Lorenzini Head cleaned by artifact-optimized laser

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

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

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

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

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.