Armor, animal, human offerings found at Gallo-Roman sanctuary

December 7th, 2022

An excavation of a Gallo-Roman sanctuary in the village of Saint-Just-en-Chaussée in northern France has revealed a series of vast enclosures, dwellings, offerings and burials that sheds new light on the religious practices of Belgian Gaul before and after the Roman conquest. Some parts of the sanctuary were excavated in 1994-5, but a thorough, systematic investigation of the site only took place starting in 2007 in advance of development. More than 2.5 hectares were excavated, but the sanctuary extends beyond that by several more hectares.

The sanctuary was built during the Second Iron Age (450-50 B.C.) and artifacts point to it having been in active use from the 1st century B.C. until the 3rd century A.D. It was on the northern slope of plateau that dominated the plain below. The builders made it dominate even more by digging a huge enclosure ditch 10 feet wide and five feet deep and using the soil to build a high embankment. The perimeter ditch was filled with animal remains — pigs, horses, oxen, sheep, goats, cows — that were sacrificed and in some cases consumed in ritual banquets. The skeletal remains of horses were placed in the ditch after the bodies had begun the process of decomposition elsewhere. The skulls of cattle, on the other hand, had been exposed to the elements for a long time before being deposited.

Within the perimeter enclosure are several more enclosures surrounded by ditches. It seems these enclosures were dedicated to different practices as each ditch contained different kinds of offerings. The ditches on the west of the site contained weapons and armature. Elements from eight shields, including handles, bosses and orles (the border around the edge of a shield) were unearthed there. They bore of evidence of having been deliberately damaged before deposition. Archaeologists also unearthed three Port-type helmets (a sort of round beanie shape with cheek flaps forged from a single sheet of iron), an incredible jackpot considering there are only around 10 known to exist in total.

An unprecedented sixty pieces of plate armor made from riveted sheet iron were discovered in the ditches, including a segmented cuirass, forearm, upper arm and shoulder protection. The corrosion materials have some organic remains trapped inside them that will be analyzed to identify whether they were leather, linen, felt, etc. fittings. Whether they saw battle is not evident on the arms, but it’s likely they were collected from a battlefield, then ritually broken (flattened, cut, torn, struck) and scattered into the ditches. Archaeologists believe from the distribution of the objects that elements that when in use would have been used together were deliberately separated from each other.

Then there was the dining area. The team discovered four pits from the middle of the 1st century B.C. that had been dug into the soil. These proved to be in-ground benches with a table about three feet wide between them. The table had a fireplace built into it and the benches were lined with wood for comfort. There was sitting room for about 50 people. Chemical and soil analysis found copious spilled wine, fatty meats from non-ruminants and the remains of a pancake, so this was likely to have been a banquet site.

The human burials also appear to be ritual deposits, both as primary burials (individuals were only buried once where they were found) and secondary burials (originally buried somewhere else and the remains moved after decomposition). The excavation unearthed eight primary burials. The deceased were placed in a seated position inside round pits. They were propped against the sides of the pits ; six of them had their right lower legs bent. All of their skulls were missing, perhaps destroyed by agricultural activity as it is certain the bodies were intact when they were deposited. The pit was not filled; decomposition happened in the open.

In addition to the articulated interred remains, 899 bone fragments from about 15 individuals were found in some of the pits and ditches at the site. They had been deliberately crushed. Evidence of blows and cuts have been found on some of the fragments, including on the skulls which may have been left behind when people removed the face of the deceased to make a mask out of it. (Yes, this was a thing in Belgian Gaul at the time.) The bone fragments date to between the beginning of the 2nd and the end of the 1st century B.C.

What differentiates this site from sanctuaries known in Belgian Gaul is the distribution of the remains, according to their nature, in space. In the ditch where the animal bones are, there is little or no metal, conversely where the iron objects are concentrated, there are only a few bones. The distribution of human deposits also shows differences, on the one hand burials of adults in a seated position, bone remains testifying to work on the cranial boxes, others deliberately crushed, heated, and on the other limbs which were disarticulated and defleshed.

Ornate 30-piece necklace found in Anglo-Saxon bed burial

December 6th, 2022

A 7th century burial discovered in the Northamptonshire village of Harpole contains a gold and gemstone necklace that is the richest ever discovered from the period.

Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) archaeologists were engaged to excavate a site before construction of a housing development. It didn’t seem at first glance like the site would have a great deal of archaeological material to offer. There was no necropolis known in the area, no church. The only archaeological find of any significance ever made in Harpole was a Roman mosaic from a villa found in the mid-19th century in another part of town, and that was removed a hundred years ago.

Then, on the last day of the eight-week excavation, lead archaeologist Levente Bence Balázs was sorting through what he thought was a garbage pit when he came across some teeth. Then he saw the glitter of gold from what proved to be the rectangular garnet-inlaid central pendant of an ornate gold necklace. In total there were 30 pendants and beads on this one necklace. They were made of gold, garnets, colored glass, other semi-precious stones and Roman gold coins repurposed as pendants.

The necklace turned out to be part of the bed burial of a high-status individual who had died between 630 and 670 A.D. The bones have long since disintegrated, but the necklace is evidence that the deceased was female, as is the bed burial itself, a funerary practice almost exclusively reserved for elite women in the Saxon period. She was not wearing the necklace when she was buried. It was placed next to her on the bed.

Two pots were buried on either side of her lower legs. They contain an organic residue, the first such pot with analyzable contents found. Another artifact was removed in a soil block for excavation in laboratory conditions, and an X-ray revealed it is a large, elaborately decorated silver cross mounted on wood placed face-down. The cross features never-before-seen depictions of oval human faces made of silver with blue glass eyes.

Few of these burial sites date back earlier than the 7th century AD, when burials of high-status men were more common, and as Christianity took root, later graves rarely featured valuable objects because being buried with ornate jewelry, such as the necklace, was frowned upon by the early Christian Church, said Lyn Blackmore, a senior finds specialist at MOLA.

“The Harpole Treasure, it’s not the richest (bed burial) in terms of the number of artifacts but it is the richest in terms of investment of wealth … and it has the highest amount of gold and religious symbolism,” she said at a news briefing. […]

Organic matter found in the grave is thought to contain fragments of feathers and textiles like leather, and further study should uncover the nature of the bed burial and whether it had a cover or canopy. The two pots were Frankish in style, Blackmore said, suggesting they came from what is now France or Belgium. The archaeologists hope molecular analysis will allow them to identify the residue in the pots; to date, their analysis has ruled out myrrh.

The woman buried in this exceptional grave was a leader in an early Christian community during the short transitional period between pagan burials with all their grave goods and the burials of established Christianity which explicitly eschewed grave goods. She was wealthy and powerful, likely born to a prominent family and held an important religious position like an abbess.

Tiny engraved gold leaf attests to Silla Dynasty mastery

December 5th, 2022

An 8th-century pure gold leaf artifact intricately carved by the finest craftsmen of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.–A.D. 935) was unveiled in all its minute glory this summer six years after its discovery in Gyeongju, South Korea.

The tiny treasure was first unearthed in October 2016 at the Donggung Palace in Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom. It was in two pieces found about 65 feet from each other. Each piece had been crumpled up into a tiny little nugget smaller than an adzuki bean. Still caked with dirt when they were recovered, the fragments weren’t recognized as two adjacent pieces of a single artifact until after conservators cleaned them, unfolded them and viewed them under a microscope. It took a year for the patterns to be seen, six months just to unfold the leaf.

The unfolded and rejoined gold leaf measures 3.6 cm (1.4 inches) wide, 1.17 cm (.5 inches) long with a thickness of just .04 mm, thinner than a single sheet of printer paper. The total weight is .3 grams. Electron microscope analysis found that the gold is 99.9% pure with close to zero trace elements. Today gold of that purity can be refined comparatively easily, but in 8th century Korea, it would have been extremely challenging. The average purity of gold found in Silla tombs is 80-89%.

