Sarcophagus motherlode found in Turkish olive grove

An olive grove three miles outside the town center of İznik (Nicea) in western Turkey’s Bursa province has proven such a rich source of elaborate Imperial Roman sarcophaguses that archaeologists believe it may have been an ancient necropolis.

The first sarcophagus was discovered in November 2015. Looters had gotten there first, sadly, and in their zeal to steal broke a foot-wide hole in the formerly pristine lid of the sarcophagus. The seven ton marble sarcophagus was raised and ultimately installed in the garden of the İznik Museum along with other ancient funerary monuments found in the area.

It is an Attic style sarcophagus, rectangular in shape with a steeply pitched gabled roof. Elaborately decorated on all four sides, figures stand out in high relief against an architectural background of fluted columns topped with arched and peaked pediments. Each of the intercolumniations contain a character from Greek mythology. Researchers identified the carvings on one side of the sarcophagus as a scene from the Illiad: Briseis being taken from Achilles by Agamemnon. On the left is Achilles seated on a curule chair (a Roman symbol of political, military and religious power) playing the lyre. Facing him on the right, his hand to his helmet perhaps in the act of putting on Achilles’ armor in anticipation of fighting the Trojans in his stead. In the center intercolumniation is Briseis, the princess enslaved by Achilles after he killed her family and sacked Lyrnessus. She sits on a more simple curule chair and glances outwards. The two men to her right are Talthybios and Eurybates, envoys of Agamemnon who have been sent to claim Briseis for their master to make up for his having had to give up his own war prisoner/sex slave, Chryseis, because she was the daughter of a priest of Apollo and the deity insisted on her return.

Scenes from the life of Achilles were a popular motif for sarcophagus reliefs, most often episodes that feature death — Achilles slaying Hector, dragging his body behind his chariot, mourning Patroclus — which has obvious relevance in funerary art. The taking of Briseis appears on its face to be a little more obscure a connection, but Achilles’ anger and its massive body count is literally the first line of the Illiad, and his rage towards Agamemnon over Briseis sets off a chain of death, and two of the victims, Patroclus and Hector, are then further outraged by Achilles’ refusal to allow them proper burial.

A year later, police on the search for a stolen vehicle noticed illegal excavations were taking place again in the grove. They alerted museum officials and 24/7 security was put in place to protect the site during the ensuing archaeological excavations. Three more Roman-era sarcophagi were unearthed from the grove in this excavation, including another one with a peaked roof decorated with erotes and botanical akroteria. A funerary stele was discovered near it. Three brick tombs had been built next to the marble one, perhaps the final resting places of people employed by the noble deceased.

The three additional sarcophagi were raised for cleaning, conservation and perhaps installation in the museum, but they might end up back with its olive family. After the 2017 excavation, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism tried to acquire the olive grove for the nation. Their offer of 500,000 lira was a distinct lowball, and the owners took it to court. Experts assessed the fair market value of the 10-acre property at 1,094,000 lira, so the ministry had to cough up double to secure the field. The plan is to excavate the grove thoroughly and create an open-air museum featuring its remarkable assemblage of high-end sarcophagi.

4,400-year-old snake staff found in Finnish lake

A wooden staff carved in the shape of a snake has been discovered at the prehistoric site near the town of Järvensuo in southwest Finland. Radiocarbon dating of the wood found it was made in the Late Neolithic, ca. 2471-2291 B.C. The find is unique on the archaeological record; the closest comparable artifact in design and date is a small clay figurine found 60 miles away in the 1960s.

The Järvensuo 1 site was first discovered accidentally by a ditch-digger in the 1950s by the southern shore of Rautajärvi Lake. The initial find of a wooden paddle, radiocarbon dated to 3331–2462 B.C., was followed decades later by other prehistoric finds, including a scoop with handle carved in the shape of a bear head, preserved in the waterlogged soil. Most of Finland has highly acidic soil that makes short shrift of organic remains, so its wetlands, under active threat by drainage and peat mining, are of priceless archaeological resource.

New excavations began in 2020, 35 years after the last ones, and the digs have revealed a stratigraphy stretching back 5,000 years, including phases of human activity. The wooden snake was unearthed last summer. It was found lying on its right side in a layer of peat two feet below the surface. It is 21 inches long and 1.2 inches thick at its widest point. It was carved from a single piece of wood with the head of the serpent at one end, two gentle bends conveying its sinuous body and tapering down to the tip of the tail. Its surface is smooth without ornamentation, but it is artfully designed with a slim neck leading to a raised, flat head with an open mouth.

While snakes are not a common theme in the Neolithic art of North Europe, there are some rock carvings and paintings that depict snakes, including one with its mouth open. At least two prehistoric rock paintings in Finland feature a man holding aloft a curvaceous staff reminiscent of the Järvensuo piece.

Ancient rock art from Finland and northern Russia shows human figures with what look like snakes in their hands, which are thought to be portrayals of shamans wielding ritual staffs of wood carved to look like snakes. [University of Helsinki archaeologist Antti] Lahelma said snakes were regarded as especially sacred in the region.

“There seems to be a certain connection between snakes and people,” Lahelma told Antiquity. “This brings to mind northern shamanism of the historical period, where snakes had a special role as spirit-helper animals of the shaman … Even though the time gap is immense, the possibility of some kind of continuity is tantalizing: Do we have a Stone Age shaman’s staff?”

The snake staff has been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read in its entirety here.

Early Christian graves found in Sweden

Seven early Christian graves from the Viking Age have been discovered in Sigtuna, southeastern Sweden. They were found in an archaeological survey at the site of a planned residential building on a hill on the western edge of the historic town, and date to the end of the 10th century when the hill was on the outskirts of the town.

The seven graves contain the remains of eight individuals as one of them was a double burial of two infants who likely died in or shortly after childbirth. Objects were found in the graves — coins, a comb, a knife, the remains of a belt — typical of pagan funerary practices, but the east-west orientation indicates these were Christian burials. They are markedly different, however, from previous early Christian burials found in Sigtuna. Several of the deceased were placed in wooden coffins that were then buried on a stone-lined bed and covered with more stones. None of the coffins survive, but iron nails attest to their use.

This tomb design hasn’t been found in the town before, although some have been found in the wider area. Before this discovery, the earliest Christian burials in Sigtuna were spare, simple east-west inhumations with no grave goods. Archaeologists have postulated that there must have been knowledgeable and experienced priests in Sigtuna to ensure a strict adherence to Christian burial practice during what was still a transitional period between belief systems. If so, the recently-unearthed hilltop graves predated their arrival.

Sigtuna was founded on the banks of Lake Mälaren in the 970s by King Eric the Victorious. It was briefly that capital under the reign of Eric’s son Olof Skötkonung, first Christian king of Sweden. The first Swedish coins were struck by the mint in Sigtuna from the 990s until the early 1030s. Its growth and prosperity began to decline when the episcopal seat was moved to Old Uppsala around 1164, and the town lost its central economic, political and religious significance to its neighbors.

The bones and grave goods are now being studied and analyzed. Researchers hope to be able to pinpoint the dates of the burials more precisely to shed new light on early Christian burials in Sigtuna. The objects will be conserved for later display at the Sigtuna Museum.

Sandstone equestrian relief found at Vindolanda

A sandstone relief of a man holding a spear standing in front of a donkey or horse has been unearthed at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland. The stone is intact, a rectangle with a peaked top that measures 160mm wide by 315mm high (6.3×12.4 inches). It was discovered embedded face up in the floor of a 4th century building. This was a reuse. The relief would originally have been placed in a fitted niche.

Site archaeologist Marta Alberti, one of the team overseeing the excavations at Vindolanda, is now piecing together all the clues to try and establish who the carving may represent, and with no comparable discoveries at Vindolanda and no inscription on the relief those clues are in finer details of the carving. Marta commented “The nakedness of the man means he is probably a god, rather than a mere cavalryman, he is also carrying a spear in his right arm, a common attribute of the god of War – Mars, however when you look at his head, the two almost circular features could be identified as wings: a common attribute of Mercury – god of travel. Horses and donkeys are also often associated with Mercury as a protector of travellers”.

Another clue is not in the find itself but where it was found. The stone floor was very close to that of a large 4th century cavalry barrack. The units residing in the part of the fort may have had their own interpretation of Mars, or Mercury, or a third and so far unidentified version of the god merging the qualities of both. Marta commented “this interesting relief may represent something we have not only never seen before but something we may never see again”.

The volunteer excavations, a popular yearly feature of the Vindolanda site, had to be deferred in 2020. The finders of the relief, Richie Milor and David Goldwater of Newcastle, have been dedicated Vindolanda volunteer excavators for more than 15 years, making a yearly pilgrimage to join in the dig. The resumption of excavations in March 2021 marked their triumphant return to keep their long streak going, and Vindolanda celebrated by giving them a unique artifact to find.

David noted that “I saw one of the legs of the horse first and then the pointed top of the relief “, Richie said “we are just absolutely elated, very proud to be part of this discovery, it was actually very emotional. Whether you find something or not we love coming to this site, playing our small part in the research that takes place, but finding this made it a very special day indeed.”

The Roman Fort and Roman Army Museum at Vindolanda just reopened June 15th after having been closed since lockdowns began in March 2020. A selection of current finds, including the equestrian relief, going on display at the museum on July 1st.

Shell mound skeleton is world’s oldest shark attack victim

The skeleton of a Neolithic fisherman found in a shell mound in Japan is the world’s earliest confirmed victim of a fatal shark attack. Discovered at the Tsukumo Neolithic shell mound in the village of Nishi Oshima, Okayama Prefecture, the he bones have been radiocarbon dated to between 1370 and 1010 B.C. The previous oldest-known shark attack was far more recent, dating to around 1000 A.D.

The first human remains were discovered at Tsukumo in 1870. They were in the surface soil layer, likely scattered by agricultural work, but it wasn’t until professional excavations took place between 1915 and 1920 that dozens of skeletons buried in crouched position were discovered in the thick black soil and shell strata in the middle of the mound, revealing it to be a Neolithic cemetery. Personal ornaments — shell bracelets, deer antler earrings, decoratively incised bone and a necklace of serpentine beads — a smattering of stone tools and pieces of pottery identify it as burial mound of the fisher-hunter-gatherer Jōmon culture.

Oxford University researchers have been restudying Neolithic skeletal remains in the collection of Kyoto University looking for evidence of trauma. On the last day of the visit to Japan, they opened the box containing the remains of Tsukumo No. 24. Unearthed around 1920, Individual Number 24 was buried in a crouched position, his left hand and right leg missing. His disarticulated left leg was placed on top of his body with the foot pointing towards the head.

The research team found his bones were absolutely riddled with traumatic injuries, at least 790 deep, serrated wounds to his arms, legs, abdomen and chest. The team compared the wounds to weapons from the period and nothing matched. The sharp v-shaped cuts were the kind inflicted by a honed metal blade, materials not available to the Jōmon people. No land animal, predator or scavenger, had teeth that match the injuries. Comparison to modern cases of shark attacks finally solved the mystery. All of the characteristics of the wounds were found in modern victims of shark attacks, and the distribution pattern of the wounds, which shows a preference for certain areas, also matches shark attack data.

The team recorded every injury and used 3D modeling software to make a precise map of the wounds on the skeleton. They were able to reconstruct the likely progression of the attack.

The pelvis has tooth marks in the area near where he lost his right leg. The majority of larger bites on the lower body suggest that he was probably in deep water, possibly swimming, and was alive at the time of the attack. The missing, sheared off left hand best is explained as a defensive wound as he tried to fend off an attack from below. The skull and vertebrae are free of injuries most likely because they didn’t offer enough flesh to interest the attacker. […]

The completeness and trauma of Tsukumo No. 24 were mapped and quickly showed that a number of bites would have severed major arteries, suggesting that he would have lost consciousness within a few minutes and died soon afterwards.

Given the speed of the attack and its fatal conclusion, it was probably seen by witnesses, perhaps his fellow fishers, who were able to recover most of his body for burial. They must have been very quick about it, as even the tiny bones of his right hand are still present and they would have very quickly been lost to the deep. They either scrupulously scooped up his left leg with his body, or his left leg was only attached by a thread when they got his body out of the water and it came off in transport.

The serrated tooth marks narrow down the sharp species to either a tiger shark or a white shark. There were hundreds of overlapping bite marks and no one perfectly outlined tooth, so researchers were not able to conclusively identify which of the two shark species it was.

The paper has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Explore the 3D model of the shark attack wounds here: