Hoard of 15th c. coins found in Dijon

June 3rd, 2019

A hoard of coins from the late 15th century has been unearthed in downtown Dijon. National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) archaeologists were surveying a site near Saint Bégnine Abbey when they discovered 34 gold and silver coins buried in the remains of a stone house. The house was built in the late 15th or early 16th century and the coins were cached under the floor near a wall.

Of the 34 coins, 10 are gold, 24 silver. They were put in a small bronze box, now surviving only in part due to damaged by development in the 20th century. Also included in the box was a green and white enamelled gold pendant. Corrosion had clumped the coins together into a single group.

INRAP conservators were able to separate and clean them in the laboratory. They found that all the coins date to the second half of the 15th century and were issued from states in Italy (Papal States, Ferrara, Milan, Venice) and the Holy Roman Empire (Brabant, Savoy, the Palatinate). The oldest is a gold coin issued by Brabant between 1432 and 1467. The newest is a gold coin issued by Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484-1492). Their condition suggests they were stashed before seeing much of any circulation.

There is only one French coin, issued by King Louis XI. Italian coins dominate, with silver testones issued by the Sforza in Milan the best represented.

This deposit is of great numismatic interest. Very few examples of some of these coins are known. They often testify, especially among the Italian princes, to a strong personalization of the iconography, inherited in part from the codes of the Roman Empire. This iconographic “revival” participates in the styles of the Italian Renaissance. These often heavy and high-quality coins show the power of these Lords and their motivation to make reference currencies.

Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Philip Ist of Palatinate, Pope Innocent VIII, Louis XI, the Doge Nicolo Tron, Philip the Good, Duc de Bourgogne, etc… This deposit resembles a catalog of the great princes of the late Middle Ages.

This set of coins also constitutes a precious testimony of the frequentation of the area at the end of the 15th century. The origins of the coins, the relative richness of the lot — perhaps the savings of a family gradually acquired over fifteen or so years — reflects the social market sphere and the European trading world. The issuing locations cover regions that played a major role in the European trade of the time or were in connection with the Burgundy world (Brabant, Northern Italy, etc.).

The pendant is a wedding medallion. It had two initials (a V and a C) connected by a golden cord. This was a popular type in the late Middle Ages and is common in wedding portraiture. It’s a handsome piece, but not made of the kind of expensive materials seen in aristocratic courts. It suggests the owners of the hoard were wealthy but did not mix in the highest ranks of the elite. They could have been petty nobility or members of the increasingly moneyed bourgeoisie.

The precise circumstances of the deposit remain uncertain, but this handful of coins reflects the end of the century in Dijon with the fall of Charles the Bold, the annexation of the Duchy of Burgundy, the arrival of the troops of the King of France in the walls of Dijon while beyond the Alps, the sounds of the wars of Italy are heard.

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The Benois Madonna’s Italian homecoming

June 2nd, 2019

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna and Child with Flowers, also known as the Benois Madonna, is back in Italy for the first time in 35 years. On loan from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, it is at the Pinacoteca Comunale di Fabriano in Le Marche until June 30th and will be on display at the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia from July 4th through August 4th.

Created between 1478 and 1480 when the artist was in his mid-20s, the painting is believed to be Leonardo’s first work fully independent of his master Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo had worked in Verocchio’s studio from the time he was 14 years old, starting out as a shop errand boy and working his way up to a full apprenticeship. Even though he received his qualification as a master from the artists’ guild in 1472 and opened his own studio shortly thereafter, Leonardo continued to collaborate with Verrocchio for years, creating works very much in his former master’s style.

With Madonna and Child with Flowers, Leonardo embraced a new style and eschewing the previous generation’s formal representations of the Mother of God as the serene Queen of Heaven, introduced Mary as a young mother at home playing with her baby. The warm, palpable love between them is a different kind of allegory, a highly relatable view of the bond of spiritual motherhood captured in one sweet moment. This was Leonardo coming into his own, investing a scene from daily life with the profundity and symbolism of genre painting. The little flower, for example, that Mary holds in her fingers while the infant Christ grabs at it, is a premonitory symbol of the Crucifixion.

