Police find ancient bog body in Northern Ireland

Police archaeologists have unearthed an ancient bog body that is at least 2,000 years old in Bellaghy, County Derry, Northern Ireland. This is the only bog body still in existence in Northern Ireland and the first to be radiocarbon dated.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland was alerted to the presence of human bones on the peat bog’s surface in October 2023. The Body Recovery Team could not determine upon initial examination whether the remains were archaeological or recent, so they called in the Archaeological Unit to do a full forensic excavation of the body. They tented the find site and donned the head-to-toe CSI gear to ensure there would be no contamination of the remains so that DNA evidence could be extracted in case of a criminal investigation.

The excavation of the surface remains uncovered a human tibia, fibula, humerus, ulna and radius from a left leg and a right arm. Fifteen feet or so away, the team unearthed the bones of a left arm and a left femur partially exposed in the top soil. The area between the two surface finds was then excavated and more bones were found there. As with many bog bodies, some soft tissues — partial skin, fingernails on the left hand, toenails, a kidney — were preserved in the anaerobic conditions of the peat. The head was not present.

A forensic anthropologist carried out a post-mortem of the recovered skeletal remains. The belonged to a teenaged male between 13 and 17 years old when he died. The good condition of the remains made it possible to employ radiocarbon dating, the first time the technology has been used on a bog body in Northern Ireland. The results indicate the individual died between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago.

Dr Alastair Ruffell of Queen’s University, Belfast said: “To ensure the highest possible standards in forensic recovery of human remains were maintained, we conducted two phases of high-resolution ground penetrating radar survey at the site. The results showed no indications of further human remains.

“The remains were discovered at approximately one metre below the current land surface which matches the radiocarbon estimates. In addition, they were amongst a cluster of fossil tree remains suggesting that the body may have died or been buried in a copse or stand of trees, or washed in.”

The bog is Forest Service land and the Department is in the process of transferring the bog body to the National Museums Northern Ireland where it will be further studied.

Treasure update: flint nodule coin hoard

The British Museum has released the latest annual report of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) which marks that 2022 had the highest number of Treasure cases (1,378) ever reported in a single year. The report highlights some of the most stand-out Treasure finds in 2022, including an intriguing Iron Age hoard of gold coins found inside a hollow flint globule.

The hoard was discovered on New Year’s Day 2023 in East Garston, West Berkshire. It consists of 26 Iron Age gold staters found inside a naturally-occurring hollow flint ball. The staters are of the “Savernake Wreaths” type, produced in East Wiltshire in the late Iron Age (50-20 B.C.). They feature a stylized design of crossed wreaths on one side and a horse at gallop facing right with a spiral above it and a wheel below.

Hollow nodules of flint are commonly found in the upper strata of the Chalk, a limestone geological layer in southern and eastern England formed between 90 million and 66 million years ago. Before it hardened, the Chalk was mud on the sea floor. Dissolved silica filled gaps in the compacting mud, forming nodules sometimes around sea creatures like urchins and cockles that left hollows inside the nodules once they decayed.

This is not the first coin hoard found in a flint nodule. Iron Age coins cached inside nodules have been found in Kent, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. Using hollow flint balls as containers for gold coins appears to have been an established practice in Iron Age England. The nodules often have natural holes and openings making them handy piggy banks even unmodified. Sometimes a hole would be enlarged to fit the coins more easily. The East Garston flint nodule had no natural hole; a piece deliberately broken to create the opening.

The staters and flint ball were declared Treasure, as all coins hoards have been since the Treasure Act was passed in 1996. Under the terms of that legislation, the definition of Treasure in the UK has been two or more prehistoric objects made of metal, any metallic object composed of at least 10% silver or gold by weight that is at least 300 years old and coins in hoard 300 years or older. Once an object is determined by a coroner’s court to be Treasure, it becomes property of the crown and is offered to a local museum for the amount of its assessed value. The money is then split between the finder and landowner.

