Octagonal tomb from Mongol era found in China

August 14th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed an octagonal tomb from the 14th century with murals in excellent condition in Yangquan, east central China. Seven of the eight walls of the tomb are painted with murals while the eighth is taken up by the entrance. There were no human remains found inside, nor were there any grave goods that might identify who was buried there. One of the murals, however, depicts a husband and wife who are believed to have been the tomb’s occupants.

Some of the murals show scenes of life in Mongol-ruled China. These include a band of musicians playing songs, tea being prepared, and horses and camels transporting people and goods, according to the paper.

Some of the people in the murals are shown wearing Mongol, rather than Chinese, fashion styles, the archaeologists noted. For instance, in one mural, a camel is being led by a man who “is wearing a soft hat with four edges, which was the traditional hat of northern nomadic tribes from ancient times,” the archaeologists wrote in the journal article.

“Mongol rulers issued a dress code in 1314 for racial segregation: Han Chinese officials maintained the round-collar shirts and folded hats, and the Mongolian officials wore clothes like long jackets and soft hats with four edges,” they wrote.

Two of the murals illustrated famous stories of filial piety, an important ethical precept in Confucianism of respect, care and deep empathic feeling for parents, elders and ancestors. These kinds of tales were collected in literary anthologies like The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. One of the murals depicts one of those 24 examples, the story of Guo Ju who decided to bury his own son alive so that their meager food supply would be sufficient to feed his mother. Guo Ju’s son was spared a terrible death when the father discovered a gold treasure in the hole he was digging for the grave.

The other filial piety-themed mural in the tomb takes the opposite approach to the same concept. Yuan Jue is the young son of a poverty-stricken family whose father decides to sacrifice Jue’s grandfather so that the rest of them will have enough food to survive a famine. Jue protests his father’s plan to leave his own father to die in the wilderness, insisting that should he go through with this cruel abandonment, Jue will do the same to him when the time comes. The father backs down and all of the family manages to pull through the famine.

The paintings are in very fine condition, with only architectural interruptions like a massive standing lamp built in to one of the walls. The pyramidal roof, painted with stars in the interior, has also made it from the Mongol era to the present in excellent fettle.

The tomb was first discovered in 2012 and published in Chinese four years later. That 2016 article has now been translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

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Pebble mosaic found in 4th c. BC Greek bathhouse

August 13th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered a pebble mosaic in a 4th century B.C. bathhouse in the ancient city of Ambrakia (modern-day Arta) in northwest Greece. The mosaic predates the bathhouse but matches it thematically, depicting animals and settings with connections to water.

Discovered during excavations of the Small Theater archaeological site, the mosaic adorns the floor of a circular space just northwest of the theater. It is more than 12 feet in diameter and was made using small white, off-white and dark river pebbles. The weren’t painted or treated, but shine from the natural polish imparted by untold aeons spent in the river current. Decorative accents were created using amber and red pebbles. One small section in the northwest section of the mosaic shows evidence of having been repaired in antiquity.

The mosaic is bounded by a spiral border one foot wide and in the center stars a five-tentacled octopus (pentapus?) with anime-large eyes. South of the cephalopod is a swan, wings spread as if attempting to take flight, with a rope around its neck that is held but a cupid figure standing on its right. In the southeast section is a dolphin with a cupid on its back. A female figure leads a swan in the west section, while in the northern section another cupid holds a swan by the leg. Also on the west side are two squirrels playing with something, toy or animal, that cannot be identified. To their right is a water fowl. The human figures have strips of amber pebbles over their torsos and arms, possibly representing scratches, and their lips are conveyed with pale yellow/cream pebbles. Facial features and details on the limbs are figured using very small pebbles.

A similar pebble mosaic floor was found under the eastern section of the theater in the 1970s. It also depicts winged cupids, swans and dolphins, but there are marked differences as well — the way the pebbles are embedded, the lack of color differences that convey dimension — which suggest it is older than the recently-discovered mosaic. It was raised in 1976 and moved the Archaeological Museum of Arta.

In a press statement, the Arta ephorate said the dating was based on architectural evidence and on comparisons with pebble mosaics found at the Ancient Corinth baths, dated to the mid-4th century.

The supervision of the excavations is carried out by archaeologist Nektarios-Petros Gioutsos and three conservators have already taken measures to preserve and stabilize the new find.

Arta, in western Greece, has been inhabited continuously from antiquity to the present, and the layered remains of older settlements are still visible in various parts of the present city. The Small Theater is situated in the center of the modern city.

