Roman sandal hobnails found in Bavaria

Yesterday it was Caligula, today it’s caligae! Archaeologists in Oberstimm, Upper Bavaria, have unearthed hobnails from the sole of a Roman sandal. The rare find was in disguise thanks to a thick coating of corrosion that made it look like two indeterminate lumps of bent metal. An X-ray at the laboratory of the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation (BLfD) revealed that the corroded lumps were actually hobnails.

The excavation explored the remains of the civilian settlement that grew around a Roman fort. The Oberstimm fort was built around 45-50 A.D. at the intersection of two major Roman roads running north-south from the Alps over the Danube and east-west from the Danube through the Celtic fortified settlement of Manching. It was garrisoned by both legionaries and auxiliary troops. A second phase of construction in the 80s A.D. enlarged the defensive perimeter and built permanent structure with stone foundations. The second stage fort would be garrisoned by a cavalry unit until troops were withdrawn in the 120s A.D. after the establishment of the northern Limes. The civilian settlement continued to exist after the fort was abandoned.

“So-called caligae were mainly worn by Roman soldiers during the Roman imperial period. The find shows that the practices, ways of life and also the clothing that the Romans brought to Bavaria were adopted by the local people,” says Amira Adaileh, a consultant at the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation.

Individual shoe nails are very often found at Roman sites – but they are only preserved in combination with the remains of the leather sole under special conditions. For example, the Oberstimmer sole comes from a well. Similar finds are therefore only known from a handful of sites in Bavaria and provide valuable insights into Roman everyday culture and craftsmanship.

Tiny bronze Caligula rediscovered after 200 years

A bronze bust of the Roman emperor Caligula that is small in size but large in historical significance has been rediscovered 200 years after it fell into obscurity. Dr. Silvia Davoli, curator at Strawberry Hill House, the stately home in Twickenham built by author and MP Horace Mann, identified the bust in the Schroder Collection and it was authenticated by metal experts and scholars of Roman art.

Just five inches high, the bust is one of only eight surviving small-scale busts made during the reign of Caligula (37-41 A.D.) intended for display in home shrines alongside ancestral portraits and the household deities. After Caligula was assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard, his uncle and successor Claudius had many of his statues removed or altered to look like more palatable members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, namely Augustus or himself. With Caligula very much out of favor, people who had the personal busts got rid of them. A few have been found in the Tiber where they were unceremoniously tossed.

This one outlasted all of the Julio-Claudians only to be buried when the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. covered the city of Herculaneum in 60 feet of volcanic mud that hardened to stone. It saw the light of day again 1630 years later when Emmanuel Maurice de Lorraine, the Prince d’Elboeuf, a French nobleman and general of the Holy Roman Emperor’s cavalry in Naples, got a tip from a local farmer that he’d discovered some fine marbles while digging a well. Between 1709 and 1711, d’Elboeuf was the first to “excavate” Herculaneum, in the sense that he tunneled down through 60 feet of volcanic stone to pillage marbles, mosaics, statues and anything else he could find to decorate the new palace he was building in nearby Portici. (It turns out he was plundering Herculaneum’s theater, although that wasn’t known until the King of Naples took his turn plundering it in 1738.) The tiny bust of Caligula was apparently one of the first objects he found.

It was correspondence between D’Elboeuf, Horace Walpole and Horace Mann, the British envoy to Florence, that was the first reference Dr. Silvia Davoli found to the tiny portrait bust of Caligula. Mann got it from D’Elboeuf and sent it to Walpole in May of 1767, one of a number of antiquities Mann secured for Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill House. Mann was obsessed with the bust. He wrote in a letter to Mann:

“I gaze on it from morning to night. It is more a portrait than any picture I ever saw. The hair and ears seem neglected, to heighten the expression of the eyes, which are absolutely divine, and have a wild melancholy in them, that one forebodes might ripen to madness.” (Walpole Correspondence, 30 May 1767)

Its eyes are extraordinary, their original inlaid silver still in place instead of the empty sockets that are usually seen in bronzes.

Walpole’s collection was more documented than most other 18th century collections. He commissioned artist John Carter to make drawings of the objects in Strawberry Hill House, including a life-sized drawing of the Caligula bust. Carter’s drawing was the second reference to the bust Davoli found.

Walpole kept his beloved Caligula bust for the rest of his life. After his death in 1797, it was passed to various family members, eventually being sold to a private collector. In the 1890s, it was purchased by Sir John Henry Schroder. By then its identity was long lost and it was catalogued in the Schroder Collection as the 15th century bust of a young man.

As curator of Strawberry Hill House, Davoli has been researching the Walpole collection for years, looking in institutions and private collections for dispersed objects mentioned in inventories, correspondence and Carter’s drawings. The Caligula bust was one of the most sought-after pieces, but despite her meticulous research tracking the lost treasure, in the end she found it by accident.

Late last year Davoli was perusing the Schroder Collection inventory for an exhibition at Strawberry Hill on treasure hunting. “By chance, I saw this page with what looked like Walpole’s bronze. Wow!” The bust was taken to Rupert Harris, the London metal ­conservator specialist, who said the bronze composition tallied with 2,000-year-old objects.

In the past fortnight, Dr Dietrich Boschung, an expert on imperial Roman iconography, has been shown photos of the bust. “I’m convinced it is Caligula,” says Boschung, from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Cologne. He points to silver inserted into the eyes of the bust – a practice common for emperors. Boschung also believes the Herculaneum connection is very plausible. “Around that time, many Roman bronzes were found there.”

The rediscovered emperor will now return to Strawberry Hill House on long-term loan, It will go on public display for the first time in the new exhibition, The Art of Treasure Hunting, which opens on June 29th.

Nobby sells for twice pre-sale estimate

Nobby, the 1st century B.C. Celtic fertility figurine whose jaunty phallus inspired his nickname, sold at auction for £3,000 ($3,800) hammer price, twice the pre-sale estimate of £1,000–£1,500 ($1,270-$1,900). Metal detectorist Bob Jemmett, Nobby’s finder and pocket buddy since 2018, plans to invest his windfall in home improvements.

Retired lorry driver Mr Jemmett said afterwards: “It was really exciting watching the sale, but I am quite sad to see Nobby go.

“I hope that he brings the new finder as much fun as he’s brought me and my friends over the years.”

Despite its age and rarity — it is the only piece of its kind known — the bronze figure does not qualify as treasure and so was returned to the finder instead of being offered to a local museum for fair market value. Jemmett kept it until a recent burglary spurred him to put Nobby up for auction.

Ming shipwrecks illuminate maritime Silk Road

After two years of excavation, more than 900 artifacts have been recovered from two Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) shipwrecks discovered in China’s southern island province of Hainan. Excavating the deep-sea shipwrecks has required pioneering technologies including 3D laser scanners and high-definition cameras to map the sites and stitch together full panoramic views of the wreck sites using photogrammetry techniques and state-of-the-art submersible mud pumping and blowing devices to do the actual digging.

The two shipwrecks were discovered 4,900 feet deep on the northwest continental slope of the South China Sea in October of 2022. Dating to the Zhengde period (1506-1521), Ship No. 1 was carrying an enormous cargo of more than 100,000 porcelain, pottery, bronze, iron bamboo and wood artifacts intended for export. Archaeologists believe its departure point may have been Guangdong or Fujian provinces and its destination was the Malaysian center of trade Malacca. Ship No. 2 was going in the other direction, carrying timber from Malacca back to Guangdong or Fujian. It dates to the Hongzhi period, 1488-1505.

Since their discovery, a total of 890 pieces of porcelain, pottery and copper coins have been recovered from Ship No. 1, including blue-and-white porcelain, green-glazed porcelain, white-glazed porcelain, blue-and-white-glazed porcelain, enamel porcelain and brown-glazed pottery. A total of 38 objects, including wood logs, porcelain, pottery, shells and deer antlers, have been recovered from Ship No. 2. Two archaeologists firsts were discovered on the wrecks: enamelware on Ship No. 1 and ebony wood on Ship No. 2, the first of their kind ever found in shipwreck archaeology.

The shipwrecks and their rich, varied cargos shed light on the bustling activity on the Maritime Silk Road during the middle Ming Dynasty period.

The archaeologists said the two ancient ships were travelling in different directions, and the wrecks were found less than 20km (12 miles) apart. They said it was the first time vessels returning and arriving had been found near each other, indicating they were travelling on an important trade route.

“It helps us study the maritime Silk Road’s reciprocal flow,” Tang Wei, the director of the Chinese National Centre for Archaeology, said.

The artifacts recovered from the shipwrecks are currently being recorded and conserved. The Hainan Provincial Department of Tourism, Culture, Radio, Television and Sports plans to publish complete photographic catalogues of all the finds and to put a selection of the findings on display in special exhibitions and museums.

Silver medieval communion set found in Hungary

An excavation at the site of a medieval Benedictine abbey in Tomajmonostora, eastern Hungary has unearthed a burial containing a silver communion set dating to the 13th or 14th century. The chalice and paten (small plate for the host) were found in the hands of the deceased, placed there at the time of burial.

The National Archaeological Institute of the Hungarian National Museum’s Public Collections Center discovered the remains of the three-nave Benedictine abbey basilica and an earlier round parish church in a trial excavation of the site in October 2023. Archaeologists returned for a more thorough excavation this year and found the burial.

The chalice is in good condition, with only some fragments missing. It has a ring of gilded beads surrounding the node on the stem. The paten is decorated with a perforated cross and wave designs. It too has a small area of silver loss around the bottom of the plate.

This season’s dig also sought archaeological material from the 1596 Battle of Mezőkeresztes, a clash between the forces of Ottoman Empire sultan Mehmed III and the allied Habsburg and Transylvanian forces. Mehmed III ultimately won the day, although it was such a close call at times that he had to be convinced not to flee the field. Several artifacts related to the battle were found and metal detectorist volunteers led by archaeologist Gábor Bakos uncovered 70 silver Viennese pennies from the 13th-14th centuries. They were issued from mints in Vienna, Enns and Bécsujhely and circulated widely before being assembled and buried.