Two new dolmens found at megalithic site in Spain

Archaeologists have discovered two new dolmens at the necropolis of La Lentejuela outside Teba in Andalusia, southern Spain. This brings the total up to 13 dolmens in a necropolis that is less than four hectares in surface area and makes La Lentejuela the densest megalithic site in Andalusia.

The two newly-discovered dolmens are more than 33 feet long and consist of double stone circles, an outer and an inner ring of stones demarcating an individual burial. Preliminary estimates date the dolmens to the 4th millennium B.C., but further analysis is necessary to determine the dating.

The campaign has also focused on the first phase of excavation of Funeral Structure 1, which is the most monumental. “Once the cover of the tomb was removed and the excavation of its interior began, a dolmen with a more complex architecture than we initially thought has been discovered. We would be in front of a corridor dolmen with certain compartmentalizations. The funerary structure presents a bent corridor (with a curved shape) that gives access to an antechamber, differentiated from the corridor by the presence of two vertical orthostats as jambs. Lastly, we would have a burial chamber separated from the antechamber by two other stelae set in place”, as explained by the professor of Prehistory at the UCA, Eduardo Vijande.

In the current state of the investigation, as stated by those responsible, it is “complex” to specify the date of construction of the monument. What has been documented in this campaign is its reuse at the end of the 3rd millennium or beginning of the 2nd millennium BC “We don’t know when the dolmen was built. As a hypothesis we are considering the end of the IV millennium. What we do know, thanks to this campaign, is that at the end of the 3rd millennium BC it was reused. The Bronze Age populations deposit their deceased in this tomb and even build small spaces inside the dolmen to bury them individually, or at most with two individuals”, affirms Serafín Becerra. “It is quite an interesting question, since in the Bronze Age the idea of ​​a collective burial, as it was originally conceived in the Neolithic, was abandoned and an individualization of death was introduced with the construction of small individual burials inside of the great dolmen,” points out Professor Vijande.

Semicircular Bronze Age structure inside antechamber of Neolithic Funerary Structure 1. Photo courtesy University of Cádiz,The interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and geologists from the University of Cádiz (UCA) excavating the site have deployed an array of technologies including drone aerial photography, 3D scanning, photogrammetry and differential global navigation satellite system (GNSS) to document the necropolis’ topography, the megalithic monuments and the skeletal remains. The team has also taken samples of archaeological interest for a laboratory analysis that will clarify the chronology of the site and shed new light on the funerary practices employed there in its phases of use.

After the dolmens were thoroughly recorded, the stones were cleaned and stabilized to prevent deterioration now that they’ve been exposed to the air.

Nero’s theater discovered in Rome

The remains of the Emperor Nero’s private theater have been discovered under the internal courtyard of the 15th century Palazzo della Rovere in Vatican City. Thus far, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the left side of the semicircular cavea (the seating section) and of the scaenae frons, the architectural background of the Roman stage. In this area archaeologists have also unearthed finely-worked Ionic columns made of precious white and colored marbles and elegant stucco adorned with gold leaf — a type of decoration also found in Nero’s Domus Aurea. A second structure perpendicular to the stage area had service rooms, perhaps used to store scenery and costumes.

The sumptuousness of the architectural elements, the exceptional quality of the craftsmanship and the makers’ stamps on the bricks identify the building as a Julio-Claudian theater that must have been commissioned by a client of the highest rank. The stratigraphic evidence indicates it was only used as a theater for a short time. By the first decades of the 2nd century, the theater complex was already being systematically dismantled so its valuable materials could be reused. The Theatrum Neronis is the only candidate to fit the bill.

The Palazzo della Rovere was built in the late 15th century over the site of the ancient Horti Agrippinae, the gardens of the villa of Agrippina the Elder, granddaughter of Augustus, mother of the emperor Caligula and grandmother of Nero. It was a grand suburban villa outside the walls of Rome on the left bank of the Tiber and its gardens covered much of what is now Vatican City. After his mother’s death, Caligula built a circus in the gardens to stage chariot races. Nero used it to stage executions of Christians after the Great Fire of 64 A.D., including the crucifixion of Saint Peter. He was buried just a few hundred feet from the Circus on the Via Cornelia. His burial became a shrine and major pilgrimage site. Constantine built the first St. Peter’s Basilica over the shrine and remains of the Circus. The Egyptian obelisk now in St. Peter’s Square was on the spina (the central spine) of Caligula’s Circus and is revered as a witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter.

