Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Curse jar found in Athens Agora

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2021

A pottery jar containing chicken remains and engraved with the names of more than 55 curse targets has been discovered in the ancient Agora of Athens. Pierced with an iron nail and buried in a corner of the Classical Commercial Building around 300 B.C., the vessel was a class-action curse, an offering of dismembered chicken parts to the underworld deities to hobble the bodies and minds of dozens of named opponents.

The jar, a rounded cooking pot known as a chytra, was unearthed in 2006 by archaeologists from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens but has only now been fully translated and published, revealing that the simple unglazed pot was intended to be a weapon of mass destruction. The names of the curse victims were inscribed on the sides and bottom of the pot in two different hands. Today about 30 full names are legible; the rest have worn over the centuries and now survive only as a disconnected letter or lines. Inside were the remains of the head and lower legs of a chicken and one bronze coin.

The experts involved in the discovery believe that the nail and chicken parts together most likely played a role in the curse on the 55 different individuals. Nails, which are a common feature associated with ancient curses, “had an inhibiting force and symbolically immobilized or restrained the faculties of (the curse’s) victims,” [Yale Classics professor Jessica] Lamont stated in her scholarly article.

The archaeologists determined that the chicken that had been killed had been no older than seven months before it was slaughtered to be used as part of the ritual; they believe that the people who employed the magic may have wanted to transfer “the chick’s helplessness and inability to protect itself” to those they cursed by writing their names on the outside of the jar, Lamont stated.

She further explains that the head of the chicken, which had been twisted off, and its piercing, along its the lower legs, meant that the corresponding body parts in the 55 unfortunate people  would also be similarly affected.

“By twisting off and piercing the head and lower legs of the chicken, the curse sought to incapacitate the use of those same body parts in their victims,” Lamont notes.

Lead curse tablets were the most common means to activate the power of chthonic deities against enemies in antiquity. Thirty of them were found in just one 4th century B.C. well in Athens. Curse jars are far more rare. Tablet or pot, the mechanism of most of these curses was the same: they were binding spells, intended to disable a rival’s physical and cognitive prowess. The target would be named, the curse articulated, a nail driven through the conveyance which would then be buried, often near a source of water, to put them in closer proximity to the underworld gods being invoked.

The use of a pot in this case is extremely unusual, and may be directly connected to the beef. With so many names on the curse list, it’s likely the conflict was over a court case. Legal disputes were the subject of many of the Athenian curse tablets, and everyone involved, from litigants to lawyers to judges to witnesses, were often targeted for binding spells. Given the jar’s burial in a commercial building known to have been used by potters, it’s possible the vessel was used rather than a more traditional lead tablet to inhibit participants in a potter-related lawsuit.


Decapitated bodies evidence of Roman military executions

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

The decapitated bodies discovered in a late 3rd century Roman burial grounds in Somersham, Cambridgeshire, were likely victims of Roman military executions. The remains were first discovered more than a decade ago during excavations of the Knobb’s Farm Quarry site, but thorough analysis of the findings has just been published now.

In three small cemeteries, archaeologists unearthed 52 burials, 17 of which were decapitated bodies buried with their heads at their feet or between their legs. By percentage, this is much higher than the average number of decapitation burials in Roman Britain — 33% versus up to 6%. In addition to the decapitated inhumations, 13 prone burials, which are even more statistically rare (2-3%), were found. Six burials were both decapitations and prone.

The Knobb’s Farm site was part of a large Roman farm settlement, which sadly has been most lost thanks to gravel quarrying activity in the 1960s. The cemeteries were located at the southwestern edge of the settlement. The farm was active from the 1st century A.D., and it expanded in the 2nd century to include extensive grain processing facilities. The buildings were dismantled and the site was abandoned in the late 3rd or early 4th century.

Osteological examination of the bones suggest the deceased worked at the form. There was significant skeletal trauma (breaks, fractures, dislocations) unrelated to decapitation. There are other pathologies evident in the teeth and bones that indicate childhood malnutrition and chronic illness, plus cavities, abscesses and tooth loss. Osteoarthritic changes and other signs of repetitive stress suggest the deceased worked hard in life.

