Medusa phalera found at Vindolanda

A volunteer digger at the Roman auxiliary fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland unearthed a rare silver phalera with a relief of the head of Medusa earlier this month. It was discovered on the floor of a barracks dating to the Hadrianic period of occupation in the 2nd century A.D.

The silver disc has a raised rim with the bust of Medusa facing the viewer. She has wings on the top of her head and wild wavy hair, the prettified version of the formerly terrifying snake-haired gorgon. The only snakes on the portrait are two slim fellas tied in a knot under her chin like a bolo tie.

Phalerae were worn by centurions and standard-bearers in the Roman legions, emblems of rank and valor. They came in sets of three to 10 roundels mounted on leather straps that buckled on the back. They could be plain discs or decorated with reliefs of deities, animals, mythological creatures or emperors. The Gorgon Medusa was a popular motif for phalerae, breastplates and other military accoutrements as her image was believed to be apotropaic (ie, have the power to ward off evil or bad luck).

An example comparable to the Vindolanda find is engraved on the tombstone of Roman centurion Marcus Caelius, notable as the only archaeological epigraphic source to explicitly reference the Varian disaster of 9 A.D. Marcus Caelius was the primus pilus (senior centurion) of the XVIII Legion, one of the three legions Publius Quinctilius Varus led haplessly into an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest that would destroy them all and bring the Roman attempt to conquer Germany beyond the Rhine to a screeching halt. After his death in the calamitous battle, Caelius’ brother had the funerary stone erected in his honor. Now in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, the tombstone depicts the centurion wearing his phalerae. The central roundel, larger than the others, is a gorgoneion.

Phalerae were valuable status symbols and would not have been intentionally discarded. The one at Vindolanda was probably lost by accident, much to its owner’s dismay. It is currently undergoing conservation and will be exhibited next year at the Vindolanda museum.

Bronze Age metal hoard found at Roman battlefield in Swiss Alps

Archaeologists excavating an ancient Roman battle site in the Oberhalbstein Alps have discovered a Late Bronze Age metal hoard containing more than 80 bronze objects weighing a total of 20 kg (44 lb). Found in a field just south of a prehistoric settlement on a transalpine trade route, the hoard dates to the 12th or 11th century B.C. It is the largest and most important Bronze Age hoard ever found in the Graubünden canton.

Hundreds of Roman sling bullets, hobnails, a richly decorated dagger and other military equipment have been found at the site near the modern-day municipality of Surses since 2003. The sheer quantity of projectiles, weapons and gear from the Augustan era identify it as the location of a large-scale military action between the local Suanetes tribespeople and three Roman legions led by future emperor Tiberius and his brother Drusus in 15 B.C. This is the only proven Roman battlefield in Switzerland. The remains of the Roman military summer camp they established to control the strategically important Septimer Pass were discovered in 2008.

In 2021, ADG launched a new research project to systematically examine the landscape for remains of the conflict between Rome and the Suanetes. The Bronze Age hoard was discovered as part of this project. The Archaeological Service of Graubünden (ADG) unearthed the hoard in October 2022 after a volunteer metal detectorist surveying the site alerted the team to its presence. The objects were densely packed inside a small, well-defined pit indicating they had been deposited inside a wooden box that was wrapped in leather and buried in the ground.

Most of the metal objects are cast cakes, raw copper chunks that were used in the production of metal objects in the Alpine region. Other artifacts include sickles, axes, saw fragments and jewelry parts. They were damaged deliberately, “killed” before being buried as an offering.

The sensational discovery of what is by far the most extensive and important repository to date is a great moment for Graubünden archaeology. “The comprehensive scientific investigation that will now follow of this find, which is unique in our area, will certainly provide far-reaching insights into late Bronze Age cultural, economic and landscape history,” says Graubünden canton archaeologist Thomas Reitmaier with conviction. “It also underscores the potential of large-scale archaeological prospecting and collaboration with volunteer probers.

Still life with pizza found at Pompeii

The excavation of a block of houses in Regio IX of Pompeii has uncovered a wall painting of a still life of food and drink featuring what looks very much like a pizza. It is not a pizza, of course, as tomatoes and mozzarella didn’t even exist in Italy when the fresco was painted 2,000 years ago. It’s actually a round, flat focaccia topped with fruits and spices and what may be a pesto-like herb cheese spread known as moretum. The focaccia is shown on a silver tray next to a silver kantharos of wine. Dried and fresh fruits are also on the tray, among them two dates, a pomegranate, a fig and a garland of yellow arbutus berries.

A passage in Virgil’s The Aeneid describes the Trojan refugees eating a focaccia similar to this one when they reach the coast of Lazio. It’s about as appetizing a meal as you would think, ie, barely edible. From Book VII, verses 128-136:

Aeneas, handsome Iulus, and the foremost leaders,
settled their limbs under the branches of a tall tree,
and spread a meal: they set wheat cakes for a base
under the food (as Jupiter himself inspired them)
and added wild fruits to these tables of Ceres.
When the poor fare drove them to set their teeth
into the thin discs, the rest being eaten, and to break
the fateful circles of bread boldly with hands and jaws,
not sparing the quartered cakes, Iulus, jokingly,
said no more than: ‘Ha! Are we eating the tables too?’

The hard focaccia topped with fruits may not have been the height of deliciousness, but the food on a silver tray represents the Greek concept of Xenia, hospitality offered to all visitors creating a powerful, ritualized bond of friendship between host and guest. The offering of food was an essential element, one frequently captured in the art of Greece and Rome. Vitruvius writes about Xenia, as a hospitality concept and as artwork, in Book VI 7,4 of De Architectura:

On the right and left, moreover, are small sets of apartments, each having its own door, triclinium, and bed-chamber, so that on the arrival of guests they need not enter the peristylium, but are received in rooms (hospitalia) appropriated to their occupation. For when the Greeks were more refined, and possessed greater wealth, they provided a separate table with triclinia and bed-chambers for their guests. On the day of their arrival they were invited to dinner, and were afterwards supplied with poultry, eggs, herbs, fruits, and other produce of the country. Hence the painters gave the name of Xenia to those pictures which represent the presents made to guests. Masters of families therefore, living in these apartments, were quite, as it were, at home, being at liberty to do as they pleased therein.

Depictions of Xenia were popular motifs in Roman visual arts, particularly in the Pompeiian Fourth Style (aka the Intricate Style) of mural painting. There are about 300 murals of food offerings known from the cities buried in the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius (Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, etc.). This example is notable for the high quality of its execution.

It was discovered in the atrium of a house in the Insula 10 block of Regio IX. The house with an attached bakery was first explored between 1888 and 1891, but only a small part of it. Excavations resumed this January with the goal of stabilizing the structures excavated in the 19th century and largely neglected since then.

119 trafficked archaeological pieces found in Córdoba raid

Spain’s Civil Guard police have recovered 119 looted archaeological artifacts from a storage room in Baena (Córdoba). Objects include an exceptional Roman marble portrait bust, a silver denarius minted by Brutus after the assassination of Caesar of which only a handful of examples are known, and a rare type of Corinthian column capital from the 7th century. A married couple residing in Baena have been detained in connection with the raid and have been charged with crimes against Spain’s historical heritage, smuggling and receiving stolen goods.

The raid (dubbed Operation Plotina after Trajan’s wife) was carried out as part of Project Pandora VII, a massive international anti-smuggling operation led by Spanish police in cooperation with Interpol and Europol. So far, the wide-ranging Pandora investigation has resulted in 60 arrests and 11,049 cultural assets seized from several countries, 19 of the arrests made and 1,079 of the assets seized by the Civil Guard in Spain.

