Updated: 17 min 44 sec ago
The subject of the miniature is Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), a soldier, diplomat, statesman, poet, playwright and philosopher. His first cousin was Sir William Herbert, 1st Lord Powis. Scholars believe the miniature has been in the Powis family almost since it was first painted.
The cabinet miniature measures nine by seven inches and presents him as a chivalric hero of medieval romance, reclining in a verdant glade by a babbling brook. Lying recumbent with his head propped up on one hand, Herbert strikes the pose of the melancholic, symbolic of deep thought and contemplation. This isn’t just the image of a philosophically minded young man, however. Herbert is the Melancholy Knight here, shown in repose after dueling in a joust. His shield, decorated with a winged heart rising from the flames and the inscription “Magia Sympathiae,” (“sympathetic magic,” an element in Herbert’s metaphysical treatise De Veritate on the pursuit of truth) covers his arm, while in the background his elegant suit of armour is perched between two trees and his page holds a helmet so extravagantly beplumed that the red feathers obscure the page’s face entirely. To the right of the page, Herbert’s armoured white destrier paws the ground spiritedly. In the far distance, painted in blue, is a city on a river.
Edward Herbert was a dashing figure of the era, famed for his bravery, intellect and success with the ladies. The miniature was painted around 1610-1614, a time when Herbert had distinguished himself in highly chivalric fashion while volunteering under Philip William, Prince of Orange, in the Low Countries. From 1609 through 1614, the Dutch Republic was involved in the War of the Jülich Succession over who would control the United Duchies of Jülich-Cleves-Berg. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II claimed the duchy, as did Wolfgang William, Duke of Palatinate-Neuburg, John Sigismund, Elector of Brandenburg, and the Prince of Orange representing the interests of the Dutch Republic.
In 1610, the emperor’s troops occupied the fortified citadel of Jülich and the armies of the Republic, Palatinate-Newburg and Brandenburg came together to besiege it. Herbert stepped forward to propose a classic solution to the conflict: he offered to fight the Holy Roman Emperor’s chosen champion in single combat. The victorious champion would win the duchy for his lord. Rudolph II declined. The siege lasted 35 days before the Imperial troops surrendered and withdrew and Rudolph renounced his claim to the duchy.
Born in France the son of a Huguenot goldsmith named Pierre Olivier who anglicized his last name when he fled persecution in Rouen and moved to England, Isaac Oliver was 27 and already an experienced painter when he became a pupil in the workshop of painter Nicholas Hilliard who was a popular miniature portraitist of the Tudor court.
Hilliard was limited in his skills, however, sticking largely to relatively flat head-and-shoulders portraits. When Oliver began painting miniatures under Hilliard in 1587 he was quickly recognized as a great talent and an innovator of the genre, which was less than 70 years old at that time. His portraits covered more of the body, used more and brighter colors, added chiaroscuro shadow elements that gave the features more depth and dimension. Oliver introduced the naturalism of Renaissance Italian and Flemish painters to British miniatures, and his works were widely collected by the young and fashionable.
There is an extremely juicy backstory to the miniature, one that appropriately enough for Herbert involves a married woman, a pissed off husband, attempted murder and attempted duels. The tale is recounted by Edward Herbert himself in his scandalous autobiography which was only published a century after his death by Horace Walpole, publisher, author and son of the first prime minister of Britain Robert Walpole, who had borrowed it from the then-Earl of Powis. Walpole called it “the most curious and entertaining book in the world,” and with good reason.
According to Herbert, the miniature was commissioned not by the Herberts but by the wife of one Sir John Ayres. She had purloined a copy of the original painting, now lost, and had Oliver make a version in miniature to wear “about her neck, so low that she hid it under her breasts,” a placement that Herbert acknowledges gave Sir John reasonable cause for suspicion. Then this happened:
Coming one day into her chamber, I saw her through the curtains lying upon her bed with a wax candle in one hand, and the picture I formerly mentioned in the other. I coming thereupon somewhat boldly to her, she blew out the candle, and hid the picture from me; myself thereupon being curious to know what that was she held in her hand, got the candle to be lighted again, by means whereof I found it was my picture she looked upon with more earnestness and passion than I could have easily believed, especially since myself was not engaged in any affection towards her.
Why, who could think there was illicit affection between them, just because he found himself in her rooms with the lights out while she fondled a miniature of him she kept in her cleavage? Sir John, apparently, because word got out that he planned to kill Herbert in his bed. When several titled personages alerted Edward Herbert to the contract out on his head, he enlisted his cousin Sir William Herbert to ask Sir John Ayres to refrain from murdering him in his sickbed until they could meet in an honorable duel once Edward was recovered from a fever.
The appeal fell on deaf ears, but their communication led Sir John to change his plans from murder in bed to murder on the streets. He and four men-at-arms attacked Herbert, recently recovered from his illness and on his way to Whitehall. A fierce battle ensued in which Herbert fended off five men, broke his sword, took a dagger blow from ribs to hip and still managed to pin Sir John down and whup him like he owed him money with the busted remnant of his sword. Ayres’ men dragged his body to safety.
Herbert recovered from his knife wound and wrote to Ayres again suggesting an honorable duel between them. Ayres replied that Herbert “had whored his wife, and that he would kill [him] with a musket out of a window.” The Privy Council got involved, adjudicating the dispute between them. Lady Ayres wrote a letter denying her husband’s allegations and the lords oohed and aahed over Herbert’s brave Dumas-like derring-do. Ayres did not try to kill him again.
What’s missing in this self-servingly dashing narrative is an explanation of how the portrait wound up with the Powis Herberts. Perhaps Lady Ayres handed it over. Perhaps this whole story is, let’s just say, richly embellished.
The miniature will now spend several months getting treatment from conservators. Once it is in tip-top shape, it may be loaned to other museums — the piece has been loaned to institutions like the Victoria & Albert in the past — before returning the Powis Castle for permanent display.
Archaeologists excavating the Acemhöyük excavation site in central Turkey have unearthed a clay rattle that dates to the early Bronze Age. It has not been radiocarbon dated yet, but the layer in which it was found dates to around 2200 B.C. which makes the toy one of the oldest rattles ever found. Made out of terracotta, the rattle is shaped like an oval coin purse. It probably had a handle originally but that has been lost. The top has a few perforations to allow sound to escape. It is intact and still sealed with small objects inside, probably pebbles, which make the rattling noise. Had any part of it broken or chipped over the past 4,000 years, the contents would have fallen out and it would no longer rattle. Happenstance has preserved it so that we can still hear what the Bronze Age baby and parents who once shook it can hear.
You can see and hear the rattle rattled in this Turkish language news story on the find.
That’s Dr. Aliye Öztan in the video, leader of the excavations at Acemhöyük since 1989. Acemhöyük is a large oval mound 44 hectares in area that is one of the largest Bronze Age sites in Anatolia. The tumulus was erected around 3000 B.C. There are a total of 12 habitation layers, the oldest dating to the Late Copper Age. The rattle was found in layer seven. The settlement was continually inhabited from the Early Bronze Age through the Roman era, reaching peak prosperity in the second millennium B.C. when it was an important center of trade during the Assyrian Trade Colonies Period (1950-1750 B.C.) when the Assyrians established karums, or merchant colonies, in multiple cities in Anatolia.
