Archive for June, 2022

Bronze Age human-snake sculpture reunited with its bird’s leg

Thursday, June 30th, 2022

The bronze sculpture of a deity with human head on snake body found in Pit No. 8 of the Sanxingdui Bronze Age archaeological site has been reunited with its missing upside-down bird’s leg 3,000 years after their separation. The bronze statue was just unearthed in June; the bird-legged sculpture was discovered in Pit No. 2 in 1986.

The bronze statue was cast in three parts — a urn base, the central section with the tusked anthropomorphic head on a snake body, a trumpet-shaped drinking vessel — that were then welded together. The three sections combined into a dramatic sculpture more than five feet high representing mythological figures and iconography of the Bronze Age Shu kingdom.

The bronze bird-footed statue is clearly incomplete, the legs of a creature wearing a snug skirt with a cloud pattern from which shapely legs emerge with feet that look like bird claws. The claws clutch the heads of two long-necked birds. It has been on display at the Sanxingdui Museum for years with the tantalizing notice: “The bird’s foot portrait is probably the most bizarre one. It is a pity that such an exquisite artifact is missing the upper half, what does it really look like? It’s really baffling.”

Well it turns out it’s actually missing its rear half, because the “waist” of the skirt is a perfect fit for a curved appendage on the back of the recently-discovered statue, and it has been displayed upside-down this whole time.

“The successful matching of cultural relics from different pits has confirmed archaeologists’ previous speculation. It also is of great significance for the subsequent restoration of cultural relics at the site. We expect that more bronzeware here can be rejoined together,” said Ran Honglin, an official with Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute.

The combination of the two parts also indicates that the two pits were formed at the same time, and the bronzeware was separated before burial. This is of great value for understanding the chronological relationship of each sacrificial pit, the reasons for the destruction of the cultural relics, and the social background at that time, Ran added.

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Chimú wooden litter bearer found in Peru

Wednesday, June 29th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a wooden sculpture depicting a litter bearer of a ruler of the Chimú culture at the Chan Chan archaeological site on the outskirts of Trujillo, northwestern Peru. The sculpture has not been absolutely dated yet, but the style indicates it is early Chimú, between 850 and 1,470 years old, making it one of the oldest sculptures found at the site. Despite its advanced age, it is in excellent condition, complete with its original bright paint.

The piece was unearthed during conservation work on the Huaca Takaynamo, a pyramidal structure in the north of the ancient complex. The sculpture is 18.5 inches long and just over six inches wide and depicts a male figure with bent arms and straight legs. The face is oval in shape and flat with the exception of a veritable sundial of nose that juts upwards. It is painted red. The eyes are almond-shaped and filled in with a black resin originally used as an adhesive for  mother-of-pearl inlays that are now lost. The curved, scooped ears have a layer of the same black resin.

The right arm is bent upwards at the elbow, cleaving close to the body. The hand is at shoulder height, palm facing the torso. The left arm bends 90 degrees at the elbow with the hand outstretched in front of the torso. The chest, arms and hands were also painted red.

He wears a trapezoidal cap and a triangular skirt. The cap is decorated with seven vertical bands in alternating light and dark colors, with a dark horizontal band across the forehead. The skirt has a dark triangle in the middle and the edge is decorated with rectangular bands similar to the ones on the cap.

Next to the sculpture, archaeologists discovered nectandra seeds — known to have been used for ritual purposes in pre-Hispanic Peru — that were strung on a thread to wear as a necklace. Underneath the figure was a small black bag stitched with decorative brown and white thread.

[A]rchaeologist Arturo Paredes Núñez, head of the Pecach Research, Conservation and Enhancement Unit, pointed out the characteristics of this finding. “Chimú wood carvings or sculptures are fixed or mobile. The former are documented at the entrance to some walled complexes of Chan Chan, from an uncarved segment that when buried, fixes the carved portion of the element to the ground. The mobile sculpture lacks such an element and has frequently been documented in some huacas,” he said.

The Huaca Takaynamo is north of the main complex of Chan Chan. It is being excavated as part of a wider project of conservation and study to learn more about the peripheral buildings in the ancient city and how to preserve it for eventual display. The litter bearer sculpture is key evidence that the huaca had a ceremonial function.

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Whole baby mammoth found in Yukon gold mine

Tuesday, June 28th, 2022

A perfectly-preserved whole woolly mammoth calf has been discovered in the Yukon gold fields south of Dawson City in northwest Canada. It is the first whole baby woolly mammoth ever found in North America, and only the second in the world. (The first, Lyuba, was found in Siberia in 2007.)

