Archive for October, 2021

Seal identifies high-ranking female administrator of Hittite Empire

Sunday, October 31st, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered the clay seal of a female official of the Hittite Empire at the site of the ancient city of Karkemish, modern-day Karkamış, Gaziantep Province, southeastern Turkey. The seal dates to 1225 B.C., the Late Bronze Age, and sheds new light on the role of women in Hittite government.

Located on the west bank of the Euphrates, Karkemish was a pivotal point on the trade routes linking the Hittite Empire to the Assyrian Empire. It was the Hittite Empire’s most important government administration center. First excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by British Museum archaeologists including by Leonard Woolley and T.E. Lawrence in the two years before World War I, since 2011 it has been excavated by a joint Turkish and Italian team led by University of Bologna archaeologist Nicolo Marchetti.

The excavation revealed hundreds of clay seals and impressions in a structure dubbed the “Seal House.” They belonged to the highest officials in the state and were arranged in order of the officials’ position in the hierarchy. Two thirds of them were found to be impressions from the seal of an administrator named Matiya.

Another notable name found on a bulla is that of Pirandu, a wealthy merchant from the Middle Assyrian Kingdom (1392 B.C.-934 B.C.). The presence of Pirandu’s name in the records of the Hittite administrative center adds new information to our understanding of Hittite-Assyrian relations during the period of the former’s collapse and the latter’s ascendance.

The past two season’s excavations also explored an Iron Age cemetery beneath the modern cemetery. It was a salvage operation to prevent damage to the archaeological layers from digging above them. Graves and goods from the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. have been unearthed there, including a notable calcite funerary stele dedicated to a man named Sanai from the reign of King Kamami, the “Country-Lord,” aka local ruler of Karkemish and Melid (modern-day Arslantepe) in the first half of the 8th century B.C.

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Ghost stories with Irving Finkel

Saturday, October 30th, 2021

Thursday’s live-streamed discussion about Mesopotamian beliefs on ghosts hosted by historian Bettany Hughes with British Museum Assyriologist, cuneiform expert and raconteur extraordinaire Dr. Irving Finkel was, as expected, a highly entertaining and information-rich exploration of what the earliest writers in the world recorded about the care, feeding and, when necessary, forcible removal of the spirits of the dead.

It has now been uploaded to the BM’s YouTube Channel so if you missed it live, you can catch it now to celebrate Halloween Assyrian-style.

Irving Finkel goes into even more detail on ancient Mesopotamian ghost beliefs in this earlier video that I somehow missed until now. It’s a presentation by him alone rather than the interview/discussion style of the webinar, and let’s face it, in any given circumstance, the more Finkel the better.

His rant about The Exorcist at 13:15 is an absolute treasure, as is the mumbo jumbo section at 23:15. The discussion of the newly-identified ghost drawing is at 33:35. 

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Roman busts found under Norman church site

Friday, October 29th, 2021

Archaeologists excavating the site of a Norman church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, have discovered two complete Roman busts and a head from a third one. Both of the complete busts were decapitated cleanly before deposition. One of them is of an adult female; the other of an adult male. The head found without torso is that of a child.

The team were investigating the site of St Mary’s, a church built in the 12th century, abandoned in the 19th and demolished in the 20th,  as part of the archaeological program of the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway project. They dug a circular trench to explore what they thought might be the foundations of an Anglo-Saxon tower predating the church and instead unearthed the busts. There were a smattering of Saxon artifacts — some pottery, a coin — in the ditch, but no construction. The Norman church was built directly over the walls and rubble from a Roman building.

They also found a Roman glass jug with a hexagonal base and body with a strap handle. While the jug is broken, it is in few larger pieces and archaeologists believe they have recovered all of them, so careful restoration should be able to put it back together. It is so rare that there is only one other directly comparable piece, a blue-green hexagonal glass jug from the 1st-3rd century A.D. that is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s example survived the millennia unbroken, which may serve as a useful guide to conservators working on the newly-discovered one.

As the dig at Stoke Mandeville comes to an end, the team working there have been able to piece together a more detailed analysis of the historic use of the site. The site appears to be a natural mound, which has then been deliberately covered with soil to create a taller mound. It is possible this may have formed a Bronze Age burial site. It appears this was then replaced by a square building which may have originated in the Roman period.

Archaeologists now believe the square building that pre-dates the Norman church is a Roman mausoleum. Roman materials found in the ditch around are too ornate and not enough in number to suggest the site was a domestic building.

The busts, glass jug and other artifacts recovered from the site will now be conserved and studied, with particular focus on finding any traces of the original polychrome paint that may have survived in the folds and creases of the busts.