“DNA shows there were nine different types of groups that had come from various places,” Isabel Lisboa, archaeological consultant on the project, told CNN on Monday.

“These settlements were extensive rural settlements that provided grain and meat to the Roman army.”

It’s not clear why so many were decapitated, but Lisboa said the most likely explanation is executions for crimes, with another possibility being ritual practice.

During the later part of the Roman occupation of Britain, the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 14 to 60, as state instability became more prominent, according to research cited by the study.

“Roman laws seem to have been applied particularly harshly at Knobb’s Farm because it was associated with supplying the Roman army, so there were many decapitations,” said Lisboa, who is a director at Archaeologica, an archaeological consulting company.

“Crimes normally would have been let go, but there were probably tensions with the Roman army.”

Somersham is only 40 miles northwest of Great Whelnetham where another Roman-era cemetery was discovered in 2019 that also had an unusually high proportion (40%) of decapitated individuals. It was very high in prone burials too, bringing the overall total of deviant burials in that one cemetery to 60%. An unknown religious practice was proposed as an explanation for those decapitations and burials as the incision marks on the neck were made neatly under the jaw after death.

The sandy, highly acidic soil of the area left the Knobb’s Farm bones in very poor condition. Only four of the decapitated bodies were sufficiently preserved complete with at least some cervical vertebrae to attest to how and when the heads were removed. Only one had actual surviving cut marks. Even so, the evidence of the four makes it clear that these individuals were killed by a violent blow from behind severing their necks. The angles indicate the victims were kneeling. There are no defensive wounds, no evidence whatsoever of battle or a raid or any other type of conflict. For whatever reason, they were given the chop.

The study has been published in the journal Britannia and can be read in its entirety here.


Intact Punic tomb found in Malta

Friday, May 28th, 2021

An intact Punic tomb has been unearthed in Żabbar, southeastern Malta. The 2,000-year-old tomb was discovered during expansion of the sewer network to the south of the island. Archaeologists opened the seal tomb to find a diverse group of vessels typical of the Punic period. They are excellent condition, almost all of them complete.

The contents of the tomb include one large amphora, two urns, an oil lamp and a glass ungentarium. Several of the larger urns contained cinerary remains, and the bones of an adult and a young child were found inside the tomb as well. This is evidence that the tomb was in use from the later Punic era through the early Roman era.

“The burial rite was altered through the Punic and Roman times. Sometimes the bodies were burnt, and other times they were buried intact in the grave. Cremation necessitated a variety of resources, including wood to burn the body and the presence of a person throughout the whole process of cremation which took several hours,” the [Water Services Corporation] said.

Malta was colonized by Phoenicians in the 8th century and played an important role as a centralized stop along their Mediterranean trade routes. Another Phoenician colony, Carthage, took control of Malta in 480 B.C. and remained in control until they lost the island to Rome in the Second Punic in 218 B.C.

Technically it was incorporated into Rome’s Sicily Province, but Malta was granted a certain autonomy under Roman rule and by the 1st century it had its own senate and popular assembly. The island appears to have maintained many of its ancient Punic cultural traditions, including funerary practices, well into the Roman imperial era. Even today Malta’s connection of Phoenicia is indelible; a 2005 genographic study found an unexpectedly strong prevalence of genetic markers shared between the people of coastal Lebanon and Malta. More than half the Y chromosome lineages in Malta originated with the Phoenicians.

The remains and pottery have been removed from the site and transported to a laboratory for cleaning, conservation and analysis.


Bronze Age Spiral is oldest gold object in southwest Germany

Tuesday, May 25th, 2021

A gold spiral strongly reminiscent of a fettucine nest is the oldest precious metal object ever discovered in southwest Germany. It was unearthed last fall in the grave of a Bronze Age woman near the town of Ammerbuch-Reusten. The burial contained the skeletal remains of an adult woman buried in fetal position. Archaeologists found a single object: a small spiral ring made of gold wire. It was located about hip height and is believed to have been a hair ornament.