The discovery was made by miner Tavis Ikswaled on June 21st. He was digging through the muddy ground of the Treadstone Mine in Eureka Creek with an excavator when he turned something up. He alerted his boss who immediately stopped work and sent a picture of the find to Yukon government paleontologist Dr. Grant Zazula. Zazula was able to arrange for two geologists in driving distance to survey the site and recover the baby mammoth just before a downpour that would have flushed the little tyke away.

The baby is a female and was very young when she died, about 30-35 days old. The geological context indicates she lived and died between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago, the last Ice Age. Permafrost preserved her with soft tissues intact, from trunk to tip of her tail. She is 140 cm (4’7″) long, longer than her Russian sister. She was discovered on the land of First Nation Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin, and the Elders named her Nun cho ga, which means “big baby animal” in the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin’s Hän language.

According to Zazula, the miner had made the “most important discovery in paleontology in North America.”

“She has a trunk. She has a tail. She has tiny little ears. She has the little prehensile end of the trunk where she could use it to grab grass,” said Zazula. “She’s perfect and she’s beautiful.” […]

He said that the geologists who recovered her saw a piece of the animal’s intestine with grass on it.

“So that’s telling us what she did the last moments of her life,” said Zazula.

He said the mammoth was probably a few steps away from her mother, but ventured off a little bit, eating grass and drinking water and got stuck in the mud.

“And that event, from getting trapped in the mud to burial was very, very quick,” he said.

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Earliest prayer beads in Britain made of salmon vertebrae

Monday, June 27th, 2022

The earliest prayer beads ever found in Britain have been discovered in a grave on the island of Lindisfarne just off the coast of Northumberland. Fashioned out of salmon vertebrae in the 8th or 9th century, the necklace is the only artifact ever found in a Lindisfarne grave.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a religious center founded in the 7th century by King Oswald of Northumbria, is famously the location of the first Viking raid of Britain in 793 A.D. The Vikings came back numerous times over the next century and the last of the monks left in 875, taking the exquisite Lindisfarne Gospels, written and illuminated by the monk Eadfrith around 700 A.D., with them.

A monastery was rebuilt on the island after the Norman invasion, but little of the Anglo-Saxon monastery remains, and until recently there were no comprehensive excavations. In 2014, University of Durham archaeologist Dr. David Petts partnered with crowdsourcing portal DigVentures to raise funds for an archaeological exploration of the site targeting the Anglo-Saxon priory. Crowdfunded excavations have been ongoing at the site since then. (Donate to the 2022 fundraiser here.)

The beads were found around the neck of an adult male, likely one of the members of the monastic community, during the 2021 dig season. The holes in the vertebrae through which the spinal column runs were enlarged, either during the making of the necklace and/or over time as the bones wore against the threading. Fish were among the earliest identifiable symbols of Christianity, making fish bones a thematically appropriate material as well as a plentiful local resource for devotional jewelry.

Dr David Petts, the project co-director and a Durham University specialist in early Christianity, told The Telegraph that the fish vertebrae appear to be prayer beads for personal devotion: “We think of the grand ceremonial side of early medieval life in the monasteries and great works like the Lindisfarne Gospels. But what we’ve got here is something which talks to a much more personal side of early Christianity.”

He paid tribute to Marina Chorro Giner, a zooarchaeologist, for recognising the significance of the vertebrae: “This bright, eagle-eyed researcher looked at them and said, actually these aren’t just fish bones, they’ve been modified and turned into something.”

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Child buried with glass bracelets at ancient Odeon

Sunday, June 26th, 2022

Archaeologists excavating the Roman-era Odeon theater in the ancient Greek city of Kelenderis have discovered the grave of a small child buried with four glass bracelets. Almost 150 burials have been discovered in the ancient Odeon since excavations began in 1987, but this is the first one of them to contain any grave goods.

The young child was buried inside a wood coffin of which only the iron nails have survived. He was wearing a garment with delicate white buttons. The garment has decomposed; the buttons survive. On his arm were four solid glass bangles in perfect condition. Inside the coffin was an ostracon — a piece of pottery with an inscription written on it — and a ceramic teacup.

The grave has not yet been dated, but archaeologists believe from the context that it was medieval. The remains of several infant burials were unearthed around this one, so this part of the Odeon appears to have been a dedicated children’s cemetery. However, the newly-discovered grave is not like the others. It is the only one with a coffin, and the only one with the remains of clothing. Radiocarbon dating and other analyses of the bones should fill in some blanks about the date and unusual elements of the burial.

