Flying Golden Fleece ram fresco found in Pompeii

A new fresco has emerged from the House of Leda in Pompeii. Like the fresco that gives the domus its name and the one of Narcissus found in the atrium, this panel also depicts a scene from Greek mythology, the twins Phrixus and Helle fleeing their persecutors on the back of the famed ram with the golden fleece.

Phrixus and Helle were the son and daughter of the king of Boeotia and the cloud goddess Nephele. Their evil stepmother Ino bribed an oracle to demand the sacrifice of the twins. Nephele intervened, sending the ram to rescue them in the nick of time. Alas, Helle fell off the ram and drowned. The straight where she plunged to her death was named the Hellespont after her. (It’s the Dardanelles now.) Phrixus would reach Colchis on the Black Sea, marry the daughter of the king and sacrifice the ram to Poseidon. The Golden Fleece became the prize of Colchis and would go on to have a whole other series of adventures courtesy of Jason and the Argonauts.

The fresco captures the moment Helle sinks beneath the waves as she reaches out for Phrixus on the back of the ram. Its palette of blues and teals is still vivid and it is framed in black on the center of a wall painted in solid yellow. It adorns the back wall of the atrium of one of the southern domus, one of two newly-discovered homes that were built in different phases of construction at the House of Leda.

The House is currently being excavated and restored with the ultimate goal of stabilizing the richly frescoed spaces and erecting protective roofs to preserve them from exposure to the elements. The excavation of the site has been ongoing since 2018, and most of the spaces are still partially buried, including the room at the entrance to the house with the Leda and the Swan fresco.

Tunneling expeditions in the 18th and early 19th centuries already removed some of the layers from the eruption of 79 A.D. from the House of Leda, but they never reached the two connected domuses north and south of it. The parts of the house accessed by the tunnelers have pumice levels covering the walls up to between 20 and 30 inches from the floor. The two domuses, on the other hand, have pumice deposits 13 feet deep, reaching the tops of the surviving walls.

The current excavation aim to clarify the full floorplan of the House of Leda, including the perimeters of the main rooms of the northern and southern domus. Archaeologists will also clean the frescoed walls as they go, liberating the vibrant pigment from volcanic residues and deposits and consolidating the surfaces to prevent deterioration now that they’ve been exposed.

Iron Age metal objects found at spring in Anglesey

A group of Iron Age bronze, copper and lead objects found near a spring in Anglesey, Wales, was declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest on Wednesday. The 16 artifacts were discovered by metal detectorist Ian Porter in two adjacent areas at two different times — some of them in March and the rest in December of 2020. They include Iron Age chariot fittings from the late 1st century A.D., Roman cavalry fittings from the same period and other metal objects from the Romano-British period.

The Roman objects are parts of three bridle bits, a terret, four phalerae (decorative discs from harnesses) and a socketed terminal shaped like a rather jovial ram’s head. There is also a large copper ingot weighing 45 pounds that was likely extracted by the Romans from the copper mine at Parys Mountain which had been mined for centuries before the Roman conquest in the 1st century. Other Roman objects in the group are a copper alloy fibula, a lead pot repair and four copper coins dating from 156-157 A.D., 260-268 A.D., 330-331 A.D. and 364-378 A.D.

The artefacts were all discovered near and around where a spring emerges in a boggy area of a modern field, liable to waterlogging. These unusual bronze, copper and lead artefacts are thought to have been gifted as repeated religious offerings around an ancient sacred spring source during the Late Iron Age and into the Romano-British period. The chariot fittings, cavalry harness pieces and brooch were all placed around AD 50-120, around the time of, or soon after the invasion of the island by the Roman army in AD 60/61. The coins and other artefacts suggest a continuing practice of votive gifting around the spring throughout the Roman period, the latest coin in the group being struck around AD 364-378. […]

Adam Gwilt, Principal Curator for Prehistory at Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales said:

“This culturally mixed artefact group, containing both Iron Age chariot fittings and Roman cavalry fittings, is an important new find for the island. It was placed during or in the aftermath of the period of invasion of the island by the Roman army. This dramatic event is vividly captured by the Roman author Tacitus, writing about the strange first encounter between Roman soldiers and Druids on Anglesey. This group of gifted objects illustrates how watery locations, including the sacred lake site at Llyn Cerrig Bach, were seen as significant places for religious ceremony at this time of conflict and change.

