Statue of young Hercules unearthed in Philippi

A larger-than-life statue of young Hercules has been found in the Greek city of Philippi. It dates to the 2nd century A.D. and is in unusually good condition despite suffering some damage. The club and the right arm are fragmented, and the right leg below the thigh is missing, but the head is intact, as are the torso and the tell-tale skin of the Nemean Lion. On top of his abundant mane of curls is a wreath of vine leaves tied around his head by a band that dangles down his neck and shoulders.

Originally founded as Crenides by colonists from the island of Thassos in 360 B.C., the town was conquered by Philip II, King of Macedon, and refounded in 356 BC as Philippi. It leapt into prominence thanks to its neighboring gold mines and important position on the royal route crossing Macedonia.  Little remains of the Greek city today. It is famed as the site of the final battle between the armies of Caesar’s partisans Octavian and Mark Antony and those of his assassins Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus in 42 B.C. Philippi prospered under the Roman Empire, continuing through the fall of the Western Empire and, centuries later, the fall of Byzantine Empire. It was abandoned only after the Ottoman conquest of the 14th century.

The team of students and archaeologists from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki discovered the statue on the eastern side of one of the ancient city’s main thoroughfares at the point where it intersected with another major axis stretching north. Where the two streets met they widened into a square. There was a large structure on the square, likely a fountain, which survives only in fragments. The Hercules statue was the piece de resistance of this central structure.

The fountain/building is much younger than the statue that adorned it. It is Byzantine, dating to the 8th or 9th century A.D. They simply reused a piece of local statuary that was still in good shape to decorate the square.

We know from the sources as well as from the archaeological data that in Constantinople statues from the classical and Roman period adorned buildings and public spaces until the late Byzantine period.

This find demonstrates the way public spaces were decorated in the important cities of the Byzantine Empire, including Philippi.

Roman sundial found in ancient Aizanoi

Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman-era marble sundial at the ancient site of Aizanoi in modern-day Çavdarhisar, western Turkey. It is the first sundial ever found in Aizanoi and dates to the early imperial period, around 2,000 years ago. Made of white marble, the sundial is almost intact with only a few missing fragments. It is 18 inches high and 17 inches wide and beautifully preserved with all its original lines and inscriptions. The dial curves over an acanthus leaf base on top of a pedestal in the shape of animal paw.

The sundial emerged in an excavation of the Roman bridges and bank walls on the river (the Penkalas in antiquity; today known as the Kocaçay) which ran through the middle of the ancient city of
Aizanoi. The project’s ultimate aim is to raise the water level of the river enough to run boats between the two bridges. Since 2019, archaeologists have been removing stones, sculptures and other architectural features that over the centuries had accumulated on the riverbed and bank. More than a thousand shaped and carved stones — headless statues, bodiless heads (none of them matching), blocks from the balustrades and parapets of the bridges — have been recovered so far.

In antiquity, sundials were installed in public spaces like the city agora or temple precinct so people could tell time, serving as town timekeepers.

Gold mask found in Shang Dynasty tomb

Archaeologists have discovered a gold mask more than 3,000 years old at Zhengzhou Shang City archaeological site in Zhengzhou, Henan province, central China. Older than the gold mask found in the Sanxingdui Bronze Age sacrificial pit last year, this is the first gold mask dating to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.) ever discovered.

The mask was found in a tomb in the mid-Shang Dynasty cemetery in the southeast section of the archaeological site. It was one of more than 200 funerary objects in a large tomb belonging to a Shang Dynasty noble. At 10,000 square meters, the tomb was about the size of a New York City block and the artifacts it contained are the highest in quality and variety of all of the tombs excavated in the cemetery. They include 20 bronzes, 11 jade objects, five gold artifacts, 50 arrowheads, more than 120 shell coins and plaques of gold foil inlaid with turquoise.

The mask is 7.2 inches long, 5.7 inches wide and weighs 40 grams (1.4 ounces). It would have covered the entire face of an adult, unlike the Sanxingdui gold mask which has large areas of negative space. Archaeologists believe that the full coverage mask was an expression of the Chinese religious concept that gold granted total protection to the body, ensuring the energy of the spirit could not be scattered.

The discovery suggests the belief in the “invincible golden body” goes back at least to the Shang Dynasty, even though very few gold objects have been found at Shang sites. The only other gold find of note at Zhengzhou outside of the newly-discovered tomb was a thin piece of gold foil unearthed from a pit containing the remains of sacrificed dogs at the eastern end of the north city wall. A dragon pattern on the surface is all that remains of an inlaid decoration.

Archaeologists are now investigating whether the gold culture of the early Shang Dynasty spread from the Central Plains southwest to the Sanxingdui site, evolving there into the enormous quantities of heavy, large, artfully-worked bronze and gold artifacts recovered from the sacrificial pits.

Chen Lüsheng, a renowned museologist and researcher at the National Museum of China, told the Global Times that the tomb is a significant find for research into the burial rituals and systems of the Shang Dynasty, and because it dates back to a very early period during the dynasty, it can provide new insight into the origins of Chinese civilization.

“Although this gold mask is older than those unearthed from the Sanxingdui Ruins, we still need more evidence and a larger amount of archeological discoveries to confirm a direct connection between the Shang city ruins and the Sanxingdui Ruins,” Chen said.

Now that’s a rack of ribs

In a scene reminiscent of the opening credits of the Flintstones, a gigantic rack of ribs from a Late Jurassic sauropod has been unearthed at Monte Agudo in the Pombal region of Portugal. If preliminary calculations prove accurate, this could be the largest dinosaur specimen ever found in Europe.

Fragments that turned out to be from dinosaur bones were first encountered by the owner when he was doing some home renovations in March of 2017. He reported the find to scientists at the University of Lisbon who did a few initial surveys at that time. A joint team of Portuguese and Spanish paleontologists returned last month to fully excavate the Monte Agudo site and hit paydirt: large sections of the axial skeleton of a likely brachiosaurid sauropod, including vertebrae and all of the ribs, the largest of which are ten feet long. They date to the Late Jurassic era, around 145 million years ago

It is extremely rare for Brachiosauridae fossils to be found in such good condition and still in their original anatomical locations instead of scattered. The skeleton’s comparative completeness allowed researchers to extrapolate the animal’s size from the bones that have survived. It was approximately 39 feet tall and 82 feet long.

The preservation characteristics of the fossils and their disposition indicate the possible presence of other parts of the skeleton of this individual, a hypothesis that will be tested in future excavation campaigns in the deposit.

“The research in the Monte Agudo paleontological locality confirms that the region of Pombal has an important fossil record of Late Jurassic vertebrates, which in the last decades has provided the discovery of abundant materials very significant for the knowledge of the continental faunas that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula at about 145 million years ago,” adds Elisabete Malafaia.

The mineralized bones were removed to a laboratory for meticulous removal of stone and sediments. Once fully liberated from their context, the bones will be studied further and eventually put on display in a museum.

1,600-year-old writing set found in Istanbul

A Late Roman writing set has been discovered in Istanbul. Complete with a bone dip pen, a small shallow dish and a miniature amphora inkwell, this is the first intact ancient writing set ever found.

The set was unearthed in an excavation of the Bathonea Archaeological Site in the Küçükçekmece suburb of Istanbul. It is about 1,600 years old and analysis of the bone pen found traces of red and black ink. Red ink was exclusively the preserve of state officials in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Bathonea was an ancient Greek harbor town founded in the 2nd century B.C. on the shores of the sea of Marmara. Today the archaeological site touches the waters of Lake Küçükçekmece and there are more remains inside its waters, including a Roman-era lighthouse. Previously excavated in the 1930s but misidentified as another city, the ruins of Bathonea were rediscovered in 2007 when a drought lowered the level of the lake. Since excavations resumed in 2009, archaeologists have discovered two harbors, canals built out of large stone blocks, wide paved streets on a planned grid pattern, a Greek temple, a Byzantine church, an early Christian cemetery, an open cistern and a multi-building complex that was a grand villa or palace.

A large number of artifacts recovered there date to the 4th-6th centuries A.D. when Constantinople, less than 15 miles away, was founded and rose to dominance as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. It’s not clear how Bathonea related to Constantinople. It could have been a simple satellite port handling some of the massive maritime traffic traveling to and from the capital, or perhaps a protected harbor for the imperial fleet since the lake is deep enough for large ships.