5,600-year-old pot full of beads found in Jordan

A pot unearthed at the Chalcolithic settlement in Tell Hujayrat al-Ghuzlan in Jordan has been discovered to contain thousands of beads made of clay, bone and shell. It dates to approximately 3600 B.C.

The initial find was made in 2010. Archaeologists from the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the Institute of Archeology at the University of Jordan (Amman) dug down to find the lowest layer of the buildings in the settlement. In a room at the lowest level of a home, they found a small round clay pot that was intact and still sealed with a clay plug. It rattled when archaeologist Jens Notroff lifted it.

The pot was cleaned and documented and when the stopper was removed, the pot was revealed to be full of tiny objects. They each had to be removed and cleaned.

In the end, the contents of the jar turned out to be a treasure of beads made from bones and shells. Among the pearls were thousands of tiny pearls, all pierced and polished. “Just cutting and polishing these beads took a lot of work time. Their size was in the millimeter range. Others were larger, also elongated in shape,” says Notroff.

What exactly this discovery is all about still puzzles scientists to this day. The type of beads was known, for example as jewelry and garment decoration, but the location and the mass were unparalleled. “I could imagine that this was a kind of start-up depot,” says Notroff – i.e. a kind of lucky charm that was built in. “The niche seemed to have been precisely prepared for this dumping.” The elaborately produced filling of the jug represented a high value.

The findings in the neighboring room also suggest that it must have been a special building. Here, depictions of animals were discovered on the back wall of the site, which were pressed into the still wet clay of the wall with the fingers. Ibexes and predators can be recognized as dotted hole drawings. In the backfilling of the room, the archaeologists also discovered numerous ibex horns and large layers of ash. It could be that the building was destroyed in a fire.

Located 2.5 miles north of Aqaba, Tell Hujayrat al-Ghuzlan was a fortified settlement inhabited between 4,000 and 3,500 B.C. Structures with a mixture of stone boulder walls and mud brick walls have been found there, with evidence they were reinforced after suffering damage in an earthquake. It was destroyed and abandoned when another earthquake struck, but unlike many of the other tells in the region, it was not razed to the ground or built over after the fatal seismic event. The remains of the labyrinthine floor plan of the settlement survive, with walls up to 18 feet high preserved complete with original plastering, windows, doorways and the pillars that supported the roofs.

This extraordinary level of preservation and relatively short span of occupation gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to examine a Chalcolithic settlement from the 4th millennium as the Copper Age transitioned to the Bronze Age. This is the period when the smelting of copper first appears on the archaeological record.

For the beginning of the Bronze Age, Tell Hujayrat al-Ghuzlan and its neighboring town were not only an important production site for copper, but also an important trading hub near the Red Sea between the Levant and Egypt. The mystery of the pearl jar is still waiting to be finally deciphered: the discovery site is currently being further evaluated at the DAI’s Oriental Department.

Thousands of 4th c. coins found off Sardinia coast

An enormous deposit of tens of thousands of coins from the first half of the 4th century has been discovered on the seabed off the northeastern coast of Sardinia. They are in exceptional condition, with only four suffering conspicuous damage and even they are still legible enough to read their inscriptions and determine their age.

The first coins were discovered by a recreational diver who spotted the glint of metal in the shallow waters near the coast. He reported the find to the authorities, and the next day underwater archaeologists from the Superintendency of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Sassari and Nuoro and the Cultural Heritage Protection unit of the Carabinieri explored the seabed at the find site.

The divers recorded two main areas of coin dispersal in a large sandy area between the beach and the seagrass offshore. Archaeologists believe the topography of the seabed in that area suggests the remains of a shipwreck may be under the seagrass and sand. Fragments of amphorae manufactured in Africa and the Near East that likely came from a wrecked ship were also found among the coins.

The coins are follis (also known as nummi), bronze coins with a thin top layer of silver introduced by Diocletian in 294 A.D. By the time the coins in the Sardinian sea were produced, currency had been debased several times and the silver content was all but nil. They were widely used throughout the empire. In 2013, a massive hoard of 22,888 follis was discovered by a metal detectorist in Seaton Down, Devon, England. It was fifth largest coin hoard ever found in England. This find beats the Seaton Down hoard by at least 10,000. An initial estimate of the coin numbers based on the weight of the find places it at between 30,000 and 50,000.

So far, the coins excavated date to between 324 and 340 A.D., minted in the last year of the reign of Licinus and the ascension of Constantine the Great as sole emperor through Constantine’s death in 337 A.D. and the contentious co-rule of his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans I. Coins from almost every mint active in the empire at that time are represented.

Conservators are still sorting through the huge numbers of coins. Cleaning and conservation of the coins and associated archaeological materials will allow archaeologists to learn more about the context of the finds. There are no current plans to excavate the find site for the remains of the possible shipwreck.

