Marble floor of Roman villa restored underwater

The multi-colored marble floor of a Roman luxury villa in the Submerged Archaeological Park of Baiae on the northwest shore of the Gulf of Naples is being restored underwater. The marble mosaic covered the floor of the villa’s reception room and curved front entrance porch (protiro), an area of about 2,700 square feet.

The floor was crafted in the opus sectile style, a technique that uses varied colors, shapes and sizes of marble to puzzle together patterns and figures. It was more a complex approach than mosaic floors which were made with small, even square tiles, and much more expensive. The prized marbles often had to be imported and the skill involved in designing and laying the shaped pieces into a repeating pattern or figural scene required the finest craftsmen to accomplish.

Baiae was a fashionable seaside resort town for the wealthy that flourished from the late Roman Republic through the end of the Roman Empire (ca. 100 B.C. – 500 A.D.). It had a reputation for hedonism, as described by 1st century Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger in his epistle On Baiae and Morals:

[T]here are places also, which the wise man or he who is on the way toward wisdom will avoid as foreign to good morals. Therefore, if he is contemplating withdrawal from the world, he will not select Canopus (although Canopus does not keep any man from living simply), nor Baiae either; for both places have begun to be resorts of vice. At Canopus luxury pampers itself to the utmost degree; at Baiae it is even more lax, as if the place itself demanded a certain amount of license.

You can’t buy that kind of bad publicity. Baiae’s popularity persisted even as imperial power shifted away from Rome and the rich continued to build lavishly appointed villas on the sea. In the end it was the seismic activity endemic to the area, specifically the phenomenon of bradyseism, the rising and lowering of land caused by underground volcanic activity. Baiae appears to have sunk under the sea in two phases, the first more gradual between the 3rd and 5th centuries, the second more calamitous event in the 6th century. By the 8th century, the lower ancient city was fully submerged.

The recently-discovered opus sectile floor adorned one of the villas built at the very end of the Roman Empire shortly before Baiae was submerged. At this time the trade in high-end materials was no longer reliable making fresh supplies of large amounts of colored marbles hard to secure. The homeowner had to turn to recycled materials, ironically, to show off his wealth in floor form.

Thousands of marble pieces in hundreds of different shapes were arranged in large adjacent squares inset with smaller squares, inset with circles, inset with a center square. Smaller polygonal pieces in different colors at the corners of the largest adjacent squares form pinwheels.

This pattern had to be recreated by marine archaeologists from the marble pieces. They puzzled it out based on the cut and color of the marbles found loose on the seabed. The restoration has so far recreated three of the square sections. There is much more to left to do.

Medieval defensive walls found at St. John in Lateran

An archaeological excavation in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, the square in front of the Archbasilica of St John Lateran in Rome, has uncovered complex layers of remains from different periods, including walls dating to between the 9th and 13th centuries A.D., the period in which the basilica and palace complex was known as the Patriarchate.

The Lateran archaeological area extends from just inside the Aurelian Walls near the ancient Porta Asinaria gate to the ground under the cathedral of St. John. The site is of crucial importance to the history of Rome and of Christianity. The sumptuous domus of the Laterani family was built there in the late Republic/early Empire. It was confiscated by Nero after Plautius Lateranus was executed for his role in the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 A.D.

The Lateran Palace had passed through the hands of imperial families and eventually inherited by Fausta, sister of the emperor Maximian. The former Domus Laterani thus became known as the Domus Faustae, and when Fausta was married to Constantine I in 306 A.D., the palace fell under his control. He is said to have given it to the Bishop of Rome around 313 A.D.

On the grounds of the domus a large cavalry barracks was built by Septimius Severus in 193 A.D. The Castra Nova Equitum Singularium was the fort of the Equites Singulares Augusti, the personal cavalry guard of the emperors. The regiment sided with the emperor Maxentius against Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D., so after Constantine’s victory, he disbanded the Equites singulares Augusti and razed the Castra Nova.

Constantine ordered construction of the first Christian basilica in Rome on the site of the demolished barracks. It was inaugurated in 324 A.D. It became the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, which it still is today, while the neighboring palace became the Pope’s official residence until the papacy was moved to Avignon in 1309.

The original basilica was all but destroyed in an earthquake in 896. The only visible remnant of the original church is the octagonal baptistery which dates to the 5th century. The church was rebuilt in phases. Much of what we see today is the work of baroque architect Borromini in the mid-17th century, and the statue-festooned façade was added in the 18th century.

Despite the great significance of the site, archaeological investigations have been few and far between and most of them precede modern methods. There have been no modern excavations of the square in front of the current basilica until now.

The finds attributable to the Patriarchate were found in the eastern part of the excavation, along its entire length: it is a structure that could have served both as a defensive wall for the papal residence and as a support for the slope that characterized the Lateran area in ancient times. In light of the different building techniques found, its construction can be dated to the 9th century AD and it was the subject of various restoration and reconstruction interventions until at least the 13th century.

The wall is made of large blocks of tuff, certainly reused from other structures that no longer exist. Evidence of one or more restoration interventions is the presence of a banding of the blocks on both sides, made with a facing of tuff blocks that have a series of buttresses. Continuing towards the West, the wall is instead made with wedge-shaped buttresses and a more irregular technique. The final part of the wall, which runs up to the parvis of the Basilica, has a facing of tuff blocks and buttresses this time of a square shape.

Defensive structures would have been very much needed in the period before the Avignon papacy (1309-1376). The noble families of Rome were constantly at war, with the Throne of Peter the main bone of contention, and the city was repeatedly sacked by, among others Arab raiders from Sicily (846) and Normans under Robert Guiscard (1084). The latter looted the city after being called to rescue Pope Gregory VII, holed up in Castel Sant’Angelo under siege by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Guiscard did get Henry to retreat and delivered the pope safely to the Lateran, but Rome paid the price. The ancient city — Capitoline, Palatine, Colosseum — burned for days.

After the return of the popes to Rome, the Lateran was in such poor condition that they set up new digs in the Vatican. The defensive wall was buried and everyone forgot it had ever been there.

The archaeological investigations, although conducted in an emergency due to the timing dictated by the delivery of the works for the opening of the Jubilee year, have also brought to light the remains of other structures, dating back to periods preceding the Patriarchate.

At the centre of the excavation, a portion of a wall in opus reticulatum was identified, dating back to between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, whose function was to terrace the slope that characterised the area. More interesting are the imposing foundations in opus reticulatum dating back to the Severian period (3rd century), perhaps to be related to the Castra Nova equitum singularium , already documented under the current structure of the Basilica. Two walls in opus lateralis that run parallel are from the same period and, considering their depth (3.5 metres below the current floor level) and the short distance between them, they are probably part of an underground structure. Finally, in the central portion of the excavation, a section of a wall structure in opus listatum was found, dating back to between the 4th and 7th centuries.

All of the remains are being left where they were found. City authorities are studying how and when to continue the excavations (likely after the Jubilee) and what can be done to make them safe and accessible to visitors.

Tomb of military leader in Augustus’ wars in Spain found in Pompeii

Usually when exciting new finds are made in Pompeii, they’re the result of planned excavations. This time, construction of a ventilation shaft on the building of San Paolino, built in the 1840s and now the headquarters of the library of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, accidentally exposed the tomb of an important military official who served under the emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C. – 14 A.D.) during his last wars of conquest in Spain.

The construction first exposed two ends of a semicircular tomb of a type known as a “schola” tomb. Schola tombs have been found before in Pompeii. They consist of a semicircular bench made of volcanic tufa stone with lion paw terminals. The subsequent excavation revealed a large inscription on the curved back of the bench, expertly carved in very regular letters with remains of the original red paint inside them.

At the time of the eruption in 79 A.D., the tomb was decades old and so neglected that the monument was buried up to the bench. Even disregarded and forgotten, however, the inscription was still evident and legible when Vesuvius covered the city in death.

The inscription reads in large letters:

N(umerius) AGRESTINO N(umerii) F(ilius)
MIL(itum) PRAEF(ectus) AUTRYGON(um)
PRAEF(ectus) FABR(um) II D(uum) V(iro)
I(ure) D(icundo) ITER(um) LOCUS

It continues in smaller letters carved below the larger ones in the center of the back of the bench:


This translates to: “To Numerius Agrestinus, son of Numerius, Equitius Pulcher, military tribune, prefect of the Autrygoni, prefect of the military engineers, Duumvir for the jurisdiction (i.e. holder of the highest magistracy in the city of Pompeii) twice, the place of burial (was) given by decree of the council of the city.”

Numerius Agrestinus appears in another inscription found in the necropolis of Porta Nocera, but it was created when he was still alive apparently by order of his wife, Veia Barchilla, a name of Spanish origin. Her husband’s funerary inscription, specifically the “praefectus Autrygonum” title, points to him having held important military positions during the Cantabrian Wars (29-19 B.C.), Augustus’ long and bloody conquest of the last independent Celtic peoples in Hispania, modern-day northwestern Spain. (The Autrygoni were tribespeople who inhabited northern Spain.)

After his stellar military career, he retired to Pompeii where he repeatedly held the highest office in the city, duumvir jure.