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British Museum uncovers origin of looted objects, returns them to Iraq

August 12th, 2018

Researchers at the British Museum solved a mystery both ancient and modern when they discovered the origin site of eight artifacts looted from Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Thanks to their efforts, the objects are now on their way back to Iraq.

The orphaned artifacts were in custody of the British Museum after having been seized in a police raid on a London antiquities dealer in May 2003. The dealer had no proof of ownership — I guess he hadn’t gotten around to forging a “Swiss private collection” document yet — or any other documentation about the artifacts, so they were confiscated by the authorities and were in storage for almost 15 years.

The cold case was heated up when the Metropolitan Police reformed its art and antiquities squad. The squad gave the objects to the British Museum this year in the hope that its experts might be able to figure out where the pieces came from so they could be repatriated. As it turned out, the British Museum was uniquely well-positioned to uncover the truth about these objects.

The eight artifacts consist of three fired clay cones with Sumerian cuneiform inscriptions, a fragment of a white gypsum mace-head inscribed in Sumerian, a polished river pebble with a cuneiform inscription in Sumerian, one red marble and one white marble stamp-seal amulet from the Jemdet Nasr period (ca. 3000 B.C.) in the form of a reclining sheep and one banded white chalcedony seal of a reclining sphinx from the Achaemenid period.

It was the three cones that gave the British Museum the information they needed to pinpoint the origin site. The all bore the identical Sumerian inscription, one that is also know from other inscribed ancient artifacts. It reads: “For Ningirsu, Enlil’s mighty warrior, Gudea, ruler of Lagash, made things function as they should (and) he built and restored for him his Eninnu, the White Thunderbird.” This inscription identified the cones as coming from the archaeological city of Girsu (modern-day Tello) in southern Iraq where the Eninnu temple once stood. The temple was sacred Eninnu’s patron god Ningirsu.

The great temple complex is in the Tell A area of Tello where ongoing excavations have found artifacts and remains elucidating the plan, size and design of the temple. Archaeologists from the British Museum have been excavating Tell A since 2016 as part of the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, a program set up in response to the IS destruction of cultural patrimony that trains staff from the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in the latest techniques of rescue archaeology. The initial survey of Tello in 2015 and 2016 found dozens of looter pits. They were shallow and appear to have been targeted, small-scale efforts probably done at night by a few individuals rather than the massive looting operations that ran roughshod over Iraq’s ancient sites in 2003.

The British Museum team at Tello found broken cones identical to those seized in London. Their shape was an imitation of tent pegs and they were originally placed in holes in the temple wall, offerings to the Sumerian Thunderbird, the lion-headed god who roared thunder and flashed lightning bolts from his body. That’s how the researchers were able to discover not just the site where the objects had been looted from, but the actual wall they had been inserted in originally.

On Friday, August 10th, the artifacts were officially returned to the Iraqi ambassador Salih Husain Ali in a ceremony at the British Museum.

Iraqi ambassador Salih Husain Ali … said the protection of antiquities was an international responsibility and praised the British Museum and its staff “for their exceptional efforts in the process of identifying and returning looted antiquities to Iraq. Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation of Iraqi heritage.”

St John Simpson, the assistant keeper at the Middle East department of the museum, said: “Uniquely we could trace them not just to the site but to within inches of where they were stolen from. This is a very happy outcome, nothing like this has happened for a very, very long time if ever.”

They will be returned to the national museum in Baghdad and reunited with many objects from the recent excavations, and may eventually be loaned to a museum near the site.

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How to make an equestrian bronze monument

August 11th, 2018

If you’ve ever wondered how giant bronze statues could be cast in one piece, the Getty Research Institute is here to cool your fevered brow. It has created a great video explaining all the steps in the casting and installation of Edme Bouchardon’s equestrian statue of King Louis XV that stood in the Place Louis XV, today known as the Place de la Concorde.

The video was created for the exhibition Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment to illustrate the complex process of casting a massive bronze equestrian statue. Because of the hardships inherent in the project and his own meticulous standards, Bouchardon didn’t live to see the end of that process. He died in July of 1762. The 17-foot high (39 feet including the pedestal) depiction of the king garbed like a Roman general, laurel wreath on his head and baton of command in his raised right hand, was erected in 1763.

After all that trouble, Bouchardon’s masterpiece only outlived its maker by three decades. The anti-monarchical iconoclasm of the French Revolution which decimated so much of France’s cultural patrimony struck the bronze in the wake of the overthrow of the monarchy in the Insurrection of August 10, 1792. Bouchardon’s rigorousness almost defeated them, however, as they found it almost impossible to destroy the statue. They thought they could just loop some ropes over it and pull it down, but it was connected to the pedestal with long iron tenons from its casting and the 30 tons of bronze could not be budged. In the end, they had to get a metal saw and cut through the left feet in order to break the monument at its weakest points.

The bulk of the statue was melted down. The right hand which had held the baton of command survived, first on the ground of the newly renamed Place de la Révolution, a mute but powerful witness to the death of the ancien regime. It was still there seven months later when Louis XV’s grandson was guillotined in front of the pedestal that had once supported the symbol of royal power. Later the hand was gifted to Jean Henri Latude, a rather fabulous scammer who had spent decades in the Bastille by order of Louis XV and had escaped by fashioning a ladder out of scraps of his clothing and parts of a chair. The Council of the Municipality of Paris thought it fitting that he should receive the hand that had once signed the order sending him to the Bastille. That hand is now in the Louvre and was loaned to the Getty for the Boucheron exhibition.

The video explains how the casting was done and the massive statue installed by animating contemporary engravings of the casting process printed in Description des travaux qui ont précédé, accompagné et suivi la fonte en bronze d’un seul jet de la statue équestre de Louis XV, le Bien-Aimé, (Description of the works that preceded, accompanied and followed the bronze casting of the equestrian statue of Louis XV, the Beloved) by Jean Pierre Mariette, published in 1768 when Louis XV was still alive (hence le Bien-Aimé). The Getty Research Institute has also digitized the volume. You can read it or, if you can’t read French, just leaf through the killer architectural drawings here.

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Glossiest Neolithic axe found in Orkney

August 10th, 2018

An excavation the Ness of Brodgar, a Neolithic archaeological site on the Orkney island of Mainland, has unearthed the glossiest stone axe I’ve ever seen, and prehistoric axes are one of my obsessions so I’ve seen quite a few. Even the professional archaeologists from the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) who have been excavating the site for years and have seen far more Neolithic axes than I were struck by the sheer beauty of this piece.

The axe was found by Australian UHI archaeology student Therese McCormick on August 3rd. She was on a bit of a slog, digging through the dense, complex layers of floors in Structure Ten which is the largest Neolithic building in the north of Britain. It was built around 2900 B.C. and used until the abandonment of the Ness of Brodgar site around 2,400–2,200 B.C. Structure Ten was deliberately demolished after a rager of a ceremony that featured the ritual slaughter of hundreds of cows and deposition of their bones. This appears to have been the Ness of Brodgar’s Neolithic last hurrah, the site’s closing ceremony.

The stratigraphy of Structure Ten is therefore as important as it is challenging. Therese was working on the west end of the 82 x 66-foot structure in a test pit exposing the stratigraphy of floor depositions and leveling events when on her last day of excavation she discovered the stone axe. Made of banded gneiss with a distinctive orange band that curves at the wide end in parallel to the curvature of the cutting edge, the axe’s beauty was noticeable even when it was still covered in soil. When it was cleaned and dampened with water, the color and texture stood out even more, set off by its high-gloss polish.

The axe shows signs of extensive use. One side of it has been re-sharpened. The other was not and and is heavily worn. The sharp edge and wear pattern indicate its primary function was an axe blade, but tell-tale divots on both sides of it indicate it was also used as a sort of mini anvil. Strikes against it left small, rough dents in the surface of the stone.

Site director Nick Card said: “It is nice to find pristine examples of stone axes, but the damage on this one tells us a little bit more about the history of this particular axe.

“The fact that the cutting edge had been heavily damaged suggests that it was a working tool rather than a ceremonial object.

“We know that the buildings in the complex were roofed by stone slabs so this axe was perhaps used to cut and fashion the timber joists that held up the heavy roof.”

This is the second stone axe found in the same area of Structure Ten. One was unearthed in 2012 just above the find site of the current discovery. It too was uncommonly handsome, a shiny black granite not usually used to make axes, and had been used and reused. It had broken at one point and the cutting edge recreated on the smaller tool.

The Ness of Brodgar excavation is in dire need of funding. If you’d like to support the archaeological exploration of one of the most important Neolithic sites in Britain, you can donate online here.

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Archaic remains, artifacts found at Apollo temple site

August 9th, 2018

The uninhabited Cycladean islet of Despotiko is tiny in dimension but immense in archaeological importance thanks to the sanctuary of Apollo built there in the 6th century B.C. during the Greek Archaic period. The sanctuary was heavily damaged in the 5th century by Athens in retaliation for Paros’ support of Xerxes during the second Persian invasion of Greece, but excavations have found archaeological evidence of extended rebuilding through the late Hellenistic period (2nd century B.C.).

Located almost exactly at the center of the Cyclades, Despotiko has sightline views of eight of the islands and was connected to Antiparos and Koimitiri by an isthmus when the temple was built. The thorough excavation of Despotiko began in 1997 and has continued ever since, systematically bringing to light a temple complex much larger, longer-lived and more significant than archaeologists had realized.

This season’s excavation has unearthed the remains of three more structures raises the tally of buildings in the complex to 22. Archaeologists now believe that the Despotiko temple may have been the largest in the Cyclades, eclipsing in size the much more famous Sanctuary of Apollo on the island of Delos, mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.

The dig explored areas surrounding the archaic sanctuary, focusing on a site just south of the main temple and two buildings labelled Z and P. One of the three structures discovered is a rectangular two-story building 26 x 10.5 feet found underneath the westernmost rooms of the temple complex. It was built in the 6th century B.C. and intriguingly still contained a grid and cooking pot in their original location. Archaeologists also found original floors and sealed off entrances.

Another structure, dubbed Building T, is just barely a rectangle at 25.6 feet x 24.4 feet. There are two rooms, each with their own entry and their own front yards. (Is it weird that my first thought was “nice setup for an Airbnb”?) The last of the newly-unearthed structures, Building Y, is 25 x 20 feet. Its design is reminiscent of a church nave with an entrance on the south side and walls three feet thick.

In addition to the architectural remains, the dig also discovered a wealth of artifacts, almost all of which are estimated to date to the 6th century B.C.

Like every year, this year’s findings were rich. More than 15 lamps and 15 fragments of vases with engraved inscriptions (APL, APOL) were found, fragments of amphorae and red-colored craters, everyday vases such as basins, bowls, pans, bottles, and many metallic objects (a bronze lance, nails, russets, hooks, etc.).

From this year’s discoveries what stood out were the fragment of the head of an archaic kouros, a fragment from the ankle of a kouros and scraps of two piths with embossed decoration, one depicting a warrior and the other a dance show.

While the excavation shed new light on the early history of the Despotiko sanctuary, restorers set to shoring up the masonry of two previously unearthed buildings and on raising a part of the main temple of Apollo up from the ground. After four weeks of work, columns, lintels and walls are vertical, recreating some small portion of the sanctuary’s height and making it once again visible from Antiparos.

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Complete set of hipposandals found at Vindolanda

August 8th, 2018

A set of four iron hipposandals has been unearthed in the archaeological motherlode that is Vindolanda, the Roman fort and settlement just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. The set was discovered by a volunteer in a system of ditches adjacent to a late Antonine stone wall (180-200 A.D.). There were three main phases of construction in the Antonine era with new ditches dug for each which narrows down the date of the hipposandals to between 140 and 180 A.D.

These iron hoof coverings were used to protect the feet of military and pack animals, horses, perhaps even oxen. They were clunky and would have hindered movement, but they would have helped the animals keep their footing in mucky, wet, slick and snowy conditions. It’s possible the hindrance of movement was a feature rather than a bug; an animal at pasture wearing these clodhoppers would be effectively hobbled and incapable of wandering off. They also served as a barrier against injuries accidental and deliberate, as from caltrops.

Hipposandals have been found before, particularly on battlefields where they were shed by cavalry mounts, but a complete matched set of four is an extremely rare discovery. The hoof protectors are in excellent condition, showing so little wear and tear that the treads on the underside are still clearly visible.

More than 7,000 volunteers have played an essential role in the excavation of Vindolanda since the program began in 1970. Volunteers have helped unearth everything from the thousands of leather shoes and writing tablets the site is best known for, to the bronze hand from the shrine of Jupiter found a few months ago.

Because the Romans were in Britain for between 400 and 500 years, Ms Birley said, teams could dig at the site for the next 150 years and still unearth Roman treasures.

“Basically, over the years, nine forts have been built on this site – every time new Roman arrivals came, they covered over the remains from the last fort with clay and turf to make solid foundations for their fort,” Ms Birley explained.

“This means things were well preserved. One of the hipposandals has a hairline fracture so the set may have been thrown in the ditch because one was damaged.”

The hoofwear has been conserved and will go on display at the Roman Army Museum in February of next year.

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Bronze Age citadel dwarfing Troy unearthed in Romania

August 7th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a massive Bronze Age citadel in the town of Sântana, Arad county, north-western Romania. An international team of German and Romanian archaeologists has been excavating the site, first explored in 2009, for two years and only a small fraction of it has been exposed. More than half of the site has been measured and mapped extensively via magnetic survey, however. Out of 90 hectares, 55 have been documented magnetometrically, allowing the team to map the fortress from outer defenses to the citadel’s main structures.

The fortress was enclosed by a moat more than 13 feet deep outside of an earth rampart an estimated 70 feet high. These intimidatingly looming ramparts protected a palace in the interior. This massive structure was about 330 feet long and 130 feet wide. The palace and other structures inside the citadel were made of mud/clay and wood.

Rüdiger Krause, professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, and Romanian professor Florin Gogâltan, from the Institute of Archeology and History of Art of the Romanian Academy in Cluj-Napoca, came to the conclusion that the “Old Citadel” in Sântana was built in the 14th century BC, about 3,400 years ago.

“The citadel in Sântana is one of the largest fortifications built during the mentioned period. Our purpose is to find out why this fortification was made, why this construction was needed,” the German professor said, according to Aradon.ro.

The discoveries also made the archeologists believe that the “Old Citadel” in Romania is much bigger than the ancient city of Troy.

“Troy had an area of 29 hectares, the Citadel in Sântana covers 89 hectares. The buildings of Troy were made of stone. At Sântana, the buildings were made of clay and wood, a sign that civilization was more developed and adapted to the building materials it had,” Florin Gogâltan explained. “We are facing one of the biggest and impressive fortresses in Europe.”

And they want to give it its due. The director of the Arad Museum is advocating the construction of a new museum in Sântana on the site itself. The entirety of the site is not likely to be fully excavated — the current German-Romanian project is slated to last one more year only — but what has been revealed is in excellent condition. Local government officials are very much into the idea of creating a tourist attraction that would bring an infusion of cash to the area as well as international recognition of this unique and highly significant archaeological treasure.

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Programming Note

August 6th, 2018

Our server will be getting a MySQL and PHP upgrade this evening between 9:00PM and 3:00AM Mountain Standard Time. There could be some down time. If all goes well it’ll be no more than 15 minutes, so start burning them offerings to the faceless numen that regulate the dark forces of server upgrades.

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Third Lod mosaic found during construction of Lod mosaic museum

August 6th, 2018

The construction of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center, a permanent home for one the largest and most intact (not to mention one of the most beautiful) Roman mosaic floors ever discovered, has resulted in the discovery of yet another exceptional mosaic floor. Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists unearthed the colorful depiction of fish, birds and plants in just one month of work.

This is the third one found at the site where the first mosaic floor was found in 1996. The second was discovered in late 2014. This embarrassment of archaeological and artistic riches was once part of a large luxury home dating to the early 4th century A.D. in the ancient city of Lydda which under the Roman Empire was a district capital and important center of trade. The first and largest mosaic covered the floor of the main reception room/triclinium. The second adorned an internal courtyard. The newly-discovered mosaic covered the floor of another smaller reception room/triclinium next to the one where the largest and first mosaic was found.

“The archaeological excavation that we carried out this month was relatively small, but contributed significantly to our understanding of the villa building,” said [excavation director Dr. Amir] Gorzalczany. “Thankfully, the main central panel of the mosaic was preserved. The figures, many similar to the figures in the earlier mosaics, comprise fish and winged creatures. A fairly similar mosaic was found in the past in Jerusalem, on the Mount Zion slopes. The Lod mosaics, however, do not depict any human figures that are present in the Mount Zion mosaic. It is quite probable that the same artist produced both mosaics, or that two artists worked from a similar design.”

“This type of mosaic is better known in the Western part of the Roman Empire,” Gorzalczany explained. “Also noteworthy are the rectangular marks that may denote the placing of the couches on which the participants of the banquet or feast reclined. These marks are common in similar villas and are an indication of the use of the space in the reception halls.”

One corner of the mosaic was first spotted by archaeologists in 2014 at the time the second mosaic was discovered. Except for that one corner, the rest of the space was underneath a neighborhood parking lot and as the residents were none too keen to lose their handy spots, it took years of discussions before the mosaic could be excavated. Once the team was given the go-ahead, they had a brief window to excavate and salvage whatever they found before the property was returned to the residents.

When the new Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center opens, the first two mosaics will be displayed in situ exactly where they were found. This third one will also be on display, but not in its original location.

In this video you can see experts from the IAA salvage the mosaic, rolling it up like a carpet.

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