Lost pieces of Golden Tree of Lucignano found

Pieces of the Golden Tree of Lucignano, a monumental reliquary that is a masterpiece of medieval goldsmithing and widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian goldsmithing of any era, have been rediscovered 109 years after they were stolen. The pieces were found in a cave in the Arezzo area of central Tuscany after a tip from an elderly man. The region of Tuscany has now funded a full restoration of the Golden Tree to reintegrate the recovered elements into the original.

The Golden Tree is 8’10” high and more than three feet wide at its widest point. It was crafted of gilded copper, silver and enamel, and its branches decorated with corals, rock crystals and miniature illuminations on parchment. It was inspired by the Lignum Vitae (“wood of life”), a treatise written by Saint Bonaventure in the 1260s to aid Franciscans in devoting themselves to Christ by contemplating his life, passion and glorification. The structure of the tree served as a mnemonic device for monks to pursue the works of Christ in their daily meditation. Like Christ “nailed to a tree,” the Tree of Life ultimately bore the fruit of salvation. The lignum vitae concept took root (pun intended) in Franciscan communities and among lay readers, and it became a popular motif in medieval art.

It was created for the church of Saint Francis in Lucignano in two distinct phases, first in 1350 by an unknown goldsmith which recent studies suggest was from Arezzo, then expanded and completed in 1471 by the pre-eminent goldsmith of 15th century Siena, Gabriello D’Antonio, famed as the creator of the gilded silver reliquary containing the right arm of John the Baptist.

Medieval aesthetics privileged symbolic expressions of the divine. Precious materials — gold, silver, gemstones — were seen as expressions of God’s hand in creation. Their beauty mirrored the supreme beauty of God; the way they reflected light mirrored God’s radiance; they were closer to the divine, pure and incorruptible, unlike humble materials. Vivid colors and the shine of metal were considered lit by the incorporeal light of God. That’s why the gold-painted decorations in Bibles and liturgical books are called illuminations.

Ecclesiastic tradition held that objects of religious veneration like reliquaries and the Communion chalice and plate should be made of precious metals as metaphors for the divine. From the Carmina Ecclesiastica by the 7th century English abbot Aldhelm of Malmesbury:

The gold chalice covered with gems glitters, just as heaven set with burning stars glows, and the broad paten fashioned from silver matches: those which carry the divine remedies of our life.
(Song 3, Lines 72-5)

The Golden Tree took the metaphors of divinity in the precious materials even further. The entire tree was a metaphor for Christ. Its roots represented his birth, the trunk his Passion and the branches his resurrection. Its tripartite design was also symbolic of the Trinity. At the top of the tree is a depiction of Christ crucified on a branching tree that is a small version of the whole reliquary. Above the cross is a figure of a pelican in piety, also symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice.

It was Lucignano’s greatest treasure, and for centuries residents took their vows of marriage in front of it. In 1914, the Golden Tree was stolen and broken into pieces by the thieves for ease of transport and, presumably, resale, since the huge and iconic reliquary was obviously highly recognizable when intact. The pieces were cached in various hiding spots in the country around Sarteano, near Siena. A number of them were found and recovered between 1927 and 1929, but several of the most important elements — the crucifix, the pelican, a whole branch, four circular medallions, five silver plaques, three miniatures, several sprigs of coral — were not among them.

The recovered elements were reintegrated into the Golden Tree. The Royal Superintendence of Florence entrusted the complex restoration to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. More than 100 fragments had to be reattached, and replicas of the parts that were still missing were made based on old photographs taken in the 19th century. The illuminated parchment miniatures were unreproducible and were replaced with empty parchment rounds. The restoration was completed in 1933 and the reconstituted Golden Tree has been on display ever since.

After they were tipped off to the possible location of pieces of the Golden Tree earlier this year, the Carabinieri Art Squad recovered:

  • Five plaques of gilded copper and silver, engraved and enameled, that were originally mounted on the back of branch medallions. They depict saints and angels. Much of the enamel is lost, unfortunately, with only a few traces remaining.
  • One parchment illuminated with portrait of a prophet, about half of the portrait remaining.
  • One polished rock crystal with traces of gold and pigment that once covered a miniature. Its convex shape enlarged the portrait, functioning like a magnifying glass.
  • 16 figures of saints in silver foil made in the 17th century that decorated the base.

The Opificio delle Pietre Dure has again been tasked with the challenge of reintegrating the newly-rediscovered pieces. The Golden Tree will be dismantled in batches so that the main part of the reliquary can remain on display throughout the process. If all goes well, Opificio restorers hope the work will be completed by the end of next spring.

Noble couple buried on 10th c. palace grounds

The skeletal remains of a woman with missing face bones and a hollowed out skull were unearthed at the site of the 10th century Royal Palace of Helfta in Eisleben in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The woman’s grave was next to that of a high-status man believed to have been her husband. While both skeletons were found at the same depth less than a foot beneath the surface, the man’s skull and facial bones are intact.

