17th c. armor plate found at Maryland colonial capital

An excavation of the colonial site of Historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland has uncovered a rare piece from a 17th-century suit of armor. The concave metal plate is a tasset, a piece attached to the base of the breastplate to protect the thigh. Still caked with soil and corrosion materials, the plate was identified when an X-ray revealed its rivets forming the shape of three hearts.

St. Mary’s City was the fourth English colony in America after Jamestown, Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (in that order). Founded in March 1634 on land acquired from the local Yaocomico people by the newly-arrived English settlers, it was the first capital of the colony of Maryland for 60 years until it was moved to Annapolis in 1694. St. Mary’s was abandoned after it was eclipsed by Annapolis and never built over, making it an undisturbed archaeological site.

Today Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC) is an outdoor living history museum with reconstructed colonial-era buildings, a working farm, a replica of one of the two ships that brought the colonists across the Atlantic and costumed reenactors staffing the exhibits. HSMC also has an archaeological field school which conducts excavations of the site and trains archaeology students. One of the goals of the archaeological explorations over the past five decades has been to find evidence of the original fortified village Documentation from the 17th century was vague on the geographic details, and all mentions of the first fort disappear from the historical record in 1642.

After a geophysical survey found indications of a palisade, an excavation in 2021 unearthed postholes, the outlines of buildings, coins and artifacts from the 1620s and 1630s. The excavation of the original fort has continued, and late last year a large building with an attached cellar was found. The building wasn’t a home, and artifacts found there — musket parts, lead shot, trade beads — suggest it may have been used as a storehouse. The tasset was discovered in the cellar.

The colonists brought many things on their journey: food, tools, weapons, armor. As they experienced life in southern Maryland, they adjusted. Archaeologists think tassets may have been items the colonists found were no longer useful.

Finding the tasset “tells us there was body armor here in the colony,” Parno said. “It also tells us [the colonists] were adapting to the environment. The tassets may have been something that were discarded because they were deemed unnecessary.”

“They’re heavy,” he said. “It’s a hot, humid environment. So you get rid of the tassets. … You keep your breastplate, though, because that’s protecting your core.”

Preserved Roman wood cellar, staircase found in Frankfurt

A Roman wooden cellar complete with five-step staircase in an exceptional state of preservation has been discovered in Frankfurt and recovered. Dating to the late 1st century, the cellar is all that remains of a half-timbered Roman residential building which burned down in a fire. Roman cellars were not like basements today, but rather underground storage rooms formed by beams along the sides and boards on the floor. The beams and boards survived the millennia because they were carbonized by the flames.

The cellar was unearthed by a team from the Frankfurt Monuments Office in the Heddernheim district of northwest Frankfurt, in March of 2023. Founded as a civilian settlement attached to a series of fortresses established by Augustus during his German campaigns, modern-day Heddernheim was the ancient city of Nida. It was made the capital of the Civitas Taunensium area by the emperor Trajan in In 110 A.D. and at its peak had a population of 10,000. It was gradually abandoned starting around 260 A.D. under pressure from the invading Alemanni confederation. Its ruins above ground were visible until the 15th century when they were pillaged for construction materials. Most of the underground remains were all but destroyed during real estate developments in the 20th century.

Few structures from ancient Nida have been found in excavations, and while the remains of wooden cellars have been found over the past century, they were not well-preserved and the technology to conserve and study them didn’t exist then. This cellar’s size and preservation are so extraordinary it is the best preserved remnant of the ancient city. It will give researchers a unique opportunity to learn about Roman Nida.

As soon as it was exposed to the elements, the cellar was in danger, so the floor, side beams and staircase were removed in a complex operation. The whole kit and caboodle weighed 50-60 tons, so it could not be raised whole, and as soon as any part of the soil around it dried out, the wood could have cracked. The team took an innovative approach. First they sprayed on a layer of synthetic resin, then a separating layer of silicone rubber and a final top layer of plaster to fix the surface. The cellar was then cut into 33 blocks to transport them to the restoration workshop of the Archaeological Museum Frankfurt.

At the museum, restorers removed the soil from the back and underside of the wood and reinforced the base with fiberglass. This was the first time this technique has been used. The conserved cellar was shown to the press, but there are no plans to put it on public display. Museum officials would prefer to return it to its original context, but it is a building plot privately owned by housing developers, so they’re considering creating an archaeological park nearby where the cellar and other finds made since construction began in 2021 (hypocaust heating, pottery kilns, a public latrine) could also be displayed.

This German language video gives a great overview of the site and the additional finds made in the cellar.

Rare head of Mercury found at previously unknown Roman port town

An excavation of a medieval shipbuilding site in the hamlet of Smallhythe, near Tenterden in Kent, has revealed a previously unknown Roman settlement occupied between the 1st and the 3rd centuries. One of the artifacts from the Roman settlement is an exceptionally rare figurine of the head of the god Mercury made from pipeclay. Fewer than 10 pipeclay Mercury figurines from Roman Britain are known.

The figurine head is two inches tall. It was broken off at the neck, but would originally have had a body.

Religion was a central part of daily life in most Roman provinces, and statues as well as portable figurines of gods like the one discovered at Smallhythe were worshipped by both the Roman elite and the ordinary citizens in their homes.

Pipeclay figurines were made of clays local to central Gaul (modern-day France) and the Rhine-Moselle region and were imported, however most pipeclay figurines found in Britain are of female deities, the majority being of Venus.

This complete figurine probably would have depicted Mercury standing, either draped with a chlamys (a short cloak), or naked, holding a caduceus (a staff with two intertwined snakes).

Smallhythe today is 10 miles from the sea, but when the settlement was founded in the 1st century it was a port town. It was small compared to the major urban center of Roman Britain, but was a significant link in the chain of ports that together formed Rome’s import and export network in southern England. Timber and iron were exported out of the province to the continent and finished products were imported.

One of the other finds made in the excavation confirms the town’s role: a tile stamped “CLB,” an abbreviation of Classis Britannica, Rome’s provincial naval fleet. The Classis Britannica was not a military navy. Its job was to manage the transportation of materials, people and communications in the English Channel.

The pipeclay Mercury head and CLB tile will go on display with other artifacts recovered from the site starting February 28th at the Smallhythe Place museum.

Romulus & Remus brooch found in Spain

A rare silver brooch depicting the she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus, the founding legend of Rome, has been discovered at the Hostalot – Idlum archaeological site in Vilanova d’Alcolea, Valencia, Spain. Dating to the 2nd century A.D., the brooch is unusual for its high quality of carving and because there are few comparable examples known.

The piece is small, just four centimeters (1.6 inches) long, and while the surface is worn, details of the original fine carving like the wolf’s mane are still visible. The original pin is still attached to its hinge in the back.

The Hostalot – Idlum site was a mansio, a rest stop on the Via Augusta road. Mansios were administered by the government to host officials, messengers and traveling dignitaries. They also offered horse-changing services to mail carriers to keep the postal service speedy and efficient. The Romulus and Remus brooch was unearthed from the main mansio building.

The Idlum mansio was built at the same time as the Via Augusta, so between 15 and 7 B.C., and appears to have been used for different purposes until it was abandoned in the 5th or 6th century: as a private residence, a production facility for agriculture or manufacturing or perhaps as a bathhouse. Fragments of ceramic tubes found in the recent dig season may have been used as water or steam conduits in a bathing facility.

4,000-year-old copper dagger found in Poland

A rare copper dagger dating back more than 4,000 years has been discovered in a forest near Jarosław, southeastern Poland. Shaped like a flint dagger from the period, it is just over four inches long, but that is actually a large dagger compared to similar such finds because the metal was hard to come by and very valuable. This is the oldest dagger ever discovered in the Subcarpathian Voivodeship (province).

The blade was discovered last November by metal detectorist Piotr Gorlach from the Historical and Exploration Association Grupa Jarosław, an organization of local history enthusiasts who search for archaeological materials with the permission of government heritage officials. Gorlach was looking for military objects from the World Wars that day without success. He had given up and was heading towards his car when his detector signaled the presence of metal under the forest floor. He saw the metal piece aged with a green patina and quickly realized it was much older than shrapnel from World War I. He alerted the voivodeship’s conservator of monuments and archaeologists from the Orsetti House Museum in Jarosław were deployed to examine the find.

According to archaeologist Dr. Marcin Burghardt from the Jarosław museum, the dagger discovered in Korzenica can be dated to the second half of the third millennium BC.

“In Polish lands, this is a period of enormous changes related to, among others, with a change in the main raw materials for the production of tools. Instead of flint tools commonly used in the Stone Age, more and more metal products appear, heralding the transition to the next period – the Bronze Age,” noted Dr. Burghardt.

He added that in this new era, tools, ornaments and weapons were made of bronze, an alloy created by combining two metals: copper and tin.

However, the currently discovered dagger from Korzenica – as noted by Dr. Elżbieta Sieradzka-Burghardt, an archaeologist from the museum in Jarosław – was not cast in bronze, but made of copper. “So it predates the development of bronze metallurgy,” the archaeologist noted. “In the third millennium BC, items made of copper were extremely rare, so only those with the highest social status could afford them. There is no doubt that the dagger is not a local product,” added Dr. Burghardt-Sieradzka.

It likely originated from the Carpathian Basin or the Ukranian steppe. Archaeologists hope metallurgic analysis will pin down the dagger’s origin. The blade is now part of the permanent collection of the Orsetti House Museum in Jarosław. After conservation and further study, it will go on display in June as part of the museum’s exhibition devoted to the oldest prehistory of the Jarosław area.