Ancient figurine offering found at Templo Mayor

Fifteen Mezcala-style anthropomorphic figures. Photograph by Mirsa Islas, Courtesy of the Templo Mayor Project. A stone offering box containing a ritual deposit of 15 anthropomorphic figurines has been unearthed at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City. It was found under the platform of the rear façade of the temple in a layer that dates to the reign of Aztec emperor and king of Tenochtitlan Moctezuma I (1440-1469 A.D.),

The anthropomorphic figures are sculpted in the style typical of the Mezcala culture who inhabited what is now the northern Guerrero state of southwestern Mexico between the Preclassic (700-200 B.C.) and Classic (250-650 A.D.) periods. The Mezcala style is distinguished by an abstract, geometric design even in the facial features of its anthropomorphic figures.

The Mexica conquered the area in the mid-15th century when Moctezuma I significantly expanded the Aztec empire. The Mezcala culture was long gone by then, but the Mexica prized their artifacts, going so far as to excavate ancient sites seeking out Mezcala sculptures. Several offering groupings of Mezcala figurines, some more than 1,000 years old by the time the Aztecs pillaged them, have been found at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan with more than two dozen of the anthropomorphic sculptures carefully placed in rows facing south inside two stone boxes.

The most recent discovery of figurines was contained in a quadrangular stone chest that was meticulously excavated between January and July of this year. Dubbed Offering 186, the box contained 14 male anthropomorphic figurines and one miniature female figurine. Carved from green metamorphic stones, the largest figurine is just shy of a foot high, while the smallest miniature is just one inch high. The remains of facial paint representing the Mexica god of rain, Tlaloc, were found on one of the figurines. Archaeologists believe this was part of a deliberate reset of religious signification by the Mexica of the ancient cult figurines.

The box also contained two rattlesnake design earrings, 135 greenstone beads, sea sand and 1,942 seashells, snail shells and coral. The sand and shells came from the Atlantic shore, an area conquered by the Aztecs of the Triple Alliance (the combined forces of three Mexica city-states, Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan) under Moctezuma I.

“In classical Nahuatl, these chests were known as tepetlacalli –from tetl , stone, and petlacalli, reed box. In their homes, the Mexicas used to keep their most precious belongings in reed chests, such as fine feathers, jewelry or cotton garments, and if we see it from the Templo Mayor, which represents a sacred mountain full of maintenance, we can imagine the priests storing in these ‘stone flasks’ the quintessential symbols of water and fertility: sculptures of the rain gods, green stone beads, shells and snails”, concludes López Luján.

Large Roman building found in Swiss gravel pit

Archaeologists have discovered a large complex of stone walls from the early Roman Empire in the Äbnetwald gravel quarry in central Switzerland. This is the first time in nearly a century that the remains of a large Roman stone building has been found in the canton of Zug.

The first walls were discovered at the beginning of the year in an excavation of the gravel mound near Cham-Oberwil. The gravel mound has been quarried since the 1990s and archaeologists have been investigating the newly-exposed top layer for potential findings since then. The archaeological team has now uncovered more than 5,000 square feet of a building complex with multiple rooms.

In addition to the architectural remains, archaeologists unearthed fragments of artifacts. Among them are pieces of utilitarian objects (bowls, millstones, workmanlike amphorae that held food staples like wine, olive and the infamous garum fish sauce) as well as more luxurious objects like imported terra sigillata dishware and blown glass vessels. There was also a single fragment of gold that likely was originally part of a piece of jewelry. These artifacts were not produced locally and thus bear witness to the reach of Roman trade networks.

The team also found bronze and copper coins, and one silver denarius struck by Julius Caesar in 49-48 B.C., shortly after he crossed the Rubicon and took Rome when Pompey, both consuls and much of Roman Senate fled the city. The coin has an elephant stepping on a horned serpent on the obverse and religious implements on the reverse. Caesar had his name stamped under the elephant. He struck what is now known as the “elephant denarius” with his military mint using silver from the treasury, obviously without approval of the Senate.

It is unclear what the function of the building was. The remains of several villa rusticas (country estates) have been found before, and the presence of high-end terra sigillata and glass vessels suggests elite people visited or lived at the site.

“We were also amazed that the top bricks were even visible above ground”. Christa Ebnöther, Professor of Archeology of the Roman Provinces at the University of Bern, puts it this way: “Only a few structural relics of this kind from the Roman period are known in the pre-Alpine region – in contrast to other regions. What is also astounding is the relatively good preservation of the remains». The entire extent of the Roman buildings in the Äbnetwald is not yet known. […]

It is not surprising that the Romans chose the elevated position near Äbnetwald as the location for their buildings. It offered an excellent view and overview of the surrounding landscape, which served to supply water and food. The fact that the gravel hill near Oberwil was already inhabited several thousand years before the Romans came, testifies to the attractiveness of this location.

3,000-year-old priestly tomb found in Peru

Archaeologists have unearthed what they believe is an elite priestly tomb at the Pacopampa archaeological site in the Cajamarca region of northern Peru. It dates to the Pacopampa I phase, ca. 1200-1,000 B.C.

The tomb consists of a large circular pit ten feet in diameter and 3.3 feet deep. The body was placed at the bottom of the pit, his legs partially flexed, with small spherical ceramic bowls incised with geometric designs, a carved bone spatula and other offerings, including a seal in the shape of a hand. He was then buried under six layers of black soil mixed with ash.

Two more seals were found in the upper strata along the edges of the tomb. One features an anthropomorphic face design facing east; the other a jaguar facing west. Archaeologists hypothesize that the seals were actually paint stamps, used for the body painting exclusive to the Pacopampa elite.

“He is one of the first priests in the Andes to have a series of offerings,” [archaeologist Juan Pablo Villanueva] said, adding that “the funerary context is intact.” […]

“The find is extremely important because he is one of the first priests to begin to control the temples in the country’s northern Andes,” Japanese archaeologist Yuji Seki, who has been working at the site for 18 years, told AFP. […]

Seki said the find helped demonstrate that even that long ago, “powerful leaders had appeared in the Andes.”

Rich Merovingian warrior grave found in Ingelheim

Archaeologists excavating an early Medieval cemetery in Ingelheim, Germany, have unearthed the intact grave of Frankish warrior from the 7th century. Found between two looted graves, the warrior managed to escape his neighbors’ fates and keep the rich furnishings buried with him for 1,300 years.

The grave contained the skeletal remains of a man between 30 and 40 years old at the time of death. The position of the shoulders — close together and slightly raised — is known as coffin posture, evidence that the man was buried in a wooden casket of which no traces survive today. He was buried with a full complement of weapons. A spatha (double-edged sword) with a blade 30 inches long (the whole sword including hilt and pommel is 37 inches long) was placed under the deceased’s right arm. The blade is in excellent condition and even retains some of its original flexibility. Elements of a bronze scabbard and the suspension mount or belt also remain in place.

By his left arm was a broad seax (short slashing sword). The blade and bronze rivets from the scabbard survive today. The grave also contained a knife, lance and a shield. This exceptional array includes virtually all of the weaponry in use by the elite warrior class of the era; only a bow is missing to complete the set.

The flat shield boss with a wide rim and the massive design of the seax suggest the burial dates to the 7th century identifying the warrior as Frankish. That preliminary assessment may change once the weapons are cleaned and conserved. There are details of the ornamentation, including what appear to be silver inlays, that are currently obscured by a heavy coating of corrosion materials.

Excavations of the burial ground began in 2015 and come to an end this year. Most of the graves were pillaged centuries ago, so this rich discovery is of great archaeological import. Study of the weapons and analyses of the osteological remains promise to shed new light on Merovingian-era society in Ingelheim.

Neolithic mussel shell dragon unearthed in Inner Mongolia

Archaeologists have unearthed a Neolithic dragon figure made of mussel shells at the Caitaopo Site in Chifeng, in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. It was meticulously crafted by the Neolithic Hongshan Culture (4700-2900 B.C.) which is known for producing some of the earliest examples of carved jade, including a C-shaped jade dragon that has become emblematic of the Hongshan Culture.

Found in the southwest corner of a house at the Caitaopo Site, the piece is eight inches wide and combines several different shells arranged together seamlessly to form the entire body of the dragon from head to tail. Also found in the same archaeological layer of the dwelling were pieces of cylindrical grey pottery, one with a line pattern decoration and another with a lettering pattern. The pottery dates the house and the dragon to the early period of the Hongshan Culture, making it much older than the iconic jade dragon which was previously believed to be the oldest known representation of a dragon on the archaeological record.

It is very different from the stylized, abstract representation of the C-shaped design. It is more realistic in its minute details, with everything from the teeth to rhombic scales on the tail carved into the shells’ surfaces. The mouth is short and wide. A pierced circular hole represents the eye under the dragon’s forehead. There are four more circular holes where the tail and lower body meet. Archaeologists believe the parts may have been connected by a string threaded through the holes.

These dragons, while artistically different, also differ in the archaeological contexts of their discoveries. The jade artifacts previously unearthed, belonging to the Hongshan Culture, were predominantly found in locations that suggest their association with high-grade ritualistic practices. These places were likely of significant importance, possibly serving as ritual buildings or sacred sites.

In contrast, the mussel shell dragon, given its unique composition and the location of its discovery, seems to hint at the spiritual beliefs of people residing in lower-grade settlements. This distinction underscores the cultural diversity and societal stratifications of the Hongshan Culture, presenting a richer tapestry of their way of life, beliefs, and rituals.

The mussel shell dragon has been extracted from the site in a soil block so it can be micro-excavated in laboratory conditions by expert conservators.