British early Christian artifacts preserved in Viking graves

July 30th, 2014

An Irish archaeologist has identified British early Christian artifacts in the collection of the University Museum of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). One is a part of a gold crozier that dates to the late 8th or early 9th century; the other is tin-plated wooden reliquary shaped like a church with kite-shaped metal fittings that once held gems or other decorations that have since fallen out. The crozier fragment and reliquary were discovered in 1961 in the grave of high status Viking woman in the central Norwegian town of Romsdal.

For the past year, Griffin Murray from the University College Cork has been researching Irish archaeological artifacts in Scandinavian collections, looking particularly for early Christian croziers that may have been pillaged by Viking raiders and recycled into jewelry and other objects worthy of being buried as grave goods. He initially thought the Romsdal crozier was Irish, but upon closer examination he found the decoration is characteristic of the north of England rather than Ireland.

The backing of the crozier fragment is semi-cylindrical in shape, which means it adorned the middle of the staff. It was cut in half and converted into an adornment of some kind, perhaps a brooch, the fate of the Celtic disc from a Viking woman’s grave in Lilleberge, Norway, discovered in storage at the British Museum early this year. Its age makes the crozier piece highly significant.

“The most striking aspect of this object is the era it comes from. This is the oldest known English fragment, and the only one that dates from before 1000. If the Norwegian Vikings had not stolen it, it would most probably have been lost,” Murray said of the University Museum’s little piece of history. [...]

[NTNU curator Jon Anders] Risvaag believe that the Viking raids may have saved the museum’s piece of crozier, noting that most of the croziers that remained in the British Isles were melted down for other uses.

“In Norway and other Scandinavian countries, these artefacts were buried as grave goods, which is why the finest objects are usually found in gravesites,” he said. “This tradition appears to have saved one of the oldest croziers we know of today.”

The Viking Age dawned with the 793 raid on the priory of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, the earliest known Viking raid on the west. The crozier was made around that same period in the general area, so it could conceivably have been loot from one of the earliest Viking incursions on the British Isles.

Here’s a contemporary reaction to the Lindisfarne raid from a letter written by Alcuin of York (pdf), a church deacon and scholar at the court of Charlemagne, to Ethelred, King of Northumbria:

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples. And where first, after the departure of St Paulinus from York, the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun. Who does not fear this? Who does not lament this as if his country were captured? Foxes pillage the chosen vine, the heritage of the Lord has been given to a people not his own; and where there was the praise of God, are now the games of the Gentiles; the holy festivity has been turned to mourning.

I wonder what Alcuin would make of the fact that the very despoliation of those ornaments ensured their survival.

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Four pelvises on a stick found in Jutland peat bog

July 29th, 2014

The Alken Enge wetlands in East Jutland, Denmark, continues to produce exceptional and exceptionally gruesome finds. Thanks to the history-preserving wonder of peat, the remains of more than 200 Iron Age warriors who were sacrificed after a defeat in battle around 1 A.D. have been unearthed from in excavations from the 1950s to the present. The 2012 dig found a skull with a hole in the back from a projectile or spear, a thighbone hacked in half, numerous other bones and well-preserved weapons including an axe with its entire wooden shaft intact. The teeth on the pierced skull were in good enough condition for a testable sample of DNA to be extracted.

This year’s excavation has discovered evidence that the sacrifice of victims didn’t just happen in the immediate aftermath of the battle, but rather that remains were left to rot where they fell for six months before being butchered for ritual purposes. Cut and scrape marks on bones mutely testify to how the rotted flesh was removed from the bones. The bones were then sorted and collated for sacrifice: bones were bundled together, skulls were crushed, and in one particularly gruesome find, four pelvic bones were mounted on a wooden stick.

Here’s a 3D video composite of the pelvises in situ:

Once sorted and desecrated, the bones were thrown into the ancient lake that would become today’s bog along with animal remains and clay pots that archaeologists believe probably contained food offerings.

“We are fairly sure that this was a religious act. It seems that this was a holy site for a pagan religion – a sacred grove – where the victorious conclusion of major battles was marked by the ritual presentation and destruction of the bones of the vanquished warriors,” adds [Aarhus University Project Manager] Mads Kähler Holst.

