Record-breaking EID MAR aureus looted from Greece, now repatriated

The EID MAR aureus that set a new world record when it was sold at auction for $4.2 million in October 2020 has been confiscated and repatriated to Greece whence it was looted. The owner of Roma Numismatics, the London-based auction house that sold the aureus, has been arrested and charged with grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property, conspiracy and scheme to defraud.

The coin caused a sensation when its sale was announced, because it is one of only three known examples in gold of the coin struck by Marcus Junius Brutus celebrating the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March. (There are 85 or so examples of the EID MAR silver denarius, so still rare and highly coveted in numismatic circles.) This aureus had never been published before and is by far the most pristine of the three, in near mint condition.

According to Richard Beale, owner and managing director of Roma Numismatics, the aureus’ provenance was as impeccable as its condition. It had an ownership history going back centuries. Sure, its documented history began with a private Swiss collection, but not the laughably fake kind. This was the renowned collection amassed by Baron Dominique de Chambrier in the 1700s.

The only problem was that it was all a lie, the “documented history” forged by Beale and coin expert Italo Vecchi who found the aureus and secured it for Roma Numismatics. They had tried to sell it before at the 2015 New York International Numismatics Convention, but at that time all they had in terms of ownership history was the laughably fake kind. Potential buyers heard the classic cover-up phrase that it was from “an old Swiss collection” and ran the other way. So Beale and Vecchi ginned up a glamorous and unimpeachable provenance. Coupled with an authentication certification by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, the EID MAR aureus was now on its way to breaking the world record as the most expensive ancient coin ever sold at auction.

The house of cards started to collapse in 2022 when Beale attempted to sell five coins that were known to have been looted from Gaza. That drew suspicion on his whole operation, and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) began to investigate the sale of the EID MAR aureus in collaboration with several foreign law enforcement agencies. They found that Beale had paid for the falsified ownership history. One informant said he’d been offered $107,000 by Beale to sign the fake documents but he refused.

The EID MAR was seized in February from an undisclosed location. On Tuesday, March 21st, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office officially repatriated the aureus and another 28 looted antiquities in a ceremony at the Greek Consulate in New York City attended by Greece’s Minister of Culture and Sports Lina Mendoni. The oldest of the objects is a Late Neolithic (5000-3500 B.C.) family group of carvings looted from the island of Euboea and trafficked through Switzerland into the private collection of Leon Levy and Shelby White.  Details of where the coin and other artifacts were looted from have not been released, just that the pieces were the products of illegal excavations in Macedonia, Epirus, Central Greece, the Cyclades and Crete.

I love this statement made at the ceremony by Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and the founder and director of the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

New York Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos, referring to the daily efforts he and his colleagues make to combat the illegal trafficking of cultural goods, noted characteristically: “The Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni has placed two outstanding members on our team, Mrs. Papageorgiou and Vlachogiannis. We all work together, long hours, through the night, and on weekends as a family, like a good Greek family, and we are passionate about discussing what the next goal will be because we all share the same vision. To return the cultural heritage to where it was born and belongs. While archaeologists and other scientists study these ancient artifacts and wonder how they were found, this particular group will work together, as one man, for the next goal.

Bogdanos’ father Konstantine was a Greek immigrant who owned and operated a Greek restaurant in lower Manhattan and it was very much a family business. Matthew and his siblings all waited tables there, so he knows whereof he speaks. Among his many accomplishments, Bogdanos has a master’s degree in Classical Studies as well as a law degree, which is why he is so uniquely suited to head the Antiquities Trafficking Unit. He advocated for its creation for four years, finally achieving that goal in 2010 when Cyrus Vance Jr. became District Attorney.

Fiberoptic cable installation uncovers ancient mystery structure

An ancient structure of unknown purpose has been discovered during the laying of fiberoptic cable in the town of Torreano, near Udine in northeastern Italy. It is made of heavy stone slabs — two long walls and a short back topped by a “roof” — forming a rectangle. At first glance, archaeologists thought it was a burial cist, but an excavation of the structure found no evidence it had ever contained human remains. All it contains is silty, muddy soil typical of waterways.

Ancient stone structure of unknown purpose. Photo courtesy Ivano Dorbolo'.

