Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Earliest Maya calendar fragment found in Guatemala

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered the earliest confirmed example of Maya calendar notation on two fragments of plaster at the Maya site of San Bartolo, Guatemala. The paint-on-lime-plaster fragments feature a dot and a horizontal line over the head of a deer. This is “7 deer,” one of the days of the Maya calendar. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found next to the plaster returned a date range of 300-200 B.C.

“The Maya had a solar calendar, like us, but they also had a ritual one,” says Hurst. “We also have one, as Easter is part of that sequence of rituals throughout the year,” she adds. It was associated with a creation myth and also to mark the celebrations that accompanied the Haab, the 360-day calendar. The remaining five days, although they were counted, were disastrous and people avoided leaving their homes. Surrounding both was the Calendar Round, which completed its cycle every 52 years. The complex way that the Maya had to organize time was completed with the Long Count, a vigesimal system (base 20) of counting the days linearly. It is with the latter that it has been possible to find equivalencies between the Maya calendar and the Gregorian calendar.

San Bartolo made global news in 2001 when archaeologists discovered vividly painted murals from the Late Preclassic period (400 B.C. to 200 A.D.) in its central stepped pyramid, dubbed Las Pinturas after the colorful wall paintings. Ceramic artifacts dated them to around 100 B.C., the penultimate of seven construction phases of the pyramid. The calendar hieroglyphics date to the third phase.

Previous discoveries of hieroglyphic inscriptions at San Bartolo proved that writing systems had developed in the Central Maya Lowlands area far earlier than previously realized. The earliest examples of Maya hieroglyphic writing, found in Oaxaca, Mexico, date to around 400 B.C. The earliest examples in San Bartolo date to around 300 B.C., a significant movement in a short time considering San Bartolo is more than 500 miles southeast of Oaxaca.

During the third phase of construction, the central pyramid was smaller. When it was expanded, walls had to be knocked down. Archaeologists discovered more than 7,000 pieces of plaster, remnants of the destroyed walls. They were disposed of carefully, not simply thrown away as construction debris. The former walls were deliberately deposited inside the newly-enlarged chamber, a sort of symbolic burial of the sacred imagery and text.

The study of the find has been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read in its entirety here.

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Rare coin hoard from Constantine’s reign found in Switzerland

Wednesday, April 13th, 2022

A hoard of more than 1,000 coins from the second quarter of the 4th century has been unearthed in Bubendorf, north central Switzerland. The hoard was discovered by volunteer archaeological scout Daniel Lüdin in a forested area near Wildenstein Castle. When his metal detector signaled a strong alert, Lüdin dug down a little and found a few Roman coins and some potsherds, not enough to explain the strength of the signal. He dug down a little more and hit the jackpot. Literally: a broken pot filled with coins.

He filled in the hole and notified canton heritage officials at Archeologie Baselland who promptly dispatched a team to the find site. They removed the pot in a soil block so that all of the coins, pot fragments and any invisible archaeological treasures like traces of organic remains could be excavated in laboratory conditions. The block removal also allowed researchers to CT scan the soil block to map out the contents. A black space seen in the CT scans between two layers of coins turned out to be a simple piece of leather.

The total coin count after the hoard was fully excavated is 1290 coins, all copper coins, so it was basically a change jar. It adds up, though, and the total value of 1290 coppers was the equivalent of a gold solidus, or about two months’ salary for a soldier in the legions. All of the coins were minted during the reign of Constantine (306-337 A.D.). The most recent among them date to 332-335 A.D.

What makes the hoard so unusual is that it was buried during a time of political and economic stability. Coin hoards from the 4th century were typically buried during periods of unrest, but Constantine’s reign was not among them. Hoards from this period are vanishingly rare throughout the Empire. It seems likely that this one was buried for other reasons. One possibility is a religious offering as the find site was on the border between three known Roman estates, so it could have been a boundary line sacrifice.

Here is 3D model of the hoard after the external soil was cleaned but before the contents were excavated in the laboratory.

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Han Dynasty “thick burials” unearthed

Tuesday, April 12th, 2022

Archaeologists have unearthed two early Western Han tombs containing more than 140 funerary objects at the  Dongzha New Village site in Yancheng, eastern China. The wooden chamber tombs are filled with water and soil, preserving organic materials like wood and plant fibers. The rich furnishings include bronze ware, lacquer ware, pottery, painted wood figurines and more than 100 weapons.