We have only Tacitus as an ancient source on the Roman invasion of Anglesey which happened in two attacks more than 15 years apart. The first invasion was led by the Provincial governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus, in 60-61 A.D. He was victorious on the battlefield but was compelled to retreat to handle the Boudican uprising back in England. The second invasion under Gnaeus Julius Agricola in 77 A.D. was successful and Anglesey remained under Roman control until they withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century.

Here’s how Tacitus describes Suetonius Paulinus first encounter with the people of Anglesey (he calls the island Mona; it is called Môn in Welsh) in The Annals XIV, 29-30:

Now, however, Britain was in the hands of Suetonius Paulinus, who in military knowledge and in popular favour, which allows no one to be without a rival, vied with Corbulo, and aspired to equal the glory of the recovery of Armenia by the subjugation of Rome’s enemies. He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.

On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.

Oriel Môn, a museum in Llangefni less than 10 miles from the find site, is hoping to acquire the group for its permanent collection after the valuation process.

17th c. armor plate found at Maryland colonial capital

An excavation of the colonial site of Historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland has uncovered a rare piece from a 17th-century suit of armor. The concave metal plate is a tasset, a piece attached to the base of the breastplate to protect the thigh. Still caked with soil and corrosion materials, the plate was identified when an X-ray revealed its rivets forming the shape of three hearts.

St. Mary’s City was the fourth English colony in America after Jamestown, Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (in that order). Founded in March 1634 on land acquired from the local Yaocomico people by the newly-arrived English settlers, it was the first capital of the colony of Maryland for 60 years until it was moved to Annapolis in 1694. St. Mary’s was abandoned after it was eclipsed by Annapolis and never built over, making it an undisturbed archaeological site.

Today Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC) is an outdoor living history museum with reconstructed colonial-era buildings, a working farm, a replica of one of the two ships that brought the colonists across the Atlantic and costumed reenactors staffing the exhibits. HSMC also has an archaeological field school which conducts excavations of the site and trains archaeology students. One of the goals of the archaeological explorations over the past five decades has been to find evidence of the original fortified village Documentation from the 17th century was vague on the geographic details, and all mentions of the first fort disappear from the historical record in 1642.

After a geophysical survey found indications of a palisade, an excavation in 2021 unearthed postholes, the outlines of buildings, coins and artifacts from the 1620s and 1630s. The excavation of the original fort has continued, and late last year a large building with an attached cellar was found. The building wasn’t a home, and artifacts found there — musket parts, lead shot, trade beads — suggest it may have been used as a storehouse. The tasset was discovered in the cellar.

The colonists brought many things on their journey: food, tools, weapons, armor. As they experienced life in southern Maryland, they adjusted. Archaeologists think tassets may have been items the colonists found were no longer useful.

Finding the tasset “tells us there was body armor here in the colony,” Parno said. “It also tells us [the colonists] were adapting to the environment. The tassets may have been something that were discarded because they were deemed unnecessary.”

“They’re heavy,” he said. “It’s a hot, humid environment. So you get rid of the tassets. … You keep your breastplate, though, because that’s protecting your core.”

Preserved Roman wood cellar, staircase found in Frankfurt

A Roman wooden cellar complete with five-step staircase in an exceptional state of preservation has been discovered in Frankfurt and recovered. Dating to the late 1st century, the cellar is all that remains of a half-timbered Roman residential building which burned down in a fire. Roman cellars were not like basements today, but rather underground storage rooms formed by beams along the sides and boards on the floor. The beams and boards survived the millennia because they were carbonized by the flames.

