Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Stone spheres found in Orkney Neolithic tomb

Monday, September 6th, 2021

Two polished stone balls have been discovered in a Neolithic chambered tomb on the Tresness peninsula of the Orkney island of Sanday. The 5,500-year-old tomb is rapidly eroding, and archaeologists have been working assiduously to salvage any artifacts and fully document the structure before the cliff it is on collapses into the sea.

The Tresness tomb is one of fewer than 20 examples of a stalled cairn, a slab-built passage grave with a central chamber that is divided into compartments along its sides like horse stalls and topped with an barrow. It has five compartments. The southernmost one is partially eroded, but archaeologists believe it was the last cell at the end of the tomb.

In the Bronze Age, a round cairn was built on top of the Neolithic tomb, truncating it and stripping it of its original roof. When excavations resumed this year after last year’s COVID interruption, archaeologists removed the Bronze Age remains to reveal the full extent of the remaining Neolithic tomb. 

The polished stone balls were found in chamber one. They are about the size of cricket balls, and are finely carved and finished. The first is in excellent condition, perfectly spherical and glossy. The second has cracked along a band in the sandstone. That will repaired by conservators.

Only 20 stone balls from this period have been found on Orkney (about 500 have been discovered in Scotland as a whole), and of these, only a few have been archaeologically excavated from a burial site.

Carved stone balls were symbols of power and were probably used, along with perhaps maces, to inflict blunt force trauma to the head. One skull from the Cuween passage tomb on Orkney shows signs of such injury.

Two similar cases were also found by Dr Dave Lawrence at the Rowiegar chambered cairn on the island. At Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister, he found that both males and females, young and old, were harmed in this way.

The team has created 3D models of the Tresness stalled cairn before and after the removal of the Bronze Age round cairn.

Here is the tomb as it looked the first week of excavations, composed from photos taken on August 22nd, 2021. 

Here it is a week ago with the round barrow removed:


A kilo of 6th century gold found in Jelling

Sunday, September 5th, 2021

A hoard of gold objects from the 6th century has been discovered in a farmed field outside the town of Jelling, South Jutland, Denmark. The 22 objects have a total combined weight of 945 grams, so just under a kilo.

They were discovered in December by metal detectorist Ole Schytz who was new at the hobby and hadn’t even been out with his machine 10 times when he stumbled on one of the largest and most significant gold hoards ever found in Denmark. He alerted authorities and archaeologists from the Vejle Museums excavated the find site, keeping the massive find secret until now to deter looters.

The hoard contains two Roman gold coins that have been converted into pendants — including a gold solidus of Constantine the Great (285-337 AD) — and one piece of jewelry with gold granulation in an elaborate pattern, but most of the pieces in the hoard are bracteates. Bracteates were round medallions worn as pendants that were made in Northern Europe during the Migration Period. Typically bracteates are penny-sized with rudimentary engravings of figures from Nordic mythology. These are unusually large, the size of small saucers, and the quality of decoration is exceptionally high. They are also unusually varied. Often bracteates found in hoards are very similar in design, but every one of these is different, and there are runs and motifs never seen before on other bracteates.

The excavation revealed that the hoard was buried under the floor of a longhouse, and only a very powerful, very wealthy individual could have collected a treasure this vast. Archaeologists know there was a small town here during the Migration Period, but there was no previous indication that it was sufficiently important to attract a resident who was so massively wealthy and powerful that he could acquire so much gold and attract  artisans of such high caliber.

Many of the large gold hoards discovered in Scandinavia from this period are believed to have been buried as desperate offerings to appease the gods after a volcanic eruption in 535/536 A.D. generated an ash cloud that blocked the sun and caused widespread crop failure and famine. If it was not an offering, the hoard may have been buried to protect it from being stolen during this turbulent time.

One of the bracteates features the profile of a male head with a braid of hair. A bird is in front of him — they appear to be conversing — and under him is a horse. Between the horse’s head and front legs is a runic inscription that a preliminary translation interprets as “houaʀ” meaning “the High.” This may be a reference to the leader who buried the hoard, or the god Odin.

The gold objects are currently being conserved. The folded and bent pieces will be straightened out as much as prudence allows. In February, they will go on display at the Vejle Art Museum.


Jigsawing the House of the Harpist frescoes

Saturday, September 4th, 2021

Archaeologists have undertaken a three-year project to piece together thousands of fragments of wall frescoes recovered the House of the Harpist, a uniquely important Roman villa in Arles, southeastern France. This is endeavor of enormous ambition. There are 800 crates of fresco fragments which makes for the most complex jigsaw puzzle imaginable, and conservators will be studying the painting, materials and construction as they work to reassemble as much of them as possible.

