Pre-Roman burial found under Este parking lot

Archaeologists have discovered an rare early Iron Age tomb with bronze and pottery grave goods under a mall parking lot in the town of Este, near Padua in northern Italy. The artifacts date the tomb to between the end of the 5th and the 4th century B.C.

The town of Este is the type site of the proto-Italic Este culture who inhabited what is today the northeastern Italian region of Veneto from the Bronze Age (10th c. B.C.) until Rome took over in the 1st century B.C. The Adriatic Veneti, after whom the region is named, also settled the area. The tomb is consistent with the burial practices of the Veneti.

The preventative archaeology excavation took place between May and July of 2019 during work on the water system of the shopping center. Pre-Roman tombs had been found in the area in the late 19th century and again when the mall was built in 1982. Several more tombs were unearthed, and with a tight deadline and construction looming, archaeologists removed all archaeological materials in soil blocks for excavation in the laboratory.

The full excavation and conservation of the contents of one of the tombs, Tomb 6, has just been completed and the finds announced for the first time. It is a cremation burial placed in a cist formed of slabs of pink limestone native to the Euganean Hills overlooking the town. Inside the cist was a situliform vase (pottery shaped in the truncated cone typical of situlae, or buckets) used to hold the cinerary remains of the deceased. The red clay pot is decorated with bands of black. Two stemmed ceramic drinking cups with a similar black band design were also inside the box, as were another cup and a glass. A fibula of the Certosa type among the grave goods provided the key clue for the preliminary date of Tomb 6.

The most compelling elements of the funerary furnishings are also what made it extremely challenging to excavate: bronze artifacts including a long scepter and a bronze belt. The scepter was placed on the bottom of the cist and is in four pieces. Stuck to the body of the situliform vase was a finely engraved bronze belt. Archaeologists believe this was a ritual “dressing” of the ossuary, a funerary practice encountered in previous tombs of the ancient Veneti. The belt is in fragments as well and all that remains today are the rich bronze fittings — a large rectangular front plate, the terminals and gauge ring — which were likely originally mounted to an organic material, now decayed.

There is bronze inside the urn as well. In addition to the bone fragments and ashes inside the vase, the excavation revealed numerous fragments of bronze sheeting, some bearing the tell-tale signs of combustion. Archaeologists believe this was a belt too, worn by the deceased on the funeral pyre. The largest of the fragments is engraved with a representation of a winged animal that is frequently seen in Venetic funerary contexts.

The remains and objects in Tomb 6 are undergoing further study for scientific publication. Meanwhile, archaeologists will turn their thorn scalpels and teeny brushes to work on the other tombs recovered from the necropolis in 2019.

House of Ceres, horse skeleton back on display

The skeleton of horse and the beautifully frescoed House of Ceres have gone back on display at Pompeii after new restorations that focus on integrating them into the “widespread museum” concept of Pompeii as a museum where visitors can see remains and artifacts in the contexts in which they were first discovered. The vision of Pompeii as its own museum has been common since the city was first excavated, but for centuries any exhibition in situ was not conservation-friendly. The newly-reopened spaces seek to redress that imbalance.

The House of Ceres was first excavated between 1951 and 1953. It got its name from a terracotta bust of Ceres, goddess of the earth, in one of the bedrooms off the atrium. The bust is far more ancient than the home. It is of a statuary type typical of the late 4h century B.C., so it must have been purchased as an antique by the homeowner. Archaeologists believe the bust was a cult figure that was part of a small household shrine.

The domus reopened to the public on the 14th of June after a program of restoration of the villa’s interior and gardens. The roof structures over the atrium were rebuilt and integrated into a new lighting system powered entirely by green energy photovoltaic tiles that recreates the natural light that would have illuminated the space through high, skinny windows and open areas of the roof. The elaborate, brilliantly colored Second Style frescoes have been cleaned and relit, as have the floor mosaics. New display cases exhibit artifacts found in the villa. The garden have also been redone, using the cult of Ceres as inspiration to plant organic spelt and wheat.

Across the street from the House of Ceres is a stable with the skeleton of a horse discovered there by archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri in 1938. The horse is 53″ high at the withers and was used to transport goods. Maiuri mounted the horse on its feet atop a metal structure which degraded over time and stained the bones with oxidation products.

To restore Maiuri’s horse, the bones were first laser scanned to create a 3D model, then disassembled for cleaning, restoration and reconstruction in the laboratory. The skeleton was repositioned by experts so it could be displayed in a scientifically correct position with a very cool new transparent support framework that alleviates pressure on the ancient equine bones and adapts easily to the microclimate. The structure is also easily unmounted, in individual parts or as a whole, for future interventions. A new 3D tactile model of the horse has been installed for visually impaired visitors.

“In Pompeii the work of study, protection and enhancement according to the model of the” widespread museum “continues – explains the Director of the Park Gabriel Zuchtriegel – In the house of Cerere, in addition to restoring the spatiality of the house, distinguished from some rooms with very refined decoration in II style and previously only partially usable, a lighting system was created that is 100% powered by a system of photovoltaic tiles and therefore with zero environmental impact.

In the next block, visitors will be able to admire the skeleton of a horse in its original position. The restoration of the skeleton was characterized by a multidisciplinary intervention that saw restorers and archaeologists at work, constantly supported in every phase of the interventions by an archaeozoologist. This exhibition also foresees a fruition according to accessibility and inclusiveness criteria. I thank the Director General of the Museums, Massimo Osanna, for his presence on this occasion, also because these are two interventions launched under his direction in Pompeii. “

2,550 wood offerings found at Templo Mayor

More than 2,550 wooden offerings have been discovered at the Templo Mayor in the historic center of Mexico City. The objects include darts, dart throwers, pectorals, earrings, masks, ear plugs, serpentine scepters, jars, headdresses, and figural representations, including one of a flower and another of a bone. They were ritual deposits made to consecrate new buildings and as offering to the patron deities of the temple, Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture.

The objects were made from softwood, mostly pine, along with some white cedar, Montezuma cypress, tepozán (aka Rio Grande butterfly bush) and aile (aka Andean alder). Almost all of them are complete, preserved for more than 500 years in anaerobic soil of the ancient lakebed. They are in such good condition that many of them retain their original polychrome paint.

Serpentine scepter and other objects excavated. Photo by Mirsa Orozco, INAH.The Templo Mayor was the religious center of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, and was built and rebuilt in seven phases between the founding of the city in 1325 and the early 1500s. The Spanish destroyed it in 1521 and over time its exact location was lost. It was rediscovered in the early 20th century in what was then an affluent neighborhood of Mexico City. It would not be fully excavated until 1978 and 13 buildings had to be demolished to get to the temple.

Since excavations began, more than 7,000 artifacts have been unearthed. Most of them are offerings — figurines, clay pots, skeletons of animanls, gold, snail shells, slate, obsidian knives —  but wood offerings were exceedingly rare, and the few that were found disintegrated almost instantly after being removed from their contexts and exposed to the air.

Archaeologists have a practices to prevent that sad fate today. Organic archaeological materials preserved in wet, dark, cool, low-oxygen environments are now kept wet until the water can be removed gradually. Decades of constant PEG showers preserved entire ships like the Mary Rose  and the Vasa. A giant custom-built freeze drier took over for PEG in the conservation of La Belle. The conservation of the 2,500 wood offerings will employ a cutting-edge method that requires neither prohibitively expensive petroleum product nor a prohibitively expensive freeze drier. INAH conservators are using a far cheaper and more accessible product: synthetic sugar.

Archaeologists working with the conservation team first transferred the wooden objects to the field laboratory where they were submerged in water and kept in plastic containers so they can be documented and assessed. Once in the conservation laboratory, the objects are soaked in a solution of synthetic sugars (lactitol, trehalose) which are chemically compatible with wood and can withstand attacks by microorganisms and fluctuations in humidity. The first solution is a week concentration of 5% sugars in water. As the cells of the wood absorb the sugars, the objects are moved into increasingly stronger concentrations in 13 stages until the solutions reach the maximum concentration of 82%. This process takes six to nine months.

Once the sugar solution has fully impregnated the wood, the objects will be rinsed and cured inside a heat chamber at 120F (the same temperature I use to dehydrate fresh garlic paste to make garlic powder). This final bake crystallizes the sugar within the cell walls of the wood, thickening the cell walls and maintaining the original volume of the artifacts.

Anglo-Saxon burial ground sheds light on “Dark Ages”

Archaeologists excavating a site along the new HS2 high-speed rail route in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, have unearthed a nationally important early Anglo-Saxon burial ground. Containing 138 graves with 141 inhumations and five cremation burials, it is the one of the largest Anglo-Saxon burial grounds ever discovered. It is also the richest, with almost 3/4s of the graves furnished with high-quality goods, including more than 2,000 beads, 89 brooches, 40 buckles, 51 knives, 15 spearheads and seven shield bosses.

Almost all of the skeletal remains were found with two brooches on the collarbone, used to fasten a garment at the shoulder. The brooches come in a variety of designs — silver coin brooches, gilt disc brooches, square-headed brooches. Other valuable grave goods include two cone beakers of the Kempston type with a raised horizontal trail decoration, a footed pedestal bückelurn (meaning “bossed pot”) with three protruding horns and decorated with cross stamps. The cross-stamped decoration was a common Anglo-Saxon motif; the three horns are unique. Also unique is a ceramic window urn with reused Roman glass embedded into the bottom.

Some of the items uncovered could have been imported from across Europe, such as amber beads, and various metals and raw materials used to make the artefacts. Two glass cone beakers were uncovered intact, which are similar to vessels made in Northern France, although they were also making them in England at the time. The beakers, which would have been used for drinking liquids such as wine, may suggest the people there had access to fine beverages from abroad. The vessels have decorative trails in the glass and are comparable to the “Kempston” type cone beaker, uncovered in Bedfordshire in 1891, with one currently on display in the British Museum.

One individual, a female, was discovered with a vast array of goods, the quality of which suggest that she was of high-status amongst the buried population at the site. She was buried with a complete ornate glass bowl made of pale green glass, thought to be made around the turn of the 5thcentury, so could have been an heirloom from the Roman era. Other burial items included multiple rings made of copper alloy, a silver ‘zoomorphic’ ring, brooches, discs, iron belt fittings and objects made of ivory. […]

Archaeologists noted how the goods with each burial appeared to be tailored to each individual – suggesting the items would have held some relevance and significance to the deceased and the mourners at the graveside.  A number of grooming items were discovered, such as toiletry sets consisting of ear wax removers and toothpicks, tweezers, combs and even a cosmetic tube that could have contained a substance used as eyeliner or similar.

One warrior burial is a particular highlight. The young man, about 17-24 years old when he died, was found with a sharp iron spearhead embedded in his spine. This was probably what killed him. Osteological examination suggests the blow came from the front.

The grave goods excavated date to the 5th and 6th century, so very soon after the Roman withdrawal in 410 A.D. The period between the end of Roman rule and the establishment of Saxon rule in the late 6th century is known as sub-Roman Britain. Contemporary written records from sub-Roman Britain consist of exactly three sources: two letters written by Saint Patrick in the 5th century (Confession and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus), and On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, a fiery polemic written by Saint Gildas in the first half of the 6th century. There are gaps in the archaeological record of this period as well, so the skeletal remains and grave goods are invaluable testaments to the lives and deaths of the Anglo-Saxon elite of sub-Roman Britain.

Up close with the Ryedale Hoard

The Yorkshire Museum is hosting a series of online expert lectures and curatorial talks dedicated to the Ryedale Hoard, the unique group of ritual bronzes used in ceremonies of the imperial cult in the late 2nd century that the museum was able to acquire last year. The hoard went on display to the public for the first time when the museum reopened in April. The lecture series runs in conjunction with The Ryedale Hoard: A Roman Mystery. There will be one online talk a month until the exhibition ends in March 2023.

Each episode in the series is first livestreamed on the museum’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. The lectures are following by a Q&A period where viewers can ask questions in the comments. The recorded lecture is then posted on YouTube.   

There have been two so far. The first video is hosted by Professor Michael Lewis, head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the British Museum, and delves into how Treasure is defined in terms of the 1996 Treasure Act. This is relevant to the Ryedale Hoard because it failed to qualify as official Treasure despite its undisputed antiquity and unprecedented archaeological importance and was only saved for the public patrimony thanks to Richard Beleson, a generous supporter of the Yorkshire Museum. Lewis lays out the processes of the PAS and explains how archaeological treasures can fall through the cracks, using examples some bloggers you know might have obsessed over once or twice.

The first talk doesn’t really get into the particulars of the Ryedale Hoard, however. That’s what the second one does. It is hosted by the Yorkshire Museum’s curator of archaeology Lucy Creighton. She covers the discovery of the objects by two metal detectorists, how they realized they had found something really special, then goes into detail about the objects themselves, holding them up to the camera to point out features that are not necessarily conveyed in still photographs. She points out a peg embedded in the hoof of the horse and rider figure that would have originally been slotted into a base with a flat surface, for example, and shows a piece of bronze found inside the head of the Marcus Aurelius bust that was once the back of the head.

The next online lecture looks excellent as well. Metals, Making and Magic: The Smith in Roman Britain will be delivered by Dr. Owen Humphreys on July 21st. Sign up here to receive notices of future lectures. I did last month, forgot all about it, and remembered only after I received the museum’s reminder email linking to the discussion.