The first remains of the Helfta palace of Otto the Great, King of Germany from 936 until 973, and Holy Roman Emperor from 962 until his death in 973, were discovered in 2009 by geophysical investigations. When the palace was built, kings of Germany did not rule from a single permanent capital. They traveled throughout the year from palace to palace. Saxony was Otto’s home duchy, however, and the palace at Helfta was of particular importance. The geophysical study revealed there was an extensive complex of residential and commercial structures and fortifications covering 12 hectares on the Kleine Klaus hill at Helfta just west of the modern city of Eisleben.

The Saxony-Anhalt State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archeology (LDA) began excavations at the site in May 2021. That summer they uncovered the foundations of a church built by Otto before 968, previously only known from historical accounts. Huge at 98 feet long and 66 feet wide, it was dedicated to 6th century Thuringian princess Saint Radegund. Chroniclers report that Otto was personally present at its inauguration. A cemetery associated with the church containing 70 graves and several stone tombs from the 10th through the 15th centuries was also uncovered. This is where the members of the region’s aristocratic families were buried, as evidenced by the fine jewelry, knives, coins and accessories found in the graves.

The 2022 excavation unearthed the remains of the main building of the royal palace, the so-called Palatium, where Otto the Great and his son and successor Emperor Otto II resided. It was a stone building constructed on a high point on a hill near the church. It was approximately 66 feet long 40 feet wide and had two floors with plastered walls and a basement. It even had a central heating system. The team also discovered evidence that the site had been a power base predating the Ottonian Palatinate, including the remains of a large sections of wall and a fortification ditch from the early Middle Ages.

This year’s excavation revealed fortified homes like small castles. The graves of the woman and man were found next to the castles. There are no grave goods or adornments in the woman’s grave. The man’s grave was replete with grave goods emblematic of his status as a military leader: a knife, a belt set and the metal fittings of an official staff like those carried by generals. Archaeologists believe he was the manager of the castle.

The bones are currently being studied in a laboratory where they will be radiocarbon dated and analyzed for potential causes of death. Researchers hope to determine what happened to sheer off the woman’s face and the top of her skull, whether it was agricultural equipment interfering with the burial or something else. If her head was damaged by an encounter with the business end of a plough, for example, there is no clear evidence of it in the soil around her, nor was her companion damaged by the same equipment.

Another mystery is the disparity between their grave goods. It’s very unusual for the women in the couple to be buried without a single grave good while the man is fully accessorized. It’s possible she was Christian and he was not. Christians deliberately rejected the accoutrements typical of pre-Christian burials as articles of faith.

New Kingdom cemetery with complete papyrus found in Minya

A New Kingdom cemetery with richly furnished burials and a complete papyrus has been discovered in Ghoreifa near the site of Tuna El Gebel in the Minya Governorate of Upper Egypt. Thousands of artifacts were unearthed from the rock-cut tombs. Inscriptions on the funerary objects and sarcophagi identify the deceased as the senior officials and high priests of the 15th nome of Upper Egypt under the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550 B.C.-1069 B.C.).

The site has been excavated every season since 2017 and the Egyptian archaeological mission has been looking for the New Kingdom cemetery of the 15th nome and its capital Ashmunin this whole time. It finally emerged in the most recent excavation that began last August in the northern section of the site. Rock-cut communal tombs contained the remains of the high priests of Djehuty, god of the moon and writing, and other senior officials, buried with an enormous array of goods.

They include 16 tombs with five anthropoid limestone sarcophagi engraved with hieroglyphic texts and five well-preserved wooden coffins, some of which are decorated with the names and titles of their owners. The mission has also unearthed a collection of around 25,000 ushabti figurines made of blue and green faience, most of which are engraved with the titles of the deceased.

More than 700 amulets of various shapes, sizes, and materials have also been found, including heart scarabs, amulets of the gods, and amulets made of pure gold, such as the “Ba” and an amulet in the shape of a winged cobra.

Many pottery vessels of different shapes and sizes, which were used for funerary and religious purposes, have been unearthed, along with tools for cutting stones and moving coffins, such as wooden hammers and baskets made of palm fronds.

Two of the officials interred in the cemetery were Djehuty Mes, the overseer of the bulls of the Temple of Amun, and a woman named Nany, who bore the title “Djehuty’s singer.” Another was Tadi Ist, daughter of Eret Haru, the high priest of Djehuty in Ashmunin. The canopic vessels containing her organs were found in two wooden boxes next to her beautifully painted and carved coffin. The inner part of the lid of her sarcophagus is painted with figures representing the 12 hours and a central figure who bears a striking resemblance to Marge Simpson. Within the coffin, Tadi Ist’s mummified body wears a gilded mask and a delicate beaded dress in remarkably intact condition.

The papyrus is a Book of the Dead in an excellent state of preservation. It has not been fully unrolled yet, but archaeologists estimate it is between 40 and 50 feet long. It is the first complete papyrus found in the Al-Ghoraifa area. When it has been conserved and stabilized, it will go on display at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo.