1,765-square-foot Herakles mosaic found

Archaeologists have discovered a 1,765-square-foot floor mosaic depicting the 12 Labours of Hercules in the Roman baths of the ancient city of Syedra on the southern coast of Turkey. It dates to the 2nd century A.D. and is unique for the life-sized dimensions of the human figures. Every one of Hercules’ contests against an assortment of man-eating creatures and enormous quantities of cow manure get a scene in the mosaic, although some parts were destroyed in antiquity. The sections that remain are in good condition.

The mosaic was first unearthed in 2019, but the excavation was not completed at that time and the art work was reburied for its protection. The excavation resumed in late 2020 and the full extent of the mosaic revealed, 26 feet in width and 72 feet in length. It fills a rectangular room with a semicircular recess at one end like an apse. This design is typical of the caldarium (the hot room) in other baths.

Syedra was founded by Greek colonists in the 7th century B.C., but first makes an appearance in written records in the 1st century as the location of Pompey’s final war council in 48 B.C. The epic poet Lucan and the historian Florus mention his stop-over in Syedra, “on a lonely rock in Cilicia,” where he met with the handful of senators who still stuck by him after he was defeated by Julius Caesar in the Battle of Pharsalus. The topic of discussion was whether Pompey should go to Egypt or Parthia to seek sanctuary and support against Caesar. According to Lucan, Pompey wanted to go to Parthia, but was browbeaten by Lucius Cornelius Lentulus into going to Egypt instead and securing the aid of boy king Ptolemy XIII. Pompey had barely set foot on Egyptian shores when Ptolemy had him killed and decapitated in a doomed attempt to curry favor with Caesar.

The small port city rose to greater prominence in the 2nd century. It sided with Emperor Septimius Severus against Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow Severus in 193 A.D. When Severus crushed Niger at Issus in May 194 A.D., he punished the cities who had supported Niger by removing their privileges and titles while rewarding his own supporters (or former opponents who hurriedly shipped him enormous sums of appeasement money). In the 1990s, an excavation unearthed fragments of a stele inscribed with a letter from Septimius Severus wrote to the loyal people of Syedra in the second half of 194. Now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Alanya, the reconstructed stele reads:

Imperator Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pertinax Augustus, Pater Patriae, Pontifex Maximus, in the second year of his tribunician power, imperator for the fourth time, consul for the second time, proconsul, to the magistrates, council and people of the Seydrans, greetings.

How much zeal you displayed in resisting the attack of those impious and godless men who, using Super [an officer of Niger’s] as their guide to the route, turned aside to your city too, I previously learned and praised you for your perseverance. However, Super has already incurred his due punishment, having paid for the wrongs he committed against you, and the centurions who, you say, also accompanied Super will not escape unpunished either.

But it is fitting that you, since matters have gone as they have, and your fellow citizens who at that time were forcibly torn from their ancestral city [ie, conscripted into Niger’s army] but have now for the time being returned and are residing with you, should sacrifice and feast and take pride in the acts of bravery that you previously performed, reflecting that you have made yourselves more glorious by such actions, and that you have confirmed your already existing goodwill towards the Romans.

The city reached its peak of prosperity during this time. New defensive walls were built, as was the great public bathhouse, a temple, water cisterns and a theater. The population rose to about 5,000, which was a lot to fit on a lonely rock in Cilicia, but still rather petite by Roman urban standards. Its richly-appointed baths are a testament to how much wealth was passing through even so small a city when it was in imperial favor.

Recycled glass mosaic tiles point to ancient city’s revival

A new analysis of Late Roman-era mosaic floors discovered in Bodrum, on the southwest coast of Turkey, has found evidence that the ancient city of Halicarnassus experienced a revival of good fortune at the very end of the Roman Empire.

Halicarnassus was famous in antiquity for the Tomb of Mausolus, so famous that the name of its owner entered the vernacular as a generic word for a grand above-ground tomb. Completed in 350 B.C., the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that drew tourists from around the Hellestic world and was still standing in the Middle Ages. Today only a smattering of ruins remain.