Excavations at the site began in 1962 and have continued ever since. While earlier excavations have focused on the prosperous Assyrian Trade Colonies Period, the aims of the current dig is to excavate the bottom layer of the mound and the Early Bronze Age ones. The city walls were built in the Early Bronze Age, so this period is key to understanding the community’s growth and development. Other artifacts found this season include a fragment of a necklace made of bones, metal needles and cups.
The inscribed Etruscan stele discovered in the ancient settlement of Poggio Colla earlier this year has yielded an exciting name: Uni, a fertility/mother goddess who was the Etruscan equivalent of the Greco-Roman goddesses Hera and Juno. She may have been the goddess worshipped at the temple. Other finds made at Poggio Colla, most famously a ceramic fragment with the earliest birth scene in European art, support the contention that the town was the center of fertility cult.
The massive slab was found in the foundation of a 2,500-year-old stone temple, but it was recycled for that purpose. Archaeologists believe the stele was an important part of a sacred display in the first wood temple. It is ponderously sized at 500 pounds, four feet high and two feet wide, and is inscribed with letters and punctuation around the edges of the front face and sides. With the stone partially cleaned the number of characters found was 75. Now they’re up to 120 and still counting, putting it in the running for the longest Etruscan inscriptions on stone. It is certainly one of the three longest sacred (non-funerary) Etruscan texts yet discovered.
When the discovery of the stele was first announced, archaeologists expressed hope that they might discover from the inscription which deity the temple was dedicated to because it’s extremely rare for Etruscan sanctuaries to be so identified. The discovery of the name of the goddess Uni is therefore a wish come true. In addition to the name of the goddess Uni, researchers found the word “tinaś,” which they believe is a permutation of Tina or Tinia, the god of the sky and the top of the divine hierarchy in the Etruscan pantheon. Tina was the Etruscan equivalent of Zeus or Jupiter.
Etruscan epigrapher Adriano Maggiani and comparative linguist and University of Massachusetts Amherst classics professor Rex Wallace are studying the inscription and working to translate the text. They’ve found that the text was carved with great care, perhaps by a professional, highly skilled stone carver commissioned to carve words written by a scribe or temple official.
“This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions,” said archaeologist Gregory Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, which made the discovery. [...]
“It is also possible that it expresses the laws of the sanctuary — a series of prescriptions related to ceremonies that would have taken place there, perhaps in connection with an altar or some other sacred space,” said Warden[.]
This is just the early stage of the translation, hence the carefully qualified statements. Mugello Valley Archaeological Project researchers will present the discovery of the goddess Uni in the inscription at an exhibit in Florence on August 27th. The talk will include a hologram of the stele since the stone itself is still in the process of conservation at the Archaeological Superintendency in Florence. Their findings will also be published in the upcoming November issue of the journal Etruscan Studies.
“We can at this point affirm that this discovery is one of the most important Etruscan discoveries of the last few decades,” Warden said. “It’s a discovery that will provide not only valuable information about the nature of sacred practices at Poggio Colla, but also fundamental data for understanding the concepts and rituals of the Etruscans, as well as their writing and perhaps their language.”
It was the recent discovery of the sixth axe that set the wheels in motion for its reunion with its five brethren, but the story begins in 1930 when a farmer discovered a Neolithic flint axe in a field near Snostrup on the Roskilde Fjord in southwestern Denmark. The axe was 27 centimeters (10.6 inches) long and roughly hewn. Over time the farmer found another four axes with the same coarse finish. In 1975, National Museum of Denmark curator CL Vedbæk visited the farmer and documented the axes. Treasure trove laws were different then; after the artifacts were recorded, they stayed with the finder.
Forty-one years later, an archaeological excavation in the same field unearthed another rough axe. Museum Group ROMU archaeologist Jens Winther Johannsen was part of the excavation team. He remembered there were other Neolithic axes found in the field and decided to seek out the family. He asked around and was able to locate one of the farmer’s sons. As luck would have it, the family had kept the axes together and in good condition and the son wanted to hand them in to the National Museum. The National Museum judged them to be treasure trove. The state gets to keep the axes and the farmer’s family will get a finder’s fee.
The five previously excavated axes were transferred to the Museum Group ROMU, thus reuniting them with the sixth one unearthed this year. Examination of the group found that all of the axes are so roughly worked they are classified as intermediate goods, begun, but not completed. They would have had to be reworked, sharpened and polished on a grinding wheel before they could be used. National Museum curator Peter Vang Petersen and Jens Winther Johannsen think that the six axes were deposited together and then spread all over the field by subsequent cultivation. The whitish color of the axes indicates they spent many centuries in the same place where the soil conditions affected their color. They are made out of the same type of flint, and stylistically they all date to the mid-Neolithic, about 2,800-2,600 B.C.
The field where they were discovered was a marsh during the Neolithic. The area wasn’t drained and developed for agriculture until the 19th century. As a general interpretative rule, archaeologists believe deposits in wetlands were religious offerings, sacrifices, ritual “killings” of powerful objects, while objects buried in dry soil were stored for later retrieval. The six axes, therefore, are thought to have been ritually sacrificed to the gods by deposition in the marsh.
As for why unfinished flint axes might have been considered desirable sacrifices, archaeologists have found both finished and intermediate flint objects deposited in wetlands. Petersen hypothesizes that the form may not have been the important factor, rather the material used. The sacrifice of flint objects may have been a kind of tax or toll due to the gods for all the flint removed from the earth. Neolithic Danes were well aware of the value and importance of flint. Eastern Denmark was the center of flint production in northern Europe. From there, they were exported east to the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea and north to Sweden and Norway where there is no natural source of flint.
There are no current plans to display all six of the flint axes. The five that were found by the farmer will probably be part of the National Museum’s exhibition of select artifacts that were declared treasure trove the year before. That won’t happen until 2017.
A group of artifacts recently turned in to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) include a striking embossed hand grenade from the Crusader era. The objects were collected by the late Marcel Mazliah who worked at the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera on the northwest Mediterranean coast of Israel since it was built in 1973. Over the years, he found a broad assortment of archaeological treasures in the sea, probably lost in shipwrecks or simply overboard.
The Mazliah family contacted the IAA after Marcel died and they inherited his less-than-legal collection. An expert went to their home to examine the artifacts and was surprised to find such significant pieces.
According to Mrs. Ayala Lester, a curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The finds include a toggle pin and the head of a knife from the Middle Bronze Age (from more than 3,500 years ago). The other items, among them, two mortars and two pestles, fragments of candlesticks, etc. date to the Fatimid period (eleventh century CE). The items were apparently manufactured in Syria and were brought to Israel. The finds are evidence of the metal trade that was conducted during this period”.
The hand grenade is a handsome example of a weapon in common use by Islamic forces during the Crusader (1099-1187), Ayyubid (1187-1250) and Mamluk (1260-1516) periods. It is made of unglazed ceramic and embossed with grooves and tear drop-shaped designs. It has a domed top over a spherical body that tapers to a point. They were filled with incendiary material – petroleum, naphtha, Greek fire — and thrown or catapulted into the enemy camp where they exploded fire that water could not put out on their targets. There’s a small hole in the top into which flammable liquid could be poured and a wick added once the grenade was loaded.
Some scholars believe these vessels were not weapons, but rather perfume bottles. They’re certainly pretty enough for it and it seems counterintuitive that someone would bother to decorate an explosive projectile whose sole function is to destroy itself and take people down with it. On the other hand, their shape makes them markedly unsuited for placement on a dresser, requiring a rack or holder to keep them vertical, and the decorations also have the practical function of making the devices easier to grip in the hand or set snugly in the sling of a catapult. A smooth clay grenade would be dangerously easy to drop.
There is historical and archaeological evidence of this type of vessel being used in war. For one thing, clusters of them have been found in fortresses, castles and moats. The 12th century historian Mardi ibn Ali al-Tarsusi mentioned in the military manual he wrote for Saladin in 1187 that terracotta vessels with incendiary contents were launched from catapults or thrown from ramparts. Other sources from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries describe the clay gourds in more detail, explaining how they were used in battle and the various launching methods. Chemical analysis of residue inside several similar pieces discovered traces of rock salt, pine resin and other flammable materials. One gourd on display in the National Museum of Damascus has an inscription that leaves no question as to its bellicose purpose: “This kind of projectile is useful for targeting the enemy.”
The IAA is grateful that the family has voluntarily come forward and handed the artifacts over to the state. Officials plan to give the Mazliah family with a certificate of appreciation and, which is way cooler, have invited the family to visit the IAA laboratories where the artifacts will be studied and conserved.
The Voynich Manuscript, a folio of mysterious illustrations and hand-written texts written in an unknown language or code, has been bedevilling linguists and cryptographers for almost 600 years. Radiocarbon dating of the book’s vellum leaves found it was produced between 1404 and 1438, and even though the ink cannot be dated at present, researchers believe the manuscript was written relatively close to the parchment’s age. There’s a documented history of alchemists, scholars, occultists, even one emperor (Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II) succumbing to its fascination since the 1600s. It fell off the radar in the late 17th century only to be rediscovered in 1912 inside a trunk at the Jesuit College at Frascati near Rome by Polish antiquarian and book dealer Wilfrid Voynich.
Voynich was obsessed with attempting to decipher the manuscript, dedicating the last 18 years of his life to the pursuit. Since then, everyone from professional codebreakers from both World Wars to amateur puzzlers have tried to crack the code. It has become the a cryptological Holy Grail, and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which was owned the volume since 1969, gets thousands of emails a month from people claiming to have cracked the code. Fully 90% of traffic to the library’s website goes to the digitized images of the manuscript.
The Beinecke Library gets constant requests to loan the codex out to museums, institutions and researchers — it is the second most requested book after the Gutenberg Bible — but they mainly keep it locked up in a vault for its own protection. If everyone who wanted to turn its pages did so, its condition would quickly deteriorate. In 2005, a small Spanish publishing company called Siloé which specializes in printing precise facsimiles of historic manuscripts learned of the Voynich Manuscript and campaigned with the Beinecke to be allowed to make a specialized reproduction of it. Ten years later, the deal was done and the obscure publishers in the historic center of Burgos in northern Spain were granted the right to make the first ever copy of the Voynich Manuscript.
Siloe … has bought the rights to make 898 exact replicas of the Voynich — so faithful that every stain, hole, sewn-up tear in the parchment will be reproduced.
The company always publishes 898 replicas of each work it clones — a number which is a palindrome, or a figure that reads the same backwards or forwards — after the success of their first facsimile that they made 696 copies of… another palindrome.
The publishing house plans to sell the facsimiles for 7,000 to 8,000 euros ($7,800 to $8,900) apiece once completed — and close to 300 people have already put in pre-orders.
The first high resolution photographs of the 252 pages of the manuscript were taken earlier this year and Siloé experts are now working on mock-ups. It’s no easy task reproducing a codex that has lived a rich and varied life over 600 years. Each folio is bound by hand and the delicate vellum has been exposed to diverse, sometimes damaging, climactic conditions. Some pages are dehydrated. Others are almost burnt from exposure to heat and light. Then there are the complexities inherent in this particular codex which has leaves that unfold into triples and quadruple pages.
Once the images are sorted out, the book will be printed on special paper developed by the company. Made from a thick paste, the paper will be treated so that the final product has the stiff feel of the Voynich vellum. The printed pages will then be then bound and aged to match the original.
It’ll be about 18 months before the first facsimiles go to print. The 300 copies that have already been sold in advance were all purchased by individuals — institutions have to wait to buy things when they actually exist — but one of the main reasons the Beinecke agreed to the copy was so facsimiles to go to museums and schools for scholars to peruse without fear of damaging the original. There must be some sort of reservation option with such a limited run already being more than a third claimed. I could find no means to preorder on the publisher’s website. Perhaps there will be more information available on the site once we get closer to publication.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Silvano Toti Foundation, the Hercules Room of Rome’s Palazzo Venezia is now getting a much-needed restoration. The Palazzo Venezia was built in the middle of the 15th century at the behest of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II. The stones used to build it were taken from the Colosseum, just a short jaunt to the southeast. One of the first buildings in Rome with Renaissance architectural elements, the Palazzo Venezia would outlive many later Renaissance buildings which were damaged or destroyed by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor during the Sack of Rome in 1527.
In 1564 the Pope granted use of the palace to the Most Serene Republic of Venice for its embassy. From the end of the 18th century until World War I, it was the seat for the Austrian ambassador to the Holy See. At war with Austria-Hungary, the Italian state claimed it in 1916. Benito Mussolini claimed the Map Room in the Palazzo Venezia for his office and many a newsreel captures him speechifying from the balcony to adoring crowds below. He even built a secret bunker in the basement.
Today the palace is a national museum, home to thousands of works of art. While the building was modified repeatedly over five centuries, it still holds many original decorations from the 15th century. The Hercules Room is perhaps the most sterling example, with its frescoes depicting the Labours of Hercules and elaborately carved and painted wooden ceiling. Located on the piano nobile (the first floor where the receiving and private rooms of the noble family were), the Hercules Room was at one end of the Pietro Barbo’s apartment. Once he was elevated to the Throne of Saint Peter and got new digs in the Vatican, the room was used to store pontifical vestments. The highest part of the walls are decorated with eight panels displaying scenes from the Labours — Hercules and the Nemean lion, Hercules and Antaeus, Hercules with one of Geryon’s head of cattle, Hercules and Geryon, Hercules slaying the dragon Ladon, guardian of the Apples of the Hesperides, Hercules and the Ceryneian Hind, Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds, and lastly, Hercules and the centaur Nessus. Frescoed between the Labour panels are little putti, garlands, architectural motifs and the coat of arms of Pope Paul II.
Some past scholars have attributed to the great master of perspective and antique motifs Andrea Mantegna who famously frescoed the exquisite Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. Others attributed them to an unnamed artist at the pontifical court. The artist remains unknown today, although scholars believe he was probably from northern Italy. The restoration and study of the frescoes will give experts the opportunity to revisit the authorship question.
The restoration is expected to take four months, from July to October. They will be a busy four months. On the agenda are the cleaning of the frescoes, the strengthening of the plaster layer and paint layers, revising past restorations and disinfecting and disinfesting the wood ceiling. Restorers will also investigate the techniques used in the original painting of the frescoes.
Restorers Isabella Righetti and Rita Ciardi told ANSA that renovation work is urgently needed because of repeated and heavy-handed work carried out in the past. [...]
“By cleaning them, we hope to rediscover the polish of the paintings, which were supposed to look like large windows that were open towards the outside”.
Free guided tours of the room will be offered to the public starting in September so visitors will have the chance to view the restorers at work.
A team of international researchers has found that an ancient Roman port in Albania is much larger than archaeologists realized. Led by Peter Campbell of the University of Southampton and Neritan Ceka of the Albanian Institute of Archaeology, the expedition’s aim was to assess the ecological health of the coastal waters and the condition of submerged archaeological sites from Butrint on the southern tip of the country near the border with Greece, north along the Adriatic to the Bay of Vlorë.
The remains of the ancient city of Triport are for the most part submerged in the waters near the modern port city of Vlorë. It was first discovered by archaeologists in the 1920s who documented Greek and/or Roman stone structures including the beginnings of a large wall and a road. Surveys in the 1970s and 80s discovered an ancient fortress and its defensive walls. It was inhabited from the 6th c. B.C. to the 2nd A.D.
The structures were initially thought to be part of the supportive infrastructure of the port. Later investigations found that the large walls originally encircled the lower city. When sea levels rose, the port and lower city were submerged. Archaeologists have mapped about 12 acres of the site over the past century. This season divers found an additional eight acres of ancient structures under water.
The results suggest Triport was a harbour for a large settlement during the Roman period, perhaps associated with the ancient city of Aulon (now Vlora). Triport offered ships safe anchorage in both the sea and Narta Lagoon, and connected to ancient cities like Aulon and Apollonia through major Roman roads. [...]
Peter Campbell comments: “We found indicators of ancient sea level change, Greek and Roman trade (4th BC – 7th AD), and contemporary environmental data. But one of the most significant discoveries was the larger submerged remains – prompting us to rethink the importance of Triport as a Roman harbour.
“Albania has some of the most important waters in the Mediterranean. This coastline was vital for ancient trade and it continues to be significant as the convergence zone for species from the Adriatic and Ionian seas.”
The survey discovered copious evidence of the long history of active trade along the Albanian coastline. Amphorae, bellwethers of trade in the Mediterranean thanks to their eminently datable styles, have been found dating from the Hellenistic Period through the early Middle Ages. There are anchors galore, made of stone, lead and iron. The team also found common consumer goods like dishware, water jugs and imbreces and tegulae (curved and flat roof tiles). The artifacts were not recovered, but left in situ for future explorations.
What was retrieved from the ancient underwater structures is even more valuable than amphorae and anchors: information that illuminates the history of coastal shifts.
Ancient archaeological sites such as cities, harbour structures, and quarries around southern Albanian showed submergence up to 150 cm, due to a number of geological processes. Peter Campbell comments: “The Albanian coast is incredibly dynamic and we have found excellent indicators of sea-level change such as tidal notches to sunken cities and harbours. This lets us reconstruct the coast in the past, which tells us how different parts are changing through time and may change in the future.”
Hot on the heels of the protein analysis that determined the animal products used to clothe Iron Age mummies, researchers at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman have discovered new information about Ötzi the Iceman’s couture. The Iceman died and was naturally mummified in the gelid Öztal Alps about 5,300 years ago. The glacier that preserved his body and much of his clothes and accessories isn’t the acidic environment of the Danish peat bogs, but 5,300 years in ice still takes a toll on the structure of leather and fur. Since 1992, researchers have attempted to identify the animal source of the Iceman’s couture by microscopic analysis, peptide analysis of keratin and collagen content, and in 2012, the first genetic analysis extracted mitochondrial DNA from fragments of leather that could not be connected to a specific garment.
A new DNA study has expanded on those earlier studies, taking samples nine samples of leather and hide from the Iceman’s coat, leggings, fur hat, hay-stuffed shoes, loincloth and quiver. They were able to sequence the full mitochondrial genomes of each sample and thus identify the animals from which the materials originated.
The sample from Ötzi’s quiver, which was previously believed to made of chamois leather, was in fact from roe deer hide, although researchers cannot exclude the possibility that the quiver was made from the hide of more than one animal so there could be chamois areas that haven’t been sampled yet. The hat was made from brown bear. The rest of his wardrobe was crafted from domestic animals. A sample from a leather strap on one of the shoes was made from a cattle hide. His leggings, which were thought to be made from wild wolf, fox or dog, were actually made from goat hide. The loincloth, previously believed to have been made from goat hide, was in fact sheep hide. The hide coat was made of a mixture of goat and sheepskin, stitched together from the skins of at least four animals.
The species of goat and sheep are genetically closer to modern domestic sheep than wild ones, which is why researchers believe these were domestic goats and sheep rather than trapped or hunted wild ones. In fact, the species of all the domestic animals — cattle, sheep and goat — used to make the Iceman’s attire are members of haplogroups frequently seen in the same species that live all over Europe today.
That, says [the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman's Niall] O’Sullivan, shows that while Ötzi was likely to be from an agricultural or herding community, he was an enterprising chap. “It is possible that he might have used his hunting ability to capture and kill a bear, or it [could be] that he came across a dying bear and opportunistically took the skin and used it as leather,” says O’Sullivan. “It shows us that he was opportunistic and resourceful and used to the best of his ability the scarce resources which were available to him in a very harsh environment.”
The iceman, it seems, was also adept at a bit of make do and mend. “The Copper Age neolithic style of making leather was very primitive, clothing would have decomposed and degraded quite quickly under normal circumstances,” says O’Sullivan. “So he had to rapidly change his clothes and he was probably constantly renewing the clothes and augmenting it so that bits didn’t fall apart.”
In addition to the new information about Ötzi and Copper Age clothing revealed by this study, the results have wider implications for future analyses of ancient and prehistoric artifacts. The fact that full mitochondrial genomes were successfully sequenced from samples of degraded skins and furs more than 5,000 years old bodes well for their recovery in other organic archaeological materials.
The full report was published in Scientific Reports and can be read here.
Archaeologists from the University of Gothenburg have unearthed an exceptionally rich grave dating to 1500-1400 B.C. near the Bronze Age city of Hala Sultan Tekke in eastern Cyprus, one of the richest from the period ever found in Cyprus. The grave was discovered after a geophysical survey pinpointed nearly 100 underground pits in an area where farming had caused significant erosion. Most of the pits were wells averaging three feet in diameter. One of them was significantly larger at 13 by 10 feet. Excavation found the large pit was a family tomb which held the remains of eight children between five and 10 years old and nine adults, the oldest of whom was only 40 at the time of death. An offering pit was found adjacent to the tomb.
Inside the grave and offering pit, archaeologists found 140 complete ceramic vessels, gold jewelry including a diadem, earrings and beads, gold-mounted stone scarabs, gemstones, a bronze dagger and five cylinder seals. Some of the objects were made locally; some were made in Syria, Mesopotamia or Egypt. Most of the ceramics are elaborately decorated. Subjects painted on the vessels include people in a two-horse chariot, religious iconography, animals and a woman wearing elegant Minoan clothing. The ceramic vases were largely imported from Greece, Crete and Anatolia.
“The pottery carries a lot of archaeological information. There were for example high-class Mycenaean imports, meaning pottery from Greece, dated to 1500–1300 BC. The motif of the woman, possibly a goddess, is Minoan, which means it is from Crete, but the vase was manufactured in Greece. Back in those days, Crete was becoming a Greek ‘colony’,” says [University of Gothenburg professor of Cypriote archaeology Peter] Fischer.
According to Fischer, the painting of the woman’s dress is highly advanced and shows how wealthy women dressed around this time. The motif can also be found on frescos for example in the Palace of Knossos in Heraklion, Crete.
The grave goods also feature important objects from Egypt, like the gold-mounted scarabs. One of the stone scarabs is inscribed with the hieroglyphs for ‘men-kheper-re’ and the figure of a pharaoh. It refers to 18th Dynasty pharaoh Thutmose III (1479–1425 BC), whose successful wars of conquest expanded Egypt’s empire to its largest size, absorbing Syria and much of Mesopotamia.
Hala Sultan Tekke was one of the largest cities in the Late Bronze Age. It was inhabited from 1600 through 1150 B.C. and radar surveys have found that at its peak it was up to 50 hectares in area. The prosperous city benefited from extensive trade connections that reached as far as Sweden. The great number and variety of artifacts found in the tomb didn’t travel quite that far, but they attest to the availability of luxury imports in the Late Bronze Age city.
The archaeological team found evidence in the city proper of textile production and purple dying on an industrial scale. Purple dye was rare, expensive and of regal cachet. With purple textiles to trade, Bronze Age Hala Sultan Tekke could afford the best goods Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Greece, Anatolia and Crete had to offer.
The tomb was found next to an older neighborhood of the city which has yet to be fully explored. Excavations are over for the season, but the team will return next year to explore more of the area near the tomb before agricultural activity destroy the site.
Danish researchers have developed a new protein analysis that can identify the animal source of fibers in the clothing of bog bodies. Before now, the skins and textiles worn by the bodies mummified by thousands of years in bogs were too degraded to be conclusively identified, even the very well-preserved examples.
“With proteins, we could make a completely accurate species identification in 11 out of 12 samples and show that species identification that was carried out by microscopy on half of the samples was incorrect,” says lead-author Luise Brandt, who completed the research during her Ph.D. at the University of Copenhagen, but is now based at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.
The new technique can for the first time help archaeologists to differentiate between goats or sheeps wool, for example, which would otherwise be difficult to do when studying hairs that had spent 2000 years in a bog, says Brandt. [...]
According to Brandt, her method should help to identify how people selected the material from which to make their clothes, which may give an insight into the resources available at the time in that society.
“It’s important to know what kind of material you have chosen for what [purpose], and there were various skins that were particularly useful for different functions. It tells us whether they kept or hunted the animals at that time, and beyond the practical aspects, the choice of material also reflects their tastes, or a desire to send a certain signal through what they wore,” says Brandt.
Brandt previously tried to use DNA analysis to identify the material, but found that testable DNA did not typically survive after 2,000 years in a bog. The environment is so acidic that DNA strands degrade too much to be recovered. Proteins, on the other hand, were extraordinarily hardy, survived 10 times longer than DNA. Since the amino acids that make up proteins vary by animal species, protein extracted from ancient wool or leather can identify which animal the material came from.
Brandt’s study took 12 samples from 10 cloaks and one tunic (two samples were taken from one cloak because the two sections were different colors) of bog bodies in the Danish National Museum. All of the bodies were found on the peninsula of Jutland and date to around 2000 years ago. They include Huldremose Woman, who was discovered wearing an exceptionally well-preserved outfit of a skirt, scarf and two cloaks. Brandt was able to identify the animal source in 11 of the 12 samples: two cow, three goat, six sheep. The 12th sample was inconclusive because it could only be narrowed down to sheep or goat. The protein that distinguishes between the two did not survive.
The study indicates that the primary sources of materials for bog body garments were domesticated animals, not the skins of wild animals slain in the hunt, correcting a misconception about Iron Age Germanic peoples that has lingered since Tacitus who wrote in Germania that they “wear the skins of wild beasts.”
The protein analysis also revealed that the tunic belonging to a man found in Møgel bog near Jelling was made out of calf leather. Not only could the test distinguish between adult cow and baby, but it could narrow down the age of the calf from the last month of gestation through the first three months after birth. The key marker was hemoglobin, the protein found in red blood cells. The type of hemoglobin found in the tunic is produced only in the last month of pregnancy through the first three months after which it is replaced by another type.
“I think that the smoking gun was the haemoglobin. We can see that they went to great lengths to make the garments and choose the right skin,” says Brandt.
“But now we can see that they used calfskin for the tunic, which could suggest that the skin was a really important part of why they slaughtered young animals and that it was an important product,” says Brandt.
A rare cache of Native American two-faced stone tools known as bifaces has been discovered on private property in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The landowner, who prefers to remain anonymous, discovered the obsidian pieces with the telltale flaked edges of flintknapping while digging a pond and notified the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office. Assistant State Archaeologist John Pouley excavated the find site and unearthed a total of 15 blank trade bifaces, tools shaped by flintknappers for trade but left incomplete.
“For starters, we wouldn’t know the site existed if the landowner hadn’t reached out to our office to report the find,” Pouley said. “Aside from the importance of his stewardship, the biface cache is additionally a rare type of archaeological site.
“Of approximately 35,000 recorded archaeological sites in Oregon, few, likely less than 25, consist of biface caches, he added. “Of the known biface cache sites, it is believed to be the first recorded in the Willamette Valley.”
Archaeologists were able to trace the origin of the obsidian from its chemical composition to Obsidian Cliffs in the Central Oregon Cascades more than 100 miles east of the Willamette Valley. The rough shaping was done there. It’s not clear how they ended up in the valley in the traditional territory of the Santiam Band of the Kalapuya. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation were consulted by archaeologists during the dig for insight into the artifacts and their movements.
Blank bifaces are rare. The vast majority discovered are finished tools — hand axes, knives, spear tips, arrowheads — stockpiled and buried. Biface caches have been found all over the world dating back as far as 20,000 years ago. Sometimes they appear as burial offerings in a funerary context. Other times they are buried in isolated locations probably for storage purposes with the intent of later retrieval. The Willamette Valley cache is of the latter type and is between 1,000 to 4,000 years old.
There is no equivalent of the UK’s treasure trove law in the United States. All archaeological objects (save for Native American human remains and related funerary objects) found on private land belong to the landowners. The Oregon State Historic Preservation Office doesn’t know what the landowner plans to do with the bifaces. He can keep them, donate them to a museum or another institution or a tribe. He could sell them, for that matter, but given his responsible reporting of the find, which he was in no way legally obligated to do, perhaps he’ll take the more civic-minded approach. He already took advantage of the unique opportunity to have middle school students observe the excavation as a field trip.
The cache gave them a tangible piece of history, said a teacher who accompanied the students to the site. Adding, “When we study the history of ancient native peoples of this area, we can now speak more fully to a complexity of culture — trade routes, the manufacturing of goods, migratory patterns–and then point to artifacts like those found here and show our students the evidence.”
Pouley plans to publish a formal archaeological report in a peer-reviewed journal and he will also share his findings with those students and the rest of the pre-K through 12th grade Abiqua Academy.
The skeleton of a teenager unearthed on Mount Lykaion in the central Peloponnese region of Arcadia may be evidence that repeated references to human sacrifice in Greek mythology, literature and philosophy may have some truth to them. According to local legend, Zeus was born and raised on Mount Lykaion (Mount Ida in Crete is more commonly cited as his birthplace) and the mountain was sacred to him. Lycaon, the legendary first king of Arcadia, was said to have built a sanctuary to the god on the mountain and sacrificed a human baby to him, spilling its blood on the altar. Other versions of the story have Lycaon roasting parts of his own son or grandson and feeding them to Zeus as a test of his divine powers.
Whatever the sacrificial method, Zeus was less than pleased, transforming Lycaon into a wolf in punishment. The wolf king’s name is the root of lycanthropy and elements of the myth were incorporated into literary and folk traditions about werewolves. The 2nd century geographer Pausanias in his Description of Greece recounts the myth and finds it persuasive even though later embelishments gave the truthful Lycaon origin story the ring of falsehood.
It is said, for instance, that ever since the time of Lycaon a man has changed into a wolf at the sacrifice to Lycaean Zeus, but that the change is not for life; if, when he is a wolf, he abstains from human flesh, after nine years he becomes a man again, but if he tastes human flesh he remains a beast for ever.
Werewolf lore aside, there is an ancient sanctuary of Zeus on the southern peak of Mount Lykaion at almost 4,600 feet of altitude. Since 2004, the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, a collaboration of the Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the University of Arizona, has been surveying and excavating the site, exploring both the upper sanctuary, the sacrificial altar at the peak, and the lower sanctuary, a large complex of monumental buildings including a hippodrome, stadium, baths and an administrative building. The Lykaia festival and games were held there to honor Zeus. They found evidence of use of the Mount Lykaion site — early Helladic pottery sherds — dating back 5,000 years, although there is no indication Zeus was worshipped that early.
There is, however, unmistakable evidence of copious animal sacrifices at the upper sanctuary from at least the 16th century B.C. in the Mycenaean period until around 300 B.C.: an ash altar 100 feet broad built up over more than a thousand years of burnt offerings. Tens of thousands of animals, mainly goats and sheep, were sacrificed and burned there for Zeus’ pleasure. This summer, the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project discovered a man-made stone platform. Neaby in the ash altar, they found a human burial, the first ever discovered at a sanctuary positively bursting with animal remains.
The skeleton was on its back in a narrow trench dug into the ash and charred earth. The remains are in good condition, almost intact save for the upper part of the skull which is missing. They belong to an adolescent, probably male. He was laid out on an east-west orientation and both north and south sides of the trench are lined with field stones. More stone slabs cover the pelvis. This burial method is very unusual. Ceramics found buried with the body date to the late Mycenaean period, around the 11th century B.C., during the transition from the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age.
David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona, who participated in the dig on Mount Lykaion said classical writers linked the remote peak with human sacrifice. According to legend, a young boy would be sacrificed with animals, before the human and animal meat was cooked and eaten. “Several ancient literary sources mention rumours that human sacrifice took place at the altar but up until a few weeks ago there has been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site,” said Romano.
“Whether it’s a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar … so it’s not a place where you would bury an individual,” he said. “It’s not a cemetery.”
The remains will be studied for confirmation of age, sex, date and hopefully any indications of cause of death. Even if additional analysis is inconclusive, only 7% of the altar has been excavated in four years, so future excavations may answer some questions about how the ancient Greeks sacrificed to their gods. The Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey will continue to excavate the site until 2020.
An 500-year-old engraving by Albrecht Dürer lost since World War II turned up in flea market in France. A retired archaeologist and art collector found copperplate engraving entitled Mary Crowned by an Angel at a stall of assorted tchotchkes in Sarrebourg in northeastern France close to the German border. Priced to move at just a few euros, the engraving had been acquired by the stall owner at a home clearance sale. Mary Crowned by an Angel
The buyer recognized it as a Dürer engraving and quickly bought it. When he examined it more closely, he saw a stamp on the back from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Being a responsible, law-abiding type, he looked it up in the database of the German Lost Art Foundation which registers cultural items that were illegally seized usually by Nazis but also by other looters from private owners and institutions. The entry in the database confirmed that it was stolen and the new owner decided to return it to the museum. He and his wife went to the museum in person, long-lost Dürer engraving in hand, and gave it back.
“We are very grateful that, after more than 70 years, the work came to the hands of an art lover who did not keep his valuable find for themselves, but returned it to the public instead,” the museum’s director Christiane Lange said on Thursday.
How it got from Stuttgart 130 miles west to Sarrebourg is a mystery. It was likely stolen from storage at the end of the war in 1945 and crossed the border for a surreptitious sale. We know that at some point after the war it belonged to a former deputy mayor of Sarrebourg. None of the post-war owners can claim good faith since the stamp on the back of the engraving makes it clear that its legitimate owner was a museum.
At least the illegitimate owners treated it right, keeping it wrapped in paper and preserving it for 70 years. The engraving is in excellent condition, complete with the original matting. It depicts Mary holding a chubby baby Jesus (who looks, it must be said, distinctly over it all) while being crowned by an angel. It’s part of series of 15 engravings of Mary and the Christ Child Dürer printed at different times over the years.
The museum has not put the prodigal Mary on display yet. Officials are contemplating the best setting for their returned treasure. Perhaps a special Dürer exhibition is in order since the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart has an extensive collection of 250 prints by Dürer.
A metal detectorist has discovered a Roman phallus charm in a field near Horncastle, Lincolnshire. Made of copper-alloy, the phallus weighs 11.6 grams and is 45.41 mm (1.8 inches) long. It’s curved in profile, with two spheres at one end representing testicles and two thin grooves run down the length of the underside with notched ribs between them. It was worn as a pendant from a loop in the center. Comparison with similar examples suggest a date of 120-300 A.D.
Phalluses were widespread in the Roman empire. They were talismans of protection against the evil eye, a curse that could be inflicted by individuals or by entire tribes that were believed to be collectively well-endowed with evil eye powers. The phallic deity Fascinus was thought to be protect against such spells, so his small, portable representatives performed the same function. They were extremely popular with the Roman soldiers. They were worn as pendants on necklaces and as decoration on cavalry horse harnesses.
Because they were so common in the army, phallus amulets can be found all over the empire. Britain is no exception. In fact, it’s particularly rich in phalluses. The largest collection of phallus amulets with the fist or the “fig sign” warding gesture at one end was discovered in Camulodunum, modern-day Colchester in Essex, the first capital of Roman Britain. Very few have been found in Lincolnshire, however.
The Horncastle phallus is similar to several horse harness pendants, but it could have been worn around the neck by a civilian. It wasn’t found on the site of a fort or other known army encampment. Phallus pendants were worn by adults and children — they were considered very effective against harm to a child — with no connection to the military.
It doesn’t have quite the rarity and cachet of the gold phallus pendant found in Hillington, Norfolk, in 2011, and since it’s not made of precious metals, it won’t be declared treasure trove which means the finder gets to keep the piece. That’s way better than gold, as far as I’m concerned. If I found something like that, I’d wear it every day.
The excavation at the Alamo has unearthed an intriguing fragment from the same period of the doomed defense of the fort that has been immortalized in film, literature and legend. It’s the broken tip of a sword, a piece about six inches long from a type of sabre known as a briquet which was manufactured in France from the Napoleonic era through 1860 and was sold to the Spanish and Mexican infantry. It would have been issued to a non-commissioned officer in the Mexican army.
The object was discovered in the area of the south wall gate where the adobe bricks were discovered. That was considered the weakest part of the fort and it saw a great deal of military action, but this is the first confirmed military artifact recovered thus far at the south wall.
Military artifacts expert Sam Nesmith, director of the Texas Institute and Museum of Military History, identified it as a Mexican briquet. He dates by its design to between October 1835 and February 1836. Until December of 1835, the Alamo was held by General Martin Perfecto de Cos, General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, who ordered extensive modifications and fortifications, including strengthening the south gate right. After 56 days of siege, Cos surrendered San Antonio and the Alamo to Texian forces in December. Just a hundred men held the fort for the next two months. In the chaos of the period, requests for reinforcements went unfulfilled by the Texas government.
On February 23rd, Santa Anna, Cos and the Mexican army arrived in San Antonio and turned the tables. They besieged the Alamo for 13 days. On March 6, 1836, they attacked. Colonel Juan Morales was tasked with assaulting the south wall and gate with 100 infantry. The defenders, Davy Crockett and his Tennesseans, put up a strong fight, forcing Morales’ men to shift to the southwest corner of the palisade. They broke through there. Morales’ men turned the cannon onto the barracks and to the artillery installation on the roof of the Alamo church. Davy Crockett and James Bowie were killed in this assault.
If the dating proves accurate, this sword tip could have broken off during the famous battle itself. Nesmith doesn’t think so, though. The torquing and pattern of breakage suggested to him that the sword may have been being used as a tool in construction causing the tip to break. Somebody, perhaps during Cos’ fortifications of the wall in late 1835, could have reached for the sword as a handy device only to inadvertently break it. It wouldn’t be the first time. Another sword tip was unearthed in the Main Plaza in 2007 where Cos had his troops dig a defensive entrenchment in December of 1835.
The sword tip will go to the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas San Antonio. They don’t know yet if they will clean the corrosion to restore it to a more recognizably shiny-swordy condition. The process is expensive, so they’ll have to see if there’s room in the budget.
There’s an excellent video in which an archaeologist explains the tip fragment in detail here. I can’t embed it because of cursed autoplay, but it’s just a couple of minutes long and well worth a look.
A large Roman-era mosaic floor depicting chariot racing has been revealed in full after a year of excavations in the village of Akaki outside Nicosia, Cyprus. Excavations on the site began in 2014 when the remains of a large cistern 10 x 14 meters (33 x 46 feet) in dimension were discovered. In the summer of 2015, a section of a mosaic was unearthed on the south side of the cistern. Its large size, exceptional quality and very rare depiction of a chariot race distinguished it as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Cyprus.
This year’s dig has exposed almost all of the mosaic. It is 11 meters long and four meters wide (36 by 13 feet) and was likely part of the floor of a large villa. It dates to the first half of the 4th century. Much of it is in a good state of preservation. The ornately decorated scene shows four quadrigae (chariots drawn by a team of four horses as in Ben Hur), possibly representing the four factions of professional racers in the Roman world — the Reds, Whites, Greens, and Blues — competing in a race at a circus or hippodrome. The chariots race around the spina, the median running down the center of the track. The charioteers are all standing and each quadriga is labeled with two inscriptions that are probably the names of the charioteer and the lead horse.
At the eastern end of the spina is the meta, the turning point where the greatest concentration of accidents, often fatal to rider and horses, occurred as the driver attempted to maneuver four galloping horses and one two-wheeled vehicle tightly around the curve. The meta is shown as a circular platform with three cones, each topped with an egg. The spina is decorated with an aedicule (a small temple) on one end and three columns, each topped with a dolphin with water pouring out of its mouth, in the middle. Standing between the chariots on the track are two men, one holding a whip, the other a vessel of water. There is also a figure on horseback.
The scene is encased in borders of intricate geometric designs. At the western end of the floor is another mosaic, nine medallions arranged in a circle, each holding the bust of a female figure. While this section has yet to be fully cleaned, already it’s clear that the nine figures are the muses, each identifiable from the symbols they hold.
Racing scenes like this one are extremely rare in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, and even in the west they can be counted in single digits. Only two have been discovered in Greece and a total of seven have been found elsewhere in the empire (North Africa, France and Spain). The find is particularly exciting because it is the only such mosaic ever found in Cyprus, and it was discovered inland, about 20 miles west of Nicosia. The vast majority of Roman archaeological material has been found along the coast of the island.
Speaking to journalists, Director of the Department of Antiquities Marina Ieronymidou said: “It is an extremely important finding, because of the technique and because of the theme. It is unique in Cyprus since the presence of this mosaic floor in a remote inland area provides important new information on that period in Cyprus and adds to our knowledge of the use of mosaic floors on the island.”
Excavations will continue next May when archaeologists hope to unearth more of the mosaic floor and the villa. Until then, the floor will be covered with protective temporary structures.
A tiny gold bead unearthed at a prehistoric site outside the town of Pazardzhik, southern Bulgaria, may be the oldest known gold artifact. It was discovered two weeks ago in the remains of a small house. The bead, a small strip of gold wrapped into a ring, weighs just 15 centigrams (.005 of an ounce) and is 4 millimeters (1/8 inch) in diameter. It dates to around 4600 B.C., although how that date was determined is not clear from the news reports.
The oldest known gold jewelry currently on the books was also found in Bulgaria, in the Copper Age necropolis at Varna. An enormous quantity of gold was found in burials and cenotaphs at the Varna necropolis, more than 3,000 artifacts weighing a total of six kilos. One grave alone, grave 43, held more gold than has ever been discovered from that period in the whole world combined. The Varna treasure dates to between 4600 and 4200 B.C., so there’s enough overlap that the Pazardzhik bead can’t be absolutely confirmed as the oldest with current dating technologies.
Nonetheless, one archaeologist at least is certain the tiny bead predates the great treasure by at least 200 years.
“I have no doubt that it is older than the Varna gold,” Yavor Boyadzhiev, associated professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Science, said.
“It’s a really important discovery. It is a tiny piece of gold but big enough to find its place in history.”
The settlement in which the bead was found, known as Tell Yunatsite after a nearby village, is believed to have been founded by descendants of Anatolians who migrated to Europe from Asia Minor the 7th millennium B.C. and over the next thousand years developed metal processing know-how into a full-fledged industry. In the 5th millennium B.C., urban settlements grew around these burgeoning industrial centers. They are the oldest towns in Europe, and Tell Yunatsite may well be the oldest, with artifacts dating to 4900 B.C.
So far archaeologists have unearthed between 10 and 12 hectares (25-30 acres) of the settlement, just about a third of the tell, and the remains of defensive wall that would have been about nine feet high when it still stood. Little of the homes and possible workplaces have survived, but there is evidence of specialization and larger-scale production, for instance seven millstones to grind grain were found in one room. There are streets, public buildings, closely-knit dwellings, even clearly discernible uptown and downtown neighborhoods.
The settlement is known as the “Town of Birds” because of the more than 150 ceramic bird figurines unearthed at the site. The preponderance of the birds depicted sitting upright rather than in flight or other natural positions suggests the townspeople had a cultic devotion to their feathered friends. The Town of Birds was destroyed around 4100 B.C., probably by invading Indo-European tribes from the northeast. They did not have sophisticated urban culture, but they had horses and they had weapons and the defensive walls were not enough to keep them out. Skeletons of women, children and the elderly with holes inflicted by axes have been found strewn on the floors of structures, suggesting a deliberate massacre of non-combatant residents.
The bead will be studied now in order to confirm its age. Once the analysis is complete, it will be put on display at the Regional Historical Museum of Pazardzhik.
Extremely rare curse tablets made of gold and silver instead of the usual lead have been unearthed at the ancient site of Viminacium in Serbia, about 60 miles east of Belgrade. Archaeologists were excavating land adjacent to power plant before construction of an addition to the plant when they found a large family tomb decorated with colorful wall paintings. There were multiple rooms containing multiple burials from the middle of the 3rd century A.D. through the 5th.
Buried with one of the skeletons dating to the 4th century were two small lead cylinders holding three rolled up sheets, one of silver, two of gold. The silver and gold sheets had writing and symbols inscribed on them. One of them has Greek letters but is written in Aramaic, not Greek. Archaeologists have identified an intriguing combination of names on it: Baal, Yahweh, and Thobarabau, Seneseilam and Sesengenfaranges, three deities/demons (depending on whether your perspective is polytheistic or Christian) native to what is now Syria. A curse tablet inviking the powers of both Baal and Yahweh is unprecedented.
The other two aren’t inscribed with letters at all, but unknown symbols. Traditionally curse tablets (defixiones in Latin) were written in Greek or Latin with some ununderstandable words. These were voces mysticae, belonging to no known human language, meant to appeal to the deities and demons in words only they could understand. They also used charakteres, symbols believed to represent astrological signs or cosmic forces, or, in the case of Christian curses, angels and other heavenly host. The silver curse tablet is the only one ever discovered written solely in symbols.
Found throughout the Greco-Roman world even well into the Christian era, curse tablets called on spirits, demonic or divine powers to control a target — destroy an enemy, force restitution of stolen goods, get someone in the sack or make the opposing team lose. The tablets were thin sheets of lead on which invocations against the targets were scratched. They would then be rolled or folded up and placed in a relevant area usually below the ground, graves, wells, temples, sanctuaries or the homes of the cursed.
The earliest known extant curse tablets were found in the Greek colony of Selinunte in Sicily (modern-day Castelvetrano where they grow the greatest bright green olives) and date to the early 5th century B.C. The 22 Selinute tablets were mostly litigation curses intended to kneecap opponents in a lawsuit. Other popular types of curses include ones against rival sports teams, rival businesses, thieves and love or sex spells. Men tended to deploy curse tablets to arouse women’s passion, while women mostly used curses to stimulate men’s affection.
About 1,500 ancient curse tablets have been found. The vast majority are made of lead, some of lead mixed with tin and copper. A tiny fraction are inscribed on precious metals. These are the first curse tablets ever discovered in Serbia. It’s a testament to the wealth of Viminacium that the only defixionis ever found there are extremely rare examples in gold and silver.
Viminacium was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior. Its strategic position near the border with the Goths made it one of the most important cities in the empire. It had a permanent military camp and was a prosperous trade center. Excavations since its rediscovery in the late 19th century have unearthed the largest Roman amphitheater in the Balkans, 40,000 artifacts, 700 of them gold and silver, and more than 14,000 Roman-era graves (the largest Roman cemetery ever discovered), some of which contained extremely fine and rare jewels, one of which contained unique gold and silver curse tablets.
The section of the cemetery in which the tablets were unearthed is also home to a number of Christian graves, and archaeologists don’t rule out that some of the dead in the tomb may have been Christian. Orthodoxy wasn’t cemented in the 4th century and the syncretism evinced in the tablet could be the work of a Christian drawing in influences from adjacent, albeit seemingly conflicting, beliefs.
Archaeologists excavating the Utah Test and Training Range inside the Hill Air Force Base have discovered a 12,300-year-old hearth that sheds new light on the earliest inhabitants of Utah. The 2,675-square-mile training range is in the arid West Desert of Utah, which is why it was selected for training exercises and bomb testing, but it was once a lush wetland, a network of rivers, lakes and marshes that was home to a great variety of flora and fauna.
The West Desert is a potentially inestimable source of archaeological information because it was thriving wetland from the release of Lake Bonneville about 14,500 years ago until about 8,500 years ago. That window of 8,000 years is the only time before the modern era when people lived in the oasis while the area around it began to dry up. It also has geologic features that give archaeologists the rare opportunity to date artifacts found there. Black mats, for instance, decayed plant material in ancient marshland that are now layers of black soil, can be radiocarbon dated. They also preserve plants, fish, shells and other organic remains which open a window into the prehistoric environment.
The Air Force has worked with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office for years to identify and preserve archaeological materials on the range. Because it’s such a large area in which cultural treasures could easily be lost or destroyed by military activities, archaeologists don’t wait to hear about random discoveries. They survey areas with the highest likelihood of archaeological remains as calculated by a probability model based on previous finds, comparable environments and existing research. Between four and eight square miles of the range are surveyed every year.
Last year, the archaeological team surveyed several thousand acres pinpointed for exploration. The hearth was identified in one of those digs. Other artifacts were discovered elsewhere in the surveyed area, but the hearth overshadows them all in its significance. This year excavators returned to the hearth site. They recovered more than 60 objects, including tools, charcoal, duck and goose bones, tobacco seeds and lithics from tool manufacture. It’s a uniquely rich find.
The significance of the find helped the archaeologists determine that people occupied the region many thousands of years ago.
“Then there are questions about the significance of these people,” [Far Western senior archaeologist and lead for the current project Daron] Duke said. “They really are the first occupants of the Great Basin that we can demonstrate. If we went from the earliest accepted date of man in the Americas, approximately 13,400 years ago, people seemed to have dispersed all across the continent within a short, 500-year timespan.”
According to Duke, the first few people inhabiting this area moved around a lot.
“We do know that by the time of 13,000 years ago, 400 years after people are in North America, we get evidence of people in this area and the Great Basin,” he said. “The people then seemed to be pretty transitory. They might have seen megafauna (large animals) and possibly were hunting mammoths and giant forms of bison.”
The tobacco seeds are extraordinary as well. They are by thousands of years the earliest evidence of tobacco use. The next time tobacco appears on the archaeological record is about 3,000 years ago, a gap of more than 9,000 years.
After the initial finds, the team dug a larger trench around the fire pit and found refuse all around it, from people tossing away the trash while seated around the fire. They also found a spear point.
“Here in this location, we see possibly a more generalized diet of several species of ducks, which is not surprising [for people] working and living in a wetland,” [D. Craig Young, Far Western senior geoarchaeologist,] said. “Also of significance is that these people were carrying their big game tool kits, as evidenced by the big point found right next to the hearth. It’s about 8 to 10 centimeters long and one wouldn’t think that was being used to capture ducks. It could have been used to process the water fowl, but those large points tend to be associated with hunting of large game.”
The objects discovered at the fire pit will be conserved and possibly displayed at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City.