Princely tomb raised from Terracotta Warrior mausoleum complex

A massive tomb weighing 16 tons has been raised from a deep pit in the mausoleum complex of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China whose tomb is famously garrisoned by an army of life-sized terracotta warriors 6,000 strong. The coffin was found to contain very rich funerary deposits, including weapons, armor, jade, a pair of gold and silver camels, a set of cooking utensils and 6,000 bronze coins. With such a grand burial, the deceased must have been a warrior of high rank, perhaps even one of the sons of the Qin Emperor.

Covering an area of 22 square miles, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is the largest mausoleum in the world and much of it has yet to be excavated out of concern for exposing it to damage from seismic activity, the elements and looters. A 2010 excavation focused on the foundations of the tomb, and uncovered a massive palace with 18 courtyard-style homes around a central building. It is a quarter of the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and is considered its conceptual progenitor, albeit this one was meant for the emperor to inhabit after his death.

That excavation also unearthed nine tombs in 2011. Their large coffins were left in place in keeping with the Chinese government’s hands-off policy as regards the mausoleum and its contents. Archaeologists returned this year to recover the coffin after it was threatened by heavy rain. It was excavated and removed for further study and examination of the contents in a controlled environment.

Archaeologists are hoping to find clues about the owner of the tomb. The current hypothesis is that it may belong to Prince Gao, one of 50 children of Qin Shi Huang, whose burial in the mausoleum is recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian (also known as the Shiji), the epic history of China begun by Sima Tan, Grand Scribe of the Han dynasty, in the late 2nd century B.C. and completed by his son and successor Sima Quian around 91 B.C.

According to the Shiji, after Qin Shi Huang’s death, his youngest son Hu Hai took the throne after killing all his competitors. Prince Gao told his brother that he regretted not voluntarily following his father into the afterlife, and asked that he be killed and buried in the great mausoleum. Hu Hai was glad to oblige.

The story of Prince Gao could be entirely fictional. The Shiji is a chronicle, but like Livy’s Ab urbe condita, it treats legend and tradition as indistinguishable from fact. The biographies of emperors begins with the legendary Yellow Emperor, and while Qin Shi Huang died in 210 B.C., only about 100 years before Sima Tan began writing the Records, the Shiji makes all kinds of outlandish claims even about Qin’s comparatively recent reign. However, some of those outlandish claims have already surprised archaeologists by having more than a kernel of truth. For example, the Shiji describes the mausoleum as having “100 rivers of mercury” flowing through it. Soil testing found levels of mercury 100 times higher than normal, so maybe the 100 rivers thing was an overstatement, but it was not a complete fabrication.

“After the first emperor died, his sons all came to a bad end, so I’m still more inclined to believe that this tomb belongs to a high-ranking nobleman or army chief,” Jiang Wenxiao, the excavation leader, said.

Wenxiao added: “The tomb was so precisely built. So deep, so large in scale. Most ancient tombs have been robbed so we didn’t have much hope for the coffin chamber. But it turned out it hadn’t been robbed. We were amazed.”

The discovery has been filmed by a British-Chinese co-production which was granted unprecedented access to the mausoleum site and the active excavation. The finds will be the focus of the Mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors which debuts on Netflix on June 12th.

Possible cancer surgery found on 4,000-year-old  skull

Researchers have discovered cutmarks around cancerous lesions on a 4,000-year-old Egyptian skull that suggest ancient Egyptian doctors may have attempted a surgical remedy for malignant tumors.

We know from ancient papyri that even 4,000 years ago Egypt had advanced knowledge of anatomy and physiology, and thanks to their medical and mummification practices, their surgical know-how was also advanced compared to other ancient cultures. They did not have a full understanding of cancer as we know it. There are references to tumors and “eating lesions” with suggested treatments in the texts, and evidence of malignancy in human remains. Given Egyptian expertise, it stands to reason that they may have explored surgical solutions to excise a malignant tumor.

To explore ancient Egyptian knowledge and treatment of tumors, researchers took a closer look at two skulls in Cambridge University’s Duckworth Collection from different dynasties with different conditions. Skull E270 dates to the Late Period (664–343 B.C.) and belonged to a woman older than 50 when she died. The skull shows evidence of one primary tumor and several healed cranial fractures. Skull 236 dates to the Old Kingdom (2,687–2,345 B.C.) and belonged to a man between 30 and 35 years of age. It reveals evidence of two tumors and is one of the oldest cases of malignancy known.

Microscopic examination of Skull 236 found a large lesion with associated tissue destruction (neoplasm), plus about 30 small round lesions from metastasis. The surprise discovery were cutmarks made repeatedly around the lesions that were inflicted near the time of death (perimortem), not during mummification.

[A]lthough neoplasms were a clear medical frontier, skull 236 reveals new insights on a potential exploratory phase amongst medical practise concerning neoplastic lesions. As seen, reliable perimortem cutmarks on the bone surface have been identified in clear association with the metastatic lesions on the posterior cranial region. The position of the marks, running through two of the lesions with a clear associated start and end at both sides of the lytic lesions (stopped by the margins of the pathologies), suggest some kind of perimortem anthropic intervention given that they were generated on a bone in fresh condition. Although this might indicate medical surgical exploration or an attempt of care or treatment, our study has a clear limitation in the identification of the timing of the cutting. Although they are perimortem, they might also indicate a postmortem manipulation of the corpse. In turn, this might also indicate a postmortem exploration of the tumoural pathology.

Terracotta model of Brunelleschi portrait rediscovered after 700 years

A previously unknown terracotta portrait head of the great Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi has been acquired by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the works commission of the Duomo of Florence where Brunelleschi was buried. It is one of only four known portraits of the architect (including his plaster death mask), and dating to 1447, it is one of the oldest terracotta portraits to survive.

The portrait was sculpted by Andrea di Lazzaro Cavalcanti (Il Buggiano), a student of Brunelleschi who became his adopted son. It was recently found in a historic home in Florence and identified by art historians Giancarlo Gentilini and Alfredo Bellandi as the model for a marble bust that il Buggiano had been commissioned to create by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore after Filippo Brunelleschi’s death. The finished marble bust is in a tondo on the wall in the right nave of the Duomo, a tribute to the man who built the cathedral’s unprecedented brick and masonry dome, revolutionizing architecture in the process.

Buggiano was by his father’s side when he died on April 15th, 1446. He is believed to have made the plaster death mask of his father that day. The funerary relief took longer to commission and accomplish. First the Wool Guild had to determine that the final resting place of Brunelleschi’s body would indeed be Santa Maria del Fiore. They decided on December 30, more than eight months after the architect’s death. On February 18, 1447, the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore commissioned a wall monument to include a realistic portrait and a memorial epigraph. Cavalcanti received the marble for the funerary monument on February 27th, and he immediately got to work forming the model of the realistic bust. The model was finished by the end of March. The finished marble portrait was completed in May.

The terracotta model he had used presumably was stored in his workshop for a while, but we don’t really know where it was or what it was doing in the 700 years before its rediscovery. The wear and tear suggests it was kept as a sculpture in its own right until the association with the funerary monument was forgotten.

“The terracotta head with Filippo Brunelleschi’s facial features was moulded by Andrea Cavalcanti (Il Buggiano), who was Filippo’s adopted son and heir”, said Antonio Natali, a council member of the Opera of Santa Maria del Fiore. “It is known that the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore gave both of them remarkable commissions: Brunelleschi goes without saying. However, Buggiano will be remembered for his admirable humanistic lavers in the sacristies of the cathedral and, at this point in time, especially the monument celebrating Brunelleschi in the cathedral, now that the terracotta head, the model for it, has been found. With these premises, everyone will understand how the acquisition by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore was actually unavoidable”.

“We believe that this is truly an exceptional opportunity, an unimaginable privilege, to be able to present the previously unknown, vivid portrait of Filippo Brunelleschi, modelled by his adoptive son, Andrea Cavalcanti, shortly after his death”, stated Giancarlo Gentilini and Alfredo Bellandi. As the many formal and technical aspects indicate, the work we present here should be considered as the model prepared by Buggiano for the execution of the marble portrait. It is a ‘life-like’ portrait, considering that Brunelleschi was notoriously “small in stature and features” (Vasari 1568), and the measurements of the face (perhaps slightly reduced by the usual ‘shrinkage’ of the clay) are substantially comparable to those found in the plaster death mask and the marble effigy. But compared to the facial cast, the image, now devoid of the contractions of rigor mortis, has more harmonious proportions. The face could almost be inscribed within a sphere”.

The work needs to be restored, and although (apart from a single gap in the chin, where an old, clumsy plaster repair makes it seem bigger), it has scratches all over it and a chalky residue veiling and traces of paint applications (one with seemingly natural tones and at least two brown ones, perhaps to simulate bronze, after the restoration of the chin).

Napoleonic Wars soldiers’ graffiti found on Dover Castle door

A wooden door covered in more than 50 carvings from soldiers garrisoned there from the wars of the French Revolution through the mid-19th century has been discovered at Dover Castle. Graffiti include initials, surnames, dates, a large single-masted sailing ship and nine men hanging from gallows.

First built shortly after 1066 to defend the Strait of Dover, the shortest sea crossing between England and mainland Europe and therefore an inestimably valuable strategic position, Dover Castle took its permanent form under Henry II. The great keep, towers, inner and outer baileys were completed by 1188. St. John’s Tower was added under Henry III after 1217.

The castle’s fortunes declined in the Civil War period (1642-5), and it began to be used as a prison for captured French and Spanish soldiers in the wars of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. They passed the time carving graffiti on the walls. Dover Castle was revived as a defensive fortress in the Georgian period as tensions rose between Britain and France.