The stand-out object in the Plotina raid is the marble bust. It is a high-quality private portrait of a woman dating to the first third of the 2nd century. The hair style — braids woven into two crescents above the forehead and then coiled into a large bun at the back of the head — is typical of portraits of Salonina Matidia (68-119 A.D.), beloved niece of the emperor Trajan and mother-in-law of his heir Hadrian. Similar examples can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum. Only the heads of those portraits are original. The actual bust in the British Museum was a modern recreation. The Matidia-style portrait found in the raid is integral.

The Museum of Córdoba, under the direction of archaeologist Lola Baena, says that “it is an absolutely exceptional piece. It depicts a young woman dressed in a tunic and cloak, the folds and movement of which are carved with great skill. Her head is slightly tilted to the left, her neck is long and slender, and her features conform to a realistic idealized representation, a feature that characterizes Roman portraiture from the High Imperial period (1st-3rd centuries) from Augustus onward. The piece is unquestionably exceptional, and it is on par with the best second-century Roman sculpture made in Hispanic workshops, as well as close to the quality of those from Rome itself.”

The confiscated artifacts have been transferred to the Archaeological Museum of Córdoba for conservation and study.

Luxurious Last Supper tapestry exhibited in Turin

A luxurious tapestry version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper has gone on display at the Reggia di Venaria in Turin as part of an exhibition on how popes used tapestries in rituals and ceremonies. The combination of religious ceremony and tapestry spread from the Vatican to France and from there to the other courts of Europe. The Last Supper tapestry is the keystone of the exhibition as it played an important role in the Holy Week ritual of the washing of the feet.

The tapestry was commissioned by Louise of Savoy and her son, the future King Francis I of France, around 1514 when Leonardo was still living. It’s even possible Leonardo saw it with his own eyes, as he moved to the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise by invitation of Francis I in 1516. Francis appointed him “first painter, engineer and architect to the king” so he could spend the final three years of his life pursuing his many and varied interests in comfort and ease.

Leonardo was enormously famous in his lifetime and the Last Supper he painted on the refectory wall of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan was recognized as an innovative masterpiece as soon as it was completed in 1498. It was also instantly endangered due to Leonardo’s experimental approach, painting in tempera on dry plaster. Several copies were made in the early 16th century, the earliest documented copy commissioned in 1506.

Francis and Louise commissioned Brussels weavers to make the tapestry copy from a cartoon by an unknown artist in late 1516. It is 30 feet long and 16 feet high and woven exclusively of silk, gold and silver threads. The supper scene itself is an exact copy to scale of the original, even capturing Leonardo’s signature sfumatura technique, but the setting is very different from the minimalist space with the dark coffered ceiling of the original.

Instead, the tapestry sets the table inside a bright courtyard, draped with two millefleurs tapestries on each side with a High Renaissance architectural backdrop. A triple-arched bridge connecting two buildings inlaid with multi-colored marbles and a distant landscape of a stream flowing down hills. Above the arches hanging from the balustrade directly in line with Jesus’ head below is the coat of arms of the King of France with the golden fleurs-de-lys on a blue background. A border on all four sides is woven with symbols of Francis and Louise — salamanders, winged horses, knots and monograms.

Francis presented the tapestry to Pope Clement VII in 1533 as a lavish gift celebrating the marriage between Francis’ son, the future Henry II, and the pope’s niece Catherine de’ Medici in Marseilles. The wedding was politically important, cementing the alliance of papacy and France five years after the Sack of Rome by the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

It was highly regarded, even among the Vatican’s exceptional tapestries by the likes of Raphael, and it was deployed on special occasions like the Corpus Cristi procession and Holy Week. Still, it began to deteriorate from use. It was first restored in 1681, and less than a hundred years later in 1763, Pope Pius VI had a copy made to use in processions and ceremonies, ensuring the long-term preservation of the original. It has only left the Vatican once since its presentation in 1533: in 2019 when it was exhibited at the Château du Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci’s final residence, on the 500th anniversary of his death.

It was restored by the Vatican’s unique textile conservation team before its departure in 2019. You can see the team at work, stitching tulle netting to reinforce the back of the tapestry, in this fantastic video.