1,000-year-old surgical kit found in Sican tomb

A funerary bundle discovered in a tomb from the Middle Sicán period (900-1050 A.D.) at the Huaca Las Ventanas archaeological site in the Lambayeque region of Peru, has been found to include a set of surgical tools indicating the deceased was a surgeon. This is the first such find ever made in Lambayeque or in northern Peru.

Funerary bundle No. 77 was unearthed by archaeologists from the Sicán National Museum in a 2010-2011 excavation of the southern necropolis of Huaca Las Ventanas. It was removed along with its soil and sand context to protect it from being eroded and washed away in flooding from the adjacent La Leche River.

The recovered material was transported to the museum where it was stored for later excavation. That turned out to be much later, a decade later, to be exact, when a National Geographic Donation Fund grant made to the museum in 2021 made it possible to fully explore Bundle No. 77.

The excavation took place between October 2021 and January of this year. Inside the bundle was a gold mask painted with cinnabar, a large bronze pectoral, gilt copper bowls and a poncho-like garment with copper plates. Under the poncho was a pottery vessel with a double spout and a curved bridge handle with a small figure at the apex representing the Huaco Rey (Huaco King).

The surgical kit was of particular interest to archaeologists. It is large, containing a full set of awls, needles and knives of various sizes and configurations. There are about 50 knives in total, some with a single cutting edge. Most are a bronze alloy with high arsenic content. Some have wooden handles. There is also a tumi, a ceremonial knife with a half-moon blade. By the tumi was a metal planchette with a symbol associated with surgical instruments. Two frontal bones, one adult and one juvenile, were found next to the planchette. Marks on the bones indicate they were deliberately cut with trepanation techniques. This confirmed that the tools were intended for use in surgery.

While the tools are unique for the region, a similar find was made in Paracas in 1929. The tools are made of different materials, however. The blades in the Paracas set were made with sharpened volcanic obsidian.

“It is the first discovery of this type here in Lambayeque and in the north of the country. It dates from the year 900 to 1050 after Christ, of Middle Sicán cultural affiliation, which speaks of the specialization and expertise that existed at this time. We are not only documenting elite cult figures linked to metallurgy but also specialists and surgical interventions”, [Sican National Museum Director Carlos Elera] highlighted.

A piece of bark from an unknown tree found in the bundle may have been used for medicinal purposes as an analgesic or anti-inflammatory infusion the same way white willow bark makes what is basically aspirin tea.

“This will be investigated to find out what species it belonged to and what use is currently given. We have to make a detailed typology of the surgical instruments to compare them with the Paracas instruments. There are some that coincide and some that don’t, but what is interesting is the case of Lambaye, where an object has the auction of the God of the Mask with Closed Eyes always present”, he mentioned.

Muskets from Revolutionary War shipwreck restored

Three muskets recovered from a Revolutionary War-era shipwreck off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida, have been liberated from thick layers of concretion to reveal intact stock, lock, and brass furniture. The hardened outer layer of corrosion, sediment and marine life took years of painstaking conservation to remove.

The muskets were recovered from a site known as the Storm Wreck which was discovered in 2009 and excavated by marine archaeologists, students and volunteers with the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program between 2009 and 2014. The wreck was one of a fleet of more than 130 British ships, Royal Navy and private, that were enlisted to evacuate Loyalists from Charleston, South Carolina, to the safety of British East Florida in December 1782. They succeeded in fleeing the threat posed by the Continental Army, but for the Storm Ship, the topography of British East Florida itself would be fatally dangerous. The ship ran aground on the treacherous sandbar of St. Augustine on New Year’s Eve, 1782.

Hundreds of artifacts have been recovered from the site, including two British cannons stamped with the date 1780, buttons from regimental uniforms of the Royal Provincial, the 63rd Regiment of Foot and 71st Regiment of Foot, a gentleman’s pocket pistol and the ship’s bell, which is unfortunately devoid of markings so we still don’t know the name of the ship. There are no Royal Navy motifs, so it may have been privately owned.

Many of the recovered objects were obscured inside “rocks” of massed concretions. Conservators took x-rays of the concretions to map out the artifacts within and develop a plan to remove the layers while replacing the salts that will eat away at the object as soon as it is exposed to air. An x-ray of one of the Brown Besses revealed a lead shot that looked like it was in the barrel but was actually to the right of it embedded in the concretion material.

Conservators removed the outer layer of corrosion to reveal the muskets, complete with intact stock, lock, and brass furniture. The stocks were preserved in polyethylene glycol, to bulk and support the waterlogged wood cells as they dried.

The brass furniture included the ramrod pipes, side plate, wrist plate, trigger guard, and trigger plate, all conserved using electrolysis and later affixed to the dried stock. The locks were partially corroded away and partially preserved; leaving an intricate shape that required step-by-step casting and removal of the corrosion. The locks were the last feature added back to the stocks, which completed the treatment and readied the muskets for eventual display at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.

Phoenician “harbor” revealed to be sacred pool

A monumental basin on the island of Motya off the western coast of Sicily that was long believed to have been a Phoenician harbor has been revealed to have been a sacred freshwater pool.

Occupied since the Bronze Age, the island of Motya has an excellent protected natural harbor and its strategic location between the coasts of North Africa, Iberia and Sardinia drew the attention of Phoenicians who settled on the island in the early 8th century B.C. The island grew into an important port for the trade networks of the Mediterranean.

Motya’s success made it a plum prize for its Phoenician cousins from Carthage. In the middle of the 6th century B.C., Carthaginians attacked and destroyed the city-island. It was rebuilt on a grander scale with a massive defensive wall and two monumental religious complexes. The monumental pool, originally a natural pond with a stone block side, was built during this reconstruction period.

The rectangular, stone-lined basin was first explored archaeologically in the early 1900s by  archaeologist Joseph Whitaker. He identified a channel of water as a conduit linking the basin to the Mediterranean. He dubbed it a “Kothon” after the Greek name for Carthage’s artificial ring-shaped harbor. It wasn’t the strongest of hypotheses. The pool was relatively small for a harbor (37×52.5 meters), and the water level of the Mediterranean was much lower than it is today, so the basin was further away from the sea. Later archaeologists revised the Kothon interpretation, proposing that it wasn’t so much a harbor as a dry dock for the maintenance and repair of ships.

Recent excavations by a team from the Sapienza University of Rome unearthed a large Temple of Ba’al next to the basin. The temple was very ancient, in use from 800 to 397/6 B.C., and at some point it had been enclosed with a temenos wall that also enclosed the Kothon. A second temple, dedicated to the goddess Astarte, and a third dubbed the “Sanctuary of the Holy Waters” were also found within the temenos. This strongly suggests that the basin’s purpose was also religious. A stone platform in the center of the pool may have been a podium for a statue of a deity, perhaps Ba’al, judging by a dedication to “Belios,” (the Greek name for Ba’al) found in a votive pit in the corner of the basin.

The doom of the harbor theory was finally sealed when the pool was drained for full excavation. The team discovered that the basin was fed by three natural underground freshwater springs, not by a channel from the sea, and that it was very shallow, just five feet at the deepest point. No Phoenician warship or merchant vessel was tiny enough to dock in five feet of water.

Excavation and survey work allow us to identify the planning concept behind the sacred complex, and the functional and symbolic nature of its various alignments. The arrangement of buildings, stelae, altars, bothroi (pits), votive offerings … and other features within the enclosure, suggest a place of religious activity dedicated to the sacred waters, the sky and the associated gods—all key elements of Phoenician religious beliefs.

The sacred pool was put to practical use by the Romans who farmed fish in it and used it in the production of lime. It was repurposed again between the 16th and 18th centuries as a salt pan. It was during this latter use that the channel was dug connecting the pool to the Marsala Lagoon and the sea.

The recent discoveries at Motya have wide implications, especially in connection with the origins of the Phoenician settlement, its transformation into a city and the function of some of its major monuments. The cultic and astronomical role played by the sacred enclosure and pool in the origins and development of Motya, advanced here, adds another element, showing that Motya was open to cultural interactions and hybridisation, counterbalancing Carthage’s growing political and economic domination. Consequently, Motya was a site quite different from the rising western Phoenician power of Carthage. It remained a flourishing free-port and, in time, developed an open attitude, especially towards Greece and the Greek cities of Sicily. Carthage’s disappointment with this attitude, however, was the cause of a delay in help for Motya, when the tyrant Syracuse Dionysius placed the city under siege and then destroyed it in 397–396 BC.

Five tombs of pharaonic officials found

Archaeologists have discovered five tombs of senior officials in pharaonic administrations from the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate period in the necropolis of Saqqara, 15 miles southwest of Cairo. The walls are covered in paintings of high quality in excellent condition, the colors still vivid after 4,000 years.

The tombs were found earlier this month by the pyramid of Merenre Nemtyemsaf I (built ca. 2490 B.C.). They are hard to reach — reporters had to be lowered into the deep burial shaft with a rope on a winch — which has helped preserve them. The walls are painted with images of sacred animals, ritual materials like the seven sacred oils, food offerings and  hieroglyphic inscriptions.

[T]he first tomb comprises a deep burial shaft and a chamber decorated with images that included altars and a depiction of the palace, as well as a sarcophagus carved from limestone.

Researchers believe they have matched the second tomb to the wife of a man named Yaret.

The third tomb is believed to have been the resting place of Pepi Nefhany, who served as a priest and supervisor, while the fourth tomb held the grave of a female priest of Hathor named Petty.

The fifth tomb was built for Henu, who researchers say served as an overseer and supervisor of the royal house.

Petty was also a royal stylist. Inscriptions record that she was responsible for the pharaoh’s beauty regime.

Inside the tombs archaeologists found more than 20 sarcophaguses all together, plus numerous figurines, wooden boats, ceramics, masks and other artifacts. Excavations of the tombs are ongoing, and Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, believes more tombs from this period will be found at the site.

This video features footage of the interior of the tomb, and, entertainingly, the winching of journalists.

Urn-in-urn cremation burial found in France

Archaeologists have unearthed two cremation burials from the 1st century A.D. and 15 tombs from Late Antiquity at the site of planned school construction in Suze-la-Rousse, in southeastern France. One of them is in an unusually fitted urn-inside-a-larger-urn configuration.

The cinerary remains were discovered along the western side of a rural road edged with sandstone blocks and topped with packed gravel. It is 13 feet wide and must have been well-trafficked as there are wheel ruts worn into the surface. The slab edge didn’t just make for a sturdy road; it also protected the burials beneath the road from sedimentation. This left the soil in the burial layers comparatively undisturbed, particularly in the southern part of the burial ground.

The two cremation burials both consist of ossuary urns with secondary ritual deposits. The first was unearthed during the initial survey of the site in 2020. The cinerary remains of a young adult around 19-20 years old were deposited along with a small glass balsamarium in a cylindrical lead urn. The lead urn was then placed in a larger cylindrical stone urn and topped with a stone lid, now broken. Offerings were deposited around the urn, including ceramics, a plate and cup in terra sigillata, an oil lamp and a food offering of pork. It dates to between 20 and 60 A.D.

The second burial features a glass inside a sandstone slab formwork. It too contains secondary deposits of ceramics, terra sigillata plate and cup, a glass balsamarium and an oil lamp. Archaeologists believe it dates to the same period as the other cremation burial. The two pyres underneath the burials contained a smattering of charred bone fragments and ceramic deposits in excellent condition.

Just south of this small High Empire funerary site is a burial ground that dates to between the 5th and 8th centuries A.D. Unfortunately this ground was not protected by sandstone pavers, and agricultural work over the centuries has heavily churned up the archaeological layers. Only the very deepest burials and those located in an area that is now wooded were spared destruction, but judging from the density of the surviving burials, the cemetery was large and busy. The tombs that have managed to avoid the plow are of mixed types, including rectangular tile formwork, slate formwork and a combination of stone, tile and wood formwork.