Geological studies have revealed that back in the Iron Age, the finds were thrown into the water from the end of a tongue of land that stretched out into Mossø lake, which was much larger back then than it is today.

“Most of the bones we find here are spread out over the lake bed seemingly at random, but the new finds have suddenly given us a clear impression of what actually happened. This applies in particular to the four pelvic bones. They must have been threaded onto the stick after the flesh was cleaned from the skeletons,” explains Field Director Ejvind Hertz from Skanderborg Museum.

We still don’t know exactly where the fallen warriors came from, whether they were local fighters or other Germanic peoples attempting to move northwards under pressure from Roman activity across the Alps.

If you’re fortunate enough to be summering in Jutland right now, the Alken Enge site will be open to the public for guided tours on Thursday, July 31st, and 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM. The tours are free but you must register ahead of time so they can control numbers. The maximum number of people allowed is 200 per tour. You can register online on the website of the Skanderborg Museum here.

The artifacts and remains from the Alken Enge digs are being conserved at the Skanderborg Museum, and some of the more exceptional finds are on display there, including the four pelvises on a stick. The exhibition has been four years in the making and covers not just the history of the site, what the science says took place there 2,000 years ago, but also the history of archaeological explorations of the bog from the 19th century to the high tech laboratory work of modern day archaeologists. As soon as I find that winning lottery ticket someone dropped, I’m making a beeline for this show.

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Carving defaced by Akhenaten found in tomb

July 28th, 2014

A carving of the god Amun that was defaced by order of Akhenaten has been discovered in a tomb in the necropolis of Sedeinga, Sudan. The slab of Nubian sandstone was 5.8 feet high and 1.3 feet wide and was found in two pieces, broken across the width just above the god’s elbow. The carving was used as a bench for the coffin to rest on in the tomb, but that wasn’t its original intent or location. It was recycled as a mortuary platform several hundred years after it was created in the mid-1300s B.C.

It was first made to adorn the temple of Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Akhenaten. A tribute to the high esteem her husband held her in, the temple presented Tiye as the incarnation of the goddess Hathor and was a companion to a temple to Amenhotep a few miles to the south in Soleb. Tiye’s deification in her lifetime was one of several firsts for a queen of Egypt. She was depicted as a female sphinx, an honor previously reserved for the pharaoh, and attributes of Hathor — the horns and sun disk — were added to headdress is other images. An inscription in the Sedeinga temple calls her “great of fear, mistress of all the lands,” meaning her greatness dominated the women of foreign lands (Sedeinga was part of the Egyptian colony of Nubia during the reign of Amenhotep) just as her husband’s greatness conquered the men.

Tiye outlived her husband by many years — inscriptions indicate she was living in the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign — so she may even have been witness to her son’s defacement of her own temple. Akhenaten changed his name from Amenhotep and founded a new religion worshiping the sun disc Aten in the fifth year of his reign. That same year construction began on his new capital Amarna where inscriptions continued to call Tiye queen and beloved of the pharaoh.

It wasn’t a falling out, therefore, that spurred Akhenaten’s defacement of her temple in Sedeinga. It wasn’t personal; just religious business, part of his policy of chipping away the face and name of Amun in all the major sites, including his mom’s temple in Nubia.

The new religion could not long outlast its founder, however, and the newly discovered carving attests to the reinstatement of the worship of Amun as well.

The archaeologists also found that, after Akhenaten’s death, the god’s face and hieroglyphs on this carving were restored. This restoration may have been done during the reign of the boy king Tutankhamun (reign 1336-1327 B.C.), who is famous for his rich tomb.

“The name of Amun as well as his face were first hammered out and later carved anew, proving that the persecution of this god extended to this remote province during the reign of Akhenaton and that his images were restored during the following reigns,” Francigny and Claude Rilly, director of the French archaeological mission in Sedeinga, wrote in the most recent edition of the journal Sudan and Nubia.

Over time, Tiye’s temple decayed into ruin and people helped themselves to pieces of it. The carving of Amun with its historically significant restored damage was thus preserved in a new location. Today the temple is almost completely gone. All that remains is a single wonky column standing forlornly in a pile of rocks.

