Wooden defensive spikes from Roman fort found in Germany

Sharp wooden stakes used as defensive barriers of a Roman fort have been discovered in Bad Ems, western Germany. Preserved in the water-logged soil of Blöskopf hill, the spikes were mounted in a v shape onto a central post. Enemies falling into the defensive ditch would meet the business ends of this very sharp structure. There are references to these kinds of rigs in ancient sources, but this is the first example ever discovered.

Roman troops had been in the area since 55 B.C., when Julius Caesar built a bridge over the Rhine between what are now Koblenz (10 miles west of Bad Ems) and Andernach. Germanicus built a castellum (guard tower) in Koblenz in 9 B.C. Later in the first century a castrum (miliary fort) was built in Bad Ems.

Recent excavations were triggered by a rather brilliant hunter’s report of differences in grain color that could indicated underground structures. Drone photography and geomagnetic scans confirmed that under the grain were large double ditches that formed defensive perimeter of a Roman camp. It would have been a huge Roman camp: eight hectares with 40 wooden towers — much larger than the known to have been built one at Bad Ems. It was meant to be permanent but it was never completed. Only a warehouse was built in the end and a few years later the camp was burned down.

A second, much smaller camp, was unearthed a mile away. The stake structure was part of the defenses of this second camp.

Exploratory excavations carried out [in the Blöskopf area] in 1897 uncovered processed silver ore, raising the assumption that a Roman smelting works was once located there. The thesis was further supported by the discovery of wall foundations, fire remains and metal slag. For a long time it was assumed that the smelting works were connected to the Limes, built some 800 meters to the east at around 110 AD. These assumptions, considered valid for decades, have now been disproved: The supposed furnace in fact turned out to be a watchtower of a small military camp holding about 40 men. It was probably deliberately set on fire before the garrison left the camp. The spectacular wooden defense structure was discovered on literally the penultimate day of the excavations – along with a coin minted in 43 AD, proof that the structure could not have been built in connection with the Limes.

We know from Tacitus’ Annals that in 47 A.D., Emperor Claudius dispatched an arriviste praetor by the name of Curtius Rufus (who may or may not have been the son of a gladiator) to the area in order to mine silver.

[Curtius Rufus] had opened mines in the territory of the Mattiaci for working certain veins of silver. The produce was small and soon exhausted. The toil meanwhile of the legions was only to a loss, while they dug channels for water and constructed below the surface works which are difficult enough in the open air.

The excavation did indeed discover a shaft and tunnel system that appears to be of Roman origin, but it never reached the silver vein. They gave up too early because the silver was just a few feet beneath the tunnels.

The search for silver would explain the presence of two camps. The legions provided necessary (hard) labor to dig for silver, and the necessary security to protect the precious metal from Germanic raids.

Royal jewelry looted by guy who threatened to sue me returned to Cambodia

A collection of 77 extraordinary jewels, including ancient Khmer royal crowns, has been returned to Cambodia by the heir of the late Douglas Latchford, an art dealer, avid collector and shameless trafficker of antiquities who once threated to sue your humble blogger.

Backstory: In a badly-formatted letter full of grammatical errors and contradictions, a law firm representing Latchford demanded that I take down this post or be sued for defamation. The post is still up, as you see, and the threat was empty, but I take it as a point of pride nonetheless that all of Latchford’s bluster would shortly thereafter blow up in his face as the cases against him piled up ever higher. For decades Latchford had commissioned looters to pillage Cambodian temples, starting during the civil war in the 1960s. The horrors of Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s were nothing but a boon to his pillaging operation, and his looters often had deals with the military to aid in their thefts. His minions were actively stealing and smuggling well into the 2000s.

A high-end dealer in the international antiquities market, Latchford supplied stolen Cambodian art to private collectors, auction houses, other dealers and museums around the world. He wrote books about Khmer art and garnered a reputation as one of the premier experts on the subject. His loot formed the backbone of several major Southeast Asian art collections in museums in the United States. He so adroitly bamboozled everyone that he even managed to secure the Cambodian equivalent of a knighthood for his donations of money and artifacts he had stolen to the national museum of the country he had stolen them from.