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One of the world’s largest floor mosaics revealed in Jericho

Thursday, October 28th, 2021

One of the largest floor mosaics in the world has been unveiled after five years of restoration in Hisham’s Palace, an 8th century royal compound three miles north of the occupied West Bank city of Jericho. Covering 9,000 square feet and composed of more than five million tesserae made from colorful local stone, the mosaic features a dizzying array of geometric and floral designs of kaleidoscopic intricacy.

Hisham’s Palace was built in the first half of the 8th century, one of the desert castles the Umayyad dynasty. The palace complex covers 150 acres and includes a bath house and a hayr, an enclosed horticultural area that served as both park and kitchen garden supplying food for the palace. It remained in use until around 1000.

The remains were first discovered in 1873, but the site wasn’t archaeologically explored until Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki excavated it for 14 years between 1934 and 1948. It was in one of those excavations that an ostracon with the name “Hisham” scratched on it was discovered, which led archaeologists to speculate that the palace was built by Umayyad  caliph Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik. The name has stuck, but there is no direct evidence of which member of the dynasty first built and occupied the palace.

Mosaics have been found throughout the complex in an array of different designs. One of bath house floors has an exquisite Tree of Life mosaic with two gazelles grazing under the left side of the tree while a lion attacks another gazelle on the right side. The contrasting animal scenes represent war and peace.

Under threat from Jericho’s sprawl and the expansion of farming over unexplored areas of the complex, in 2010 Hisham’s Palace was listed as one of the 10 most endangered sites by the Global Heritage Fund. Five years ago, the popular tourist destination was closed to the public for emergency conservation work funded by Japan to the tune of $12 million. That work is now complete and the site reopened to visitors.

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A half billion gets you Caravaggio’s only mural

Wednesday, October 27th, 2021

Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Photo courtesy Artefact.Just kidding. It’s actually $546 million, and that’s only the opening bid. The sky’s the limit when the Villa Aurora in Rome, home to the only mural ever painted by Baroque master Caravaggio, goes under the hammer in January.

The Villa Aurora is all that remains of the grand estate built by Cardinale Ludovico Ludovisi on the site of what had once been the Horti Sallustiani, the luxurious garden palace of 1st century B.C. historian Sallust. Magnificent ancient sculptures including the Dying Gaul, the Ludovisi Gaul and the Sleeping Hermaphroditus were found when the villa was built in the 17th century. The main villa and numerous outbuildings were set in a vast landscaped garden bordered to the north by the Aurelian Walls.

The estate remained in the Ludovisi family until 1885 when everything but the Villa Aurora was sold to developers who demolished everything and chopped the land up into luxury building lots. The Boncompagni-Ludovisi bought one of those lots and built a new palace on it which is now home to the American Embassy.

The Casino dell’Aurora actually predates the lost Ludovisi estate. It was the hunting lodge of the country home (Rome was a lot smaller then) of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, the young Caravaggio’s most dedicated patron. He commissioned Caravaggio to cover the ceiling of a room just nine feet wide with an oil painting depicting Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. Del Monte was an alchemy buff — the small room was his lab — and the deities were allegorical representations of Paracelsus’ alchemical triad of sulphur/air (Jupiter), mercury/water (Neptune) and salt/earth (Pluto). Each of the gods is accompanied by his emblematic animal. Jupiter has his eagle, Neptune his hippocamp and Pluto his very good three-headed boi Cerberus. Caravaggio foreshortened the figures to create a dramatic perspectival effect as if the gods were standing on the ceiling.

Another masterpiece of perspective from a Baroque luminary adorns the villa’s entrance hall. Guercino, commissioned by the Ludovisi, painted an elaborate vision of Aurora’s chariot bringing in the dawn. The villa was named after this scene.

The sale of Villa Aurora comes after a lengthy inheritance dispute after the death of its owner, Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, in 2018.

“There are other rooms decorated spectacularly but the most important works are by Caravaggio and Guercino,” said [Sapienza University history professor Alessandro] Zuccheri. “It’s a place that’s unique in the world.” […]

Because the site is protected by the ministry of culture, once a bid has been agreed at auction, the state will have the chance to buy the property at the same price.

“The state will have the right to buy it; the problem will be whether it can pay such a high price,” said Zuccheri.

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New tombs found in Neolithic necropolis of Pully

Tuesday, October 26th, 2021

New tombs have been discovered in the famed Neolithic necropolis in Pully, near Lausanne on Lake Geneva. Archaeological investigations preceding utilities work on the Chemin de Verney unearthed eight cist tombs made of sandstone slabs in an area of about 110 square feet.

Pully’s Chemin de Chamblandes necropolis was first professionally excavated by Swiss archaeologist Albert Naef between 1901 and 1910. In use between 4300 and 3900 B.C., the necropolis is the largest group of Neolithic burials ever found in Switzerland. It is the type site for the cist tombs found throughout the Alpine arc in the Middle Neolithic. This style of tomb is now known as Chamblandes type after the Pully necropolis.

Chamblandes type tombs are rectangular stone boxes formed from four vertical slabs with a fifth slab on top of them. The deceased were laid to rest on their sides with their knees drawn up to their chests. Some of the graves include more than one burial. About 75 Chamblandes tombs containing the remains of about 100 individuals have been found since excavations began.

The newly-discovered tombs were found at a comparatively shallow depth and their cover slabs are in poor condition, broken into many fragments. Two of the graves were found intact. The other six were damaged in recent city works. Only three of the tombs still contain skeletal remains, all three of them cranial elements. Archaeologists suspect some of the smaller cists may have been graves of children whose fragile bones have decomposed. The only grave goods found are some lignite beads.

The last discoveries in this district of Pully date back to 1984. These new burials offer a rare opportunity to complete the plan of the necropolis, which is still difficult to define given the absence of recent extensive excavations on this site.

The graves that are not endangered by the planned construction have been left in situ and covered for their protection.

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Wari human sacrifices found in Lambayeque temple

Monday, October 25th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of 29 individuals, including three children and an adolescent, in the Huaca Santa Rosa de Pucalá archaeological site in the Lambayeque region of northwestern Peru. The four young people were sacrificial offerings, buried in front of the temple when the Wari-era enclosure was built between 800 and 900 A.D. These are the first human sacrifice victims from the Wari culture that have been discovered in Lambayeque.

Huaca Santa Rosa de Pucalá was an important ceremonial complex, used and altered over the centuries by the Cupisnique, Mochica, Wari and Lambayeque cultures who occupied the area. The Wari temple with its characteristic D-shaped enclosure was discovered in late 2019. Follow-up excavations were derailed by the pandemic for almost two years. Archaeologists returned to work the first of September.

Only the burials of the children and adolescent are from the Wari period. The other 25 individuals were interred in graves of pressed clay and in burial chambers in a temple from the Mochica culture. Archaeologists also found a pitcher decorated with Mochica imagery, a bottle in Early Sicán or Proto-Lambayeque style and a tumi, an Andean knife with a blade in the shape of a half moon. Remains of camelids and eight guinea pigs sacrificed for ritual purposes were unearthed as well.

The excavation has also revealed that there was a temple on the site dating back to the late Formative Period (900-200 B.C.). Built with mud brick walls with clay maces embedded inside, the construction is different from any other temple found before in Lambayeque. The upper storey of the temple had elaborate floors and ceilings made of vegetal material. There is evidence that objects were burned here, likely in ceremonial contexts.

These discoveries rewrite the cultural history of Lambayeque. The Wari center of power was the Ayacucho area in the central Andes, so their construction of a temple so far out of their stomping grounds is evidence they had a wider sphere of influence than previously realized. The Formative Period temple was built by people with local and mountain links, indicating coastal communities interacted with mountain communities between 400 and 200 B.C.

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Tiepolo drawing of gnocchi clowns found in attic

Sunday, October 24th, 2021

A drawing by Rococo master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo has been rediscovered in the attic of Weston Hall, the Northamptonshire seat of the literary Sitwell family. The pen, ink and wash drawing depicts a group of Punchinelli, a buffoonish commedia dell’arte stock character that Tiepolo drew repeatedly from the late 1720s through the early 1760s. This is an earlier example, dating to the early 1730s, and is one of the largest, most populated and most detailed of the three dozen or so Tiepolo Punchinello drawings.

Tiepolo, in contrast to his son Domenico, who shows Punchinelli engaged in everyday activities in his Divertimento per li Regazzi, portrays his Punchinelli making and eating gnocchi, and suffering from the excesses of overindulgence. The subject derives from a regional festival, “venerdì gnoccolare”, which took place in Verona on the last Friday of Carnival.

George Knox, the Tiepolo art historian, suggests that this drawing is among the earliest of the Punchinello drawings because of its fine line and delicate, even use of wash. He further proposes that this drawing may be linked stylistically with the studies for the Villa Loschi at Biron, executed around 1734. The present drawing, and others of this period, undoubtedly mark the moment that Tiepolo’s draftsmanship assumes its mature form.

The drawing was acquired by Sir Osbert Sitwell at a Christie’s auction of the famous collection of Old Master drawings of the late London banker and art collector Henry Oppenheimer in July 1936. For some inexplicable reason, the drawing wound up forgotten in one of Weston Hall’s attics. It was only rediscovered last year when Henrietta Sitwell, Osbert’s grand-niece, found it leaning against the attic wall and peeled back the bubble wrap it was swaddled in to find a surprise Old Master.