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King Richard III Visitor Centre opens in Leicester

July 27th, 2014

Leicester’s new King Richard III Visitor Centre opened on Saturday. The £4 million ($6.8 million) museum was built in the former Alderman Newton Boy’s School, a Victorian brick building that over the years has housed a boy’s school, a girl’s school and most recently the Leicester Grammar School which closed in 2008. The building has been empty since then, but location is everything in real estate, and it just happens to be adjacent to the council parking lot under which the remains of King Richard III were discovered in September of 2012. Three months later, the city council providently bought the school building.

The inside of the school has now been transformed into a voyage through the life and death of Richard III, and of the archaeological excavation that against all conceivable odds, found the king’s mortal remains. The ground floor is dedicated to Richard III’s life, his controversial rise to the throne at the expense of the nephews he declared illegitimate and locked up in the Tower of London never to be seen again, the three decades of conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet dynasty known as the Wars of the Roses, and Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The story is told through high tech audio-visual displays where video projections recreate the places where Richard lived and died in an atmospheric, stylized manner. A digital reconstruction of Grey Friars Church shows visitors what the medieval church that used to stand where they are standing looked like. It includes a virtual visualization of Richard’s tomb as it would have looked after Henry VII had a proper tomb built a few years after Bosworth.

The second floor focuses on the excavation and takes an unusual approach that makes the quotidian elements of the dig into artifacts for exhibit. The boots worn by Richard III Society’s Philippa Langley at the dig site are on display, as are the hard had and neon yellow vest Mathew Morris was wearing when he first unearthed King Richard’s bones on the first day of the excavation. The highlight is a 3D-printed replica of the skeleton. The original will be buried at Leicester Cathedral next year. The cathedral is just across the street from the former school, so people will be able to make an easy day of it and see the tomb then walk over to the visitor center.

The best part of the new center is that the site of Richard III’s Grey Friars grave has been integrated into it. It’s a minimalist space, no glowing blue neon or elaborate set pieces, as it should be given that it was a king’s grave for 500 years, with clear plexiglass over the burial site. The only video element is a subtle projection of the skeleton in the position it was in when the archaeologists found it.

There is very little information on the center’s website. Right now it’s all about directions and ticket bookings, but I hope they flesh it out further in the days to come. You can get a glimpse of the King Richard III Visitor Centre in this video:

I don’t want to judge without seeing, but it looks a little low-information for my taste. Lots of video projections, few period artifacts, boots and hazard vests from the dig, but not much about the science (DNA, osteological analysis, radiocarbon dating) that actually identified the king. Or about the 3D printing process, for that matter, a subject I am completely obsessed with, especially in regards to archaeological and museum applications. I’m glad they didn’t just repave the burial site and keep it a parking lot, which was the original plan, let’s recall, so at the very least the center has that going for it, and that’s quite a lot.

I’d love to hear an eye witness report, so please do share your impressions should you visit the center.

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Possible 1792 Vancouver fleet anchor at Texas A&M

July 26th, 2014

A large anchor that may be the sole surviving relic of Captain George Vancouver’s 1792 exploration of Puget Sound is now at Texas A&M’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation where it will be conserved and, if all goes well, conclusively identified. If it does prove to be the anchor lost by the HMS Chatham on June 9, 1792, it will upend convention historical wisdom.

The anchor was discovered in 2008 by sea-cucumber diver Doug Monk when his airhose got caught on it off Whidbey Island. He and a group of amateur historians including medical device salesman Scott Grimm spent years researching the artifact, reading ship logbooks, explorers’ journals, nautical charts, 19th British patent office records as well as numerous books. They concluded that the anchor was the Chatham‘s that got stuck in a large rock grouping and broke free when its hemp cable snapped.

The loss of the anchor and the failed attempts at recovery were recorded in the log books, but the exact location was unclear. Historians have long held that it was lost 30 miles away from Whidbey Island in Bellingham Channel, but the channel has been searched repeatedly and no anchor has ever been found. The Bellingham theory also assumes that Vancouver’s ship, the HMS Discovery, and its smaller companion the Chatham were together when the anchor was lost. Several journals said they were, but Grimm noticed the wording in those entries was identical, as if they’d been copied from each other at a later date. When he stuck to the witness accounts from the Chatham‘s crew, the terrain they described and the logged compass bearings fit Whidbey more than Bellingham. He also contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration whose maritime history experts calculated that on the day of the accident, the currents around Whidbey were 5.5 knots, much faster than they were in Bellingham Channel.

Earlier this year Monk and Grimm secured the necessary permits to recover the anchor. On Monday, June 9th, exactly 222 years after the Chatham lost its anchor, the one off Whidbey Island was raised. It spent a few weeks on display at the Northwest Maritime Center being prepped for transport, then Monk and Grimm loaded the anchor into a custom-made tank on the back of a truck and drove it the 2,200 miles to Austin. The anchor is 10 feet long and weighs about 1,400 pounds, so that was no mean feat. They also had to keep the anchor wet the whole time with soaker hoses.

The anchor is now in the hands of a team headed by Jim Jobling, a research associate at the Texas A&M center’s Conservation Research Laboratory, a veteran in tackling such tasks.

Jobling estimates work on the anchor will take 18 to 24 months, at which time Grimm and Monk will retrieve it for the trek back to the Northwest and hopes of finding a museum or other location for its permanent display.

“Our goal is definitely to keep it in the Northwest,” Grimm said.

“Also, we’re confident the anchor is from the HMS Chatham, and we’re confident—certainly hope—that the conservation work at Texas A&M will uncover some markings that show beyond a shadow of a doubt that it belonged to the (British) crown,” he added.

They university team will use a variety of methods — chemicals, electricity — to remove the thick concretions that may be obscuring any marks identifying the anchor. The design of the anchor does fit the admiralty pattern, but makers didn’t always put a mark on their work in the 18th century, so we may never get a firm yea or nay on whether the anchor belonged to the royal navy.

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James IV and Margaret Tudor wedding chest found

July 25th, 2014


University of Aberdeen experts have confirmed that an oak chest acquired by a collector was made for the 1503 wedding of King James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII of England. When antique furniture collector Aidan Harrison researched the carvings on the chest he’d acquired a few years ago, he found they were very similar to the iconography associated with the history-making union celebrated in person (there had been a proxy wedding in England a few months earlier) at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh on August 8th, 1503. One of the carved panels on the front of the chest features the IM monogram (for James and Margaret) linked by a love knot, a symbol of their marriage that was repeated in multiple decorative elements.

Harrison brought his research to art history Professor Jane Geddes from the University of Aberdeen. The university has a facsimile of the Hours of James IV, an illuminated prayer book made as a wedding gift for Margaret (the original is now in the Austrian National Library in Vienna), so Professor Geddes was able to compare the design on the chest to the Book of Hours.

“The similarities between the carvings on the chest and the illuminations in the Book of Hours are striking. Three illuminated documents relating to the royal wedding all show the IM monogram (James and Margaret) tied together with a similar love knot, just as it is carved on the chest. This was such a trademark for the union that even the floor tiles for Linlithgow Palace were made with the same design. James gave the palace to his bride for a wedding present. The tassels on the knot are shaped as thistles, a reminder of the king and his country.

“A wooden chest was one of the most important items of medieval furniture, because aristocratic families spent so much time travelling with pack-horses all around the country to their various homes. All the royal bride’s personal items would be kept in a chest like this. It is remarkable that it has survived for so long before its significance was fully appreciated.”

The chest and the facsimile Book of Hours will go on display together at the University of Aberdeen’s Sir Duncan Rice Library. This is especially meaningful for the school because William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, accomplished diplomat and founder of the university, played an important role in negotiating the wedding.

The hope was that the marriage of James and Margaret would end hostilities between the countries and establish a lasting peace. Their marriage treaty was signed the same day as the Treaty of Perpetual Peace (January 24th, 1502), an agreement that would prevent the countries being dragged into war over border skirmishes. Although the Treaty of Ayton had established a truce between England and Scotland in 1497, it was slated to expire in 1504. The Treaty of Perpetual Peace was the first long-term peace treaty between the countries since the Treaty of Berwick had ended the Second War of Scottish Independence in 1357.

Unfortunately it was perpetual in name only. Henry VII died in 1509 and his son Henry VIII was keen to make a name for himself on the battlefield. In 1513, Henry VIII invaded France, expecting the treaty to keep Scotland out of it. Scotland had been allied with France for centuries, however, and by the terms of the Auld Alliance of 1295, France and Scotland were to come to each other’s defense. James, hoping also to reclaim some border territory occupied by England, declared war on England and led his army into Northumberland. On September 9th, 1513, James IV met the Earl of Surrey at Flodden Field. It was a rout. James was killed along with 28 of his nobles, 50 knights and more than 10,000 infantry.

Margaret, who had opposed her husband going to war with her brother, was left regent of Scotland for her son, the future James V who was just over a year old when his father died. The crown of Scotland passed from James V to his daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, to her son James VI. After the death of Henry VIII’s daughter, Margaret’s niece, Queen Elizabeth I of England, James VI inherited the throne of England through his descent from Margaret. In 1603, a few months short of a century after James IV and Margaret spoke their vows at Holyrood Abbey, their great-grandson became James I of England and the two crowns were united.

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13th c. frescoes in Rome monastery opened to public

July 24th, 2014

The Augustinian monastery complex of Santi Quattro Coronati on the north slope of Rome’s Caelian Hill has a rich history dating to the earliest days of the Christian city. Construction of the first church was begun by Pope Miltiades in the 4th century on top of an aristocratic villa. It was one of the earliest Christian churches in Rome and its location made it one of the most important.

Miltiades was pope from 311 to 314 A.D., a short but incredibly pivotal time in Church history since it saw Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius under the sign of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October of 312. It was Pope Miltiades who first moved into the Lateran Palace after Constantine gave it to him around 313. The basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is a five minute walk from the Lateran Palace, so by the time construction was complete in the 6th century, the church was closely associated with the papacy.

It was expanded and renovated by subsequent popes over the centuries, with more buildings added including a palace for the basilica’s titular cardinal. Much of the church was burned down in the 11th century during the Norman sack of Rome, but the original apse still stands and was incorporated into the new church built by Pope Paschal II. In the 13th century the cardinal’s residence was enlarged and reinforced by Cardinal Stefano Conti, Vicarius Urbis, so it could provide protection for the princes of the Church during the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors of the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

It was during that 13th century renovation that some artistically and historically significant frescoes were painted. On the ground floor of the fortified side of the basilica, the Chapel of Saint Sylvester was adorned with legendary scenes from the life of Pope Sylvester I and one of the earliest surviving depictions of the Donation of Constantine. On the second floor is a large hall that became known as the Gothic Hall because of the arch vaulting of the roof. It was decorated with 800 square meters of primarily profane topics like the Zodiac and Constellations, the Four Seasons, the Twelve Months, the Ages of Man, a seascape, the Liberal Arts and a panel of saints with the Virtues on their shoulders and the Vices under their feet. King Solomon, the wise judge, in the center position suggests the hall may have been used as a court of law as well as for feasting and banqueting.

The basilica and the cardinal’s palace in particular were nearly abandoned when the papacy moved to Avignon in the 14th century. The buildings were restored by Cardinal Alfonso Carillo when the pope returned to Rome during the papacy of Martin V starting in 1417, but when the Papal Court moved from the Lateran Palace to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican in the mid-15th century, Santi Quattro Coronati never recovered its former importance. In 1564, the complex was given to Augustinian nuns and became the monastery it still is to this day.

Damaged by earthquakes, neglect, refurbishment that knocked holes in the walls and painted layer upon layer of plaster and solid color over the frescoes, the great Gothic Hall lost its magnificent frescoes. In 1995, a chance discovery revealed that parts of the 13th century frescoes were still there underneath the overpaint. It took a full decade of restoration by Rome’s Superintendence for Cultural Heritage to repair the damage that could be repaired. In 2007, 300 square meters of the original 800 were restored as close to their former glory as possible. Very few frescoes from this period have survived in Rome, so their rediscovery and restoration is a big deal. (See this article for a wonderful description of the frescoes.)

They couldn’t be opened to the public, however, because it’s still an active cloistered monastery. In order to make the Gothic Hall accessible, parts of the cloister needed to be restored and all the public traffic areas closed off so the presence of tourists would not violate the sisters’ religious isolation. That took another seven years and 150,000 euros donated by Arcus.

Now for the first time in its existence, the Gothic Hall can be seen by members of the general public. The hall will be open two days a month, with one group of no more than 20 visitors allowed in every hour from 8:30 – 12:30 and 2:30 – 4:30.

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Unique mortuary bundle found in Hidalgo

July 23rd, 2014

A pre-Hispanic mortuary bundle had been found in a rock shelter near the town of Zimapán in the Sierra Gorda of Hidalgo, southeastern Mexico. The skeletal remains wrapped in a dyed fabric and a braided mat were discovered by locals who alerted the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH archaeologists examined the bundle and believe it is intact, although only the cranium with some hair still attached, tibias, clavicle, shoulder blades and some ribs are visible above the wrapping.

The remains haven’t been dated yet. It’s the positioning of the body in a seated posture, the plant fibers used in the shroud and the placement in a rock shelter that all point to this being a pre-Hispanic burial. In many Mesoamerican cultures, rock shelters and caves were believed to be entrances to the underworld and the abode of death gods. Thus these locations were seen as ideal burial spaces. Despite the rocky terrain of the Sierra Gorda being replete with these sorts of nooks and crannies, this is the only mortuary bundle of its kind found in the state of Hidalgo.

Forensic anthropologists have determined from the teeth and leg bones that the deceased was about 20 years old when he or she died. The third molars, which grow in early adulthood between 16 and 24 years of age, are present but show no signs of wear. In the tibia, the epiphyseal plate, a cartilaginous plate at the end of the long bones that is replaced by bone after puberty, has hardened into bone, leaving behind the scar of the epiphyseal line. The line is still visible, however, and that fades with time, so that suggests the person died in early adulthood.

Although there does not appear to have been any preservation of soft tissues, the semi-arid climate of the eastern Sierra Gorda did help preserve the organic fibers of the wrapping. The bundle has been moved to an INAH lab where it will be studied in detail and the wrapping removed to reveal the rest of the remains. First a conservator will treat the fabric and plant fiber mat to ensure they’re not damaged in the opening. Then experts will hopefully be able to determine the sex of the deceased from the pelvic and hop bones.

INAH researchers hope the bones will tell more of the person’s history — disease, nutrition, lifestyle — as well as which culture he or she was a part of. The rock shelter is an area that saw a variety of peoples living there, nomadic and sedentary. The bones might fill in some of those blanks. The archaeological context might help on that score. Vegetation found in the soil of the rock shelter (palm leaves, agave cactus) appears to have been deliberately layered on the spot. Archaeologists also found a small group of abstract cave paintings about 550 yards from the mortuary bundle.

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New burials found at Ostia necropolis

July 22nd, 2014

Excavations in Ostia, the ancient Roman harbour town at the mouth of the Tiber, have unearthed a group of more than 12 tombs from the 3rd-4th century A.D. Underscoring the cultural diversity of the port city, the necropolis includes inhumations and cremations, some right next to each other. The newly unearthed tombs are early Christian and surround a central tomb that belonged to someone of religious or social significance. The central tomb is a circular mausoleum lined in travertine that was originally built in the late Republican era and was reused in late antiquity. Archaeologists believe it may be an extended family unit who wanted to be buried at an important location, perhaps associated with one of the saints buried in early Christian Ostia.

The area being excavated, Parco dei Ravennati, was a suburb of the ancient city of Ostia on the left bank of the Tiber, now long since silted over. The area was used as a necropolis from the early imperial era through the 5th century when a basilica was built around the nearby tomb of 3rd century martyr Saint Aurea, patron saint of Ostia. The church was extensively renovated over the centuries; the current building was built by the Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, commissioner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, in the 15th century. Another important saint, Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine, died in Ostia in the late 4th century and was buried there. Her remains were moved to the Saint Aurea church in the 6th century before moving again to the Church of Saint Augustine in Rome.

There may be more information on the burials forthcoming courtesy of some inscriptions.

Additionally, several tombs had funerary inscriptions and archaeologists found a possible tabella defixionum, a lead curse tablet intended to protect the dead and bring anathema to tomb desecrators.

“They were really horrible curses to protect the dead”, Paola Germoni, head of Ostia’s archaeological superintendency, added.

Studies remain ongoing, according to Michele Raddi, excavation co-director, who said “we found a number of fragmentary inscriptions in the tombs as well as a possible tabella defixionum, but we need to evaluate its context and see if it has an inscription”.

Parco dei Ravennati wasn’t just a necropolis, however. Multiple domestic spaces have been unearthed, including an elaborate opus sectile marble inlay floor from the late 4th century. This season’s excavations have found even more of that aristocratic home, a space adjacent to the opus sectile room that was paved with paving stones and converted to commercial use. The discovery of hooks and lead weights from fishing nets suggest the elegant home was re-purposed for fish processing in the early Middle Ages. Ancient sources and earlier archaeology pointed to Ostia being in steep decline as a commercial center starting in the reign of Constantine I (306-337 A.D.), so the discovery of active businesses from the early Middle Ages is going to change what we know about Ostia.

“What’s amazing is that you have continual use in this park straight through from republic and imperial times through to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, its giving us precious information about the later periods and how it relates to Ostia Antica”, [director of the American Institute for Roman Culture Darius] Arya said.

“The discoveries in the Parco dei Ravennati underlines the extraordinary continuity of life and activity along the Tiber River banks, in Ostia Antica’s suburbs”

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Sam’s iconic piano from Casablanca for sale

July 21st, 2014

The piano on which Sam played As Times Goes By at the behest of a melancholic Ilsa and a choleric Rick in the classic 1942 movie Casablanca will be put up for auction later this year. It’s one of more than 30 pieces from the film that will be sold at Bonhams New York’s TCM Presents: There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction on November 24th, all of which belong to a single private collector. Along with the piano, the sale will feature the interior and exterior doors from Rick’s Café Américain, passports and other papers used in the movie, including the letters of transit that were hidden in this piano in a pivotal plot point.

Casablanca has long been one of the most beloved of Hollywood’s wartime classics and continues to be one of the most popular films in the Turner Classic Movies library,” said Dennis Adamovich, senior vice president of digital, affiliate, lifestyle and enterprise commerce at TCM, TBS and TNT. “With the addition of this extraordinary collection of Casablanca memorabilia, TCM and Bonhams’ There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction is going to be a truly unforgettable and historic event.”

“Bonhams is thrilled to represent this remarkable Casablanca collection, certainly one of the most significant film memorabilia collections still in private hands,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of Entertainment Memorabilia at Bonhams.

Last year the centerpiece of the Bonham’s auction of movie memorabilia curated by the experts of Turner Classic Movies was from another of Humphrey Bogart’s iconic films, The Maltese Falcon. The lead falcon prop sold for an astonishing $4,085,000 including buyer’s premium. No pre-sale estimate for the piano has been announced yet, but Bonham’s expects it to sell for seven figures as well. There’s no guarantee, of course. The gorgeous 1940 Buick Phaeton from Casablanca‘s final scene sold for $380,000, $70,000 below the low estimate at last year’s sale.

The piano used in the Paris flashback scene where Sam first plays the song for Rick and Ilsa in happier times sold for much less than its estimate at Sotheby’s in December of 2012. The estimate was $800,000 to $1.2 million, but the hammer price was $500,000 ($602,500 including buyer’s premium). Some articles have erroneously conflated the two pianos. The one for sale this November was last purchased at public auction in the 1980s and has since then been loaned to Warner Brothers Studio Museum and the Hollywood Bowl for a 2006 performance.

This piano, which is salmon-colored in real life, looms large in film history as the song sung by Dooley Wilson in the role of Sam has become part of the cultural lexicon. Wilson didn’t actually play the piano (he was a drummer) so as he sang he imitated the real pianist Elliot Carpenter who was playing out of view of the cameras but in view of Wilson. Incidentally, the line most associated with the scene, “Play it again, Sam,” was never actually spoken in the movie.

The full auction catalogue is not yet available online, but keep an eye on this page where it will appear a month or so before the sale.

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