Today the city of Aydıncık on the southern coast of Turkey, Kelenderis was founded by colonists from Samos in the 8th century B.C., Kelenderis became an important stop on Eastern Mediterranean trade routes and flourished during the 5th and 4th century B.C., then came to prominence again under the Roman Empire, reaching a new peak of prosperity in the 2nd century.

Unlike many other prominent Greek and Roman urban centers in what is now Turkey, which were destroyed in raids and natural disasters and have long gaps in their historical record post antiquity, Kelenderis was continuously populated throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman eras to the present. That makes modern Aydıncık dense in unexplored archaeological layers. Today most of the visible remains are Roman — public baths, the Odeon, the agora, defensive walls — grouped near the fishing port.

This year’s excavation has also solved a long-standing mystery about the city’s Byzantine history.

Speaking about the exciting discovery, the head of the excavations Mahmut Aydın said, “Excavations continue for 12 months of the year in the ancient city of Kelenderis. This year, we have completed the excavation and consolidation of the cavea, the sitting area, and the supporting walls behind the Odeon structure. Now we found a furnace that excites us. We knew for years that there was production here, but we couldn’t find the oven. The oven is 1,300 years old. We think that roof tiles were produced inside the furnace. Because during the excavations we carried out last year and this year, a large amount of roof tiles, dated to the seventh century, were found around the furnace. Since the roof tiles were faulty, we found them scattered around it. When we completely empty the inside of the furnace, we might find even more faulty roof tiles.”

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Japanese textiles of nettle fiber and fish skin go on display

Saturday, June 25th, 2022

The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is finally getting the opportunity to showcase the collection of Japanese textiles it acquired in 2019 in a new exhibition dedicated to exceptional garments made from locally-sourced natural materials. Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan will showcase rare robes, coats, vests, banners and mats made from banana plant fiber, paper, hemp, wisteria, rice straw, elm bark, nettle fiber, paper, fish skin as well as cotton, silk and wool.

When the museum acquired the 230-piece collection of Japanese masterpieces from Asian textile expert and collector Thomas Murray in 2019, the delicate garments were in need of conservation. They first had to be frozen for a length of time to kill any live bugs that might have settled in to the fabric, then stabilized and stored under climate-controlled conditions. The original plan was to exhibit the freshly conserved collection in the fall of 2020, but for obvious reasons that was delayed.

“These garments and cloths are unique objects that showcase the creativity of their makers in fashioning textiles from all kinds of natural materials depending on their living circumstances,” [curator Dr. Andreas] Marks said. “While many exhibitions on the dress of Japan focus on the silk kimono and clothes worn by the aristocracy, ‘Dressed by Nature’ instead celebrates the inventiveness and beauty of folk traditions and clothes worn in everyday life. We are excited for visitors to experience the kaleidoscope of materials and designs that will be on view and which demonstrate human ingenuity in the pre-industrial period of Japan between the 18th and early 20th centuries.”

The over 120 textiles on view will highlight the artistry from the diverse cultures that form the Japanese archipelago. These include exceptionally rare, brightly colored resist-dyed bingata robes from Okinawa; delicately patterned garments used by farmers, fishermen, and firemen from Japan’s largest and most populous islands of Honshu and Kyushu; and boldly patterned coats created by Ainu women from Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and the Sakhalin Island of Siberia.

Among the treasures on display is a dark blue festival robe from the early 1900s decorated with hand-drawn sea creatures painted with a rice paste resist dye technique called tsutsugaki. Worn to celebrate a successful catch, its hand-drawn decoration makes it one of a kind.

Another unique treasure of working class clothing history on display is a complete fireman’s kit from the second half of the 19th century. It contains everything a fireman would have needed to fight the constant fires in the closely-built wooden cities: a coat, a hood, padded gloves, slim-fit pants made of quilted cotton dyed indigo. The firefighters would have saturated this gear in water before combatting the fire.

Also acquired from Thomas Murray but earlier this year at Asia Week New York is a rare 18th century Attush (meaning elm bark) robe. The robe was made by the Ainu people of Hokkaido out of elm bark fiber, cotton and trade cloth from the Japanese mainland. It was decorated with appliqué cotton and embroidery, but is the only one of its kind to have embellishments made of sturgeon scales, shells, bird bones and silk tassels, all of which were believed to hold talismanic power. This robe was likely owned by someone of great importance in the community.

Dressed by Nature opened June 25th and will run through September 11st.

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Tortoise and her egg found in Pompeii

Friday, June 24th, 2022

The remains of a tortoise and the egg she never laid have been discovered in Pompeii, but here’s a twist: she was not killed in the eruption of Vesuvius, but rather of natural causes sometime between the earthquake that struck the city in 62 A.D. and its destruction in 79 A.D. This is not the first tortoise found in Pompeii, but the others have been found in wealthy homes or gardens. She was found in a shop.

The discovery was made in an excavation of the Stabian baths on the Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii’s longest and busiest street. The site had once been a small building adjacent to the baths, but it was reduced to rubble by the earthquake. Eventually, the rubble was removed or compacted and the building was reconstructed as a shopfront attached to the baths.

In the southwest corner of the shop, behind a square basin that survived the earthquake, archaeologists found the remains of a female Testudo hermanni. She made tunneled her way into the room looking for a secure place to lay her one egg. She died there, likely as a result of dystocia, or egg retention, caused by a deficiency in the environment — lack of appropriate nesting materials, unpropitious climate — or her diet. Unless the egg is laid (or removed by human intervention), the animal dies.

The discovery of the tortoise is evidence that even the houses in the very heart of the city’s busiest thoroughfare were not immediately rebuilt after they were reduced to rubble by the earthquake. Instead, they were abandoned and so devoid of human presence that wild animals made homes for themselves there instead. When the shopfront was rebuilt after the earthquake, nobody noticed the poor deceased tortoise in the corner and she was buried in the construction fill that raised the floor level.

The tortoise was removed in three phases. First the carapace, which at just 5.5 inches long indicates the specimen was immature. (Adult carapaces are in the 8-10 inch range. Her youth could have also played a role in her inability to lay her egg.) The egg was removed with the carapace. The skeleton of the tortoise was removed next, and the plastron, the ventral part of the shell, last. The remains were transferred to Pompeii’s Applied Research Laboratory for further study by archaeozoologists.

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VR bus drives back in time through ancient Rome

Thursday, June 23rd, 2022

On Thursday Rome debuted a new high-tech way to experience its monuments: the Virtual Reality Bus. The small fully electric bus takes a maximum of 14 passengers on a 30-minute circuit of ancient Rome’s most important sites, from Trajan’s Column through the Forums, the Colosseum, the Palatine, the Circus Maximus, to the Theater of Marcellus and back again. While driving by, the magic of VR will transport passengers back in time so they can see the city as it was before the ruins were ruins.

There are no headsets or viewing accessories of any kind required. A transparent 4K OLED screen has been installed in front of each window with a motorized curtain between the screen and the window. When passengers want to see the monuments of ancient Rome as they are today, they raise the curtain. When they want to see what it would have looked like if they drove by 2,000 years ago, they close the curtain for the virtual reality view.

A sophisticated network of 5G broadband synchronizes the 3D virtual models on the screens to the exact location of the bus. Three GPS on different locations on the bus, a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer, a velocimeter and a surface laser document every jolt and jostle of the bus and realistic effects are then simulated in real time on the VR screens.

The bus is also equipped with digital speakers between every window and every other seat row, but to give the customers a truly immersive sensory system, they have taken a page from the great Smell-O-Vision stunts of the 1950s. A fragrance delivery system will evoke the scents of ancient Rome as the bus drives by temples, forums, the Colosseum and Circus Maximus. Inspired by the burned offerings to the gods and the assorted funks of the arena, a scent designed to match the site is released as you pass. Temples get you frankincense, myrrh, charcoal, guaiac wood, birch and vetiver grass. When you drive by the Colosseum, you’ll get hit with a wave of metallic aldehydes, civet musk, oud wood, costus, cistus labdanum resin and cumin. The Imperial Forums will serve oak moss, patchouli, sandalwood and amber balsam.

The bus runs every 40 minutes from 4:20PM to 7:40PM. English language tours are available only on the 5:00, 6:20 and 7:40 bus. The others are all in Italian. A regular tickets costs €16 and can be purchased online or at the ticket booth at Trajan’s Column.  Children younger than six ride for free.

Get a sneak peek at what this experience looks like in this video. Alas, there is no Smell-O-Vision on YouTube. Yet.

