Lucky 13th phallus found at Vindolanda

Excavations at the fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall have unearthed a stone carved with a personal insult and a large phallus dating to the 3rd century A.D. This is the 13th phallus discovered at Vindolanda in the century since excavations began, the most of any site along Hadrian’s Wall.

It was discovered by Dylan Herbert, a volunteer from South Wales who was on his second week of excavations at Vindolanda.

Dylan commented “I’d been removing a lot of rubble all week and to be honest this stone had been getting in my way, I was glad when I was told I could take it out of the trench. It looked from the back like all the others, a very ordinary stone, but when I turned it over, I was startled to see some clear letters. Only after we removed the mud did I realise the full extent of what I’d uncovered, and I was absolutely delighted”.

Full extent is right. The phallus is engraved deeply into a stone 16 inches wide and six inches high. Above and to the right of the penis rampant is an inscription reading: SECVNDINVS CACOR, a shortened version of “Secundinus cacator” or “Secundinus the shitter.”

The phallus was a popular good luck charm throughout the Roman Empire, carried by the Roman army to remote provinces like Britain where there was no native phallus worship. They were often carved on utilitarian features like millstones, bridges and doorways, apotropaic marks intended to avert any evil eye cast on an endeavor or business. More than 60 phalluses have been found along Hadrian’s Wall, like this one carved into a quarry by Roman soldiers cutting stone to make repairs to the wall in 207 A.D.

The recently-discovered Vindolanda phallus was not warding off the evil eye. It was basically performing the functional equivalent of flipping Secundinus the bird. The carver really put his back into it, too, because each letter and the phallus are carefully and cleanly carved deep into the stone. This would have taken significant time to accomplish. It was not a quick scratch-up or ink job.

Globetrotting Mycenaean gold ring returns home

A Mycenaean-era gold signet ring has been returned to Greece by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, eight decades after it was stolen.

Mycenaean gold signet ring, 3rd millennium B.C. Photo courtesy the Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Sports.

The ring depicts two sphinxes facing each other, tails raised and wings outstretched. It dates to the 3rd millennium B.C. and was found in the grave of a local nobleman in the Mycenaean necropolis in Ialysos, Rhodes, in 1927. At that time, Rhodes was occupied by Italy, an occupation that began before the First World War and only formally ended after the Second (1912-1947;  although technically it was a British protectorate for the last two of those years). Italian military authorities directed a program of systematic excavations of numerous ancient sites, including the necropolis. The ring was one of the grave goods recovered from the richly-furnished Tomb 61.

Along with thousands of other artifacts excavated during the Italian occupation, the ring was kept in the collection of the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes. Sometime during World War II, the ring was stolen and disappeared into the penumbra of the private antiquities market. We now know it made its way to the United States in the 1950s or 60s when it was acquired by Hungarian biophysicist Georg von Békésy, winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Békésy died in 1972, leaving his extensive connection of arts and antiquities to the Nobel Foundation. The Foundation spread the works around to various museums in Sweden. The Mycenaean ring went to the Museum of Mediterranean and Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm.

The ring’s exceptional quality did not go unnoticed. The museum’s director, archaeologist Carl Gustaf Styrenius, recognized the signet ring as one of the treasures of Ialysos and notified the Greek authorities, but for unknown reasons, the rediscovery of the ring slipped through the cracks of Greek bureaucracy into the memory hole.

After so clumsily dropping the ball, Greece was fortunate enough to get a second chance at bat 45 years later. In recent years, the Ministry of Culture has initiated a project to investigate antiquities lost during the Second World War. This time, records of the gold ring were found in the archives and authorities confirmed the Mycenaean signet ring in Stockholm was indeed the one that had disappeared from the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes. The ministry then initiated a formal ownership claim.

In close cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Sports, the Greek Embassy in Stockholm undertook negotiations with the Museum of Mediterranean and Eastern Antiquities and the Nobel Foundation. The two Swedish institutions welcomed the Greek request from the beginning and willingly provided archival material, as well as any facility for the progress of the negotiations. In this context, the ring was examined by experts from the National Archaeological Museum, who went to Stockholm for this purpose, and its identification with the robbery of Rhodes was confirmed, paving the way for his repatriation.

Looted Viking hoard returns to Herefordshire

A Viking hoard illegally recovered and hidden from the authorities by unscrupulous metal detectorists will, after a seven year saga, finally go on display in the county where it was stolen.

George Powell and Layton Davies discovered the hoard in a field in Eye, near Leominster, Herefordshire, in 2015. It was a sensational find, containing about 300 coins, Anglo-Saxon jewelry, Frankish jewelry and silver ingots, but it was never reported. Powell and Davies were ill-intentioned from the beginning, neglecting to get permission from the landowner to scan the field and opting to sell an archaeological treasure of inestimable historic value on the black market for quick cash instead of reporting them to the Finds Liaison officer as required by the 1996 Treasure Act.

They did have the clever idea to post photos of some of the coins in situ to a metal detecting forum, however, and those photos ultimately resulted in their capture and conviction for theft and concealment in 2019. Powell was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Layton to eight-and-a-half. A coin-seller who had fenced the extremely rare coins was convicted of conspiracy to conceal criminal property and conspiracy to convert criminal property and sentenced to five years. A fourth accomplice was also convicted of concealment and sentenced to a year in prison.

Unfortunately, only 29 of the coins could be found of the original 300 or so in the hoard, (an estimate based on pictures taken at the find site by the thieves). Authorities also believe many more ingots were originally part of the hoard before they were illegally sold. The coins that remain are of enormous archaeological significance, even re-writing the history of England and upending what we thought we knew about West Mercia in the 9th century.

There are a number of exceedingly rare “Two-Emperor” pennies minted by both Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia, likely to commemorate an alliance. Only three examples of this type of coin were known before the Herefordshire Hoard, and because of the tiny sample size historians didn’t know if this was a substantial coinage or just a scattershot few. The only references to Ceolwulf on the historical record were written by Alfred’s chroniclers. The Mercian king is dismissed as a weak Viking puppet.

The hoard proves the coins were produced in large quantities and identify Ceolwulf II as a far more important ruler than previous realized, on an equal footing with Alfred the Great in their time. Before this find, all historians had to go on was Alfred’s presentation of Ceolwulf II who had their alliance erased from history after he took Ceolwulf’s kingdom. The hoard is also the first evidence of likely activity of the Viking Great Army in Western Mercia in 877-9.

The Herefordshire Hoard is still in the British Museum while non-profit groups work to raise the valuation sum to bring the hoard home pernamently. Meanwhile, the hoard will travel to the Hereford Museum Resource and Learning Centre (MRLC) where it will be on display from May 28th through July 9th. The museum has until the end of July to raise the funds to acquire it. To donate to the fundraiser, click here.

Late Roman couple’s funerary mosaic restored

A funerary mosaic dedicated to a Roman couple of late Antiquity is returning to its museum home in Porto Torres, Sardegna, after more than a year of restoration.

The mosaic was discovered in 1964 when road construction unearthed a complex of 11 Late Roman burials. Most of them were in rock-cut graves covered with terracotta roof tools arranged either flat or in the cappucina style, ie, tilted against each other to form a pitched roof. Eight of the burials were closely grouped together in a confined space, including the burials of two individuals whose matching pitched-roof tombs were adjacent to each other. A polychrome mosaic inscription identified the deceased as married couple Dionisio and Septimia Musa.

The osteological remains were in poor condition and had been disturbed over the centuries. There were no grave goods to aid in dating, but the cappucina style was very widespread in the popular in the Late Roman Imperial era. Funerary mosaics comparable in style to Dionisio and Septimia Musa’s, found most often in Northern Africa, and the language of the dedication narrow down the date of the tombs to the second half of the 4th century or to the early 5th.

The mosaic featured two inscriptions of cream tiles against a rectangular field of red tiles to give the impression of an engraved plaque. Septimia Musa’s inscription is above her husbands. It records that she lived 47 years. Dionisio’s inscription includes the dedication from their “loving children.” Hers is bordered in a 3D gemetric rectangle. His is bordered in guilloche shapes. A more intricately enlaced guilloche pattern covers the background behind the plaques. The outer borders feature a curling ribbon pattern.

The mosaic is rich in Christian iconography. Both plaques have triangular faux mounts on each side featuring the Christogram. Septimia Musa’s inscription has another Christogram in the RIP text at the end, as well as an olive branch. Olive branches are above and doves beneath the Christograms in the left and right triangles.

The mosaic was lifted, conserved and put on display at the Antiquarium Turritano Porto Torres, the local museum dedicated to the material culture of the colony of Roman Turris Libisonis and the surrounding territory. In the six decades since, the mosaic tiles have begun to suffer from adherence problems. It was removed from display in September 2020 and conservators worked to stabilize and clean it until March of this year.

The museum will be closed on Tuesday to ensure the transfer and reinstallation of the mosaics goes as smoothly as possible. The mosaic will have to be reassembled, positioned and fixed securely in its dedicated gallery at the Antiquarium Turritano before the museum reopens to the public on Wednesday.

Bedlam plague pit victims did not die in Great Plague

The mass burial unearthed during the excavation of the burial ground of the former Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam, did not contain the remains of the victims of the 1665 Great Plague of London as initially thought. They were felled by an earlier outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the 16th century.

Excavations in advance of construction of a new subway station on London’s Liverpool Street began in 2015. Archaeologists knew it was the site of Bedlam’s burial ground and expected to find at least 3,000 bodies there. The cemetery had been in active use from 1569 to at least 1738. It was the first burial ground in London with no affiliation to any church or religious institution, so not only were patients who died at the hospital buried there, but also Londoners who could not afford churchyard burials and those who chose to be buried there for religious or political reasons. Once the hospital moved, the burial ground was used by the city as an overflow cemetery when the other city cemeteries were filled up during times of rapid death, like when London was struck by plague.

The dig ultimately recovered the remains of 42 individuals closely packed together in the mass grave. Contrary to popular “Bring out yer dead” tropes of plague victims tossed hastily into pits, these people had been buried with respect, many of them in wooden coffins, the others carefully stacked.

A headstone found near the pit was engraved with the date 1665, so archaeologists thought the pit contained the remains of victims of the Great Plague of 1665, the last and largest outbreak of Bubonic Plague in London that claimed the lives of 100,000 people, a fifth of the city’s population. Other burials in the Bedlam cemetery were temporally staggered and individual. The mass burial of 42 bodies in one day strongly indicated a catastrophic event like a battle or fatal infectious disease.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany successfully extracted DNA from the teeth of 20 of the 42 skeletons. Five of the samples contained traces of the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis. The plague left no marks on bones, and because the bacterium dies as soon as it has killed its host, its DNA usually degrades over centuries. The Y. pestis found in those five skeletons were the first examples of 17th century plague ever found in Britain.

Except not quite, as it turns out.

[According to Michael Henderson, senior human osteologist at the Museum of London Archaeology,] “Five of these people had been exposed to plague when they were alive. It is highly likely they died of plague in the 16th century and, prior to that, 16th-century plague had not been identified genetically in the UK so that was quite a big achievement for us. It’s the first evidence of that kind in the country, although we can’t pinpoint the exact year.

The skeletal remains of the plague victims and the 4,000 other bodies unearthed in the Bedlam dig will be reburied with dignity in consecrated ground, just as they were buried the first time.