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Roman port in Albania much larger than we knew

Sat, 2016-08-20 23:42

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.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ötzi used wild, domestic animals for clothes

Fri, 2016-08-19 23:48

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Fabulously rich Bronze Age grave found in Cyprus

Thu, 2016-08-18 23:37

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Protein analysis finds animal source of bog body clothes

Wed, 2016-08-17 23:28

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.

This discovery suggests that the skins of domesticated animals may have been as important to Iron Age Danes as the meat and dairy they produced.


“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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Obsidian biface cache found in Willamette Valley

Tue, 2016-08-16 23:10

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.

You can get a glimpse of the excavation of the 15th biface in this video:

In this one Assistant State Archaeologist John Pouley discusses the biface cache:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Skeleton may be ancient Greek human sacrifice

Mon, 2016-08-15 23:54

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lost Dürer engraving found in French flea market

Sun, 2016-08-14 23:34

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman phallus pendant found in Horncastle

Sat, 2016-08-13 23:45

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mexican sword tip from 1830s found at Alamo

Fri, 2016-08-12 23:29

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman horse race mosaic revealed in Cyprus

Thu, 2016-08-11 23:18

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tiny gold bead may be oldest gold artifact

Wed, 2016-08-10 23:10

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman gold curse tablets found in Serbia

Tue, 2016-08-09 23:33

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

12,300-year-old hearth left by early inhabitants of Utah

Mon, 2016-08-08 00:43

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.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Maya Snake dynasty tomb found in Belize

Sun, 2016-08-07 22:42

Archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a lord from the Maya Snake dynasty inside a temple at the ancient site of Xunantunich in western Belize. At 4.5 by 2.4 meters (14’9″ by 7’10″), it’s one of the largest burial chambers ever found in Belize, and is the largest royal one. It was discovered 16-26 feet underground, buried under layers dirt and debris beneath the central stairway of a pyramidal structure.

Inside were the remains of an adult male between 20 and 30 years old when he died. He was lying on his back with his head pointing south. Initial osteological analysis found that he was fit and well-muscled with no obvious signs of disease or fatal injury. Buried with him were jaguar and deer bones, six jade beads, 13 obsidian blades and 36 ceramic vessels. Two other offering caches were found at the base of the stairway. They contained nine obsidian and 28 chert flints and artifacts known as eccentrics which are flaked and chipped around the edges like flints, but instead of having a functional design are carved in symbolic animal or plant shapes.

While there is no direct evidence of who was buried in this tomb, it had to be someone of great importance. Maya tombs are usually “intrusive,” built into or dug out of pre-existing structures. This tomb was built inside the temple from the beginning, a very rare design in Maya architecture. Two hieroglyphic panels were also discovered, not in the burial chamber but in the central staircase, and those panels may be the most exciting part of this very exciting find.

The Snake dynasty was one of the dominant dynasties of the Maya Classic Period (200–1000 A.D.). Its seat was the city-state of Calakmul, now in southern Mexico, but through conquest, alliances and strategic marriages, its area of influence extended south to Guatemala and Belize.
Xunantunich, just east of the border with Guatemala more than a hundred miles south of Calakmul as the crow flies, was founded around 600 A.D. as a subordinate of the Naranjo polity 10 miles to the west. Naranjo was at first allied with Tikal, Calakmul’s greatest enemy, but was conquered by Calakmul’s ruler Tuun Kab Hix in 546 A.D.

Tikal’s influence in the region suffered a devastating blow in 562 when Tikal’s Lord Wak Chan K’awiil (Lord Double Bird) was defeated by Lord Yajaw Te’ K’inich II (Lord Water) of Caracol, an important city 25 miles south of Xunantunich. The defeat kicked off 120 years of decline in Tikal, with significant population loss, destruction of monuments and no new buildings erected for the entire period.

Calakmul was more than glad to step into the breach. In 619, Lord K’an II of Caracol formally allied his polity to Calakmul and its mighty Snake Lords (and Lady Snake Lords). During the 40 years of Lord K’an II’s reign, Caracol grew in population, architecture and size. He also went to war with Naranjo, a former ally with a mutual Calakmul connection, no fewer than four times, killing its king during one of those wars. To celebrate his long reign and many victories, in 642 Lord K’an commissioned an elaborately carved hieroglyphic stairway at Naranjo.

K’an II died in 658 A.D. and a couple of decades later, Naranjo reestablished its regional prominence when it decisively defeated Caracol in 680 A.D. Lord K’an’s hieroglyphic stairway was dismantled but not destroyed. Its symbolic power was destroyed, however, because most of the panels were reassembled out of order and four of them were scattered so the hieroglyphics no longer made sense and K’an’s gloating was rendered meaningless. One of the four missing panels was unearthed at the archaeological site of Ucanal in northern Guatemala. Another was found at Caracol. Archaeologists believe the two panels found at Xunantunich are the last missing pieces of the stairway, the first and the last, no less, alpha and omega. That makes it a hugely significant discovery for Mayan epigraphy.

The panel hieroglyphs indicate the stairway was built in 642 (earlier estimates put it at 637) and note the death of Lady Batz’ Ek’, Lord K’an’s mother. Her titles suggest she was probably born in Yakha, a nearby Snake-ruled city in Guatemala, and was married to the lord of Caracol to cement their alliance.

[Epigrapher Dr. Christophe] Helmke said the panels “tell us of the existence of a king of the dynasty that was murky figure at best, who is clearly named as Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan”. This ruler reigned sometime between 630 and 640AD, and may have been Kan’s half-brother.

“This means that there were two contenders to the throne, both carrying the same dynastic title, which appears to have been read Kanu’l Ajaw, ‘king of the place where snakes abound’,” he wrote in an email.

The panels clarify what Helmke called a “tumultuous phase of the snake-head dynasty” and explain how it splintered between cities before dominating Maya politics in the region.

The panels identify the origin of the snake dynasty at Dzibanche, in the Yucatan peninsula of modern Mexico, and refer to the family’s move to their capital of Calakmul.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Boys ruin iconic skier petroglyph trying to “fix” it

Sat, 2016-08-06 09:33

An iconic prehistoric carving of a person on skis has been irreparably damaged by two dumb kids who took a sharp object to it. The skier, part of a larger design known as Valentine Field which depicts a Stone Age hunting scene, was carved about 5,000 years ago on a rock face on the island of Tro off the coast of Nordland, northern Norway. The carvings have weathered over the millennia, making them hard to see on the dry rock. The vandals thought they could fix that problem by scratching out the lines with a sharp stone or similar object. Then they did the same to the figure of a whale that is also part of Valentine Field.

The vandalism was reported by one of the residents of a summer home on the island to Tor-Kristian Storvik, the Nordland County archaeologist, who immediately went to assess the damage. What he found was tragic.

“It’s a sad, sad story,” he said. “The new lines are both in and outside where the old marks had been. We will never again be able to experience these carvings again the way we have for the last 5,000 years.”

Experts will return to the site in September to study the skier and whale in depth and determine what, if anything, can be done to repair the damage, but as of now, there is little cause for optimism. The petroglyph appears to be irretrievably altered.

When the story broke, it made national and international news. The perpetrators, apparently chastened by the outraged reaction to their recklessness, confessed. They claim their intentions were good — to make the carvings more legible — and didn’t realize they were violating the law and every basic principle of how to interact with ancient and precious things. Their names and ages have not been released to the public.

Storvik has filed a police report on the vandalism and the boys could be criminally prosecuted as a violation of the Cultural Heritage Act, but no legal action has been taken as of yet. Bård Anders Langø, the mayor of Alstahaug, is discussing with county authorities how best to proceed. Apparently the boys are very young and remorseful, so it doesn’t seem likely at this point that they’ll have the book thrown at them. Last week they relayed an apology in a statement from the Alstahaug municipality.

The image of the skier was the inspiration for the set of pictograms illustrating the sports of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Each host city creates their own pictograms to identify events and venues by sport with an easily recognizable image. Mostly they look like very active versions of the signs on bathroom doors, but Lillehammer embraced its ancient heritage of winter sports and artist Sarah Rosenbaum created luges, hockey players and skaters that could easily have been carved on rock faces 5,000 years ago.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

6th c. walls unearthed at Tintagel Castle

Fri, 2016-08-05 08:31

Archaeologists excavating the site of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, legendary birthplace of King Arthur, have unearthed the remains of massive walls built in the 6th century. The excavation is the first in a new five year archaeological exploration commissioned by English Heritage, the first major research project at Tintagel in 20 years. A team from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit did geophysical surveys of unexcavated terrace areas on the vertiginous headland where structures from the earliest iteration of the castle (5th-6th century) were believed to have existed. The survey confirmed there were walls and other elements of varied size from post-Roman structures underground.

Excavations began on July 18th and continued through August 2nd. Four trenches were dug on the terraces and as the geophysical survey indicated, the remains of ancient walls three feet thick emerged. The formed two rooms about 11 meters (36 feet) and four meters (13 feet) wide. This was a massive, imposing structure, at the very least a high-status building, and possibly even a royal palace complex. No similar structures from ancient Cornwall, then known as Dumnonia, have ever been found, so if these large walls can be confirmed as royal, it suggests this may have been a central, static court, as opposed to a mobile one that moved from stronghold to stronghold without a Camelot-like headquarters.

Other finds include more than 150 fragments of pottery and glass, including pieces of imported late-Roman amphorae, glass, probably imported from Merovingian France, and a rim from a bowl or serving dish made of expensive Phocaean red-slip ware made in western Turkey. They date from the 5th or 6th centuries.

Tintagel was a bustling settlement in the centuries after the Roman retreat from Britain. Surveys have found evidence of almost 100 buildings, plus gardens and pathways, on the headland alone. Thousands of pottery fragments, most of them imported from the Mediterranean in the 5th to 7th centuries, attest to Tintagel’s importance as a trade center and as the home of regional rulers during the post-Roman period. Many luxury items have been identified at the side: wine from Turkey, olive oil from the Aegean, glassware made in Merovingian France, dishware from North Africa.

The settlement was abandoned in the late 6th or early 7th century, possibly due to a catastrophic occurrence like plague. Tintagel lived in memory, however, as the home of Cornwall’s early kings, which is probably what inspired its literary connection to King Arthur. The 12th century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, tried to keep his beautiful wife Igerna from the lustful depredations of Uther Pendagron by hiding her at Tintagel. Uther’s advisor Ulfin noted that only magic could get Uther past its impregnable defenses.

“[N]o force will enable us to have access to her in the town of Tintagel[.] For it is situated upon the sea, and on every side surrounded by it; and there is but one entrance into it, and that through a straight rock, which three men shall be able to defend against the whole power of the kingdom. Notwithstanding, if the prophet Merlin would in earnest set about this attempt, I am of opinion, you might with his advice obtain your wishes.”

As the story goes, Merlin magically disguised Uther to look like Gorlois, he and the lady Igerna made sweet, fraudulent love and nine months later, with Gorlois safely dead and Uther and Igerna now married, Arthur was born.

Geoffrey made no distinction between history and legend, and his version of the Arthur story was embellished even more than it already was in his sources. There was already a tradition in Cornish and Breton folklore at the time Geoffrey was writing that associated Tintagel with the famous love story of Tristan and Iseult. That was later woven into Arthurian legend, with Tristan becoming one of the Knights of the Round Table, but in the late 12th-century it was its own tale. Tintagel was the fortress of King Mark of Cornwall, Tristan’s uncle and Iseult’s husband.

The Arthur legend as recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Cornish legends of Tristan are the reason the ruins of the Tintagel Castle that still stand today exist. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III, was as erudite as he was rich. He traded three manor houses for the site, which had no defensive value whatsoever, and the only castle that could be built on that rocky outcropping was rather small and inelegant for a man of Richard’s refined tastes and financial wherewithal. It was purely its association with the great ancient kings of yore that inspired Richard to build a castle there. By the 14th century it was already in decay.

Using the information and materials discovered in this year’s dig, the team will make plans for more extensive excavations next year. They’ll have a clearer picture of the footprint of the medieval structures and they’ll be able to analyze samples that may fill in more blanks about how buildings were built, when and for what purposes.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tiny Viking chair-amulet found on Lolland

Thu, 2016-08-04 03:04

A very rare and very tiny chair-amulet from the Viking era has been discovered on the Danish island of Lolland. Metal detectorist Torben Christjansen, whom you might recall from the killer Thor’s Hammer amulet he discovered in 2014, found it in a field near Nybølle on the west side of the island. He had scanned the field before, lured by its black soil which is sometimes and indication of ancient activity, and found 65 objects, but he’d never seen anything like this little piece. Christjansen brought the artifact to Anders Rasmussen, curator at Museum Lolland-Falster, who identified it as a Viking chair-amulet.

No larger than a fingernail, the amulet depicts a wide chair with an abstract figure seated on it. On either side of the back of the chair are two smaller figures meant to represent ravens. The figure may be Odin, who according to an Icelandic saga from the 13th century, sat on a great chair named Hlidskjalf and observed our mortal goings-on from there. He would send his two ravens, Hugin and Munin, to explore the world and report back on what they’d seen during their voyage.

Only 15 or 20 chair-amulets have been found in Scandinavia, and just two of them in Denmark. One was found in Hedeby, an important Viking trade center now just over the Danish border in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. The other at Lejre in Zealand in 2009. They have differences in design but all date from the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The amulets from Hedeby, Lejre and Nybølle are also quite different, but they share one thing in common. Two things, actually: the clearly identifiable ravens on the back of the chair.

The ravens strongly suggest that the shape in the chair represents Odin and the Lejre amulet, which is larger with more detailed carving, certainly features Odin. So it’s a reasonable assumption that Odin is sitting in this chair too, but it’s so amorphous a shape it could represent another character from the Norse mythology, an animal or perhaps another deity naughty enough to keep Odin’s seat warm for him.

The area where the amulet was found has proven to be rich with Iron Age and Viking artifacts; jewelry, coins, rune stones and silver hoards have all been found near where the amulet was discovered. Archaeologists believe that Lolland, while not the large trade center that Hedeby and Lejre were in their medieval heyday, must have been very wealthy and prosperous for centuries.

The amulet is heading to the National Museum where it will be examined by experts to determine whether it should be declared treasure trove (it will be). The finder will be compensated based on the valuation of the piece and then the local museum, in this case the Museum Lolland-Falster, will be given the amulet for study and display.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

80 shackled skeletons found in ancient mass graves

Wed, 2016-08-03 02:04

Archaeologists excavating the Falyron Delta necropolis in Athens, Greece, have unearthed two mass graves containing the skeletal remains of 80 people, some with iron shackles still clamped to their wrists. In one mass grave, the bodies had been laid carefully side by side in a long line. In the other, they were more haphazardly tossed into the pit, their skeletons found one on top of the other. Analysis of the teeth indicates these are the remains of young, healthy men.

The cemetery was in use from the 8th to the 5th century B.C., and two small vases found in the mass graves date to between 675 and 650 B.C., a time when the city was in the grip of series of political crises. Archaeologists speculate that the young men were executed during one of those crises.

“They have been executed, all in the same manner. But they have been buried with respect,” Dr. Stella Chryssoulaki, head of excavations, said.

“They are all tied at the hands with handcuffs and most of them are very, very young and in a very good state of health when they were executed.”

The experts hope DNA testing and research by anthropologists will uncover exactly how the rows of people died. Whatever happened was violent — most had their arms bound above their heads, the wrists tied together.

But the orderly way they have been buried suggest these were more than slaves or common criminals.

One possibility the archaeologists are batting around is that these might have been the supporters of a failed would-be tyrant named Cylon. In 632 B.C., Cylon, an Athenian aristocrat and champion of the double-stadion race (ca. 400 meters) at the 640 B.C. Olympic Games attempted to take Athens with the backing of his father-in-law, Theagenes, tyrant of Megara. He had consulted the Oracle of Delphi and Apollo’s mouthpiece assured him that he should conquer the citadel of Athens during a festival of Zeus. Prophecies are tricksy things, though, and the ancient sources report that he picked the wrong festival and he and his select cadre of noble young fighters met unexpected resistance. With their coup attempt quickly defeated, Cylon and his supporters took sanctuary near the statue of the goddess in the temple of Athena on the Acropolis. Cylon and his brother managed to sneak out, but the rest of his followers were stuck in the temple.

Thucydides describes the result of the failed coup in his History of the Peloponnesian War (1.126).

Now those that were besieged with Cylon were for want of both victual and water in very evil estate, and therefore Cylon and a brother of his fled privily out; but the rest, when they were pressed and some of them dead with famine, sat down as suppliants by the altar that is in the citadel. And the Athenians, to whose charge was committed the guard of the place, raising them upon promise to do them no harm, put them all to the sword. Also they had put to death some of those that had taken sanctuary at the altars of the severe goddesses as they were going away.

The killing of suppliants was considered a profane act, a sacrilege that would take generations to expiate. The archon Megacles, who ordered the executions, and his extended family, the Alcmaeonidae, were exiled from Athens and cursed with a miasma, a “stain” that would taint the Alcmaeonidae for generations even after the archon Solon allowed them to return to Athens in 594 B.C. Pericles, the great statesman and general of Athens, was Alcmaeonid on his mother’s side and the miasma still caused him political trouble well into the 5th century.

If archaeologists are able to successfully extract DNA from the remains, it’s possible they may be able to help narrow down who they were, although I seriously doubt they can pinpoint participants in the Cylonian Affair. Best case scenario they figure out the method of execution, probably through osteological analysis. They didn’t die in a plague, that’s for sure, and there’s no way of doing any kind of kinship analysis, so I don’t see how DNA can link them to Cylon.

More than 1,500 bodies were buried in the Falyron Delta necropolis during its centuries of use. It was the cemetery for regular people; Athens’ rich and famous were buried in the Kerameikos cemetery. Now part of a vast park in the shadow of the new opera house and library between downtown Athens and the port of Piraeus, the necropolis continues to be excavated. Chryssoulaki hopes it will eventually become an open-air museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

V&A acquires largest peepshow collection

Tue, 2016-08-02 02:48

The Victoria & Albert Museum is the new proud owner of the country’s largest collection of peepshows, not the Madonna Open Your Heart video kind of peepshow, the paper kind that staged scenes from history, literature, landscapes, buildings, military parades, architectural and engineering wonders. They’re like pocket dioramas, with cutouts and multiple panels that convey complex scenes and hives of activity in some, sometimes in much, depth of field.

The collection of more than 360 peepshows was given to the nation by collectors Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner under the Cultural Gifts Scheme which allows UK taxpayers to donate artworks or other objects of important cultural patrimony. In return, donors get a tax deduction in the amount of a set percentage of the object’s value. An advisory panel then recommends which institution should receive the donated item.

The Gestetner collection covers the full history of the paper peepshow from the earliest examples in the 1820s to the present day. The oldest piece in the collection is called Teleorama No. 1 and was made in Austria by Heinrich Friedrich Müller around 1824-25. Müller was a pioneer in the printing of high quality picture books for children. He rejected the more rudimentary style of illustration prevalent in the children’s books of the time, and starting in 1811, turned to master artists, engravers, colorists and painters to create lesson books, educational workbooks, texts and readers with beautiful color illustrations.

His picture books were massively successful and other printers fell all over themselves to copy him. Meanwhile Müller kept it moving, expanding his business to other fine color-printed products including board games, embroidery panels and peepshows. The peepshows captured the consumer imagination swell, first in Austria and Germany, then outwards to northern Europe and Britain. Thousands of the detailed depictions of idyllic exteriors and luxurious interiors were bought by foreign buyers.

British printers got on the bandwagon and peepshows celebrating momentous national events or the latest marvel of the Victorian era soon became popular souvenirs. The Thames Tunnel and Crystal Palace were particularly popular subjects, if the Gestetner collection is any proof. There are more than 60 peepshows on those two wonders of the age.

Some of the related optical artifacts in the collection predate the peepshows. The oldest object beats Mr. Müller’s work by almost a century. It’s a boîte d’optique of British manufacture, made ca. 1740, a precursor to the peepshow. It’s a mahogany box with a lens. A print of something exotic would be placed in the box and viewers would pay to see the subject in full-screen.

The range of sizes is enormous. The longest peepshow wasn’t the work of a professional printer. It was handmade and handpainted in around 1910 and depicts riflemen on manoeuvre over nine panels that when stretched all the way is more than 6.5 feet long. The smallest is an Italian work from ca. 1900. L’Onomastico (“The Name Day”) is tiny, just the size of a small matchbox, but it holds large wonders. When stretched all the way out, it’s almost eight inches long and depicts the revelries of a name-day street party.

Dr Catherine Yvard, Special Collections Curator at the National Art Library, on the V&A’s new baby:

“This collection is a real treasure trove and makes a wonderful addition to our holdings, which focus particularly on the art of the book. Peeping into one of these tunnel-books is like stepping into another world, travelling through time and space. In an instant you can join Napoleon on the Island of St Helena or a rowdy masquerade on London’s Haymarket. Peepshows were 19th century virtual reality. They offer wonderful insights into social history. Considering that most of them would have been made quite cheaply, it is a miracle that so many have survived.”

For now the peepshows can only be viewed in person by appointment at the Victoria & Albert’s National Art Library. They will soon be digitized and available to search both in the National Art Library Catalogue and in the V&A collection database.

NB: All of the objects pictured in this post were accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from the collections of Jacqueline Gestetner and Jonathan Gestetner and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Smithsonian seeks beer historian

Mon, 2016-08-01 02:00

This is a real job posting and it’s a great one. The Smithsonian is looking for a historian to research the history of American brewing, with a particular emphasis on craft brewing. The new hire will be part of the National Museum of American History’s American Brewing History Initiative, a three year project to collect and conserve documents and artifacts relating to the history of beer and brewing in the United States, and to explore the connections between the history of beer and broader themes of American history including industry, advertising and social issues like the temperance movement. It is funded by a donation from the non-profit trade association the Brewers Association of Boulder, Colorado.

The National Museum of American History owns several collections of brewiana, mostly from the second half of the 19th century through the 1960s. There are artifacts from the brewing industry, instruments, ads, bottles, taps, technical documents, photographs, many of them collected by former Brewmaster Walter Voigt of Ruxton, Maryland. Just over a hundred items related to beer and brewing in the Smithsonian collection have been digitized.

“Brewing has a long and deep connection to our country’s history, and the museum’s collections explore the history of beer from the late 19th to early 20th centuries,” said John Gray, the director of the museum. “The support of the Brewers Association allows our staff to collect the more recent history, including the impact of small and independent craft brewers who continue to advance the U.S. beer culture and inspire brewers worldwide.”

The new staff beer historian will be working on that. Here is the full job posting (pdf):

Historian / Scholar
American Brewing History Initiative
IS-11 ($64,650 plus benefits)

The Smithsonian Food History project at the National Museum of American History, in Washington, DC, is seeking a professional historian / scholar to conduct archival and field research for a new initiative on American brewing history, with special emphasis on the craft industry. The position is located in the Division of Work and Industry and will be a three-year appointment. The successful candidate will have proven experience in scholarly research, organizing and conducting oral history interviews, writing for both scholarly and general audiences, and knowledge of material culture and archival materials. The candidate will work with members of the curatorial staff on collections work and develop content for a wide variety of programs and applications, including digital formats. Candidates with an advanced degree in American business, brewing, food, cultural, or similar specialization within history are encouraged to apply. Must be able to travel, work independently as well as within a team environment, to meet deadlines, and to communicate effectively with co-workers and the public.

So you have to have a solid grounding in scholarly research, not just beer research. Your degree doesn’t have to be in history per se, but it does have to be in a related field and you have to have experience using both archival and material resources in your research. As long as you have that background, all those years you’ve spent slaving over the minutiae of craft beers entirely of your own volition can finally pay off in more than just outré flavor adventures.

If this sounds like your dream job, send your CV, a cover letter, and names of three references to Abigail Karow at NMAHApplications@si.edu by August 10th, 2016.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History