“Vanished church” found under Venice’s iconic Piazza San Marco

The remains of San Geminiano, the “vanished church” that moved around Piazza San Marco in Venice for centuries before its final destruction in 1807, have been discovered under the iconic main square. So far archaeologists have discovered pieces of the medieval pavements and walls and a brick tomb containing the skeletal remains of seven people. The tomb dates to the 7th or 8th century, predating construction of Piazza San Marco itself.

Tradition has it that the first San Geminiano church was built by order of the Byzantine general Narses in the mid-6th century A.D. in appreciation of Venice’s contributions to his reconquest of Ravenna. Saint Mark the Evangelist wasn’t even the patron of Venice then (Saint Theodore was), so there was no Piazza San Marco. For that matter, there weren’t even any doges until the 8th century, and it was only in the 9th century, after the relics of St. Mark were smuggled out of Abbasid-ruled Alexandria in a basket filled with pork by Venetian merchants, that Mark became the city’s new patron.

The Church of San Geminiano burned down in 976 and a new one built in the first decade of the 11th century. That one burned and collapsed after an earthquake in around 1108. The reconstructed church was then demolished in the late 12th century to accommodate the expansion of Piazza San Marco. It was relocated to another location on the newly-expanded Piazza. The 12th century church was demolished in the early 16th century and the new one relocated again. This last one would stand until 1807 when it was demolished by Napoleon to make way for a new wing of the long colonnaded buildings that embrace three sides of the piazza.

With all its movement, the exact locations of the original church and its immediate descendants were lost. Archaeologists unearthed the ruins in the center of the Piazza while working on the restoration of its paving stones. The brick tomb emerged first, then the wall and paving remnants. The excavation is now complete and the remains will be analyzed in the lab while the piazza’s paving stones are returned to their place over the early Christian remains of Venice.

Caracalla medallion found in child’s grave in Bulgaria

Two Roman-era graves with rich grave goods including a rare bronze medallion of the emperor Caracalla have been discovered in Nova Varbovka, Bulgaria. One is a double burial of an adult man and a woman, the other of a young child, suggesting these graves were a family grouping. The artifacts found inside the graves date them to the first half of the 3rd century.

The burials were discovered last fall by a tractor driver when he hit a limestone slab while plowing a field near Nova Varbovka. He saw the human remains but didn’t realize they were archaeological in nature, so he reported the find to the mayor who reported it to the police thinking it might be a criminal matter. When the remains were examined by archaeologists from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, they were found to be from the Roman era and an emergency archaeological salvage excavation was launched. The dig took place in December 2023.

The excavation revealed two large graves built of brick masonry with plaster on the interior walls. They were covered with heavy slabs of limestone. The larger of the two was ten feet long and contained the remains of a woman about 45-49 years of age and a man of about 50-60 at the time of their deaths. The child was just two or three years old when he died and his grave is a little earlier than theirs, so he must have predeceased them.

The parents’ grave contained a pair of gold ladies earrings, a gilt pendant with a glass bead, a necklace of lapis lazuli and gold, a silver-plated fibula. The child was buried with a pair of gold earrings, glass bead jewelry, a ceramic wine amphora, two delicate glass lacrimaria (small vessels containing perfumes or unguents) and the bronze medallion issued by Emperor Caracalla (r. 198-217 A.D.) to commemorate his visit to the Pergamon’s Temple of Asclepius in 214 A.D.

The expensive burial facilities and grave goods were only affordable for the very rich in this time and place. Some of the limestone came from a quarry near Nicopolis ad Istrum, a Roman city about 25 miles southwest of Nova Varbovka founded by Trajan in the early 2nd century. Archaeologists hypothesize the adults were wealthy landowners from Nicopolis ad Istrum who had a villa rustica (country estate) where they spent their summers.

