Seal identifies high-ranking female administrator of Hittite Empire

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.

Ghost stories with Irving Finkel

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. 

Roman busts found under Norman church site

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.

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

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.

A half billion gets you Caravaggio’s only mural

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.