Bronze Alexander the Great fitting found in Denmark

Metal detectorists have discovered a unique bronze portrait of Alexander the Great near Ringsted on the Danish island of Zealand. The circular object is just over an inch in diameter and depicts Alexander with his characteristic wavy, center-parted hair and rams horns over his ears, a representation of his claim to be the son of the Greco-Egyptian deity Zeus Ammon. It dates to around 200 A.D.

The portrait is heavily worn, and the finders did not immediately recognize the face as bearing the attributes of Alexander the Great. The fact that it was a face and seemed ancient was more than exciting enough, so they turned in the object to cultural heritage authorities. Roman Iron Age specialist Freerk Oldenburger, an archaeologist at Museum Vestsjælland, examined the piece and recognized it as an image of Alexander the Great.

The size and shape of the piece suggests it was a fitting, perhaps a decorative element on a shield, scabbard or belt. The lead contents of the bronze alloy points to a Roman origin of the metal as Roman bronzes were cast with the same alloy. Indeed, the relief itself may have be of Roman manufacture.

It is similar in date, design and shape to a silver gilt shield fitting that is part of the enormous deposit of 16,000 military objects found at Illerup Ådal on the eastern coast of Jutland. Most of the objects found in the Illerup river valley deposit, including the Alexander shield decoration, were sacrificed after a battle around 200 A.D. It was war booty taken from an army of about 1,000 men from Norway and western Sweden who sailed down to Jutland and were soundly defeated by local Germanic warriors. Many of the swords, mounts, coins and fittings were of Roman origin, evidence of contact between Scandinavian elites and the Roman Empire.

When the Alexander fittings were made in the early 3rd century, the Roman Empire was ruled by Septimius Severus (r. 198-211 A.D.) and his eldest son Caracalla, followed later by his younger son Geta. Caracalla was just 10 years old when Septimius took the throne and made his eldest co-emperor, so it took a few years for him to make any real power moves of his own and he only became sole emperor after he killed his younger brother Geta practically before their father’s body was cold. Caracalla, like most Roman military men, hero-worshipped Alexander, a theme that certainly would have accompanied him on his campaign to Britain with his father (208-211 A.D.) and his own campaign against the Alemanni in Germania Superior and Raetia (today part of southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria) in 213-214 A.D.

His full obsession with Alexander kicked into high gear right after the German campaigns. Here’s how Herodian describes it in Roman History 4.8.1-4.8.2:

Caracalla, after attending to matters in the garrison camps along the Danube River, went down into Thrace at the Macedonian border, and immediately he became Alexander the Great. To revive the memory of the Macedonian in every possible way, he ordered statues and paintings of his hero to be put on public display in all cities. He filled the Capitol, the rest of the temples, indeed, all Rome, with statues and paintings designed to suggest that he was a second Alexander.

At times we saw ridiculous portraits, statues with one body which had on each side of a single head the faces of Alexander and the emperor. Caracalla himself went about in Macedonian dress, affecting especially the broad sun hat and short boots. He enrolled picked youths in a unit which he labeled his Macedonian phalanx; its officers bore the names of Alexander’s generals.

Even before Caracalla claimed to be his reincarnation and plastered his images everywhere, Alexander was an enormously popular figure for military accessories. How a portrait of Alexander as Zeus-Ammon made its way to Ringsted is unknown, but the battle of Illerup Ådal took place around the same time, and the silver gilt version of the fitting reached even further north.

“There have been trade routes, there have probably also been people in Roman military service, it may also be the Germans themselves who have traded in these things. So there can be many ways it ended up here,” says Freerk Oldenburger.

It is also not certain that people in the Ringsted area at the time were aware of who the face represented.

“The possibility is that they saw one of their own gods in it. There were also Germanic shield mounts with other faces, the meaning of which we do not know with complete certainty, but which probably represent local warriors.

But I actually think they knew it. Alexander’s myth had been so big in Europe, Asia and North Africa.”

The bronze Alexander the Great fitting will be exhibited at Ringsted Museum Saturday, April 13th, and Freerk Oldenburger will give a presentation about it.

