Deep Roman well found in Germany

Archaeologists have discovered a Roman-era well in an excellent state of preservation in the municipality of Grenzach-Wyhlen in southwestern Germany. Located on the bank of Rhine where it forms the border with Switzerland, the find site is opposite the Roman colony of Augusta Raurica, so it was archaeologically surveyed before construction of a housing development. Between June 2021 and April 2022, the excavation revealed the foundations of several Roman-era buildings and a stone cellar.

Just three feet in diameter, the well required specialized equipment and trained personnel to explore. They were able to explore the deep shaft of the dry stone well to a depth of 26 feet below ground level with the aid of a mechanical excavator. Contractors AchaeoTask then deployed custom scaffolding and safety devices connected to load winches to continue digging ever deeper.

All employees on duty had previously been trained in height safety and rescue technology. The work steps are complex: one person is continuously responsible for securing, a second person abseils down and fills the lowered bucket. After pulling up, a third person retrieves all the finds from the bucket. The well filling is finally recovered bucket by bucket. After every one and a half meters of “spooning out” and documenting, the Roman well shaft has to be strengthened for safety reasons. The joints and cavities are pressed out with mortar – a time-consuming and physically demanding work step that requires a ton of mortar for a three-metre shaft.

As of last week, the well has been dug to a depth of 38 feet and there is still no end in sight. They haven’t even reached any water yet. Any non-bone organic remains may have been preserved in a waterlogged layer at the bottom of the shaft.

The fill that has been removed thus far consists mainly of roof tile fragments, bricks and animal bones. The tile fragments were in the uppermost layer of the well fill. The animal bones begin below them. Archaeologists with the State Office for Monument Preservation (LAD) are currently examining the bucketsful of animal remains to identify the species, their ages at time of death and evidence of slaughter on the bone. The team hopes to get new insight into how the Roman-era residents bred, fed and butchered animals.

Iceland man-made cave was dug in the 10th c.

A man-made cave near Oddi in South Iceland is much older and larger than archaeologists initially realized. An analysis of the layers of volcanic tephra revealed that the caves were created in the middle of the 10th century, not in the early 12th century as previously believed.

The first of the caves was discovered in 2018 and then a second larger one was found to be connected to it. The current research team has been excavating the caves since 2020. The larger cave of the two was collapsed, forcing archaeologists to dig deeper to get access to the cave in the safest possible conditions in a challenging environment with crumbling sandstone walls. So far it has only been partially opened.

The investigation into the cave system is part of a larger exploration of the literary culture that thrived in Oddi during the 11th and 12th century. The Oddverjar clan who lived there were famed as historians, poets and authors of some of the most important Norse sagas, including the Heimskringla. There may even be a direct reference to the caves in one of those sagas.

Kristborg says that the cave currently being excavated may possibly be Nautahellir, Bull Cave, which is mentioned in Jarteinabók Þorláks Biskups (Bishop Þorlákur’s Legends of Saints), which dates back to 1210 – 1250. The manuscript relates how Nautahellir collapsed with 12 bulls in it. One was then rescued from the rubble.

“Although it’s older than that, it’s likely that [the cave] was used for livestock,” explained Kristborg. “Whether it was for that specific bull, we don’t know. But the history of its use obviously goes back further than we’ve managed to trace yet.”

The caves at Oddi have a complex and fascinating story to tell, says Kristborg, but the scope of the current investigation is such that she and her team need to keep their focus narrow. “These are huge structures and an unbelievably large system of caves that we’re only just starting to come to grips with. […] We’d need to undertake a much, much larger study with a much bigger crew in order to get to the bottom of this and trace this history in full, the history of these caves’ use.”

Here is a 3D scan fly-through of the cave:

Large necropolis sheds new light on post-Roman Germany

An excavation in Rockenberg, about 20 miles north of Frankfurt in the central German state of Hesse, has unearthed a large burial ground from the period after the Roman withdrawal in the 3rd century. More than 330 cremation burials and 70 inhumations dating to the 4th and 5th centuries have been discovered thus far, making the Rockenberg burial ground five times larger than any other necropolis from this period in Hesse.

There are almost no written sources documenting the period after Romans abandoned the Germanic limes and retreated to the west bank of the Rhine in 260 A.D., and archaeological remains are sparse, so the discovery of so large a cemetery has the potential to rewrite the history of this period.

Archaeologists were not only astonished by the sheer number of burials. In addition to a surprising number of children’s graves, a considerable number of weapon graves of the first Germanic settlers could also be uncovered. Among them were true rarities such as a belly burial, which is usually associated with serious crimes or the fear of revenants. The excavation team was also impressed by an archer with a preserved quiver and rich accessories, as well as a presumably youth with Roman objects.

The site was excavated as quickly as possible when rain made the dusty field a mud pit. Large sections of finds were removed en bloc and are now being excavated in laboratory conditions. Exceptional objects have already emerged, including a bronze collar with only one known parallel (it’s in Norway), and a wooden box in an excellent state of preservation with bronze fittings and a lock.

