Sunday, December 24, 2006

Slovenia River Excavation yields Roman and Celt treasures

I recommend reading the full article in National Geographic magazine. It is accompanied by some breathtaking pictures of some of the items that have been recovered including an ornate greave in the shape of a goddess with her face over the portion that covers the knee cap.

Carol Kaufmann:
Archaeologist Andrej Gaspari is haunted by pieces of the past. His hometown river, the Ljubljanica, has yielded thousands of them?Celtic coins, Roman luxuries, medieval swords?all from a shallow 12-mile (19 kilometers) stretch. Those who lived near and traveled along the stream that winds through Slovenia's capital of Ljubljana considered it sacred, Gaspari believes. That would explain why generations of Celts, Romans, and earlier inhabitants offered treasures?far too many to be accidental?to the river during rites of passage, in mourning, or as thanksgiving for battles won.

But Gaspari may never be able to explain for certain why the Ljubljanica holds one of Europe's richest stores of river treasures, many of them remarkably preserved by the soft sediments and gentle waters. Too many pieces of the puzzle have already disappeared.

During the past two decades, sport divers have made the river their playground, removing most of some 10,000 to 13,000 objects found so far. Even though removing artifacts from the Ljubljanica has long been illegal, professional archaeologists have been forced to compete with private collectors. Some divers sold their loot to museums; others to the highest bidder. Some kept their treasures private. Many artifacts have left the country, untraceable. Gaspari's greatest torment comes from the knowledge that few maverick collectors know?or care?where exactly their prizes were found. For an archaeologist, an object's meaning comes as much from its context?location, association with other objects?as from the prize itself. Without context, there is no story.

Ancient Herculaneum Magistrates Decreed: 'No Dumping'

I found this item a little ironic. Apparently Mt. Vesuvius was oblivious to the commands of mere mortals.

Rossella Lorenzi:
The mountains of garbage that often fill the streets in the Italian city of Naples and surrounding areas aren't just a modern-day problem, suggest ancient wall inscriptions.

Using infrared reflectography, a non-destructive technique commonly used to peek beneath the surface of paintings, Italian researchers have brought to light two inscriptions against garbage dumping in the ancient Roman town Herculaneum.

The modest town was destroyed, along with its more famous neighbor Pompeii, in the first-century eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The finding shows that even before the eruption buried Herculaneum under 75 feet of ash, local authorities were already trying to reign in trash.

Luciano Rosario Maria Vicari, director of an applied optics laboratory at Naples University, and colleagues analyzed Herculaneum's notice board, which was found on the eastern side of the city's water tank.

The board for public notices consisted of a plastered rectangular area that housed the "tituli picti," ? painted inscriptions used to communicate decrees and measures.

Painted in black, the inscriptions were carefully placed on straight parallel lines carved on the plaster.

"The plastered area worked as a blackboard ? the previous inscriptions were wiped with a thin plaster layer to make space to a new inscription," Vicari told Discovery News.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

History collides in the Villa Torlonia

CBS News: Since it was started in 1797, the sublime, the vainglorious and the ancient have merged and blended to make Villa Torlonia one of the most intriguing and exquisite examples of 18th century building in Rome.

Giovanni Torlonia made his fortune in banking, bought a title and then built a house he hoped would give him entree to the social elite. He never made it, but not for lack of trying.

An Egyptian theme room is complete with hieroglyphics. Breakfast was eaten under frescoes depicting the conquests of Alexander the Great. What today may seem overdone to the point of kitsch was very much the style of the times.

"We're in a Renaissance room and we walk though a door and we're in a Gothic room," Alberta Campitell, superintendent of Rome's historical parks and villas, told Sunday Morning correspondent Allen Pizzey.

The villa is undergoing a six million dollar restoration, a labor of love for Campitelli.

"Look also at the doors, all the doors are painted," she said as she walked through the villa with Pizzey. "They are very beautiful, with gold. It's really gold."

The restoration is providing Romans a unique insight into a way of life often thought of as more elegant times, but which turns out to be not that much different from today, at least when it comes to the "nouveau riche" equating wealth with class and style.

The ballroom is a classic example. Overlooking the dancers was a copy of Rafaello's fresco of a meeting on Mount Parnassus, retouched with willful disregard for historical context. The Greek poet Homer is shown sitting next to Dante Alighieri who is just a short reach away from Sir Isaac Newton sharing space with Galileo. The beauty hides a crude but not unusual aspiration of the time: refinement by association.

"So I have all these intelligent people in my villa, paintings, therefore I too am intelligent," Campitelli said.

There is also the not-so-subtle frieze of poets' faces, one of which has been painted over and replaced by the face of one of the Torlonia children.

One effort at self-aggrandizement that had no success at all was a plan to put the family crest atop a fake Egyptian obelisk. The pope of the day told Signor Torlonia the space was for crucifixes only.

Why anyone thought fakes were necessary in grounds that have been in use since before the dawn of Christianity is puzzling. Even digging the garden here is an adventure in history. The place is littered with things like a 1,800-year-old pot handle.

And there is some serious filling in to be done. These workmen are making a new top for one of the hidden mysteries of Villa Torlonia. When restoration began, a small hole was found under some stones which revealed a secret that even now can only be reached by a specially constructed passage.

It looks like an Etruscan tomb, complete with alcoves for burial urns, paintings of animals - all of which seem authentic, except this was built in 1840. Available information indicates it was used for secret Masonic rites.

Whatever went on in the fake tomb was history by the 1920s when the villa was rented out for the token sum of one Italian lira. But then the new tenant was not a personage with whom a landlord quibbled.

Benito Mussolini was as much a would-be sophisticate as the villa's original owners had been.

His daughter's wedding was held there. It was an event as lavish as the setting.

Like anyone else, Mussolini made his own modifications, although not with the same style, taste or purpose as his predecessors. Deep under the ornate rooms he had an austere bunker - a bolt hole from modern warfare that had served a far earlier purpose ... an ancient tomb.

"This is a Roman tomb from the second century after Christ was dead and we found here also three skeletons," Campitelli said.

AP Wire | 11/26/2006 | Students really 'dig' archaeology class

Hands-on activities like this are the ultimate interactive learning experience!

Steve Marroni, The Hanover Evening Sun:
The students at Spring Grove Area High School dig history.


Teacher Jason Baker's 11th-grade world history class took part earlier this month in an archaeological dig for replicated artifacts.

The dig was held to mimic actual excavations. Baker set up eight sites near the high school and, the previous week, teams of students buried objects at the sites. The objects ranged from oracle bones made out of paint stirrers to a clay statue of Ganesha, the elephant-head Hindu god. Students buried objects in one site last week, then excavated in another.

Baker said the purpose of this exercise is to show students where the history in the textbooks comes from. Much of it is derived in the field through archaeological work similar to Spring Grove's re-creation, he said.

"They're doing this like real archaeologists," Baker said.

Junior Jane Bridwell stood in a hole and dug out clumps of dirt and mud with a shovel. Her group had already gone through and catalogued artifacts similar to those that could be found in ancient Japan. They kept digging and, two more feet down, began to find Egyptian relics.

Each site contained two civilizations and several artifacts from that civilization.

"You don't know what you're going to find," Bridwell said, shovel in hand.

Some of her classmates scooped out clumps of mud with their hands, and others broke up dirt with a pick ax.

Bridwell and her classmates agreed that archaeology required a lot more digging and hard work than they thought. But, it paid off. When someone found an artifact, they could be heard from their hole, shouting in excitement.

Meredith Seibert and Brittany Kauffman dug alongside Bridwell.

"There's a lot of hands-on work," said Kauffman.

Seibert said she and her class learned about different aspects of civilization, ranging from arts and literature to government and economics to religion and customs. Buried objects represented different aspects of civilizations.

As they dug up objects, they staked the location and gave the objects to Zeb Kessler. He marked their map locations and bagged the artifacts. Students will analyze them in class later and determine what they were used for in ancient civilizations.

Restoration unveils Roman 'Sistine Chapel of the Middle Ages'

Restoration unveils Roman 'Sistine Chapel of the Middle Ages':
A series of medieval frescoes painstakingly restored over nearly a decade was unveiled to the public in Rome Tuesday.

Visitors, including Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, were on hand to take a first glimpse at the 13th-century frescoes in the Santi Quattro Coronati monastery, which sits atop a hill in Rome.

A team of six experts carried out the restoration project, which began in 1997 and was financed completely by the Cultural Heritage Ministry.

Rare sarcophagus, headless skeleton found in London | - Houston Chronicle

Associated Press:
Archaeologists discovered a rare Roman limestone sarcophagus containing a headless skeleton at the site of a historic London church, authorities said Friday.

The find dates to about 410 A.D. and lay 10 feet below the grounds of the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church near central London's busy Trafalgar Square, outside the boundaries researchers had established for London's Roman city walls.

The sarcophagus was made from a single piece of limestone from Oxfordshire or Northamptonshire, about 60 miles northwest of London, researchers said.

The skeleton, headless and missing fingers, is a 5-foot-6-inch male who died in his 40s. Researchers speculated that Victorian workmen building a sewer stumbled upon the sarcophagus and took the head.

Insignia of Emperor Maxentius Unearthed | World Latest | Guardian Unlimited

Marta Falconi:
Archaeologists have unearthed what they say are the only existing imperial insignia belonging to Emperor Maxentius - precious objects that were buried to preserve them and keep them from enemies when he was defeated by his rival Constantine.

Excavation under Rome's Palatine Hill near the Colosseum turned up items including three lances and four javelins that experts said are striking for their completeness - digs usually turn up only fragments - and the fact that they are the only known artifacts of their kind.

Some of the objects, which accompanied the emperor during his public appearances, are believed to be the base for the emperor's standards - rectangular or triangular flags, officials said.

An imperial scepter with a carved flower and a globe, and a number of glass spheres, believed to be a symbolic representation of the earth, also were discovered.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

What did Sulla really look like?

Recently, I had an opportunity to purchase a book about Lucius Cornelius Sulla entitled "Sulla the Fortunate" by G. P. Baker. I was surprised by the portrait depicted on its cover. This bust of Sulla looked much more reserved than the picture I had always seen that portrayed him with a mop of unruly hair and protuberant eyes.

Somehow, the more "possessed-looking" Sulla seemed to match the depiction I read of him in Colleen McCullough's "The First Man In Rome" and "The Grass Crown". I thought perhaps the more subdued bust portrayed Sulla after he had contracted the ravaging skin disease and lost his own hair and had to don a wig but if you look closely at the facial features, they just don't look like the same man. Now, if I was a specialist in ear shapes perhaps I could tell from that. I saw a program that said each person's ear lobes are as distinctive as finger prints. I will have to research further and check the identification of these two busts and any associated epigraphy to convince myself they are the same man.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Vatican Archaeologists Find St Paul's Sarcophagus

Sofia News Agency: A sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the Apostle Paul was unearthed by Vatican archaeologists.

The relic, which dates back to at least 390AD, had been buried beneath Rome's second largest basilica.

The sarcophagus has been the subject of an extended excavation that began in 2002 and was completed last month, the project's head said.

The interior of the sarcophagus has not yet been explored, but project's head Giorgio Filippi said further examination will be done in the future.

Two ancient churches that once stood at the site of the current basilica were successively built over the spot where the saint was believed to had been buried. The second church, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt.

When a fire destroyed the church in 1823, the current basilica was built and the ancient crypt was filled with earth and covered by a new altar.

"We were always certain that the tomb had to be there beneath the Papal altar," Filippi said.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Antique Jewlery Inspired by Ancient Craftsmen

Although this article is not about ancient Roman archaeology, it came up in one of my news searches and I found it intriguing.

New York Times:In 1984 Judith H. Siegel, an American living in London, read in British Vogue about Fortunato Pio Castellani (1794-1865), a fashionable Roman goldsmith who in 1814 began selling gold jewelry in the ?antique? style, that is jewelry inspired by ancient Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Byzantine examples.

Ms. Siegel began buying jewelry designed by Castellani, by his two sons, Augusto and Alessandro, and by Carlo Giuliano, a Castellani pupil who ran the firm?s London operations from the early 1860s until 1874, when he set up his own business.

Now Ms. Siegel is selling 150 of these pieces, in what is thought to be the largest collection of ?archaeological? jewelry to appear at auction in decades. The sale is at Sotheby?s New York on Wednesday; the presale viewing ends Tuesday.

People familiar with ancient jewelry will recognize the cultural origins of a tiara decorated with sprigs of delicate gold olive leaves (ancient Greece, fifth century B.C.), a gold beaded necklace with gold grapevine-leaf pendants and clusters of tiny glass grapes (Hellenistic) and a bracelet with micromosaic medallions depicting the Lamb of God and other Christian symbols (Byzantine church mosaics).

Most of this jewelry is not intrinsically valuable because it has few (or no) precious stones. It is 19th-century revivalist art jewelry and tends to be adorned with colorful enamelwork, carved scarabs, carnelian intaglios and shell cameos.

?Castellani jewelry is not about the karats; it?s about the workmanship,? said Susan Weber Soros, herself a collector. Two years ago Ms. Soros organized ?Castellani and Italian Archaeological Jewelry? at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, which she directs.

Some of the pieces Ms. Siegel lent to that show are now at Sotheby?s. The sale estimates range from $3,000 (for an Egyptian Revival ?papyrus? brooch) to $150,000 (for a Renaissance Revival pendant necklace).

I searched Google images until I found a picture of one of Mr. Castellani's Roman-inspired pieces, this intricate necklace of cameos.

This "parure" is a set of coordinated jewels composed by a necklace, two earrings and a pin, all decorated with agate cameos mounted with gold.
It belonged to Rosina Trivulzio, mother of Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli who probably bought it between 1820 and 1825.

The necklace was realised by Fortunato Pio Castellani (1794 - 1865), a goldsmith from Rome who among the greatest in Italy. He was at the head of an important atelier and, thanks to his collaborators, he later opened branches in London and Paris which continued to be highly fashionable till the early Twentieth century.

The twelve large cameos of the necklace, the four in the pin and the two small ones of the earrings are all decorated with the profiles of famous figures.
They are framed by two different motifs: one is a simple knotted thread and one is a group composed by leaves, flowers and tulips.
Elements derived from Hellenistic jewellery further decorate the parure, such as Aries' heads, small jags and plain drops.
The central cameo bears a relief of the profile of Athena Parthenos, while a cameo with the figures of Amor and Psyche is mounted in the fastening device of the necklace. A wonderful Medusa head is instead engraved in the pin.

These cameos are surely not ancient. Instead, it is very likely that they were realised by an atelier under Castellani's supervision. In fact, the Roman goldsmith owned a precious collection of archaeological cameos, which were probably the models for the pieces of the Poldi Pezzoli parure.

Ancient carved Roman rant unearthed near Leicester

The Sun Online - News:
AN ancient curse placed by a seething Roman on the thief who stole his cloak has been unearthed by archaeologists.

The thin lead tablet, inscribed in the second or third century AD, calls on the god Magalus to track down and kill the culprit within nine days.

It goes on to list 18 or 19 suspects for the crime. The curse, issued in the name of Servandus, was found by teams carrying out Leicester's biggest-ever dig.

Experts are thrilled as they previously knew the names of just three Roman locals.

Richard Buckley, of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, said: "We think curses were used by the poor or slaves, because they were often to do with objects of very little value.

"Sometimes they might even have commissioned a professional curse-writer."

Some of the historic finds will go on display tomorrow at the city's Jewry Wall Museum.

Photo courtesy of

United Press International - NewsTrack - Dig reveals early Christian presence

United Press International - NewsTrack - Dig reveals early Christian presence:
Archaeologists excavating what may be an ancient cemetery near London's Trafalgar Square say they have found evidence of early Christianity in England.

The Museum of London team discovered the cache buried in an empty human grave near St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, north of Trafalgar Square.

"Our excavations demonstrate the position as a significant and important place at an earlier date than we thought," Alison Telfer, the senior archaeologist in charge of the dig, told The Independent.

The excavation also unearthed at least one grave archaeologists said was pre-Anglo-Saxon, possibly dating to the very late Roman or immediate post-Roman period.

The finds are likely to provide more information on the very early stages of introducing Christian ideas into the Anglo-Saxon world 1,400 years ago.

Archaeologists said they found a gold pendant inlaid with blue-green glass, glass beads and fragments of silver, and two pieces of amethyst. Judging from nearby graves in the cemetery, they estimate the grave and its treasures could date from 590 to 610.

The empty grave may be part of a previously unknown ancient cemetery where the team said it also found 24 other graves.

Drexel Professors claimed Egyptians used concrete before the Romans

It looks like a professor of materials engineering at Drexel University claims he has found evidence of concrete use in the Great Pyramid, 2500 years before the Romans. Apparently, Zahi Hawass thinks its hogwash!

Chicago Tribune: "In new research on the Great Pyramids of Giza, a scientist says he has found more to their construction than cut natural limestone: Some original parts of the massive structures appear to be made of concrete blocks.

If true, historians say, this would be the earliest known application of concrete technology, some 2,500 years before the Romans started using it widely in harbors and other architecture.

Michel Barsoum, a professor of materials engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, concluded that the use of limestone concrete could explain in part how the Egyptians were able to complete such massive monuments, beginning around 2550 B.C.

They used concrete blocks, he said, on the outer and inner casings and probably on the upper levels, where it would have been difficult to hoist carved stone.

"The sophistication and endurance of this ancient concrete technology is simply astounding," Barsoum wrote in the December issue of the Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

Barsoum and his co-workers analyzed the mineralogy of samples from several parts of the Khufu pyramid and said they found mineral ratios that do not exist in any of the known limestone sources. From the geochemical mix of lime, sand and clay, they concluded, "the simplest explanation" is that it was cast concrete.

Zahi Hawass, secretary general of antiquities in Egypt and director of the Giza pyramids excavations, said in an e-mail, "The idea that concrete was used is unlikely and completely unproven."