Stunning Trojan War frescoes found in Pompeii banquet hall

The excavation of insula 10 in Pompeii’s Regio IX neighborhood next to the recently-unearthed bakery has uncovered a banqueting hall with splendid wall frescoes depicting mythological characters and motifs from the Trojan War. Set against a solid black background are Paris and Helen, Apollo and Cassandra, and a supporting cast of maenads and satyrs acting almost as caryatids holding up the top register of the murals.

The oecus (banquet hall) is part of a large domus whose architectural style dates it to the middle of the 1st century B.C. It is 48 feet long and 20 feet wide, a huge room covering more than 950 square feet in area. A large window on the western wall let in the afternoon sun, although there was no garden or panoramic view of the gulf for diners to enjoy as there were in the banquet halls of some of the other wealthy homes in Pompeii. Instead, the window faced on to a small courtyard less than 12 feet deep bounded by the insula’s perimeter wall. Theoretically it could have had ornamental plants or some other attractive landscaping, but there’s a long staircase leading to a second floor at the end of the courtyard and stacks of construction material (tufa bricks, terracotta roof tiles, work tools, lime piles) are evidence that the villa was undergoing extensive renovation at the time of the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. So at least in its last days, the courtyard was a work site.

The decorated walls are frescoed in the Third Style, characterized by intricate details set against broad planes of monochromatic color. The high quality and literary references of the art represent the education, wealth and refinement of the residents, intended to impress their own friends and family rather than the clients who would have been received in their atrium. In addition to being fashionable, the black walls had the practical advantage of hiding the soot and smoke stains from the lamps that illuminated the banquet hall during post-sunset dinners. The flickering light of the lamps would give the illusion of life and movement to the vivid figures painted against the black background.

Paris and Helen (and one large dog whose expression suggests he knows this is not going to end well) adorn the north wall. They are labelled in Greek with their names ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ ΕΛΕΝΗ (Alexandros, Paris’ birthname and Eleni). Paris wears a remarkable chiton decorated with gold buttons and bright squares of color that mimic the decoration of the pilasters dividing the central panels of the frescoed walls.

Apollo and Cassandra are on the south wall. Apollo is nude except for his blue and gold cape. Leaning against his lyre, the deity stares intently at a dubious-looking Cassandra seated across from him on the green omphalos enclosed in a gold net. She has her hand in her head and her expression is just as doubtful as Paris’ dog’s.

The top sections of the walls are separated by border bands in different columns (yellow, blue, green, brown, white). The panels are delimited vertically by faux pilasters. Below the borders on the bottom of the walls are the maenads standing on tripod stools, holding vessels in their outstretched hands and balancing stylized cones on their heads connected to the lowest of the bands.

The long floor of the long room is still covered in a virtually intact mosaic of white tesserae with slim black borders. The thresholds to the adjacent antechamber are defined by polychrome red, blue, yellow and green mosaics of flowers inside circles, tendrilled palmettes and four-leaf clovers inside rhombuses.

Burials with fine glass goods found along Roman road in Nîmes

A preventative archaeology excavation on the Rue de Beaucaire in Nîmes has uncovered graves, cremation pyres and secondary burials ranging in date from the 2nd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. The current street follows the east/west axis of the Via Domitia, the first Roman road in Gaul linking France to Spain, and a second road running northeast/southwest was unearthed in the excavation. Burials had been discovered on both roads, a common practice in ancient Roman cities which forbade burials within city limits.

Several funerary enclosures containing up to 15 burials were found along the two roads. Most of them are cremation burials, with a few inhumation burials, including of a small child buried with a ceramic jug and lamp. There are several pyres, some built out of limestone rubble or terracotta tile stacks, others simply dug into the ground. The cinerary remains were not left where they were burned, but collected and buried in a grave either in the pyre area or in an adjacent annex.

Grave goods were interred with the burned bones, including two pairs of strigils, glass vases, ceramics and lamps. The glassware and other grave goods are in excellent condition, many of them perfectly intact, and of fine quality.

A well was also highlighted within one of the spaces. Its coping has been dismantled, only some debris remains, but its circular conduit remains dug into the rock. Today filled in and hidden under modern constructions, its excavation will perhaps make it possible to collect debris from the dismantling of the tombs and funerary monuments which surrounded it.

The National Institute of Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) is opening the excavation site to visitors this Saturday, April 13th, from 10AM-12:30PM and 2PM-5PM. Archaeologists will give guided tours of the finds, both the funerary enclosures and the remains of the newly-discovered Roman road.

Name of Iranian city deciphered on clay seal

The name of the Iranian city of Shiraz has been identified on a 7th century Sasanian clay seal discovered almost 100 years ago at Qasr-i Abu Nasr in southern Iran. The clay was impressed with four seals: a lion walking right, a monogram, an inscription in Pahlavi script (Middle Persian) and a horned animal. Iranian archaeologist Mohammadreza Nasab-Abdollahi has now deciphered the name “Mugh-e Shiraz” in the Pahlavi inscription.

Sasanian clay seals were lumps of clay of different shapes and sizes used as official administrative stamps. The wet clay was wrapped around the tie of a document or bundle of goods and then stamped with the relevant seal or, as in this case, seals. The dried clay seals would on some occasions be broken and removed and deliberately stored for administrative purposes. This seal was unearthed by Metropolitan Museum of Art archaeologists in excavations at the Late Sasanian fortress at Qasr-i Abu Nasr site between 1932 to 1935. It was one of more than 500 stored seals discovered in a building that had been burned down, firing the clay seals and preserving their impressions for centuries.

Located four miles east of Shiraz, Qasr-i Abu Nasr was occupied in stages starting in the Parthian period (247 B.C. – 224 A.D.). The Sasanian period of occupation (224-651 A.D.) was the major phase of construction of the fortress, but while it was strategically located with access to water along roads to the Shiraz plain, the population remained small.

According to Nasab-Abdollahi, archaeological investigations indicate that Qasr-e Abu Nasr in Shiraz exhibits a cultural sequence from the Achaemenid to the Abbasid period, with its primary settlement dating back to the Sassanid era.

“The archaeological findings from Qasr-e Abu Nasr reveal a wide spectrum of administrative systems, techniques, and defensive structures,” the archaeologist remarked.

Furthermore, he emphasized that archaeological evidence from the Sassanid period, including such clay sealings, as well as artifacts from the Achaemenid era such as inscribed bricks from Persepolis, corroborates that the city known today as Shiraz bore the same name in antiquity and was among the significant cities of ancient Iran.

Blank curse tablets, miniature votive axes found at Roman villa site

An excavation at the site of a real estate development in Grove, Oxfordshire, has uncovered the remains of a richly-decorated Roman villa complex that contained a wealth of artifacts including coins, jewelry, lead curse tablets without curses and tiny votive axes. It had a long period of occupation, from construction in the 1st or 2nd century through abandonment in the late 4th or early 5th century.

During a year of excavation, archaeologists from the Red River Archaeology Group unearthed a monumental aisled building with internal colonnades typical of the late 1st century A.D. The building was likely multistorey and almost 11,000 square feet just on the ground floor. No columns have survived, but four column bases have and they are among the largest of their kind ever found in Roman Britain.

Adjacent to that building is a winged corridor villa characterized by a central group of rooms flanked on each side by wings of rooms accessed by a central corridor. It had walls painted with floral motifs and mosaic floors as well as an intricate brickwork floor. Hypocaust tiles have been found, the remnants of a hypocaust underfloor heating system for private bathhouses. A cereal drying oven was also discovered, part of the complex’s agricultural and food storage function.

Hundreds of coins, rings and brooches have been found in the villa complex. One particularly significant piece is a double horse-head brooch or buckle dating to between 350 and 450 A.D. It was likely worn by a member of the military elites. They also found several axes small enough to fit in a palm, and a number of tightly scrolled lead strips look just like curse tablets. The ones that have been unfurled so far are blank on the inside. If they were meant to curse, the curse itself was left unwritten. The mini axes coupled with the mysterious curse-like scrolls, suggest the villa or some part of the complex was a site of pilgrimage or ritual significance.

“The sheer size of the buildings that still survive and the richness of goods recovered suggest this was a dominant feature in the locality, if not the wider landscape,” Louis Stafford, Red River Archaeology senior project manager, said.

Her colleague Francesca Giarelli added the site was “far more complex than a regular rural site and clearly was an important centre of activities for a long time”.

Here is a drone video flyover of the site: