Roman funerary stele with portrait found

A funerary stele from the Roman imperial era with a high-relief portrait of the deceased has been discovered in the hill town of Bucchianico in south central Italy’s Abruzzo region. The stone slab came to light during construction of a roundabout, spotted by the archaeologist supervising the work crew. It does not appear to have been found in its original location. It was likely displaced from the burial it was marking in antiquity or it may have been a secondary burial. Archaeologists will return to excavate the find site thoroughly in the hopes of finding traces of the grave.

The inscription reads:


Which approximately translates (with likely interpolations for the abbreviations) to:

To Mettia Rufa, freedwoman of Caius,
Mettia, freedwoman of Caius,
places this for her mother.

The Mettii were a prominent plebian family in the early imperial era. Originally from southern Italy a couple of regions down the boot from Abruzzo, the family rose in importance in the late Republic. Marcus Mettius was a legate of Julius Caesar’s in 58 B.C. The first Mettius to attain the rank of consul was appointed by the emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 A.D.) Another three followed, giving the Mettii four consuls on their family track record between the 70s and 128 A.D. The one appointed in 103 A.D. was a Gaius (or Caius), Gaius Trebonius Proculus Mettius Modestus, although of course there’s no way of knowing if he was the former owner of the freedwoman Mettia Rufa as Roman families used the same handful of first names over and over again.

Archaeological remains from the Roman era have been found before in the area where the stele was unearthed (hence the archaeological supervision). The hilltop itself housed a sanctuary of Hercules and the country homes of notable families were built in the environs. The burial ground of one of those families, the Aufidi, was discovered in 1836.

The stele will be transported to Sulmona where the Superintendency of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of the provinces of Chieti and Pescara have an appropriate facility to perform the necessary cleaning and conservation. While experts work on the stone, Bucchianico municipal officials will be raising funds for the restoration and eventual display back in the town where it was discovered, perhaps in the cloister of the municipal palace.

Sumerian tavern with food found in Iraq

The remains of a 4,700-year-old tavern complete with storage vessels still containing food have been discovered at the archaeological site of Lavash in southern Iraq.

Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C. near the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates, Lagash was one of the first urban centers in the ancient Near East. The city was ruled by independent kings in the Early Dynastic period until it was conquered by Sargon the Great of Akkad in the 24th-23rd century B.C. Sargon’s son Rimush laid waste to Lagash when it rebelled against Akkadian rule. According to the detailed records he left behind, he killed 8049 people in Ur and Lagash.

The city-state resumed independent rulership in the 21st century B.C. and eclipsed its pre-Akkadian greatness, reaching its greatest extent around 2075-2030 B.C. It was the one the largest cities in the world, and may have even been the largest. It began to fade in importance in the Old Babylonian period (1894 – 1595 B.C.) and there are no further historical references to it until the Seleucid Persian era in the 2nd century B.C.

Today it is one of the largest archaeological sites in Mesopotamia. Archaeologists have been excavating the site since 2019. The 2022 season focused on a non-elite neighborhood of the Early Dynastic period (2900-2300 B.C.).

The joint team from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pisa discovered the remains of a primitive refrigeration system, a large oven, benches for diners and around 150 serving bowls.

Fish and animal bones were found in the bowls, alongside evidence of beer drinking, which was widespread among the Sumerians.

“So we’ve got the refrigerator, we’ve got the hundreds of vessels ready to be served, benches where people would sit… and behind the refrigerator is an oven that would have been used… for cooking food,” project director Holly Pittman told AFP.

“What we understand this thing to be is a place where people—regular people—could come to eat and that is not domestic,” she said.

“We call it a tavern because beer is by far the most common drink, even more than water, for the Sumerians”, she said, noting that in one of the temples excavated in the area “there was a beer recipe that was found on a cuneiform tablet”.

Samples taken from the vessels are currently undergoing analysis.

“There is so much that we do not know about this early period of the emergence of cities and that is what we are investigating,” she said.

“We hope to be able to characterise the neighbourhoods and the kinds of occupation… of the people that lived in this big city who were not the elite,” she added.

Monumental Armenian map digitized

A monumental map of Armenia in the University Library of Bologna has been digitized with gigapixel photo stitching technology that allows viewer to explore the image in ultra-high definition.

The Tabula Chorographica Armenica was commissioned by Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, a Bolognese nobleman, diplomat, soldier, world traveler, naturalist, author and all-around polymath whose unquenchable thirst for knowledge drove him to amass an enormous collection of manuscripts that is now at the University of Bologna. (Fun fact: The University of Bologna was founded in 1088 and is the oldest continuously operating university in the world. Its motto, “Alma Mater Studiorum” meaning “nuturing mother of studies,” is the origin of the term “alma mater” for the school you attended.)

Born in 1658, Marsili was privately educated and attended lectures in medicine, mathematics and botany at the renowned university. In 1680, his endless curiosity drove him to join a diplomatic mission to Constantinople where he spent his free time studying the seas. He invented new devices in order to study the coastline, currents, marine animals, water salinity and winds. He published these observations in his first book in 1681.

That same year, he joined the army of the Holy Roman Empire solely for the opportunity it afforded him to travel throughout Eastern Europe. When he was captured by the Ottoman Empire, he was made to distribute coffee to its soldiers besieging Vienna in 1683. So naturally he turned that experience into a treatise on coffee and its supposed medicinal effects.

He was sent to Constantinople again in 1691. His mission was to test the waters (not literally this time) for a peace treaty between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. He spent a year there. The negotiations went nowhere, but he put his unquiet mind to good use yet again by commissioning a monumental map of the Armenian church.

Armenians had been forced by Shah Abbas I of Persia to move into Persian territory in 1604 and in 1638, Persia and the Ottoman Empire divided Armenia between themselves. The Armenian Patriarchate had been established in Constantinople by express invitation of Sultan Mehmed II in 1461, so by the time of Marsili’s second stay in Constantinople, the city had been the most important center of Armenian religion, scholarship and culture for more than two centuries. Fascinated by the history of the Armenian church, its polemical debates with Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, Marsili asked Armenian scholar, scribe and illuminator Eremia Çelebi K‘ēōmiwrčean and his son Tēr Małak’ia to map it all out for him.

They crafted the large-scale map by gluing 16 sheets of paper to a canvas backing and then drawing hundreds of monasteries, churches and sanctuaries in the four catholicosates (a regional primacy headed by a single leader or catholicos) that existed in the Armenian Apostolic Church at that time. The complete map is 11 feet and nine inches long by three feet 11 inches wide.

The most significant churches are accurately drawn and everything is fully captioned. The ink drawings were painted in with watercolors. The four catholicosates are color-coded so it’s clear at a glance which churches belong to which catholicosate. Palm fronds indicate a female hermitage while olive branches indicate a male one. Among the notable illustrations are Saint Gregory the Illuminator banishing a golden idol with a censer, and a meeting between the Catholicos and the Persian governor with the Etchmiadzin Cathedral to their left and Mount Ararat to their right. Annotations include a history of the Armenian church and a recounting of the commissioning and creation of the map.

The great map left Constantinople with Marsili who would continue to be heavily involved in the fighting and diplomacy between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Wherever he went, he parlayed his assignments into new research and treatises. His one big failure — the 1703 surrender of the fortress of Breisach to the French in the War of Spanish Succession — put paid to his career with the HRE and he returned to Bologna where he co-founded the Institute of Sciences that would be closely affiliated with the University. He donated his vast collection of manuscripts to the Institute just before his death in 1730.

The map was just one entry in a very long catalogue and was not published. Its existence only became known to Armenian scholars in the late 18th century, but the lore had some of the details wrong. K‘ēōmiwrčean was said to have created it for the “Ambassador of Austria,” so the map was sought in Vienna among the enormous Hapsburg holdings. Marsili’s name had gotten lost in the game of historical telephone, and nobody thought to check in Bologna for a map commissioned by an ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire.

Then again, not even Bologna knew what a treasure it had. It fell off the radar for three hundred years, re-emerging only in 1991 when researchers found it in the University Library while preparing for an exhibition of maps. The digitization project was also engendered by an exhibition, this time of Armenian material in the University Library of Bologna. The gigapixel image will be projected onscreen during the opening of the exhibition on Friday, February 17th. Those of us without reservations for the event can skip ahead and just explore the gigantic masterpiece on our own time.

Explore the full map here. Explore it divided into five sections for ease of navigation here.

Tudor gold signet ring linked to Boleyns on display at Hampton Court Palace

A gold and enamel signet ring engraved with the head of a bull, emblem of the Boleyn family, has gone on display at Hampton Court Palace.

The ring’s bezel is engraved with the head of a bull facing forward with large horizontal ears and vertical horns. Between the horns is a letter that is hard to make out. It could be an “e,” an “r” or a “t.” Solar rays filled with white enamel radiate down the shoulders of the bezel. On each shoulder is a flattened oval panel engraved with religious figures — Virgin and Child on one side, St. Catherine of Alexandria on the other.

The bull was on the arms of Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s father, and the arms of his son George. As with many signet rings, the iconography is probably canting, a play on the family name. In this case, “Boleyn” was often written as “Bullen,” which is why bull heads were incorporated into the family arms. They’re usually in profile, though. No other examples of a facing bull are known from Boleyn signatures or arms.

The find site is further evidence of the ring being connected to the Boleyn family. It was discovered in 2019 near Shurland Hall on the Isle of Sheppey, an island off the northern coast of Kent. Less than 50 miles east of Hever Castle, the Boleyn family seat where Anne was raised, Shurland Hall was one of the greatest estates in medieval Kent. The original 13th century castle was rebuilt between 1510 and 1518 by Thomas Cheyne, a relative of the Boleyns and a trusted courtier to every Tudor monarch from Henry VII to Elizabeth I. He was Sherriff of Kent, Justice of the Peace for Kent, Lord Ward of the Cinque Ports and also served as Treasurer of the Household, privy councilor and as ambassador to France three times.

