Bronze eagle and lightning cup found at Gallo-Roman sanctuary

The excavation of an important Gallo-Roman sanctuary outside of Rennes in Brittany has yielded an exceptional Roman bronze cup decorated with the attributes of the god Jupiter, and a bronze figurine of the god Mars.

The site in the village of Chapelle-des-Fougeretz has been slated for development, triggering a comprehensive preventative archaeology excavation of more than seven hectares of the site. Since the dig began in March, archaeologists have unearthed remains from a Gallo-Roman temple complex built immediately after the Roman conquest in the 1st century B.C. and in use at least through the 4th century A.D.

The hilltop sanctuary, visible from Condate (modern-day Rennes) just five miles away and the major Roman road in the valley below, featured a large sacred precinct enclosed an all four sides by a gallery of colonnades 200 feet long. Within the precinct were two temples, one larger and one smaller, built in typical Romano-Celtic fanum style (ie, a square masonry temple with a central cella inside a square gallery). A cult figure of a deity inhabited the cella. The faithful would offer their prayers and votives in the gallery. The large temple was dedicated to the sanctuary’s primary deity (or deities); the smaller to deities of secondary importance. Welcoming pilgrims to the sanctuary was a forecourt with a well and two small chapel-like structures.

A bronze figurine of the god Mars unearthed at the site suggests that he was one of the deities worshipped in the sanctuary. In Gaul, the local iteration of Mars was not the bloodthirsty god of war so much as a protective healing deity. This was a votive offering left at the sanctuary.

The bronze cup was a votive offering as well, and a luxurious one at that. The cup was found upside down and intact with its two ornately decorated handles still attached. One side of the handle is carved with the relief of a face of a Cupid. Two wings are engraved on each side of the faces. The other end of the handle mounts are decorated with reliefs of eagles in profile. The curved part of the handle between the terminals feature stylized thunderbolts. These are attributes of the god Jupiter. Such a rich offering suggests Jupiter may also have been worshipped at the sanctuary.

Just outside the temple precinct archaeologists discovered the remains of a public bath building. Most of it is gone, its construction materials taken and reused many centuries ago, but some architectural features have been found, including the tell-tale remains of a hypocaust underfloor heating system and bathing basins. The baths were fed with water from a well dug a few feet away.

The excavation site will be opened to the public for the European Archaeology Days, June 17-19. INRAP archaeologists will give visitors the rundown on the ancient sanctuary and the results of the excavation thus far.

Two pieces reunite to form rare Viking sword hilt

Two pieces of a Viking sword hilt of exceptional quality and rarity have been reunited after 1200 years. The first piece was discovered last year by a metal detectorist in a field in Stavanger, southwestern Norway. It was a small irregular piece and the finder had no idea what it was, so he handed it in to the Stavanger Museum of Archaeology for further investigation. A year later, a friend of the finder returned to the field and found a large sections of an ornately decorated sword hilt. Museum conservators realized this was a match for the little fragment found the year before.

The hilt is from the most ornamented and heaviest Viking sword types, known as a D-sword. Only about 20 D-type sword pieces have been found in Norway, and they were either imported and/or copied meticulously by local smiths. The decorative style dates it to the early 9th century.

It is still difficult to see the details in the hilt, but the décor includes gilded elements of the typical animal styles found during the Iron and Viking Age, from ca 550-1050, according to the press release. The hilt also contains geometrical figures in silver, made with the so-called niello technique. This means that a metallic mixture of sorts was used to make black stripes in the silver.

Both ends of the crossguard are formed as animal heads.

“The technique is of a very high quality, and both the lavish and complicated decor and the special formation of the crossguard make this a truly unique find,” archaeologist Zanette Glørstad from the Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger, says in the press release.

The closest comparable example is a bronze sword hilt with silver gilt inlay and niello enamel discovered on the Isle of Eigg (now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh ).

The hilt pieces were found in the Gausel area of Stavanger on a field adjacent to the farm where the richly-furnished tomb of a Viking woman was discovered in 1883. Dubbed the Gausel Queen, the elite woman was buried with 40 artifacts of exceptional quality — bronze, silver and gold jewelry, knives, drinking horns, a cooking pan, fittings from a reliquary box — including rare and expensive imports from Ireland.

The Queen was not alone. Other Viking graves have been found there, and many more are known to have been destroyed during agricultural work. Even with spotty old archaeological practices, accidental discoveries and looting marring the archaeological record, more and more varied Medieval Irish metalwork has been discovered in this area than in any other place in Europe. Archaeologists believe this part of the coast was one the major departure points for Viking ship voyages westward across the North Sea.

The hilt is now undergoing cleaning and conservation before it goes on permanent display at the museum.

Rusty 14th c. saber wielded by Turkish raiders or Greek defenders?

A medieval curved sword from the early 14th century has been discovered in a ruined monastery on the northwest Aegean coast 40 miles southeast of Thessaloniki. It was unearthed in an excavation of the ruins of Agios Nicolaos Chrysokamaros, a small fortified dependency of the Saint George the Zograf Monastery on Mount Athos just across the bay.  Very few late Byzantine swords have been found in Greece, and this is the only one to have been unearthed by archaeologists in its original undisturbed archaeological context.

The 14th century was a turbulent time on the Chalcidice peninsula, primarily due to conflicts between the Latins and the Byzantine Empire. The Catalan Grand Company, Aragonese mercenaries initially engaged by the Byzantine emperor who would later double-cross them, spent a solid two years between 1307 and 1309 sacking the monasteries on Mount Athos. Incursions by Turkish pirates, Balkan potentates seeking to chip away at Byzantine territory and the growth of Ottoman power kept the Aegean coast in constant turmoil.  There were 300 monasteries on Mount Athos in 1300. By the end of the 1300s, there were only 35 still standing.

The sword is heavily corroded and incomplete with a surviving length of 18 inches. It has a single edge and is curved throughout its full length. It was bent and burned in the raid that destroyed the monastery outpost. Several of the metal rings from the scabbard fused to the blade. They are the only part of the scabbard to survive.

This type of saber was used by both Byzantine and Turkish soldiers, so it’s difficult to know who wielded this weapon before it was buried.

[Excavation leaders] Maniotis and Dogas have identified three military actions in the 14th century that could have led to the sword being used there: attacks along the coast by Turkish pirates, which included the kidnapping in 1344 of administrators from the Mount Athos monastery; the occupation of the region from 1345 until about 1371 by the forces of the Serbian king Stefan Dušan, who aspired to conquer Byzantine territories in the West; and the siege of Thessalonica by Ottoman troops from 1383 until 1387, when the Chalkidiki region was often raided for food.

Maniotis can’t say for sure, but he thinks the sword may be of Turkish origin, and that it was used in a pirate raid on the monastery.

The excavation has revealed that the monastic outpost was very well fortified indeed, encircled by a granite block wall more than six feet thick. The tower was used as a shelter for villagers during military attacks and pirate raids, and to keep important religious relics and food stores safe. Evidence of severe fire damage was found in the same archaeological layer as the curved sword, indicating the tower was set alight in a raid.

Largest cache of bronze statues found at Saqqara

Archaeologists have discovered a cache of 150 bronze statuettes from the 5th century B.C. in the Saqquara Necropolis. This is the largest cache of bronze statues ever found at Saqqara and the first that dates to the Late Period. The figurines depict Egyptian deities like Anubis, Amun, Bastet and Osiris, as well as the ancient notables like the architect Imhotep.

The team from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities also unearthed multiple burial shafts containing a total of 250 painted wooden coffins in excellent condition, less than two years after 100 exceptional wooden coffins were discovered there. Preliminary examination suggests the mummies inside the sarcophagi are mostly well-preserved as well. One of them contains hieroglyphic text on papyrus. Archaeologists think it may be passages from the Book of the Dead. They will be conserved and translated in the laboratory of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Other artifacts found in the Late Period burials were a sistrum — a percussion instrument used in religious rituals — and a group of bronze bowls used in the worship of Isis.

The team also discovered objects from earlier burials, most remarkably a pair of vividly painted wooden statues of the goddesses Isis and Nephthyst. Made around 1500 B.C., the statues depict the goddesses as mourners: sitting on their knees, their right arms bent over their faces. Their faces are gilded, and much of the original bright paint and gold is intact.

The bronzes, statues and coffins will be moved to the  Grand Egyptian Museum for study and conservation. If possible, they will be placed on display when the new museum opens later this year.

Le Mans’ Roman walls are 50 years younger than realized

The city of Le Mans in northwestern France is probably best known for the 24-hour endurance sports car race that bears its name, but it has the far greater distinction of having the best preserved late Roman defensive walls surviving in France and in the top three best preserved Roman walls in the former Empire. The only other comparable ones are the walls of Rome itself and of Constantine’s second Rome (ie, Istanbul).

The Roman walls of Le Mans cover an area of 8.5 hectares. There were 40 towers originally; today 19 of them are preserved, looming 50 feet high. The walls between them were built in a typical Roman technique: parallel brick facings with mortar between them. They average more than 30 feet high and are 15 feet thick at the base. To build these monumental defenses, workers used 400,000 bricks, 140,000 tons of rubble, 60,000 tons of mortar and 50,000 square feet of reused foundation blocks.

The masonry and brickwork are uniquely decorated. Contrasting colors of terracotta bricks, pink mortar, red sandstone, light sandstone, white limestone were arranged to create chevrons, columns, X-shapes, flowers and more. Researchers have identified 14 different motifs. Roman enclosures elsewhere do not have this feature, while other ancient structures in the Le Mans area do, so it seems this was a local aesthetic carried forward through this monumental undertaking.

Historians have long believed that the walls were built around 280 A.D. in reaction to the Crisis of the Third Century. Before the Crisis, 25 Gallo-Roman cities had fortified defensive walls. More than 80 Gallo-Roman towns built new walls in the late third and early fourth centuries. They are easily distinguished from walls built in earlier times because they are much thicker, higher, have more towers and were made with recycled construction materials. The foundations of Le Mans’ walls were built with the stone from the city’s public baths, deliberately demolished to provide construction materials for the new fortifications.

In 2017, a new in-depth exploration of the walls was undertaken by city archaeologists and historians. Samples were taken from the bricks and mortar of the walls in the attempt to confirm its date. Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), Carbon-14 analysis and archaeomagnetic dating of the samples all returned unexpected results. The wall was built in the 4th century, not the third, between 320 and 360 A.D. That means the massive fortifications were not built under pressure from barbarian raids and ineffectual imperial management, but rather during a period of comparative stability in the Late Empire.

The samples were only taken from one section of the wall. Archaeologists plan to analyze other sections as well to discover whether the fortifications were all built so late, or if some parts were begun in the third century and construction took place over many decades.

The Jean-Claude-Boulard-Carré Plantagenêt Museum in Le Mans is hosting the first major exhibition dedicated to the city’s exceptional Roman walls. The exhibition explores the wall’s meaning beyond its military application, its construction materials and methods, how it was altered between the 5th and 18th century, and its rediscovery in the 19th century.