The cellar was unearthed by a team from the Frankfurt Monuments Office in the Heddernheim district of northwest Frankfurt, in March of 2023. Founded as a civilian settlement attached to a series of fortresses established by Augustus during his German campaigns, modern-day Heddernheim was the ancient city of Nida. It was made the capital of the Civitas Taunensium area by the emperor Trajan in In 110 A.D. and at its peak had a population of 10,000. It was gradually abandoned starting around 260 A.D. under pressure from the invading Alemanni confederation. Its ruins above ground were visible until the 15th century when they were pillaged for construction materials. Most of the underground remains were all but destroyed during real estate developments in the 20th century.

Few structures from ancient Nida have been found in excavations, and while the remains of wooden cellars have been found over the past century, they were not well-preserved and the technology to conserve and study them didn’t exist then. This cellar’s size and preservation are so extraordinary it is the best preserved remnant of the ancient city. It will give researchers a unique opportunity to learn about Roman Nida.

As soon as it was exposed to the elements, the cellar was in danger, so the floor, side beams and staircase were removed in a complex operation. The whole kit and caboodle weighed 50-60 tons, so it could not be raised whole, and as soon as any part of the soil around it dried out, the wood could have cracked. The team took an innovative approach. First they sprayed on a layer of synthetic resin, then a separating layer of silicone rubber and a final top layer of plaster to fix the surface. The cellar was then cut into 33 blocks to transport them to the restoration workshop of the Archaeological Museum Frankfurt.

At the museum, restorers removed the soil from the back and underside of the wood and reinforced the base with fiberglass. This was the first time this technique has been used. The conserved cellar was shown to the press, but there are no plans to put it on public display. Museum officials would prefer to return it to its original context, but it is a building plot privately owned by housing developers, so they’re considering creating an archaeological park nearby where the cellar and other finds made since construction began in 2021 (hypocaust heating, pottery kilns, a public latrine) could also be displayed.

This German language video gives a great overview of the site and the additional finds made in the cellar.

Rare head of Mercury found at previously unknown Roman port town

An excavation of a medieval shipbuilding site in the hamlet of Smallhythe, near Tenterden in Kent, has revealed a previously unknown Roman settlement occupied between the 1st and the 3rd centuries. One of the artifacts from the Roman settlement is an exceptionally rare figurine of the head of the god Mercury made from pipeclay. Fewer than 10 pipeclay Mercury figurines from Roman Britain are known.

The figurine head is two inches tall. It was broken off at the neck, but would originally have had a body.

Religion was a central part of daily life in most Roman provinces, and statues as well as portable figurines of gods like the one discovered at Smallhythe were worshipped by both the Roman elite and the ordinary citizens in their homes.

Pipeclay figurines were made of clays local to central Gaul (modern-day France) and the Rhine-Moselle region and were imported, however most pipeclay figurines found in Britain are of female deities, the majority being of Venus.

This complete figurine probably would have depicted Mercury standing, either draped with a chlamys (a short cloak), or naked, holding a caduceus (a staff with two intertwined snakes).

Smallhythe today is 10 miles from the sea, but when the settlement was founded in the 1st century it was a port town. It was small compared to the major urban center of Roman Britain, but was a significant link in the chain of ports that together formed Rome’s import and export network in southern England. Timber and iron were exported out of the province to the continent and finished products were imported.

One of the other finds made in the excavation confirms the town’s role: a tile stamped “CLB,” an abbreviation of Classis Britannica, Rome’s provincial naval fleet. The Classis Britannica was not a military navy. Its job was to manage the transportation of materials, people and communications in the English Channel.

The pipeclay Mercury head and CLB tile will go on display with other artifacts recovered from the site starting February 28th at the Smallhythe Place museum.