The most plausible hypothesis right now is that it was a causeway, built to allow carts to pass through an ancient water course that flowed through the structure. A culvert or drainpipe is another possibility, but roughly-hewn, heavy stone slabs are not ideal for that job. Given the heavy weight and massive size of the stones, this was probably an infrastructure project of some significance requiring an investment of personnel and raw materials, not something erected quickly by a local farmer.

There is no stratigraphic information to be had in this find, and it is otherwise practically impossible to date a group of heavy stone slabs without associated artifacts or remains amenable to radiocarbon or dendrochronological analysis. In summary, we don’t know what it is or how old it is, but it’s cool anyway.

The structure has now been reburied for its own protection. The fiberoptic installation proceeds apace.

Unusual Maya stone tomb found near Palenque

Mexico’s National Institute of Archeology and History (INAH) has unearthed a Maya tomb near Palenque in Chiapas. Built of stone slabs in a style never before discovered in Palenque, the burial contains the remains of at least two individuals.

The burial chamber contained the skeletal remains of two individuals buried at different times. The primary burial is of an intact, articulated skeleton buried in supine position facing the north. The other set of remains, believed to belong to an adult woman, are a secondary burial. She was initially buried somewhere else and then her bones reinterred in this access space of the burial chamber. A cranium discovered in the mix of bones of the secondary burial shows the wisdom teeth mid-eruption, indicating the deceased was about 25 to 28 years old. (Because the bones were moved in antiquity, archaeologists cannot be certain the skull matches the rest of the second body, so there may actually be parts of two people in the secondary burial.)

The grave goods in the burial chamber consist of ceramic vessels that would have held offerings of food and drink. (The organic contents have long since decomposed.) There were also green stone figurines placed in a wall niche. The remains have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but the grave goods are consistent with Maya funerary practices from the Late Classic (9th century A.D.) period. Mayan burials are usually located inside temples or homes, so this chamber is unusually distant from the center of activity.

In other recent Palenque news, detailed analysis of a skeleton discovered last May in another atypical venue (inside a stone tool workshop in the city center) has found that she was between 45 and 50 years old when she died. Her skull had been intentionally deformed, marking her as a member of the elite, but the type of deformation employed in her case (erect tabular, in which the skull expanded both in width and height) was not the preferred iteration in Palenque. The city-state’s culturally approved form was oblique tabular cephalic modeling which elongates the skull backwards only. This suggests the Lady SAS, as she was dubbed last year, may have been a visitor from another area of the Maya kingdom.

Another anomaly of the Lady SAS burial is the green stone inlays in her teeth. The Maya filed their teeth and implanted green stone as a status symbol, but interestingly, the highest echelons of Palenque eschewed dental inlays. The remains of kings and aristocrats that have been unearthed there have no dental modifications.

Complete zodiac found on Temple of Esna ceiling

Archaeologists have uncovered a rare representation of the zodiac on the ceiling of the Temple of Esna near Luxor, Upper Egypt. It is one of only three complete zodiac groups found in Egypt. The ceiling paintings depict the 12 signs of the zodiac from Aries to Pisces, imports from Hellenistic astrology interpreted through Egyptian religious iconography.

The overall project is in the hands of Hisham El-Leithy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and Professor Christian Leitz of the University of Tübingen.

“Representations of the zodiac are very rare in Egyptian temples,” Leitz says, adding “The zodiac itself is part of Babylonian astronomy and does not appear in Egypt until Ptolemaic times.” Researchers think the system of zodiac signs and their related constellations was introduced to Egypt by the Greeks and subsequently became popular. “The zodiac was used to decorate private tombs and sarcophagi and was of great importance in astrological texts, such as horoscopes found inscribed on pottery sherds,” says Dr. Daniel von Recklinghausen, a Tübingen researcher. “However, it is rare in temple decoration: Apart from Esna, there are only two completely preserved versions left, both from Dendera,” he says.

In addition to the zodiac and the star constellations, the restoration revealed colorful images of snakes, crocodiles and various fabulous beasts, including a snake with a ram’s head and a bird with a crocodile’s head, the tail of a snake and four wings.