The composition of happy mother, baby on her lap holding a flower, was immediately popular and preeminent artists of the era created their own versions. As famous as it was, the Madonna was lost for centuries. It wasn’t seen again in public until 1909 when it was exhibited by Russian architect Leon Benois. It had apparently left Italy in the 1790s, acquired by statesman and artillery general Alexey Ivanovich Korsakov who brought it to Russia. After his death in 1821, his son Nikolai tried to sell it at auction but failed to get the price he was hoping to get. Astrakhan merchant and art collector Aleksandr Petrovic Sapozhnikov waited patiently in the wings and finally got his mitts on it between 1823 and 1824.

Sapozhnikov had it removed from its original wood panel due its age and poor condition and transferred onto canvas. During the transfer process, an ink underdrawing was revealed. Sapozhnikov’s records indicate he never doubted its authorship, but the art historical community took a while to catch up. Its attribution was confirmed by the top authority in 1908 and since then the Benois Madonna has become firmly ensconced on the very, very short list of undisputed works by Leonardo.

It was acquired by the Hermitage Museum in 1914. Marija Aleksandrovna Sapožnikova Benois, Aleksandr Petrovic Sapozhnikov’s granddaughter and Leon’s wife, agreed they would sell it at a marked discount as long as the Hermitage agreed that it would always remain in Russia. The Hermitage only loans it out for very short trips very rarely.

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Highly polished Stone Age axe found in Wales

June 1st, 2019

A rare highly polished stone axe head has been unearthed in an excavation in Llanllyr, central Wales. A team of staff and students from University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) working on a module that allows undergraduates to get fieldwork practice in archaeology excavated mounds believed to date to the Neolithic era (4,000-6,000 years ago). Most of the artifacts recovered in this area date to the Middle Ages, so the discovery of a Neolithic stone axe in excellent condition was a happy surprise.

Dr Martin Bates, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David has been jointly leading the team.  He said:

“Running an excavation like this is an important part of our teaching here at Lampeter and giving our students the opportunity to gain the skills an archaeologist needs is very important.  When we began our excavations we did not anticipate finding Neolithic artefacts so this is a bonus for the team.  Hopefully, we can come back next year with a new group of students and continue our investigation of this important piece of Ceredigion’s history”.

Joe Neal a second-year student in Archaeology was the lucky student who found the stone axe.  He commented

“It’s a great find for us, I couldn’t have hoped to find anything better. This is my first dig and the first time I have found anything, so this is great”.

Dr Ros Coard, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at UWTSD, added

“The University of Trinity Saint David has run excavations at the Llanllyr site over a number of years but mostly found later medieval material, so to find a much deeper pre-history is exciting and broadens our understanding of the Aeron Valley and this part of Ceredigion. It is a most unusual and unexpected find certainly warranting further exploration of the area”.

The mounds are shallow bumps in marshland now, but in the Neolithic they were dry ground. Evidence of human activity, namely flint knapping artifacts, have been found on the mounds. A whole axe head has never been found here before, and this one was very finely ground and still has a nicely polished edge. This took a great deal of work to produce and is still in excellent condition. It’s surprising that it would have been deliberately discarded on the mounds. The wooden handle it was probably hafted with is gone.

The team has collected core samples of the landscape. These will hopefully allow researchers to create a layer map of vegetation that can help date finds like the stone axe.

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Early Neolithic mother & child burial found in Bulgaria

May 31st, 2019

Archaeologists excavating the prehistoric settlement of Slatina in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia have discovered an extremely rare early Neolithic grave. It is about 7,600 years old and contains the skeleton of an adult woman believed to have been buried with her child. She was placed in fetal position and interred with her baby in her arms next to a house on the periphery of the settlement.

