Archive for November, 2021

Unique Achilles mosaic found in Rutland

Thursday, November 25th, 2021

An exceptional mosaic depicting scenes from the clash between Achilles and Hector at the end of the Trojan War has been unearthed at Rutland in the East Midlands. It is one of only a handful of mosaics with this motif known to survive and the rest are on continental Europe. This is the first mosaic depicting Achilles and Hector ever discovered in the UK.

The presence of the mosaic was first discovered last year by Jim Irvine on a family walk on his father’s land. He saw some Roman pottery fragments in a wheat field. When he examined satellite imagery of the spot, he saw a cropmark delineating a building beneath the surface. A little digging revealed a small section of a mosaic. Irvine notified Leicestershire County Council and county archaeologists followed up, excavating a small trench to get a better idea of the mosaic beneath the surface. They were able to determine that the mosaic was in good condition and was figural with people, horses and chariots.

That type of complex figural imagery is rare in Britain, and experts from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services were enlisted to document the mosaic exposed in the trench in August 2020. The trench was then expanded, revealing additional figures that identified the mosaic as containing scenes from the Trojan War. After a year of lockdown and fieldwork backlog, archaeologists and students from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History returned to the site this September to excavate the full mosaic floor.

It is enormous, 36 feet by 23 feet, and was likely a grand dining room. Within a guilloche pattern border are three comic-book style panels showing the clash between Greek hero Achilles and Prince Hector of Troy. The top panels depicts the chariot battle between Achilles and Hector. The middle panel shows Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse behind his chariot while Hector’s father, King Priam, begs Achilles to return the body for proper burial. The third panel features the exchange of Hector’s body for its weight in gold. A Trojan servant balances a huge scale on his shoulders with Hector’s corpse on one side and a bowl of gold on the other. Priam adds more gold vessels to meet the ransom requirement.

This last panel proves that the source was not actually The Iliad, because Homer’s account of the death of Hector has Priam ransoming the body with a cart full of rich gifts after he begs Achilles to think of his own father and have mercy. Before that plea softened his heart, Achilles had said he would never give the body back not even for its weight in gold. The story of the scale with Hector’s body on one side and a pile of gold on the other comes from a lost play by Aeschylus (Phrygians, or the Ransom of Hector) now known only from marginalia and fragments.

The room was part of a large villa in use between the 3rd and 4th century. While only the mosaic room and another building next to it have been excavated so far, geophysical surveys have found numerous outbuildings — barns, a circular structure, a possible bath house. It was probably the villa of a wealthy, classically educated individual. Fire damage and later burials indicate the villa was reused after it was abandoned.

The mosaic is highly detailed, and specific features show that it is the work of highly skilled mosaicists.  The range of colours used, the attention to fine detail and the way that some figures transgress the guilloche boundaries suggest that this presumably high status floor may have been sourced from an illuminated manuscript that was in the possession of the villa owner. It also raises the possibility that this person had an understanding of the classics and wanted to share that knowledge with their friends and guests.

Leicestershire Fieldworkers will be hosting a zoom webinar on the mosaic by one of the excavations’ lead archaeologists, Jennifer Browning, on Thursday, December 2nd, at 7.30PM GMT (2:30PM EST). Register here.

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17th c. celestial globe restored

Wednesday, November 24th, 2021

A rare 17th century celestial globe in the collection of the Museo Galileo in Florence has been restored to its former glory after six months of study, cleaning and repair. The conservation restored the full legibility of the globe, bringing back the vivid colors and details of the imagery and text.

The Globe Celeste was begun by Joost de Hondt, aka Hondius, in 1611. Hondt was one of the three preeminent cartographers in Amsterdam at a time when the constant flow of new geographic information made the creation of updated maps and globes a highly profitable business. When he died in 1612, his son Jodocus Hondius the Younger completed the globe with Adriaen Veen. Dedicated to the “lords of the United Provinces of Belgium,” the celestial globe depicts the constellations and stars, using the ancient observations of Claudius Ptolemy as the base, but with major updates from astronomers and explorers of the Age of Discovery, including the stars north of the Tropic of Capricorn observed by Tycho Brahe, whose portrait is on the globe, and the new southern hemisphere constellations first documented by Pietre Diercksz Keyser and Frederick de Houtman.

The globe is made of 12 strips of paper 5.5 inches wide at their widest points. Each strip is divided into two parts and topped with circular caps on the ends. They were printed with meticulously detailed copper plate engravings and then colored in with pigments and dyes after assembly over a spherical shell with a single axis supporting it in the interior. It was then coated in protective lacquer of shellac or another natural resin to allow the globe to be handled without damaging the surface.

The restoration has revealed new information about the structure of the globe. It was built up from a tiny nucleus just a few millimeters in diameter. Nineteen layers later, they had a globe 21 inches in diameter. Once it was dry, a small opening was made and the material inside crushed and removed. An oak plank was then inserted through the ends and fixed with brass pins to keep the sphere’s axis stable.

Researchers found no documentation of past restorations, so they deployed non-invasive techniques like ultraviolet fluorescence, false color infrared and X-rays to identify materials used in the original and in past interventions.

The surface of the globe had at least two depressions potentially caused by accidental falls, as well as areas where rubbing and scratches were evident, making the images and constellations difficult to decipher. Delicate cleaning enabled the recovery of the original shades of the constellations painted in yellow, red, green, blue, and brown, restoring the beauty of the images.

In order to reposition the paper cover more accurately, it was decided to completely remove the strip of paper and lift the cap to see inside the globe, where new observations were made on the nature and thickness of the layers, as well as the surprise discovery of a twig of willow wood with two tied paper parcels that were most likely inserted to improve a depression in the paper during a restoration of which there had previously been no record. It was decided to remove the twig, given it no longer served a use and was not part of the original structure, and the paper parcels revealed a folded piece of newspaper dated December 24, 1942, indicating that it was restored in those years.

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3,000-year-old drain pipe found in China

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021

The remains of a 3,000-year-old earthenware drainage pipe have been unearthed in Xi’an City, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. The drainage pipe was made of four cylindrical pipes 10 inches in diameter linked together to form a section 10 feet long. It was discovered in an excavation of the ancient site of Haojing which dates to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1045 B.C. – 771 B.C.).

Haojing was one of the twin capitals of the Western Zhou Dynasty. It was located on the east bank of the Feng River; the other capital, Fenghao, was on the west bank. Haojing was founded by King Wu of Zhou (r. 1046-1043 B.C.) and contained the royal palace the administrative center of government. Fenghao contained the Zhou Dynasty ancestral shine and formal gardens.

The archaeological site of Haojing today covers 3.5 square miles. The foundations of a dozen Western Zhou rammed earth buildings have been excavated since the 1980s. Since the spring of 2019, archaeologists have focused their attentions on the foundation of Building No. 14, one of the larger rammed earth building bases at the site. So far they have unearthed 13,000 square feet of rammed earth remains, including rammed earth foundations and walls up to five feet thick. The 10-foot pipe was found in the foundation.

The rammed earth foundation of Haojing No. 14 building is generally slightly rectangular in the north-south direction, with a length of about 53 meters and a width of about 34 meters, with a total area of ​​more than 1,800 square meters. It is a large, high-level building. The southern and central western parts of the building site are relatively well preserved. On top of the rammed earth platform, there are 8 rammed earth wall foundations arranged in an east-west direction. There are 8 houses in total, of which 2 are larger in the middle, with the main room (hall), and 3 on both sides. The house is narrow and is a wing room, which is the same width as the wing room of the Hogyeong West Friday Palace, which was excavated in the mid-1980s. It’s roughly the same.

A three-meter-long pottery drainage pipe was found on the south-central edge of the building site. It is made up of four circular pottery pipes, one large at one end and one small at the other end. The pottery water pipe is decorated with rope pattern on the outside, the inside is plain, the diameter is about 25 cm, and the length varies. It is the best-preserved drainage pipe found at the site.

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Millefleurs of chivalry back on display

Monday, November 22nd, 2021

After four years of conservation and cleaning, including by specialists in Belgium, the earliest tapestry in the care of the National Trust has gone back on display at Montacute House in Somerset.

Knight with the Arms of Jean de Daillon depicts a knight in shining gold-trimmed armor on his prancing steed. He carries a standard with a red wolf or tiger on a red and white striped pole. The horse is draped with a red and gold brocade caparison. The dark blue background is covered with tiny flowers — poppies, daffodils, honeysuckle, thistles and many more — in the millefleurs style. In the upper left corner is the coat of arms of Jean de Daillon that is the source of the tapestry’s modern appellation.

Born into a family of petty nobility, Jean de Daillon was a childhood friend of the future King Louis XI of France, and while he temporarily turned against his old pal to get in the good graces of King Charles VII, they would eventually reconcile after Louis became king and Daillon rose enormously in rank, power and wealth. He was governor of multiple provinces and held important offices, the most pivotal of which was chamberlain to Louis XI.

His seat was the Château du Lude, a castle he acquired in 1457 and spent years renovating into an elegant palace worthy of entertaining royalty in comfort and style. Daillon commissioned a set of millefleurs tapestries from master weaver Guillaume Desremaulx of Tournai between 1477 and 1479 to adorn the walls of a room in the castle. The knight was the first of the series and the only one known to survive today. It was completed by 1480 when the town of Tournai paid for the tapestry as a gift to Daillon “in remuneration for numerous favours and friendly gestures that he has made to this city.”

The surviving records of the commission make the tapestry unique. It is the only 15th century tapestry that can be confirmed to have been made in Tournai, and one of only a few tapestries whose maker and commissioner can be definitively identified. It also the only surviving Netherlandish tapestry from the 15th century to feature a single knight on horseback. The rare documentation also illuminates how much was lost, because we know how much wall space the set was commissioned to cover and roughly how much the one surviving tapestry covers (it has been trimmed over the centuries, so its precise original measurements are unknown). The set was approximately 20 times as large as the Knight tapestry.

Jean de Daillon died in 1481. His widow contacted a dealer to sell the tapestries in 1482 and they were delivered to her brother to effectuate the sale in April 1483. That is the last time they appear on the historical record until it emerged in 1916 when it was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by philanthropist and collector Sir Edward Speyer. In 1935, it was acquired by Sir Malcolm Stewart who bequeathed it to the National Trust along with five other tapestries for Montacute House. It wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers identified the coat of arms as Jean de Daillon’s.

The tapestry has been away from Montacute House for four years, travelling to Belgium for a specialist wet clean to remove centuries of dirt and it also spent a considerable amount of time at the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk. Skilled conservators hand sewed in individual repairs, replaced missing threads and strengthened damaged areas. It took nearly 1,300 hours of work to conserve.

The process has brought out previously hard to see details and the subject of the tapestry is much clearer than before.

“Now that the knight is clean we can clearly see his features, which are quite thin and fine, and he has long flaxen coloured hair showing below his helmet – something you couldn’t see very well before. We think the knight probably shows Jean de Daillon himself,” [says Sonja Rogers, National Trust house and collections manager for Montacute House.]

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Four settlement period graves found in Iceland

Sunday, November 21st, 2021

Four graves dating to the settlement period (late 9th, early 10th century) have been discovered in Seyðisfjörður, eastern Iceland. The burials were richly furnished with grave goods indicating the deceased were of high social status.

Excavations this summer and fall unexpectedly revealed that the site, believed to contain nothing earlier than 18th century remains, in fact had archaeological materials dating to the early days of the Viking settlement of Iceland, hidden and preserved by a landslide that blanketed the area in 1150.

The first of the tombs found is a boat burial, the first boat grave found in the East Fjords and one of only 12 boat graves ever found in Iceland. Grave goods include a spear, a silver brooch, a silver ring, beads, a hnefatafl  game piece and a Borre-style belt buckle.

Two of the four graves contained the remains of horses buried with the human, and one of the two held the skeletal remains of a dog too. The practice of burying someone with their horse was much more widespread in Iceland than in Norway. The fourth grave belonged to a woman. She was buried with a pair of oval buckles and a necklace of 11 glass beads. Also found in her grave was a leather purse containing a Norwegian whetstone and flint.

The graves were found 110 yards or so from the Fjörður farm mound. According to the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) saga, the chronicle of the Norse settlement of Iceland written in the 12th century, the first settler in Seyðisfjörður was one Bjólfur from Voss in Norway who established the Fjörður farm. While the Landnámabók was written three centuries after the events it describes, it also documents accurate and detailed historical data, including the names and descriptions of more than 3,000 people and 1,400 settlements. It is possible that the individuals buried in the four graves are listed in the Book of Settlements. They may even be related to Bjólfur. One of them could even conceivably be Bjólfur himself.

The silver brooch has been sent to the National Museum of Iceland for further analysis. The skeletal remains, human and animal, will also be studied in laboratory conditions. The graves and some of their contents have been scanned and 3D models created. 

Here’s one of the burials with horse as well as human remains:

Here’s the one with both a horse and a dog:

This is one of the beads found in the woman’s tomb:

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World’s oldest jewelry found in Morocco

Saturday, November 20th, 2021

Archaeologists in Morocco have discovered a set of shell beads that date to between 142,000 and 150,000 years ago making the perforated shells the world’s oldest known jewelry.

The 33 sea snail shells were unearthed excavations from 2014 to 2018 in the Bizmoune Cave less than 10 miles inland from the Atlantic coast of southwest Morocco. About a half-inch long, the shells are longer than T. gibbosula shells found at other sites in North Africa. The perforations are mostly natural holes that were chipped into ovals and circles. The edges of many of the holes are smoothed and polished, wear and tear from strings being threaded through the perforations. Residues of red pigment and ochre suggest that at least some of the shells were painted.

The beads serve as potential clues for anthropologists studying the evolution of human cognition and communication. Researchers have long been interested in when language appeared. But there was no material record of language until just a few thousand years ago, when humans began writing things down.

The beads, Kuhn said, are essentially a fossilized form of basic communication.

“We don’t know what they meant, but they’re clearly symbolic objects that were deployed in a way that other people could see them,” he said.

The beads are also notable for their lasting form. Rather than painting their bodies or faces with ochre or charcoal, as many people did, the beads’ makers made something more permanent, Kuhn said, suggesting the message they intended to convey was a lasting and important one.

The study has been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read here.

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Silver plate with Scythian gods found in barrow

Friday, November 19th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed a unique silver plate engraved with images of Scythian deities and eagle-headed griffins near the village of Devitsa in the Ostrogozhsky District of western Russia’s Voronezh Oblast. This is the first artifact depicting the Scythian pantheon to be found so far north of the Scythian tribal centers.

The plate was discovered in a richly furnished warrior’s tomb in the barrow cemetery of Devitsa V. The necropolis on the bank of the Devitsa river today consists of 19 tumuli, but the site has been extensively farmed and many ancient barrows were destroyed over the centuries. It has been excavated regularly since 2010, and this year’s fieldwork focused on barrow number seven.

Barrow seven was one of the largest in the necropolis before agricultural work whittled it down. It was about 130 feet in diameter and more than four feet high when it was intact. The central grave has thankfully managed to survive, albeit not without damage. The tomb in the center of mound is 24.6 x 16.5 feet, the largest surviving grave in the necropolis. It was made of 17 oak pillars and covered with half-oak beams. The roof had fallen in, and the collapse had the happy side-effect of preserving grave goods that would otherwise have fallen prey to the looters who plundered the tomb in antiquity. It dates to the 4th century A.D.

Inside the tomb were the skeletal remains of an adult male about 40-49 years of age at time of death. His grave was richly furnished with precious metals, weapons, horse tackle and pottery vessels. Next to his head were numerous small gold hemispherical objects that had originally been stitched to his garments (now decomposed). An iron knife, spearhead and three dart heads were next to him. A horse rib believed to be the remains of a ceremonial offering was also found by his side.

The equestrian accessories were located in the southeast corner of the grave and include pieces from three harnesses: bits, cheek pieces, girth buckles, iron bridle browbands and iron, bronze and bone pendants. Each of the three harnesses was adorned with two bronze cheek pieces in the shape of wolves’ heads. Next to the harnesses was the jaw of a young bear, symbolic of the Scythian bear cult that was popular among the tribes of the Middle Don area.

In the northeast of the grave several feet away from the skeleton was the rectangular silver plate about 13.6 inches long and three inches wide at its widest point in the center. It had been nailed to a wooden plank with a myriad small silver nails. The wood has almost entirely rotted away.

In the central part of the plate as the scientists suggested a winged figure facing of a Goddess of animal and human fertility, the Goddess known as Argimpasa, Cybele, the Great Goddess is depicted. The Upper part of her body is stripped, there is a head wear, likely crown with horns, on her head. The Goddess is surrounded from both sides with the figures of winged eagle headed griffons. The depictions of such type where the traditions of Asia Minor and ancient Greek are mixed, archaeologists found many times during the excavations of the Scythian barrows of Northern Sea region, Dnieper forest-steppe region and Northern Caucasus.

The left side of the plate is formed by two square plates decorated with the depictions of syncretic creatures standing in a so-called heraldic pose (in front of each other, close to each other with their paws). From the right side two round buckles are attached to the plate on each of which one anthropomorphic character with a crown on his head standing surrounded by two griffons is depicted. Although, who are those characters and which item was decorated by this plate is still an open issue.

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Merovingian pottery workshops yield new finds

Thursday, November 18th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of kilos of Merovingian-era pottery in the village of Sevrey in eastern France. Many of the vessels are in excellent condition and there are some types that have never been recorded before.

Mentioned in medieval texts, the Sevrey workshop was the only one in the region to produce the orange/brown pottery known as bistre ceramic. Pottery production in Sevrey was continuous from the 5th century through the 19th. Examples of its have been found from the Swiss Jura to Vienna and south to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The classic forms of a bistre service largely dominate the repertoire of productions, namely pots, jugs, carinated bowls and mortars. In addition to these classic standards, there are also several recurring shapes such as cups, lamps, bottles or lids. The presence of some exceptional pieces is to be noted such as a jug with a double handle or miniature vases, evoking specific tests or orders.

This fall’s excavation in advance of a real estate development allowed archaeologists to explore the full process of pottery production in the Merovingian period. They discovered workpits along the axis of a road that were later reused to dump trash. They also discovered a sump, a rectangular pit used to collect water, evidence of how water was managed in the manufacture of ceramics. There is also a large amount of iron slag from an associated forge and butchered animal remains.

Various pits and post holes were found packed with discarded kiln failures from the late Middle Ages, a little-known period in Sevrey archaeology. The discovery of abundant terracotta construction materials — roof tiles, ridge tiles, bricks — suggest the workshops may have whole production lines in the 6th and 7th centuries previously unknown to archaeologists.

Thus, despite a limited area, the high density of remains correlated with the phenomena of stratification of the land and the abundance of material provide a large panel of data, likely to be integrated into the overall context of the medieval village of Sevrey and its potters’ workshops.

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Decorated Roman dagger found at Alpine battle site

Wednesday, November 17th, 2021

A Roman dagger discovered near the village of Tiefencastel in the Alpine canton of Graubünden has been restored revealing rich decoration of inlaid silver and brass. Its cross-shaped handle dates it to 50 B.C., an extremely rare type of which only four examples are known.

The pugio was found in May 2019 by metal detectorist Lucas Schmid who volunteers to employ his hobby on behalf of the Archaeological Service of Graubünden (ADG). He was scanning an area of the Crap Ses Gorge in the Oberhalbstein Alps where Roman legions battled the Rhaeti in 15 B.C. and established a summer military camp to control the Septimer Pass. Roman lead sling bullets and weapons have been discovered there since 2003.

Schmid found the heavily corroded dagger a foot beneath the surface. It was complete, albeit missing its scabbard. next to a gladius, the short double-edged sword that was standard issue for Roman legionaries and local auxiliaries. He alerted the ADG to his finds and archaeologists followed up with an excavation at the site this September. In one month, the team unearthed hundreds of military artifacts, including hobnails from caligae, coins, fragments of shields, lead sling bullets and spearheads.

“It is not only the outstanding individual objects such as the dagger (a pugio) that are interesting, but also the large number and composition of the found objects,” study team member Peter-Andrew Schwarz, an archaeologist at the University of Basel, told Live Science in an email.

The slingshots are marked with the letters that show which Roman legion made them, — while the shoe nails and some other weapons, including some of the spearheads, are clearly also of Roman origin, he said.

The archaeologists have also unearthed fragments of swords, parts of shields and spearheads that were part of the armament of the opposing Rhaetians, he said.

The significance of the discoveries has spurred the ADG to launch a five-year investigation of the site that will culminate in an exhibition of the finds. The Canton of Graubünden has made a series of three short videos documenting the restoration of the dagger. It’s in German and has no subtitles, alas, but it’s cool to see the process even if you can’t understand what is being said.

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Unfinished Roman aqueduct found in Armenia

Tuesday, November 16th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of an arched aqueduct that the Romans began but never finished in Artaxata, Armenia. It is the easternmost arched aqueduct ever discovered in the territory of the Roman Empire.

The Artaxata area has been settled since the 5th–4th millennia B.C. The city was founded around 180 B.C. by King Artashes-Artaxias I as the capital of the Kingdom of Armenia, and it remained the administrative center of Armenia well into the 5th century A.D., even after its conquest by Persian king Shapur II in 369 A.D.

Rome’s attempts to conquer Armenia were less successful. Nero captured Artaxata in 58-59 A.D. and installed Tigranes VI as a client king, but the Romans were defeated and Nero signed a peace treaty in 63 A.D. Rome even sent money and architects to help rebuild Artaxata. The terms of the treaty kept Armenia independent for almost 50 years until Trajan broke the treaty in 114 and invaded.

Trajan, under whose rule the Roman Empire reached its greatest geographical extent, annexed Armenia and established the imperial province of Armenia Major with the Artaxata as the capital. Trajan moved on with his Parthian campaign and by 116, Armenia was rife with anti-Roman insurrection activity. After Trajan’s death in 117, his successor Hadrian cut the empire’s losses and pulled out of Armenia.

An international team of archaeologists from the University of Münster and the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia found the aqueduct remains during an excavation of the lower city of Artaxata, located on a plain east of the Khor Virap hillock (famed for its medieval monastery). After a geophysical survey identified architectural remains in a regular, linear layout typical of arched aqueducts, the team dug trenches following the line.

The first trench revealed a monumental rectangular block of opus caementicium, then a second block six feet away. They are both more than seven feet wide. Two more opus caementicium blocks were found in another excavation trench, both more than eight feet square. These pillars are rougher in texture than the first two, and contain more inclusions of larger stones.

The foundation piers have shorter intervals between them than usual — the larger the arch span, the more efficient the construction — and are unusually deep. These adaptations were made to accommodate the Artaxata’s terrain which is highly seismic and wet. Only the foundations were built. There is no rubble or any evidence of construction above the piers. The aqueduct died with Trajan.

“The planned, and partially completed, construction of the aqueduct in Artaxata shows just how much effort was made, in a very short space of time, to integrate the infrastructure of the capital of the province into the Empire,” says co-author Torben Schreiber from the Institute of Classical Archaeology and Christian Archaeology at the University of Münster.

The find has been published in the journal Archäologischer Anzeiger and can be read in its entirety here.

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