Archive for June, 2021

Lorenzini Head cleaned by artifact-optimized laser

Saturday, June 19th, 2021

One of the masterpieces of Etruscan sculpture has been given a high-tech laser cleaning. The larger-than-life male head is believed to have been part of a cult statue of the god Aplu (Apollo) that once stood in a temple in Volterra. It dates to around 480 B.C., and while it was made locally, the sculpture was done in archaic Greek style with the characteristic placid smile, almond-shaped eyes and prominent cheekbones. The domed forehead, the strong brows carved in relief and the elaborate hairstyle are typical of Etruscan figural sculpture. The eyes would originally have been filled with glass or stone, a technique derived from bronze sculpture used here in marble.

It is the earliest sculpture carved out of prized Carrara marble ever found in the Etruscan territory of central Italy. Very few late-archaic Etruscan (late 6th, early 5th century B.C.) marble sculptures have survived. Its local production incorporating Greek traditions, size and temple origin make the Lorenzini Head one of the most important sculptures in the Etruscan archaeological record and without question the most important statuary ever to emerge from Volterra. It has been included in every text on Etruscan art and was described by archaeologist and Etruscan expert Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli as “the most Greek of the Etruscan works.”

The statue was famous even in its own time. As the primary cult state of Volterra’s Temple of Apollo, it was widely reproduced in miniature and bronze figurines of the statue were widespread throughout the Volterran sphere of influence. Archaeologists believed they were used for devotional purposes in private homes.

According to Lorenzini family lore, it was discovered in a well in the courtyard of their old home in downtown Volterra, where tradition holds there was once an Etruscan temple. There was an extensive legal battle over who held legitimate title, the Lorenzini who owned the property or the artisan Maurizio Pazzagli whose grandparents had owned the well where it was found. The Lorenzini won, and in 1946 Lorenzo Lorenzini made a handshake agreement with the director of the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum to loan the head for display 364 days a year. On Christmas the head got to spend the day with family in their palazzo.

A second legal battle, this time with the state, was ignited in 1997 when Lorenzo’s heirs decided to sell the head. Italy wanted to keep it from leaving Volterra (the sellers stipulated as a condition of sale that it could not leave Italy, but it could end up anywhere in the country) and the court of Pisa ordered it sequestered in 1998. The situation was finally resolved only in 2019 when the Italian Culture Ministry exercised its right of pre-emption (ie, first refusal) and bought the Lorenzini Head for 355,000 euro.

They assigned it to the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, a decision which incensed the  Volterrans — neither its previous custodians at the Guarnacci Museum nor anyone else in the head’s hometown was even consulted — and caused the Mayor of Volterra to protest that “the sack of Volterra continues, albeit in a creeping way,” a pointed reference to the 1472 sack of the city by the Florentine troops of Lorenzo the Magnificent who wanted full control of the alum mines recently found in the area.

Cries of outrage notwithstanding, the Lorenzini Head is now in the care of the National Archaeological Museum. Restorer Daniela Manna deployed a laser with a pulse specifically optimized for cleaning objects of cultural heritage.

Thanks to the cleaning and restoration of the work, preceded by a series of diagnostic analyzes carried out by specialists from the Institute of Cultural Heritage Sciences of the CNR in Florence, Daniela Manna was able to free, thanks to the use of the Eos 1000 laser LQS, the surfaces of the face and the splendid and highly detailed hair from the limestone incrustations that prevented the appreciation of the precise volume of the head and the quality of the marble.

The red haze that characterized the face was also eliminated, since it was actually modern paints and not an ancient pigment, which had been interpreted as an intentional coloring given for ritual or cultic reasons.

So cleaned up and free from colors and harshness that did not belong to it, the Lorenzini Head can today for the first time be fully appreciated and evaluated in its full and smooth forms, in its intentional asymmetries, certainly due to the evaluation of the point of view from which cult statue had to be observed in the mystical and evocative atmosphere of the temple that housed it in some sacred area of ​​ancient Velathri (Volterra).

The laser has been donated to the museum which plans to use it to clean the surfaces of marble, alabaster, stone and pottery artifacts in the collection, including Etruscan urns richly decorated with mythological scenes. The laser is so minutely programmable that it is the ultimate in non-invasive technologies, minimizing the use of harsher solvents and cleansers.

Roman hotel found under old movie theater in Verona

Friday, June 18th, 2021

A large building from the 2nd century has been unearthed under a derelict 1930s movie theater in the historic center of Verona. Extensive architectural and decorative elements have survived, as have extremely rare organic remains preserved by the fire that caused the building’s demise. Because it was both destroyed and preserved in a sudden calamity, it’s being dubbed a “Little Pompeii” which it isn’t at all, of course, but the structure’s size, complexity and surviving features make it extraordinary on its own terms.

The Cinema Astra has been closed for two decades, home to extended family networks of mice and pigeons who decorated their nest with liberal quantities of guano until it was cleaned as part of a revitalization initiative in 2005. The interior was set to be demolished and reconstructed with multiple commercial spaces, but the discovery of ancient Roman foundations under the theater interrupted the demo. Eventually the restructuring plan was put on hold and the archaeological findings were reburied for their preservation.

Fast-forward 15 years and as of March the refurbishment project is back in gear. In those few months, the excavation has revealed an extraordinarily large and complex structure from the imperial era. Archaeologists found the remains of hypocaust systems for both underfloor and intramural heating, concrete floors decorated with mosaic tiles and inlays. One room was particularly pristine, with brilliantly colored frescoes on the walls, decorated floors visible under carbonized wood from furniture and the collapsed ceiling.

This was probably not a domus or residential home. There’s no peristyle, no internal courtyard, none of the characteristic design of the Roman house. The floorplan and surviving walls indicate the spaces was divided into individual bedrooms, so the going hypothesis among the archaeological team is that it may have been a hotel, and a luxury one at that with top quality decorations and advanced amenities like heated walls.

The fire likely occurred in the late 3rd or early 4th century, based on the ancient stratigraphy of the site and adjacent areas. The wooden roof, carbonized in the conflagration, collapsed to the floor. Archaeologists found it where it fell. Pieces of wooden furniture were also carbonized in the fire.

The date range makes it conceivable that the building was burned down in one of several major clashes between imperial rivals that took place in Verona. Carinus defeated usurper Sabinus Julianus there in 283 A.D.; in 312 Constantine the Great successfully laid siege to the city and killed his rival Maxentius’ most senior cavalry commander Ruricius Pompeianus. After the Battle of Verona, Constantine marched unopposed to Rome and defeated Maxentius once and for all at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

If it’s on the earlier end of the range, the building could also have been a sort of eminent domain-type confiscation by Gallienus who in the 260s expanded the walls of Verona to include the arena and created a wide defensive ditch around the walls. Buildings were demolished in the construction, and some were demolished to clear a new defensive perimeter. Hostelries, farms, businesses, homes right outside the walls were sacrificed.

I didn’t write about this earlier because there was only one photo of the find circulating, literally a low-res WhatsApp download spread over the Italian wire service, and it was offensively small and pixelated (see left), but the discovery was opened to the press yesterday so now there’s actual video of the excavation site. 

Oldest shoe in northern Germany found in bog

Thursday, June 17th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered the oldest known shoe ever found in northern Germany, and maybe even the whole of Germany. The leather shoe was found next to a late Iron Age wooden plank path which dates to around 50 B.C., so the shoe is around 2,000 years old. It is a kind of sandal with the leather gathered in the front and pierced, a leather thong is threaded through holes to close the shoe.

The wood plank path dubbed PR VI is remarkably well-preserved and runs almost 2.5 miles through the middle of Brägeler Moor between Diepholz and Lohne. Plank paths were necessary infrastructure for humans to travel somewhat safely over the marshy moorlands. They required a great deal of wood to be transported to the site and the route through the moor had to be cleared and prepared for construction.

More than 500 ancient plank paths are known to survive in Lower Saxony, but PR VI is exceptional. It is one of the longest bog trails not just in Germany but in the world. The existence of PR VI has been known for a century as sections of it were encountered in peat extraction. Until recently there was no funding to excavate it and document it archaeologically. Excavations finally began in June of 2019 and are expected to continue through 2022.

“The moors of Lower Saxony hold the testimony of many thousands of years of history. They are a unique archive, as they have not only preserved processed shards and metal objects as decisive evidence of our history, but also organic finds, “says Lower Saxony’s Minister for Science and Culture, Björn Thümler, happily. “The best known are the bog corpses, but also wooden idols, long wooden paths and numerous other remnants of life at that time are part of it. A shoe that is lost and found again after 2,000 years, the oldest shoe from Lower Saxony to date, is an immensely personal testimony to a previous life. You can hardly get any more poetic to the people of that time. It is one of those testimonies that make time tangible as if under a magnifying glass.

In the immediate vicinity of the shoe there were remains of a broken carriage axle and other car fragments. You can almost grasp the incident in which the wearer lost the shoe: The axle of a wooden cart, probably pulled by cattle, broke in two and the cart had an accident on the bumpy road. While doing this or trying to recover the car parts, the owner of the shoe fell or stepped beside the path and the shoe got stuck in the sticky mud – where it was found now, over 2,000 years later.

The moor is now part of the Dümmer Nature Park which is dedicated to the conservation of the ecosystem and history of this remarkable landscape while making it more accessible to visitors. Part of the conservation program is rewetting moorland that has been exposed from peat mining, and a large 520-meter (.3 mile) section of PR VI will have to be removed before peat extraction and rewetting of the area.

The ancient plank path will be a featured element in the nature park’s improved trail system. It will be made “walkable” by a footbridge linked to a moor trail that parallels the original route. Visitors will be able to traverse the moorland the way ancient travelers did, only their shoes will stay on their feet.

Be amazed by these aqueduct/nymphaeum/church frescoes

Wednesday, June 16th, 2021

Nestled in the lush Valpantena valley five miles east of downtown Verona in the village of Santa Maria in Stelle is the little parish church of Santa Maria Assunta. Underneath it is a unique archaeological site, a Roman aqueduct turned nymphaeum turned early Christian baptismal font turned extravagantly frescoed church and pilgrimage destination. The hypogeum is named Santa Maria in Stelle after the starry sky fresco on the ceiling, and the whole village is named after its greatest archaeological gem.

The hypogeum was first constructed in the 1st century as an aqueduct to channel the water of a natural spring on the property to supply fresh water to the villa and agricultural estates of the Gens Pomponia, an important Roman senatorial family who owned large tracts of land in the area. It’s one of few examples of Roman aqueducts in northern Italy, and the best conserved. There is still water running through the original conduits, albeit with nothing like the powerful flow they channeled in the days of Roman yore.

In the first half of the 3rd century, a nymphaeum, a cult site dedicated to nymphs, was added to the aqueduct by expanding one of its cisterns. An inscription at the entrance to the hypogeum records that Publius Pomponius Cornelianus built it and lists the rest of his family: wife Julia Magia, sons Pomponius Julianus (future praetor of Arabia) and Pomponius Magianus (future praetor of Thrace). The inscription is not in its original context, so it’s not clear whether what he built in this case refers to the nymphaeum or another structure, but we know from other inscriptions that Cornelianus, a prominent imperial magistrate and major landowner, dedicated a votive altar “to the nymphs and their waters” for the restoration of a nearby mineral spring around between 200 and 215 A.D.

Sometime in the 4th century, probably after a visit from Saint Zeno, Bishop of Verona, the nymphaeum was converted to use as a baptismal font. Some remains of the elliptical tub used for baptisms are extant in the atrium of the ancient nymphaeum, and frescoes were added to the walls with motifs related to salvation, initiation and martyrdom decorated with floral and swirls. The murals are worn with large missing sections, but two can be recognized as depictions of Daniel in the lion’s den, complete with a tiny Habakkuk above him to his left bringing mystical food and drink, and Christ the Lawgiver flanked by Peter and Paul. A partial view of the horses in a quadriga also survives, its interpretation unclear. These are the only Paleo-Christian frescoes in northern Italy.

Around the turn of the 5th century the baptismal space was expanded and two semi-elliptical chambers added to the left and right of the atrium. It became a space dedicated to the teaching of the catechism and the walls and ceilings were frescoed with scenes and figures from the Old and New Testament. The north chamber’s frescoes are the most spectacular. They were painted in the 5th century by an unusually fine artist for such a modest site, with highly refined renderings of faces, clothing, architecture and dynamic action. Even the border, a three-dimensional Greek meander pattern, seems to leap off the wall (and sink deep into it).

On either side of the entrance to the north camber are two youths carrying torches, iconography often found at the entrance to Roman villas. Above the entrance and the youths is an Enthroned Christ with a rare blue halo. Very Roman-looking unbearded apostles in togas flank him. Two cylindrical boxes on each end of the apostles contain scrolls of the New and Old Testament. Jesus and the apostles also hold scrolls. This fresco dates to the 6th century.

Turning left, the first panel depicts the entry of Christ into Jerusalem as people lay down rugs for him, an event described in the Gospel of Luke. The next scene is from the Book of Daniel and features Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to worship the gold idol of King Nebuchadnezzar II. The motif continues in the next fresco where the three stand in the fiery furnace, protected from harm by the angel behind them.

Then it’s back to the New Testament with a shockingly dynamic Massacre of the Innocents from the Gospel of Matthew. Herod is on the right commanding two soldiers who are in the act of slamming babies to death. Another child bleeds on the ground. The Nativity is next, but it lacks the iconography we’re familiar with. Instead of Mary and Joseph adoring Christ in the manger with shepherds and animals, only the animals are present: an ox and a donkey. The manger has faded and only the outline of the head of Baby Jesus is still visible. This very simple scene of Christ Child and animals was the earliest representation of the Nativity. Mary and Joseph and the rest of the cast were introduced to the iconography in later centuries.

Next to the Nativity is an elliptical niche. Two figures of women in exotic clothing adorn opposing walls of the entry archway. The back wall of the niche has solar image on the back wall with an umbrella on the curved ceiling. Above the entry to the niche is a very worn figure of Mary. On the ceiling above her is a dark blue background with white stars. This is the fresco that gives the hypogeum its name. It dates to the 9th century.

Last but most certainly not least, and the main motivation for this entire post, is a fresco like nothing I’ve ever seen before decorating the domed ceiling of the chamber. It’s a series of tubes, four rows of them, each in a different color — red on the bottom, then blue, yellow and green. Every tube is decorated. This incredibly abstract vista is likely an architectural reference. Romans used “tubuli,” empty clay pipes, in domes to fill the space while lightening the weight pressing down on the support walls. The artist has brought the structural secrets of a dome to the surface.

The south chamber is smaller with less elaborate decoration. Its frescoes date to the 8th century and are very damaged. There is a youth holding a scroll and a panel of the hand of god with devotional inscriptions on either side. A 1st century funerary altar not original to the space has been placed in the chamber. It was toppled and had an inscription carved into the back by Pope Urban III in the 12th century.

The hypogeum was used in the 8th and 9th centuries as a safe place for Christians to meet when the Lombards were in charge, and it was ready to step in for parish services in 1100 when the church above it was severely damaged in an earthquake. In 1187, Pope Urban III declared any pilgrims visiting the site would receive plenary indulgences. He used that ancient altar for the dedication to signify the triumph of Christianity over paganism. The hypogeum was used mostly as a well in the late Middle Ages, but saw a revival of its religious significance in the late 16th century. It was consecrated for mass by the Bishop of Verona in the 18th century.

The hypogeum was closed to the public in 2008 due to its precarious condition. The frescoes were afflicted with thick mineral deposits and biological growth. Water penetration from the church above had led to paint loss, and materials used in a misguided restoration attempt in the 1960s had also deteriorated. In 2016, a new program of conservation, documentation and light design restored the murals and the space was opened to visitors again on a very limited basis to maintain a stable temperature and humidity in the delicate environment. The restoration of the north chamber was particularly successful, as the removal of deposits revealed the colors of the frescoes were still brilliant.

Take a virtual tour of the amazing north chamber in this photogrammetric reconstruction.

Four burials found under Verona Arena archways

Tuesday, June 15th, 2021

Skeletal remains of four individuals have been discovered underneath the arches of Verona’s iconic Roman arena. These are the first burials ever found inside the amphitheater’s archways.

The first was discovered in December during a comprehensive program of restoration and infrastructure improvements in the archways of the amphitheater. Archaeologists found traces of burning between the walls of Arch 31 and expected to unearth evidence the arch had been used a blacksmith’s forge as similar finds have been made in previous excavations. Instead, they unearthed an unprecedented burial. The remains were of an adult woman buried with her arms folded across her chest. Potsherds used to pave the floor in the 1st century A.D. had been moved to make room for the burial. The depth of the grave suggests it dates to late antiquity, between the 3rd and 6th centuries.

Earlier this month, archaeologists came across another surprise burial, this time of three individuals under Arch 10. The remains are of an adult man and two adolescents around 16 years of age. One of the youths is morphologically female, with shorter limbs and smaller bones. The sex of the other has yet to be determined. Coins found in a small purse attached to the man’s circular buckle have been identified as “Enrician” coins, coinage dedicated to the four Henrys who were crowned King of the Romans in the 11th century struck by the Verona mint in the 12th century. Radiocarbon analysis will confirm his dates and those of the two adolescents.

The bodies were found in a central pit. The young woman’s head was pointing south. The adult man’s was as well and the other youth was next to him head pointing north. If viable DNA can be extracted, it should be possible to determine if there was any familial relationship between the three that explains their burial in such close quarters.

In the wake of these discoveries, the restoration program will now also include archaeological investigations of all the internal archways to see if more of the small, narrow spaces were dedicated to funerary use. The burials will be included in the new museum itinerary dedicated to the arena’s 2000-year history which will open inside the amphitheater after the program of restoration is complete.

Necropolis with rich Burgundian grave goods excavated

Sunday, June 13th, 2021

Excavation of a necropolis in the ancient Roman town of Boutae, near Annecy is southeastern France, has yielded rich Germanic funerary furnishings. Radiocarbon dating and analysis of the artifacts dates the necropolis to between the second half of the 5th century and the second half of the 7th, indicating there was a stable population of Burgundians living in Boutae after the establishment of the First Kingdom of Burgundy in the Rhineland and Savoy in 443.

Boutae was founded in 27 B.C. as a vicus, a small satellite town of the main city of the Allobroges tribe. Located at the intersection of three major Roman roads and on the Alpis Graia, the route leading to the Petit Saint-Bernard alpine pass, Boutae prospered under the Roman Empire. It was razed and much of the population killed in the Germanic invasions of the mid-3rd century, but it was rebuilt in the 3rd century. The vicus was largely abandoned in the early 5th century in the wake of the Burgundian invasion, but some of pockets of the town were used until the end of the 7th century.

The presence of graves from late antiquity on the west side of the city has been known since the 19th century, but it wasn’t thoroughly excavated and documented until last year. INRAP archaeologists explored almost half an acre and unearthed 227 graves, a fraction of the total burials at the site. There are a variety of grave types including wooden coffins, hollowed out trunks, sandstone slabs. Thirty of the graves contained high quality furnishings, either worn by the deceased or placed in the pit. Their decorative style mark the grave goods as Burgundian.

Most of the objects are objects of adornment or grooming. There are a dozen decorated bone combs, glass beads on necklaces and  châtelaines, belt buckles, shoe buckles, a three-piece toiletry kit, a silver gilt fibula shaped like a bird of prey with a garnet eye and a matched set of fibulae in the shape of galloping horses. Only two weapons were found: an arrowhead and a scramasax with a fragment of its wooden scabbard still attached.

Lead sheet inscribed in archaic Iberian found

Saturday, June 12th, 2021

A unique lead sheet inscribed in archaic Iberian has been discovered at the site of Pico de los Ajos in Valencia, Spain. While other inscribed lead sheets are known, almost all of them were illegally excavated. This is one of only a handful discovered by archaeologists in a regulated excavation, and its context is of particular relevance here because the paleographic evidence indicates it is much older than the site.

The lead sheet was unearthed in the 2018 dig season at the ancient Iberian settlement of Pico de los Ajos. Pico de los Ajos was a fortified Iberian town inhabited since at least the 7th century B.C. through the Roman imperial era. Lead sheets inscribed in Iberian were first found there in 1979, and their publication the next year unfortunately spurred extensive looting of the site.

The lead sheet, dubbed PA-VII, was discovered in a structure with four distinct spaces on the south edge of the settlement. Ceramics, a coin, and a group of more than 20 bronze, iron and lead pieces were discovered in the rooms. The metal items — a nail, a blade from iron scissors, spatulas, fibulae, assorted fragments — were found in the second space. The lead sheet was among them.

It was folded into a quadrangular shape and covered in layers of carbonate deposits, but some inscriptions were visible to the naked eye. In order to read the full epigraph, researchers had to stabilize, clean and painstakingly unfold it without causing additional damage. Lead is soft and the sheet is less than one millimeter thick. Folded into a square and buried in the ground for thousands of years, the thin metal had deteriorated. It had microcracks, areas of loss, areas on the verge of fragmenting which made it dangerously brittle.

The team was able to clean the surface using fine, soft brushes under a magnifying glass. They then turned a warm air blower on to soften the lead just a little and unfolded the sheet with different wooden instruments. The calcium carbonate encrustation was removed by immersion in a cleansing solution and epoxy resin was used to reintegrate loss material.

Once clean, the full text was visible. Each side bore one-line Iberian inscriptions. Archaeologists believe the two inscriptions comprised a single text, read from side A to side B.

However, although it has been studied phonetically, the message contained in this sheet is not clear and, therefore, neither is the context in which it should be placed. “Iberian is a language that still cannot be translated, but in which experts progress little by little in the identification of words and this helps to interpret what type of texts they were”, explains David Quixal, professor of Archeology and one of the authors of the article. In fact, in this lead it has been possible to identify with enough certainty the name of a person, tořaibeleś , presumably the author of the text or whoever commissioned it.

The sheet has no full parallels among Iberian lead sheets. It features a unique combination of features including its diminutive size, the folding and the integral short text on both sides. The closest cognates are plates found in the votive well of El Amarejo, but they are only inscribed on one side. Even so, it seems likely this sheet had a votive purpose as well, as its text and morphology rule out that it is correspondence, commercial or a label.

The paleography of the inscription is also different from other inscribed leads found at the site because of its age. It is an archaic variant of Iberian from the 4th century B.C., while the inscriptions on previously discovered leads are typical of the more modern Iberian of the 2nd-1st centuries B.C.

The metal pieces that included the folded lead inscription discovered in the auxiliary building were all broken, bent of fragmentary. Archaeologists believe they were scrap collected and stored for later reuse, which is why the lead sheet is so much older than the ones found elsewhere on the site.

Noceto Vasca Votiva dated to 15th c. B.C.

Friday, June 11th, 2021

The Noceto Vasca Votiva, a large wooden basin discovered in the Po Plain of northern Italy, has been absolutely dated to 1444 B.C. thanks to an innovative combination of tree ring and radiocarbon dating. Previously the date range could only narrowed down to 1600-1300 B.C., and the new precise date places the construction of this monumental pool at a moment of great societal change in Bronze Age northern Italy.

The structure was discovered in 2004 during construction work on a hill in the south side of Noceto. Digging in the side of the hill revealed a large stratified pit containing fragments of pottery and wooden posts. Subsequent excavations revealed an extraordinary structure that is unique on the archaeological record. It was located at the edge of a Terramare, a Late Bronze Age settlement of a type found in Po Plain. The remains of the settlement are almost completely gone, destroyed by quarrying in the 19th century.

It was built of oak poles, beams and planks and measures about 40 by 23 feet, larger than most home in-ground pools today. The wood-lined tank was also in-ground. The hillside was dug out to make a large pit into which the structure was inset. It was constructed in two phases. The first tank, known as the Lower Tank, collapsed either during construction or right after it. The remains consist of 36 vertical poles planted into the subsoil at regular intervals along a rectangular perimeter. Planks were locked into grooves on the poles to support the pit walls, and at the floor level posts and boards were anchored to posts in the center of the pit and to horizontal beams. Wood shavings and tools were found there indicating the walls, under pressure from the heavy clay soil, collapsed suddenly before it was finished.

The second tank, known as the Upper Tank, was built on top of it. Some of the Lower Tank’s wood was recycled into the Upper, but the design, shape and size were altered to correct the flaws that caused the first tanks demise. Much more of the Upper Tank survives, preserved for millennia in the anoxic environment created by layers of sediment, peat and rainwash. It consists of 26 vertical poles along the rectangular perimeter. The poles hold almost 250 horizontal beams that slightly overlap each to create a strong interlocking structure. Beams crisscross the base of the rectangle, first across its width, then across it length. They are reinforced by two long beams that cross the tank on the diagonal to act as supports for the four corner poles.

All of this took an enormous amount of work and determination to accomplish. Excavating the hillside, removing tons of soil, dragging the oak timbers to site and building the tank not once but twice underscores how important it was to the builders. Sediment analysis found that the once completed, the Upper Tank was filled with water.

Its location at the top of the hill was too inconvenient for a cistern. There are no channels as there would be if it was used for irrigation. Archaeologists unearthed a large quantity of depositions: about 150 whole vases, 25 miniature vessels, seven clay figurines, plus baskets, handles, spindles, shovels and wooden plow parts. They were not haphazardly strewn into the tank, but carefully lowered into it in at least three separate deposition events. This indicates the tank was used for ritual purposes.

The exact dates of the tanks was pinpointed by a team from Cornell University’s Tree-Ring Laboratory using 28 wood samples, nine from the Upper Tank, 19 from the Lower Tank.

Among the lab’s specialties is tree-ring sequenced radiocarbon “wiggle-matching,” in which ancient wooden objects are dated by matching the patterns of radiocarbon isotopes from their annual growth increments (i.e., tree rings) with patterns from datasets found elsewhere around the world. This enables ultra-precise dating even when a continuous tree-ring sequence for a particular species and geographic area is not yet available.

“Working at an archaeological site, you’re often trying to do dendrochronology with relatively few samples, sometimes in less than ideal condition, because they’ve been falling apart for the last 3,500 years before you get to see them. It’s not like a healthy tree that is growing out in the wild right now,” Manning said. “We often measure the samples a number of times to extract as much signal as we can.” […]

Manning’s team made multiple attempts with different samples. While the wood from the Noceto site was well-preserved – a rarity, given its age – there was an unexpected challenge when the samples did not seem to fit the international radiocarbon calibration curve that is used for matching tree-ring sequences. This suggested the curve needed revising for certain time periods, and in 2020 a new version was published. The Noceto data finally fit.

By combining radiocarbon dating calibrated via dendrochronologies from southern Germany, Ireland and North America, along with computer-intensive statistics, the Cornell team was able to establish a tree-ring record that spanned several hundred years. They pegged the construction of the lower and upper tanks at 1444 and 1432 B.C., respectively; and they determined the finished structure was in use for several decades before it was abandoned, for reasons that may never be known.

The new timeline is particularly significant because it synchs up with a period of enormous change in Italian prehistory.

“You’ve had one way of life in operation for hundreds of years, and then you seem to have a switch to fewer, larger settlements, more international trade, more specialization, such as textile manufacture, and a change in burial practices,” Manning said. “There is something of a pattern all around the world. Nearly every time there’s a major change in social organization, there tends often to be an episode of building what might be described as unnecessary monuments. So when you get the first states forming in Egypt, you get the pyramids. Stonehenge marks a major change in southern England. Noceto is not the scale of Stonehenge, but it has some similarities – an act of major place-making.”

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

Viking kinsmen reunited in Denmark

Thursday, June 10th, 2021

The skeletal remains of two close relatives who died 1,000 years ago  500 miles away from each other have been reunited in a new exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The younger of the two was unearthed in 2008 on the Oxford University campus in a mass grave of Danes slaughtered by order of King Æthelred the Unready in 1002. The skeletal remains of his relative were discovered in the town of Otterup on the island of Funen.

The relationship was discovered last year in the course of a large DNA study of the remains of 442 people from the Bronze Age through the Middle Ages discovered in Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, England, Ireland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Poland, Italy, Russia and Ukraine. DNA extracted from teeth and femoral bones was compared with DNA from 3855 contemporary individuals and another 922 prehistoric individuals collected in previous studies.

DNA analysis found that the Oxford man and the Funen man were close relatives in the 2nd degree, meaning they were either half-brothers or nephew and uncle. Strontium isotope analysis of their teeth confirmed that they were both born and raised Otterup, but the younger man crossed the North Sea to end up slaughtered in Oxford. The older man died where he lived, on Funen, when he was around 50 years old.

Both of them lived hard lives with plenty of physical labor. They also ate the same type of diet, heavy on the land animal protein with some fish. The Funen man had severely worn teeth and arthritic lesions in almost all of his cervical and thoracic vertebrae, plus in several rib joints, one jaw joint and one big toe. Evidence of inflammation on his ribs suggest he may have had tuberculosis. Sharp-force trauma on his neck had healed, but a second injury on his pelvis had not. It may have been a death blow. Archaeologists hypothesize that he was a farmer for most of his life, but he did see combat on a few occasions.

The Oxford man was powerfully built, but he suffered inflammation on his legs likely caused by chronic sores or repeated blows to the legs. The sharp-force trauma on his body was massive. There were at least nine blows to head by a sword, multiple arrow wounds and spear wounds to his back. The brutality of his death is very much in keeping with descriptions of the St. Brice’s Day Massacre in chronicles and contemporary documents.

The Oxfordshire County Council’s Museum Resource Centre has now loaned the bones of the Oxford Dane to the National Museum where they will remain for three years. The exhibition, which brings together Denmark’s largest group of Viking Age treasures with a multimedia cinematic experience to give visitors an immersive insight into the Viking era, opens on June 26th.

18th c. wooden road found in Poland

Wednesday, June 9th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered a well-preserved stretch of a late 17th or early 18th century wooden road in Jarosław, southeastern Poland. At 100 feet long, it is one of the longest wooden roads ever discovered in what is now Poland.

The remains were discovered in February during an archaeological exploration of the site of planned sewer work in the historic center of the city. The road led to a gate in the city walls opening west towards Kraków. It was part of a 250-mile route connecting Bielsko Biała to Lviv in modern-day Ukraine. It was a dirt road, except for the section inside Jarosław.

The road was 10 feet wide, so must have been one-way traffic only because that was not enough space for two lanes. It was made of timbers mounted on transverse wooden joists. The wood was probably oak and it was very sturdy. There are no hoof marks or wheel ruts even though it must have been a busy street as Jarosław held one of the largest market fairs in Europe and was a major hub of trade in the region. It was in active use for about 100 years before paved roads were built over it.

Some of the road has been removed to the Jarosław Museum for conservation and study. Objects found during the removal of the timbers — coins, show leather, nails — will go on display in the museum. The section still in place will be displayed in situ in the coming months.

The road was laser scanned before removal so a detailed animated model could be made accurate to the millimeter. 




June 2021


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