Engraved on the surface is flower in bloom flanked by two birds which judging from the shape of their heads and toes are turtle doves. The bird on the right has more neck feathers in a more vivid pattern and the direction of the tail feathers indicate Right Bird is male. Male and female doves were often paired as symbols of love and fidelity.

The images were carved with a steel stylus creating lines less than .05 mm thick, thinner than a human hair (ca. .08 mm thick). The gaps between the lines are less than .1 mm thick. The design was so small that archaeologists didn’t recognize its fine detail and superlative quality until it was examined with a microscope. This is by far the most sophisticated example of Silla metalwork ever discovered in Korea.

The flower designs, known as “danhwa” (a design reminiscent of a flower viewed from above, created by arranging various patterns into circular shapes), were carved around the birds and on the center of the gold leaf.

Researchers who took part in the excavation and conservation process explained that danhwa is a binding motif of the Unified Silla Period. “It is seen on decorations of gilt-bronze Buddhist scripture cylinders at the Garden Site in Guhwang-dong, Gyeongju, and the gilt-bronze phoenix decorations found at the temple ruins on the west side of the Hwangnyong Temple Site,” they explained.

Archaeologists consulted with contemporary artisans and they stated that they would be unable to reproduce so fine a pattern on gold leaf by hand with the tools and technologies they use today. How the Silla masters were able to achieve this kind of detail we don’t know. No magnifying glass from this period has ever been found, nor do any references to them appear on the historical record. The closest cognate is a crystal carved into a convex form found at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju. Its size and focal properties preclude the crystal from having been used as a magnifying glass itself, but it is evidence that the artisans of the Unified Silla period could have had access to magnifiers. They had to have used something because there are almost no overlaps among all those teeny tiny lines.

It is not clear how the gold leaf was originally used. It was engraved first and then the edges cut to a trapezoidal shape around the decoration. That suggests it was the end cap of an object with a trapezoidal cross section, but evidence of how it may have been mounted is hard to find on so tiny a piece and there are no similar artifacts on the archaeological record to use as comparison. It may also have been crafted to stand on its own as an offering to the gods.

The gold leaf has been scanned and digitized. Click here to virtually explore the gigapixel scan of the 1,700-year-old gold leaf in extreme detail.

Metal signature of Roman 19th Legion identified at Teutoburg battle site

December 4th, 2022

Using a new chemical analysis method, researchers in Germany have identified the metallurgic signature of the Roman 19th Legion in artifacts recovered from the site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in Kalkriese, Germany. Mass spectrometer analysis of non-ferrous metals like bronze and brass can pinpoint the characteristic composition of trace elements in an artifact. Because every Roman legion had its own blacksmiths who worked constantly on campaign to repair and replace weapons and equipment, even legions that were fighting together have a distinctive chemical signature in their metals. That this method can be used to conclusively link an object to a specific legion is a major archaeological breakthrough when dating and identifying complex battlefield remains like the ones at Kalkriese.

In 9 A.D., Publius Quinctilius Varus, appointed two years earlier by Augustus as the first governor of the newly-minted province of Germania, managed to convert a simple troop movement into a history-altering military disaster that was one of the greatest defeats Rome ever suffered. Arminius, a chieftain of the Germanic Cherusci tribe who was also a Roman citizen and aid to Varus, convinced the general there was a rebellion in northern Germany that needed suppressing. The call was coming from inside the house, as it were, and even though Varus was warned not to trust Arminius, he blithely led the 17th, 18th, 19th legions, three cavalry units, six cohorts of auxiliaries and 5,000 or so riding, draft and pack animals, into the most obvious of ambushes: a muddy, narrow, long forest track hemmed in by tree-covered hills. The long, thin snaking line of Roman troops were sitting ducks for the Germanic warriors waiting for them in the woods. When the dust cleared, 15,000 to 20,000 Roman soldiers, including Varus who fell on his sword when he realized he had lost, were dead. Less than 1,000 Romans survived the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, and the defeat resulted in the creation of a hard militarized border in Germany that lasted for 400 years.

This was Augustus first major loss and it haunted him for the rest of his life. His stepson Tiberius and Tiberius’ adopted son Germanicus were able to get back two of the legions’ eagles, including the eagle of the 19th, in revenge expeditions in 15-16 A.D. According to Tacitus (The Annals, Book 1, Chapter 61), they were the first Romans to return to the battlefield and pay their respects to the thousands dead.

There came upon the Caesar [Germanicus], therefore, a passionate desire to pay the last tribute to the fallen and their leader, while the whole army present with him were stirred to pity at thought of their kindred, of their friends, ay! and of the chances of battle and of the lot of mankind. Sending Caecina forward to explore the secret forest passes and to throw bridges and causeways over the flooded marshes and treacherous levels, they pursued their march over the dismal tract, hideous to sight and memory. Varus’ first camp, with its broad sweep and measured spaces for officers and eagles, advertised the labours of three legions: then a half-ruined wall and shallow ditch showed that there the now broken remnant had taken cover. In the plain between were bleaching bones, scattered or in little heaps, as the men had fallen, fleeing or standing fast. Hard by lay splintered spears and limbs of horses, while human skulls were nailed prominently on the tree-trunks. In the neighbouring groves stood the savage altars at which they had slaughtered the tribunes and chief centurions. Survivors of the disaster, who had escaped the battle or their chains, told how here the legates fell, there the eagles were taken, where the first wound was dealt upon Varus, and where he found death by the suicidal stroke of his own unhappy hand. They spoke of the tribunal from which Arminius made his harangue, all the gibbets and torture-pits for the prisoners, and the arrogance with which he insulted the standards and eagles.

And so, six years after the fatal field, a Roman army, present on the ground, buried the bones of the three legions; and no man knew whether he consigned to earth the remains of a stranger or a kinsman, but all thought of all as friends and members of one family, and, with anger rising against the enemy, mourned at once and hated.

Knowledge of the location of the battlefield was swallowed up by time and forest until 1989 when the suspected site on the Kalkriese Hill in Osnabrück county where Augustan-era coins and lead sling-bullets had been previously found was excavated. Since then, more than 7,000 objects have been unearthed at Kalkriese, from full horse bridle fittings to daily use items to the oldest set of Roman plate armor ever found in Germany. It is unquestionably the site of a major Roman battle from the 1st century, but its identification as the Teutoburg battlefield has taken many decades to confirm and there is still some debate on the subject in the scholarship. It could, for example, have been a battle that took place in Germanicus’ campaign six years later. The archaeological finds cannot be dated within a six year range by any scientific dating method available to us.

Enter the metallurgic signature. The project collected 550 samples from non-ferrous metal objects unearthed at Kalkriese and

The metals used for repairs in the camp forges contain trace elements in such small amounts that they went unnoticed by the Roman forges, nor were they intentionally manipulated. These elements got into the metals through the original ores, the various additives during processing or also through adhesions on the tools. Over time, on-site processing has led the legions to develop a characteristic pattern in the composition of trace elements. “In this way, we can allocate a legion-specific metallurgical fingerprint to the legions, for which we know the camp locations at which they were stationed,” [German Mining Museum Bochum researcher Annika] Diekmann continues. Based on this, all Roman non-ferrous metals from Kalkriese were sampled and compared with non-ferrous metals from numerous Roman locations where it is known from written records which legions were stationed here. […]

After completing the analysis, it is clear that the 19th Legion in particular, which went down with Varus and was stationed in Dangstetten in southern Germany years before, based on the composition of the trace elements stands out from the other legions, which were only deployed later in Germany in the Roman revenge campaigns. “When comparing the finds from Kalkriese with the finds from the other sites, we find that the finds from Dangstetten and Kalkriese show significant similarities. The finds that come from legion sites whose legions did not perish in the Varus Battle, on the other hand, differ significantly from the finds from Kalkriese and thus show significant differences to the finds from Kalkriese.

