1,400-year-old Moche murals of two-faced men found in Peru

The excavation of the late Moche (c.600–850 A.D.) archaeological site of Pañamarca in northwestern Peru has uncovered two new murals painted on the adobe brick walls of an ancient architectural complex. They depict two two-faced individuals, one painted on the top, one on the bottom of a single adobe pillar in the hall.

Both two-faced figures are wearing headdresses or crowns and vividly colored clothing with large belts. They hold unusual items in their hands. The top one carries a goblet with four hummingbirds in one hand and feather fan in the other. The bottom man is waving a feather fan (unlike the rigid feathers of his neighbor’s fan, his feathers are captured in motion) and a stick-like object in his other. Damage to the painting makes it difficult to identify what it is.

There is no known precedent for these figures in Moche art. They don’t have features typical of Moche deities — namely zoomorphic elements like fangs, claws, tails or wings. Archaeologists hypothesize that the two two-headed figures may have been an artistic exploration of depicting people (and feathers) in motion, so not two-headed monsters or gods, but men captured in blurred movement like two frames of animation in one panel. They may also be wearing masks.

Constructed beginning in around 550 A.D., the Pañamarca architectural complex is richly decorated with murals that are unique iconographic testaments to Moche ritual, clothing, adornments and even to their trade links over long distances. Only an estimated 10% of the wall paintings at Pañamarca have been uncovered since the first mural was discovered in 1958. The hall of pillars is particularly dense with these murals, and archaeologists still don’t know what the room’s purpose was, but it probably was not meant for public use because the passages are very tight and warren-like.

The Paisajes Arqueológicos de Pañamarca research project has been ongoing since 2018 under the joint leadership of an international team of archaeologists from Peru, Columbia University and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. These murals were discovered during last year’s dig season. The summer 2022 dig aimed to document the stratigraphic phases of construction of the monumental temple complex and to excavate and conserve any murals encountered.

There is now a clearer throughline for Peruvian history and culture thanks to recent finds at Pañamarca and earlier ones made there during the past century. Digital photography, photogrammetric modeling, and virtual reality simulation will make these insights more widely available.

“Pañamarca was a place of remarkable artistic innovation and creativity, with painters elaborating on their knowledge of artistic canons in creative and meaningful ways as the people of Nepeña established their position in the far southern Moche world,” said Lisa Trever, Lisa, and Bernard Selz Associate Professor of Pre-Columbian Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.

Video tour the restored House of the Vettii

The House of the Vettii, home to one of Pompeii’s most extraordinary assemblages of frescoes, recently reopened to the public after more than two decades of closure. (It was partially reopened in 2016, allowing visitors into the entrance area and the atrium, but closed again entirely in 2019.) Visitors briefly got a chance to rub shoulders with archaeologists, architects, engineers and landscaping experts as they embarked on a comprehensive multi-disciplinary restoration project to conserve the famed wall and floor decorations, address major structural issues, renovate the colonnaded garden and install a new state-of-the-art drainage system.

Some of the more challenging aspects of the conservation involved fixing previous well-intended interventions gone awry over time. The concrete roof added in the 1950s to protect the villa’s remains from the elements was now exacerbating water penetration. Layers of wax applied to the frescoes for their protection and to give them a glossy sheen had to be painstakingly removed to restore the visibility of the of the magnificent detail in the architectural and mythological motifs.

The peristyle garden was restored with careful attention to the original plant species that grew there. Marble fountains, basins, pilasters and statues discovered in the garden of the villa in 19th century excavations are in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, but fine copies have now been installed in the garden to recreate its sumptuous hardscaping.

Another major renovation correcting a former misguided curatorial approach that was once common: locking up sexually explicit Roman art and artifacts behind closed doors to spare the weak sensibilities of women, children and the lower classes. Only gentlemen were deemed to have the moral fortitude to withstand the view of mighty erections and fornication in every position. They alone would be allowed into the locked Secret Cabinets where museums hid all the phalluses and deities mid-coitus that the Romans had displayed with pride, like the iconic fresco of Priapus weighing his erection against a pile of coins which welcomed all visitors at the front entrance of the villa.

In the case of the House of the Vettii, a room adjacent to the kitchen in the servants’ area of the villa was decorated with erotic wall paintings. Archaeologists believe it was used for prostitution, a hypothesis confirmed by the discovery of an inscription offering a “Greek and well-mannered” woman named Eutychis for the bargain price of two asses. An iron door was added in the 19th century and kept locked with access to the room only allowed upon request of men whose monocles were primed and ready to pop. That door has at long last been removed.

But it’s the frescoes in the main rooms of the house that are the real money shots of the House of the Vettii, and this video tour led by historian Darius Arya for Ancient Rome Live captures their intense color and dazzling detail beautifully. He also does an excellent job at explaining the mythological scenes and how they connect to the personal histories of homeowners Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva, freedmen brothers who became wealthy merchants and rose high in the city’s social ranks. 

This video captures overhead views that include the new roof that drains properly and the meticulous restoration of the interiors.

Roman mosaic found under Aldi supermarket site

An archaeological survey of the site of a future Aldi supermarket in Olney, Buckinghamshire, has uncovered a Roman polychrome mosaic. The mosaic consists of geometric designs made with tesserae in four colors: dark grey, red, dark blue and white. One thick border contains the two-strand woven guilloche pattern. The larger decorative panel contains Solomon knots, stylized palmette patterns that look like stretched out hearts and diamond shapes.

The mosaic paves the floor of a large room in a Roman building. Most of the mosaic that has been recovered thus far was from the edge of the room. The remains of two smaller rooms were found next to it. Mosaics were expensive decorations usually reserved for the homes of the wealthy or public buildings. It is not clear which function this structure had. Several other stone structures found at the site were identified as a bath house or water collection cisterns.

The design style is consistent with the work of the Durobrivan group from the East Midlands and as such likely date to the third quarter of the 4th century. This school of mosaic art is named after Durobrivae, a Roman town in what is now Water Newton, Cambridgeshire. Durobrivae was a civilian settlement attached to a 1st century A.D. Roman fort that is about 50 miles north of Olney. It was a center of production for a distinctive light-on-dark pottery type known as Nene Valley Colour Coated Ware, and one of the 10 or so identified school of mosaic design in Roman Britain.

The excavation was triggered by the location of the planned Aldi which is near the Roman site at Olney, the remains of an ancient settlement dating to between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. Archaeologists expected, therefore, to make some Roman finds, but were thinking more along the lines of burials rather than a luxury mosaic installation.

Much of the mosaic pavement extends under a city street, so unfortunately it will not be fully excavated. Nor will it be removed. The mosaic will remain in situ, covered for its protection. Archaeologists and cultural authorities have proposed a plan to keep it safe while construction continues.

Monumental Roman complex found in Reims

Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeology (INRAP) have discovered an ancient Roman-era monumental complex from the 2nd-3rd century A.D. in Reims.

The structure consists of two porticoed galleries 65 feet long forming the arms of a U. More than 20 rooms occupy the galleries, from corridors to living spaces with chalk floors and fireplaces. Nine of the rooms were part of the ancient baths. Five of them had a hypocaust underfloor heating system; many of the pilae stacks (square tile piles) that supported the floor are still in place and in excellent condition. In the empty space between the galleries are two rectangular masonry structures that were likely part of garden. One of the two was a basin or fountain. Two pressurized water pipes were found that filled the basin and/or fed the water feature.

Archaeologists have unearthed painted plasters richly decorated with floral motifs. Some pigments used, including a blue similar to “Egyptian blue”, are rare. This discovery characterizes a very easy set. The large number of rooms, their organization, the richness of the decorations, the two large galleries, the hydraulic network and the archaeological elements discovered (ceramics, architectural blocks, copper alloy tableware, etc.) allow two possible interpretations. These vestiges could correspond either to the domus (house) of an extremely wealthy personality or to a spa complex, perhaps public, given the monumentality.

The monumental complex was discovered just 100 meters (328 feet) from the Porte de Mars, a 3rd century A.D. triumphal arch that is the widest surviving Roman arch. The arch was named after a nearby Temple of Mars, and was one of four monumental gates in the city walls.

This was a very ritzy location in the 3rd century, but by the beginning of the 4th, the area was all but abandoned and its buildings quarried for recycled construction materials. The shift may have been caused by the construction of the 4th century walls of Reims. The neighborhood was used for agriculture for another 1400 years, only converting back into a populated area at the end of the 18th century.

Reims was founded as the town of Durocortorum around 80 B.C. It was the capital of the Remi, a Belgic people who became allies of Caesar during the Gallic wars (58-51 B.C.) and their city prospered greatly under Roman rule. At its peak, 30,000 people lived in Durocortorum making it the most populated city north of the Alps.

Late Roman, early Saxon cemetery found in Leeds

An ancient cemetery that contains burials of both late Roman and early Saxon funerary traditions has been discovered in the town of Garforth, near Leeds. The excavation has unearthed the remains of more than 60 men, women and children from the significant transitional period between the end of Roman rule in 406 A.D. and the formation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 6th-8th centuries.

There’s a clear distinction between the Roman graves, which were aligned east-west and the Saxon ones, aligned north-south. The Saxon burials contain typical grave goods like weapons and pottery that are different from the funerary offerings typical of the Roman burials. There are also a few burials that appear to indicate early Christian beliefs.

The most notable find was a lead coffin from the late Roman period. It contained the skeletal remains of an adult woman. Lead coffins were expensive, both in raw materials (large sheets of lead) and the expertise to craft them, so she must have been a member of the elite.

The cemetery was discovered last year, but was kept under wraps to give archaeologists the chance to excavate the site secure from would-be looters. An archaeological investigation was triggered before development of the site due to the proximity of late Roman stone buildings and early Anglo-Saxon structures. Some ancient remains were expected to be found, but the discovery of a large cemetery from such a historically significant transitional period came as a happy surprise.

After the retreat of Roman forces from Britain, what is now West Yorkshire was part of the Kingdom of Elmet, a British kingdom rather than an Anglo-Saxon one. Even bounded by Anglian kingdoms to the north and south, Elmet was unusually long-lived for a Brittonic kingdom, extending well into the 7th century when it was finally annexed by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. This is the first Anglo-Saxon cemetery ever discovered in West Yorkshire.

David Hunter, principle archaeologist with West Yorkshire Joint Services, said: “This has the potential to be a find of massive significance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire.

“The presence of two communities using the same burial site is highly unusual and whether their use of this graveyard overlapped or not will determine just how significant the find is. When seen together the burials indicate the complexity and precariousness of life during what was a dynamic period in Yorkshire’s history.

“The lead coffin itself is extremely rare, so this has been a truly extraordinary dig.”

The excavation is now complete, and researchers will now focus on analysis of the skeletal remains. Bones will be radiocarbon dated to establish the timeline of the burials. Stable isotope analysis will also be performed to determine the geographic origins of the deceased. About half of the burials were younger than adult age, and there were several double burials, so researchers will be looking for evidence of disease as well.