Oil sketch dismissed as bad copy is by Rembrandt

November 5th, 2022

An oil sketch in the Museum Bredius in The Hague discounted as a copy has been revealed to be an autograph work by Rembrandt. The Raising of the Cross, once widely accepted as a real Rembrandt, had been dismissed as a bad copy for 50 years until art historian and former museum curator Jeroen Giltaij began to investigate it for a book he was writing on Rembrandt’s oeuvre. He thought the quality of painting marked it as a work by the master. Museum Bredius conservators cleaned and restored the work, removing discolored varnish layers and later overpainting to reveal the painting in its “naked” unretouched state. Rembrandt’s distinctive brushstrokes are now clearly visible.

Infrared reflectography (IRR) and X-ray scans of the sketch performed by Rotterdam-based art restorer Johanneke Verhave reveal that its composition initially matched that of the Munich version. During the painting process of the sketch, the composition changed to move the horseman from left of the cross facing the viewer to the bottom right corner with the horseman looking up at the cross, his and his horse’s backs to the viewer. The horseman took the place of a dog that was in the original design. An almost identical rider appears in a 1629 etching by Rembrandt.

From the first half of the 19th century, the work was believed to be an authentic painting by Rembrandt. At the time, art historians thought it was a study for Rembrandt’s 1633 The Raising of the Cross , a piece almost double the size of the sketch that is now in the Alte Pinakothek museum in Munich. When the oil sketch was acquired by collector and museum founder/director Abraham Bredius in 1921, he had no doubt that it was painted by the master’s hand, but he thought it was made around 1640, a new and improved version of the Munich piece rather than a preparatory sketch for it.

The attribution to Rembrandt was cast into doubt by scholars in the 1960s and by the end of the decade it had been removed from the artist’s catalogue raisonné and downgraded in status to, as art historian Horst Gerson described it in 1969, a “crude imitation, vaguely based on Rembrandt” made by a nameless follower.

Well the joke’s on Horst, because it is neither crude nor an imitation. Experts from the Rijksmuseum have also performed a technical study of the painting and they too concluded it is an autograph work by Rembrandt. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood panel it was painted on dates the felling of the tree to 1634. The plank had to be seasoned before use, so it was probably painted between 1642 and 1645. It could not have been a preparatory sketch for The Raising of the Cross Rembrandt painted in 1633.

The re-authenticated Rembrandt is now on display at the Museum Bredius in a short exhibition dedicated to the oil sketch and the research that restored it to its birthright.

Secrets of largest Roman coin hoard in Spain revealed

November 4th, 2022

Six years after the discovery of a massive treasure of Roman coins in Tomares, a suburb of Seville, Spain, the first report of the findings has been released by archaeologists and numismatists from the University of Seville.

The hoard was discovered during city work on the El Zaudín public park. A mechanical digger unearthed 19 large amphorae filled with Roman coins, breaking 10 of them in the process. Workers alerted authorities and archaeologists were promptly dispatched to salvage the coins from the broken amphorae and recover the intact amphorae without damaging them.

All of the amphorae, intact and broken, and the coins were transported to the Provincial Archaeological Museum of Seville for documentation and conservation. From their discovery in 2016 through 2019, experts cleaned, conserved and stored the treasure. The nine intact amphorae were numbered and set aside and are still unopened as of now, although a microcamera was threaded into them to confirm they are indeed filled with the same quantity and types of coins as the others. Amphorae 10 and 11 were broken but their coin content remained intact within. the microexcavation of the coin groups from 10 and 11 found they contain a similar number coins: around 2,800. The coins from the eight amphorae that were completely fragmented tallied up to 22,288. Another 102 coins were found in a later exploration of the find site. They were scattered, but given the context, they are likely to have been part of the hoard.

Archaeologists estimate that the total number of coins in the 19 amphorae is more than 53,000. They are tetrarchic nummi, issued after Diocletian’s financial and monetary reform in 294, but before the reform of 313. A selection of 3,000 coins from the broken amphorae, plus the 2,798 coins in amphora 11 and the 102 scattered coins were cleaned, numbered, photographed, catalogued and underwent metal composition analysis. This sample is more than 10% of the total coinage estimate, giving archaeologists a sufficiently reliable basis for observations that can be extrapolated to the entire hoard.

The excavation of the two broken amphorae with largely undisturbed contents revealed that they were both filled in the same manner. The coins were dropped in, forming horizontal layers that stopped before reaching the neck. To ensure there were as few gaps as possible in the layers, the upright amphorae were shaken side-to-side. Coins shifted into the lateral spaces, creating quasi-vertical lines around the edges of the horizontal layers. This strongly suggests that they were filled in a single operation, rather than gradually accumulated. This is confirmed by the absence of any chronological order of coins in the layers. The newest coins were frequently found in the deepest layers, in fact.

The coins date to between 294 and 311 A.D. All of the emperors — both Augustuses and Caesars — of the tetrarchic period are represented on the coinage: Diocletian, Maximian, Constantius, Galerius, Constantine, Severus, Maximinus, Licinius and Maxentius. Diocletian’s coins are by far the most common in the hoard. The empire’s main mints are all represented as well: Rome, Carthage, Aquileia, Treveris, Ticinum, Lugdunum, Londinium, Siscia, Ostia, Alexandria, Cyzicus, Thessalonika, Heraklea, Nicomedia, Antioch.

A geomagnetic and stratigraphic survey of the site found the remains of a 3rd-4th century brick building (opus latericium) with buttressed walls typical of warehouses of rural agricultural estates. The structure had a front portico supported by columns that was paved with a lime floor. The 19 amphorae crammed full of coins appear to have been cached under the floor and the lime layer used to seal them in. The building was abandoned in the 4th century and it was dismantled for reuse of its construction materials in the 6th century. Nobody noticed there was a gigantic treasure hidden under the floor.

The amphorae had been placed with perfect regularity standing upright one next to the other. The vessels are all of the same type and origin: olive oil storage and transport amphorae of local production, the agricultural lifeblood of the area and the likely function of the rural estate where the coins were collected and stashed.

The prevalence of coins from the reign of Diocletian may be an important clue to why they were hoarded in the first place.

The answer could be because as the emperors went by and inflation grew, the weight of the pieces and their percentage of silver fell. In the year 294, a pound of silver was used to mint 32 coins; in 307 this number grew to 40, between 307 and 309 a pound of silver went into making 48 coins, and between 310 and 311, the figure had shot up to 72. In other words, the owner of the treasure preferred to hoard Diocletian’s money, with more silver in it. On average, the coins were made with an alloy of 88% bronze, 4% silver, 3.7% tin and 3.3% lead.

And why so many in the same hands? The researchers explain that Diocletian’s reform triggered “political uncertainty and conflicts between the rulers.” Added to this were territorial and social clashes that would gradually lead to a concentration of property and a devaluation of this type of currency against gold. “These and other factors explain the large amount of coins that were found, as only in large numbers could payments of a certain level be undertaken.” In other words, to make any important financial transaction, a huge number of coins was necessary. And more so if you owned a villa that functioned as an agri-food center.

The Tomares Treasure is one of the largest coin collections from the Tetrarchy (a system of government introduced by Diocletian that involved two emperors and their successors ruling at the same time) in the entire imperial territory. “It is only surpassed in size by that of Misurata, in Libya, and constitutes a top-tier testimony of monetary circulation at the beginning of the 4th century AD in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. Its composition is also an immense archive in which to study the vicissitudes (devaluations, changes in weight) of the economic policy of the emperors of the Tetrarchy, a time when the manipulation of currency was an important economic resource in the hands of public authorities.”

Rural necropolis from Late Antiquity found in France

November 3rd, 2022

Burial 1064 with grave goods of pottery, from 5th century rural necropolis. Photo © S. Viller, Inrap.A small rural necropolis from the late 5th century has been discovered in Sainte-Marie-aux-Chênes, northeastern France. Located along an ancient road, the necropolis contains the remains of cremation structures and several richly furnished inhumations. The burial ground is likely connected to a nearby ancient Roman villa whose remains were discovered more than a decade ago.

A survey of the site before construction of a subdivision in 2009 found evidence of archaeological material. In the two seasons of excavations that followed, archaeologists unearthed the remains of the pars rustica (the farm buildings) of a 1st century Roman villa and a Medieval hamlet occupied through the 12th century. Three Merovingian-era (mid-5th-8th c.) tombs containing the remains of seven people, all from the same family, were found in the ruins of a barn from the Roman estate.

Excavations resumed in 2020 when the subdivision planned to expand towards the former Ida mine and factory. Test pits discovered the first early Iron Age remains at the site attesting that the area was settled earlier than previously realized and a continuation of the Medieval hamlet into the valley. A cremation pit and a secondary deposit from the Gallo-Roman era were also uncovered. They date to the 1st century A.D.

The 2020 excavation explored the opposite side of the valley to the 2009-10 digs. The soil there has been heavily eroded, but that had the felicitous archaeological side-effect of accumulating sediment layers over the necropolis which helped preserve the remains. Digging through those layers, archaeologists unearthed about 10 cremation structures. Fragments of charred bone remains were found in carefully cut quadrangular pits and in much rougher round niches that look like postholes but aren’t. There are no cinerary urns and very little surviving bone material. A few nails were found, perhaps from a casket, and a square pit containing a deposit of blacksmithing tools and forge remnants (tongs, metal scraps, slag).

Ten tombs from Late Antiquity were found in this same space. The pits were dug with deliberation in parallel rows. All of the graves contained a single inhumed individual in supine position, adults of both sexes and four confirmed young children. Two adult women were identified by their hairpins and necklaces. While no coffins or burial beds were found in the graves, iron nails and wood traces suggest the bodies were originally buried in or on wooden biers.

The deceased were laid to rest with a variety of grave goods. Ceramic vessels made of local Argonne clay were found at the head and/or the foot of the bodies. They are believed to have contained food offerings now long decomposed. Glassware of high quality and diversity was also buried with the dead: cups, bottles, flasks, goblets, bowls, dishes. Jewelry — mostly copper alloy pieces with beads, amber and glass paste — adorned the deceased. There were coins in the graves as well, some individual, some in groups that were probably held in purses of organic material. Last but least, two bone combs were discovered and one miniature axe interred next to the head of a child.

The remains recovered from the excavation are still being studied. Researchers hope to learn more about the sex, ages and health records of the deceased. The necropolis itself is also still undergoing analysis to explore how it was organized and used, and to shed new light on the funerary practices of the people who lived and died there in Late Antiquity.

Roman military watchtower found in Morocco

November 2nd, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Roman military watchtower in the ancient city of Volubilis, northern Morocco. The foundations and walls up to 80 cm (2’8″) high are still standing, as is a section of an internal staircase and some of the cobblestone pavers around the structure. The team also unearthed fragments of pilia (Roman spearheads), nails from caligae (military hobnailed sandals) and Roman military belt fittings. Roman observation towers have been found before in Scotland, Germany and Romania, but this is the first one found in Morocco.

“On the basis of satellite images, we selected several sites that have a common feature: an oval plan with a rectangle or a square inscribed in it. We chose this particular site because it is located farthest to the south. there could be a place associated with the presence of the Roman army “- says Maciej Czapski, archaeologist, PhD student from the University of Warsaw and a member of the Polish-Moroccan research group in an interview with PAP.

The scientist adds that dozens of hours spent in libraries in Rimini and London were part of the preparations for the excavation work. However, the effort put into reading the already published materials in conjunction with the analysis of satellite images did not guarantee success – he reserved.

“We were lucky to start digging in the right place, because a 500-600 m shift of the starting point would result in hitting the void. Our discovery is a significant contribution of knowledge to the overall state of research on the Roman limes – a system of Roman border fortifications, erected on the outskirts of the empire, especially vulnerable for raids – said Czapski.

Built at the foot of Zerhoun mountain, the city of Volubilis was founded in the 3rd century B.C. by Carthaginian colonists. It was part of the kingdom of Mauretania (at one point it was the capital) ruled by a dynasty of Berber kings allied with Carthage. After the fall of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C., Volubilis was annexed by Rome along with all the other North African colonies. Mauretania itself became a client kingdom of Rome. After the death without heir of King Bocchus II in 33 B.C., the Romans installed a puppet king on the throne and the kingdom limped along as a vassal state until Mauretania was finally annexed outright by Claudius in 44 A.D. and divided into two provinces.

Excavation of the eastern wall of the observation tower. Photo by Maciej Czapski.The city prospered under Rome, exporting its agricultural commodities — grains, olive oil — and supplying wild animals for gladiatorial combat. It was at the very periphery of the empire’s borders, however, and tensions with the Berber tribes around the Romanized city rose so precipitously that Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 A.D.) had massive circuit of defensive walls built around it. Roman rule ultimately collapsed around 280 A.D. during the political and military chaos of the Crisis of the Third Century. Volubilis itself collapsed in an earthquake in the late 4th century.

The watchtower has not been conclusively dated yet. Defenses were built and maintained at the site between the 1st and 3rd century A.D., and archaeologists hypothesize that it may date to the reign of Antoninus Pius (Marcus Aurelius’ predecessor, r. 138-161 A.D.). Epigraphic evidence points to increasingly turbulent relations between the Berber population and the Roman administration at this time, bad blood that would come to a boil in Marcus Aurelius’ reign.

Sacrificial bull’s head found in Minoan cemetery

November 1st, 2022

The skull of a bull has been discovered in a funerary building at the cemetery of the ancient Minoan palace of Petras in eastern Crete. The Minoan relationship with the bull is iconic, thanks largely to the legend of the Minotaur in the labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos, and to the ubiquity of the bull in Minoan art. Dating to between 1920 B.C. and 1750 B.C., this bull skull is the oldest evidence of an actual bull sacrifice found in a Minoan tomb.

What are now low hills were peninsulas on two sides of a narrow gulf when Petras was founded around 3400 B.C. The remains of a palace and accompanying urban settlement have been discovered on the western hill. The eastern hill has remains of two settlements from different periods (3400 B.C.-2900 B.C. and 14th-12th c. B.C.). It was during the 2004 excavation of the eastern hill that the cemetery was discovered. Reserved for the elite of the palace settlement, it was in continuous use from 2800 B.C. to about 1750 B.C., and was in untouched, unplundered condition.

The cemetery consists of 26 large burial buildings used as bone repositories rather than as primary burial sites. The funerary buildings have complex floor plans with as many as 14 rooms each. The rooms were rich with funary and ritual furnishings, including pottery, seal stones, jewelry, stone vessels, bronze tools and stone tools. Some rooms were used to store vessels used in funerary rituals. It is the largest cemetery of the Minoan Prepalatial (3500-1900 B.C.) and Protopalatial (1900-1750 B.C.) periods, and its long occupation and unlooted condition makes it a unique source of information about Minoan religion and culture.

The bull skull was discovered on the earthen floor of Area 8 of Funerary building 9.

“There were no other bones of the animal besides the cranium. Obviously the sacrifice took place at another cemetery section,” Tsipopoulou tells ANA-MPA. The cranium was accompanied by six vessels and two triton shells: a cup, three wide-spout pitchers (prochooi), a censor, and a lamp. The triton shells, “which are very important in Minoan religion (…) are something sacred, as are bulls,” the archaeologist notes. The vessels and shells were spread over the entire Area 8. Since the area was open to the sky, the lamp indicates it would either have been used to light the censor or to light the space if the ritual was held at night.

She says that the Minoan residents, as those in other regions of the world, would not mix rituals of death objects with daily objects. “The vessels would remain in the area (of the ritual), because, as in other societies, whatever was connected to death never returned to the residence complex to be used, but they used to break it and leave it in the cemetery areas.”

The style and date of the pottery secures the sacrificial placement to around 1850 BC. “We don’t know what prompted this elite family to sacrifice an extremely valuable animal,” Tsipopoulou says, “but perhaps it followed a strong earthquake or a pandemic or a dangerous and fatal natural phenomenon like a tsunami.” Bulls are associated with the sea in mythology, she notes.

A study of the bull cranium at Oxford University has revealed that the tongue was removed breaking the lower jaw after death but before deposition. Because the tongue was considered a delicacy, this is evidence that the bull was eaten before the skull was deposited. The analysis of the skull also indicated the bull was domesticated and about five years old when he died.

2,000-year-old luxury Roman villa found in Bavaria

October 31st, 2022

The remains of a 2,000-year-old luxury Roman villa have been discovered in Kempten, Bavaria. Located on the western end of the ancient city near the temple district, the most desirable part of town, the domus was large, at least 8,600 square feet over two stories. It had screed floors, frescoed walls and private hot baths complete with underfloor hypocaust heating.

The most exciting thing about the finds for the archaeologists: They belonged to private stone houses. “You won’t find such private buildings in stone anywhere in southern Germany at this early time – at the beginning of the first century,” says Johannes Schiessl from the city archeology department of Kempten. That means: while elsewhere the Roman settlers still lived in wooden and clay buildings, the high society in Cambodunum apparently already resided in chic brick town houses.

What is today Kempten was founded as Cambodunum on the site of a Celtic settlement destroyed by the forces of Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus (father of the Germanicus usually associated with that cognomen) and his brother Tiberius in 15 B.C. In the first decade of the new millennium, the city of Cambodunum was built according to the typical Roman grid plan with major public buildings including baths, temples and a forum. It was the administrative center of the region and the seat of the Roman governor of the Roman province of Raetia. Cambodunum remained the capital of the province until 120 A.D. when Augsburg, aka the Roman colony of Augusta Vindelicum, was given the role.

Cambodunum is the oldest German city mentioned in writing, and the discovery of the luxury private domus underscores that the Romanization of Bavaria, the development of an urban culture mirroring Rome’s, began in Kempten. It also proves that the early city, which was believed to have been built largely out of wood, utilized high-quality stone and brick architecture for important civic structures and the homes of the wealthy.

The finds will be thoroughly documented and then reburied for their own protection. The ultimate goal, however, is to preserve the remains in situ for exhibition as part of the Cambodunum Archaeological Park, the largest Roman archaeological park in southern Germany and the only one with a Gallo-Roman temple complex that includes full-scale replicas of the ancient buildings.

Archaeological society snipes 1,700-piece Anglo-Saxon collection before auction

October 30th, 2022

A collection of more than 1,700 Anglo-Saxon artifacts dating to the 6th and 7th century A.D. has been acquired by the Kent Archaeological Society just before it was to sold at public auction last Friday. The Ozengell Anglo-Saxon Collection includes a wide array of jewelry, buckles, weapons fittings, glassware and pottery found in excavations of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground near Ramsgate in Kent.

The first Anglo-Saxon artifacts were found at the site in 1846 during railroad construction. Many of those objects are now in museums including the World Museum in Liverpool and the British Museum. The objects amassed in the collection were unearthed from 192 graves at the Ozengell Anglo-Saxon cemetery between 1977 and 1981.

Some of the stand-out pieces of the collection include a gilt-silver disc brooch set with three wedge-shaped garnets, large numbers of amber and glass beads, a hemispherical glass bowl and two glass globular bottles with narrow necks, a pottery urn decorated with a linear pattern, another decorated with triangles and stippling, a circular incense vessel, copper, bronze and gilt-silver buckles, iron shield bosses, knives and a pair of tweezers with incised decoration. The collection was loaned to The Powell-Cotton Museum from 1983 through 2010. Only a selection of the massive collection was ever displayed.

After the Ozengell Collection was returned to the owner, he sold four glass pieces from the collection at auction in 2011. Eleven years later, 50 boxes full of the remaining 1,700 pieces were offered in a single auction lot at Roseberys in London with a pre-sale estimate of just £12,000-15,000 ($14,000-17,000). Before the hammer could fall, however, a private sale was arranged to the Kent Archaeological Society. It complements and augments the society’s nationally important collection of Anglo-Saxon grave goods. Selected objects will go on display in concert with artifacts from the Kent Archaeological Society’s wider collection.

Roman gold coin, 1 of only 2 known, for sale

October 29th, 2022

An exceptionally rare gold medallion issued by the emperor Maxentius around 308 A.D. that is one of only two known surviving in the world will be sold at auction next week. It is a quaternio, meaning a single gold coin worth four aurei, although of course it was not intended for circulation. It was a commemorative issue for Maxentius to celebrate his reconstruction of the Temple of Venus and Roma in the Eternal City.

The Templum Veneris et Romae was a double temple dedicated to the goddess Venus Felix, mother of Aeneas and through him of the Roman people, and to Roma Aeterna, the deity who was the personification of the city and larger state. The temple was constructed by Emperor Hadrian in 135 A.D., but he didn’t just order it built. He fancied himself something of a draftsman/architect and he personally designed the plans for this temple. They were not universally acclaimed, to put it mildly, and when Trajan’s revered architect Apollodorus of Damascus voiced his objections to Hadrian’s plan, the emperor had him executed and built it the way he wanted.

Here’s Cassius Dio’s account (Roman History, LXIX.4) of their animosity and its fatal conclusion:

[T]he true reason was that once when Trajan was consulting him on some point about the buildings he [Apollodorus] had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted with some remark: “Be off, and draw your gourds. You don’t understand any of these matters.” (It chanced that Hadrian at the time was pluming himself upon some such drawing.) When he became emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man’s freedom of speech. He sent him the plan of the temple of Venus and Roma by way of showing him that a great work could be accomplished without his aid, and asked Apollodorus whether the proposed structure was satisfactory. The architect in his reply stated, first, in regard to the temple, that it ought to have been built on high ground and that the earth should have been excavated beneath it, so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position, and might also have accommodated the machines in its basement, so that they could be put together unobserved and brought into the theatre without anyone’s being aware of them beforehand. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella. “For now,” he said, “if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so.” When he wrote this so bluntly to Hadrian, the emperor was both vexed and exceedingly grieved because he had fallen into a mistake that could not be righted, and he restrained neither his anger nor his grief, but slew the man.

The temple was huge, built on a platform 475 feet long and 330 feet wide along the Sacred Way on the slopes of the Velia hill next to the Colosseum. More than 100 feet high, it was the largest temple in the city and for centuries one of the most important shrines in the empire. Construction of the temple is what spurred the removal of the colossal statue of Nero, which gave the Flavian Amphitheater its nickname. (The machinery Apollodorus talks about being stored in the temple were the apparatuses used in the spectacles at the amphitheater.) Hadrian took a non-standard approach to temple design, placing the cellae (the rooms where the images of the goddesses dwelled) back-to-back instead of side-by-side. This was a bit of an anagram pun on Hadrian’s part. AMOR (love) is ROMA spelled backwards.

When the temple was heavily damaged in a fire in 307 A.D., Maxentius rebuilt it. He did not follow in Hadrian’s architectural footprints, but instead had it reconstructed in the apdsidal form with vaulted ceilings that was typical of early 4th century Rome. He replaced the burned wooden ceiling with a stone coffered vault and doubled the thickness of the walls to support it. He also redid the cellae so they conformed to the classical design that Hadrian had eschewed. Most of the temple was destroyed in an earthquake in the 9th century and the church built in the ruins, but the remains of the cella and vaulted apse still stand today.

Maxentius made this project the cornerstone of his imperial identity. For four years, the rest of his reign until his death in battle against Constantine in 312 A.D., he struck widely circulated bronze and silver coins depicting himself on the obverse and the goddess Roma sitting in a hexastyle temple on the reverse. The inscription on the reverse, CONSERVATOR VRBIS SVAE, means “preserver of his city,” and Maxentius certainly strove to earn the title. He poured money into the renewal of Rome, restoring old public buildings and constructing new ones.

In addition to the circulating coins, the emperor had special issue ultra-valuable, ultra-fine commemorative gold medallions made conveying the same sentiment. The one coming up for auction features the bare head of Maxentius facing left on the obverse, and Roma seated on a shield decorated with the she-wolf and twins Romulus and Remus. A winged Victory stands on a globe in Roma’s hand. The pre-sale estimate is $100,000 – $200,000, but it could well go much higher. An even finer issue of an eight-aurei medallion featuring Maxentius on the reverse as well, holding a scepter and receiving a globe from Roma, set a new world record for Roman gold coins when it sold at auction for $1.4 million in 2011.

Maxentius would be the last emperor to live in Rome, but his dedication to the physical fabric of the city was forgotten, largely by design of his successor. Constantine issued a damnatio memoriae decree against Maxentius, destroying all public references to him, including the inscriptions on the buildings he had restored or constructed. Constantine took all the credit for them instead, propped up by Christian writers villainizing his former rival as a tyrannical brute and lionizing Constantine, who built a new capital a thousand miles away and named it after himself, as Rome’s reviver.

Byzantine shopping, dining district found in Ephesus

October 28th, 2022

In the ancient city of Ephesus on what is today the west coast of Turkey, archaeologists have discovered an early Byzantine business and dining district that met a sudden violent end in 614/615 A.D. A thick fire layer points to the means of its demise. That layer is also responsible for the preservation of the contents of the rooms, providing a unique snapshot of the shops and pubs of Byzantine Ephesus.

The Ephesus area has been settled since the 7th millennium B.C., and the Greek city was built by colonists in the 10th century B.C. It thrived as a center of commerce and was one the most important and populous cities of Roman Asia Minor. It was also a center of the Early Christian church from the mid-1st century. Under Byzantine rule, Ephesus was second in importance only to Constantinople. The city’s fortunes took a heavy hit from invading Goths (263 A.D.), the silting over of its Aegean harbor in the 7th century, several sackings by Arabic forces and the Seljuk Turks. By the time it was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1425, Ephesus was a sleepy village, soon to be abandoned.

While its existence was locally known (its ancient buildings were a ready source of stone for building and grinding into lime powder), systematic archaeological excavations of ancient Ephesus were not undertaken until the late 19th century. The Austrian Archaeological Institute has been excavating ancient Ephesus since 1898 (with the occasional pause for world wars, diplomatic tensions and pandemics).

The business district was discovered in an excavation of Domitian’s Square near the Upper Agora, the Greek and Roman city’s civic center. In late antiquity, the large Roman square had been partially built over with workshops, stores and purveyors of food and drink. So far, one smaller building covering an area of about 1830 square feet has been uncovered. That one building contained a cooking shop, a storage room, a tavern, a store selling terracotta lamps and Christian pilgrimage trinkets with its associated workshop and sales room. They were all doing gangbusters when disaster struck, because beneath the burn layer was an incredible profusion of objects, including thousands of pieces of crockery, food remains and coins. About 600 pilgrim bottles — small ampules for sacred relics that were perforated to be worn as pendants — have been found in the workshop, a discovery without precedent on the archaeological record.

The storage room was filled with vessels, many of them still with the remains of their original contents like cockles, oysters, salted mackerel, peaches, almonds, olives and pulses. There were sets of small pitchers and cups, used to serve customers in the adjoining tavern. Objects were pancaked on top of each other where they fell from their shelves, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the shelves and what they held before the collapse. Also inside the storage room were more than 500 bronze coins found together in a single group. These are either the savings or the cash in the register of one of the businesses. Most of the coins date to the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Phocas (602-610). The most recent coin in the hoard dates to 614/5 A.D., the reign of the Emperor Heraclius.

The date range of the coins is strong evidence that the event that destroyed the shopping and dining district of Byzantine-era Ephesus took place in 614 or 615.

“The archaeological findings show us a massive fire destruction that must have been sudden, dramatic and momentous,” explains [OeAW archaeologist] Sabine Ladstätter. “It will no longer be possible to determine the exact day of the destruction, but the evaluation of the fruits found will at least clarify the season.” Was it an earthquake? There is no evidence of this. The walls are neither shifted nor are the floors arched. No human remains were recovered either.

However, a number of arrow and lance tips were found, which provide evidence of a military conflict. It is fitting that coins found around the same time in the Turkish city of Sardis, around 100 kilometers from Ephesos, also indicate destruction. These were previously associated with incursions by the Persian Sasanids into western Asia Minor, but this has so far been controversial in research.

The new finds at Domitian’s Square could now solve a riddle of the history of the city of Ephesus. Ladstätter: “Although it has been possible to observe archaeologically up until now that the city drastically decreased in size in the 7th century and the standard of living had dropped significantly, the reasons for this were not clear.” than in previous centuries. “This turning point in the history of the city of Ephesos will probably have to be linked to the Sasanian Wars,” says the OeAW archaeologist.

Pilgrim bottle. Photo: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail.

Viking unhacked silver hoard found in Sweden

October 27th, 2022

Sweden sees Norway’s Viking hack silver hoard and raises with a Viking hoard of silver jewelry and coins in pristine unhacked condition. The hoard was discovered in an excavation of the Viking settlement of Täby, outside Stockholm. It was cached under the wooden floor of one of the Viking Age (800-1050 A.D.) houses about 1,000 years ago.


The hoard consists of eight torc-style braided neck rings in exceptionally good condition, two arm rings, one finger ring, two beads and 12 coins perforated for use as pendants, 11 of them mounted with hanging loops. The coins had been placed in a linen pouch which was then added to the jewelry in a small ceramic pot. Fragments of the linen pouch have survived, giving archaeologists a rare opportunity to study an organic material.

“When I started to carefully remove the neck rings one by one, I had this extraordinary feeling of “they just keep coming and coming”. In total there were eight high quality torque-style neck rings, extraordinary well preserved despite having been made and deposited almost a thousand years ago. They looked almost completely new,” [archaeologist] Maria Lingström says. […]

The coins are a perfect example of the far-reaching connections and blossoming trade, which flourished in Viking Age Scandinavia. Several coins are of European origin, representing countries as England, Bohemia and Bavaria. In addition, the treasure consisted of five Arabic coins, so called dirhams. One of the European coins is extremely rare and was minted in the city of Rouen, in Normandy, France. It dates to approximately the 10th Century AD. According to Professor Jens Christian Moesgaard at Stockholm University, this type of coin has previously ever been identified from drawings in an 18th century book.

Here is a very cool video of the first neck ring being carefully loosened and removed from the ground. It’s rare to see these moments of an archaeological dig filmed and shared, for some inexplicable reason, even though it’s total popcorn material.




November 2022


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