Cosmic particles find ancient burial chamber under Naples

For the first time, muon radiography has been used to discover a Hellenistic burial chamber under the busy streets of Naples. The cosmic particles found the hypogeum 32 feet beneath the densely populated Sanità district in the city center.

Ancient Neapolis was founded by Greek colonists in the 9th century B.C. and maintained Greek cultural traditions even after it was conquered by Rome in the 4th century B.C. The undercarriage of the city is honeycombed by hypogea where the elite were buried in a network of tunnels and chambers carved out of the volcanic tufa between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C.

Neapolis’ necropoli were buried by mudslides in Late Antiquity and as the city layered itself upwards, the hypogea were forgotten for centuries. A select few were found during construction of cisterns and bomb shelters or rediscovered under private property, including the ornately Ipogeo dei Cristallini which recently opened to the public for the first time. The vast majority are still buried 30+ feet below street level, unreachable by traditional archaeological excavation due to the highly populated and densely constructed city.

So if the hypogea cannot be unearthed, how can they be studied? Enter muons. Muons are dense, high-energy particles produced in the upper layers of the atmosphere that constantly shower the earth’s surface. They are capable of penetrating much thicker materials than X-rays can, and size is no object. For example, muon radiography is used in the monitoring of volcanoes, including Vesuvius whose interior life is of particular interest to Naples five miles to its west.

The hypogeum was discovered by installing two nuclear emulsion muon detectors, which require no power source to measure the differential flux of muons, in a cellar once used to age hams 60 feet below street level. The detectors were left to collect data for a month before the emulsion films were extracted and developed. By comparing the measured muon flux to the expected flux, scientists were able to map empty structures deep under the city and reconstruct the layers above them to determine the three-dimensional position of the chamber.

“The muons produced in the interaction of cosmic rays with the atmosphere penetrate buildings and the underlying rock and can pass through it until they reach the detectors. However, depending on the density and thickness of the rock crossed, a part of these muons is absorbed”, explains Valeri Tioukov, a researcher at the INFN of Naples , who coordinated the project. “From the number of muons arriving at the detector from different directions it is possible to estimate the density of the material they have passed through. We found an excess in the data that can only be explained by the presence of a new burial chamber,” concludes Tioukov.

“The presence of additional funerary hypogea hypothesized for many years is now confirmed by the results of muon radiography”, concludes Carlo Leggieri of Celanapoli , an association that looks after this site by promoting its recovery and use.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read in its entirety here.

50 burials from 2nd c. unearthed at Paris subway station

A preventative archaeology excavation before construction of a new subway station exit on the Left Bank in Paris has unearthed a large ground of burials dating to the 2nd century A.D. They were part of a necropolis on the outskirts of the ancient Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia, capital of the Parisii people.

A team of archaeologists from France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) discovered 50 inhumation burials of Parisii men, women and children buried in wooden coffins of which only the impressions of the planks and the iron nails are still present. (No cinerary burials were found, which is rare for the period.) The burials are densely packed with numerous overlaps. About half of the burials include grave goods like ceramic vessels (bowls, jugs, dishes) and glass vessels (balsamaria, lachrymatories, cups). A few coins, the obol to pay Charon’s fee for boating the dead over the River Styx, have been found in the mouth of the deceased. Shoes, their organic parts long-since decayed, have been found still in place, marked by the surviving hobnails embedded in the soles. Items of personal adornment — jewelry, belt buckles, hairpins — were recovered. One pit contained the complete skeleton of a pig and a second smaller animal believe to have been funerary sacrifices.

When it was in use, the necropolis was south of Lutetia, located on the outskirts of the city instead of within its walls, as was customary with burial grounds in antiquity. This southern necropolis developed along the Cardo Maximus, the main north-south thoroughfare of the Roman city. Lutetia’s Cardo Maximus is Paris’ busy Rue Saint-Jacques. Previous road works from the 19th and 20th centuries, including the construction of the subway line in 1970s, encountered the graves from the necropolis, but there was no systematic excavation. In the 19th century, burials were only scraped for grave goods deemed valuable before being reburied, leaving behind skeletal remains and other artifacts. The current section of the cemetery is not only intact and unexplored, but it has revealed a new map of the necropolis, far extending its western boundary.

Unlike the excavation in the 1800s, this time the team plans to remove everything from the necropolis for analysis.

“This will allow us to understand the life of the Parisii through their funeral rites, as well as their health by studying their DNA,” [INRAP archaeologist Camille] Colonna said.

[INRAP president Dominique] Garcia said that the ancient history of Paris was “generally not well known”.

The unearthed graves open “a window into the world of Paris during antiquity,” he added.

Viking hacksilver, coins found in Jutland cornfield

Two hoards of Viking hacksilver and coins dating to the late 10th century have been unearthed under a cornfield near Bramslev in northern Jutland. The two treasures were discovered less than 165 feet apart and are very similar in content. They were originally even closer, but later agricultural activity disturbed the deposits, intermingling the coins and other silver objects.

The first pieces were discovered last fall by Jane Foged-Mønster, a member of a local metal detecting association, Nordjysk Detektorforening, during a rally on a farmed field. She spotted a piece of silver which turned out to be a clipped Arabic dirham coin, then another fragment, this time a decorated silver ball from a ring buckle. The group, which works closely with museum archaeologists, recognized this was a treasure find and alerted experts from the North Jutland Museum.

Archaeologists followed up quickly with a rescue excavation of the site. Because it was actively in use for agriculture, anything else that might have been part of the hoard remaining in the plow layer was at imminent risk of being scattered or even destroyed. Jane Foged-Mønster and two of her co-discoverers from the metal detecting group aided in the excavation.

The archaeological team and volunteers spent a week digging at the site. They unearthed 300 finds, from small clippings of silver to jewelry and coins. The decorated ball terminal on a silver rod that Jane Foged-Mønster found has a pair. They both weigh about 70 grams (2.5 oz) and originally were part of the same piece of jewelry, likely a very large ring brooch. This type of jewel was worn by high-status men of Viking Ireland. Something this large and heavy and ornately decorated would have belonged to someone at the highest echelons of society like a bishop or even a king. It was likely looted by Danes in a raid and cut up for its silver weight.

Among the 300 finds are 50 coins, most of them Danish, but also German and Arabic. Some of the Danish coins are extremely rare cross coins struck in the reign of Harald “Bluetooth” Blåtand in the 970s and 980s. The crosses on the coins are believed to be connected to his King Harald’s conversion to Christianity and his aim of Christianizing the Danes. The ring fort of Fyrkat, built by King Harald Bluetooth around the same time the coins were struck, is just five miles away from the hoard site.

Fyrkat, together with Harald Blåtand’s other ring castles, were only in use for a very short time around the year 980. It is unknown why the ring castles were closed down, but at Trelleborg on Zealand, traces of battles have been found.

“Perhaps the castles were not given up entirely voluntarily, and perhaps it happened in connection with the final showdown between Harald Blåtand and his son Svend Tveskæg. The Bramslev treasures were apparently buried around the same time or shortly after the castles were abandoned, and if there have been disturbances at Fyrkat, it makes good sense that the local magnate here at Bramslev has chosen to hide his valuables out of the way, ” says [North Jutland Museums archaeologist] Torben Trier Christiansen.

The site is still harboring archaeological treasure. The excavation found signs of habitation beneath the plow layer. North Jutland Museums has received a grant to return to the site and investigate those structures this fall. The hoard will be exhibited to the public in North Jutland this summer and then transferred to the National Museum in Copenhagen.

Bamboo slips contain long-lost Chinese medical texts

Ten years after their discovery, 2,000-year-old bamboo slips have been deciphered and published as the lost medical texts of pioneering physician Bian Que.

Among all the unearthed by archaeologists so far, the content is believed to be a set of ancient medical documents detailing China’s hitherto richest content, most complete theoretical system, and of the utmost theoretical and clinical value.

The documents have been compiled into eight medical books as a series of books named “Tianhui medical slips,” said the information office of the Sichuan provincial government during a press conference held on Thursday. All the materials, including images of the bamboo slips, editorial explanatory notes, and illustrations on the TCM meridian mannequin uncovered alongside the slips, are contained in the newly published books.

Born around 407 B.C., Bian Que is considered the father of traditional Chinese medicine. He is credited with having developed the meridian theory and the acupoints along its channels. His biographers recount legends about him, like a deity having given him the gift of being able to see through the body to diagnose illness and that he once accomplished a successful heart transplant between two living people. His works were widely studied by physicians of the Han dynasty (202 B.C. – 9 A.D., 25 – 220 A.D.), but they were lost over the centuries.

In 2012, a team of archaeologists from the Chengdu Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the Jingzhou Cultural Relics Protection Center Western excavated the site of planned subway construction in the Tianhui Town area of Chengu. They unearthed four Western Han Dynasty tombs, earthen pits with timber outer shells, containing large quantities of lacquered wood, ceramics, bronze and iron artifacts.

A group of almost 1,000 bamboo slips were found in Tomb No. 3. Submerged in the waterlogged tomb for 2,000 years, the slips were preserved but very soft and darkened. It took nearly a decade of work to clean, stabilize and restore the 930 bearing more than 20,000 characters to legibility.

The ancient Chinese writing system on the slips is complex to interpret. Pronunciation and lettering changed over the centuries, and names like Bian Que were written in several ways in Chinese (even more ways if you count different dialects). Archaeologists believed the slips were medical books of the Bian Que School thanks to repetition of certain key words and phrases known from his medical theory.

The hypothesis was strengthened with the discovery of an intact lacquered figurine of a person with the meridian lines and acupoints painted on in red and white. Major body parts — heart, lung, kidney — are labelled. It is the earliest and most complete human medical model of the meridians and acupoints ever found in China.

Roman gateway reconstructed at Richborough

A Roman wooden gateway and rampart has been reconstructed at Richborough Roman Fort, the site where the invading Roman legions first landed in Britain in 43 A.D. The gateway is 26 feet high and was constructed using period-accurate materials and techniques.

The new gateway has been constructed in oak, using Roman-style dovetail, lap and scarf joints. The tower takes inspiration from depictions of Roman fortifications on Trajan’s Column in Rome, including the crenelated parapet with its frame of timber uprights connected to rails, to which vertical boards are nailed, using hand-made iron nails similar to Roman types.

An invasion force 40,000 strong landed in England in 43 A.D. and quickly took control of the southeast of the country. Richborough was strategically located on an island in the Wantsum Channel, and the high gateway gave troops a wide view of any potential threats to the Roman ships there.

The remains of Richborough Roman Fort and Amphitheatre in Kent were first explored by archaeologists in the 1920s. They found the remains of a fort where the soldiers, animals and supplies unloaded from Rome’s ships were housed, but it was only in 2021 when archaeologists unearthed the postholes that once held the massive timber supports of the gateway and guard tower. The evidence of the postholes allowed English Heritage to rebuild the structure in the exact location where it was originally erected.

The new gateway is accompanied by a new museum exhibition featuring objects found at the site. Many of them have never been on display before. They cover the full Roman history of Richborough (Rutupiae to the Romans) which began as a stark invasion fort and grew into a large, prosperous fort town where imports from all over the empire first made landfall in Britain.

The collection of objects found at Richborough is one of the largest for any Roman site in the country, including an extraordinary 450 brooches, over 1,000 hairpins, and 56,000 coins. Alongside the surviving ruins of the later Roman fort, these objects add an invaluable insight into the people of Richborough. Individual items can be identified as belonging specifically to soldiers, farmers, officials, craftsmen, pagans, Christians, and women and men of all social classes, and there are even hints at individuals who travelled from other parts of the Empire, many from the areas of northern and eastern Europe as well as some from as far away as Byzantium in modern Turkey. A few of the rare treasures on display for the first time at the museum in Richborough are a 2000-year-old glass cup made from blown glass from the Middle East, a trader’s weight in the shape of Harpocrates, the god of silence, which is the only one of its kind in Britain, women’s hairpins, introduced by Romans as new fashions, including one design depicting a female head which appears at Richborough in three forms: a delicate gold example; a finely crafted version in bone imported from the Continent; and a simple local copy – suggesting the differences in wealth at the site, and finally statuettes of Roman gods which would have been present in shrines where worshippers presented offerings as gifts.