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Antikythera Hercules’ head found 120 years after his body

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2022

Divers exploring the 1st century B.C. shipwreck off the islet of Antikythera, iconic as the source of the oldest analog computer in the world, have recovered the head of a Hercules statue whose body was found by the sponge divers who first discovered the wreck in 1900. The marble head is heroically scaled (twice life-sized) and even encrusted with sediment and marine life, the thick hair, curly beard and facial features identify it as a Hercules of the Farnese type. The headless body is in the permanent collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

The Farnese type depicts a Hercules leaning against his club that is draped in the skin of the Nemean lion. In his right hand behind his back he holds the apples of the Hesperides, the recovery of which was the last of his Twelve Labors. This, presumably, is why he is weary. A copy of a 4th century B.C. bronze original by Lysippos, the type was hugely popular and copied throughout the Greco-Roman world in different materials and sizes. The Farnese marble is signed by a Greek sculptor, Glykon, and dates to the early 3rd century A.D. It’s not known whether Glykon was working in Greece or if he had a shop in Rome catering to its wealthy elite who had an endless thirst for copies of Classical Greek originals.

The 2022 season of underwater archaeological research on the Antikythera shipwreck also recovered the plinth of a marble statue with legs still attached and numerous pieces of the ancient ship itself, including many nails and the lead collar of a wooden anchor. The divers also recovered extremely rare human remains: two teeth embedded in thick clumps of concretion. If all goes well, genetic and stable isotope analysis of the teeth will shed new light on the crew who sailed the merchant vessel 2,000+ years ago.

These finds were only made this year because the team was able to remove two enormous 8.5-ton boulders covering a portion of the wreck, a challenging proposition under the easiest conditions, never mind 165 feet under the sea. Divers can only remain at that depth for 30 minutes, so moving giant boulders is both mechanically difficult and dangerous. It was necessary, however, to give archaeologists access to previously unexplored areas of the wreck.

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1st c. Roman sanctuary found in Netherlands

Tuesday, June 21st, 2022

The remains of a 1st century Roman sanctuary have been discovered in the town of Herwen-Hemeling on the Roman Limes in the eastern Netherlands. While Roman sanctuaries have been found before in the Netherlands, this is the first discovered on the Lower German Limes. It is also by far the most complete, with surviving altars, structures, sculptures and sacrifice pits.

The first remains were encountered late last year by archaeological volunteers surveying a clay mining area. They reported the find to the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency which stopped clay extraction and arranged for a professional excavation. The dig immediately revealed several intact fibulae of different types, followed by an avalanche of archaeological materials like fragments of weapons, harness fittings, roof tiles stamped with the maker’s names and votive altars both intact and in fragments.

The sanctuary was used mainly by soldiers. This is clear from the many stamps on the roof tiles, because the manufacture of roof tiles was a military activity at that time. Many fragments of horse harnesses, armour and the tips of spears and lances have also been found at the site. High-ranking Roman officers erected dozens of votive stones to give thanks to a god or goddess for fulfilling their wishes. These did not always relate to winning battles. Simply surviving a stay in these northern regions, sometimes far from home, was often reason enough to give thanks.

What the sanctuary at Herwen-Hemeling demonstrates very well is how much migration there was during that period. The men who came here to offer sacrifices had been in Hungary, Spain and Africa. And they brought their gods with them.

Architectural finds include a well with a large stone staircase leading down into the water. Thanks to coins and inscription fragments found within, archaeologists were able to date the well to an impressively tight range of 220-230 A.D. These are rare survivals, having somehow managed to dodge the fate of so many other Roman structures in the Netherlands and elsewhere: being recycled as building materials after the collapse of imperial rule.

Dating of the artifacts indicates the temple complex was in constant use from the 1st century through the 4th. The unprecedented number of stone fragments from hundreds of years of votive altars and statues have been found, many with legible inscriptions that name deities and the men who dedicated the altars to them to fulfill a vow made and/or in gratitude for an answered prayer. Among the named deities are Hercules Magusanus (a syncretic Romanized local god), Jupiter-Serapis and Mercury.

There were at least two temples in the sanctuary, one larger and one smaller in Romano-Celtic fanum style. The larger temple had a tiled roof. Fragments of reliefs and painted plaster indicate both were vividly painted with polychrome walls. The sanctuary was built at the junction of the Rhine and Waal rivers on a natural hill that the builders then heightened artificially. It was a stone’s throw from the Castellum Carvium, an auxiliary fort on the south bank of the Lower Rhine, and a slightly longer stone-throw from the next Roman auxiliary fort six miles away in the village of Loo. (Both of those sites are known only from portable archaeological material — bronze vessels, bricks, horse fittings — because whatever was left of the forts after the structures were used as quarries was destroyed by Rhine floods.) Interesting note: the name Carvium was a Latinized derivative of the Germanic word Harh-wiha meaning “sacred space” and archaeologists have long hypothesized that it may have been a reference to a nearby sanctuary. Hypothesis confirmed!

The artifacts recovered from the site are going on display in a dedicated exhibition at the Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen from June 24th through the 30th of September.

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