contained are the highest in quality and variety of all of the tombs excavated in the cemetery. They include 20 bronzes, 11 jade objects, five gold artifacts, 50 arrowheads, more than 120 shell coins and plaques of gold foil inlaid with turquoise.

The mask is 7.2 inches long, 5.7 inches wide and weighs 40 grams (1.4 ounces). It would have covered the entire face of an adult, unlike the Sanxingdui gold mask which has large areas of negative space. Archaeologists believe that the full coverage mask was an expression of the Chinese religious concept that gold granted total protection to the body, ensuring the energy of the spirit could not be scattered.

The discovery suggests the belief in the “invincible golden body” goes back at least to the Shang Dynasty, even though very few gold objects have been found at Shang sites. The only other gold find of note at Zhengzhou outside of the newly-discovered tomb was a thin piece of gold foil unearthed from a pit containing the remains of sacrificed dogs at the eastern end of the north city wall. A dragon pattern on the surface is all that remains of an inlaid decoration.

Archaeologists are now investigating whether the gold culture of the early Shang Dynasty spread from the Central Plains southwest to the Sanxingdui site, evolving there into the enormous quantities of heavy, large, artfully-worked bronze and gold artifacts recovered from the sacrificial pits.

Chen Lüsheng, a renowned museologist and researcher at the National Museum of China, told the Global Times that the tomb is a significant find for research into the burial rituals and systems of the Shang Dynasty, and because it dates back to a very early period during the dynasty, it can provide new insight into the origins of Chinese civilization.

“Although this gold mask is older than those unearthed from the Sanxingdui Ruins, we still need more evidence and a larger amount of archeological discoveries to confirm a direct connection between the Shang city ruins and the Sanxingdui Ruins,” Chen said.

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Now that’s a rack of ribs

September 17th, 2022

In a scene reminiscent of the opening credits of the Flintstones, a gigantic rack of ribs from a Late Jurassic sauropod has been unearthed at Monte Agudo in the Pombal region of Portugal. If preliminary calculations prove accurate, this could be the largest dinosaur specimen ever found in Europe.

Fragments that turned out to be from dinosaur bones were first encountered by the owner when he was doing some home renovations in March of 2017. He reported the find to scientists at the University of Lisbon who did a few initial surveys at that time. A joint team of Portuguese and Spanish paleontologists returned last month to fully excavate the Monte Agudo site and hit paydirt: large sections of the axial skeleton of a likely brachiosaurid sauropod, including vertebrae and all of the ribs, the largest of which are ten feet long. They date to the Late Jurassic era, around 145 million years ago

It is extremely rare for Brachiosauridae fossils to be found in such good condition and still in their original anatomical locations instead of scattered. The skeleton’s comparative completeness allowed researchers to extrapolate the animal’s size from the bones that have survived. It was approximately 39 feet tall and 82 feet long.

The preservation characteristics of the fossils and their disposition indicate the possible presence of other parts of the skeleton of this individual, a hypothesis that will be tested in future excavation campaigns in the deposit.

“The research in the Monte Agudo paleontological locality confirms that the region of Pombal has an important fossil record of Late Jurassic vertebrates, which in the last decades has provided the discovery of abundant materials very significant for the knowledge of the continental faunas that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula at about 145 million years ago,” adds Elisabete Malafaia.

The mineralized bones were removed to a laboratory for meticulous removal of stone and sediments. Once fully liberated from their context, the bones will be studied further and eventually put on display in a museum.

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1,600-year-old writing set found in Istanbul

September 16th, 2022

A Late Roman writing set has been discovered in Istanbul. Complete with a bone dip pen, a small shallow dish and a miniature amphora inkwell, this is the first intact ancient writing set ever found.

The set was unearthed in an excavation of the Bathonea Archaeological Site in the Küçükçekmece suburb of Istanbul. It is about 1,600 years old and analysis of the bone pen found traces of red and black ink. Red ink was exclusively the preserve of state officials in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Bathonea was an ancient Greek harbor town founded in the 2nd century B.C. on the shores of the sea of Marmara. Today the archaeological site touches the waters of Lake Küçükçekmece and there are more remains inside its waters, including a Roman-era lighthouse. Previously excavated in the 1930s but misidentified as another city, the ruins of Bathonea were rediscovered in 2007 when a drought lowered the level of the lake. Since excavations resumed in 2009, archaeologists have discovered two harbors, canals built out of large stone blocks, wide paved streets on a planned grid pattern, a Greek temple, a Byzantine church, an early Christian cemetery, an open cistern and a multi-building complex that was a grand villa or palace.

A large number of artifacts recovered there date to the 4th-6th centuries A.D. when Constantinople, less than 15 miles away, was founded and rose to dominance as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. It’s not clear how Bathonea related to Constantinople. It could have been a simple satellite port handling some of the massive maritime traffic traveling to and from the capital, or perhaps a protected harbor for the imperial fleet since the lake is deep enough for large ships.

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Cremation grave found under uniquely robust burial mound

September 15th, 2022

Polish archaeologists have discovered the remains of an ancient cremation grave under a uniquely-constructed burial mound in the Sarbia forest area of northwest Poland.

The mound is the easternmost in a line of kurgans that are part of a necropolis of the Iron Age Wielbark culture (1st-5th century A.D.) near the village of Mirosław. The excavation revealed the mound was built over an interior stone pavement encircled by two trenches and a ring of wooden posts reinforced with clay walls.

Underneath the pavers is a levelling layer with an impressive range like a stone shim, starting on the east side with a height of six inches and ending on the west side at almost 20 inches high. This strong structure ensured that the tons of stone piled on it to build the kurgan mound would not collapse.  Archaeologists believe there were additional elements — wood or clay structures — reinforcing the mound from the other side.

The cremation burial was found inside the leveling layer. It was dug into the center of the square pavement and contains only human remains and one iron spur. Wielbark burials, cremation and inhumation, do not contain weapons or armor. Spurs are the only attributes of warrior burials ever found in Wielbark graves, and even they are rare.

The remains of a person buried here are currently the subject of anthropological research conducted by prof. M. Krenz-Niedbała at the Faculty of Biology, AMU. The temperature of the cremation stack must have been unusually high. This is evidenced by the state of burning human bones, but also small teardrops of metal from grave gifts. The only object that has been preserved in its entirety is a bronze spur, so we can assume that again in the area of ​​the examined cemetery we are dealing with a rider’s grave (or maybe, as was the case in the 2020 season – amazons). Among the damaged pieces of equipment, a fragment of the clasp bow and perhaps a fragment of a S-shaped clasp have survived. After the conservation of the monuments, we will certainly learn more about their function — adds [Andrzej Michałowski, Dean of the Faculty].

Near the grave, from the east, as was the case under the embankment of the 7th burial mound examined in 2016, a trace of the bottom of the iron firing furnace was recorded. Nearby, during the works carried out in the area of ​​the embankment, there were iron slags, probably coming from the basin that had been dismantled before the construction of the burial mound.

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Lintel found on Lesbos with unique image of Byzantine castle

September 14th, 2022

A fallen marble lintel discovered on the Aegean island of Lesbos is carved with the sole known representation of the medieval castle of Agios Theodoros. The lintel was unearthed in an excavation of the foundations of the Byzantine gate it once topped near the castle’s southeastern sea wall. It dates to the 14th century. The castle was extensively reconstructed in the 15th century, so the carved image is the only illustration we have of what the castle looked like originally.

The white marble lintel is eleven-and-a-half feet long and is carved with the tetragrammatic cross (a cross with four betas in each corner), insignia of the Byzantine imperial Palaiologos dynasty, the coat of arms of the Genoese House of Gattilusio, the family cypher of the Palaiologi and, last but not least, the representation of a castle. The castle has a main gate and three rectangular towers on the acropolis (upper castle) which matches the descriptions of Agios Theodoros in written sources.

The only comparable architectural feature carved with signifiers of the ruling dynasties of Lesbos is a relief at the Castle of Mytilene with the Palaiologos cypher and the Gattilusio coat of arms. The relief has the eagle of Byzantium, however, and no castle.

The Gattilusi ruled Lesbos as vassals of the Byzantine Palaiologos emperors from 1355 to 1462. They had risen from obscure origins via piracy, helping John V Palaiologos, who had been mired in civil wars since childhood, retake his throne and Constantinople in 1354. He showed his gratitude by making Francesco Gattilusi the lord of Lesbos and marrying him to his daughter.

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Roman mother buried with child, in-law

September 13th, 2022

Analysis of ancient DNA has confirmed that two adult women and one perinate found in a Late Roman shared grave in Cheddington, Buckinghamshire, were mother, child and mother or aunt-in-law.

The grave was unearthed in 2018 during an archaeological survey of a site near Cheddington village that was slated for housing construction. The excavation found evidence of Late Iron Age settlement, agricultural activity and iron smelting on an industrial scale. In the western corner of the site, archaeologists found several inhumations dating to between the early 4th century and the mid-6th century A.D.

Found together inside the grave were the skeletal remains of two adult women, one older than 45 at death, the other 25-29 years old. The bones of a fetus at about 32-36 weeks gestation were found on the lower chest/abdomen of the younger woman, indicating she was either buried with her stillborn child or died while the baby was still in utero. The middle of the grave had been disturbed, likely by ploughing, causing some disarticulation of the bones and therefore making it impossible for archaeologists to determine conclusively whether the fetus was still inside the mother when she died.

The rectangular grave had been dug in one event, which means the women died within a short time of each other and were buried together for sentimental and/or practical reasons. Radiocarbon dating of bone samples from both individuals returned very similar date ranges: 255-421 A.D. for the older woman, 255-428 A.D. for the younger. Double graves were very rare in this period. Archaeological maternal deaths from any period are far rarer. Only 24 of them have ever been found in the UK.

The shared grave was found near a ditch on the periphery of the Iron Age settlement. This placement, known as a “backland burial,” is typical of small family plots in the Late Roman period. To confirm whether the two women and perinate were related, researchers extracted and sequenced DNA from all three individuals.

The results of the aDNA analysis confirmed that both adult skeletons were female, and that the foetus was male (something which could not be determined osteologically). The mitochondrial DNA from the younger female and the foetus confirmed they were mother and son. More remarkably, the older female was unrelated to the younger female but was a second-degree relative of the foetus, most likely its paternal grandmother (or alternatively, a paternal aunt).

The aDNA results confirm that the people buried together in this grave were related, and potentially  were three generations of the same family who had died within a short space of time to one another. It is entirely possible that the adults were related by marriage and mother died in the late stages of pregnancy. A fascinating and poignant burial, which gives us a small window into family relationships in the past.

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Ornamental bronze wall plate found in Urartian castle

September 12th, 2022

In an archaeological first, a decorative bronze wall plate has been discovered intact in a castle of the Iron Age Urartu Kingdom in eastern Turkey. While other bronze wall plates have been found before, they were all in fragments. This is the only known example discovered complete and intact, with only a few small chips missing on one corner.

The plate was found in an excavation of the Ayanis Castle, the royal palace built by Urartian King Rusa II (r. ca. 680-639 B.C.) overlooking Lake Van. It is a concave square with a small square cutout in the center and teardrop cutouts in each corner. The center square is surrounded by a circular collar filled with a nested chevron pattern. Four symbols that look like bubble letter versions of pi link the teardrops and the chevron circle. The concave outer edges of the plate are bordered with double incised lines.

It would originally have been mounted on a wall through the cut-outs, one of many rich architectural embellishments that adorned the castle walls. Archaeologists found it inside one of four interconnected rooms unearthed in this season’s dig.

[Lead archeologist, professor Mehmet] Işıklı, who is also an academic at Atatürk University, said his team encountered very surprising findings at this part of the castle dig site.

“There are rows of interconnected room groups … Many findings, particularly ceramics, were uncovered in the rooms. Numerous groups of wooden structures were also found. These provide us with important information on the details of the Urartian architecture, but we haven’t yet determined what the rooms were used for.”

The Urartu Kingdom ruled the region around Lake Van in the Armenian Highlands between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.  Ayanis Castle is one of the best preserved Urartian sites surviving today. Made of mud brick decorated with deep carvings, intaglio stone and alabaster inlays and cuneiform inscriptions on its walls, it was the last major construction of the kingdom before its decline and conquest by the Medes in 590 B.C.

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