Archaeologists and students from the University of Tübingen and the Baden-Württemberg State Office for Monument Preservation removed the grave, bones and gold spiral, in a soil block for excavation and analysis in the laboratory. Radiocarbon dating of her bones dates the burial to between about 1850 and 1700 B.C., the Early Bronze Age.

The gold in the ring was composed of about 20% silver, less than 2% copper, traces of platinum and tin. This composition indicates the gold was alluvial in origin and the proportions points to the alloy’s source as the River Carnon in Conrnwall. The raw material from previous gold objects found in Europe from this period and earlier originated from southeastern Europe, so the spiral is remarkably early evidence of an expansive trade network in luxury goods in northwestern Europe.

The research team evaluates the new gold find from Ammerbuch-Reusten as evidence that Western cultural groups gained growing influence on Central Europe in the first half of the second millennium before our time. The women’s grave was not far from a group of other burials from the Early Bronze Age and is evidently related to the well-known hilltop settlement on the nearby Reustener Kirchberg.


“Nationally important” Roman ritual bronzes fall through Treasure Act loophole

Thursday, May 20th, 2021

A hoard of nationally important Roman ritual bronzes that includes a bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius have sold at auction to an unknown buyer for £185,000 ($260,000) thanks to the still-open loophole in the 1996 Treasure Act.

The assemblage was discovered last May by metal detectorists James Spark and Mark Didlick in a field near the village of Ampleforth in the Ryedale district of North Yorkshire. They first unearthed a figurine of a horse and rider. A foot away they dug up the bust and a conical plumb bob. They found the a key handle in the shape of the forequarters of a horse the next day. The hoard was then taken to York Museum and examined by archaeologists.

The bust is finely modelled, with detailed facial features and curled hair. There are rivet holes on the front of the chest plate indicating that it was originally mounted onto something, probably a priestly scepter. The features identify the bust as a portrait of Marcus Aurelius, which means the deposit dates to the 2nd century at the earliest.

Two comparable deposits found in the 19th century also included a scepter head bust of an emperor, horse and rider figurines and mounts and fittings. The plumb bob has no parallel in votive deposits. Archaeologists believe the inclusion of the key component of a surveyor’s tool may be an indication that the offering was related to construction, perhaps asking the sanction of the gods for the creation of a new town boundary (pomerium).

Despite the great archaeological significance of the assemblage, it does not qualify as treasure because it’s not two or more coins 300 years old or older, not made of precious metal and not prehistoric. This loophole springs from a ludicrously outdated definition of treasure established in medieval common law. The UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport finally addressed the problem and a revision of the act that would plug the loophole was written in 2019. Unfortunately the complexities of the legislative process — public consultation period, further research, the publication of said research, the official drafting of the legislation and its passage by Parliament — mean it won’t actually be law until 2022 at the earliest.

So now the Ryedale Ritual Bronzes join the Crosby Garret helmet, the Roman licking dog, the Allectus aureus and who knows how many other treasures of cultural patrimony that haven’t made the press. Let’s hope the buyer turns out to be a museum, or at least a generous donor.


250 rock-cut tombs found in Egyptian necropolis

Wednesday, May 19th, 2021

A group of 250 rock-cut tombs have been discovered in the Al-Hamidiyah necropolis near Sohag on the western bank of the Nile in southern Egypt. They were found in the course of a Supreme Council of Antiquities project to document the archaeological site.

Tombs of different types — single and multiple shaft burials, chamber graves — were carved into the face of the mountain at various levels. The range in date from the late Old Kingdom (2700-2200 B.C.) to the end of the Ptolemaic era (305-30 B.C.). Most of the extant ancient archaeological remains near Sohag are Ptolemaic, so the Old Kingdom tombs are particularly notable.

One of the Old Kingdom tombs uncovered consists of an entrance leading to a cross-hall and a burial shaft in the south-east side, and a sloped passage leading to a small burial chamber, Waziri said, with burial shafts making an appearance in later eras.

Waziri explained that the tomb also featured a false door covered in Hieroglyphic inscriptions, alongside depictions of sacrifices and offerings to the dead.

Excavation of the tombs has unearthed funerary artifacts, primarily pottery, some of which were items of daily use. Others were purely funerary, votive miniatures explicitly made for burial purposes. The team also discovered spherical pots with traces of their original yellow paint, small alabaster vessels and a round metal mirror. In addition to the inscribed false door from the Old Kingdom tomb, archaeologists uncovered fragments of limestone slabs carved with hieroglyphics dating to the end of the 6th Dynasty.

This group of tombs represents the rulers and employees of the ninth region of Upper Egypt, which is considered one of the important administrative centres of ancient Egypt, due to the location of the Mediterranean between the exiled capital and Aswan, as well as the vicinity of the city of Abydos, which is the centre of the worship of the god ‘Osir’.

The main centre of the region was the city of Akhmim, and the main deity of the region was the god ‘Min’. It is expected that more graves will be uncovered before the project is completed.


Roman baths emerge from sand dunes of Cádiz

Monday, May 17th, 2021

The remains of a Roman bath from the 4th century have emerged from the dunes of Cape Trafalgar near Cádiz, on the southwest coast of Spain. Roman buildings in any condition are rare survivals in Cádiz because the ancient city, founded by Phoenicians 3,100 years ago, was destroyed during the Visigothic conquest of southern Spain in 410 A.D., and this building is unusually well-preserved by the winds that quickly buried it in sand after it was abandoned.

The surviving walls are 13 feet high (the remains of Roman structures are typically foundations and short walls no more than two feet high) and contain numerous windows and doors. There are fragments of the red, white and black stucco used to decorate the walls, as well as marble cladding.

“It is a structure that has an exceptional state of conservation for the Iberian Peninsula and the western Mediterranean in general,” Darío Bernal, a professor of archaeology at the University of Cádiz, tells Efe. […]

Bernal and his team believe the building was a sophisticated rural bath complex complete with an oven-fueled hot air current that warmed the walls and floors.

It most likely served as a communal hot bath for local workers, many of whom would have toiled away in odorous coastal jobs like fish farming and salting.

Indeed, the archaeology team was exploring the site as part of a research project investigating the history of Roman aquaculture in the area. When the structure first emerge, Bernal thought it was a cetaria, a fish pond connected to the sea where fish and crustaceans were fattened up. Wealthy Romans attached these nurseries to their estates so they had a constant supply of the best fish for their own consumption and to sell.

Fishing and fish products were the main industry in this area during the Roman era. What is now Cádiz was a major producer of garum, the sauce made of crushed and fermented fish intestines that was consumed in prodigious quantities by people from every walk of life all over the Roman empire. The garum from the Hispania Baetica province was considered the best, and the remains of garum factories have been found in Cádiz and other towns along the coast.

Local authorities are now considering what to do with the dune baths once excavations are complete. One possibility is to maintain it as an archaeological park to attract tourism. The other is just to let the wind do its thing and bury it back in the sand for its own protection.


Antioch mosaics reclaimed at Florida museum

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

Visitor views pavement from the House of the Drinking Contest, Roman, 2nd Century A.D., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, at the exhibit. Photo courtesy MFA, St. Petersburg.The mosaic panels unearthed at the ancient site of Antioch in the 1930s only to be reburied under the east lawn of the Museum of Fine Art in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the 1980s, have gone on display in a new exhibition at the museum.

The museum acquired the set of five mosaics from Princeton University in the 1964, the year before the museum opened its doors. The pavements date to between the 2nd and 5th centuries and were raised from the floors of luxury Roman-era villas in the suburbs of Antioch. Two of the mosaics were permanently installed out of doors, one in the Membership garden, one cemented into a fountain in the Sculpture Garden. One was put in storage, and in 1989, the last two were buried under the lawn for unknown reasons.

The neglected mosaic collection got some much-needed attention with the appointment of new executive director Kristen Shepherd in 2017. She found the one in storage, had the ones under the lawn excavated and detached the one that had been embedded in the fountain. Three years of cleaning and conservation later, the five mosaic panels (plus one previously unrecorded fragment found in the east lawn excavation) have gone on display in Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA, open through August 22nd.

“Our acquisition of these mosaics from Princeton a year before the museum opened represents a message that the museum would be an encyclopedic art museum and the founders had that in mind. They were the first shipments of art at our loading dock, so it was a big deal,” says Michael Bennett, Ph.D., the MFA’s curator of Early Western Art. “With Princeton’s full collaboration, we’re telling the story of their 1930s excavation and Antioch. We’re including a documentary film made by the archeologists during that excavation that’s never been seen by the general public. Princeton has never loaned any of this archival material before, so this is a world premiere.”

For a completely immersive experience, the MFA is pulling out all of the tech stops to incorporate video, QR code audio guides, and historic black and white photography as storytelling elements to fully encapsulate the journey of these mosaics. They even have a time-lapse from the 2018 excavation of the mosaics from their lawn to their conservation with the help of RLA Conservation to them finally being moved and installed in the exhibition gallery.

When the exhibition ends, the mosaics will be permanently mounted as a group on the walls of the Membership Garden.


Goth soldier with bent sword found in Thessaloniki basilica

Friday, May 14th, 2021

The tomb of a Goth warrior buried with a bent sword has been found in an early Christian basilica in Thessaloniki. It is the first burial of a soldier with weapons from this period ever discovered in the region of Macedonia.

The remains of the three-aisled basilica from the 5th century were discovered in 2010 during an archaeological survey in advance of subway construction. It had been built over a preceding chapel from the 4th century that is believed to be the oldest Christian church in Thessaloniki. Seven vaulted tombs were found under the south aisle. These must have been Christians of importance in the city to be honored with burial in the basilica.

One arch-shaped tomb contained the skeletal remains of the an adult man interred with weapons including a shield boss and spearhead. The best preserved of his weapons was his spatha, a short sword used by Roman cavalry in the late Imperial period(3rd-5th c.). It had been deliberately folded, an extremely rare phenomenon in urban Greece at this time. The practice was more common in Celtic and Germanic populations. Romans did not bend swords, and the practice of weapons burial is unusual in a Christian funerary context from this period. It was considered a pagan ritual, so finding them in a basilica grave is unexpected. It’s an indication of the high rank he probably held in the army.

The bent sword is a clue that the soldier was a “Romanized Goth or from any other Germanic tribe who served as a mercenary (foederatus) in the imperial Roman forces,” Maniotis wrote in the email. The Latin word “foederatus” comes from “foedus,” a term describing a “treaty of mutual assistance between Rome and another nation,” Maniotis noted. “This treaty allowed the Germanic tribes to serve in the Roman Army as mercenaries, providing them with money, land and titles. [But] sometimes these foederati turned against the Romans.”

The archaeological team recently found ancient coins at the site, so they plan to use these, as well as the style of the sword’s pommel, or the knob on the handle, to figure out when this soldier lived, Maniotis noted.


Herculaneum victim identified as Pliny’s first responder

Wednesday, May 12th, 2021

One of 300 skeletons discovered on the ancient beach at Herculaneum in the 1980s has been identified as a senior officer in the rescue mission launched by Pliny the Elder after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Skeleton 26, an adult man around 40 years old when the volcano claimed his life, was initially identified as a soldier based on his muscular build and uniform elements, but a recent analysis of his gear indicates that he was far more than a simple soldier, a high-ranking officer certainly, likely a naval officer deployed to help evacuate the residents of Herculaneum.

The skeletal remains of people seeking shelter in the boat sheds on Herculaneum’s beach first emerged in 1982. They were the first human remains found in the town which was previously believed to have been successfully evacuated before the eruption buried the city in 60 feet of hardening volcanic rock. The 300 people fled to the beach in hope of being rescued by ship. They took shelter inside roofed archways that under non-apocalyptic conditions were used to store gear and nets from fishing boats.

Skeleton 26 was found face-down in the sand, thrown to the ground by the force of the pyroclastic flow that hit the city going 60 miles an hour and killed everyone in the sheds. He wore a leather belt decorated with silver and gold foil from which hung a gladius (short sword) with an ivory grip. On the other side of him was a pugio (dagger) also highly decorated. Next to the body was a group of coins — 12 silver denarii and two gold coins — that add up to the monthly salary of a Praetorian Guard in the first century. On his back was a rectangular backpack holding a set of tools. A few feet away were the remains of a military boat, the rescue ship the evacuees had waited for only to be killed before they could step foot on it.

Herculaneum archaeologists at first focused on studying the recovered bones, but recently researchers returned to backpack, belt and weapons for an in-depth analysis. The study revealed that the belt’s gold and silver foil decorations depicted a lion and a cherub. The scabbard of the gladius was adorned with an oval shield. The work tools in the backpack were typical of the faber navalis, a naval engineer who specialized in carpentry.

Recently another team of researchers performed a DNA test on the skull of another skeleton, found more than a hundred years ago on a beach near Pompeii, thought to be that of Pliny the Elder. Like the skeleton in Herculaneum, it was wearing a heavily ornamented sword and was draped with golden necklaces and bracelets.

Pliny the Younger described his uncle’s fatal final mission to save the inhabitants of the Gulf of Naples in a letter to the historian Tacitus, which also contains the first description of what volcanologists would later dub a Plinian eruption.

My uncle was stationed at Misenum, where he was in active command of the fleet, with full powers. On the 24th of August [date is a centuries-old transcription/translation error; eruption was in October], about the seventh hour, my mother drew his attention to the fact that a cloud of unusual size and shape had made its appearance. He had been out in the sun, followed by a cold bath, and after a light meal he was lying down and reading. Yet he called for his sandals, and climbed up to a spot from which he could command a good view of the curious phenomenon. Those who were looking at the cloud from some distance could not make out from which mountain it was rising – it was afterwards discovered to have been Mount Vesuvius – but in likeness and form it more closely resembled a pine tree than anything else, for what corresponded to the trunk was of great length and height, and then spread out into a number of branches, the reason being, I imagine, that while the vapour was fresh, the cloud was borne upwards, but when the vapour became wasted, it lost its motion, or even became dissipated by its own weight, and spread out laterally. At times it looked white, and at other times dirty and spotted, according to the quantity of earth and cinders that were shot up.

To a man of my uncle’s learning, the phenomenon appeared one of great importance, which deserved a closer study. He ordered a Liburnian galley to be got ready, and offered to take me with him, if I desired to accompany him, but I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and it so happened that he had assigned me some writing to do. He was just leaving the house when he received a written message from Rectina, the wife of Tascus, who was terrified at the peril threatening her – for her villa lay just beneath the mountain, and there were no means of escape save by shipboard – begging him to save her from her perilous position. So he changed his plans, and carried out with the greatest fortitude the task, which he had started as a scholarly inquiry.

He had the galleys launched and went on board himself, in the hope of succoring, not only Rectina, but many others, for there were a number of people living along the shore owing to its delightful situation. He hastened, therefore, towards the place whence others were fleeing, and steering a direct course, kept the helm straight for the point of danger, so utterly devoid of fear that every movement of the looming portent and every change in its appearance he described and had noted down by his secretary, as soon as his eyes detected it. Already ashes were beginning to fall upon the ships, hotter and in thicker showers as they approached more nearly, with pumice-stones and black flints, charred and cracked by the heat of the flames, while their way was barred by the sudden shoaling of the sea bottom and the litter of the mountain on the shore. He hesitated for a moment whether to turn back, and then, when the helmsman warned him to do so, he exclaimed, “Fortune favours the bold….”

Bold he most certainly was — he took a leisurely bath, had a dinner, took a nap, finally made his way to the shore with a pillow tied to his head to protect against the pumice fall — but alas not fortunate. Pliny the Elder died on the beach, suffocated by the volcanic gases that suffused the air.

A new excavation of the ancient beach begins this month. Archaeologists are also working on extracting DNA from the skeletons of Herculaneum.





June 2021


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