“This is really unique for the 4th and 5th centuries,” is how Prison classified the richness of the finds. Excellently preserved silver jewellery, ceramics and weapons round off a range of finds that will keep archeologists busy for years to come. “The excavation is not over here, it’s just getting started,” says [district archaeologist Hardy] Prison. Because the processing of the findings and finds already promises to bring light to a previously dark time.

The human remains and artifacts are in very good condition, protected by the waterlogged soil conditions in the area. The objects are now being examined, catalogued and in the restoration department of the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Hesse. The process is slow and painstaking. Depending on how many artifacts they discover, it could take up to five years before any of them are ready to go on display.

Climb the scaffolding with restorers of Gothic fresco in Siena

The city of Siena has embarked on an innovative restoration program for The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a masterpiece of 14th century Gothic fresco art by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in the Sala dei Nove (Hall of the Nine) of the Palazza Pubblico. The scaffolding went up in March and diagnostic investigations of the frescoes have begun. When the study is complete, conservators will use the new information to craft a targeted restoration plan.

The room is currently closed to the public during the study phase and the initial conservation phase. Come October, visitors will be allowed inside the hall to admire the masterpiece as it is restored. Special guided tours will be offered, led by the restorers themselves. Best of all, visitors will be allowed to climb the scaffolding and view the fresco and the conservation work at eye-level, just like the conservators do.

Lorenzetti was commissioned by the Sienese government to paint the frescoes in the council hall of Siena’s nine executives (hence the Hall of Nine) in 1338. An homage to the room’s function as the Republic’s center of power, the fresco is a rare example of art from the period with a civic theme rather than a religious one. Lorenzetti utilized imagery associated with religion (bearded Wisdom looks a lot God, the virtues of Good Government look a lot like angels or cardinal virtues, horned tyrant looks a lot like the Devil, Vices of Bad Government look a lot like demons) to symbolize the advantages of a republican system in stark contrast with the viciousness of tyranny.

An inscription in the lower border makes the association explicit:

“This holy virtue [Justice], where she rules, induces to unity the many souls, and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good their Lord; and he, in order to govern his state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the Virtues who sit around him. Therefore to him in triumph are offered taxes, tributes, and lordship of towns; therefore, without war, every civic result duly follows—useful necessary, and pleasurable.”

The finished paintings covered three of the four walls in the room. The allegories of good and bad government are accompanied by illustrations of their effects in the city and the country.  It is a tour de force of figural, landscape and architectural imagery and the fresco series was immediately hailed as Lorenzetti’s greatest masterpiece. For the next decade, he was the undisputed leading artist of the city until the Black Death took him along with 50% of the population of Siena in 1348.

The last time the frescoes in the Sala dei Nove were restored was 35 years ago. The painted surface began to suffer from gradual deterioration very soon after the work was completed, and while the last intervention stabilized them, they are again in need of attention. The study takes a multi-disciplinary approach. Restorers are working with architectural archaeologists, chemists, petrographers, physicists and architects to analyze the works both to determine their conservation needs and to learn more about Lorenzetti’s painting technique.

Elite 9th c. cist burial found in Palenque

The burial of an elite woman has been discovered at the Archaeological Zone of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. It is a cist grave 7’2″ long and two feet wide, lined and covered with heavy stone slabs. The grave contains three pottery vessels (two almost complete, one in pieces) left as offerings which tentatively date the burial to between 750 and 850 A.D., the Late Classic Maya period.

Preliminary osteological analysis indicates she was between 25 and 30 years old when she died. She had green stone inlays on several of on her teeth and her skull had an oblique tabular deformation produced by pressure of a hard object against her skull when she was a baby. Both green stone inlays and the intentional cranial deformation were exclusive to the Maya elite.

The location of the burial near the center of the archaeological site also indicates she was someone of status in the community.

“We can say that the space where we found it must have housed platforms with constructions of perishable material, which gave access to the main spaces of the city, such as the Ball Court or the Great Palace Plaza and the Temple of the Inscriptions”, [head of the Palenque Archaeological Project] Arnoldo González points out.

The grave typifies the funerary practices in use in pre-Hispanic Palenque. The cist is oriented to the north, while the woman’s face was turned towards the east.

“Although there is no consensus among archaeologists,” says Arnoldo González, “it is believed that this position of the face is symbolically associated with the rising of the sun. In such a way that it would allude to the rebirth of the character in the company of the sun, whose transit also begins in the east”.

Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) unearthed the tomb last week in an area of the site where new sanitary services are being installed. To protect the fragile context until the excavation is complete, INAH quickly moved to cover the burial to prevent damage from the sudden temperature changes in Palenque. The bones have been removed to the on-site archaeological materials warehouse for cleaning and analysis.