Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hadrian's Athenaeum latest "Metro" discovery in Rome

Following a grand stairway made with sheets of granite andantique yellow marble, Archaeologists trying to locate a relatively "sterile" area of the Piazza Venezia to construct a subway station for the new Metro C line in Rome have uncovered what they think is Emperor Hadrian's "Athenaeum" -- an auditorium ancient writers say he built at his own expense on his return from Palestine around A.D. 135. Hadrian, an avid fan of Greek theater and literature sponsored plays, speeches and political debates in the covered rectangular structure.

The amphitheater is just one of a number of significant archaeological finds that have been discovered during excavation for the new Metro line. Other discoveries include the Greek gymnasium that the Emperor Nero had built near his baths, and a section of a Roman canal built to drain the marshy land Rome was built upon.

Monday, September 28, 2009

2nd century civilian Roman settlement unearthed near Mainz

It looks like more evidence of civilian Roman settlements in ancient Germania have been discovered near Mainz by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers working on an expansion to the Weisbaden Army Air Field.A team of archaeology students and experts believe they have unearthed remnants of a Roman settlement from the second or third century near the construction site of an Army housing project.

The team, from nearby Mainz University, discovered a Roman coin, pieces of pottery, roof tiles, decorated bricks and 23 pieces of raw lead. The students also believe they have found the wall outlines of a building.

"If it’s from the second century A.D., it would be a civilian building and we didn’t expect this. We expected only military buildings," said Dr. Guntram Schwitalla, a district archaeologist in Hessen.

- More: Stars and Stripes

Ancient Port of Theodosius and 34 Byzantine Ships unearthed in Bosporous Tunnel Project

It looks like we'll have an opportunity to study examples of some of the first ancient ships built using the "skeleton approach" method of construction. Thirty-four intact vessels have been recovered from the ancient port of Theodosius during the construction of the Bosporous Tunnel project began five years ago to connect European and Asian sections of Istanbul.

[Image - reconstruction of a Byzantine ship courtesy of]

It [the port of Theodosius] was originally built at the end of the 4th century AD by Emperor Theodosius I when Istanbul -- then known as Constantinople -- was the capital of the eastern Roman Empire. The port's harbor silted over centuries ago, and eventually disappeared beneath subsequent layers of civilization.

The Yenikapi dig has uncovered an ancient armada: 34 Byzantine ships ranging from dating between the 7th and 11th centuries AD.

The largest of the ships is believed to have once carried wheat from Egypt to Constantinople.

Scattered around the ship are shards of pottery, animal bones, and thousand-year-old clamshells.

Historians say the new discoveries include the first examples of ships being built using the beginnings of the "skeleton approach" to constructing the vessel's hull. Pulak says that marked a revolutionary change which transformed shipbuilding from "mostly an art form to a science."

"The earlier methods of building depended on verbal transference of the method from master shipbuilders to apprentices," he explained. "The development of the latter method ... allowed for the speedy communication of new shipbuilding ideas that could be transmitted on paper. It is the beginning of engineering. Ships could be preconceived and pre-designed."

In addition to finding the timbers of thousand-year-old jetties and docks, which still jut up in straight rows at the bottom of the mammoth pit, archaeologists have uncovered the remnants of a pre-historic human settlement.

"The first man, about 8,400 years ago, came and started to settle here," Yilmaz said. "There was no Bosphorus [then]. The Bosphorus was a river valley... the people who settled here walked across the Bosphorus." -

Monday, August 31, 2009

First Saudi in space opens up the Kingdom to western archaeologists

How exciting to read that Saudi Arabia, after decades of discouraging excavations of pre-Islamic civilizations, has begun to allow foreign archaeologists to explore largely untouched sites. I was also intrigued to learn that Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia's first UNESCO World Heritage Site is now open to the public.

[Image - Nabatean tombs at Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia's first UNESCO heritage site, resemble those of Petra in Jordan over 450 miles away. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

The ancient city, once known as Hegra, was built by the Nabateans and its tombs resemble those found in Petra, 450 miles away. The UNESCO site encompasses 131 tombs over about 13 kilometers. Roman archaeologists were particularly excited when an inscription referring to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was discovered there in 2000.

Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first Saudi to venture into space aboard the U.S. space shuttle Discovery in 1985 and now secretary general of the governmental Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, is leading the effort. Small bronze statues of Hercules and Apollo on display at the King Saud University in Riyadh hint at the remains awaiting researchers in the desert sands.

Will Fragments of Augustan Equestrian Statue Found in Germany Lead to Insight on Turmoil after Varus Disaster?

A beautiful horse head with traces of gilt has been retrieved from a well near Waldgrimes in central Germany. Archaeologists speculate that the horse was part of an equestrian statue bearing the emperor Augustus that was ritually destroyed by Germanic tribesmen after their victory over Roman legions at Teutoburg Vald in 9 C.E. The rider's foot was also recovered.

It would be wonderful if enough fragments could be found to reconstruct the work. There is only one other equestrian statue of Augustus known in the world at this time. Sadly, equestrian statues contained so much bronze that they were prized targets of medieval recyclers so few Roman period equestrian statues survive intact. It is said that the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Capitoline Museum in Rome only survived because it was thought to be Constantine I, revered by early Christians for making Christianity the official religion of the empire. Judging from the picture provided by the Science Ministry of Hessen (above left), the Augustan statue must have been as breathtaking as the Aurelian statue in Rome (right). The horse's bridle depicts figures of Mars, the Roman god of war, and Nike, personification of victory.

Previous excavations at Waldgrimes have yielded a Roman forum, lead waterpipes and a retail center. The statue may have been the centerpiece of a cult temple of Augustus. Such a temple was erected in Lugdunum by Drusus as a transitory step to making Gaul a Roman province following suppression of a revolt over a Roman census there. As a symbol of Romanization, it would have naturally been a target following news of the successful ambush by Arminius.

Panic swept through Roman settlements in Germania and Gaul.