Chakarov, who excavated the burials along with colleagues Nedko Elenski and Mihaela Tomanova, noted that the Caracalla medallion could point to an Asia Minor origin for the occupants of the graves, which would be consistent with the fact that Nicopolis ad Istrum was built mainly by settlers from Asia Minor. “Of course, we are searching for an opportunity to make DNA and other analyses which our museum can’t afford, to see if this hypothesis is correct,” Chakarov said.

Rare Merovingian gold ring found in Jutland

A metal detectorist has discovered a rare Merovingian gold ring dating to 500-600 A.D. in Emmerlev, Southwest Jutland, Denmark. The ring is made of 22-carat gold and is set with an oval cabochon almandine garnet, a red semi-precious stone prized among Germanic peoples as a symbol of power. The mount has four spirals on the underside and trefoil knobs where the band meets the bezel. The spirals and knobs are characteristic of the highest quality of Frankish manufacture, and rings of this type were worn by the elite of the Merovingian dynasty.

National Museum of Denmark curator Kirstine Pommergaard believes the quality and construction of the ring suggests there may have been an unknown noble family in the Emmerlev area with close connections to Merovingian royalty.

“The gold ring not only reveals a possible new princely family in Emmerlev, but also connects the area with one of Europe’s largest centers of power in the Iron Age. The gold ring is probably a woman’s ring and may have belonged to a prince’s daughter who was married to a prince in Emmerlev. Gold was typically reserved for diplomatic gifts, and we know that people married into alliances, just it probably happened with Thyra and Gorm the Old and in more recent times when Christian IX became known as ‘Europe’s father-in-law’ for marrying his daughters into other royal houses, ” she says.

Archaeologists do not think the ring was at that location because it was lost on the way to somewhere else. Almost a thousand ancient and medieval artifacts (gold and silver trade coins, textiles, pottery) have been found at Emmerlev, evidence that busy international trade was taking place there for centuries. The trading post of Ribe was just 30 miles north of Emmerlev, an important stop in the lucrative trade network of the Wadden Sea region.

Gold and silver coins in the Emmerlev area confirm Merovingian contact, and the Merovingian kings and merchants did trade through the Wadden Sea network to Ribe. Making a marriage alliance with a Southern Jutland potentate would therefore have been highly advantageous to provide them with safe harbor and local influence.

The find was actually made in 2020, but the discovery of the ring has been kept under wraps until now to allow metal detectorists and archaeologists to explore the site without unwanted attention.The finder, Lars Nielsen, turned the ring in to the Museum Sønderjylland when he found it, and the local museum has now transferred it to the National Museum in Copenhagen.

”We’ve never seen anything like it out here. Many discoveries have been made over time that point to global trade connections at the Wadden Sea. The gold ring substantiates that there has also been an elite who have had something to do with music. Not everyone has had contact with the Merovingians, ” says Anders Hartvig, museum curator at Museum Sønderjylland.

Kirstine Pommergaard adds:

“The Merovingians were interested in entering into a network with families and individuals who could control trade and resources in an area. “Perhaps the princely family in Emmerlev had control over an area between Ribe and Hedeby and thus secured trade in the area,” she says.

Cobra-headed pottery handle found in Taiwan

Archaeologists from National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan have unearthed a Neolithic snake-shaped pottery handle. Radiocarbon dating found it is 4,000 years old. Crafted in the shape of a cobra with its upper body raised and hood flattened ready to strike, it was discovered during a 2023 excavation of a sand dune on the northwest coast of Taiwan in the Guanyin District of Taoyuan City. The site was a major center of stone tool manufacturing during the Neolithic era.

Snakes have symbolic significance in many religions around the world, including in East Asian cultures. They can represent healing, as on the caduceus of Asclepius, god of medicine, metamorphosis and rebirth due their ability to shed their skins, the circle of life, as in the ouroboros (serpent biting its tail) of ancient Egypt, as intermediaries between heaven, earth and the underworld, as in the Aztec feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and Apollo’s python who transmitted prophecy from the underworld to earth.