The Tiepolo drawing will go under the hammer at Dreweatts auction house with the other contents of Weston Hall at a two-day sale on November 16th and 17th. It has been conservatively estimated to sell between £150,000-£250,000 ($207,000-344,000), but a comparable piece sold at auction in New York in 2013 for $542,500, so even the high end of the range is something of a low-ball figure.

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Gallic diatretic glass vase reveals a waxy, fragrant secret

Saturday, October 23rd, 2021

The exceptionally rare diatretic glass vase discovered in a paleochristian necropolis in Autun, central France, last year has been pieced together by conservators, and it’s even rarer than it first appeared to be.

The vase was discovered inside a massive sandstone sarcophagus, one of six found in the necropolis, at the feet of the deceased individual. The necropolis was in use between the early 3rd and the middle of the 5th century, and the glass vase dates to the 4th century.

It is made of a reticulated glassware, an elaborate ornamental style featuring interlacing lines of glass in relief. Just 4.7 inches high and 6.3 inches in diameter, the vase is one of only 10 complete examples of Roman reticulated glass known to survive, and the only example ever found in France. It also unique for its inscription: the phrase VIVAS FELICITER (live in happiness) written in large deep relief letters.

While it was complete, and large enough pieces survived to make the inscription legible to the naked eye immediately upon discovery, the vase was broken into numerous fragments. The complex restoration was performed by experts at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz, Germany. Solving the puzzle took five months of work.

The restoration revealed an egg-and-dart band between the rim and the inscription. The base is decorated with a complex filigree featuring eight heart-shaped ovals that form a circular rosette. It also revealed a separator character, a v-shaped pointed arch crossed at the apex and incised with horizontal ribs, at the end of the inscription.

The letters are in excellent condition, although it seems the letter C was added in a later repair. The glass in the replacement C has the same chemical composition as the other letters, so it was made at the time the vase was made, but it has a matte finish that is different from the rest of the inscription. Something must have happened during the letter’s production that required it to be remade. The unsuitable C was melted back down and now has a slightly altered look and texture.

It was composition analysis that exposed the vase’s most surprising secret. Impregnation analyses found a mixture of plant and flower oils were used in the recipe, as was ambergris. Known as whale vomit, ambergris is a waxy substance formed in the intestinal tract of sperm wales that is found very rarely, almost always on beaches, and sells for astronomical sums. Today it is used as a fixative in perfumes, and ancient Egyptians are believed to have burned it like incense, but there are no references to it in classical Greek and Roman sources.

The first European scholar to write about ambergris is believed to have been Byzantine Greek physician Aëtius of Amida. The first important Christian writer on medicine, he mentioned ambergris in his great compilation of Greek medical knowledge written in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Aëtius included it as an ingredient in spikenard, an expensive perfume referenced repeatedly in the Bible and held to have medicinal properties. As the oil Mary, sister of Lazarus, poured on Jesus’ feet and wiped with her hair (John 12:3), in Christian Europe spikenard was used in the church.

The ambergris found in the diatretic glass vessel is the oldest example of its use on the archaeological record.

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Restored grape harvest mosaic goes on display

Friday, October 22nd, 2021

A mosaic from late antiquity depicting a donkey carrying a basket full of grapes while a vineyard worker leads him by the bridle will be going on display in Antakya, Turkey, for the first time nearly 20 years after it was excavated.

The mosaic was first discovered in 2002 after looting activity in the Mazmanlı Quarter of Hassa district, 50 miles northeast of Antakya. A rescue excavation revealed the full 64 square feet of the mosaic which had originally adorned the floor of a church dating to the 5th or 6th century. It was moved to the Hatay Archeology Museum‘s warehouse in 2016. Since this summer, a team of six conservators have been working to remove the protective plaster it was encased with when it was lifted, reattaching loose tesserae and stitching the entire mosaic together from the sections it was divided into during the recovery process.

The mosaic’s iconography attests to the importance of viticulture in the Amik Valley in the Late Roman Period, but the history of grape and wine production in what is now the Hatay Province of Turkey goes back even further than that and continues through to this day. The museum hoped to have the mosaic on display to bring in the Grape Harvest Festival on September 6th, but restoration took a full a six months.

Fashionably late, the mosaic is now scheduled to make its dramatic debut next month in the temporary exhibition hall of the Hatay Archeology Museum. The Mosaic of the Vine Harvest will go on display with the replica of a Late Roman Period mosaic depicting the harvest of the other agricultural product of the area with just as ancient a tradition of cultivation: olives.

“Our mosaic comes to the fore every year during the grape harvest in our Hassa. Based on this, we wanted to introduce it to the visitors. As part of our project ‘The Traces of Olives and Grapes Engraved in History Come to Light,’ the importance of olives in the Hatay region and their spread to Anatolia and Europe as well as the importance of grapes for our province will be explained in our temporary exhibition hall,” [museum director Ayşe] Ersoy added.

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