"After the defeat of Varus there was panic throughout the Roman population living in Gaul and Germany. Most of the forts established by Drusus and Tiberius in Germany were abandoned immediately after the disaster. All but one of the Roman garrisons stationed in Northern Germany was destroyed, with only the garrison at Aliso holding out. Dio describes the events which surrounded Aliso. Aliso has been tentatively identified as the base Haltern. Haltern, a Roman legionary base in Germany illustrates the panic that spread through the Romans in Germany. Haltern, founded in 5 BC, is situated about 54 km from Vetera on the north bank of the Lippe River, where the river has its confluence with the Stever River. Haltern may have served as the wintering quarters for Varus and his legions in the winter 9 AD. The fort supported a large number of troops and had all the logistical and administrative support that a large force of soldiers would require to function. The amount of housing for officers is unusually high at Haltern implying that the post served as an administrative hub for the Roman army deployed east of the Rhine River. Dio attributes the Romans success at Haltern to German ignorance of siege warfare and Roman employment of archers. The archers held the Germans off, inflicting heavy losses on the Germans.

Nevertheless the Romans soon ran out of supplies and had to make an escape attempt. Using a rainstorm and darkness as cover the Romans slipped out and met up with Roman forces to the west. Archeological evidence from Haltern shows that it was hastily abandoned around 9 AD as shown by the tremendous amount of buried hordes throughout the fort. Romans fleeing to the Rhine, not wanting to be slowed down with material goods, buried several hordes around the fort in anticipation of retrieving them again. These hordes consist primarily of weapons and coinage. Other Roman bases on the Lippe were similarly abandoned: Anreppen, Oberaden, and Holsterhausen. " - Rome’s Bloody Nose: The Pannonian Revolt, Teutoburg Forest and the Formation of Roman Frontiers by Nolan Doyle, Western Oregon University.

We've all heard of Augustus' response - rending his clothes and crying out "Varus, give me back my legions!" But Augustus was not just being melodramatic. Cassius Dio writes, "... there were no more men available in reserve. The Roman armies had reached the point of breaking, between the rebellions in Pannonia and Germany the losses could not be easily replaced anymore. Augustus had to resort to conscriptions of men and nobody wanted to be conscripted. Augustus made the men draw lots with twenty percent of those under the age of thirty-five and ten percent of those older conscripted into the army. When people still were not excited enough to be conscripted Augustus had several men executed. Augustus also called up veterans and conscripted freedmen and put them into service. " - Rome’s Bloody Nose: The Pannonian Revolt, Teutoburg Forest and the Formation of Roman Frontiers by Nolan Doyle, Western Oregon University.

For a graphic view of the battle of Teutoburg Forest, check out these videos on YouTube, excerpts from the History Channel series "Decisive Battles."

Hopefully, we'll learn even more about this tumultuous period with continued excavations.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Vespasian's Villa Found?

It looks like there's a real possibility the villa of the Roman emperor Vespasian has been found! Vespasian is one of those "good" emperors that rose from the ranks to claim the purple. He even took a freedwoman for a mistress and, although unable to marry her because of his social status, maintained a relationship with her throughout his lifetime. Their relationship is the subject of one of my favorite books by English author, Lindsey Davis, entitled "Course of Honor".

[Image - Fragmentary Colossal Bust of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, Museo Archaeologico di Napoli, Naples, Italy. Photo by Mary Harrsch]

Suetonius tells us how Vespasian, far from wealthy as a young man, was viewed by the common people of Rome:

"...he got by lot the province of Africa, which he governed with great reputation, excepting that once, in an insurrection at Adrumetum, he was pelted with turnips. It is certain that he returned thence nothing richer; for his credit was so low, that he was obliged to mortgage his whole property to his brother, and was reduced to the necessity of dealing in mules, for the support of his rank; for which reason he was commonly called "the Muleteer."

He didn't make many points with the emperor Nero either since he fell asleep during the emperor's musical performances.

"Caius Caesar, being enraged at his not taking care to have the streets kept clean, ordered the soldiers to fill the bosom of his gown with dirt, some persons at that time construed it into a sign that the government, being trampled under foot and deserted in some civil commotion, would fall under his protection, and as it were into his lap. - - C. Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.

Of course the Romans were very sensitive to perceived omens and many more omens were related that pointed to Vespasian's eventual exalted position:

He dreamt in Achaia that the good fortune of himself and his family would begin when Nero had a tooth drawn; and it happened that the day after, a surgeon coming into the hall, showed him a tooth which he had just extracted from Nero. In Judaea, upon his consulting the oracle of the divinity at Carmel [740], the answer was so encouraging as to assure him of success in anything he projected, however great or important it might be. And when Josephus [741], one of the noble prisoners, was put in chains, he confidently affirmed that he should be released in a very short time by the same Vespasian, but he would be emperor first [742]. Some omens were likewise mentioned in the news from Rome, and among others, that Nero, towards the close of his days, was commanded in a dream to carry Jupiter's sacred chariot out of the sanctuary where it stood, to Vespasian's house, and conduct it thence into the circus. Also not long afterwards, as Galba was going to the election, in which he was created consul for the second time, a statue of the Divine Julius [743] turned towards the east. And in the field of Bedriacum [744], before the battle began, two eagles engaged in the sight of the army; and one of them being beaten, a third came from the east, and drove away the conqueror. - C. Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.

Italian archeologists may have uncovered the summer villa of the Roman Emperor Vespasian near his birthplace in the mountains northeast of Rome, La Stampa newspaper reported. Four years of digs led by archeologist Filippo Coarelli of the University of Perugia have uncovered an ornate villa with marble quarried in North Africa and ornate mosaic floors, Stampa said. While no inscription has been found that says the villa belonged to the emperor, the location, size and quality of the structure suggest it was, Coarelli said. - More:

Read more about him:

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Skeleton of Early Bronze Age Warrior Found in Beach Tomb near Rome

This find is especially interesting because it predates Roman, Etruscan and even proto-Villanovan cultures.

[Image - Villanovan ceramic head Italy 6th century BCE. Photographed at the Musee du Louvre, Paris France. Photo by Mary Harrsch.]

If we use the migration theories of Italian scholar, Massimo Pallottino, we can speculate that this warrior spoke one of three Indo-European languages inherited from Asiatic ancestors who migrated into the area during the early Bronze Age, bringing kiln-fired pottery and domestic horses to the Italian peninsula.

Three waves of Indo-European language speakers, speaking closely related languages, arrived in small groups over time across the Adriatic sea and moved inland.[6] The first occurred in the Middle Neolithic starting with the Square-necked Pottery Culture and prevailed for the remaining Neolithic and the Proto- and earlier Apennine. The Latin language evolved ultimately from their speech, in Italy. The second wave is associated with Mycenaean civilization of the Late Bronze Age and brought the ancestors of the Italic language speakers into central and south Italy. They prevailed during the remainder of the Apennine. The third wave came with the Proto-Villanovan Culture and is ultimately responsible for the Venetic language speakers. - More:

From sites like Colle della Capriola excavated in 1958 just 5 km south of Bolsena in central Italy, researchers have discovered that people of this period lived in pole-supported wattle-and-daub huts with thatched roofs built upon rock-cut foundations and encircled with defensive stone walls. They ate wheat, barley, beans and peas and raised cattle, pigs, sheep and goats.

We could even go so far as to suggest he probably was a member of the J Haplogroup carrying the J2 (M172 subgroup) y-chromosome. According to the Genographic Project
, descendants of this group that originated in the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent 15,000 - 10,000 years ago made their way into the Italian peninsula where they pioneered the Neolithic revolution, in which hunter-gatherer populations became settled agriculturists. Almost 20% of the men still living in Italy today carry this genetic marker.

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have found the skeleton of a warrior from up to 5,000 years ago floating in a tomb filled with sea water on a beach near Rome, Italy's art squad said Friday.

The bones - believed to date from the 3rd millennium BC - were discovered in May as art hunters were carrying out routine checks of the region's archaeological areas, Carabinieri art squad official Raffaele Mancino said.

Archaeologists believe the warrior was likely killed by an arrow, part of which was found among his ribs, Mancino said. There was also a hole in the back of the skull, and six vases and two daggers were found buried nearby.

The tomb of the warrior, nicknamed "Nello" after the archaeologist who found him, could be part of a wider necropolis lying just a few steps from the sea, Mancino told a news conference. - More: Fraser Coast Chronicle

Friday, July 24, 2009

Will 1st century BCE Shipwrecks Off Ancient Pandateria Yield Imperial Correspondence?

A virtual graveyard of Roman ships has been discovered off the coast of ancient Pandateria, the abode of a number of famous Roman exiles. Pandateria, now called Ventotene, was the site Augustus selected for his daughter Julia the Elder in 2 BCE when he ordered her banished for her sexual escapes in defiance of her father's morality laws.

Later Tiberius ordered his grand-niece, Agrippina the elder, there in 29 CE after she fomented a public outcry for the suspected poisoning of her husband, Germanicus. She died there, probably a victim of starvation, four years later.

[Image - Agrippina the Elder Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus by Benjamin West, 1768. Oil on canvas.]

Agrippina's youngest daughter, Julia Livilla, was deported to Pandateria by the emperor, Claudius, being charged with adultery with the philosopher Seneca. She was later starved to death, probably at the urging of Claudius' vengeful wife, Messalina.

The island claimed yet another distinguished lady of the Julio-Claudians. In 62 CE, Claudia Octavia, the first wife of emperor Nero, was sent to Pandateria where she was eventually executed as well.

I know it is unlikely that any royal correspondence would be found among the wrecks but wouldn't it be thrilling if any were discovered among the countless amphoras?

An archaeology team has found five intact shipwrecks belonging to ancient Roman trading vessels off the Italian island of Ventotene.

The shipwrecks, which were found over 100 meters underwater, are amongst the deepest discovered in the Mediterranean and date back to the first century BCE to the fifth century CE.

Located halfway between Rome and Naples, Ventotene Island was once a sheltering place for ships during the rough weather in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Reuters reported.

The island was known as Pandataria in Roman times and was used to exile disgraced Roman noblewomen.
- More: Press TV

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Can Green Mountain Project deter Libyan looters?

I was most distressed to read about the escalating destruction of the beautiful Roman ruins in Libya by looters interested in just making a quick dinar. What is even more distressing is that there are still so many highly educated people with so little morality that they are willing to buy fragments of such desecrated artwork.

[Image - plundered statues in the ruins of Cyrene, Libya. Photo courtesy of Iason Athanasiadis]

I'm sure they rationalize it to themselves and their "friends" - if you can call the hoard of sycophants or thinly disguised business associates masquerading as friends by that appellation - by claiming they are saving the artifacts from the common rabble and taking better care of the art than a mere institution could. But the bottom line is they are merely satiating their own lust to own something their associates can't and in the meantime they are denying the rest of society access to our own collective heritage.

When Libya opened to the West in 2003, it was widely hailed as a crucial first step by a “terrorist” regime coming in from the cold. But along with the legitimate companies vying to capture Libya’s lucrative markets, international antiquities-smuggling gangs were waiting for their chance to pilfer the country’s Roman ruins, which are some of the most pristine in the world.

This trade, which first began in 1987 with the opening of the Egyptian border, has accelerated since 2003 with an unprecedented gutting of Libya’s ancient heritage sites underway since.

“There’s been an explosion in looting all over the Mediterranean, but in North Africa it’s really becoming quite a problem,” said Gaetano Palumbo, the North Africa programme director for the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based organisation.

Ancient ports, villas and entire Roman cities have been uncovered by western archaeologists after being buried under the Saharan sand for centuries.