The dominoes started to fall in 2011 when Sotheby’s tried to sell the Duryodhana statue looted from the Koh Ker temple. Sotheby’s sale was blocked when Cambodia officially requested its return and after negotiations failed, the U.S. Attorney filed a forfeiture suit to confiscate the statue. Many lies about its provenance came out in the investigation, with Latchford playing a starring role, forging ownership documents and lying on customs forms about the statue’s origin, age and market value.

His legal team threatened me in 2014. Four years later in November 2018, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York indicted him on several counts of wire fraud, smuggling and conspiracy related to his decades of trafficking archaeological material. Latchford had UK and Thai citizenship and lived in Bangkok which was the hub of his smuggling operation for decades. He was very ill at the time of the indictment, so there was no attempt at extradition and he died at age 88 in the summer of 2020. The indictment against him was dismissed after his death.

His daughter Julia Latchford agreed to return his entire ill-gotten collection to Cambodia. In 2021 and 2022, she returned more than 125 stone and bronze statues to Cambodia. Last week, the jewels arrived home. They include crowns, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, amulets and belts from the Khmer Empire (9th – 14th c. A.D.) some of which appeared in Latchford’s 2008 book Khmer Gold: Gifts of the Gods. Many of them have never been seen before not even in photographs.

Cambodian researchers believe that some of the gold adorned the earliest Angkorian kings, who founded the Khmer Empire (802 to 1431) and built its majestic temples.

“We did not know these items existed,” added Touch, who was in London last week to help oversee the return of the objects. “This is much more than what is in our museum.”

By weight alone, officials said, the gold is worth more than $1 million. But Bradley J. Gordon, a Phnom Penh-based lawyer for Cambodia who negotiated the return of the items, said the value was difficult to estimate because Angkorian gold is rare, has never been lawfully exported from Cambodia and almost never appears on the market.

“We really don’t want to put a price on it,” he said.

Vindolanda “darning tool” turns out to be wood phallus

A wooden artifact recovered in a 1992 excavation of the Roman fort of Vindolanda previously categorized as a darning tool has been identified as a phallus. While stone and metal phalluses are widespread throughout the Roman world, including at Vindolanda, this the first wooden example ever discovered.

It is 16 cm (6.3 inches) long and carved from a single piece of ash round in cross section. It has a wide cylindrical base that narrows to curved end. The head of the phallus is delineated by a carved line. Both the wide end and the narrow end are smoother than the shaft, evidence that they were handled. It has clear tool marks indicating the wood was very young when carved. The traces from the carving blade also suggest the phallus was not handled to the point of wear on the surface or exposed to the elements for any length of time.

The phallus was found in a ditch from the second half of the 2nd century that was filled with more than 800 objects. Most of the fill consists of tools, shoes and craft remnants including leather offcuts. This context is likely why the phallus, which is really not subtle at all in its penile design, was mistaken for a sewing tool.

The exact function of the phallus is unknown. It is life-sized, so it’s possible that it was mounted to a herm (a stone pillar with a carved head and phallus) or statue of Priapus, or to a wall to ward off bad luck and evil intent. If that were the case, it would likely show more signs of wear.

Another possible use of the object is as a pestle. The wide end is convex, which would make it inconvenient to mount in a socket as with a statue of structure, but that smooth, rounded surface would make an ideal pounding tool. There are no food stains on what would have been the pounding surface, however.

The third possibility is as a sexual implement. Its form of course suggests usage as a dildo, and the wear on the head of the penis matches that on a much more recent (18th century) ivory phallus found inside an armchair in a Paris convent.

“If that is the case it would be, to our knowledge, the first Roman dildo that’s been encountered from archaeology. We know from Greek and Roman poetry and Greek and Roman art that they used dildos. But we haven’t had any archaeological examples found which is intriguing in itself.

“If it is that and it is found up here on the northern fringe of the empire and not down in the rich heartland of Roman Italy … it is kind of astounding.”

The re-discovered phallus has been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here.

Metal detector trainee finds 13th c. hoard

A hoard of coins and jewelry buried 800 years ago has been discovered near Haithabu on the Jutland Peninsula of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany.

It was discovered by trainee metal detectorist Nicki Andreas Steinmann on his third outing with his instructor. (Schleswig-Holstein only allows people to metal detect who have been trained in archaeological fieldwork by the State Archaeological Office and pass an exam.) As soon as he dug down and saw a few silver coins and the glint of gold, he and his mentor called in state archaeologists who then professionally excavated the full hoard.

The investigation revealed around 30 silver coins, earrings, two gold-plated finger rings, one ring fragment and two fibulae. They had been slightly disturbed in the course of agricultural activity, but there was a group of coins in a stack that were in their original configuration. Textile remnants were found on the stacked coins, the remains of a cloth bag the hoard was in when it was buried.

The coins date to the reign of Danish king Valdemar II (1202-1241). The stand-out pieces are a pair of gold filigree pendant earrings festooned with gemstones. The style is typical of Byzantine goldsmithing dating to around 1100. Another rare object is a gold plated pseudo-coin fibula. It is an imitation an Almohad dynasty (1147-1269) gold dinar fashioned into a Scandinavian-style a robe clasp. The coins date the deposit to the first half of the 13th century.

The hoard was unearthed in an agricultural field near the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hedeby, a major northern European trade hub during the Viking Age (8th-11th c.). Located on a narrow strip of land between the Baltic and the North Sea, the commercial town of Hedeby was enclosed by the ancient Danevirke rampart system that crossed the Schleswig isthmus and fortified the border between Scandinavia and the European mainland. Hedeby’s unique location made it one of the largest trading towns of the Viking era. Goods of all kinds passed through Hedeby and were also produced there. Specialized craftsmen — goldsmiths, blacksmiths, glaziers — created fine jewelry, tools, beads and many other objects of adornment and use. Hedeby was sacked and burned by West Slavs in 1066, so by the time the hoard was buried, the site was long abandoned making it a good place for someone to cache their valuables.

2,400-year-old manual flush toilet found in China

A 2,400-year-old manual flush toilet has been discovered in the remains of a palace at the Yueyang archaeological site in Xi’an, northwest China. It is the earliest known flushable toilet ever found.

Discovered amid the ruins of a palace in the ancient Yueyang city, the toilet is believed to have been used by Qin Xiaogong (381-338 BC) or his father Qin Xian’gong (424-362 BC) of the Qin Kingdom during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), or by Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). The palace was possibly used for administrative affairs.

A “luxury object” such as a flush toilet would only be used by very high-ranking members of the society during that time, according to Liu Rui, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who was part of the excavation team at Yueyang.

“It is the first and only flush toilet to be ever unearthed in China. Everybody at the site was surprised, and then we all burst into laughter,” he said.

The first wide-scale excavation of the Yueyang City site in the 1980s revealed the first castle ruins. In 2012, archaeologists discovered two more castle complexes. Last year’s excavation explored the third of the castle complexes. Archaeologists were able to thoroughly excavate two of the palace complex’s buildings, numbers 3 and 11.

Buildings 3 and 11 of the third castle are rectangular and both face south. Large semi-circular roof tiles, the tops of larger cylindrical tiles known as kings’ gate tiles, were discovered at the four corners of No. 3’s foundation. The density of material allowed archaeologists to clarify where these types of tiles were used on top of palace roofs, a long-standing question.

The toilet was discovered at the foundation of building No. 3. It originally consisted of two parts: the toilet seat that was indoors over a platform, and a curved pipe leading to a cesspit outside the house. It was flushed the same way you flush modern toilets when the water is knocked out after a storm. A bucket of water was dumped into the tank, forcing the waste out through the pipe.

The upper portion where the toilet seat once was has not survived, but based on tomb carvings from a couple of centuries years later in the Western Han dynasty (202 B.C. – 9 A.D.), people squatted over the toilet instead of sitting on a full seat.

Since its discovery in pieces last summer, researchers have been working to puzzle the fragments back together. They kept the find under wraps until they could showcase the recomposed toilet.

Experts are analyzing the soil inside, hoping to find traces of human feces and learn about the eating habits of ancient people. So far, the soil samples have only yielded traces of fertilizers used by farmers during Han Dynasty.