The tombs were discovered last week, and only one of the two, M84, has been fully excavated thus far. It is a rectangular cut pit containing a central wooden coffin and two wooden caskets, one on the side, one at the foot of the burial coffin. The coffin was covered with rectangular wooden boards. The three compartments are packed tightly with bronze mirrors, pottery coins, glazed ceramics, pottery tripods, cups, plates, spoons and other utensils. One of the coins, a Yingyuan, is the first example found in Yancheng.

The other tomb, M82, is larger and has only been partially excavated. It too is a rectangular pit with a wooden burial chamber containing a wooden coffin, a side chamber and a foot chamber. The excavation of the small side and foot chambers revealed complete wooden crossbows, bows, arrows, painted wooden figurines, lacquer boxes, lacquer cups, game boards, pottery, pottery coins and plant seeds.

Both of the owners of these tombs must have been wealthy, high-status individuals to afford such rich burials. A jade bi (a disc with a hole in the middle that had religious significance often found buried in the graves of the elite) discovered in M82 confirms he was someone of high social rank.

Yancheng was settled in 119 B.C. in the Western Han Dynasty as a center for the harvest of sea salt in the rivers and wetlands around the city. Salt was a lucrative business and the city prospered. Han noble families displayed their wealth in “thick burials,” meaning tombs crammed to the gills with valuables and practical items for the deceased to enjoy and use in the afterlife just as he had when he was alive. The custom made Han tombs very attractive to looters, and so many of them were emptied out centuries ago that the discovery of even one  still-thick burial is rare. Finding two is a huge archaeological boon to our understanding of Han funerary practices.

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Greco-Roman-Egyptian culture and the mummy of Herakleides

Sunday, April 10th, 2022

It’s been a molasses-slow weekend as far as bloggable news goes, so a video from the Getty it is. The video is less than 10 minutes long, but it manages to cover the interesting subject of how the beautifully painted cartonnage mummy of one Herakleides exemplifies the melding of Greek, ancient Egyptian and Roman cultures in post-Ptolemaic Egypt.

The mummy dates to the Roman period — ca. 120-140 A.D. — and is complete with intact linen wrapping and a fine wood portrait panel depicting a beardless young man with curly hair wearing a gilt laurel wreath. The linen shroud was painted red, symbolic of eternal life, and then decorated down the length of the body with the iconography of Egyptian deities including Osiris, Horus and Isis. The bottom of the shroud is painted with a representation of the youth’s feet with gilded toes, incorporating the pharaonic funerary tradition of golden toe caps. Above the feet is a Greek language inscription: ΗΡΑΚΛΕΙΔΗC ΘΕΡΜΟΥ, meaning Herakleides, son of Thermos.

The portrait panel, painted in realistic Greco-Roman style, was a Roman-era addition to the traditional Egyptian mummification practices that had continued, albeit in altered form, under the rule of the Ptolemies. A CT scan of the mummy confirmed that Herakleides was 18-20 years old when he died, so the portrait is at least accurate to his real age.

The CT scan also found a surprise inside: a mummified ibis placed on his abdomen just under the ibis painted on the shroud. Mummified animals were not usually incorporated into the mummies of humans. Ibises were sacred to Toth, so it’s possible Herakleides had a particular connection to the god, perhaps as a priest.

Anyway, awesome video follows. If you like that, have a browse through the Getty’s YouTube channel because this is one in a series of six collaborations between the museum and Smarthistory that highlights select pieces in the collection. The Victorious Youth, an exceptional Greek bronze that has been the subject of a 15-year legal struggle between the museum and Italy over the highly dubious legality of its sale and export, is one of the other subjects

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The Roman ships of Fiumicino

Saturday, April 9th, 2022

The Museum of the Ships of Fiumicino is home to the remains of five Roman ships from the imperial era that were discovered during construction of the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport. It is one of the most important discoveries ever made as regards Roman civilian naval technology, and an invaluable source of information on imperial shipbuilding.

The ships are of three different types. Ships Fiumicino 1-3 are caudicarii, barges with flat bottoms and high sides that were used as transport vehicles on the canals and lagoons linking the sea at Portus inland to the Tiber and on to Rome. They played a vital role as the primary modes of transport of people and merchandise from the port to the Eternal City.

For the principal waterway servicing the capital of a vast empire, the Tiber is not very accommodating. It is shallow, winding, floods in the rainy season and churns with treacherous currents and rocky shoals. These barges had to be towed with ropes by pulling crews on the river bank to reach Rome’s main inner port in what is now the Testaccio neighborhood. Fully laden at its 70-ton capacity, the largest of the caudicarii would have taken three days to travel the 20 miles from sea to city.

The fourth is a sea-going vessel. It is small with a 4-5 ton capacity, and was likely used for commerce rather than longer voyages in the open sea. It may have been small, but was extraordinarily well-made, from the design to the execution. It has a streamlined hydrodynamic design and was expertly crafted from high-quality materials. It was highly maneuverable

Fiumicino Five is a fishing boat, navis vivara, a modest little rowboat  that is unique in the world. It is in an excellent state of preservation, the hull almost complete. What makes it one of a kind is that it still contains the wooden well the fisherman would use to hold his catch alive before heading to shore at the end a day’s fishing. The square well was built in the middle of the boat consisted of four wooden walls inclined slightly inward centered over the keel. Holes on either side of the keel could be unplugged to ensure the exchange of water for the catch no matter how long the work day. The pine plugs are still present. The well could hold about 80 gallons of water.

Sea fish were a luxury food, sold for high prices to the homes of the rich and aristocratic in Rome. Fresh water wish were the staples of the budget-conscious diet. A fisherman who could deliver his catch still living to the markets of Rome would make good money for his trouble.

Excavations at the time of the airport’s construction unearthed structures from the Roman port and, between 1958 and 1965, five ships in close proximity to each other. The ships were conserved inside a wooden hangar built at the find site ensuring the fragile wood vessels would be preserved for eventual public display within the confines of the ancient port basin built and expanded by Claudius and Trajan. The hangar became the Museum of the Ships of Fiumicino in 1979.

Structural problems forced the museum’s closure in 2002, and kept it closed for almost 20 years. The museum recently completed an extensive renovation program and reopened its doors in October 2021. It certainly could not be more conveniently located for visitors flying into Rome. You can literally see the airport a few hundred feet away from the museum windows. Two minutes on an airport shuttle, and you can while away a layover exploring ancient Roman modes of transportation.

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Intaglio gem sale part III: even tinier

Friday, April 8th, 2022

The ancient carved gemstone collection of Roman art dealer Giorgio Sangiorgi had so deep a bench that Christie’s is now on the third auction dedicated to his impeccably curated miniature masterpieces. There are 48 Greek, Roman and Etruscan intaglio gems crafted between 1700 B.C. and the 3rd century A.D. on offer in this third and final auction.

Giorgio Sangiorgi had an art gallery in the Palazzo Borghese on tony Via Ripetta in Rome. Founded by his father Giuseppe in 1890, the gallery specialized in European art and antiquities. It also ran auctions and exhibitions, so father and son had close business connections with all the major museums, institutions and private collectors. Giorgio developed a special interest in ancient glass and gems. He became an avid collector, keeping the greatest pieces he could get his hands on and publishing numerous scholarly articles on the subject. (Interestingly, he never published his own collection. Nobody outside the family even knew this treasure existed until 2018.)

In the late 1930s, Giorgio Sangiorgi saw the writing on the wall and decided to get his precious collection to safety before Italy was mired in war. He moved it to Switzerland for its protection. Sangiorgi died in 1965 and his collection remained in the family until the first part of it appeared at auction in 2019. The collection was sold in parts to ensure the market wasn’t glutted and so that the most spectacular stones didn’t overshadow the ones of lower appraised value.

The auction is currently open online and closes on April 14th. The catalogue is a wonderful browse, and every one of the miniature masterpieces is worth exploring zoomed-in to see all the fine details.

Speaking of fine details, this 1st century A.D. Roman circular ringstone in banded sardonyx has to have the most minute carving I’ve ever seen. It is barely over an inch in diameter, smaller than a half dollar coin, and a good part of that is the uncarved white band that frames the chocolate brown center. On that carved surface of maaaybe 7/8ths of an inch are eight deities, six horses and two chariots. Oh, and a row of fluffy clouds.

The row of clouds divide the hemispheres of the carves surface. Above it are the Capitoline Triad — Juno, Jupiter and Minerva — enthroned. Jupiter sits in the center holding a tall scepter in the right hand. Minerva, wearing a helmet seated at Jupiter’s left, holds a shorter scepter in her lap. Juna to Jupiter’s right does as well. She also holds a phiale Emerging from the very end of the clouds are two wind deities blowing shell trumpets. Under the clouds are the moon goddess Selene driving a biga (two-horse chariot) followed by the sun god Sol driving his quadriga (four-horse chariot). Below them is Oceanus, reclining languorously on a toppled vase.

So how big could that quadriga with its four overlapping horses and realistic articulated hooves, possibly be? Maybe a quarter inch? How tiny were the blades the engraver used to carve those horses’ legs? Intaglio carving is always mind-blowingly tiny, but these figures are by far the tiniest I’ve encountered. The pre-sale estimate for this piece is a modest $15,000-$20,000.

I’m going to put another amazing gemstone on offer behind the jump because it’s an explicit scene of a satyr copulating with a donkey and most definitely NSFW. It is not, I repeat, NOT short on the phalluses. Pun very much intended.

(more…)

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Bronze Age figurine: goddess or weight?

Tuesday, April 5th, 2022

A Bronze Age female figurine discovered in the Tollense River in northern Germany may have been a balance weight, a goddess or both. The figurine was found by Ronald Borgwardt, a truck driver who has been scouting the archaeological and watery depths of the Tollense since the 1990s, on July 20th, 2020. He was snorkeling in the river east of Rostock when he discovered a small bronze figurine in the sediments of the bank. He found a bronze arm ring a few feet away.

Just a hair under six inches tall and weighing 155 grams, the figurine has a flat body, an ovoid shaped head with prominent nose and eyes, looped arms, two bumps for breasts, a shallow vertical cut at the crotch indicating female genitalia and legs with protruding knees. The right leg is strongly bowed, the left straighter. She wears a neck ring and a belt. Typology dates the figurine to the 7th century B.C.

About a dozen similar figurines have been found near the Baltic Sea in Zealand, Scandia and one in northern Germany which was then part of the Nordic Bronze Age culture. The other German figurine was discovered in around 1840 just 20 miles from the most recent find; unfortunately its whereabouts are currently unknown. Most of them have been found near rivers or the Baltic coast. The Tollense is a bit of a double-whammy as it is both a river and direct connection to the Baltic Sea.

Researchers have hypothesized that these statuettes may have been used as balance weights based on a weight unit of 26 grams, but with such a limited number of examples it seemed unlikely they could have been quotidian tools as there would be more widespread evidence of them on the archaeological record. The 155-gram weight of this example, however, is an almost exact multiple of 26 grams, which may or may not be of significance given that this is the heaviest of the figurines. The second heaviest weighs 133 grams, which is another almost-multiple of 26.

The Tollense river valley is famed for the great number of archaeological materials and remains from a violent clash (battle? massacre?) that took place there in the early 13th century B.C. It’s possible that the figurine was deposited in commemoration of the conflict that had taken place there centuries earlier.

The female figures with looped arms are related to distinctive places of the Later Bronze Age landscape, and the recently discovered specimens from the Tollense valley supports their close connection to communication routes. The significance of the lower Oder area for Later Bronze Age trade is reflected in a concentration of bronze hoards around the island of Usedom, c. 50 km to the east. The wetland context supports the notion of a deposition in a transitional sphere between the real and the underworld. The figures have been considered as evidence for worship (as epitome of a goddess), as evidence for trade (as balance weights), or both (‘goddesses of wealth’). The distribution over a relatively small area speaks rather against an interpretation as a Nordic goddess of this time.

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7 saucer brooch pairs for 7 graves

Monday, April 4th, 2022

Archaeologists have found seven pairs of Anglo-Saxon saucer brooches, one pair in each of seven burials unearthed in an excavation in Gloucestershire. The Cotswolds Archaeology team discovered more than 70 Anglo-Saxon burials at the site, some of them containing luxury grave goods. They date to the 5th or 6th century.

They’re known as saucer brooches after their shape: a circular central body with a raised rim. They are made of gilded copper alloy and were relief-cast (cast from a single piece of sheet metal) with decorative motifs in geometric patterns. The one pictured right features five “running spirals” (meaning they’re connected to each other like they were written in cursive) around a central boss of pellet-in-ring style. This is the most commonly found motif on saucer brooches with geometric patterns.

Ranging in size from 20-70 mm in diameter, saucer brooches were worn in pairs across the chest to fasten garments. Their designs are more simple than, for example, the long square-headed brooches which were so large they offered much more space to create complex, highly sophisticated designs. The saucer brooches are still a high-status signifier for burials from this early period of Anglo-Saxon history in England, often found in tandem with other expensive pieces of jewelry.

Those we uncovered were either positioned one on each shoulder, or two next to each other on the left shoulder with an associated clothing pin, giving a vivid impression of how they once looked on their wearers.

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4,000-year-old boat recovered near Uruk

Sunday, April 3rd, 2022

Archaeologists have recovered a 4,000-year-old bitumen boat outside the ancient city of Uruk in southern Iraq. An international team of archaeologists from the Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) salvaged the boat which was under threat from erosion and traffic running nearby.

The boat was first discovered in 2018 in the archaeological buffer zone around Uruk during a program of systematic documentation of the many remains of canals, agricultural fields, settlements and production sites that pepper the environs of the Sumerian capital, which 1,000 years before this boat was built was the largest city in the world with an estimated population of 80,000 living in the metro area. The edges of the boat had been exposed by erosion, and archaeologists have been keeping a close eye on its condition in the years since. Last month, the salvage operation began.

The Iraqi-German research team successively uncovered the very fragile boat and thus documented the unique finding: it is an almost completely preserved boat made of organic material (reed, palm leaves or wood) completely covered with bitumen. It is 7 m long and up to 1.4 m wide. It is not thicker than 1 cm in many places. The organic remains are no longer preserved and are only visible as imprints in the bitumen. During the excavation the boat was documented three-dimensionally by photogrammetry. The archaeological context shows that it sank at the bank of a river that has since silted up, probably about 4000 years ago, and was overlaid by sediments.

The boat was covered with a clay and plaster shell for stabilization directly during the excavation and could thus be recovered largely complete. In accordance with Iraqi antiquities law, it was taken to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad for further scientific study and conservation. It is planned to exhibit the boat and make the knowledge of its construction and context available to the public.

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Unique Gallic tripod banquet bucket revealed

Friday, April 1st, 2022

Four Iron Age busts and a beautifully preserved wooden banquet bucket have been presented to the public for the first time in an exhibition at the Musée de Bretagne – Les Champs Libre in Rennes, Brittany. The bucket is unique in Brittany, and unique for having been found in a well instead of a tomb.

The five objects were discovered in the fall of 2019 in an excavation of a site in Trémuson that proved to be a large country estate of the Gallic elite occupied and altered between the 3rd and 1st century B.C. In the middle of the 1st century B.C., some sort of upheaval caused the residents to deposit objects as offerings at the bottom of the well.

The first sculpture was found near the well, face down in a pit dug to the busts’ dimensions. It is the bust of a man wearing a torc around his neck, marking him as an aristocrat. The figure is finely modeled, with neatly combed hair and a well-shaped beard. It dates to the middle of the 1st century B.C. The three other statuettes, torcless and more roughly modeled, were found at the bottom of the ancient well. The four busts all bear traces of fire and deliberate damage. It’s possible this was once a set with religious purpose that was desecrated and burned.

The abandoned well’s waterlogged soil had preserved objects, including a great deal of wood, thrown into it during the troubled mid-1st century B.C. As archaeologists dug down, they encountered charred wooden planks and other architectural elements including poles, beams and posts. The planks may have been part of the cover of the well in its heyday. In total, the team recovered 460 pieces of waterlogged wood, most of them fragmentary and partially carbonized by fire.

At the bottom of the well were the three busts, a beautifully tuned fragment of wood furniture, an ash mallet, a cylindrical oak bucket, several staves and the exceptional tripod banquet bucket. Crafted of yew wood encircled with two bronze straps and decorated with bronze openwork plates, the tripod bucket dates to the second half of the 2nd century B.C.  They were used at banquets to serve wine. The bucket is almost complete, missing only a few small pieces of the openwork and metal accents.

The woods are so well-preserved they are remarkable representatives of Gallic woodcrafts. The oak bucket has a drain hole in the bottom that still has its maple cap in place. The ash mallet was fragmented in the way it was because a fracture in the mortise. It also has perforations from the joinery and visible marks from a planer blade on the underside of the head. The yew bucket has the small dowels used to reinforce the staves at their connection points still safely in place.

The fragile wood pieces were soaked with PEG which removes the water in the cells and replaces it with a waxy substance that keeps the wood from warping and shrinking as it dries. The process took two years. Conserved and stable, the yew bucket went on display with the four sculptures on March 18th and will remain on display until December 4th.

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