The Temple of Esna was dedicated to Khnum, the god of the source of the Nile who made human children out of the river’s clay on a pottery wheel and then planted them in the uterus of the mother. Construction began in 186 B.C., but today only the pronaos (vestibule), built in the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.), survives. It is covered in painted inscriptions and reliefs from the column bases to the ceiling. The intricate decoration of the Claudian structure took two centuries to complete, finally during the reign of the Emperor Decius in 250 A.D.

It survived the centuries thanks to its prime location in the middle of the city center and its conversion to different uses. It was handier to keep it as a working structure instead of mining it for building materials. The space was used as a caravanserai (a roadside or urban hostelry where travelers and their animals could find accommodations and nourishment) and in the 19th century as a cotton warehouse. Centuries of torches and cooking fires and candles left thick layers of soot on the interior ceiling of the temple. Between the grey soot and the bird droppings, the ceiling decoration was completely obscured.

The reliefs on the columns and walls were rediscovered by Egyptologist Serge Sauneron who excavated the temple in the 60s and 70s and published the inscriptions in full. Or, rather, what he thought was in full. The Roman-era hieroglyphic reliefs were roughly chiseled in outline. With no depth to the relief, constellations were painted directly on the ceiling and were all but invisible under the grime.

A comprehensive restoration of the painted surfaces of the temple began in 2018. The team cleaned the walls, removed centuries of layered filth, stabilized the colors, removed salts and revealed the original colors and shapes of the decoration. In the course of the restoration, the team discovered depictions of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, stars and constellations including the Big Dipper in the shape of a bull’s leg, Orion as Osiris and Sothis as Isis. They also discovered previously unknown constellations, including the Geese of Ra, and constellations like the “seven arrows” which the Egyptians used to measure time.

1,400-year-old Moche murals of two-faced men found in Peru

The excavation of the late Moche (c.600–850 A.D.) archaeological site of Pañamarca in northwestern Peru has uncovered two new murals painted on the adobe brick walls of an ancient architectural complex. They depict two two-faced individuals, one painted on the top, one on the bottom of a single adobe pillar in the hall.

Both two-faced figures are wearing headdresses or crowns and vividly colored clothing with large belts. They hold unusual items in their hands. The top one carries a goblet with four hummingbirds in one hand and feather fan in the other. The bottom man is waving a feather fan (unlike the rigid feathers of his neighbor’s fan, his feathers are captured in motion) and a stick-like object in his other. Damage to the painting makes it difficult to identify what it is.

There is no known precedent for these figures in Moche art. They don’t have features typical of Moche deities — namely zoomorphic elements like fangs, claws, tails or wings. Archaeologists hypothesize that the two two-headed figures may have been an artistic exploration of depicting people (and feathers) in motion, so not two-headed monsters or gods, but men captured in blurred movement like two frames of animation in one panel. They may also be wearing masks.

Constructed beginning in around 550 A.D., the Pañamarca architectural complex is richly decorated with murals that are unique iconographic testaments to Moche ritual, clothing, adornments and even to their trade links over long distances. Only an estimated 10% of the wall paintings at Pañamarca have been uncovered since the first mural was discovered in 1958. The hall of pillars is particularly dense with these murals, and archaeologists still don’t know what the room’s purpose was, but it probably was not meant for public use because the passages are very tight and warren-like.

The Paisajes Arqueológicos de Pañamarca research project has been ongoing since 2018 under the joint leadership of an international team of archaeologists from Peru, Columbia University and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. These murals were discovered during last year’s dig season. The summer 2022 dig aimed to document the stratigraphic phases of construction of the monumental temple complex and to excavate and conserve any murals encountered.

There is now a clearer throughline for Peruvian history and culture thanks to recent finds at Pañamarca and earlier ones made there during the past century. Digital photography, photogrammetric modeling, and virtual reality simulation will make these insights more widely available.

“Pañamarca was a place of remarkable artistic innovation and creativity, with painters elaborating on their knowledge of artistic canons in creative and meaningful ways as the people of Nepeña established their position in the far southern Moche world,” said Lisa Trever, Lisa, and Bernard Selz Associate Professor of Pre-Columbian Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.