Monumental platform found in Selinunte

A team of archaeologists and student volunteers from  New York University (NYU) and the University of Milan (UniMi) have discovered the remains of a monumental two-storey platform believed to have been part of the altar of the oldest Greek temple in Selinunte, western Sicily.

The mission led by professors Clemente Marconi, Rosalia Pumo and Andrew Ward brought the discovery of part of a monumental platform on two levels that was likely used to house the main altar of Temple R, the oldest in the city, dated archaeologically to 570 BC.

This is the same area where, in 2010, researchers with the NYU-UniMi mission found abundant remains of animal sacrifice.

Among the finds were also two spearheads that were found burnt and crossed. “A truly exceptional case in the Greek world to find them like this,” said professor Marconi.

“It was typical of female cults to have dedications of weapons, and the finding in front of Temple R, dedicated to a goddess, is certainly not accidental,” he said.

It is a historical testimony of two different phases of the city: the lower platform dates to the years of construction of Temple R; while the higher platform, more monumental, dates to the 5th century.

During the excavation, a large goat’s horn was also unearthed, evidence of a prestigious sacrifice to the divinity.

A fourth artefact found was a fragment of a life-sized statue made of Parian marble. It is an additional piece of the arm of a kouros, a male statue with a votive function, of which a fragment of the forearm was found four years ago during the NYU-UniMi campaign.

“This is the first time that a statue of this type in marble and life-size has been discovered in Selinunte,” said Clemente Marconi.

“It was most likely dedicated in the sixth century and then dismembered in the fourth century and the fragments partly used as lime, with others used for Hellenistic fill”.

Founded as a Greek colony in the second half of the 7th century B.C., ancient Selinus flourished thanks to its rich farmland and the city thanked its gods for its prosperity by building monumental Doric temples. The most important sanctuaries were built on the city’s Acropolis, and today extensive remains survive of three 6th century temples, Temple C, dedicated to Apollo, and Temple D, dedicated to Athena, and Temple R.

After a period of neglect and decline after being conquered by Carthage in 409 B.C., Selinunte rebounded with new building programs including Temple B, built around 300 B.C. Fifty years later, the city was destroyed and its population forcibly deported to Lilybaeum by the Carthaginian during the First Punic War.

NYU archaeologists have been investigation the Acropolis of Selinunte since 2006. In 2019, they discovered the first evidence of a bull sacrifice at Selinunte: a votive deposit of two bull horns in a 7th century cult building on the east side of Temple R. This season’s excavation focused on the area in front of Temple R. This space has never been excavated, not even in antiquity, leaving behind unusually pristine archaeological layers which has given the team the ability to date the finds and reconstruct the different phases of construction and use of Temple R.

11-inch phallus, oldest pistachio found in Yorkshire

Archaeologists have unearthed an imposingly large and detailed phallus carving in Catterick, North Yorkshire. Carved out of local red sandstone, the 11-inch phallus is artfully modelled in high relief. The shaft features an unusual herringbone pattern and a line of erupting ejaculate. It is one of more than 62,000 archaeological objects and remains discovered over more than three years of excavations in advance of improvements to the A1 highway.

The modern A1 in North Yorkshire follows the route of the ancient Roman Dere Street, the main road from York to the Antonine Wall at the Firth of Forth. The road was well-traveled and dotted with Roman settlements, including the town of Cataractonium, aka Catterick. Investigations took place between 2013 and 2017 and revealed a great deal about Cataractonium’s history that was previously unknown. The deep archaeological layers contained clearly stratified evidence of the settlement’s history going back to its earliest days.

Archaeologists discovered that Cataractonium was entirely of Roman origin with no previous British occupation. It was founded in the 70s A.D. as a civilian vicus attached to a Roman military fort. It expanded rapidly and by the early 2nd century was a large, flourishing town supplied with granaries, stock paddocks and a deep well. A pistachio nut perfectly preserved in the well’s waterlogged environment dates to the Trajanic period (late 1st, early 2nd century A.D.) and is the oldest pistachio ever discovered in Britain.

Timber structures predominated in Cataractonium, but in the early 3rd century old wood structures were replaced by masonry in what archaeologists believe was planned urban development program. The carved phallus was involved in that process not once but twice.

When it was found by archaeologists, it was being used as a floor paver in a building at Agricola Bridge. It was originally a bridge abutment stone, however, its prodigious apotropaic load deployed to protect travelers crossing the Swale river. This was not unusual in Roman bridge architecture (or any other architecture, for that matter). There’s one still in situ on an abutment of the Chesters Bridge over the River North Tyne at Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall. The structure of the bridge is no longer extant, but large blocks of stone identified as bridge stones were found on the slope of the riverbank.

All of the finds discovered during the A1 excavations, from pistachio nuts to phallus, carnelian intaglio of Hercules killing the Nemean lion to three tons of animal bone, 2.5 tons of pottery and several more tons of stonework, are now at the Yorkshire Museum in York. They will be studied further, conserved and stored. A few select pieces will eventually go on display.

Longest cuneiform inscription in Saudi Arabia discovered

A 6th century cuneiform inscription dedicated by King of Babylon Nabonidus has been discovered in northern Saudi Arabia. At 26 lines long, it is the longest cuneiform inscription ever found in the country.

The inscription was carved on a basalt rock face in Al Hait, the ancient city of Fadak, in the Hail region. A large petroglyph of the  king holding a staff is on the right side of the stone. Above him to the left are four religious symbols: a serpent, the sun, a rosette and the crescent moon. They represent deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon — the star of Ishtar, the winged disc of the sun god Shamash, the crescent of the moon god Sin –that the king is praying to with his raised hand. The crescent is nearest to him and is the largest, illustrating the importance of the moon god Sin to Nabonidus who sought to elevate Sin over Babylon’s traditional patron deity Marduk.

His devotion to Sin may explain, at least in part, in his presence on a rock face in Saudi Arabia. Four years after he ascended to the throne of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, perhaps the result of a coup as his inscriptions explicitly deny any royal heritage, Nabonidus went into exile in Tayma, about 160 miles north of Al Hait. The reason for his self-imposed removal from the center of political and religious power is unknown, but it’s likely clashes with the clergy and elite over his attempts to transform the hierarchy of Babylon’s gods and make the moon supreme over all the others played a pivotal role.

He still ruled the empire from a distance — his son Belshazzar acted as his representative on the ground in Babylon — and he would return a decade later undeterred in his zeal for religious reform. He built a temple to Sin in Harran (modern-day Turkey) and a stela discovered there in the 1950s bears almost identical iconography to the Al Hait petroglyphs, albeit with far more refined carving.

The long cuneiform inscription underneath the symbols has not been fully deciphered yet. Archaeologists hope the inscription may shed new light on Nabonidus’s time in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Details of the discovery will be released after specialists have more time to analyze. It will be linked to previous results that have been documented in the northwest of the Kingdom.

This archaeological finding will accompany previous discoveries of stone inscriptions and obelisks in a number of sites between Tayma and Hail that mention King Nabonidus, who ruled from 556 to 539 B.C. The finding proves the expansion of cultural and commercial contact between the Arabian Peninsula and the Mesopotamian civilizations.

Man pleads guilty to 1971 theft of Revolutionary War flintlock rifle

The man responsible for the theft of a rare Revolutionary War flintlock rifle from the visitor center of the Valley Forge State Park in Pennsylvania in 1971 has pleaded guilty to the crime. Seventy-eight-year-old Thomas Gavin turns out to have been a sort of Pennsylvania Lupin who cut an impressive swath through museum weapons collections in the 1960s and 70s.

John Christian Oerter was the premier gun maker in Christian’s Spring, a Moravian settlement near what is now Nazareth, Pennsylvania, that was the main production center of flintlock long rifles during the Revolutionary War. His firearms feature distinctive silver and brass wire inlays and high quality wood carving that make them some of the most important pieces from the period. Very few of his works survive, and the stolen 1775 long rifle is one of only two signed and dated guns by the master riflemaker known to exist. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. The other is in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, presented to the future King George IV by Colonel George Hanger, a British cavalry officer who had served in the Revolutionary War.

Gavin crowbarred the precious rifle out of a display case in broad daylight. The theft was only notice a few hours later when an eagle-eyed Boy Scout spotted the empty case. It then disappeared for 47 years until it was sold to antiques dealer Kelly Kinzle along with a trunk full of more than 20 antique pistols and a Native American silver concho belt for $27,150. Thomas Gavin was the seller.

Kinzle said in 2019 that he had bought the rifle the year before at a barn sale in Berks County, that he initially thought it was a reproduction, that when he realized it might be a genuine Oerter he called his lawyer and arranged its surrender to the FBI. At the time Kinzle would not say who had sold it to him due to the ongoing investigation, but he believed him to be an indiscriminate hoarder who had no idea of the importance and value of the object when he sold it.

Well, he got the hoarder part right anyway, but Gavin definitely knew it was the genuine article because he had stolen the Oerter from the museum with his own hands. And that was just the tip of the iceberg with this guy.

In February 2020, FBI agents and detectives from the Upper Merion Township Police Department questioned Gavin, who admitted that he stole the Oerter rifle as well as antique guns from other museums across Pennsylvania, according to a plea agreement.