This definition has allowed exceptionally unique and important archaeological artifacts like the Ryedale Hoard, the Crosby Garret helmet, the Roman licking dog and the Allectus aureus to fall through the cracks. Despite being undisputed and irreplaceable archaeological treasures, they were not Treasure according to the short-sighted legal definition and were therefore returned to the finders who then sold them to the highest bidder.

In 2019, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a plan to revise the Treasure Act to plug the loophole. The updated language would define Treasure as any object that is at least partially metal, at least 200 years old and is deemed to provide “exceptional insight” into British or regional history because of its rarity, location or connection to a historical personage or event. After five long years, the revision is finally about to take effect. The new criteria will apply to all objects found after July 30th, 2023.

Denmark’s oldest runes found on knife blade

Archaeologists at the Museum Odense have identified Denmark’s oldest runes inscribed on a 1,850-year-old knife blade. The inscription consists of five runes with three depressions that runologists have interpreted as “hirila,” meaning “Little Sword.” The runic script is Proto-Norse, the oldest known runic alphabet, and the context dates the blade to around 150 A.D.

The knife was discovered by Museum Odense archaeologists in a burial ground in Tietgenbyen, east of Odense. It was one of several artifacts in an urn grave. Among the grave goods were three fibulae of a type that was only in use for a very brief period in the mid-2nd century A.D., the Early Roman Iron Age. The knife blade could then be indirectly dated to around the same time.

When the blade was first unearthed, it was coated in a layer of rust that obscured the inscription. Conservators spotted the runes after cleaning the corrosion and contacted National Museum runologist Lisbeth Imer. She examined the blade under a microscope and was able to translate the runic inscription.

Whether hirila is the name of the knife itself, or whether it is the name of the knife’s owner, Museum Odense archaeologists cannot determine with certainty. But there is no doubt that it was a treasured possession that ended up in the grave near Odense almost 2,000 years ago.

Runologist Lisbeth Imer from the National Museum says:

“It is incredibly rare that we find runes that are as old as on this knife, and it is a unique opportunity to learn more about Denmark’s earliest written language and thus also about the language that was actually spoken in the Iron Age. At that time in ancient times, literacy was not particularly widespread, and being able to read and write was therefore associated with a special status and power. At the beginning of the history of the runes, the scribes constituted a small intellectual elite, and the first traces of these people in Denmark are found on Funen.

Only one other runic inscription from this early period is known. It too was found on Funen less than 10 miles from Tietgenbyen but in 1865. It is a small bone comb inscribed with the runes “harja,” which either means “comb” or is a personal name.

“Little Sword” will be going on display in a new exhibition at the Museum Odense’s Møntergården museum from February 2nd through April 7th. It will be accompanied by other artifacts recovered from the Iron Age burial ground.

Stolen Picasso and Chagall paintings found in Antwerp basement

Paintings by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall stolen from a private collection in Tel Aviv 14 years ago have been found in a basement in Antwerp, Belgium. The two paintings, Tête (1971) by Picasso and L’homme en prière (1970) by Chagall, then valued at $900,000, were taken from the villa of the Herzikovich family in February 2010. The thieves disabled the house’s sophisticated alarm system and broke into the safe to steal $680,000 worth of jewelry. They made off with the jewelry and the Picasso and Chagall pieces. There were other important artworks in the house which were not touched.

The case went cold until late 2022, when police in Namur, Belgium, were informed that a 68-year-old Israeli watch dealer residing in Namur was offering the two paintings for sale. The suspect, currently identified by authorities only as Daniel Z, was placed under surveillance in the attempt to confirm the information in the tipoff. Investigators were able to establish that he was indeed in possession of the stolen works.

On January 10, 2024, police raided Daniel Z’s home and detained him and his wife. They found large amounts of cash in the house, but not the paintings. The home of one of his relatives was also searched with nothing found. The suspect soon confessed to police that he had the Picasso and Chagall in his possession, but refused to tell them where they were hidden. Two days later, police searched another location: a building in Antwerp that once housed a sketchy art dealership connected to stolen paintings. There, in the cellar, the paintings were found inside two wooden boxes with screwed down lids. They were in undamaged condition in their original frames.

Daniel Z was arrested and charged with receiving stolen goods.

Roman arm guard restored from 100 fragments

A brass Roman arm guard that was found in more than a hundred pieces has been reconstructed by conservators at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. It is one of only three Roman lorica segmentata (banded armor) arm guards known to exist today and it is by far the most complete of the three. The pieces of the arm guard were discovered in 1906 at the Roman outpost fort of Trimontium near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. They date to the 2nd century and were found in excellent condition, with pieces of the leather laces still embedded in the holes of at the ends of some of the plates.

The fragments have been in National Museums Scotland’s collection for over a century. The upper section has been on display in the National Museum of Scotland for 25 years, with the lower section loaned to the Trimontium Museum and dozens of fragments stored at the National Museums Collection Centre. They have now been brought together and assembled for the first time, offering a glimpse into the life of a legionary in Roman Scotland. Following the exhibition at the British Museum, the arm guard will go on permanent display at the National Museum of Scotland. […]

The arm guard stretches down from the shoulder and ends in a thin square of metal that would have protected the wearer’s hand, a design that may have been inspired by the equipment worn by gladiators fighting in the arena. Experts initially believed it would have been body armour, and it was later thought to be a thigh guard for a cavalryman. It is only in recent years that its true function has been understood.

First constructed in the 80s A.D., Trimontium was an enormous legionary fort (49 acres in area) that was at various times an advance outpost into Scotland, a civilian and military settlement 60 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, a supply stop behind the front lines of the Antonine Wall, and lastly a settlement of dwindling civilian and military population until its ultimate abandonment in the late 2nd century.

The site was rediscovered by accident during railroad construction in the 1840s. The first professional excavations took place between 1905 and 1910 under the leadership of solicitor and archaeologist Dr. James Curle. Curle’s excavations unearthed an unprecedented number and variety of Roman armature, the largest collection of Roman military objects ever discovered in Britain. Most of this armature was found in the Pincipia, the administrative headquarters of the fort, where a workshop for equipment repairs was located. When the fort was abandoned in 180, the arms and armature still awaiting repair in the workshop were left behind.

Curle mentions the arm guard fragments (and his misunderstanding of them as shoulder and chest protection) in his seminal 1911 publication of the finds, Newstead, A Frontier Post and its People.

Remains of another type of scale armour were discovered in the floor of the chamber situated at the north-west corner of the Principia. Unfortunately, here also the pieces were too small to enable the cuirass of which they had formed part to be reconstructed. Altogether there were more than one hundred fragments (Plate XXIII.). These consisted for the most part of thin plates of brass from one inch to one inch and three-sixteenths in width, slightly curved, and having a thickness of two mm. The longest piece was about three and a half inches in length. In several instances it was clear that the fragment had formed the extreme end of the band to which it belonged. In such cases it was noted that the outer margin formed an acute angle with the lower edge, but that the sharp corner was blunted in the same manner as were the corresponding parts of heavier iron bands from Carnuntum. On the concave side of the bands near the upper edge are rivets. Upon several of these there are still to be seen adhering pieces of the leather backing to which they have been attached. At the end of each band near the edge a round hole has been bored; as none of these holes were found with rivets in them, it is possible that they were used for the insertion of a cord to draw the coat together. It is quite evident from the oxydisation of the metal that when the armour was left where it was ultimately discovered, the bands were overlapping. The curve of some of the pieces suggests that they were intended to protect the shoulders and arms. Others may well have covered the body. About half a dozen pieces, the largest of which measures four inches by three and seven-sixteenths inches, may have belonged to the breastplate.

Most legionary armor was made of iron. The brass arm guard would have shone like gold when new, so this must have belonged to an officer of high rank rather than an infantry grunt. While the shiny gold finish has oxidized to green now, the patina proved useful to conservators. Patterns of corrosion helped convey how the plates were connected, the laces tied and the padding attached.

The reconstructed arm guard goes on display at the British Museum’s Legion: Life in the Roman Army exhibition on February 1st. The show will run through June 23rd.