He was a particular favorite of Anne Boleyn’s who advocated successfully for his promotion before her marriage to Henry. In October 1532, Cheyne was singled out for the cripplingly expensive honor of hosting the royal couple and their retinue of hundreds. They spent three days at Shurland Hall on their way to Calais to secure the support of King Francis I of France for their marriage. Henry and Anne would marry in secret one month later.

The ring is not thought to have belonged to Anne herself, due to the fact she bore her own arms after her marriage to King Henry VIII, with this signet ring also being a typically male item of jewellery which would have been too large for a woman. However, both Thomas and George held the title of Viscount Rochford from 1525 and 1529 successively, meaning that either man would have been entitled to bear the monogram for Rochford. The ring features an initial that could denote the letter R – further strengthening the claim that it has links to the two Boleyn men. […]

The religious symbolism may well also hold the key to the ring’s original owner, with St Catherine being known for her scholarly defence of her faith, and the choice of saint perhaps referring to Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. There is a possibility the ring may have alternatively belonged to another wealthy Tudor who bore the same badge, although this does not change the fact that is a remarkable piece of surviving jewellery from the era.

This exquisite object has been acquired by Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) – the charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace. It will now be shown to visitors in the Great Hall, which sits at the very heart of the surviving Tudor palace (the apartments built for Queen Anne Boleyn were lost in the 17th century). Home to the last great medieval hammerbeam roof hall in England, work began on the Great Hall began in 1532 to mark the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, with motifs relating to the new Queen incorporated into the design.

Medieval anchoress had syphilis

Analysis of a skeleton found buried inside a medieval church has identified the deceased as a reclusive anchoress from the mid-15th century with late-stage syphilis. The burial was unearthed during a 2007 excavation of the cemetery and former All Saints Church in advance of redevelopment. Very little is known about the church. The earliest reference to it dates around 1095 and records the church being given to the monastery of Whitby Abbey. The church died with the abbey in 1539, victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, and over time the exact location was lost. Construction of a cattle market on the site in the 1820s encountered numerous human bones, but they weren’t documented.

Given the cattle market history, the 2007 excavation was expected to run into burials from the cemetery and maybe even some architectural remains of the medieval church. They found more than they expected — inhumation and cremation burials going back to the Roman era, more than 500 medieval burials, ten post-medieval mass graves and the cobble and rubble foundations of the masonry church. A total of 547 medieval burials were found inside the church and outside of its walls extending into the former churchyard. The mass burials contained more than 100 bodies in total, probably the casualties of disease during the 1644 Siege of York in the English Civil War.

On the east side of the large rectangular nave was a smaller rectangular chancel with a semi-circular apse at the end. Archaeologists discovered an unusual burial in the apse: a middle-aged woman in tightly crouched position. The hundreds of other burials at the site were positioned with bodies extended, as was typical of medieval Christian burial. SK 3870 must have been someone of high status to warrant so large a grave inside the apse of the church, but a church patron would not typically be buried in a crouch posture.

Historical evidence and the archaeological record of this burial indicate it belonged to Lady Isabel German, a 15th century anchoress. Anchoresses (or anchorites if they were men) chose to live an ascetic life of religious contemplation literally walled into a small cell, usually attached to the side of the church. Religious enclosure was considered a holy vocation and anchorites and anchoresses were treated like living saints. In medieval England, the practice was increasingly popular, going from 96 documented anchorites at 77 sites in the 12th century to a peak of 204 at 129 sites in the 15th century. Archaeological evidence of anchorites and achoresses is rare, and usually takes the form of structural remains of the anchorhold, not the osteological remains of the anchoress. Only one other confirmed anchoress burial is known (at St. Anne’s church in Lewes, Sussex).

Lady Isabel lived inside her tiny room for 20 years from 1428 to 1448, her only contact with the world through two small curtained windows, one in the outer wall of the cell, one in the interior wall. She listened to mass and received food through the interior window. Parishioners would come to the exterior window seeking advice and prayer.

Osteological analysis found that she was between 30 and 50 years old when she died. She had osteoarthritis and severe osteoporosis, a condition that may have been connected to her lack of movement in the extremely confined space of her cell. She also bore the lesions of advanced stage syphilis all over her body — the bones of her chest, shoulders, both arms, hands, pelvis, both legs, feet. The combination of these serious illnesses would have rendered her all but immobile.

Given the severity of the pathological lesions exhibited by SK 3870, [rigor mortis of the corpse in the position at death] could explain her unusual burial position, or perhaps it was also the position she was forced to adopt in life because of her illness, perhaps as a consequence of pain from severe disease in multiple joints and extensive infection.

Alternatively, the body could have been positioned like this in order to fit the grave, though it is unclear why the grave should be so wide and short compared to a typical contemporary grave made to accommodate an extended and supine burial. One possible explanation may be that the grave was dug in available space within the apse, perhaps between heavy or immovable objects or furniture which prevented the excavation of a grave appropriate for an extended individual.