“Snakes are often regarded as symbolic animals in religion, mythology and literature, and are considered to be the bridge between heaven and man,” [Hung-Lin Chiu, associate professor of the Institute of Anthropology at Tsing Hua] said.

Given their ability to shed their skin, ancient societies in the region associated these animals with the cycle of life and death, and considered them to be symbols of creation and transition.

The snake-shaped pottery handle may have come from a sacrificial vessel for shamans in ancient tribal societies to perform rituals, according to the researchers.

“This reflects that ancient societies incorporated animal images into ritual sacrificial vessels to demonstrate their beliefs and cognitive systems,” Chiu said.

Tomb of royal scribe found in Abusir

Archaeologists from the Czech Institute of Egyptology (CIE) have discovered the richly decorated shaft tomb of a royal scribe who died in the 5th or 6th century B.C., the time of Persian invasion of Egypt. Inscriptions name the deceased as Djehutiemhat.

A long sequence of apotropaic sayings against snakebite from the Pyramid Texts covers the north (entrance) wall . Interestingly, the snakes mentioned in these magical texts both represented a potential danger and could serve as powerful protectors of the deceased and his mummy. “While the entrance to the nearby Menechinekon’s burial chamber was protected by the guardians of the gates of the 144th chapter of the Book of the Dead, in the case of Džehutiemhat, snakes from the Pyramid Texts play this role,” adds Renata Landgráfová, director of the Czech Institute of Egyptology at the FF UK and an expert on the ancient Egyptian language and texts. The south and west walls are covered with a sacrificial ritual and an extensive sacrificial list. On the ceiling of the burial chamber there are depictions of the sun god’s journey through the sky, first in the morning and then in the evening celestial bar. The depictions are accompanied by hymns to the rising and setting sun.

Inside the burial chamber covered with relief decoration is a large stone sarcophagus, which also bears hieroglyphic inscriptions and depictions of gods, both outside and inside. The upper side of the sarcophagus lid is decorated with three columns of hieroglyphic text with the liturgy of the 178th chapter of the Book of the Dead , which is composed of excerpts from the much older Pyramid Texts . The longer sides of the lid are decorated with the 42nd chapter of the Book of the Dead dedicated to the deification of parts of the body of the deceased, including depictions of individual deities to which the deceased is compared. The shorter walls of the lid then bear images of the goddesses Eset and Nebtheta, with accompanying texts offering protection to the deceased.

On the outer walls of the sarcophagus there are excerpts from the Coffin Texts and the Pyramid Texts , which partially repeat sayings that already appear on the walls of the burial chamber. On the bottom of the inner wall of the sarcophagus bath, the goddess of the West is depicted, and its inner sides bear the so-called canopic sayings, spoken by this goddess and the earth god Geb. “The Goddess of the West inside the sarcophagus represents the protector, guide and symbolic mother of the deceased,” explains Jiří Janák, who analyzes and interprets religious and magical texts as part of field research. All the mentioned religio-magical texts were intended to ensure the deceased a smooth entry into a blissful and well-provided eternal life in the afterlife.

The team excavated shaft tombs in this area of Abusir, known for its burials belonging to important officials and military commanders of the 26th and 27th dynasties, in April and May of 2023. At the bottom of the 45-feet-long shaft is a burial chamber made of large limestone blocks. A smaller access shaft connected to the chamber through a 10-foot-long corridor. A stone sarcophagus inside the chamber is covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions and reliefs. Djehutiemhat’s tomb had been looted in antiquity, but some pottery bowls, jugs and lids were found in the small access shaft.

Osteological examination of the skeletal remains found that he was about 25 years old when he died. Despite his young age, he suffered from wear and tear of the spine from years of working in a kneeling position and had severe osteoporosis. Several other individuals buried in this part of the necropolis also suffered from osteoporosis. Egyptologists hypothesize that tombs in this section of Abusir may have belonged to an extended family.