Gavin said he stole revolvers and pistols from several institutions, including the American Swedish Historical Museum, the Valley Forge Historical Society and the Pennsylvania Farm Museum, the plea agreement said. The weapons, one of which had a bayonet, were made in the 18th and 19th centuries, the document said.

He also confessed to stealing the silver belt and several firearms made in the 1850s from the Hershey Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania, according to court documents.

The plea bargain does not reflect the pathological extent of Gavin’s collection-by-theft. He pled guilty to only one count of disposing of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum. The maximum penalty for that one count is 10 years in prison and prosecutors have asked the court to assess fines of no more than $20,200 in restitution. Given that the Oerter alone is conservatively valued at $175,000, that’s pretty modest as restitution goes. He is being held on $100,000 bail and will be sentenced November 15th.

Unique Roman sarcophagus with interior reliefs conserved

A unique Roman-era sarcophagus decorated on the inside is undergoing restoration in public view (pandemic permitting) at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO) in Leiden.

The sarcophagus was discovered in pieces during construction of a home in the Limburger village of Simpelveld in 1930. A hole on one of the short sides of the rectangle attests to it having been looted of valuables, probably during the turbulent Migration Period, but it still contained a few treasures: glass and ceramic vessels, a gold pin, a bead necklace, a stilus (conveying the deceased’s literacy), a silver mirror, a knife, a pair of scissors and three finger rings. The most elaborate is a gold dodecagonal ring inscribed IVNONI MEAE (“To my Juno”). Juno was the goddess of marriage, so it’s possible this was a wedding ring or gift from the deceased’s husband. Amazingly, cinerary remains were found undisturbed as well.

Carved out of a single massive block of local Nivelsteiner sandstone, the sarcophagus is 2.4 meters (7’10”) long, 1.05 meters (3’5″) wide and 76 cm (2’6″) high and weighs 800 kilos (1764 lbs). Carved out of one massive block, the sarcophagus was originally topped by two sandstone slabs fastened to the chest with metal clamps. The lid was found broken into four pieces. Just one of the smaller pieces weighs 282 kilos (622 lbs).

It’s the interior relief that makes it one of a kind. The sarcophagus is carved to look like a room in a luxurious Roman home absolutely crammed with furniture. On one of the long sides an elegant lady wearing a long-sleeves tunic and draped mantle reclines on a lectus. Her hair is dressed in the style of Faustina, wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which suggests a date of between 160 and 180 A.D. To her right on one of the short ends is a wicker chair of a type known as a cathedra chair, common in the Germanic provinces. A large chest on a pedestal is next. This was the arca, the home’s safe, basically, which contained the family’s documents and cash.

Across from the lady is side table on which three glass bottles have been placed. Another table is next to it, this one a small round one with three legs named a mensa Delphica after the tripod stool the Pythian priestess sat on to pronounce the oracles of Apollo at Delphi. Its legs are decorated with lion heads. Another table, a sideboard this time, is next, followed by two shelves holding bronze vessels, and then two tankards on the ground. Then comes a cabinet with two doors and small niches of varied size. Last but certainly not least is a grand house and a smaller associated building. The house and annex are not believed to represent a specific dwelling, but the furnishings are all highly realistic depiction of Roman artifacts that have been found in the Netherlands.

A 2016 study of the cinerary remains (replete with almost 400 bone fragments) was able to confirm that the individual in the sarcophagus was a woman between 35 and 49 years old when she died. There were no lesions or evidence of osteoarthritic changes to the bones, which suggests she lived a life of leisure, and her loved ones didn’t let a little thing like death change her lifestyle. The ashes of this fine lady were laid to rest in the most refined, opulent home a Romanized resident of Germania Inferior could get in the 2nd century.

The sarcophagus was acquired by the RMO from the finder immediately after it was unearthed. Museum experts pieced the large fragments together and mounted it on a wooden frame the support its weight and make it easier to move. Three months after its discovery, the Simpleveld sarcophagus was on permanent display. Today it is one of the main attractions of the museum’s permanent The Netherlands in Roman Times exhibition, but after almost a century of use and multiple relocations, the mount has become unstable and the sarcophagus has suffered damage to the old restoration points.

Conservation began in September with a comprehensive assessment of the current condition of the sarcophagus, research into past restorations and X-rays to map the fractures and any metal pins that may have been used to knit the pieces together. Mortar, cement and other additions from past restoration attempts were removed and after much research into the archives, press articles and scholarly publications, the conservation team embarked cautiously on dismantling the sarcophagus into its component fragments.

The live restoration is scheduled to continue at least through the end of August. The sarcophagus is being reassembled and mounted on a new state-of-the-art custom chassis that will support the sarcophagus’ weight and allow it to be moved without percussive shocks or vibrations. You can follow the progress of the restoration on the conservators’ log here. This is a neat time-lapse video of the dismantling process: