Ancient military vessel found in Egyptian sunken city

Excavation of the submerged city of Thonis-Heracleion in Aboukir Bay, 30 miles northeast of Alexandria, have revealed the remains of an ancient military vessel from the second century B.C. The ship was in the middle of being loaded with monumental stone blocks from the city’s renown Temple of Amun when it was wrecked.

The ship was more than 80 feet long with a flat bottom and flat keel, necessary features to navigate in and out of the silty ports and channels of the Nile Delta. It also carried a large sail, as we know from the large surviving mast step. The hull was built in the classical Greek style with mortise-and-tenon joints and robust internal ribbing, but using traditional Egyptian shipbuilding techniques and recycling locally-sourced wood.

The ship was moored at a landing stage in the canal that flowed along the south face of the temple when the disaster occurred. The fallen blocks have maintained the precious naval remains nailed down to the bottom of the deep canal, which is now filled with the debris of the sanctuary.

Ayman Ashmawy, Head of the Egyptian Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, also said that the ship was detected under nearly five meters of hard clay mingled with remains of the temple. Its discovery comes thanks to cutting-edge prototype sub-bottom profiler electronic equipment.

The Egyptian city of Thonis was first built in Pharaonic Egypt on what were then islands on the mouth of the Canopic Nile where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Herodotus recounts a legend that it was founded by Thonis, warden of the mouth of the Nile, who arrested Paris for abducting Helen of Troy. By the Late Period (664-332 B.C.), Thonis was Egypt’s primary port for international trade and would remain so until it was superseded by Alexandria under the Ptolemies in the 2nd century B.C.

The city was destroyed by natural disasters — an earthquake followed by tsunamis — in the eighth century A.D. Its ruins were rediscovered in 2000 by Franck Goddio and a team from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM). The remains span 40 square miles so it is still being surveyed with no more than 2% of the site excavated in small, targeted investigations. Since 2000, more than 70 ships from the 8th to the 2nd century B.C. have been discovered there, including an exceptionally intact baris, an Egyptian trading vessel described (accurately, to everyone’s surprise)  by Herodotus.

Viking coin, hack silver hoard found on Man

A Viking-era mixed hoard of coins and hack silver has been discovered on the Isle of Man. The group of 87 coins and 13 pieces of cut up silver arm-rings were discovered in April by retired police officer Kath Giles who has redefined beginner’s luck by finding four, count’em, four hoards since she began metal detecting three years ago. Only last December she discovered a magnificent assemblage of braided gold arm ring, cut silver armband and giant ball-type thistle brooch.

The coins were minted between around 990 and 1030 A.D. in England, Dublin, Germany and the Isle of Man. Most of them are silver pennies and bear the faces of King Cnut of England, Denmark and Norway, King Aethelred II of England and Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. The coins struck in Dublin and Man bear the image of King Sigtrygg Silkbeard, the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin from the 990s until his abdication in 1036. The dates of the coins indicate the hoard was deposited around 1035 A.D., so right at the end of Silkbeard’s reign and in the waning decades of Viking Age hoard depositions on the Isle of Man.

Located in the middle of the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man was at the intersected of active trade routes linking Ireland, England and northern Europe during the Viking Age. This is represented in the diversity of coinage found in hoards from this era, and in the prevalence of hack silver, old jewelry cut into pieces for use as currency based on the purity of the precious metal content.

A comparable albeit far larger mixed hoard was discovered in Glenfaba in 2003. It dates to the same period, around 1020 A.D., and also contains a combination of Hiberno-Norse and Anglo-Saxon coins with a hefty proportion of hack silver.

[Numismatist Dr. Kristin] Bornholdt Collins said:

“The Northern Mixed hoard is the fourth Viking-Age coin hoard to be found in the Isle of Man in the last fifty years. It may have been added to over time, like a piggybank, accounting for some of the older coins, though for the most part it is a direct reflection of what was circulating in and around Man in the late 1020s/c. 1030.

Like the similarly dated, but much larger, Glenfaba deposit, found in 2003, the new hoard might be compared to a wallet containing all kinds of credit cards, notes and coins, perhaps of different nationalities, such as when you prepare to travel overseas, and shows the variety of currencies available to an Irish Sea trader or inhabitant of Man in this period. The two hoards together provide a rare chance to study the contents side by side, right down to the detail of the dies used to strike the coins. Having this much closely dated comparative material from separate finds is highly unusual and essentially “doubles” the value of each find.

In addition to the array of coins, both hoards contain a significant hack-silver or bullion portion, which would have been weighed out and possibly tested for its quality in the course of transactions. This is generally expected in finds dating to the ninth- and tenth centuries from Viking regions, but appears to be a special feature of the later Manx hoards, too. This may be because bullion was especially convenient for international trade since it was practical for any size transaction and was decentralized, a currency without borders or political affiliation; in this sense, it was a modern-day equivalent to a cryptocurrency—we might even say it was something like the original ‘Bit-coin’! It seems only logical, then, that it was so popular in a cosmopolitan trading hub like Man, even several decades into the 11th century, when closely regulated minted silver was well on its way to becoming the norm across Northern Europe”.

The hoard has been declared Treasure by the Isle of Man Coroner of Inquests. It is temporarily on display at the new Viking Gallery of the Manx Museum before traveling to the British Museum where a valuation committee will determine its fair market value. The hoard will be offered to Manx National Heritage

Gender reveal for pigeon savior of WWI’s Lost Battalion

The United States’ bravest pigeon warrior, Cher Ami, of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Pigeon Intelligence Service, has been confirmed to have been male, more than a century after Army records labelled the English blue-checked pigeon as a “hen.”

Cher Ami showed the mettle that would make him a global celebrity in October 1918 when almost 600 men from the 77th Division were trapped behind enemy lines during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After taking days of heavy fire from German forces and once from Allied forces who didn’t realize the Lost Battalion was there, on October 4th commander Major Charles Whittlesey sent his last surviving homing pigeon, none other than Cher Ami, to the American lines with a desperate plea: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”

Cher Ami was hit by a bullet to the chest within seconds of takeoff. He got up and kept flying. By the time he reached home 25 miles away, he was riddled with wounds, blind in one eye and his right leg was hanging by a thread, but the all-important message tube was still there. The American artillery stopped shelling its own men and aimed for the Germans instead, relieving the pressure on the 77th. When the German forces pulled back four days later, 194 men from the Lost Battalion had managed to survive, thanks in large part to the heroism and implacable homing instinct of Cher Ami.

The pigeon needed extensive patching up after flying through hails of bullets and shells — the wound to his chest was so deep it exposed his breastbone — but he made it back alive to the United States, honorably discharged to the care of his trainer Captain John Carney. He received the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in the field from France and Col. Edgar A. Russel, General Pershing’s chief signal officer for the American Expeditionary Force, ordered that Cher Ami “be sent home in charge of an officer, surrounded by all luxury possible.”

And so he was. Cher Ami crossed the Atlantic in style in Carney’s cabin and was welcomed at the dock in New Jersey by throngs of reporters. The story of the brave pigeon who saved the Lost Battalion made headlines around the country and Cher Ami was world-famous. There was some confusion as to the vital statistics, however.

Although the United States Army Signal Corps originally reported the bird as a black check hen, media stories began to blur the bird’s sex. In August, two articles appeared within weeks of each other. In The Ladies’ Home Journal, Rose Wilder Lane fancifully described Cher Ami as a male French pigeon, gliding around Paris rooftops before helping to save the Lost Battalion. In The American Legion Weekly article about the Signal Corps’ homing pigeons, Cher Ami’s condition at the loft is described: “She was in a state of complete exhaustion. From her dangling leg we took the message and dispatched it in great haste to headquarters.”

He got less than two months to enjoy his luxurious retirement. Cher Ami died on June 13th, 1919. The Signal Corps donated his body to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History which had it taxidermied and mounted. Cher Ami’s remains have been on display since June 1921.

In honor of the centennial of Cher Ami’s going on display at the Smithsonian, a tissue sample was taken from the stump of his right leg and DNA extracted from it.

Cher Ami had “Z-specific” DNA sequences, but no “W-specific” sequences. In birds (unlike humans and other mammals), females have two types of sex chromosomes (Z and W) while males only have Z chromosomes. Thus, if Cher Ami has Z but no W sequence we can infer that Cher Ami was a male or cock pigeon. McInerney ran two analyses for Z and two for W sequences, and in replicated analyses Cher Ami only had Z but no W fragments.  […]

The results of the test confirmed the Smithsonian’s long-held—but essentially coincidental—claim that Cher Ami is a cock bird. This mystery of the bird’s sex is now a matter of historical record, necessitating an update to the museum’s permanent accession file for Cher Ami and a revision to the bird’s online description.

Visigothic Christian sarcophagus found in Murcia

A splendidly carved Visigothic-era sarcophagus has been unearthed from a Roman villa turned necropolis in the township of Mula in Murcia, southeastern Spain. The coffin is two meters (6.5 feet) long and decorated with incised concentric swirls and stylized ivy leaves on a peaked roof. The end of the coffin (side where the head would have lain) is carved with a simplified Chi Ro (the downstroke of the Ro has a crossbar instead of being embedded in the X of the chi) inset into a circle. The style of decoration suggests the sarcophagus dates to the 6th century. It is the only one of its kind ever found in southeast Spain.

A team from the University of Murcia discovered the sarcophagus on Thursday in the Roman villa of Los Villaricos.  Los Villaricos was an agricultural and residential complex built on the left bank of the River Mula in the second half of the 1st century. In use through the first half of the 5th century, it is the largest and best-preserved of the Roman estates discovered in Murcia. What was produced at the villa is still unknown. Murcia was rich in natural resources — minerals, wheat, olive oil, marble, sandstone, coastal fisheries for large-scale garum production — the villa was extensively modified and expanded in the 3rd century, and was likely put to different uses at different phases of occupation.

The villa ceased all industrial activity and was abandoned in the late 5th century. A few scattered residents remained in and around the abandoned villa and a semi-circular apse was added to the large triclinium to convert it into a site of Christian worship. The main hall and atrium of the villa were then reused as prime burial space next to the walls of the church. The mosaic floors, installed during the third phase of refurbishments at the villa (4th century to the first half of the 5th), were torn up to make way for burials which over time expanded to the other rooms of the former residence.

More than 50 burials dating from the 5th to the 7th century have been found in the necropolis and most of the graves are modest inhumations, sometimes lined with stones along the sides and topped with a single sandstone slab. Recycled tiles and pottery fragments were occasionally added as decorative elements. This sarcophagus is the most luxurious ever found in the necropolis.

This year’s excavation campaign began last Monday with the goal of completing the excavation of the final three burials in the necropolis and doing an initial exploration of the area just north of the necropolis where some pools were found that are believed to have been used for storage of a still unknown product grown/manufactured at the villa. The discovery of the sarcophagus in the necropolis came as a complete surprise to the team.

Researchers removed the lid on Friday and found it contained human remains and other elements of as-yet undetermined nature. The contents have been removed for study. The sarcophagus will also be studied and conserved. Eventually it will be put on display in the Ciudad de Mula museum.

Pomerial marker found in Rome

A rare stone marking the pomerium, the sacred boundary line of Rome, dating from the reign of Emperor Claudius has been discovered during the excavation and restoration of Augustus’ Mausoleum in Rome. Known as a cippus, the travertine stone was found still fixed in the ground on the site of the family tomb where Claudius’ own cinerary remains were laid to rest. Only 10 other pomerial cippi have been discovered in Rome and it’s been 100 years since the last one was found.

According to the legend of the founding of Rome, the pomerium was the boundary line of the city ploughed by Romulus on April 21st, 753 B.C., Rome’s birthday. The furrow was ploughed in accordance with elaborate religious rites of Etruscan origin that took days to complete. The wall of the city would be built following the furrow and the strip of land between it and the wall would be considered the pomerium as well as the original furrow. This was a sacred space, dedicated to the city’s patron gods and essential to the protection of the city from supernatural threats. Romulus killed Remus for jumping over the furrow, a sacrilege so monstrous it justified immediate execution.

The urbs of Rome were inside the pomerium. No foreign ruler could cross its  boundary. Armed Romans couldn’t cross it either, including generals returning from war. They had to wait outside until granted a special dispensation for the triumph. Even the lictors, the protectors of the king/consul, could not bear the axes in their fasces within the pomerium. As the city grew, the pomerium remained unchanged since the 6th king of Rome, Servius Tullius, built the Servian wall around it. Sulla was the first to enlarge the pomerium in 80 B.C. when he was dictator, an absolutely massive power move that telegraphed in the clearest of terms that he was in charge and would not be bound even by Rome’s most ancient religious and political traditions.

Claudius’ expansion was, on paper anyway, less of a direct middle finger to the hallowed rules. Tacitus explains in his Annals:

The Caesar also enlarged the pomerium,​ in consonance with the old custom, by which an expansion of the empire​ confers the right to extend similarly the boundaries of the city: a right, however, which, even after the conquest of powerful nations, had been exercised by no Roman commander except Lucius Sulla and the deified Augustus.

(Okay that last part is not actually true. Vespasian had done it too. There are extant cippi from his expansion.)

The markers from the Claudian expansion of the pomerium in 49 A.D. confirm the justification Tacitus provides. The empire has expanded thanks to Claudius’ conquest of Britain, ergo, he has expanded the city’s sacred boundary.

The full inscription of Claudius’ pomerial cippi reads:










Tiberius Claudius

Son of Drusus, Caesar

Augustus Germanicus,

Supreme Pontiff, vested with the Tribunician power

for the 9th time, acclaimed Emperor 16 times, Consul for the fourth time,

Censor, Father of his Country,

due to the enlargement of the territory of the Roman people, increased and delimited the pomerium.

The one discovered at Piazzale Augusto Imperatore has lost the first five lines and only part of the next two lines survive. Only the last two are complete. That’s enough to identify it as a Claudian pomerial cippus.

On a side note, it gives you a glimpse of one of Claudius’ more arcane interests. He was an antiquarian and made a study of Etruscan language and history. As emperor, he actively pursued the reform of spelling to ensure the proper (ie, ancient) pronunciation of spoken Latin. The Ⅎ character seen twice in the last line was a character Claudius invented to represent the W sound of V to differentiate it from the U sound. (He added two other characters to the Latin alphabet; the usage of all three died with him.) The second line of the inscription has another one of his spelling reforms: the archaic “Caisar” in place of “Caesar.” In Claudius’ time, the AE sound had already shifted to away from the old “aye” closer to the “eh” sound of modern Italian’s “cesare,” and he was extra salty about his own family name being mispronounced, so he made it explicit by adopting the “ai” spelling.

It has gone on display in the Paladino Hall of the Ara Pacis Museum, literally across the street from the Mausoleum, next to a cast of a statue of Claudius.