Export bar for 14th c. ivory casket with Grail, wild men

December 3rd, 2022

An exceedingly rare French Gothic ivory casket carved with low relief scenes of Arthurian romance is at risk of leaving the UK if a museum or gallery cannot be found to acquire it for the assessed price of £1,506,000. The UK’s Arts Minister has placed a temporary export bar on the object to give local institutions the opportunity to raise the sum by March 1, 2023.

The casket sold at Edinburgh’s Lyon & Turnbull auction house in May 2021 for £1,455,000, a world record for a medieval ivory casket and the highest price any single object has ever sold for at an auction in Scotland. It is one of only nine of secular Gothic ivory coffrets known to survive, and almost all of them are in museums like the Louvre and the Metropolitan.

[Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] member Stuart Lochhead said:

This French 14th-century carved ivory casket is adorned with scenes of chivalry and romance including depictions of wild men – ranging from the rescue of a lady from one such assailant to a procession of knights and ladies who lead the captured wild men in chains. Similar iconography exists on some of the other nine known mediaeval caskets of this type, but it is the present one that illustrates some of the earliest and rarest type of images.

No disrespect to the honorable members of the RCEWA, but while they’re right about the wild men being particularly awesome on this example, I’m not sure that the scene on the top of the casket depicts the wild men attacking the Castle of Love. The usual iconography of the Castle of Love, a chivalric metaphor for seduction, is women arrayed along the crenellations while fully human knights launch catapults full of roses and scale the walls to breach the ladies’ “defenses.” The wild men on this coffer are both fighting knights defending the castle and kidnapping women (rather gently, really, almost like they’re saving them from the knights). Two lions guard two gates at the bottom of the castle. This strongly suggests it’s the Grail Castle of Corbenic, the home of the Holy Grail according to the 13th century French prose romance L’Estoire del Saint Graal, so this is likely the culmination of Galahad’s Grail quest only with a bunch of wild men in the melee.

The Grail makes a starring appearance on the right side panel. A kneeling angel holds it aloft before the arrayed Arthurian knights. Galahad, holding the magical sword he pulled from the stone, is in the center. Scenes from another Arthurian romance, the legend of Tristan and Isolde, on the left side panel and on the left two sections of the back panel.

Elephant ivory imported from Africa and Asia had been prized since antiquity for its lustrous, flesh-like glow and carvable surface. In medieval northern Europe, it was a luxury material reserved largely for religious objects (book covers, statuettes, reliquaries, croziers). Ivory supplies plummeted in the 12th century, only picking back up in the mid-13th century when Mediterranean merchants established a new water-going route through Gibraltar direct to the English Channel for the textile dye and ivory trade.

By the turn of the 14th century, the higher availability of ivory had lowered the price enough that a material once exclusive to liturgical use was now available for personal objects like mirrors, combs, cosmetics vessels and coffers. Instead of religious subjects, these objects were carved with secular motifs popular among the aristocratic buyers of such high-end toiletry items — courtly love, Arthurian romance, falconry, capturing a unicorn. The caskets are believed to have been romantic gifts used to store love tokens, letters, jewels, etc. We know in one specific case, that of Clemence of Hungary, Queen of France for less than a year between 1315 and 1316, that her carved ivory box contained a comb and mirror set and a chess set.

Gothic ivory carving reached its apex between 1230 and 1380 and Paris was the center of production with other capitals following the fashions and trends established there. The style of carving and manufacture indicates the Edinburgh coffret was made in a workshop in Paris around 1330. By the end of the 14th century, plague, war and economic upheaval had throttled the ivory supply and carved objects became more scarce again.

One of the other rare features of this casket is its long ownership history. It can be traced directly to the early 17th century. A genealogy of the Baird family of Auchmeddan Castle in Aberdeen records the chest in the possession of Thomas Baird, Fransciscan friar of a monastery in Besançon, France, some time after 1609. It remained in the Baird family, passing to descendants by marriage. One of those descendants was the seller who put it up for auction last year, so the casket has been in Scotland for 400 years. That was one of the factors in the Committee’s decision to recommend the export ban.

First mummy portraits in 112 years found at Fayoum

December 2nd, 2022

The Egyptian archaeological mission has unearthed a monumental funerary building and mummy portraits from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods at the Garza archaeological site in Fayoum, about 37 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. These are the first mummy portraits found in an archaeological excavation at Fayoum since Flinders Petrie found 146 of them in a Roman-era necropolis in 1910-11.

The village of Garza was founded as Philadelphia under the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 BC). Excavations have been ongoing since 2016, and have unearthed numerous artifacts dating from its founding to Roman rule in the 3rd century A.D.

The building is in the style of a funerary home. It was built of stone blocks with chamber tombs built into or cut out of the walls. The floor was paved with lime slabs and painted in alternating colors like a checkerboard. On the southern side is a colonnaded hall in which the remains of four columns were discovered. A small, narrow street leads to the building.

Inside the funerary building, the mission team uncovered a number of coffins in both Egyptian humaniform style and in Greek style with a gabled roof. One of the humaniform coffins is covered with a rare example of a cartonnage mask with wig in the ancient Egyptian style that dates to the 1st century B.C. The mummy portraits include a beautiful panel painting of a young woman with elaborately braided and bejeweled hair wearing earrings, two necklaces, rings, bracelets. She holds a rose garland in one hand and a small vessel in the other. The vessel type is of a type that was produced in ancient Garza.

What was discovered at the site illustrates the diversity and difference in the accuracy and quality of the embalming process during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, which indicates the economic stature of the deceased, starting from high-quality embalming to simple burials.

A rare terracotta statue of the goddess Isis-Aphrodite was also found in one of the burials inside a wooden coffin.

Also discovered was a set of records made of papyrus with inscriptions in the Demotic and Greek scripts indicating the social, economic and religious conditions of the inhabitants of the region during that period.

14th c. cog shipwrecks found in Sweden

December 1st, 2022

The wrecks of two cogs dating to the middle of the 14th century have been discovered in Varberg, Sweden. The cogs were discovered this spring during an archaeological investigation in advance of a railway tunnel construction. The wooden remains were unearthed from what in the Middle Ages was the shoreline of the town of Getakärr (which charmingly means goat marsh), Varberg’s medieval predecessor. Cogs are rare finds and finding two of them 30 feet apart is unique.

The first Varberg cog is the largest and the best preserved. In fact, it is the best preserved cog ever discovered in Sweden. It consists of almost the entire port side of the ship, about 67 feet long and 16 feet wide, its ballast still in place. The second cog consists of the remains of a hull about 26 feet long and 15 feet wide. Examination of the vessels found that they were built with carvel planking (planks laid side to side creating a smooth surface) on the bottom and clinker built (overlapping planks) on the sides. The planks were sealed with moss and reinforced with crossbeams going all the way through to the exterior of the hull.

Dendrochronological analysis of the first timber samples from both ships has now been completed. The tree-ring analysis found that the wood from Varberg Cog 1 was felled in 1346 somewhere around the Netherlands, Belgium or northeastern France. The wood used to build Varberg Cog 2 was felled between 1355 and 1357 in northern Poland. This suggests they were not local ships, but had come from some distance. It is not yet clear what caused them to sink.

A number of daily use objects left by the crew were found in the excavation, preserved in the waterlogged soil of the shore. Archaeologists unearthed leather shoes, wooden utensils (spoons, bowls), barrel parts, and in Varberg Cog 1, they also found a significant amount of rigging, spare parts and other elements of the ships’ equipment. 

The wrecks have been laser scanned and 3D models created of them. Study of the ships is ongoing and will continue through 2023.

Varberg Cog 1 with ballast:

Varberg Cog 1 with ballast removed:

Varberg Cog 2:

Peru mural that evaded looters’ clutches rediscovered

November 30th, 2022

Archaeologists have rediscovered a unique pre-Hispanic mural in Lambayeque, Peru, that was believed to have been destroyed by looters more than a century ago.

The mural was painted on the wall of a temple by the Lambayeque culture (900-1350 A.D.) a thousand or so years ago. A temple was known to exist at the site, but it was covered with dense foliage and had not been explored. At Easter in 1916, it was targeted by huaqueros, looters who dig up temples in Peru looking for saleable artifacts. At that time there was a “tradition” among huaqueros to celebrate Holy Week by sacking the temples of the “gentiles.” They didn’t come across any of the gold and silver artifacts they were hoping for in their looting tunnel, so they decided to just demolish a wall with a vividly colored mural they had exposed with their digging instead. They were stopped in the nick of time by authorities.

Ethnographer Heinrich Brüning, who took thousands of photos of Peruvian antiquities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lived in Lambayeque. When he heard of the new discovery, he photographed the mural and the temple, now dubbed Huaca Pintada after the mural. The thwarted looters decided to take their revenge and destroy the mural anyway. As far as anyone knew, the huaqueros had succeeded in their despicable aims and the only evidence of the mural remaining were Brüning’s pictures and field notebooks.

For a hundred years, those photos were all scholars had when studying the unique iconography of the Huaca Pintada mural. The temple is on private property and the owners did not allow excavations. The family had lived next to the huaca since the 19th century and considered it their duty to care for it. After the disaster with the looters, they were not keen to expose the ancient site any further. In 2018, Swiss archaeologist Sam Ghavami and his Peruvian colleague Christian Cancho managed to persuade the owner to allow them to perform the first archaeological excavation of Huaca Pintada. On October 11th of this year, the third season of digs, the team hit paydirt: a 100-foot wall painted in brilliant red, yellow, white, lucuma (an orangey yellow named after a Peruvian fruit), black, brown and blue.

It turns out the looters had only found a few panels of a far larger mural. It depicts a procession of warriors marching towards a deity with birdlike features. Above the procession is a river carrying fish to the valley. The style of the painting combines elements of the Lambayeque culture and its Moche (100-850 A.D.) ancestors, marking an important transitional phase in northern Peruvian art.

“It’s an exceptional discovery, first of all, because it is rare to unearth wall paintings of such quality in pre-Colombian archeology,” said Sam Ghavami, the Swiss archeologist who led excavations that uncovered the mural in October. […]

The painted images “appear to be inspired by the idea of a sacred hierarchy built around a cult of ancestors and their intimate links with the forces of nature,” said Ghavami.

Barn converted to baths found at Rutland Roman villa

November 29th, 2022

The excavation of the Roman villa in Rutland, East Midlands, where the spectacular (and spectacularly bloody) Trojan War mosaic was discovered in 2020, has unearthed a new surprise: a large barn that was converted into residential quarters complete with a three-room bath facility.

The Trojan War mosaic is one of the most important mosaic finds ever made in England and the site was immediately granted protected status. The mosaic itself has been reburied for its protection, but University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) in partnership with Historic England returned to the site this year to expand the excavation and learn more about the villa that houses such a unique example of ancient art from the waning days of Roman rule in England. The information and artifacts gathered will be essential to understanding the full context of the mosaic and ensuring its long-term preservation.

