Carved bull heads found in Roman-era tomb in Turkey

Excavations at the ancient site of Tharsa, near Kuyulu village in southeastern Turkey, have unearthed a tomb with two carved bull heads guarding the entrance. The bull heads are decorated with garlands and rosettes between the horns.

The bull head, called bucranium after the Greek for “ox skull,” was a common decorative motif in Classical religious and funerary architecture. They referred to an even more ancient practice of displaying the heads of sacrificed oxen on temple walls. In Imperial Rome, the bull sacrifice was connected to the worship of Cybele introduced from Asia Minor. The sacrificial ritual represented purification and rebirth into eternal life, and the carved bucrania performed the same function at the entrance to the tomb.

Tharsa was located on a major Roman road from Doliche to Samosata. It is marked on the Tabula Peutingeriana (Segmentum XI, 2), the Late Imperial map of the Roman state road network made in the 4th century based on a 1st century map made by Augustus’ right hand man and son-in-law Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. The archaeological site today consists of two settlement mounds — the Big Mound and the Small Mound — and a large necropolis with tombs cut into the living rock. The tombs were in use from the 3rd century into the Byzantine era.

The first excavations of the rock tombs took place in 1999, but did not resume again until 2021 when a revitalization project cleared 10 acres of land. Sixty tombs have been unearthed since then, each individually carved with different designs and decorative motifs.

The new dig season began in April of this year and has uncovered another two tombs, one of which was the bulls’ head tomb. Like the other rock tombs in the necropolis, the bulls head tomb was carved down into the bedrock. A dozen steps were carved out descending into to the burial chamber which has three acrosolia (arched niches where bodies were placed). The carved bull heads are worn

A new drainage system is being built to prevent rainwater runoff from seeping into the graves and damaging them. Excavation and removal of soil and rocks from the graves will continue until September.

Revolutionary War barracks found at Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a Revolutionary War barracks destroyed by British General Cornwallis in 1781.

“Here at Colonial Williamsburg, we interpret the American Revolution and the politics that led up to it, and a lot of the events that led up to it,” Gary said. “But then, we don’t have a lot of sites that really tell us about what actually happened during the wartime. And this site does. It allows us to get some insight into the everyday lives of your everyday common soldier. it also tells us about what the officers’ lives were like.”

The remains were discovered last summer in anticipation of the construction of a new indoor sports complex near the visitor center. Over the course of five months, the excavation revealed musket balls, lead shot with tooth marks where soldiers poisoned themselves by chewing on the soft, sweet metal like jewelry fragments, pottery, horseshoes, cavalry horse fittings and grooming tools. Structural remains include bricks and chimney bases.

Only a small section of the barracks has been excavated. It was large, around three or four acres in area. It was built in 1776-7 and housed up to 2,000 soldiers and 100 horses before Cornwallis’ troops burned it down. Archaeologists plan to pick up where they left excavating the site by 2026. The planned sports center has been relocated and the excavated area covered back up for its safety.

“Lead Lady” poorer and older than expected

A woman buried in a lead sarcophagus found in Nijmegen in 2001 may not have been a member of the wealthy elite of the ancient city on the northern border of the Roman Empire after all. She also died at least 100 years earlier than previously believed.

The coffin was one of several graves discovered during sewerage works on the Burchtstraat in Nijmegen’s city center in May 2021. What is the Burchtstraat today was a road in Roman times too, and was the custom in Roman cities, people were often buried on both sides of it. This was the first Roman lead coffin ever found in the Netherlands and more than 20 years later, it remains the only one. The delicate coffin was excavated, wrapped and removed whole to the Valkhof Museum for excavation in controlled conditions.

The skeletal remains were found to belong to a woman about 5’3″ tall who was about 50 years old when she died in around 340 A.D. The coffin had been looted in antiquity, but fragments of gold leaf and gold thread suggested she was buried in expensive garments. Next to her in the coffin was a wooden box containing glass bottles (unguentaria) with perfume residue, little spatulas, a mirror and some long hair needles/bodkins. In the soil outside of the coffin, the excavation uncovered fragments of wine amphorae from southern France or Palestine, the remnants of funerary libations of expensive imported wines.

Because lead coffins were so rare and expensive and because she had been buried with luxurious textiles, perfumed oils and fine glassware, archaeologists concluded she was of high social status. Her teeth were a little wrecked — several of them were missing and there were a number of cavities in the survivors — but that was attributed to an affection for sweet food and wine, both expensive vices that afflicted who could afford them.

New funding and research methods made it possible for experts to re-examine the Lead Lady recently. The coffin itself, the grave goods, the traces of gold and textile and the skeletal remains were all analyzed using technologies and approaches that were not available in 2001. The preliminary results have now been released, and they upend the conclusions drawn in the initial more cursory investigation.

First and foremost, the 4th century burial date has been overturned by newer, more accurate analysis. The grave dates to the early 3rd century instead, from around 200 A.D. Secondly, the lead coffin was recycled. The decoration on these boxes were always on the outside of the coffin. This one was on the inside because the malleable lead was turned inside-out before the lady was buried in it. It is also missing the original lead lid and was covered instead with tile. It was also too big for its occupant, 6’7″ long for a petite 5’3″ lady. Lead coffins were made to order, and even the wealthiest of families wouldn’t pay for a useless extra foot and a quarter. This coffin was made for somebody else.

Examination of the skeleton found evidence that the Lead Lady was no lady of leisure. Her vertebrae were worn and she had osteoarthritis, indications that she had spent years at heavy physical labor. Her teeth were missing and full of cavities from overindulgence. There are wear patterns that show she used her teeth as tools to perform repetitive actions.

So how did this hard worker end up in a coffin that used or not, was worth a bundle? She may have been a beloved servant, someone with a close relationship to a wealthy family she worked for. Archaeologist Joep Hendriks of the municipality of Nijmegen thinks she may have been an ornatrix, the personal hairdresser and cosmetician of one of the ladies of the family.

“She was close to the head of the household. They did not belong to the top elite, but they were very close. So you can imagine that when such a person died, the mistress helped pay for the funeral. The Lead Lady is also buried with hair needles, which were part of the work of an ornatrix.”

Hendriks is careful not to draw far-reaching conclusions. “Other interpretations are of course also possible, such as a craftswoman who became rich through hard work or the mater familias themselves from better circles: in Roman Nijmegen a second-hand lead coffin was also very special.”

Research into the intriguing lady in the lead coffin is still ongoing. The team hopes to extract DNA to determine her ethnic origins and stable isotope analysis of her teeth will determine where she grew up and what her diet was.

“Nijmegen was a melting pot at the time. Across the Waal, mainly people of local origin lived, but the city was founded by people from Gaul, soldiers from Spain, people from all corners of the Roman Empire, from the eastern Mediterranean to England. You could meet them all. We want to give the Lead Lady a place in that mixed society.”

Unprecedented prehistoric monument found in France

A prehistoric monument formed by two horseshoe-shaped enclosures, one of them with an opening at the bottom, interlocked with a central circular enclosure has been discovered in Marliens, 12 miles east of Dijon. The horseshoe-and-circle design, which seen from above looks like a bow tie with one loop unfastened, is unprecedented on the archaeological record. Radiocarbon dating results have not come in yet, but only cut flint objects were found in the ditches, which suggests the monument dates to the Neolithic period (ca. 7,000-2,000 B.C.).

Archaeologists from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) excavated 15 acres of the site to salvage any archaeological material before the extension of a nearby gravel pit. They found the monument with a layer of gravel in the two side enclosures that indicates there was a palisade originally, now gone. The stratigraphy of the site points to the three enclosures having been built at the same time.

Artifacts found just under the topsoil date to the Bell Beaker period (Early Bronze Age, ca. 2800–1800 B.C.). Among them are a bundle of seven flint arrowheads, two archer’s wrist braces, a flint lighter and a copper alloy dagger. Iron oxide residue from fire lighting was found on one of the braces. This is the full gear of an archer, and such kits are typically found in graves, but in this case no surviving evidence of a burial has been found.

Several pits from the Early Bronze Age are the only remaining elements of a settlement from the period. Thick clay layers at the bottom suggest the pits may have been wells, and analysis of pollen, seeds, fruits and other plant materials preserved in the clay may answer questions about the landscape and human usage of the site.

The next stage of occupation dates to the Middle Bronze Age, between 1500 and 1300 B.C. It is a necropolis consisting of five circular enclosures, four open and one closed, covering an area of ​​1.5 acres. No inhumed remains survived the high acidity of the soil, but a smattering of cremation burial and pyre remains were found in the largest of the open enclosures. Five copper alloy pins and a necklaces of 40 amber beads were found in the ditch of this enclosure. Ceramic fragments found in the other four enclosures confirm the date range.

The last evidence of occupation is a second necropolis dating to the Early Iron Age. It is small with only six cremation urn burials found thus far. The urns each contained a single bone deposit, and some also held funerary offerings of jewelry.

Beethoven was full of lead, arsenic and mercury

Analysis of authenticated locks clipped from Ludwig von Beethoven’s prodigious head of hair as he lay dying has found astronomically high levels of lead, arsenic and mercury. The poisoning was so severe, it may explain the symptoms that plagued him at the end of his life.

Researchers at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University sampled five locks of hair previously confirmed as Beethoven’s by DNA analysis and subjected them to poison testing. The owner of three of the locks, Australian businessman and Beethoven afficionado Kevin Brown, sent two locks, one collected between 1820 and 1827, the other in April 1826, to a Mayo Clinic lab where they were tested for the presence of heavy metals.

The result, said Paul Jannetto, the lab director, was stunning. One of Beethoven’s locks had 258 micrograms of lead per gram of hair, and the other had 380 micrograms.

A normal level in hair is less than 4 micrograms of lead per gram.

“It definitely shows Beethoven was exposed to high concentrations of lead,” Jannetto said.

“These are the highest values in hair I’ve ever seen,” he added. “We get samples from around the world, and these values are an order of magnitude higher.”

Beethoven’s hair also had arsenic levels 13 times what is normal and mercury levels that were 4 times the normal amount. But the high amounts of lead, in particular, could have caused many of his ailments, Jannetto said.

The composer was famously suffering from hearing loss — he had been functionally deaf since he was 30, 26 years before he died — and he was also afflicted with chronic gastrointestinal problems (painful abdominal cramps, flatulence, diarrhea). High levels of lead damage the human nervous system, which could have caused his deafness, also cause liver and kidney damage. It may also have played a role in some of his other issues, like his notoriously terrible temper, memory lapses, and chronic clumsiness.

This is not an Agatha Christie case. The lead levels were not high enough to be fatal, and there is no reason to believe he was deliberately poisoned, but rather was exposed to the poisons in his daily environment. Lead, arsenic and mercury were in a lot of things people lived with, ate and drank, from food to medicine to wallpaper. He spent decades taking dozens of different types of nostrums in the attempt to cure his deafness and chronic illnesses, and they certainly contained lead, among many other poisons.

One likely source of Beethoven’s high levels of lead was cheap wine. Lead, in the form of lead acetate, also called “lead sugar,” has a sweet taste. In Beethoven’s time it was often added to poor quality wine to make it taste better.

Wine was also fermented in kettles soldered with lead, which would leach out as the wine aged, Nriagu said. And, he added, corks on wine bottles were presoaked in lead salt to improve the seal.

Beethoven drank copious amounts of wine, about a bottle a day, and later in his life even more, believing it was good for his health and also, Meredith said, because he had become addicted to it. In the last few days before his death at age 56 in 1827, his friends gave him wine by the spoonful.

This research fulfills a wish Beethoven expressed in 1802 to his brothers. He asked that after his death, they get his doctor to tell the world about his struggle with progressive hearing loss in the hope that “as far as possible at least the world will be reconciled to me after my death.”