Nero added a theater next to the circus so he could have a dedicated space to perform his dubious poetry and songs before his adoring public. Or not so adoring, if Suetonius is anything to go by:

While [Nero] was singing no one was allowed to leave the theatre even for the most urgent reasons. And so it is said that some women gave birth to children there, while many who were worn out with listening and applauding, secretly leaped from the wall,​ since the gates at the entrance​ were closed, or feigned death and were carried out as if for burial.

Only this reference and a couple of others by Pliny the Elder and Tacitus mention Nero’s theater, and they are vague as to location. Over the centuries the theater had taken on a semi-legendary quality, especially since the ancient sources focus heavily on Nero’s excesses, even to the point of exaggeration.

The streets and piazzas around St. Peter’s were drastically altered during the Fascist redesign of Rome in the 1930s. Construction on the Via della Conciliazione, the broad boulevard leading directly from the Castel Sant’Angelo to the basilica, began in 1936 and numerous palaces and churches were demolished or moved to make room for the wide thoroughfare. The Palazzo della Rovere managed to survive the destruction and its façade now looks onto the Via della Conciliazione.

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem was given the palace as their new headquarters by Pope Pius XII in 1940. The order has recently leased the palazzo to the Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts group and the building and grounds are undergoing renovations with a planned grand opening in 2025, a Jubilee year. Obviously the site is archaeologically important, so excavations were a requirement in advance of construction.

Archaeologists also found medieval remains at the site, evidence of its popularity as a pilgrimage site due to the connection to St. Peter.

Among the discoveries are 10th century AD glass coloured goblets and pottery pieces that are unusual because so little is known about this period in Rome. […]

Marzia Di Mento, the site’s chief archaeologist, noted that previously only seven glass chalices of the era had been found, and that the excavations of this one site turned up seven more.

All of the portable artifacts will be removed and conserved for eventual museum display. The current plan is to cover up the remains of the theater, but I’m crossing my fingers that the hotel business people are at least as smart as the fast food and grocery people and they’ll cover it with a clear protective layer to make their courtyard into an archaeological park.

Steelyard beam found at fortlet on Hadrian’s Wall

Just four weeks into the excavation of Milecastle 46 on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, archaeologists have already made an exceptional find: a small equal arm steelyard beam from an ancient Roman scale.

Milecastles were small forts built every Roman mile or so along defensive frontier walls. There were 80 of them along Hadrian’s Wall between the 16 major forts. Milecastle 46 was just north of the Magna fort, near what is today Carvoran, Northumberland. The Vindolanda Charitable Trust’s Roman Army Museum is located at the fort site and the Trust is in charge of the maintenance and exploration of its remains.

The impact of climate change has been altering the vegetation of the marshy land, drying out the peaty, anaerobic soil that is the reason the nearby Vindolanda fort and civilian settlement site has such exceptional preserved organic remains including thousands of leather shoes, one leather mouse, the first surviving Roman wooden toilet seat and the iconic wood writing tablets that form a unique collection of ancient correspondence unmatched in the Roman archaeological record. Magna has not been excavated systematically like Vindolanda has not been, but geophysical surveys indicate it is just as rich a source of archaeological material, and all that untapped wealth is under direct threat.

Thanks to a hefty £1.625 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, this June the Vindolanda Charitable Trust has embarked upon a five-year, £2.5 million archaeological investigation of Magna. The first area to be excavated is Milecastle 46 and its association section of the vallum (the earthwork ditch that runs almost the entire length of Hadrian’s Wall from the North Sea to the Irish Sea). Archaeologists did not expect to find much of anything in the top layers of excavation because what little had been left of the Magna milecastle and the Wall at the site was thoroughly picked over in the 12th-14th century, the stone reused in the construction of Thirlwall Castle a half mile away. Instead, it’s only the fourth week of digging and the team has uncovered the stone foundations of Milecastle 46.

The steelyard beam was found along the outer wall of the foundation on the third week of the excavation. A few centimeters of it were poking up, exposed by a night of heavy rain that had washed away the topsoil. Archaeologists didn’t know what it was at first, but once the fulcrum was exposed, its secret identity was revealed.

The 22cm [(8.7 inch)] copper alloy steelyard beam had a decorative integral central fulcrum hole to accommodate a suspension chain. One end of the beam was finished with a typical triple bevel design and delicate suspension hole from which a weighing pan would once have been hung via fine chains. The other would end would have been used to hang small weights from another chain. A feature of this steelyard is that from the fulcrum to one end of the beam are eleven evenly spaced, tiny circular silver inset points set 10mm apart, used as markers for moving the measuring weights along the arm.

A portable steelyard of this size and calibre could have been used by a proficient Roman tax official, trader or merchant for weighing small, high value items passing through the milecastle at Magna. Trading posts like this would have worked both ways, taxing goods entering and leaving the borders of the Empire. The Roman army and Emperor taking their own cut from this potentially lucrative trade.

Although not every milecastle was suitable for this purpose, number 46 at Magna, linked into a junction point of three major Roman roads, the Stanegate, the Maiden Way and the Military Road, was an ideal location for both tax and control and had clear and easy access to the north of the Wall. In the later Roman period, the flow of cut silver and glass artefacts flowed north out of the empire to buy the obedience of northern tribes. A practice which may have eventually played its part in encouraging more raiding into the province from beyond the frontier.  

Medusa mosaic emerges at Mérida

Mérida is having a very good summer, archaeologically speaking. Archaeologists just found a huge bathhouse in a Roman home next to the amphitheater. Now students from an archaeology workshop have unearthed a large, multi-colored mosaic of Medusa surrounded by complex geometric patterns, peacocks and fish.

The mosaic was discovered at the Huerta de Otero site on the western side of the city. The site was first excavated in 1976, revealing remains of an opulent Roman domus, but it was on private property and neglected for decades. The city of Mérida acquired the Huerta de Otero site in 2019 and for the past four years it has been excavated by students from the Barraeca II Professional School.

The Medusa mosaic paved the floor of one of the main rooms of the villa, likely the triclinium (formal dining room), covering a surface of area more than 320 square feet. The central panel is a winged head of Medusa inside a round border surrounded by a shield of black and white semi-circular shapes that create a dynamic illusion of curved triangles in movement. An outer octagon bounds the Medusa and shield. Meander patterns connect the octagonal border to smaller panels that contain animal figures, including fish and birds, floral motifs and masks. Four peacocks, each representing one of the four seasons, appear in the corners of the mosaic.

The head of Medusa in the middle of an illusionistic “spinning shield” was a common motif on Roman mosaic floors, an abstract reference to the aegis of Athena, the cloak or shield featuring the head of the Gorgon. The polychrome mosaic style suggests it was created in the 2nd century A.D.

Greek horse and rider from Albania at the Getty Villa

A rare Archaic period (800 – 480 B.C.) Greek bronze statuette of a horse and rider is the star of a new exhibition that opened yesterday at the Getty Villa Museum. This is the first time the statuette has been on public view since it was discovered in Albania five years ago. It dates to around 500 B.C. and is unique for the high quality of its craftsmanship, its intact condition and for having a known findspot excavated by archaeologists.

“Although bordering on Greece and sharing the Adriatic coast with Italy, Albania is a country whose ancient heritage is less familiar to American museum audiences,” says Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the Getty Museum. “Focusing on a single, precious object allows us to offer visitors a glimpse into the close artistic connections within the Mediterranean world, and to highlight the complex process of restoration by the Museum’s antiquities conservators, who carried out the analysis and treatment of this delicate archaeological find in collaboration with colleagues at the Albanian Institute of Archaeology in Tirana.”

The statuette was discovered in 2018 during an excavation of an outpost of the ancient Corinthian colony of Apollonia near the modern-day village of Babunjë, only it wasn’t found in the planned dig. Archaeologists from the international team were watching a local farmer plow his onion field when they spotted something in the churned soil. They stopped the plow, preventing the object from meeting a twisted end, and called in their colleagues to explore its archaeological context.

Even still caked with soil, the exceptional detail of the bronze horseman was evident. It is the only luxury object discovered at this site. Previous finds of ceramics and architectural remains point to a modest settlement founded by Greeks as a defensive outpost of Apollonia. Apollonia was something of an insular society, ruled for hundreds of years by the families that founded it, and the outposts were dependent on the colony’s ties to the Greek mainland for survival.

This suggests that the bronze horseman may also be of Corinthian origin. Corinth was an important center of metalworking in Archaic Greece, and the few horse and rider figures in bronze that are known are believed to have been made in Corinth. The discovery of an exceptional example of a bronze horseman in a remote outpost with almost exclusive links to Corinth supports this hypothesis.

After its discovery, the horseman was kept by the Albanian Institute of Archaeology (AIA) in Tirana for three years. It was still encrusted in soil as it was when it was found. In 2021, the AIA asked the Getty Museum to conserve the object in its state-of-the-art facility. Getty conservators examined the statuette with X-rays and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to learn how it was cast and the metal composition of the bronze. They then focused on removing the dirt, mineral deposits and corrosion materials using miniature scalpels designed as eye surgery tools.

For the most secure possible display, the conservation team created a 3D-printed replica of the statuette to design a bespoke mount that fits the object perfectly. The statuette is now being exhibited on that mount in a case with a dry microclimate to prevent any further corrosion of the metal. The horseman will be at the Getty Villa through January 29th, 2024.