Farther inland, preserved Roman farming communities or semi-fortified towers wait to be discovered. The structures are inlaid with elaborate mosaics and covered with inscriptions, providing valuable insights into the everyday life of what was one of the Roman Empire’s wealthiest provinces...

...most antiquities are smuggled out of Libya across the porous land border with Egypt. Once in Cairo, much of the time they are spirited out by foreign diplomats who have access to their embassy’s diplomatic pouch. Alternatively, boats smuggle them across the Mediterranean to Europe.

“Antiquities usually leave the Middle East by ships from Haifa headed to New York,” said Eleni Papaefthymiou, an Athens-based art historian and expert in ancient coins. “From Greece, coins, busts or entire statues are stored in agricultural produce lorries, disguised among sacks of potatoes and peaches.“From Libya they leave by boat to Italy and Marseille,” Ms Papaefthymiou said. “Large statues that weigh up to five tonnes are removed in cargo ships leaving from ports run by co-opted customs officers.”

Libyan officials will admit off the record that looting has severely damaged the spectacular and extensive Roman ruins spread across their country’s 2,000km-long Mediterranean coastline. But they shy away from direct criticism for fear of incurring their government’s wrath or of offending Egypt, Libya’s neighbour and ally. - More: The National

However, the Green Mountain Development Plan, unveiled two years ago, may be a way to thwart the plunder by enlisting the assistance of a powerful coalition of the Libyan government, UNESCO and commercial investors to preserve the archaeological sites and incorporate them into an ecologically designed cultural center that will fuel a lucrative tourism-based economy.

Envisioned by Saif Qaddafi, the son of Libya's president, "...the Green Mountain project is ambitious.

Its energy is to come from the wind and solar power. Its waste is to be recycled, its trash converted to biofuel. Its buildings - resorts, hotels, villas and villages for locals - are to blend seamlessly into the rugged landscape.

The plan will protect Libya's fantastic Greek and Roman ruins, as well its fragile coastal ecosystem - one of the last remaining natural areas of the Mediterranean - from the perils of haphazard development. The idea is that as Libya opens to the outside world, it will not become "like the Spanish coast," said the project's financial adviser, Mahmoud Khosan. It will also be a good investment.

With a brand name British architectural firm, Foster and Associates, designing the "Green Mountain Conservation and Development" zone, and Unesco helping with restorations, there is no shortage of star power..."

The Libyan coast is "a unique and important and untouched ecosystem, almost the only one left in the Mediterranean," said Alessandra Pome of the World Wildlife Foundation in Tripoli, noting that it is the last breeding ground for turtles and tuna in the Mediterranean Sea." - More: New York Times

Apparently, the coastline identified as the target of the Green Mountain project is also home to an endangered species of seal as well.

I know some purists may shudder at the thought of resort hotels in this cultural treasure trove but realists must surely recognize that as long as local inhabitants have few alternatives to support themselves and their families, the lure of looting will continue to be irresistible. As an ecologically planned travel destination, it will certainly have more aesthetic appeal than sites bordered by the crush of high density population centers like Herculaneum.

At the time the NY Times article was written in September 2007, the Green Mountain Project was mostly vision. But since then, the Libyan government apparently has made some progress as local looters are starting to complain about government crack downs on attempts to exploit sites within the Green Mountain perimeter.

To see a beautiful slideshow of the region visit the Foster and Associates Project Site.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lasers reveal icon of St. Paul in Catacombs of Saint Thekla

The Vatican seems to be making a lot of coincidental discoveries surrounding Paul the Apostle in Rome right now. First, bones that DNA tests date to the 1st or 2nd century found in the reputed burial site of St. Paul and now a fresco in the Catacombs of St Thekla.

The fresco, which dates back to the 4th Century AD, was discovered during restoration work at the Catacomb of Saint Thekla but was kept secret for ten days.

During that time experts carefully removed centuries of grime from the fresco with a laser, before the news was officially announced through the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.

A photograph of the icon shows the thin face of a bearded man with large eyes, sunken nose and face on a red background surrounded with a yellow circle – the classic image of St Paul.

The image was found in the Catacomb of St Thekla, close to the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, which is said to be built on the site where he was buried.

St Thekla was a follower of St Paul who lived in Rome and who was put to death under the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th Century and who was subsequently made a saint but little else is known of her.

Barbara Mazzei, the director of the work at the Catacomb, said: "We had been working in the Catacomb for some time and it is full of frescoes.

"However the pictures are all covered with limestone which was covering up much of the artwork and so to remove it and clean it up we had to use fine lasers.

"The result was exceptional because from underneath all the dirt and grime we saw for the first time in 1600 years the face of Saint Paul in a very good condition.

"It was easy to see that it was Saint Paul because the style matched the iconography that we know existed at around the 4th Century – that is the thin face and the dark beard. - More:

Learn more about it:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Roman Sewn Ship Found in Croatia

From the description of the site, it sounds like a sewn ship will be the first of numerous discoveries in the former Roman city of Cissa.

Archaeologists have found an ancient sewn ship over 2000 years old in Novalia, Croatia. The ship, including body panels, ship skeleton and stitches, was found in the Caska Bay on the Island of Pag, near Novalja.

[Image - Reconstruction of a sewn boat. Courtesy of The Sewn Boat homepage.]

“In Roman times, Novalja was known for its port accommodation and was located on the old sea route from Greece to northern Italy and central Europe. The ships would wait in Novalja for suitable winds and because of that a town developed there that had various suitable services,” said professor Zdenko Brusic from Zadar University.

“Today, there are numerous remains of Roman architecture under the whole region, like water supply lines, well equipped basilicas, graves,” he added. - More: Sindh Today

I wonder if this new discovery exhibits the combination of construction techniques found in a Greek vessel raised off the coast of Sicily late last year? That 2500 year-old vessel was built with both sewing and mortise-and-tenon joints. According to National Geographic, other finds show that Egyptians and Phoenician-Punic people used this method of boat building as well.

On the Sewn Boat Homepage, Misha Naimark explains that the stitching material for sewn boats (at least those built in Northern Europe) was usually made from the roots of trees like spruce or pine.

Gathered roots must be cleaned from the bark (which is also loose and peels off quite easily) and immediately immersed into a bucket of tar; the roots are soft only while they are fresh and wet, but when they get dry they become quite crisp and stiff. So the roots are to be kept immersed in the tar, and taken out just before sewing. To protect them against rotting and deteriorating in the boat, the roots must be boiled in the tar until they are completely impregnated with it; this will make them softer, too.

Thus prepared, the spruce roots are flexible enough for sewing; but if a root is too thick and stiff, one can easily rip it lengthwise into two equal thong-like parts, which are very fit for sewing. Each part can further be ripped into halves to obtain thin and flexible enough yarns. Usually thick roots were split into yarns this way, and sometimes several such yarns were twisted together into strands and used for sewing instead of whole roots. - More: The Sewn Boat Homepage

Thursday, May 21, 2009

CT scans to "unroll" the scorched papyri from Herculaneum

I am always excited when someone tackles the challenge of trying to unroll the charred scrolls from Piso's library in Herculaneum. Although many scholars think the library mostly contains epicurean works, I keep hoping for copies of lost books written by Piso's son-in-law, Julius Caesar. According to ancient sources, Caesar dabbled in a variety of literary genres including poetry and even a joke book. I think it would be very revealing to discover what Caesar found humorous.

[Image - Brent Seales, a University of Kentucky computer science professor, specializes in reading ancient manuscripts using computer scans. On the screen behind him is a scan of the earliest complete copy of Homer's Illiad, from the 10th century A.D. On the screen at right is a carbonized scroll from ancient Herculaneum that Seales and his team will try to read using an X-ray CT scan. Photo by David Stephenson]

Brent Seales, the Gill professor of engineering in UK's computer science department, will use an X-Ray CT scanning system to collect interior images of the scrolls' [from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum] rolled-up pages. Then, he and his colleagues hope to digitally "unroll" the scrolls on a computer screen so scholars can read them.

Seales admits that there are hurdles, the biggest being the carbon-based ink thought to have been used on the scrolls. He says that since the papyrus in the scrolls was turned to carbon by the fury of Vesuvius, it might be impossible to visually separate the writing from the pages, even with powerful computer programs.

"The open question is, will we be able to read the writing?" Seales said. "There is a chance that we won't be able to do it with our current machine, and that we'll have to re-engineer some things. But if that's the case, that's what we will do." - More: Lexington Herald-Leader

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New Ceramics Dating Process Developed in UK

I thought this article in Chemistry World was quite interesting. I'm a little confused about one statement in the article that says the dating method can be applied regardless of whether the artifact is buried , exposed, etc. but at the end of the article it says results can be compromised by fluctuations in temperature and environmental conditions over a long timescale. Still, it sounds like a more definitive way to use potsherds to date a site than comparison with other potsherds. Proximity can be misleading with debris from occasional trade activities. Ancient peoples, like modern ones, liked to pick up souvenirs on their wanderings.
[Image -Roman Terracotta Lamp with Reclining Comic Actor 100-200 CE in the permanent collection of the Getty Villa, Malibu, California. Photo by Mary Harrsch.]

A new way to find the age of ceramic objects, such as ancient pottery, has been developed by scientists in the UK. The technique measures how much water the items have absorbed since they were fired - simply and accurately revealing when they were made.

Broken pottery, brickwork or tiles are unearthed at almost every archaeological dig site, but they are often of little use to archaeologists as determining how old they are is difficult. Carbon dating cannot be used because ceramics are made from finely-grained mineral clay, and alternative dating methods are complex and costly.

Now, UK scientists have found a way to date these artefacts and thus give fresh insight into the history and construction of excavated ruins or items. Key to the process is the knowledge that there is an ultra-slow recombination of moisture in fired-clay ceramic objects as they absorb moisture from the air, and that this 'rehydroxylation' process occurs at a predictable rate once an object is fired.

The researchers indicate that the technique may also find uses in spotting fake objects or uncovering whether buildings have been re-built or experienced a fire. For example, while testing a variety of bricks and tiles provided by the Museum of London - including Roman, medieval and modern samples - all but one of the samples were accurately dated.

The sample that threw the results was a clay brick from a medieval priory in Canterbury, UK, which was dated at only 66 years old instead of several hundred. On further investigation, the team found that the priory had been bombed during World War II, resulting in the clay bricks being heated over 500°C, which would have dried them out and thus affected the results. - More: Chemistry World

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dipity tool creates Roman Archaeology Timeline effortlessly

Today when I was searching for a particular video I had watched on YouTube several months ago (I had forgotten to favorite it), I came across a video that demonstrated how to create a timeline with multimedia links using a new tool called Dipity. I created my first "category" timeline by simply inputing the keywords "Roman Archaeology" the references Dipity found on the web appear to be very relevant. Impressive!

Of course Dipity includes Web 2.0 sharing utilities so you can share your timelines with Facebook, etc. Dipity is still in alpha release and has a few glitches but I'm quite impressed with what I have seen so far and it appears to represent a useful instructional tool.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Roman era catacombs found in Bethlehem

It seems catacombs are in the news everywhere today. It's especially exciting when such finds include inscriptions.

Roman-era catacombs were unearthed in Bethlehem Saturday during construction in an empty lot beside Bethlehem University.

The small underground cave system opens facing north, and held four stone coffins with engravings on each, housed in two separate dug out burial areas.

Head of Antiquities department in Jericho Wael Hamamrah estimated the artifacts, complete with skeletal remains and some pottery are between 1,800 and 1,900 years old.

The underground hall leads to two rooms, one 70x28 centimeters and the other 40x24 centimeters. - More: Ma'an News Agency

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

1st Century Millefiori dish found in east London

When I was in Rome last month, I saw millefiori articles for sale in shops all over the city. My friend Pat collects millefiori paperweights so, of course, we had to check out each one.