“Here we see the emergence of the network of power that connected the elites of the empire, whose members were asked to commit themselves in conflict areas, with the promise of economic rewards but above all of social prestige in the community of residence,” explains the director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, Gabriel Zuchtriegel . “Having held the highest office in Pompeii, the duumvirate, twice, and having been honored with a funerary monument on public land, are expressions of recognition and loyalty to someone who had literally fought on the front lines for the cause of the empire. The unexpected discovery of this monument is yet another example of how in Pompeii protection, research and enhancement are closely intertwined.”

You can really see the inscription, including the traces of surviving red paint, in this video which follows it in the round after it is exposed. It also conveys a particular challenge of Vesuvian archaeology: having to remove feet upon feet of lapilli, small pumice rocks that showered Pompeii in the first stages of the eruption.

Museum seeks info on Early Bronze Age axeheads

The National Museum of Ireland received two Early Bronze Age axes in the mail last month from an anonymous sender. They are flat axeheads dating to around 2150-2000 B.C. and are highly significant artifacts from Ireland’s prehistory. The museum is asking the public for any information they might have about the location and circumstances of the axes’ discovery.

The donor sent the axeheads carefully packed in styrofoam with custom cut-outs inside a box of Flahavan’s Irish Oaty Flapjacks (which are crunchy granola bar-like squares, not flapjacks in the American sense of pancakes). A letter was included but it was scant on detail, saying only that the axeheads had been discovered in the Westmeath area using a metal detector.

However, to fully understand and appreciate these artifacts, it’s crucial to know the exact location where they were found. The context of such discoveries helps archaeologists piece together ancient settlement patterns and cultural practices. For instance, hoards or collections of objects were often deliberately placed in specific locations for reasons that could range from ritualistic to supernatural.

With this in mind, we are appealing to the person who sent these axeheads to reach out to us. Any information about their discovery will be treated with the utmost confidentiality and used solely to verify the find location and its circumstances.

The National Museum of Ireland is currently participating in an international study of Bronze Age metalwork, aiming to trace the origins of the metals used in such artifacts. Details about the find spot of these axeheads could provide critical data for this research.

By Irish law, archaeological finds must be reported to the authorities, which was obviously not done in this case, and explains why the sender is keeping mum.

We also wish to remind everyone about the regulations surrounding the use of metal detectors for searching archaeological objects. Archaeological finds without a known owner are the property of the state and are preserved as part of our collective heritage in national and designated museums.

The museum isn’t the law, however, and they have no interest in pursuing the finder. They just want information, which can sent to their email address or phoned in at 01-6777444. (Cool number. It’s like a fake one from a movie.)

Bronze Age axe found off Norwegian coast

A marine archaeologist has discovered a Bronze Age axe head in the sea off Arendal, southeastern Norway. The shape identifies it as a Middle Bronze Age piece, dating to approximately 1100 B.C. It is the first prehistoric metal artifact ever discovered in Norwegian waters.

Norwegian Maritime Museum archaeologist Jørgen Johannessen found the axe during a routine survey of underwater cultural heritage. At a depth of 40 feet on the edge of a reef, he encountered a pile of flint ballast, commonly used between the 16th and the mid-19th century to stabilize ships before being thrown overboard when the neared the shore. Then he spied the bronze axe inside the pile, and realized it most definitely did not date to 16th-19th century.

He recovered the object and experts examined it. It is a hollow socketed axe, also known as a celt. It was the dominant axe blade of the Nordic Bronze Age (1800-500 B.C.). It would originally have been mounted to an angled wooden shaft, with the angled end of the wood inserted into the open end of the axe head. This was an effective and parsimonious design that allowed the greatest function with the least amount of expensive and hard-to-obtain metal. It is 4.5 inches long, 1.85 inches wide at the widest point (the curved cutting of the blade), and weighs 11.5 ounces.

The site suggests that the ax has arrived there with a vessel. The question is when, and in what context. We have two hypotheses about how the hollow ax might have ended up there: the shipwreck hypothesis and the ballast hypothesis.

The shipwreck hypothesis is that the ax is the remains of a shipwreck over 3,000 years ago. It could come from a boat crossing from southern Scandinavia, or a local boat that sailed along the coast. If this hypothesis is correct, this is the first known shipwreck site from the Bronze Age in Norway.

The ballast hypothesis assumes that the ax was part of the ballast on a ship in the sailing age. The ax was then shoveled out together with the flint on the way to the port in Arendal, where a new load was to be picked up. In that case, the ax ended up on the seabed a few hundred years ago, either directly from an area in southern Scandinavia where flint is common along the coasts, or via ballast depots in other ports. In that case, the ax will be a loose find with no other context than the ballast flint it was found with.

Norwegian Maritime Museum archaeologists are returning to the find site this week to explore it further. They hope to find evidence of either of the two hypotheses, especially the Bronze Age shipwreck hypothesis which would be an unprecedented find.