This year the ULAS team used data from a geophysical survey to plan an excavation strategy that would reveal different sections of the villa. They dug a series of trenches down the length of the site, unearthing a huge aisled building approximately 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. Originally a timber barn, the building was rebuilt in stone in the 3rd or 4th century and terraced into the hillside, protecting it from the elements. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of agricultural and industrial production on the eastern end of the building. The western end was a residential space. It was converted to this purpose at some point in its history, the open barn partitioned to create multiple rooms on multiple floors.

On the southern side of the building is a remarkable bath complex with caldarium (steam room), tepidarium (warm room) and frigidarium (cold pool). The tile stacks of the hypocaust underfloor heating are still present, and are also in situ at the base of the walls, meaning that this complex didn’t just have heated floor and pools, but heated walls too. There’s even the base of a water tank attached to the exterior walls, likely a rainwater catchment system collected from the roof of the building.

This year’s excavation also returned to the triclinium, the dining room where the Trojan War mosaic was found in the main building of the villa. The team was able to discover the cause of a slump of the floor on the long side of the room: an old boundary ditch. The villa was built over it and subsidence of the soil caused the floor to sink. Pottery found inside the ditch dates it to the 2nd century, an indication of the age of the site. The excavation revealed that the main building was also a conversion. It too began as an aisled building that was later added to in stages. The triclinium was one of those additions.

The dining room had been built as an extension to the main villa, suggesting that the owners wanted a special area for feasting as they gazed over the Iliad mosaic.

The new excavations also revealed additional mosaics in the corridors leading to the dining room, including one with a kaleidoscopic geometric design.

John Thomas, the deputy director of the University of Leicester archaeological service, said: “It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this Roman villa complex to our understanding of life in late Roman Britain. While previous excavations of individual buildings, or smaller-scale villas, have given us a snapshot, this discovery in Rutland is much more complete and provides a clearer picture of the whole complex.

Original polychrome paint found on Duomo sculptures

November 28th, 2022

Restoration of the marble reliefs on the north façade of the Duomo of Florence has revealed original polychrome paint on an exterior sculpture of Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels. The sculptures date to 1359-1360 and are mounted in an arched niche above the Porta dei Cornacchini, the door in the north wall of the cathedral. While the marble in the background is colorful — the Duomo is famous for the white, pink and green marble cladding that gives the cathedral its distinctive look — the sculptures themselves were previously believed to have been left the natural white of the marble.

The marbles of the north façade were in dire need of conservation, having suffered extensive erosion from rainwater runoff, deposits of surface dirt, black sulfurous encrustations and bird poop galore. Since restoration work began in September 2021, experts from the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore have cleaned more than 10,000 square feet of marble. The process revealed extensive traces of the paint, including the brown iris of Mary’s left eye, the blue-green color inside her mantle, red on the outside of her mantle and a rich damask pattern on the garment worn by the Christ Child. This is the first time such large sections of polychrome paint have been found on an exterior sculpture of the Duomo. Previous finds were just tiny glimpses — a few dabs of gilding and light blue on other sculptures.

Earlier attempts at restoration did more harm than good to the original colors. A coating of brown oxalate applied directly to the surface of the marble in the 1950s has darkened over the decades, obscuring the traces surviving paint. Conservators removed the layer of fluorosilicate over the oxalate, but decided to keep the oxalate in place because it protects the surface of the marble even as it darkens it.

The museum has said that this sculpture group was most likely not the only one on the Duomo in polychrome, though now they appear to be marble white.

The find has led to the image of the Duomo as one in color, with white, green, and pink on the exteriors and red and gold mosaics on the facade.

“The exciting find of multiple colors of the figures on Porta dei Cornacchini of the Florence cathedral,” said Duomo museum director Timothy Verdon. “It reminds us that Florence at the end of the 14th century and beginning of the 15th was a very colourful city. The cathedral also had painted statues with gilding on the wings of angels and on clothing – thus, a celebration. A celebration that we forgot and are beginning to rediscover.”

See the conservators at work cleaning decades of filth off the sculpture in this video:





December 2022


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