Archive for November, 2021

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The history of writing in 1.5 hours

Monday, November 15th, 2021

Among the many treasures of this summer’s virtual lecture series accompanying the Getty Museum’s exhibition on 3000 years of Mesopotamian history, there was one particularly sparkly jewel. From Laundry Lists to Liturgies: The Origins of Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia was an absolute revelation, and I’m not just saying that because it was hosted by my favorite Assyriologist, Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum. Dr. Finkel and Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts cover an enormous amount of ground on the origins and evolution of cuneiform: the first known writing system, its beginnings as a combination of pictograms and impressions, the incredible complexity of early Mesopotamian mathematics, writing’s shift from drawing to symbol to sound and ever so much more. The discussion lasted an hour and a half and I was riveted the entire time.

The webinar took place on August 11th, and I have been waiting impatiently ever since for the Getty to upload it to their YouTube channel as they did for the other videos in the series soon after the live debut. Finally two weeks ago I emailed the Getty’s Public Programs coordinator asking forlornly whether something had gone awry with the one video I was keenest to share. Something had — they didn’t get into specifics, just that they had experienced difficulties with the upload — but they were optimistic it would be up within a couple of weeks.

The couple of weeks have elapsed and the video is at long last available. Set aside a block of time and bask in the illumination:

4th c. B.C. Greek amphora pits found in Marseille

Sunday, November 14th, 2021

A preventative archaeology excavation in Marseille has unearthed three pits of Greek amphorae dating to the 4th century B.C. Archaeologists have been excavating the site of an office building renovation in a neighborhood of the city that was extensively reconstructed in the second half of the 19th century. A 16th century convent was on the site before then. The Greek-era pit had been absorbed into this much later construction.

The oldest city is what is now France, Marseille was founded as Massalia by colonists from the Ioanian Greek city of Phocaea in around 600 B.C. It was an emporion (trading post) for the burgeoning Ioanian Greek trade networks in the Western Mediterranean. Local production of amphorae and ceramics began virtually immediately to facilitate the transportation, consumption and storage of imported goods like wine and cereals. By the 4th century B.C., Massalia was a power center on the coast of southern Gaul, founding cities from The Pillars of Hercules to Corsica.

The recent excavation attests to Massalia’s active pottery industry in what was then the periphery of the city. The archaeological team discovered three pits with vertical walls. The first pit was filled with rubble rich in charcoal, clay nodules, kiln fragments and overfired ceramics. This was clearly a reject pit. Pieces from the potters’ workshop, likely located nearby, that failed to meet expectations were tossed into the first pit. The second pit is partially filled with complete Massalian amphorae that were arranged in layers. The third pit was damaged in modern construction and contains ceramic fragments that have yet to be dated.

The excavation made it possible to collect a large quantity of ceramic furniture, crockery and amphorae, dating homogeneously from the second half of the 4th century B.C. and illustrating the diversity of Massalian productions. The shapes identified correspond mainly to locally made dishes, cups or jugs. Mortars and amphorae also contain a paste rich in mica fragments, typical of Marseille potters’ workshops. Some of these are stamped with Greek letters that increase the body of [known Greek maker’s marks in] the south of France. A few shards of untreated Gallic ceramic as well as Attic imports complete the lot. Fragments of Etruscan, Phoenician-Punic and Iberian amphorae, correspond to older vases, are probably found in a residual position.

Mass grave of 25 women, children found in Chan Chan

Saturday, November 13th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed a mass grave containing the remains of 25 individuals, mostly women, at the pre-Inca site of Chan Chan near Trujillo in northern Peru. The bodies were  wrapped in layers of fabric and arranged in seated positions within an excavation area of 10 square meters at the southern wall of the Chimu citadel. They were buried with 70 pottery vessels and artifacts associated with textile work.

According to Jorge Meneses —head of the archaeological research project— this find is unusual due to its characteristics and location in a raised area of the Utzh An (Great Chimu) walled complex.

“Most of them (the remains) belonged to women under 30 who were buried with objects used in textile activities, a couple of children, and a couple of teenagers. It is a very specific population, not too young considering the average human lifespan was 40 years,” he remarked.

At first examination, there is no evidence that the people in the grave were human sacrifices. They were not buried at the same time. One individual was buried shortly after his death. Some of the other people’s bones were bleached and disarticulated, indicating they had been moved to the mass grave after having decomposed at another location.

It is an unusual combination of features because while it is a mass grave, the burials and reburials were done with care and the quality and quantity of goods buried as funerary offerings suggest the deceased may have been members of the Chimu elite.

Tudor grotesque paintings found under walls

Friday, November 12th, 2021

A complete 16th century wall painting has been discovered beneath a 19th century plaster wall at Calverley Old Hall in Leeds, Yorkshire. The painting covers the full surface of the Tudor wall. It was done in black, ochre and white pigments in the grotesque style, featuring fantastical beasts and men with climbing vine ornaments and columns. The date of the work could be as early as the 1540s. Most surviving wall paintings in English homes date to after 1575, so this could prove to be an exceptionally early example.

Grotesque was all the rage at the time, spurred by the rediscovery of the Domus Aurea in the 1480s and the Renaissance masters like Raphael and Michelangelo who were inspired by its wall frescoes. From Italy the style spread to Northern Europe where engravers printed illustrated books that were widely used as references by artisans. The grotesque wall paintings at Calverley Old Hall were likely made by local or traveling artists working off print books like these.

The Grade I-listed manor house has surviving elements that go back to 1300 and was extensively remodeled, added to and subtracted from for centuries. The last major addition dates to the first half of the 17th century. The Calverley family sold the estate in 1754 and it was divided into cottages. Except for the divider walls that separated the space for cottage tenants, the manor house is largely unaltered. The Landmark Trust bought Calverley in 1981, restoring two cottages for let. Since then it has restored the Chapel and the roof of the Great Hall, but the rest of the property, including the early 15th century timber-frame Solar Wing, unique in the country, and the interior of the late 15th century Great Hall, has simply been kept weathertight to protect it.

After a major fundraising appeal, the Landmark Trust has undertaken a comprehensive restoration of Calverley. The first phase is a thorough documentation of its current derelict state. The restorers were removing small areas of 19th century plaster in a cottage behind the Solar Wing to inspect the timber framing for any rot or damage when they spotted streaks of color on the oak. They called in specialists to investigate further. Removal of plaster from five more spots on the wall revealed the colors were part of a wall painting. Full removal off the plaster and lath exposed a complete wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mural.

The top frieze of the mural features alternating Tudor roses and pomegranates. Symbol of the resurrection of Christ, a pomegranate (granada in Spanish) was added to the royal arms of Ferdinand and Isabella after the conquest of Granada in 1492 and their daughter Catherine of Aragon joined her family’s pomegranate to Henry VIII’s rose for her heraldic badge after her marriage in 1509. The two appeared frequently in prints, reliefs and manuscripts until the queen’s arms were replaced by the new queen’s arms when Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533. The painting was done after both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn died and is likely a reference to the Calverleys’ Catholicism.

So who might have commissioned these wonderful paintings? The dendrochronology suggests that the roof (and therefore main structure) of the block was built 1514-39. The block had two phases (perhaps beginning as a stair turret) and its floor was inserted later, between 1547-85. This is a tantalisingly wide span of dates that covers a multitude of national and family events. The archaeology currently suggests the later period for the paintings – but even that is excitingly early.

At the moment, the most likely person to have commissioned the painted chamber seems to be Sir William Calverley (c. 1500-1572). He was knighted in 1548, and became Sheriff of York in 1549, a man of high estate and important affairs. We believe that the painted chamber was only ever reached at first floor level from the family’s private rooms and had its own private access directly onto the gallery of the family chapel. Perhaps it was Sir William’s privy chamber, where he entertained only his closest friends and associates. Or perhaps it was his second wife, Elizabeth Sneyd’s private parlour, a refuge from vigorous Sir William’s seventeen offspring.

The Landmark Trust is now raising funds to thoroughly conserve and display this unique artistic treasure. Donate online here.

Largest hoard of Roman silver found in Augsburg

Thursday, November 11th, 2021

City archaeologists in Augsburg have unearthed the largest Roman silver hoard ever discovered in Bavaria. The hoard of approximately 5,600 silver denarii from the 1st and 2nd centuries was found in the Oberhausen district, the oldest part of the city, at the site of a planned residential development.

The coins in the hoard range in date from the reign of Nero in the mid-1st century to that of Septimius Severus shortly after 200 A.D. Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius are represented, as is a far less prominent emperor, Didius Julianus, who reigned for all of three months (March-June 193) after buying the purple when it was auctioned off by the Praetorian Guard. His coinage is much rarer, therefore, as his window to mint money was so short.

Augsburg was founded under Augustus between 8 and 5 B.C. as the Roman military camp on the banks of the Wertach river near its confluence with the Lech river. It was the earliest Roman fort established in the Alpine foothills, freshly conquered in 15 B.C. by Augustus’ stepson Tiberius. By around 10 A.D., the temporary camp had been transformed into a fort capable of housing 3,000 soldiers. A civilian settlement outside the camp quickly grew into the town of Augusta Vindelicorum which became the capital of the new Imperial province of Raetia in the reign of Tiberius. While there were no legions quartered there after 70 A.D., the city continued to grow and prosper

At the end of the 3rd century, the Emperor Diocletian reformed imperial administration and the province was governed by a dux, the top military authority in the region. Lesser government officials still administered the day-to-day civil affairs of the province from Augusta Vindelicorum.

The silver coins were discovered not far from the site of the earliest Roman base in Bavaria, also in the gravel of an old Wertach river bed. The area of ​​a future residential area had been archaeologically examined there. A container could no longer be identified. “We assume that the treasure was buried outside the city of Augusta Vindelicum near the Via Claudia running there in the early 3rd century and was never recovered. The hiding place was probably washed away many centuries later by floods in Wertach and the coins were thus scattered in the river gravel,” explains Sebastian Gairhos, head of Augsburg’s city archeology. “A simple soldier earned between 375 and 500 denarii in the early 3rd century. The treasure therefore has the equivalent of around 11 to 15 annual salaries.”

In addition to the coin hoard, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of Roman artifacts in the gravel from the former river bed (the Wertach’s path was straightened in 1900). They found weapons, tools, jewelry, dishes, vessels and much more sifting through 1000 cubic meters of river gravel, all of them believed to have come from the 1st century B.C. military base.

The recovered objects, many of which are heavily corroded and thick with concretions from centuries spent on a riverbed, will be analyzed and conserved. The city hopes to find a permanent home for them in a new museum dedicated to Augsburg’s Roman history, but that’s a bit of a pipe dream at the moment since there are no plans for its construction. Meanwhile, a selection of the coins from the hoard and other artifacts found in the excavation will go briefly on display at the Armory House of Augsburg from December 17, 2021 to January 9, 2022.

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