Discovered by construction workers in 1950, Sofia’s Slatina Neolithic Settlement was first excavated in 1958 and was dated to the 3rd millennium B.C. Unfortunately the urban sprawl of Sofia in the 1970s destroyed much of the settlement, reducing a site originally estimated cover 20 acres to a tenth of its size. Later excavations, which have been ongoing since 1985, extended the timeline of habitation significantly. In fact its earliest layers date to around 6000 B.C., the Early Neolithic when the first farmers and livestock breeders settled in Buglaria.

Two phases of Early Neolithic development have been identified from the pottery at the settlement. The first, named the Slatina phase, featured pottery vessels with white decorations. The second, the Kremikovtsi phase, featured pottery with red, brown and burgundy decorations. One home had pottery remains from both phases, used to create six layers of flooring alternating crushed pottery with a thick coating of clay.

Most of the finds have been dwellings and household items. The houses vary in size enormously. One of the larger homes has an area of more than 3200 square feet; another 1600 square feet; one of the smaller ones just over 100. Made of wattle and daub with wooden posts supporting the walls, these are the largest known homes from the Early Neolithic.

The latest excavation has unearthed numerous implements used in daily life — a bone spoon, pottery vessels, a stamp — and in religious rituals — sections of sacrificial altars. Working tools like kilns and millstones have also been found and archaeologists have been able to gather a great deal of information about how the Neolithic settlers of Slatina lived.

There is very little information, on the other hand, about how they died and were buried.

“The upcoming research [of the 7,600-year-old grave] is going to provide information about the physical features of the people who in today’s Bulgaria gave the start of the first European civilization,” the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences says.

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Shipwreck found by accident in Gulf of Mexico

May 30th, 2019

The wreck of a wooden ship from the mid-19th century has been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico entirely by accident. The crew of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Okeanos Explorer wasn’t looking for shipwrecks on the May 16th dive. They were testing Deep Discoverer, a new remotely operated vehicle, and it more than lived up to its name when its sonar detected something shaped like a shipwreck. That something was a shipwreck.

Unprepared for an impromptu archaeological survey, researchers called and emailed marine archaeologists to follow Deep Discoverer‘s exploration remotely via live stream video. The dive was extended an additional three hours to give the archaeologists an opportunity to get a more thorough look at the site.

Those who joined the live stream suspect that the wreck is that of a sailing vessel built sometime in the mid-19th century, perhaps a schooner or brig, measuring roughly 37.8 meters (124 feet) long. The vessel is wooden with copper sheathing covering the bottom of its hull. Experts were able to infer the time period of the vessel’s origination based on a number of construction features, including the form of the stem and bow, the body of the hull, and the remains of the windlass. However, this information does not indicate the age of the vessel at the time it was lost, which could have been decades later. Initial observations also noted copper and iron artifacts at the site, but no diagnostic artifacts reflecting the vessel’s rig, trade, nationality, or crew were identified during the dive.

The hull remains are more or less intact up to the water line, with its timber protected by the sheathing. Some of the sheathing has deteriorated and fallen off the hull, leaving only the edges of each copper plate where they were tacked or nailed to the hull. However, all structure above the waterline is missing, and during the initial observations of the dive, there did not appear to be many traces of the standing rigging. Furthermore, a number of timbers appeared charred and some of the fasteners were bent, which may be an indication of burning. While the evidence is still being assessed, it is possible that this sailing vessel caught fire and was nearly completely consumed before sinking. This may explain the lack of artifacts from the rigging, decks, and upper works, as well as the lack of personal possessions.

The surviving section of the rudder has copper numbers “2109” nailed to it as are the remains of the copper sheathing. Where the copper sheathing remains attached to the hull it is still doing the job it was intended to do: keeping marine life from setting up shop on the wood. The barnacles and shipworm that have attached themselves to the rest of the ship avoid the copper areas.

The ROV has recorded extensive high-definition video of the wreck. It will be used to create a photomosaic of the site in extremely high resolution that will allow experts around the world to examine the wreck in much greater detail. This is the low-res version, believe it or not:

A low-resolution photomosiac of the wreck site, produced by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Marine Archaeologist Scott Sorset using the ROV video. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

And here’s some of the footage of the wreck taken by Deep Discoverer:

Video courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
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The Birdman of Sibera

May 29th, 2019

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a man buried with dozens of bird beaks at the Ust-Tartas archaeological site in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Between 30 and 50 beaks were found assembled together at the back of the individual’s skull. Because of this placement and how the beaks appear to be massed together to form a single object, researchers believe it was a garment — a collar, a headdress, a robe, perhaps a form of protective armature (for ritual purposes, not combat).

The beaks were removed en bloc for laboratory excavation at the Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography. They will have to be examined by ornithologists to determine which birds they came from, but their long, thin dimensions suggest they’re heron or crane beaks. So far only one skull as been found connected to its beak. The rest visible on the top layer are beaks alone lined up closely side-by-side. It’s not clear how the beaks were put together. No mounting holes have been found so far that would have made it possible to attach them to each other or to a fabric backing. Fully excavating the block, separating out the individual beaks to count, document and study them will take months of painstaking work.

In another burial found next to the Birdman, archaeologists discovered a two-layered grave. The top layer held the remains of two children around five and 10 years old at the time of death. A wooden overlay covered the bottom layer, separating the children’s grave from the one beneath them. In the bottom were the remains of an adult male buried with numerous artifacts.

The most unusual of the grave goods was a set of two bronze circles and a bronze rectangle. They were placed near his skull with the two circles underneath the rectangle almost like a pair of eyeglasses. The circles are slightly mounded and have small circular apertures at the peak. Fragments of organic material were found inside the hemispheres, indicating they may have been part of a funerary mask or headdress. If that’s the case, the holes in the bronze circles could have been cut to allow vision. Across his waist and on his left arm were five polished crescent-shaped stones thought to have had ritual uses.

“These are unique items, we are very excited indeed to have found them,” said Lidia Kobeleva.

“Both men must have carried special roles in the society. I say so because we have been working on this site for a while and unearthed more than 30 burials. They all had interesting finds, but nothing we found earlier was as impressive as discoveries in these two graves.

We suppose both men were some kind of priests.”

The burials in this area are from the Bronze Age Odinov culture which inhabited the Ishim river basin of Western Siberia around 4,800 years ago.

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Rare pristine Nazi cypher machine sold at auction

May 28th, 2019

An extremely rare German cryptographic machine in excellent condition has sold at auction for €98,000 ($110,000). The Schlüsselgerät (meaning “cipher machine”) 41 was supposed to replace the famous Enigma enciphering machine after it was cracked by Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers in 1941, but very few ended up being produced and only a handful of survived in working condition. They’re so rare that even corroded husks are still prized by museums. This one is not only functional, it looks practically new.

The SG-41 was invented by cryptologist Fritz Menzer. Menzer had enlisted in the Reichswehr as a mechanic when he was 18 years old and without any formal training, developed an interest in cryptography into inventing new cracking methods and devices. In 1940, he was appointed Regierungs-Oberinspektor of the OKW/Chi, the cryptology division of the German Army High Command.

The new device had six wheels (Enigma had three, four in later models) that could rotate in both directions and used two reels of paper, one for the original text, the other for coded message, rather than bulbs illuminating letters. The keyboard operation made it much faster to use and the encryption algorithms were more complex and sophisticated. The hand crack on the side inspired the machine’s nickname: Hitlermühle, or Hitler Mill.

Even though it was distinctly superior to the Enigma machines in cryptographic functionality, the SG-41 wasn’t used until 1944. The problem was the hardware. They were supposed to lightweight and durable for use on the front lines, but shortages of aluminum and magnesium forced the use of heavier materials. The end-result was a machine that weighed 25-33 pounds which made them much too heavy for field use.

Three years after their invention, a few SG-41s made it into production. About 500 were made by Wanderer-Werke in Chemnitz, eastern Germany (makers of the iconic Continental typewriters), and dispatched to the Abwehr in late 1944 to replace the limping and inadequate Enigma-G machines still in use. Another thousand (the SG-41Z variant), were sent to the Luftwaffe weather service. The Wehrmacht planned to manufacture 1,000 of them by October 1945 and ramp up production to 10,000 a month by January of 1946. The war ended first.