Built in 70-50 B.C. by craftsmen from Italy, the House of the Harpist is exceptional in Arles, because it predates the formal founding of the town as a colony for the veterans of Julius Caesar’s legions in 45 B.C. It had been under Roman control since the 2nd century B.C., but the Roman city of which extensive remains still survive today, including the spectacular amphitheater, date to the imperial era. It was a trendsetter for all of Gaul, introducing Roman construction and decorative techniques like opus spicatum (masonry laid in a herringbone pattern) that would not take hold in the province until decades later (ca. 30 B.C.).

The domus with all its luxurious appointments and fine construction barely lasted two decades. It was destroyed between 50 and 40 B.C. and backfilled with its own rubble. Three villas were subsequently built over it, the last of which was destroyed by fire in 260 A.D. The city of Arles acquired the property in 1978 in order to excavate and preserve the known Roman remains. Excavations have taken place at the site regularly since the acquisition. The House of the Harpist was revealed during digs between 2014 and 2017.

The frescoes were done in the Second Style, featuring trompe-l’œil architectural motifs like columns and imitation marble panels, setting off figural and landscape elements. There are no more than 15 Roman sites with Second Style frescoed elements in France, and this group is by far the greatest in quantity, quality and completeness. The painting that gives the house its name — a woman playing the harp who is part of a cycle of figures depicted on pedestals that were likely part of a Bacchic procession — is unique in France because of its brilliant vermillion red background in excellent condition. The only comparable red-background pieces are found in Italy, most notably in Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries.

Starting in April of this year, fragments have been spread out over 2400 square feet in an exhibition room at the Departmental Museum of Ancient Arles for recomposition and study. Toichographologists (archaeologists who specialize in the excavation and study of ancient painted walls) will stabilize the paint so the fragments can be made readily available for study. Researching the vermillion red in the background of the woman with the harp is a particular priority as the pigment is prone to blackening.

The fragments, some barely bigger than a fingernail, have been washed, labelled and placed into the cases to be examined one by one to see where they might fit into a bigger picture. So far, the specialists have spent a total of 1,800 hours picking through the pieces.

“We estimate it takes us one day per case, so around 1,000 days to study all of them,” Julien Boislève, an expert in ancient wall paintings, said. “It’s exactly like a puzzle … except of course we don’t have the original model to work from or all of the pieces, which means it’s fastidious work. It’s a major task but we are lucky to have a large quantity of good quality pieces of the decor, which is rare.”


Arthur’s Stone is older than Stonehenge

Friday, September 3rd, 2021

Arthur’s Stone, a Neolithic chambered tomb in Herefordshire which was C.S. Lewis’ inspiration for the “stone table” on which Aslan was sacrificed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, has been discovered to be 5,700 years old, more than a thousand years older than Stonehenge (ca. 2,500 B.C.).

The burial got its name in the Middle Ages (before the 13th century) when all sorts of random monuments were given made-up associations with King Arthur. The legend assigned to this one was that here Arthur killed a giant who fell on one of the stones embedding his elbow prints into it.

Today Arthur’s Stone is a massive capstone weighing an estimated 25 tons supported by nine upright standing stones. It was once covered by a long, oval earthen mound that was accessible via a right-angled passage into a smaller inner chamber of the barrow. Archaeologists have long believed the tomb was part of wedge-shaped cairn.

Despite its cultural prominence as a national landmark, Arthur’s Stone was never professionally excavated and centuries of interference from antiquarians, stone harvesters and road construction made it challenging to determine its original structure, purpose and date. Archaeologists from the Universities of Manchester and Cardiff excavated the barrow for the first time this year.

They found that the tomb had first been a long mound composed of stacked turf, retained by a palisade of upright posts set in a narrow palisade surrounding the mound. However, when the posts rotted away and the mound had collapsed, an avenue of larger posts were added, leading toward the mound from the Golden Valley below.

The initial mound, identifiable in the palisade slot and the parch-marks visible from the air surrounding the stone chambers, points toward the nearby hilltop of Dorstone Hill.

However the later avenue of posts, together with the two stone chambers and an upright stone located immediately in front of them, align on the far horizon in the gap between Skirrid and Garway Hill to the south-east.

“The different orientations of the two phase of construction are significant because our excavations on Dorstone Hill in 2011-19 revealed three long mounds similar in construction to that now known to represent the first stage of Arthur’s Stone,” added [University of Manchester] Professor [Julian] Thomas.

“Each of these three turf mounds had been built on the footprint of a large timber building that had been deliberately burnt down. So Arthur’s Stone has now been identified as being closely connected with these nearby ‘halls of the dead’, which hit the headlines in 2013.

“Indeed, the block of upland between the Golden Valley and the Wye Valley is now becoming revealed as hosting an integrated Neolithic ceremonial landscape.”


Urartian ruler buried with 4 horses found

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021

The grave of a man buried with four horses, cattle, sheep and his dog has been discovered in the ancient fortress site of Çavuştepe near Van in eastern Turkey. The burial is about 2,800 years old and likely belonged to a member of the ruling and/or military elite of the Kingdom of Urartu. This is the first instance of an individual buried with animals on the Urartian archaeological record.

Excavation leader Professor Rafet Çavuşoğlu:

“This place has always brought firsts to us about the Urartian burial tradition. Today, we have encountered one of those firsts. In the studies we carried out with our expert team, we found an in-situ [in its original place] tomb. We saw a human being buried with his animals. Pieces of pottery were found right next to it. Here we also found an oil lamp with a bulb that we have never seen before. It also gives important tips about lighting.”

The citadel, known as Çavuştepe Castle today, was built by the Urartian King Sarduri II (r. 764–735 B.C.). The site includes remains of Sarduri ‘s royal palace, a temple, fortification walls and utility buildings (storehouses, workshops). The tomb was discovered during excavations of the citadel’s necropolis where last year the remains of a child wearing dragon-headed bracelets were unearthed. It contained the skeletal remains of an adult male (human), and partial remains of the animals. Of the four horses, two of them have complete skulls and jaws.

The grave is still in the course of being excavated. The bones will be removed for analysis and dating in the laboratory


Only known Roman chandelier restored

Sunday, August 29th, 2021

A large circular ceramic oil lamp that is the only known surviving Roman chandelier has been restored and put on display in the Archaeological Museum at Elda on the Mediterranean coast of southeastern Spain. The chandelier is more than a foot and a half in diameter and originally blazed with 32 points of light fueled by olive oil. A maker’s mark on the lamp identifies it as having been manufactured in the 1st century A.D. in the workshop of Lucius Eros, a local potter who did posterity the favor of engraving his name on the molds used to make all of his ceramic lamps.

Founded in the 5th century B.C. as a fortified hilltop settlement in the El Monastil mountain range overlooking the Vinalopó River. The Iberian oppidium prospered from farming, hunting and forestry. The area was also rich in raw materials for ceramic production, and by the 1st century B.C. there were active commercial pottery kilns at the site and a distinctive El Monastil style had emerged.

Come the Roman defeat of Carthage, the area fell under the Roman sphere of influence. The modest Iberian town flourished thanks to its advantageous position on the river and midway along the Via Augusta than ran the length of southern Spain from Narbo (Narbonne) in the Pyrenees to Gades (Cádiz) on the Atlantic. The Romanized town, dubbed Elo, thrived off trade with Roman territories in Italy, France and North Africa, and ceramic production increased. With three kilns and a large workshop, Lucius Eros was one of the more successful potters in 1st century Elo.

In 1989, Antonio M. Poveda, professor of Ancient History at the University of Alcalá de Henares and director on sabbatical from the Elda Museum, discovered pieces of Roman pottery from the 1st century A.D. in El Monastil, in the exact spot where Lucius had his workshop. Among the artifacts found were the remains of what had been ceramic oil lamps with multiple spikes with a hole through which the wick would have emerged. Between 2009 and 2010, more fragments of at least two of these large lamps were recovered, which also featured ducts through which oil was introduced.

According to Poveda, “this type of lighting product must have been difficult to manufacture, requiring specialized potters, such as Lucius Eros’ staff. Because of their expense, they would not have been abundant, being reserved for the illumination of large rooms in the homes of the wealthy or in institutional buildings.” The archaeologist believes that Lucius’ workshop would mainly receive orders from large nearby cities, such as Ilici (now Elche) or Lucentum (now Alicante).


Repatriated looted glazed bricks go on display

Friday, August 27th, 2021

A group of 51 painted glazed bricks from the little-known Mannaean civilization that were looted from ancient site of Qalaichi in northwestern Iran will go on display for the first time in Bukan City, five miles from where they were plundered four decades ago.

The bricks were manufactured in the 8th or 7th century B.C. and are each about one square foot in dimension. They feature a variety of decorative motifs, from simple monochrome paint, floral and geometric designs to depictions of sphinxes, antelopes, birds of prey, rams and lamassus (winged bulls with human heads).

They were illegally exported to Switzerland before 1991 when an Iranian dealer attempted to sell them to the British Museum. They were too obviously looted even for the BM, and the dealer was unable to unload them to anyone else either. The bricks stayed in a warehouse in Chiasso, just over the Swiss-Italian border, until 2008 when the contents of the facility were seized due to nonpayment of the storage bill. The Swiss authorities confiscated the bricks and Tehran’s National Museum formally requested their return. Iran’s Cultural Heritage Ministry subsequently filed suit and it has taken more than a decade for it to finally come to fruition.

The Mannaeans occupied large parts of what are now the Iranian provinces of Kurdistan, East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan between around the 10th and 7th centuries B.C. The small polity was neighbored by the powerful empires of Assyria and Urartu and would ultimately be fragmented in the conflicts between the two great powers. Qalaichi was occupied between 9th and 7th centuries. It was abandoned after the Mannaean kingdom was conquered by the Medes in 615 B.C. and disappeared as a culturally distinct group.

It seemed to disappear from the archaeological record too. The first breakthrough took place in 1936 with the discovery of the Mannaean site at Ziwiye in Kurdistan. The Mannaean settlement at Qalaichi first emerged by accident in the 1970s when a farmer ploughing his fields churned up a decorated brick. Word got out and the looters descended like locusts with bulldozers, taking advantage of the upheaval of the Iranian Revolution and Iran-Iraq War to viciously plunder the site from 1979 until archaeologists were finally sent in 1985 on an emergency salvage mission.

The archaeological team unearthed numerous glazed bricks and a broken stele with a 13-line inscription in Aramaic that is the tail end of a treaty. It’s mostly a very detailed curse against anyone who would dare remove the stele (eg,”May seven cows suckle a single calf, but let it not be sated”), but it conveys that of the two parties to the treaty, one, the Mannaean side, supported by Haldi, god of war and patron deity of the Urartian royal dynasty, and an unknown second party, supported by Hadad, god of storm. It also states the Mannaean name for Qalaichi: Z’TR.

Unfortunately that one dig would be all the professional archaeology the site would get for another 15 years. The war made the area too hot and the looters came back to violate Qalaichi’s patrimony uninterrupted until a second official excavation took place in 1999. The filthy products of all this devastation were sold on the international antiquities market with plenty of takers among private collectors and museums. Mannaean material remains are exceedingly rare and every piece counts in shedding light on its culture. The homecoming of 51 of the bricks stolen during the long periods of destructive looting thus takes on even more importance.

The Repatriated Boukan Glazed Brick Collection from Switzerland exhibition will open at the Haghighi Museum in Boukan and then move to the Iran National Museum in Tehran as soon as COVID allows.


Copper Age amber burial found in Karelia

Thursday, August 26th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered a unique Copper Age burial containing 140 pieces of amber jewelry on the shores of Lake Onega in the Republic of Karelia, northwestern Russia. The grave dates to around 3400 B.C., and no other burials from this period have been found in Karelia or its neighboring regions in northwestern Russia containing anything close to this much amber.

A team from Petrozavodsk State University (PetrSU) made the find while surveying sites of prehistoric settlements on the western shore of the lake. The grave is a narrow oval pit that was covered in red ochre paint for ritual reasons. Inside the grave an assortment of pendants, buttons and discs made of Baltic amber were unearthed. Some of these types are so rare they were only known from single discoveries in the Eastern Baltic before now, and those were found in ancient settlements, not in a funerary context.

Along the edges of the burial pit, amber ornaments were deposited thickly in two tiers. In the center, they were face down in rows. They had originally been stitched to a leather cape draped over the body. When the leather rotted away, the amber pieces remained in place.

Small flint chips flaked off in the production of tools were placed on the body. Archaeologists believe the lithic deposits were meant to symbolize weapons like arrowheads and knives. There is no local source of flint in Karelia and the amber was also non-local, coming from the Eastern Baltic region, so these materials in the grave can only have been acquired through trade networks.

No other graves have been found at the site, which is another way in which this burial is unique.

Since the Mesolithic era, in the forest belt of Europe, ancient people buried the dead in ancestral cemeteries. The burial with rich grave goods found in the vicinity of Petrozavodsk is a single one. In addition, some of the discovered amber jewelry found in the grave had not been found in Eastern Europe before. It is possible that a trader from the Eastern Baltic States was buried in the grave, who arrived on the western shore of Lake Onega to acquire (in exchange for amber) slate chopping tools. Workshops for the production of slate axes and adzes are currently being investigated by the university expedition just next to the burial site.

The burial discovered by the PetrSU expedition testifies to the formation of the so-called “prestigious” primitive economy among primitive people living in Northern Europe, in which jewelry and especially valuable tools were made to maintain the high social status of their owners. Various jewelry and other prestigious items accumulated by some noble hunters are currently found by archaeologists usually in burials.

The “amber” burial discovered by the expedition of Petrozavodsk University testifies to the strong ties of the ancient population of Karelia with the tribes that lived on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.


Iron Age warrior wearing spurs found in Sweden

Wednesday, August 25th, 2021

The grave of an Iron Age warrior buried with his sword by his side on spurs on his heels has been unearthed in Buttle on the Swedish island of Gotland. Preliminary osteological analysis indicates the deceased was male, and stratigraphy suggests he lived between the 4th and 6th century. Warrior graves with weapons from this period are very rare finds in Sweden.

Excavations at the site began in 2019 but the first season turned up little of note. Last year’s excavations were suspended. This dig season saw the return of archaeologists and students from Uppsala University’s Gotland campus and they were welcomed back by the rare discovery of the warrior burial.

The bones were found during excavation of a stone circle of limestone blocks. As the soil was carefully removed from the skeleton in situ, spurs emerged at his feet. When the team removed the soil from his midsection, they found a sword. The team wrapped the soil block around the sword in plaster to remove it without risk of damage to the fragile organic elements and oxidizing metal.

The sword is 80 cm (31.5 inches) long and is bronze with bronze fittings. Parts of the sheath have also survived, namely wood framing at the top and bottom of the blade. An acorn-shaped bronze finial was found on the tip. It is similar in style to ones made on the continent at that time and Germanic fighters, including ones from Scandinavia, are known to have served in the Roman army. It is possible, therefore, that this warrior may have fought for Rome himself or had sufficient dealings with the Empire to acquire the weapon.


It’s a Bronze Age hoard bonanza!

Monday, August 23rd, 2021

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s pair of hoards comes news that four Late Bronze Age metal hoards have been unearthed near Gannat in central France. There are hundreds of bronze artifacts in these hoards, so many that the site contains by far the largest grouping of Bronze Age metal objects ever discovered in France. In fact, it is one of the richest Bronze Age metal deposit sites ever discovered in Europe.

The first known hoard at the site was plundered in 2017 by looters so unfortunately the precise location of the find is unknown and cannot be archaeologically investigated. It is now in the collection of the Anne de Beaujeu Museum in Moulins. To prevent the site’s utter despoliation by treasure hunters, an official archaeological excavation began in 2019 and has been ongoing since then.

The team discovered the remains of an unusually large fortified settlement dating to around 800 B.C., the end of the Bronze Age. The 30-hectare settlement was defended by a double row of ramparts, probably a wooden palisade with earthenware ditch, and dry stone walls estimated to have been 20 feet high.

Archaeologists found the first legally excavated hoards in 2020. The two large metal deposits were perfectly intact, which is extremely rare with hoards from this time period. They were still contained inside decorated pottery vessels. To preserve the contents and pots, the hoards were removed en bloc, CT scanned and then excavated in laboratory conditions.

Each vessel held dozens of bronze pieces, almost all of them whole and unbroken. There are weapons — axes, knives, daggers, spear tips — jewelry — bracelets, pendants, belt buckles — and fittings from chariots and horse harnesses. The objects were carefully arranged in the same way in both hoards. The jewelry was together at the bottom of the vase. A layer of sharp objects (sickles and gouges in one, swords/knives/spears in the other) was placed on top of the jewelry. The axe blades were placed above them head down. One intriguing element has never been found before in a Bronze Age hoard context: river pebbles, specifically chosen for their color. One of the hoards contained white pebbles, the other red.

Just this month, the team unearthed two more intact metal hoards. One was inside a ceramic pot topped with a plate. The other has no container. It is a deposit of ax blades in a pit, but they are placed in the exact same way as the axes were in the 2020 finds, head down, tail up.

Although fragile after 2,800 years, the bronze objects are in an exceptional state of preservation. “The axes, in particular, were little or not used,” underlines Pierre-Yves Milcent, which illustrates the paleomonetary role which they played, since, as in the Gallic time, elaborate systems of exchange of values ​​already existed in the Bronze Age. Ax blades were used as units of exchange. This point clearly illustrates that the intention of those who buried these precious objects was to sacrifice value to gods, in order to obtain their help during personal or collective crises, but also during social rites. For example inaugurating a building, a site, etc., adds Pierre-Yves Milcent, who remarks: “Sacrificing values ​​in the earth is a European habit, which continued during the Iron Age – the Gallic period – but which has in fact existed since the Campaniforme at least.”

The discovery of such a rich vein of Bronze Age metal deposits still in situ and intact gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to study Bronze Age Europe’s practice of voluntary, organized burial of metal valuables in places where there are neither graves nor temples to explain the offerings.





September 2021


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