A new construction program restored the crumbling buildings and erected new barracks to house infantrymen in the 1750s. Come the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, military engineers completely redesigned the outer defenses to protect the castle from modern artillery and converted the Great Tower into a massive magazine for gunpowder, shot, shells and other supplies. Thousands of soldiers were garrisoned there.

The door with the carvings was originally on an upper floor of St. John’s Tower. During Dover Castle’s revival, it was guarded at all times by six to 12 men, one or two of them manning the top room repurposed as a watchtower because of its a commanding view of the exposed northern flank of the castle. The guards were armed with knives, perhaps bayonets, and they put their sharpened ends to good use decorating the old door.

The plank door was rediscovered several years ago. It had long been inaccessible without using a ladder to reach the base of a spiral staircase. Covered in several thick coats of paint, the graffiti were not immediately evident. It was only when the door was removed for conservation and the old paint layers stripped that the engraved treasure they were concealing was revealed.

The St John’s Tower door contains around 50 pieces of carved graffiti. These include: three dates: 1789, the date of the French Revolution; 1798, a period of rebuilding in the castle; and 1855, when changes were planned to the tower. There are also many sets of people’s initials and two surnames: Downam and Hopper/Hooper. At least nine contain gruesome illustrations of hangings, a strange and macabre repetition, including one example where a man wears a military uniform and a bicorne hat. It is possible that this could be a depiction of a real hanging, as hangings were known to take place in Dover and did serve as morbid entertainment, or perhaps even a representation of Napoleon himself. Also present is a detailed and accurate carving of single-masted sailing ship, most likely an 8-gun cutter which was a fast vessel used by the Royal Navy, the Revenue Service, smugglers and privateers. Another curious symbol which depicts a glass or chalice for wine, surmounted by an elaborated cross, may be a representation of Christian holy communion.

The door was removed from its original location for conservation and stabilization. Old coats of paint, added after the graffiti was carved, were removed. The wood of the door was cleaned and treated for long-term preservation. It will go on display in July at Dover Castle’s new exhibition, Dover Under Siege. In addition to viewing the door, visitors to the exhibition will have the chance to walk the castle’s northern defenses, casements and its medieval and Georgian underground tunnels.

Walker steps on 2,150 medieval silver coins in Czech Republic

A woman taking a walk through a field in Kutnohorsk, a city 50 miles southeast of Prague, stumbled on a few silver coins that turned out to be the advance guard of one of the largest early medieval coin hoards ever found in the Czech Republic. She reported the find to heritage authorities and archaeologists were dispatched to scan the field with metal detectors and then excavate the areas of interest. They ultimately unearthed more than 2,150 silver deniers minted by Bohemian rulers King Vratislav II. and princes Břetislav II. and Bořivoje II, between 1085 and 1107.

Archaeologists believe the hoard was buried in the first quarter of the 12th century, a turbulent period characterized by various members of the Přemyslid dynasty, rulers of Bohemia, fighting each other over the ducal throne. Duke of Bohemia Vratislaus II was granted the royal title of King of Bohemia by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in 1085, but it was not an inherited title and his brothers, nephews and sons squabbled constantly over who got what title. After his death, the throne of Bohemia was a carousel of expulsions, assassinations and competing claims from Přemyslid cousins, brothers and uncles.

The hoard was originally buried in a ceramic container, but over the centuries the vessel was destroyed by plowing. Archaeologists were only able to find the bottom of it, but it is evidence that this fortune in coins was amassed and buried in one deposit, even though the deniers were later scattered.

“The coins were most likely minted in the Prague mint from silver that was imported to Bohemia at the time ,” says Lenka Mazačová, director of the Czech Silver Museum in Kutnohorsk.

The deniers were made from a mint alloy, which, in addition to silver, also contains copper, lead and trace amounts of other metals. Determining this particular composition can also help determine the origin of the silver used.

“Unfortunately, for the turn of 11th-12th century, we lack data on the purchasing power of the contemporary coin. But it was a huge amount, unimaginable for an ordinary person and at the same time unaffordable. It can be compared to winning a million in the jackpot ,” explains Filip Velímský.

Due to the frequent battles for the Prague princely throne, the armies of individual rival princes repeatedly marched through today’s Kutnohorsk Region. Experts do not rule out the possibility that the found depot represents cash for paying wages or war booty.

The coins are now being examined by experts from the Institute of Archeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague, and the Czech Silver Museum in Kutnohorsk. Each coin will be recorded, cleaned, photographed and assessed for any conservation needs. The coins will also be X-rayed and subjected to spectral analysis to determine their metal composition. Once all the work has been completed and a full catalogue of the hoard created, the hoard will be exhibited to the public in the Czech Silver Museum, hopefully by the summer of 2025.