The recently-sold example is one of the Abwehr machines, so one of only 500 ever made. The auctioneers enlisted cypher machine expert Klaus Kopacz to examine their Hitler Mill. They disassembled it, adjusted the wheels, inserted paper reels and tested it. Everything worked. All it needs is some WD-40 and fresh ink as the printouts were barely legible. There are only five small parts missing (a button, a spacer, a spring, a bolt and a metal disc), all easily replaceable.

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Massive panorama restored in public

May 27th, 2019

Saint Louis Art Museum conservators are restoring Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley in public view for museum visitors. The massive scroll of painted fabric is being unrolled sections at a time in the southwest corner of Sculpture Hall so that conservators can repair it while museum visitors look on and ask questions.

It is 7.5 feet high and 348 feet long, an example of the hugely fashionable trend for massive panoramas that were installed in custom-built rotundas or played in temporary venues. Painted in vivid colors and displayed with spotlights and live music, the panorama would scroll through 25 distinct scenes before a viewing audience. An advertisement for one of these shows in Pennsylvania in 1851 announces in a bewildering proliferation of fonts that erudite lectures on the “ANQUITIES & CUSTOMS OF THE UNHISTORIED INDIAN TRIBES” will accompany the unfurling of the panorama “with all the aboriginal monuments of a large extent of the Country” covering more than 15,000 feet of canvas.  It was so huge and so difficult to roll that the morning show would feature the trip down the Mississippi, and then afternoon would just run it backwards, narrating a trip up the river.

What is truly extraordinary about this piece is how thoroughly it covers archaeological discoveries, depicting the excavation of ancient mounds and dinosaur fossils. It shows the digging being done by black slaves, under the command of two white men, an accurate capture of how these mounds were sectioned in the mid-19th century. Other Native American archaeological sites dot the vast Mississippi Valley landscape.

The reason for this unusually specific viewpoint for a panorama is that the work was commissioned by physician and natural scientist Montroville Wilson Dickeson who, by his own account excavated more than 1,000 mounds from which he recovered more than 40,000 artifacts. His field drawings became the basis of the archaeology scenes in the panorama. Dickeson hired artist John J. Egan to create a compelling backdrop for his lectures whose exhibition would help fund further excavations.

Five panoramas of the Mississippi were made in the 1840s. Their great size and detailed depictions of the “Father of Waters” made them a hit with audiences, perhaps too much of a hit as none of them have survived. Egan’s later work is the only one of the trend to be extant. It too is endangered by its years of hard work. It was painted in distemper on cotton muslin and over time all the dismounting, mounting, scrolling and traveling damaged the textile and the paint.

When the museum acquired it in 1953, it was in bad condition. An ambitious program of restoration began in 2011. The old wooden rollers were replaced by metal drums and a motorized rolling system. Paint loss and damage to the muslin has been repaired on individual panels. Now the end of the long voyage down the Mississippi River is in sight, with only three remaining panels in the process of treatment.

Conservators will complete the extensive, nine-year project by treating and preserving the final three damaged scenes.  During this process, Museum visitors have the unique opportunity to observe and interact with the conservation team while they work. In addition, Museum docents, curators, and conservators will provide additional insights to visitors on scheduled weekdays in Sculpture Hall.

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“Forgotten Winchester” gets permanent display

May 26th, 2019

Great Basin National Park has a new permanent exhibition dedicated to the “Forgotten Winchester,” the historic firearm found leaning against a Juniper tree by park archaeologist Eva Jensen in November of 2014. The Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Rifle, already iconic as “the gun that won the West,” became a viral hit for its weather-beaten appearance and casual pose as if it were just hanging out for a minute waiting for its owner to return.

The park sent it to the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming where experts examined it. They were able to find its serial number in their extensive archive of Winchester records and identified it as having been made in February 1882.

Before beginning the conservation process, the Cody team needed to ascertain that the gun wasn’t loaded. First they employed the wooden dowel test: inserting a wooden dowel to measure the length of the barrel to the breach. The dowel encountered some kind of blockage, so curators took the rifle to the local hospital for an X-ray to find out what was inside.

There was no bullet inside the barrel. The blockage didn’t show up on the X-ray, so curators suspect it was compacted organic material. The X-ray did find there was a live cartridge inside the buttstock. The Winchester had a trapdoor and a little storage tunnel in the buttstock that was usually used to keep cleaning supplies. Experts were able to open the trapdoor and remove the cartridge. They found it was a .44-40 Winchester Center Fire round made between from 1887 and 1911 by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.

The rifle was carefully disassembled so it could be conserved in the same awesomely weathered condition in which it was found. Corrosion was removed from the metal parts and the flaking wood bound with adhesive to keep it from further loss. The rifle was then put on public display briefly at the Cody Museum, at various gun shows and at Great Basin National Park’s Lehman Caves Visitor Center.

The new permanent Forgotten Winchester exhibition puts the rifle in a display case that positions it as it was when it was found with a life-sized image of the tree as the backdrop. The live round found in the buttstock is also on display.

The exhibit also highlights the role the Model 1873 — one of the most popular guns on the Western frontier — played in the history of the West.

“The exhibit is a showcase for visitors to discover the rifle’s mysterious story and become inspired to imagine, investigate and care about a piece of their American history,” said Nichole Andler, the park’s chief of interpretation. […]

“It has been a fun and inspiring project to work on with our park staff and our partners to complete this exhibit and give the Forgotten Winchester a permanent home,” Andler said.

The Juniper tree that was its home for so long alas is no longer with us. Just two years after the rifle was found, a wildfire burned the hillside above Strawberry Creek where the Forgotten Winchester had resided. Its comfy leaning tree was devastated in the conflagration. All that is left of it is a black stick. Had Eva Jensen’s keen powers of observation not spotted the rifle — which had weather to such a consistently grey color that it looked practically indistinguishable from the tree — than it would have burned to nothingness and nobody alive would have known it ever existed.

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Imperial head found in medieval Rome

May 25th, 2019

A beautiful larger-than-life white marble head of a statue from the Imperial era has been discovered in a late medieval wall. It was discovered Friday morning by archaeologists from the Capitoline Superintendence for Cultural Heritage excavating the Via Alessandrina, a 16th century road that runs between the Forums of Trajan, Augustus and Nerva. It was the main artery of the Alessandrino neighborhood, the first systematic urban renewal project in the area between the Forum of Nerva and Trajan’s Column. Beginning in 1570 at the behest of Cardinal Michele Bonelli, nephew of Pope Pius V, the site was reclaimed from water, scattered ancient remains and vegetation, raised and leveled for new construction. The road is all that remains of the neighborhood now. It was demolished between 1930 and 1933 to make way for the construction of what would become Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Archaeologists were excavating a wall from the early days of the Alessandrino neighborhood, dozens of feet above the ancient layers of the city, when they found the head of the statue face down in the wall. The head had been recycled by the medieval builders and plugged into the wall like a regular block of stone. The masons didn’t even attempt to make it more block-like, thankfully, and it’s in very good condition, despite its detachment from its body long ago, its stint as another brick in the wall above ground and below. 

The head bears a resemblance to the Ephesus group of Amazons carved in the 5th century B.C. by the greatest artists of the Classical period (Phidias, Polyclitus, Kresilas) and widely copied for the gardens and homes of the Roman elite. (Here’s one example in the Capitoline.) However, archaeologists believe it’s a representation of Dionysos who was often depicted as an androgynous youth. The figure wears a diadem of ivy leaves adorned with an ivy bloom, a characteristic Dionysian attribute, tying back the long, thick, wavy hair. The mouth is parted, the visage benevolent and unlined. The eye sockets are hollow now, but originally would have held eyes of glass or gemstone. That style of eye is typical of the first two centuries of the empire.

The sculpture has been transported to the Imperial Forums Museum where the remaining soil will be removed and the head conserved before being put on public display.

You can see how it was placed in the wall in this cool video of its discovery.

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