Unique Scythian bone scepter found in Bulgaria

A Scythian scepter carved from animal bone has been discovered in a 5th century B.C. warrior burial in Provadia-Solnitsata, northeastern Bulgaria. Bone scepters have been found before, but they are usually cross-shaped and the design of this one is unique.

The scepter is 15 inches long with a smooth handle made of two sections of bone glued together. It has an ornithomorphic (bird-shaped) head with a hooked beak. From one side it looks like the beak of an eagle, an animal with great ritual significance to the Scythians, but from the other side there’s an anthropomorphic design that makes the beak look like a hat. The lower shaft has a hole suggesting that it was suspended from something. The Scythians were masters of the bone-carving arts, and this scepter is a superlative example of their skill.

The scepter was found in the grave of a warrior that had been opened in antiquity, but not looted. In addition to the bone scepter, archaeologists also found the skeletal remains of a horse, a small dog and a turtle. Although his skull and upper body are missing today, the posture of his body — legs open, one bent — is typical of Scythian burials. A heavily corroded iron knife was also found in the grave. The weapon and horse suggest the deceased may have been a cavalryman, and the scepter is a symbol of command, so he was likely a warlord.

Solnitsata was an ancient town near modern-day Provadia that is the oldest prehistoric town in Europe. The walled fortified settlement existed from 5,600 to 4,350 B.C. It prospered greatly off of salt production. The residents boiled water from a local spring to evaporate the liquid and collect the salt and then traded it throughout the Balkans. Salt was so expensive and valuable because it was essential to food preservation. That’s why the small settlement (population 350) had massive defensive walls built around 4,700 B.C..

The Scythians were latecomers to the area, migrating from the Eurasian steppe to arrive in what is now Bulgaria in the 7th century. When the Scythians first settled the area, they buried their dead in pre-existing burial mounds. The grave of the warrior with the scepter was not in a burial mound, but rather in a settlement mound.

The scepter is being kept in controlled laboratory conditions while it is studied and conserved. When it is ready for exhibition, it will go on display at the historical museum in Provadia.

Exceptional female statue found in Tusculum

Archaeologists from the Spanish School of History and Archaeology of Rome (EEHAR) have unearthed an exceptional marble statue of a female figure at the ancient city of Tusculum 15 miles outside Rome. The statue is life-sized, and is missing its head and some of its arms, but the flawless white Parian marble and the quality of the carving are extraordinary.

The missing parts makes it difficult to identify, but the upper body is draped in a fawn skin, an attribute of followers of Dionysus. This depiction is typically dated to between the mid-1st century B.C. and the mid-1st century A.D. The statue was carved in the round and fine details of the draping, the wet fabric of the chiton clinging to her skin, the workmanship of the fawn skin are superior, comparable to some of the greatest works of antiquity like the Aphrodite Areia found in Epidaurus and now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Tusculum was an ancient Latin city in the Alban Hills. Its legendary history attributes its founding to mythological Greek heroes (Telegonus, son of Odysseus and Circe) or their descendants (Latinus Silvius, the fourth great-grandson of Aeneas), but the earliest archaeological evidence suggests it had an established population by the 8th or 7th century B.C. The monumental city walls date to the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., the same period when Tusculum allied itself with Rome against its neighboring Latin tribes.

That alliance was cemented in 381 B.C. when Tusculum became the first municipium cum suffragio, a self-governing city whose citizens had the right to vote and hold public office in Rome. This category was reserved for cities whose populations at every social stratum (not just the governing elites), had demonstrated a strong desire to integrate with the Roman Republic.

In the late Republic, Tusculum became a fashionable location for country villas. The most prominent and wealthy families in Rome built large homes there to flee the heat of the Eternal City in the summer. The remains of than 130 luxury villas and country estates have been documented even though most of the town has not been excavated. They came to dominate Tusculum so thoroughly that the city itself dimmed in importance and became little more than an adjunct to the summer homes of the wealthy. Cicero had a villa there, as did generations of Cato the Elder’s family and the imperial Flavii family.

The statue dates to the period of Tusculum’s heyday as an enclave of Rome’s elite. It was unearthed in the last excavation campaign (October 2022-July 2023) in an area near the forum where a monumental baths complex was built in the Hadrianic period (117-138 A.D.). It was found face-down on a thin layer of painted stucco that originally adorned the walls of the thermal baths.

It was exhibited in public for the first time on Friday at the Aldobrandini Scuderie in Frascati. The exhibition ends Saturday, but it will undergo conservation in public view at the museum.

Oldest baskets in Europe found in Spanish cave

Elaborately woven baskets that look like they could have been made yesterday but were actually made 9,500 years ago have been discovered in a cave in southern Spain. These are the oldest surviving baskets in Europe. (The earliest basket known to survive was found in a Dead Sea cave and is about 10,500 years old.) Discovered in the same cave is the earliest dated sandal ever found in Europe.

The baskets were found in the Cueva de los Murciélagos (Cave of the Bats) which is 195 feet deep. Its depth makes it extremely arid, and with humidity levels at almost zero, organic artifacts survive in exceptional condition. They were made by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers out of grasses, still used by local craftsmen today to make baskets, shoes and hats. The Mesolithic basket-makers employed closed twining, a weave with no space between the weft elements that creates a tight, high-quality basket. They also made geometric patterns using dyed fibers.

The baskets were left as grave goods. When the cave was first discovered by galena (lead ore) miners in the 19th century, they found dozens of bodies, partially mummified in the arid environment, interred with the baskets, stone tools and boar’s teeth. Unfortunately the finds were not treated with respect back then. The miners used the mummified remains and some of the woven items to fuel their boilers. Later excavations unearthed additional mummified bodies buried alongside baskets, sandals and tools.

A recent study analyzed 76 of the artifacts recovered from the Cave of the Bats that are now in the collection of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional of Madrid. Researchers found that 65 of the objects were made with fibers of the flat-leaved esparto grass. Radiocarbon dating divided the artifacts into two distinct periods: the Mesolithic (7950-7360 B.C.) and the Neolithic (4370-3740 B.C.).

After the Mesolithic phase, the cave was unused for 2,000 years. Then Early Neolithic farmers picked up where the hunter-gatherers had left off, weaving esparto grass with more sophisticated and diverse techniques to make a wide variety of objects, including cords, baskets, sandals, mats and bags. Wear analysis of a wooden mallet found in the cave indicates it was used to crush esparato grass which would have made it softer and more flexible and therefore more comfortable for use in things like the soles of sandals, for example.

Some of the sandals show evidence of wear while others were in pristine, unused condition. Archaeologists believe some of the deceased were buried with the sandals they had used in life, while others had shoes made specifically for burial.

The study has been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read here.

Tomb of Northern Zhou Dynasty’s founder discovered

Archaeologists have unearthed the tomb of Yuwen Jue, Emperor Xiaomin of Northern Zhou, founder of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581 A.D.) in Xianyang, northwest China. This is only the second tomb of a Northern Zhou emperor to be excavated.

The tomb was found in Hongdu Plain area of Xianyang City, a site where several tombs of elites from the Northern (439-581 A.D.), Sui, and Tang (581-907 A.D.) dynasties have been unearthed. The tomb of Yuwen Jian, Yuwen Jue’s younger brother and the eighth son of Yuwen Tai, Emperor Wen of Western Wei, was found a half-mile to the east. The only other Northern Zhou imperial tomb excavated, the tomb of another of Xiaomin’s younger brothers, Yuwen Yong, Emperor Wu, is five miles to the east.

The tomb was originally enclosed by a rectangle of ditches 482 feet long and 344 feet wide. The emperor’s tomb is a single-chamber earthen cave tomb with four patios in the north-central position of the rectangle bounded by the ditches. The floor of the tomb is 30 feet from the surface, which makes it medium-sized for tombs from the Northern Zhou era.

The tomb was pillaged in antiquity and its contents disturbed, but the thieves left plenty behind. The team unearthed 146 artifacts, most of them in the southeast section of the tomb and most of them terracotta figures of people (warriors, mounted cavalry, women), animals and legendary creatures. On the east side of the entrance, archaeologists found the stone inscribed with the emperor’s epitaph, the characters painted red with cinnabar. It translates to “Renshen in October of the second year of the tomb of Gongyu Wenjue, Duke of Lueyang, Zhou Dynasty.”

He held the title of Duke at the time of his death in 557 A.D., even though he was the ruler of the new dynasty he had just founded months earlier. It was his brother Emperor Wu who declared him emperor posthumously after his own ascension to the throne in 572 A.D.

According to archaeologists, the archaeological discovery of the tomb of Yuwen Jue in Northern Zhou is of great significance. First of all, the discovery can further clarify that the tombs of the Northern Zhou emperors have the same ground structure as the high-level tombs of the Northern Zhou. Secondly, Yuwen Jue was buried as the “Duke of Lueyang”, providing physical evidence for the political struggle during the founding period of the Northern Zhou Dynasty and supplementing the historical materials of the Northern Dynasty. Finally, the determination of the location of the Jingling Tomb provides important indication information for the distribution of the remaining three imperial tombs in the Northern Zhou Dynasty.

2,000-year-old makeup palette found in Aizanoi

An excavation of the ancient city of Aizanoi in western Turkey has unearthed the remains of a cosmetics and jewelry shop in the city’s marketplace. Archaeologists discovered the shop in the agora area east of the Temple of Zeus. The type of shop it was identified by the many perfume bottles, beads from decorated accessories (hair pins, necklaces) and makeup kits still containing brightly-colored eye shadow and blush, almost all of them in shades of red and pink.

“We know that ancient Romans stored their eyeshadows and blushes in oyster shells and we found numerous oyster shells in the shops we were carrying out excavations in,” [Professor Gökhan Coşkun, the head of the Archaeology Department at Dumlupınar University,] said.

The professor said that archaeologists discovered makeup products of 10 different colors and different sorts of hair accessories and jewelry.

First settled in the Bronze Age around 3,000 years ago, Aizanoi rose to prominence as a regional capital in the later Kingdom of Phrygia (ca. 1200-700 B.C.) It was part of the Kingdom of Pergamum that was bequeathed to Rome by the last Attalid king, Attalus III, in 133 B.C. It reached its peak of prosperity under the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. when great monumental public buildings — temples, baths, a unique combined theater and stadium, the macellum (market) — were erected.