Although the technique used to create these little glass masterpieces is associated with Venice, it actually goes back to ancient Rome, as indicated by the estimated age of this dish discovered in the section of London that was originally part of Roman Londinium.

A rare Roman millefiori dish has been unearthed by archaeologists from the grave of a wealthy Londoner.

The dish, which has gone on display at the Museum of London in Docklands, was found during excavations in Prescot Street, in Aldgate, east London.

It was pieced together from its many fragments.

It is made up of hundreds of translucent blue indented glass petals, bordered with white embedded in a bright red glass background.

The dish formed part of the grave goods of the Roman Londoner whose cremated remains were uncovered in a container in a cemetery in Londinium's (the Roman name for London) eastern quarter. - BBC News
The millefiori technique involves the production of glass canes or rods, known as murrine, with multicolored patterns which are viewable only from the cut ends of the cane. A murrine rod is heated in a furnace, pulled until thin while still maintaining the cross section's design, and then cut into beads or discs when cooled.

[Image right courtesy of Murano Millefiori]

[Millefiori] canes, probably made in Italy, have been found as far away as 8th century archaeological sites in Ireland, and millefiori was used in thin slices to brilliant effect in the early 7th century Anglo-Saxon jewellery from Sutton Hoo. - Wikipedia

Friday, April 17, 2009

Second century sculpture of Roman boxer found in Jerusalem

This is an interesting find from the excavations in Jerusalem. At first I thought it might be a well worn head of the Roman emperor Hadrian himself but the experts suspect it is a boxer from the shape of the ears.

Archaeologists have unearthed a marble figurine they say dates back to the second or third century C.E. during an excavation in Jerusalem's City of David.

The marble bust of a bearded man's head was discovered during the excavations that the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting in the Givati car park in the walls around Jerusalem National Park.

Dr. Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, directors of the excavation at the site on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that the figurine's short curly beard and head tilted to the right is indicative of Greek influence and can be dated to the time of the emperor Hadrian or shortly thereafter (second-third centuries C.E.).
According to Ben-Ami and Tchekhanovets, "The high level of finish on the figurine is extraordinary, while meticulously adhering to the tiniest of details."

They added that the pale-yellow shade of the marble may point to the eastern origin of the raw material from which the image was carved, but they are still verifying that matter.

The figure's stylistic motifs, such as its short hair style, the prominent lobes and curves of the ears, as well as the almond-shaped eyes, suggest that the object most likely portrays an athlete, probably a boxer.

Boxing was one of the most popular fields of heavy athletics in Roman culture and more than once Roman authors mention the demand by the Roman public in general, and the elite in particular, for boxing matches.- More:
I had never visited the City of David website and was quite impressed with the number of multimedia elements it includes. I particularly liked the Timeline feature that provides a slider to change a picture of the modern city to resemble a view from centuries ago. They also included a nice fly-thru of a reconstruction of the ancient city. Be sure to have your computer's volume control turned down a bit, though, as the music is a little overwhelming!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

3rd century Roman Christians ate on average 30% freshwater fish

I found the following article very interesting especially since I explored the catacombs for the first time on my recent trip to Rome. My friend and I took the Archaeobus out to Appia Antica and disembarked at the Church of Saint Sebastian. While my friend waited I toured the catacombs there. Actually, the most interesting tombs were not the simple Christian niches but three pagan Roman tombs in the heart of the complex that predated most of the Christian burials. The three tombs standing side by side carved with architectural elements into the rock reminded me of a miniature Petra. The interior of two of tombs were embellished with terracotta flowers. The third tomb was decorated with delicate frescoes.

[Top Left: Roman mosaic floor, Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, Italy. Photo courtesy of Mary Harrsch]

“The eating habits of Rome’s early Christians are more complex than has traditionally been assumed,” say Leonard Rutgers and his colleagues in The Journal of Archaeological Science. Their work was based on analysis of 22 skeletons found in the Catacombs of St Callixtus on the Appian Way, an area utilised in the 3rd to 5th centuries AD (although some of the skeletons were radiocarbon-dated to the 2nd century)..."

"...Half of the sample were taken from loculi, half from cubicula burials. Bone preservation was poor, making sexing and ageing difficult, although one person was definitely very old, between 82 and 85 at death, while another was a breast-fed baby of around 2.
Collagen, the organic portion of bone, was taken mostly from toe bones, in a few cases from fingers or limb bones.It was analysed for its carbon and nitrogen stable-isotope content: these elements are good indicators of diet. Most samples had more or less the same isotopic levels, “confirming that the people buried in the Liberian region of the catacomb formed a single population and suggesting that, by and large, these people had access to the same kind of food resources,” the team reports. Comparing the catacomb results with those from other sites in Italy and in the western Mediterranean, the higher nitrogen and lower carbon figures indicate the consumption of freshwater fish. The contribution of such fish to the diet of the early Christians in Rome ranges from 18 to 43 per cent, averaging at around 30 per cent.
Although this is surprisingly high, fish were still a supplement to an otherwise terrestrial diet, likely to have included sheep, goat and cow meat as well as cereals, fruit and vegetables..."
"...“While distancing themselves from Jewish food taboos and generally avoiding meat derived from pagan sacrifices, the early Christians are normally hypothesised to have eaten the same food as their non-Christian Roman contemporaries,” the team says. “Within the larger context of what is currently known about Roman dietary habits, the inclusion of freshwater fish therefore comes as unexpected and raises questions about the social origins of Christianity as well.”
“When Romans ate fish at all, they are normally believed to have consumed sea fish. Freshwater fish has not been considered as an essential ingredient in the classical Roman diet.” In AD301, the Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Prices tried to fix the cost of freshwater fish at around a half to a third of its marine equivalent, so that even the poor could eat it. Roman fish probably came from the Tiber, and would have been a free or cheap source of protein." - More: TimesOnline
The importance of fish to the Romans is easily seen in their beautiful mosaics. Although mythical sea creatures are usually portrayed in mosicas found in bath complexes, very realistic food fish are depicted in floors of Roman tricliniums (dining rooms).
[Image: Marine Life Mosaic from House VIII Pompeii demonstrating the vermiculatum technique Roman 2nd century BCE, Museo Archaeologico di Napoli, Naples, Italy. Photo by Mary Harrsch]
If you are planning a trip to Rome and want to visit the catacombs, I see that Frommers recommends the catacombs of St. Domitilla. They expressed their opinion that the catacombs of St. Sebastian were the least satisfying. From their description, though, it sounds like the catacombs of St. Callixtus contain the most examples of funerary art since it is the site of nine pope burials and the tomb of Saint Cecilia. Frommers seemed to think their tours were cheesy, though. I remember reading their review before going to Rome but when the Archaeobus stopped at the first site of catacombs, the area looked rather unkempt. I decided to keep going and the stop at the Church of Saint Sebastian looked more inviting so I disembarked there. Our tour guide had been giving tours there for 26 years and she was quite knowledgable and didn't appear to dispense any particularly biased information. She pointed out Christian epigraphy including the fabled sign of the fish and the Greek Chiro (supposedly painted on the shields of Constantine's soldiers). Towards the end of the tour you enter a large subterranean dining room where families would come and feast to commemorate their departed loved ones. I knew feasting was part of the Roman funeral experience but I always thought it was held outside the actual burial site. Family diners carved their prayers on the walls. Although photography is not allowed inside the catacombs, visitors are welcome to photograph the interior of the church that is decorated with several beautiful paintings and sculptures.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Art Repatriation Brings Painting Fragments Back Together

When I first read that the Getty was returning yet another piece of art to Italy I couldn't help but groan, thinking of the huge bare space I saw on my last visit where the beautiful table support of griffins attacking a doe (that was returned to Greece) once stood. But in this case, the repatriation was voluntary and for a very good cause. Apparently, scholars saw the painting in a 2008 exhibition catalogue and recognized it as part of another painting fragment that had been returned to Italy voluntarily by a private collector in New York.

The J. Paul Getty Museum said Tuesday it will send a piece of an ancient Roman wall painting back to Italy.

A 35-by-31-inch piece of a 1st century landscape fresco is being returned because it appears to belong with another fragment returned earlier by another collector, according to a museum statement.

The fragment shows two painted panels bordered in red and gold. Inside the panels are several Roman buildings in a cityscape.

The museum noticed about a year ago that the piece, which was donated by a couple in 1996, appeared to belong to the same painting as another fragment that a private collector was returning to Italy. - Mercury

Monday, January 26, 2009

Celtic coins remnants of Eburones settlment in the Netherlands

I must have missed this discovery in November of a hoard of Celtic coins in the Netherlands. Fortunately, Numismaster just picked up the story, too, so it cropped up in my news alerts.

"On Nov. 13 [2008] an important find of 109 Celtic coins of the Eburones tribe found in the Netherlands was announced through the Associated Press. This is one of three important hoard finds of coins issued by this tribe. The other two finds were discovered in Belgium and Germany in areas not too distant geographically from the Netherlands...
..."Nico Roymans, the archaeologist who led the academic investigation of the find, believes the gold coins in the cache were minted by a tribe called the Eburones that [Julius] Caesar claimed to have wiped out in 53 B.C. after they conspired with other groups in an attack that killed 6,000 Roman soldiers."
The Euburones were a Germanic tribe living primarily in what in now Belgium. In 54 BC the Eburones revolted against local Roman occupation through Euburones tribal chieftains Ambiorix and Catuvoleus. Ambiorix initially offered safe passage to the Romans while other tribes elsewhere in Gaul were in revolt against the Romans. The Romans, commanded by Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta, agreed. The Eburones treacherously ambushed the Romans, most of whom were killed or committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Euburones.
"This war was begun by the Eburones, under Ambiorix as chief. They claimed they had been roused to action because they were annoyed at the presence of the Romans, who were commanded by Sabinus and Lucius Cotta, lieutenants. The truth was, however, that they scorned those officers, thinking that they would not prove competent to defend their men and not expecting that Caesar would quickly make an expedition against their tribe. They accordingly came upon the soldiers unawares, expecting to take the camp without striking a blow, and, when they failed of this, had recourse to deceit.

For Ambiorix, after planting ambuscades in the most suitable spots, came to the Romans after sending a herald to arrange for a parley, and represented that he had taken part in the war against his will and was himself sorry; but against the others he advised them to be on their guard, for his countrymen would not obey him and were intending to attack the garrison at night. Consequently he made the suggestion to them that they should abandon Eburonia, since they would be in danger if they remained, and should move on as quickly as possible to some of their comrades who were wintering near by.

Upon hearing this the Romans believed him, especially as Ambiorix had received many favors from Caesar and seemed to be repaying his kindness in this way. They hastily packed up their belongings, and setting out just after nightfall, fell into the ambush, where they suffered a terrible reverse. Cotta with many others perished immediately. Sabinus was sent for by Ambiorix under the pretext of saving him, for the Gallic leader was not present at the ambush and at that time was still thought to be trustworthy. On his arrival, however, Ambiorix seized him, stripped him of his arms and clothing, and then struck him down with his javelin, uttering boastful words over him, such as these: 'How can such creatures as you wish to rule us who are so great?' This was the fate that these men suffered. The rest managed to break through to the camp from which they had set out, but when the barbarians assailed that, too, and they could neither repel them nor escape, they killed one another.

After this event some others of the neighboring tribes revolted, among them the Nervians, though Quintus [Tullius] Cicero, a brother of [the orator] Marcus [Tullius] Cicero and lieutenant of Caesar, was wintering in their territory. Ambiorix added them to his force and engaged in battle with Cicero. The contest was close, and after capturing some prisoners alive the chieftain tried to deceive him also in some manner, but being unable to do so, besieged him. Thanks to his large force and the experience which he had gained from his service with the Romans, together with information that he obtained from the individual captives, he quickly managed to enclose him with a palisade and ditch.

There were numerous battles, as was natural in such a situation, and far larger numbers of the barbarians perished, because there were more of them. They, however, by reason of the multitude of their army did not feel their loss at all, whereas the Romans, who were not numerous in the first place, kept continually growing fewer and were hemmed in without difficulty. They were unable to care for their wounds through lack of the necessary appliances, and did not have a large supply of food, because they had been besieged unexpectedly. No one came to their aid, though many were wintering at no great distance; for the barbarians guarded the roads with care and caught all who were sent out and slaughtered them before the eyes of their friends. Now when they were in danger of being captured, a Nervian who was friendly to them as the result of kindness shown him and was at this time besieged with Cicero, furnished a slave of his to send as a messenger through the lines. Because of his dress and his speech, which was that of the natives, he was able to mingle with the enemy as one of their number without attracting notice, and afterwards went his way.

In this way Caesar, who had not yet returned to Italy but was still on the way, learned of what was taking place, and turning back, he took with him the soldiers in the winter establishments through which he passed, and pressed rapidly on. Meanwhile, being afraid that Cicero, in despair of assistance, might suffer disaster or even capitulate, he sent a horseman on ahead. For he did not trust the servant of the Nervian, in spite of having received an actual proof of his actual good will, fearing that he might pity his countrymen and work the Romans some great evil; so he sent a horseman of the allies who knew the dialect of Eburones and was dressed in their garb. And in order that even he might not reveal anything, voluntarily or involuntarily, he gave him no verbal message and wrote to Cicero in Greek all that he wished to say, in order that even if the letter were captured, it should even so be meaningless to the barbarians and afford them no information. [...] Now the horseman reached the camp of the Romans, but not being able to come close up to it, he fastened the letter to a javelin, and acting as if he were hurling it against the enemy, fixed it purposely in a tower. Thus Cicero learned of the approach of Caesar, and so took courage and held out more zealously.

But the barbarians for a long time knew nothing of the assistance Caesar was bringing; for he journeyed by night, bivouacking by day in very obscure places, in order that he might fall upon them as unexpectedly as possible. But they finally grew suspicious because of the excessive cheerfulness of the besieged and sent out scouts; and learning from them that Caesar was already drawing near, they set out against him, thinking to attack him while off his guard. He learned of it in time and remained where he was that night, for the purpose of appearing to have only a few followers, to have suffered from the journey, and to fear an attack from them, and so in this manner to draw them to the higher ground. And thus it turned out; for in their contempt of him because of this move they charged up the hill, and met with so severe a defeat that they carried on the war against him no longer. -

[Cassius Dio, Roman history, 40.5-10;
tr. E. Cary]

Roymans believes the gold and silver coin hoard recently found in the Netherlands were produced by Celtic tribes further north, suggesting in his opinion the coins may represent cooperation among the various Celtic tribes in the war against Caesar's Roman legions. Roymans disclosed that both the gold and silver coins depict triple spirals on the obverse, a common Celtic symbol."
I wonder if any of these coins contained any copper? Analysis of Eburones coins found in the famous "Treasure of Ambiorix" discovered in 2000 near Heers were found to contain some copper, suggesting they were emergency coinage.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Villa delle Vignacce excavation yields another bath complex and religious sculpture

Excavations at an ancient Roman villa and bath complex in the outskirts of Rome have unearthed a wealth of surprisingly well-preserved artifacts, including the marble head of a Greek god, archaeologists said. The site of the Villa delle Vignacce, toward Ciampino airport south of Rome, was first explored by archaeologists in 1780 who found statues that are now in the Vatican museum. But excavations began in earnest only about two years ago, revealing a residence attached to an elaborate thermal bath complex dating to the 1st century A.D. complete with hot baths, large tubs and a communal latrine.

Although dating stratigraphy at the villa has been challenging because the site was mined for building materials and decorative elements in the Middle Ages, initial studies indicate the bath complex on the north side of the villa was not originally used for that purpose but later converted to a bathing facility in the second century. Still later, in the third century, bathing was relocated once more to the recently discovered vaulted complex on the south side of the villa.

Since then, archaeologists said they had also uncovered prized artifacts including fragments of columns, floor slabs and the head of a marble statue believed to represent either the Greek divinity of Zeus Serapide or Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing.

Another discovery of note included a colored-glass mosaic of leaves and vegetation lining the inside of a vault.

The complex appeared to have been used and modified from the second
through the fifth centuries, and was just a short distance away from a
Barbaric camp in the sixth century, though its links to the camp are
unclear, said Darius Arya, an archaeologist with the American Institute of Roman Culture, which is handling the excavations.

The complex initially belonged to Quintus Servilius Pudens, a wealthy friend of Emperor Hadrian, who probably held private parties in the baths for his friends, archaeologists said.
[Image - Bust of the Emperor Hadrian found at Heraklion on Crete 127-128 CE, The Louvre, Paris, France]

At present, the Institute is examining the secondary subterranean spaces, including drainage systems and corridors for activities performed by slaves—an area of the grounds that covers at least five acres. Future explorations will reconcile the relationship between the newly discovered bath complex and the previously known bathing facilities of the sprawling villa complex, unearth the other sections of the villa (including a huge garden area), and relate the history of the villa to this area of Rome's suburbium, unknown before this project.
The institute is presently accepting applications for participants in the fourth excavation season to be conducted from June 14, 2009 through August 02, 2009.

"This season’s summer program aims to supply participants with both a chronological and diachronic approach to the study of Roman civilization. Through this dual approach those involved in the program will gain a more comprehensive historical and cultural overview of Roman civilization from its rise to power in this rich Mediterranean area, understanding how this civilization set a standard of cultural values that have had long lasting influence over the entire Western world to this day."