Second polychrome mural reveals ancient date of Huaca Tomabal

A second monumental polychrome mural has been discovered in the excavation of Huaca Tomabal in the Virú province of northern Peru’s La Libertad region. The new discovery greatly advances the estimated date of the temple. It was previously believed to be about 3,200 years old. The second mural dates the Pre-ceramic period between 4,000 and 4,500 years ago, making it the oldest polychrome painting recorded in the La Libertad region.

The first mural was discovered in 2020 after farmers seeking to expand their avocado and sugar cane fields illegally bulldozed 60% of the mound. The destruction of cultural heritage was reported and an emergency archaeological intervention ensued. The area was declared a protected site and the polychrome mural was stabilized in situ.

At the time of the first intervention, archaeologists thought the monumental mural was painted by the Cupisnique people of northern Peru who used a conical adobe type also found in the wall. That would have dated it to about 3,200 years ago.

Three years later, archaeologists returned to the site for a new intervention. The excavation revealed a second monumental mural on the north side of the huaca. The new mural is almost 10 feet tall and features triangular shapes painted in red and a central figure adorned with scrolls and waves. It is thought to be a stylized depiction of a mythological character (the first mural is believed to represent the spider god), but which character is unknown.

“The objective of this excavation unit was to define the northeast corner of the enclosure that had been destroyed, which in 2020 allowed me and archaeologist Regulo Franco to find a polychrome wall featuring an anthropomorphic character from the Cupisnique period, as we thought first, but it is much older,” [Feren Castillo Lujan, head of the Viru Valley Archaeological Project,] remarked.

“Indeed, we have confirmed that it (the enclosure) has a curved corner. Besides, the wall is polychrome. There is clear evidence that the wall continues down into the ground, since what we see is only a part of the mural,” he added.

The researcher explained that, according to the building tradition —in which truncated adobe bricks and their variants stand out, as well as the absence of ceramics— it can be concluded that this is a temple dating to the Pre-ceramic or Late Archaic Period….

The curved corner is one of the characteristic architectural elements of Pre-ceramic period ceremonial temples. The other common element found in Pre-ceramic temples is a central interior hearth. Archaeologists hope to uncover the hearth of Huaca Tomabal in future excavations, but they need more funding to continue.

8-year-old finds 1,800-year-old silver denarius in school sandbox

An eight-year-old boy playing in a sandbox in Bremen discovered an 1,800-year-old Roman coin that is one of only three such finds ever made in the city.

Young Bjarne came upon the small silver disc in his elementary school sandbox in August of last year. He didn’t know what it was, but it was round and shiny so he did what anyone would do and brought it home with him. He and his family later contacted the Bremen state archaeologist, sending pictures of his treasure. The object was hard to make out from the photos, so Bjarne brough the coin in person to the Bremen state archaeologist, Prof. Dr. Uta Halle.

She was able to identify it as a silver denarius from the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-160 A.D.). The denarius is heavily worn and weighs 2.4 grams, evidence that it was minted during a time of currency debasement when the silver content plummeted with rising inflation.

Firmly east of the Rhine boundary line, the state of Bremen was never part of the Roman Empire. The city of Bremen dates to the 7th century at the earliest. That area of northwestern Germany was inhabited by the Chauci tribe. They had dealings with Rome (providing troops for auxiliary regiments), but often joined with other Germanic tribes to oppose Rome on the battlefield. Any Roman coins that made their way that far north likely reached the area via barter, washed up in the River Weser, or as a souvenir carried by an auxiliary or other world traveler.

According to the Bremen Monument Protection Act, the coin is an archaeological object that belongs to the state, but its status is still subject of conversation between officials and Bjarne’s family. Meanwhile, it has been cleaned and conserved. Prof. Halle hopes it will soon be put on display at the Focke Museum, the Bremen State Museum for Art and Cultural History.

Roman temple found in Plautus’ hometown

A Roman temple has been discovered in the town of Sarsina in the northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna. Excavations have uncovered the remains of a large quadrangular structure dating to the 1st century B.C. Massive horizontal lines of cut sandstone blocks, coeval with the sandstone slab flooring of the nearby forum, formed the podium on which the ancient temple once stood. Those walls are gone now, but the cut stone bases are in excellent condition, with more than nine feet of height still preserved.

Sarsina was a settlement of the Italic Umbri people. It was conquered by Lucius Cornelius Scipio (grandfather of the Scipio who would finally defeat Carthage in the Second Punic War) around 266 B.C. Fifteen years later, Sarsina’s most famous son — the comedic playwright Titus Maccius Plautus — was born there. When it became a Roman municipium in the middle of the 1st century B.C., it was reorganized and rebuilt according to Roman urban principles. A new defensive wall was built at that time, and the new temple as well.

The archaeological investigation of the temple site indicates that it was dedicated to the Capitoline Triad, the gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Many cities in Italy had Capitolia, mirroring the first one built on the Capitoline Hill (hence the name) in Rome. They were often built on a high point of the town, as is the case here. The temple’s remains consist of the podium clad in marble slabs and a water drainage system, but there is evidence there was an earlier temple of the Umbri at the site dating to the 4th century B.C.

Excavations are ongoing. The front of the temple has yet to emerge. Archaeologists hope to find the remains of the front staircase to the podium and the marble pavement. Plans for a new sports facility with adjoining shopping center at the site are currently suspended while the archaeological investigation continues.

DNA extracted from 2,900-year-old clay brick

In a scientific first, researchers at the University of Oxford have successfully extracted ancient DNA from a 2,900-year-old clay brick. Ancient DNA is difficult to extract even from sturdier bones and teeth because it fragments over time and is easily contaminated. It has never before been successfully extracted from clay. Protected from contamination in the middle of the brick’s mass, the DNA survived in sufficient concentrations to reveal the presence of 34 different kinds of plants.

The brick was recovered from the North-West Palace of Neo-Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE) in the ancient city of Kalhu, modern-day Nimrud, northern Iraq. A cuneiform inscription in Akkadian labels it “The property of the palace of Ashurnasirpal, king of Assyria,” which narrows down the date of the brick to between 879 and 869 B.C.

It was discovered during the archaeological excavations at Nimrud in 1949 by British archaeologist Max Mallowan and his wife, mystery writer Agatha Christie. (I read Murder in Mesopotamia on a plane when I was a kid and not to state the obvious, it had a very deep impact on me.) The brick was donated to the National Museum of Denmark in 1958.

The brick was made from mud collected on the banks of the Tigris river. It was then mixed with plant-based materials (for example straw) and animal dung and shaped into a brick for sun-drying. Because they’re dried in the sun, not fired in the high heat of a kiln, mud bricks are hard and strong enough to build towering walls out of, they are also inherently fragile. When the brick arrived at the museum it was broken horizontally in two pieces. It broke again in 2020, a vertical split in the bottom half, which gave researchers the unique opportunity to take samples of the brick’s uncontaminated inner core.

The presented study uses a modified protocol that has previously been applied to materials such as bone, considering that clay samples are porous with high affinity towards nucleic acids. This required a gentle approach to extract the aDNA without degrading it further by applying harsh treatments. The applied method was successful in extracting plant DNA from the samples of a clay brick.

Geneticists worked with Assyriologists, archaeologists and biologists to compare the DNA findings with botanical data from Iraq and from descriptions of plants in ancient Assyrian sources.

Through extraction and sequencing of aDNA from the clay brick and the following data analysis, we were able to detect 34 unique taxonomic groups of plants representing the order Laurales as well as seven distinct families from other orders: Apiaceae (subfamily Apioideae, tribe Selineae), Betulaceae, Brassicaceae (including the genus Brassica), Ericaceae (including the subfamilies Ericoidae and Vaccinioideae), Poaceae (tribe Poeae and Triticeae), Fagaceae (genus Quercus), and Salicaceae. […]

The most abundant sequences of plants were from the families Brassicaceae (cabbage) and Ericaceae (heather). Furthermore, contributions were observed from the families Betulaceae (birch), Lauraceae (laurels), Selineae (umbellifiers) and Triticeae (cultivated grasses).

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

Slave quarters reconstructed in Civita Giuliana

The furnishings of a room assigned to slaves in the grand suburban villa in Civita Giuliana, a half-mile northwest of the city walls of Pompeii, have been reconstructed in plaster. Using the plaster cast methods pioneered at Pompeii in the 19th century, the contents of the room were recreated from the cavities they left after they were encased in volcanic material and decayed while the ash hardened.

The room, labelled Room A, is different from the one in the same villa, Room C, that was discovered in 2021. Room C was an active storage closet with three cots thrown in for rudimentary accommodation. Room A had two beds. One of them was a cot like the ones in Room C, with a net mounted on a wooden frame. It could be easily dismantled and moved.

The other was a bed with a mattress and headboard, significantly more expensive and comfortable. The remains of the wooden headboard and sideboards that enclosed the bed like a snug are still in place. Some of the red paint decorating the wood panels has survived. The mattress has not, unfortunately, and it wasn’t Vesuvius that destroyed it. That’s the handiwork of looters when tunneling through the hardened ash looking for saleable treasure.

A bench and two small cupboards in the room were also cast in plaster. Some of the contents — metal objects, a knife — were found in the cupboards. Amphorae in the corner and three chests on a high shelf on the walls of the room indicate this space was also used for practical storage purposes. Various tools, including an iron hoe, were kept in the room as well.

Meanwhile, Room C continues to reveal new information. Micro-excavations of the amphorae found in the room have uncovered the skeletal remains of rodents: two mice in one amphora and a rat in a jug found under one of the cots. Apparently the rat jumped sought shelter in the vessel during the eruption.

“These details once again underline the conditions of precarity and poor hygiene in which the lower echelons of society lived during that time,” the culture ministry said in its statement.

There were no traces of grates, locks, or chains to restrain the room’s inhabitants.

“It seems that control was primarily exerted through the internal organisation of servitude, rather than physical barriers and restraints,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.