The city had been part of the Achaemenid Persian satrapy of Caria since the 6th century B.C., but the kings and queens of Halicarnassus were native Greek-Carian and operated more as autonomous allies. The reign of Mausolos (377–353 B.C.) and his sister/wife/successor Artemisia II was considered the golden age of Halicarnassus. They made it the capital of Caria and poured money into improving its infrastructure, dredging and deepening the harbor, paving the streets and building high defensive walls and towers. They built a theater, temples, public buildings and clad them all in gleaming white marble.

The city continued to prosper during the reigns of their sister and brother (who were also married) and their children, but the golden age of Halicarnassus came to an abrupt end when the Persians set fire to the city before retreating from the besieging forces of Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. According to Cicero, Halicarnassus never recovered from the Persian destruction and was all but deserted in his day (1st century B.C.) Natural disasters and attacks from Mediterranean pirates damaged the city even further in Late Antiquity and while the city had importance as a bishopric under Byzantine rule, it no longer bore any resemblance to Mausolos’ and Artemisia’s gleaming marble city. In the early 15th century, what the earthquakes hadn’t taken of the great Mausoleum, the Knights Hospitaller helped themselves to. They used its stone to build a fortress, Bodrum Castle, which still stands today.

The post-Alexandrian decline of Halicarnassus was the received historical wisdom until recently. The first hint that this might be inaccurate was the discovery of a luxurious late Roman villa built on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean. Mosaics from what would later be identified as the House of Charidemos were first unearthed in 1856. Unfortunately the archaeologist who excavated it, Charles T. Newton, who also excavated the paltry remains of the Mausoleum, pried the floors up and shipped them to the British Museum. Archaeologists returned to the site in the 1990s and uncovered more rooms decorated with a variety of mosaics, including geometric motifs, Europa and the Bull, Aphrodite being conveyed in a cockleshell, Dido and Aeneas, a nymph riding an ichthyocentaur (like a centaur only with a fish body/tail instead of horse body), and a dedication to the homeowner, which is how we know his name. The modern excavations also dated the villa to the mid-5th century, a period when tumbleweeds were supposedly rolling down the empty streets of Halicarnassus.

The new study examined 19 of the tesserae from the House of Charidemos’ mosaics using archaeometric analyses to learn more about what the tiles were made of and how they were produced. Seven of them were glass, 11 were stone and samples were selected from a range of colors. Analysis found that six of the seven glass tesserae were made of recycled glass.

The characterisation of the glass, stone, and ceramic tesserae from the House of Charidemos in Halikarnassos shows that a diversity of the materials were used for the production of the mosaics in private contexts during the late Roman–early Byzantine period in Anatolia. The comparison of the glass composition with other sites in Anatolia showed similarities in the use of base glass materials. […] The very tight elemental distributions between the samples of similar colours reflecting the same base glass composition could support a hypothesis of secondary workshops specialised in the production of certain colour of tesserae.

That suggests Halicarnassus either never was a ghost town or it recovered rather well since the bad ol’ days Cicero describes. The fact that so luxurious a villa with such high-end decorative arts was built in the city using city artisans and recycled raw materials even at the threshold of the demise of the Western Empire, indicates the city was experiencing something of a revival of fortune, in fact.

Frozen-in-time cobalt mine found

Cavers exploring the mining tunnels at Alderley Edge in Cheshire have discovered a cobalt mine preserved exactly as it was when it was abandoned in around 1810. Members of the Derbyshire Caving Club, who have a special lease from the National Trust to explore the Alderley Edge mines, found the historic cobalt mine last fall. The mine was in a state of suspended animation, replete with the miners’ personal objects, mining gear and graffiti they’d left on the walls. They have been exploring the labyrinthine tunnel network since then.

Leather shoes, clay pipes, a metal button from a jacket, along with inscriptions written in candle soot, and mine machinery, were among the objects that were found.

Also uncovered was a clay bowl that had been buried in a wall, a practice that may have been followed by superstitious miners as an offering of thanks for a good vein of mineral. Other discoveries include clearly defined fingerprints in clay used to hold candles, and the imprint of corduroy from a worker’s clothing where he leaned against a wall.

Among the larger abandoned items was a windlass, a piece of equipment used to shift large weights or quantities of raw materials. This is the first time such a piece has been uncovered at Alderley Edge. […]

Ed [Coghlan of the Derbyshire Caving Club] continued: “One of the objects which we had not unearthed in this area before, was the windlass. This was an important piece of mining equipment which we would have expected the workers to have taken with them for use at another mine. It does suggest they were told without much warning to collect their tools and move on, which is not surprising once the cobalt was exhausted, since each day there was a day paying wages.”

Cobalt mining had a very brief history at Alderley Edge. It began during the Napoleonic Wars when Continental sources of cobalt to make blue glass and pottery glaze dried up. Sir John Stanley, 7th Baronet of Alderley Hall, leased cobalt extraction rights to the Alderley Edge mines. The bottom dropped out of the English cobalt market after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, and the Alderley Edge cobalt mines were closed by 1817. The discovery of this mine frozen in time sheds new light on the brief history of cobalt extraction in Alderley Edge’s 4,000-year history of being mined. 

The objects in the mine have been photographed and documented in situ, but they have not been and will not be removed. They will remain in the environment that has conserved them for 210 years. The National Trust has  created a virtual 3D fly-through of the mine created with data from laser scanning, submarine ROV and photogrammetry technology. Explore it below:

Scepter mold, ivory siren found in Selinunte

Archaeologists have unearthed fascinating new clues to the 6th century B.C. history of ancient Greco-Sicilian city of Selinunte in excavations of its agora and acropolis.

The agora, the city’s central square, was built on a plateau overlooking the ocean. More than eight acres in area, twice the size of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, the agora of Selinunte was the largest in the ancient world. Today it is a wide open space, recently cleared of invasive vegetation to deliver the unobstructed view of the agora surrounded by temples that the Selinunteans would have enjoyed. Excavations have previously revealed only one archaeological feature under the agora: an empty tomb in the middle of the square, perhaps that of the founder.

This year’s dig in an area just south of the acropolis began in June with the aim of more precisely dating the newest of the acropolis temples, A and O, which were long believed to have been built at the same time. The dig found evidence that A actually predates O, and that O was never completed because construction was interrupted by a landslide.

The team leaped over their modest initial aims when they found an aquifer under the foundations of Temple A. The ancient infrastructure is evidence that the first colonists settled the site on the south side of what would become the acropolis. Under Temple R, which is older than A, dating to the 6th century B.C., archaeologists unearthed the walls of a ritual enclosure dating to 610 B.C., just a few decades after the founding of the city.

Inside Temple R the team also discovered a large fragment of a stone mold used to cast what looks like a bronze scepter. Once it was cast, the two halves of the matrix were deposited in different locations. The first half was found nearby ten years ago. Two other objects of note were found in Temple R: an Egyptian blue figurine of the sky god Horus dating to the late 7th century B.C. and a siren figurine carved in ivory. The quality of the carving is very high, comparable to the votives found at one of the ancient world’s most powerful religious centers, the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi. Archaeologists thus believe the siren was likely imported from Greece.

Founded in 628 B.C. by colonists from the Greek city of Megara Hyblaea on the southeastern coast of Sicily, Selinunte reached its peak of population, wealth and power in the 5th century B.C. The monumental area of Selinunte was largely built at that time. Today it comprises more than 270 acres of temples and other civic structures. The wider archaeological park, which includes important sites outside of the ancient city center, is the largest archaeological park in Europe at 667 acres.

“Second Sistine Chapel” restored at Europe’s oldest hospital

The magnificent Renaissance ward of the oldest hospital in Europe, the complex of Santo Spirito in Saxia on the Vatican banks of the Tiber in Rome, has been restored. Two years of work have repaired the carved wooden ceiling, the masonry and the interior and exterior plaster, reviving the huge expanse of frescoes and polychrome painted wood architectural elements.

The hospital started out as more of a hostel. The Schola Saxonum was founded in 727 by King Ine of Wessex on the ancient site of the pleasure gardens of the villa of Agrippina the Elder, daughter of  Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia, daughter of Augustus. Located on the Tiber under the shadow of Constantine’s ancient basilica of St. Peter’s, the schola provided accomodation and assistance to English travelers on pilgrimage ad limina apostolorum (“to the threshold of the apostles”). No fewer than 10 English kings, Alfred the Great among them, are known to have lived there for extended stays when they made their pilgrimages to Rome. In 794, one of those kings, Offa of Mercia, funded the addition of a xenodochio, a small building where strangers could get a little food and sleep, to the schola’s church.

Damaged by repeated fires and Saracen raids in the 9th century, the Schola Saxonum was repaired around 850 and again in the 11th century, but its use as accommodations for the crowned heads of Northern Europe was over by then. There were no Anglo-Saxon crowned heads after the Norman Conquest of England, for one thing, and Rome was no longer the only game in town when it came to major relics and martyrdom sites. Santiago de Compostela drew in huge numbers of pilgrims to venerate the relics of Saint James the Apostle. By the end of the 12th century, Canturbury was the premier destination for English pilgrims, drawn by the martyrdom site and miraculous relics of Saint Thomas Becket, and the schola in Rome languished from neglect.

Then Innocent III had a dream. Several, actually. In 1198, the Pope was plagued by a series of recurring dreams in which fishermen on the Tiber drew up the bodies of infants in their nets, illegitimate babies thrown into the river by adulterous women seeking to eliminate the living evidence of their sin. The fishermen presented the corpses of these drowned babies to the horrified pope. An angel then commanded Innocent to build a hospice for exposed babies.

He rebuilt the schola and xenodochio into a hospital dedicated to the care of abandoned infants, the sick and indigent. Built into one of the exterior walls was a “wheel of the exposed,” a wooden lazy susan behind a little door on which infants could be placed anonymously.

In 1471, the hospital was ravaged by a fire that left it in shambles. The newly-elected Pope Sixtus IV visited the hospital and decried its dark, airless, crumbling environment. He ordered a full reconstruction of the facilities in anticipation of the upcoming 1475 jubilee year. The resulting structure, dubbed the Corsie Sistine (“Sistine Wards”), was the first example of Renaissance civic architecture built in Rome.

The hall is 120 meters (394 feet) long and 12 meters (39 feet) wide. It is divided into two spaces by an octagonal tiburio (a tower or lantern over the crossing of the galleries). Under the tiburio in the center of the Corsie is a ciborium (a canopy built four columns over an altar) that is the only known work in Rome of Renaissance master architect Andrea Palladio. The long walls facing each other are frescoed with more than 60 scenes depicting the founding of the hospital by Innocent III on one side and the life of Sixtus IV on the other. That’s 13,000 square feet of frescoes. You can see why it’s compared to the other Sistine Chapel, also built by Sixtus IV (although that one was famously frescoed under the papacy of his nephew, Julius II).

Soon hospitals built on the model of Santo Spirito in Saxia sprang up all over Europe. Before Innocent III’s dream, there were no hospitals dedicated to the care of the indigent and abandoned babies. By the end of the 15th century, there were 1,000 of them. Today the Renaissance ward is part of the modern Santo Spirito hospital complex and care and maintenance of the historic building played second fiddle to the hospital’s primary focus on patient care and medical research.

Financed by the Lazio Region for the ASL Roma 1, the restoration work has also focused on the ciborium which over the centuries, says the restorer Maria Rosaria Di Napoli, was “marked by dirt and [water] percolation from above. The greatest difficulty is balancing the different materials , because this is a jewel: we have polychrome and gilded wood, stucco, canvas, marbles. The colors were hardly seen anymore. Even the lantern, all made of wood, due to the water, had lost a lot of pictorial surface.

The Corsie Sistine is now open to visitors. In future, more historic hospitals in Italy are slated for restoration in a new initiative by the culture ministry to promote their extraordinarily deep bench of architecture and art off the beaten path of museums, churches and grand palazzi.