Romulus & Remus brooch found in Spain

A rare silver brooch depicting the she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus, the founding legend of Rome, has been discovered at the Hostalot – Idlum archaeological site in Vilanova d’Alcolea, Valencia, Spain. Dating to the 2nd century A.D., the brooch is unusual for its high quality of carving and because there are few comparable examples known.

The piece is small, just four centimeters (1.6 inches) long, and while the surface is worn, details of the original fine carving like the wolf’s mane are still visible. The original pin is still attached to its hinge in the back.

The Hostalot – Idlum site was a mansio, a rest stop on the Via Augusta road. Mansios were administered by the government to host officials, messengers and traveling dignitaries. They also offered horse-changing services to mail carriers to keep the postal service speedy and efficient. The Romulus and Remus brooch was unearthed from the main mansio building.

The Idlum mansio was built at the same time as the Via Augusta, so between 15 and 7 B.C., and appears to have been used for different purposes until it was abandoned in the 5th or 6th century: as a private residence, a production facility for agriculture or manufacturing or perhaps as a bathhouse. Fragments of ceramic tubes found in the recent dig season may have been used as water or steam conduits in a bathing facility.

4,000-year-old copper dagger found in Poland

A rare copper dagger dating back more than 4,000 years has been discovered in a forest near Jarosław, southeastern Poland. Shaped like a flint dagger from the period, it is just over four inches long, but that is actually a large dagger compared to similar such finds because the metal was hard to come by and very valuable. This is the oldest dagger ever discovered in the Subcarpathian Voivodeship (province).

The blade was discovered last November by metal detectorist Piotr Gorlach from the Historical and Exploration Association Grupa Jarosław, an organization of local history enthusiasts who search for archaeological materials with the permission of government heritage officials. Gorlach was looking for military objects from the World Wars that day without success. He had given up and was heading towards his car when his detector signaled the presence of metal under the forest floor. He saw the metal piece aged with a green patina and quickly realized it was much older than shrapnel from World War I. He alerted the voivodeship’s conservator of monuments and archaeologists from the Orsetti House Museum in Jarosław were deployed to examine the find.

According to archaeologist Dr. Marcin Burghardt from the Jarosław museum, the dagger discovered in Korzenica can be dated to the second half of the third millennium BC.

“In Polish lands, this is a period of enormous changes related to, among others, with a change in the main raw materials for the production of tools. Instead of flint tools commonly used in the Stone Age, more and more metal products appear, heralding the transition to the next period – the Bronze Age,” noted Dr. Burghardt.

He added that in this new era, tools, ornaments and weapons were made of bronze, an alloy created by combining two metals: copper and tin.

However, the currently discovered dagger from Korzenica – as noted by Dr. Elżbieta Sieradzka-Burghardt, an archaeologist from the museum in Jarosław – was not cast in bronze, but made of copper. “So it predates the development of bronze metallurgy,” the archaeologist noted. “In the third millennium BC, items made of copper were extremely rare, so only those with the highest social status could afford them. There is no doubt that the dagger is not a local product,” added Dr. Burghardt-Sieradzka.

It likely originated from the Carpathian Basin or the Ukranian steppe. Archaeologists hope metallurgic analysis will pin down the dagger’s origin. The blade is now part of the permanent collection of the Orsetti House Museum in Jarosław. After conservation and further study, it will go on display in June as part of the museum’s exhibition devoted to the oldest prehistory of the Jarosław area.

Burnt porridge crusts identified on Neolithic pottery

A study of burnt food residues in prehistoric ceramic vessels found in the Neolithic settlement of Oldenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, has revealed meals of varied cereals and wild plants and dairy, including a thick porridge with the same kind of intractable charred residue porridge so willingly leaves on pots today. Scanning electron microscopy and chemical analysis of food crusts caked to the inside of bowls identified the remains of emmer, barley and the starchy seeds of wild white goosefoot. The same ingredients have been identified in soil samples from the site.

Oldenburg was a Middle Neolithic settlement inhabited by Funnel Beaker groups, the first farmers of northern Europe, between 3270 and 2920 B.C., making it one of the oldest villages in Schleswig-Holstein. At its peak of occupation, there were about 40 dwellings in the village, an important example of how individual farmsteads evolved into small agrarian communities.

We know from stable isotope analysis and soil analysis which plants the Oldenburg farmers grew, the livestock they raised, which animals they hunted and plants they foraged, but less is known about the cooking practices, how they combined ingredients and prepared their meals. Analysis of the lipids absorbed into the ceramic have shed some light on the cooking of animal products, but new advances in microscopy and chemical analyses of residues have now opened up the possibilities of exploring cooked plant materials.

The new findings show that cereals indeed played an important dietary role and that wild plants enriched the food spectrum of the earliest farmers in the north. The barley was harvested when milky ripe and prepared in a similar way to the green spelt traditionally produced in Baden-Württemberg. The emmer was processed in a sprouted state, which gave the porridge a sweet flavour. Food in the Neolithic Age was therefore by no means bland, but rather varied. People had a highly differentiated sense of taste and attached great importance to good flavour.

So far, chemical analyses of the pottery have shown that the vessels contained dairy products. A look at the crusts burnt onto the cooking pot now shows that cereals and dairy products were probably processed into porridge for everyday use in the same vessels and formed a balanced dietary basis. “While the animal fats are absorbed into the ceramic and leave a signal there, the plant food components can only be detected in the burnt food crust,” emphasises Dr Lucy Kubiak-Martens, cooperation partner of BIAX Consult (Netherlands) and first author of the study. This shows how important a multi-method approach is for reconstructing Neolithic recipes created from a variety of ingredients. These discoveries expand our understanding of the long and complex process of transforming plants into meals during the period that followed the introduction of the agricultural way of life and cultivated plants in north-central Europe.

The study has been published in the journal  PLOS ONE and can be read here.

Caracalla medallion found in child’s grave in Bulgaria

Two Roman-era graves with rich grave goods including a rare bronze medallion of the emperor Caracalla have been discovered in Nova Varbovka, Bulgaria. One is a double burial of an adult man and a woman, the other of a young child, suggesting these graves were a family grouping. The artifacts found inside the graves date them to the first half of the 3rd century.

The burials were discovered last fall by a tractor driver when he hit a limestone slab while plowing a field near Nova Varbovka. He saw the human remains but didn’t realize they were archaeological in nature, so he reported the find to the mayor who reported it to the police thinking it might be a criminal matter. When the remains were examined by archaeologists from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, they were found to be from the Roman era and an emergency archaeological salvage excavation was launched. The dig took place in December 2023.

The excavation revealed two large graves built of brick masonry with plaster on the interior walls. They were covered with heavy slabs of limestone. The larger of the two was ten feet long and contained the remains of a woman about 45-49 years of age and a man of about 50-60 at the time of their deaths. The child was just two or three years old when he died and his grave is a little earlier than theirs, so he must have predeceased them.

The parents’ grave contained a pair of gold ladies earrings, a gilt pendant with a glass bead, a necklace of lapis lazuli and gold, a silver-plated fibula. The child was buried with a pair of gold earrings, glass bead jewelry, a ceramic wine amphora, two delicate glass lacrimaria (small vessels containing perfumes or unguents) and the bronze medallion issued by Emperor Caracalla (r. 198-217 A.D.) to commemorate his visit to the Pergamon’s Temple of Asclepius in 214 A.D.

The expensive burial facilities and grave goods were only affordable for the very rich in this time and place. Some of the limestone came from a quarry near Nicopolis ad Istrum, a Roman city about 25 miles southwest of Nova Varbovka founded by Trajan in the early 2nd century. Archaeologists hypothesize the adults were wealthy landowners from Nicopolis ad Istrum who had a villa rustica (country estate) where they spent their summers.

Chakarov, who excavated the burials along with colleagues Nedko Elenski and Mihaela Tomanova, noted that the Caracalla medallion could point to an Asia Minor origin for the occupants of the graves, which would be consistent with the fact that Nicopolis ad Istrum was built mainly by settlers from Asia Minor. “Of course, we are searching for an opportunity to make DNA and other analyses which our museum can’t afford, to see if this hypothesis is correct,” Chakarov said.

Cobra-headed pottery handle found in Taiwan

Archaeologists from National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan have unearthed a Neolithic snake-shaped pottery handle. Radiocarbon dating found it is 4,000 years old. Crafted in the shape of a cobra with its upper body raised and hood flattened ready to strike, it was discovered during a 2023 excavation of a sand dune on the northwest coast of Taiwan in the Guanyin District of Taoyuan City. The site was a major center of stone tool manufacturing during the Neolithic era.

Snakes have symbolic significance in many religions around the world, including in East Asian cultures. They can represent healing, as on the caduceus of Asclepius, god of medicine, metamorphosis and rebirth due their ability to shed their skins, the circle of life, as in the ouroboros (serpent biting its tail) of ancient Egypt, as intermediaries between heaven, earth and the underworld, as in the Aztec feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and Apollo’s python who transmitted prophecy from the underworld to earth.

“Snakes are often regarded as symbolic animals in religion, mythology and literature, and are considered to be the bridge between heaven and man,” [Hung-Lin Chiu, associate professor of the Institute of Anthropology at Tsing Hua] said.

Given their ability to shed their skin, ancient societies in the region associated these animals with the cycle of life and death, and considered them to be symbols of creation and transition.

The snake-shaped pottery handle may have come from a sacrificial vessel for shamans in ancient tribal societies to perform rituals, according to the researchers.

“This reflects that ancient societies incorporated animal images into ritual sacrificial vessels to demonstrate their beliefs and cognitive systems,” Chiu said.