Finds from Nea Paphos

From the Cyprus Mail:

ARCHAEOLOGICAL investigations at the edges and to the south of the Hellenistic-Roman theatre of Nea Paphos have identified significant structures of the ancient city, according to an official announcement by the Department of Antiquities yesterday.

The investigations were carried out October 6 to November 17 of last year by the University of Sydney, under the direction of Emeritus Professor Richard Green, Dr Craig Barker and Dr Smadar Gabrieli.

The announcement said the work had aimed at exploring the relationship between the theatre and the ancient city’s infrastructure.

To this end, a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey had been carried out to record a large area to the south of the theatre.

The announcement added that a number of important structures had been identified, but that earthquake damage had made it difficult to delineate the precise outline of the city.

Additionally, excavations had continued to the south-east of the theatre, near the site of a long, narrow building, deemed to be a Roman fountain house or ‘nymphaeum’.

The announcement noted that a limestone-paved Roman road, cleared by the team and running from the southern edge of the nymphaeum, would have been one of the city’s major thoroughfares – particularly for pedestrians travelling to the theatre. Two wheel ruts were also found along a section of the road.

Excavations in the western entranceway of the theatre, or ‘parodos’, had exposed the edge of a deep bedrock quarry that had probably provided stone for the original phases of the theatre, as well as barrier walls meant to anchor the soil built up to provide support for theatre seating.

The announcement added that the team had also excavated a geometric mosaic probably dating back to the 5th century AD, which, if accurate, may provide insight into post-theatre activity on the site.

Finally, the announcement said that cataloguing of medieval finds from a well on the site had also been carried out.

Further excavations for the area south of the theatre are in the pipeline

… I don’t think we ever had news coverage of this particular dig before …

Mystery Huts at Vindolanda?

From the BBC:

Archaeologists at the Roman Vindolanda Fort & Museum have unearthed dozens of circular huts which they believe could have been used as temporary refuges.

The excavation at the site in Hexham, Northumberland, has unearthed various finds from Roman Britain including letters, murder victims and shoes.

It is thought the huts were built during the invasion of Scotland under Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 208-211).

Dr Andrew Birley described them as “remarkable structures”.

An earlier fort at Vindolanda was completely levelled for the construction of the buildings, which could number into the hundreds.

The find has intrigued archaeologists at the site as Roman soldiers did not build round houses.

They are interested as to why the Roman army would go to such lengths to accommodate the unusual structures.

Dr Birley, who is director of excavations, said: “These are remarkable structures to be found inside a Roman fort, unique in fact.

“They are the sort of building you might expect to find north of Hadrian’s Wall in this period, used by small farming communities.

“It is quite possible that what we have here is the Roman army providing for these farmers – creating a temporary refuge for the most vulnerable people from north of the wall.

“Those people may have helped to feed the army and traded with the soldiers, and would have been regarded as being traitors and collaborators in the eyes of the rebellious tribes to the north.

“It would make a certain sense to bring them behind the curtain of Hadrian’s Wall and protect them while the fighting continued, as they would have had real value to the Romans and they certainly tried to protect what they valued.”

This one’s kind of curious … are they referring to the sorts of thing that are seen in this photo? If so, these aren’t a new find (as the article seems to imply). Or have Birley and crew suddenly come upon a lot more of them? Have they found anything *in* the huts? Whatever is being reported here is just a bit too vague …


Hadrianic Alignment

A very interesting item from Nature:

Hadrian’s villa 30 kilometres east of Rome was a place where the Roman Emperor could relax in marble baths and forget about the burdens of power. But he could never completely lose track of time, says Marina De Franceschini, an Italian archaeologist who believes that some of the villa’s buildings are aligned so as to produce sunlight effects for the seasons.

For centuries, scholars have thought that the more than 30 buildings at Hadrian’s palatial country estate were oriented more or less randomly. But De Franceschini says that during the summer solstice, blades of light pierce two of the villa’s buildings.

In one, the Roccabruna, light from the summer solstice enters through a wedge-shaped slot above the door and illuminates a niche on the opposite side of the interior (see image). And in a temple of the Accademia building, De Franceschini has found that sunlight passes through a series of doors during both the winter and summer solstices.

“The alignments gave me a new key of interpretation,” says De Franceschini, who says that the two buildings are connected by an esplanade that was a sacred avenue during the solstices. Based on ancient texts describing religious rituals and study of recovered sculptures, she thinks the light effects were linked to religious ceremonies associated with the Egyptian goddess Isis, who was adopted by the Romans.

De Franceschini, who works with the University of Trento in Italy, will publish a book1 this summer describing the archaeoastronomical work. She credits two architects, Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray, for initially noticing the light effect in Roccabruna.

Astronomical alignment

Robert Hannah, a classicist from the University of Otago in New Zealand, says that De Franceschini’s ideas are plausible. “They’re certainly ripe for further investigation,” he says.

Hannah, who is currently seeking to pin down alignments associated with star rises in Greek temples in Cyprus, believes that the Pantheon, a large temple in Rome with a circular window at the top of its dome, also acts as a giant calendrical sundial2, with sunlight illuminating key interior surfaces at the equinoxes and on 21 April, the city’s birthday.

Few classical buildings have been investigated for astronomical alignment, says Hannah, partly because it is much easier to check for alignments in prehistoric structures such as Stonehenge, which do not have potentially contradictory artefacts.

Jarita Holbrook, a cultural astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is also not surprised by the solar alignments at Hadrian’s villa. They are “a common part of most cultures”, she says. But, she adds, it’s also easy for buildings to be coincidentally aligned with astronomical features.

De Franceschini plans to spend next week’s summer solstice at Hadrian’s villa, in the hope of documenting the light effects at Apollo’s temple more carefully. Last year’s summer solstice was rainy, she says. “I hope that this year we will get better pictures.”

Marina De Franceschini (probably not coincidentally) has a very impressive flickr photoset of Hadrian’s Villa and environs: Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adrianna). For some comparanda, last fall we mentioned Alun Salt’s paper: The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples (I’m sure Alan will have some commentary on the hadrianic findings soon, if he doesn’t already).

Asterix and Brain Injuries

Rather peripheral, but perhaps of interest to readers of rogueclassicism … some academics have actually written (and have had published) a paper analyzing 700+ brain injuries in the Asterix comic series … here’s a bit from the middle of the Telegraph coverage:

 [...] The main characters “thump” Romans, pirates and Goths but a “detailed analysis had not been performed hitherto” of the injuries they suffered.

By “screening” all 34 books, the authors found 704 cases of head or brain injury, all but six suffered by men.

The victims were mostly Romans (450) but also included 120 Gauls, 59 bandits or pirates, 20 Goths, eight Vikings and five Britons. In 402 cases the perpetrators of the violence were Asterix and/or Obelix themselves.

In 696 cases “blunt force” was used but eight people were strangled and six suffered a fall.

More victims (390) suffered severe trauma than moderate (89) or mild (225), with the researchers using the standard Glasgow coma scale to assess the seriousness of their wounds.

About half (390) lost consciousness after being attacked and 188 were drawn with hypoglossal paresis – “an outstretched or sideward pointing tongue”. Half also had periorbital ecchymoses or “raccoon eyes” and some had “sporadic amnesia”.

The druid Getafix took the longest time to recover after “a case of massive force” in the form of a large stone known as a menhir falling on his head.

However the paper notes: “No case of death or a permanent neurological deficit following traumatic brain injury has been found.” [...]

If you’ve got a spare thirty-five bucks gathering lint in your pocket, you can download the paper itself at: Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books

UPDATE (a few minutes later): shaking my head but not surprised by the Toronto Star’s opening paragraph (compounded by the headline):

A study by German researchers has concluded what many Asterix fans have long suspected: Traumatic brain injuries were rampant among Roman soldiers stationed in northwestern Gaul around 50 B.C.

… I’ve long suspected the Star had a serious disconnect from reality …

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem xvi kalendas quinctilias

Otto Jahn Otto Jahn. Stich von August Weger na...

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ante diem xvi kalendas quinctilias

  • 212 A.D. — martyrdom of Ferreolus and Ferrutio
  • 1716 — Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad is published
  • 1813 — birth of Otto Jahn (archaeologist and philologist)
  • 1937 — birth of Erich Segal (Classicist, known to Classicists for his work on ancient comedy; known to the rest of the world as the author of Love Story)

Happy Bloomsday

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem xvii kalendas quinctilias

ante diem xvii kalendas quinctilias

  • Quinquatrus minusculae (day 3 of a five-day festival honouring the birthday (maybe) of Minerva )
  • Quando stercus delatus fas (“When the ‘trash’ is taken out”) and the Temple of Vesta is closed to the public
  • 302 A.D. — martyrdom of Hesychius
  • 303 A.D. — martyrdom of Vitus (and companions)


Oh Oh …

The incipit of a potentially-disturbing item from CNN:

NATO refused to say Tuesday whether or not it would bomb ancient Roman ruins in Libya if it knew Moammar Gadhafi was hiding military equipment there.

“We will strike military vehicles, military forces, military equipment or military infrastructure that threaten Libyan civilians as necessary,” a NATO official in Naples told CNN, declining to give his name in discussing internal NATO deliberations.

But he said the alliance could not verify rebel claims that Libya’s leader may be hiding rocket launchers at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Leptis Magna, a historic Roman city between the capital Tripoli and rebel-held Misrata. [...]

This Day in Ancient History: idus junias

Egyptian alabaster statuette of Alexander the ...

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idus junias


Frescoes from the Hypogeum of the Aurelii

Tip o’ the pileus to Adrian Murdoch for alerting us via Twitter to some of the German/Austrian coverage of this very interesting publication of recent restoration of frescoes from the Hypogeum of the Aurelii, which has been under study by a Vatican-associated archaeology team. The fullest coverage is in L’Osservatore Romano … it waxes on about tensions between various religious beliefs as seen in this mid-third century tomb, which has side-by-side depictions of the creation of Adam and Prometheus, scenes from the Odyssey, Heracles in the Garden of the Hesperides, etc.:

Ci sono dei monumenti che «parlano troppo» e che diventano dei grovigli inestricabili di idee, di pensieri, di vie interpretative, per cui gli archeologi e gli storici dell’arte devono affilare le loro armi per sciogliere i nodi più stretti delle teorie che hanno animato committenti e artifices quando è stato concepito il complesso monumentale o la sua decorazione.

È questo il caso dell’ipogeo degli Aureli in viale Manzoni, un monumento sepolcrale, scoperto durante l’allestimento di un garage della Sta, divenuto poi proprietà della Fiat s.p.a., nel settore sud-orientale di Roma, non lontano dalla basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. La Soprintendenza del tempo eseguì degli scavi sistematici e l’ispettore Goffredo Bendinelli preparò una prima edizione critica del programma decorativo, poi aggiornata dal grande iconografo Joseph Wilpert e Scena omerica col particolare dei compagni di Ulisse svelati dal laserdall’archeologo Orazio Marucchi. Da quel momento, l’ipogeo divenne una vera e propria «palestra» per tutti gli studiosi della storia delle religioni della tarda antichità, che affidarono all’ipogeo, ora una committenza pagana, ora una committenza cristiana, ora una committenza gnostica.

Il programma decorativo, che interessa, infatti, le tre stanze funerarie propone una tematica complessa, difficilmente riconducibile a un unico filone iconografico, ma mostra quella ecletticità tipica del clima multireligioso, che anima l’atmosfera culturale, che dal tempo dei Severi, tra il ii e il III secolo, giunge all’impero di Gallieno, ossia alla fine degli anni Sessanta dello stesso III secolo. Un tempo, questo, percorso da mille problemi di ordine politico, sociale, economico e militare, che trova «rifugio» nel pensiero filosofico e religioso, il quale accoglie nell’ideologia romana le correnti delle nuove credenze e delle forme di fede provenienti dall’Oriente.

Il culto per Mitra, il pensiero giudaico, la filosofia neoplatonica, l’orfismo, il cristianesimo, la gnosi vivono e convivono in una Roma multietnica e multireligiosa, creando anche forme di sincretismo e sovrapposizioni complesse di elaborazioni religiose. Ebbene, l’ipogeo degli Aureli esprime proprio questa complessità di un pensiero elaborato da una classe sociale elevata, ambiziosa, forse appartenente all’entourage dei liberti imperiali e, comunque, pronta a emulare le manifestazioni monumentali dei ranghi più alti e danarosi del tempo.

La tensione verso l’autorappresentazione suggerisce a questa famiglia, così in vista nella Roma del tempo, di decorare il proprio monumento funerario con i temi che, pur non dimenticando le consuetudini iconografiche della cultura ellenistica e della tradizione romana, aprono le porte a un nuovo immaginario, sospeso tra vita quotidiana e un mondo beato, tranquillo, quieto, proiettato nell’aldilà.

Questo felice locus amoenus, di virgiliana memoria, si esprime con molti e diversi espedienti iconografici, che si dislocano nelle pareti dei tre ambienti funerari. Due grandi temi costellano gli affreschi dei tre cubicoli: da una parte, la grande materia filosofica, che propone decine di intellettuali disposti in teorie e muniti di virgae e rotoli della sapienza, dall’altra, l’argomento bucolico, con la rappresentazione di pastori criofori e di un curioso ibrido iconografico, ossia una figura di un pastore-intellettuale, che sembra alludere alla congiunzione dei due temi di base e che vuole rappresentare uno degli Aureli deposti nell’ipogeo.

Nell’iscrizione musiva dedicata da un Aurelius Felicissimus si ricorda la sepoltura dei tre fratelli Aurelius Onesimus, Aurelius Papirius e Aurelia Prima. Ebbene, questi tre defunti vengono rappresentati in un lungo ciclo affrescato, ora come il saggio pastore, di cui si è parlato; ora come un cavaliere che entra in una favolosa città, che si propone come una sorta di oltremondo urbano; ora come un retore al centro di un foro; ora come una commensale di un banchetto celeste. Il ciclo si inserisce in un grande quadro omerico, dove, secondo i primi editori, era rappresentato l’episodio di Ulisse che torna a Itaca e incontra Penelope al telaio tra i Proci. Il recentissimo restauro effettuato con il rivoluzionario uso del laser — che lo scorso anno recuperò il cubicolo degli apostoli a S. Tecla — ha permesso di leggere meglio questa singolare Particolare dei due defuntimegalografia. Nella parte superiore, laddove gli iconografi del passato riconoscevano il palazzo e le greggi di Laerte, è stata scoperta ancora Aurelia Prima che, in segno di lutto, si scioglie i capelli per compiangere i due fratelli morti, sistemati sul letto funebre all’interno di un recinto funerario. Nel settore inferiore — sulla scia di qualche interpretazione del passato — si assiste al momento in cui Ulisse ottiene dalla maga Circe che i compagni, trasformati in porci, tornino a essere uomini. Il racconto, che si dispiega nel x canto dell’Odissea, ben si inserisce nella tematica funeraria del tempo, se si tiene conto che fu proprio Circe a indicare la via di un viaggio nell’Ade al curioso Odisseo. Le nuove scene individuate si calano perfettamente nel sistema multireligioso a cui fa capo il sincretismo elaborato dagli Aureli, che comporta anche due enigmatiche scene dove si può riconoscere sia Prometeo che crea l’uomo ed Eracle nel giardino delle Esperidi, sia la creazione di Adamo e la cacciata dall’Eden. Queste incertezze e queste compresenze ci parlano di un’atmosfera ricca di tensioni ideologiche, che mirano, comunque, a creare una condizione oltremondana, sospesa nel cosmo, in equilibrio tra una sede terrena e una ultraterrena, che prepara l’idea di un altro mondo pronto a rappresentare il paradiso dei cristiani, riservato, in questo caso, a un gruppo privato, a una famiglia d’alto rango. Di lì a poco o negli stessi anni, proprio nella prima metà del III secolo, nascono le catacombe comunitarie destinate alla sepoltura di tutti i fratelli che hanno aderito alla nuova fede. L’ipogeo degli Aureli, in questo contesto, rappresenta un antefatto singolare, fortemente autorappresentativo, di una gens che, senza abbracciare il pensiero cristiano, lo contempla nell’orizzonte multireligioso del tempo.

A couple of small, uncaptioned photos accompany the Osservatore piece. One of the items mentioned by Adrian Murdoch includes this one (not sure how long it will be available):

Mysterious Roman Dodecahedra

Here’s something to occupy your weekend … from Fox (who, no doubt, will turn this into a documentary involving aliens):

Can you do what the world’s archaeologists can’t? Can you explain this — thing?

It’s been called a war weapon, a candlestick, a child’s toy, a weather gauge, an astronomical instrument, and a religious symbol — just to name a few. But what IS this mystery object, really?

There are books and websites dedicated to properly identifying it, dissertations dedicated to unveiling the truth, textbooks and class curriculums spent arguing over what its function is. Fans can even “Like” it on Facebook.

Yet the only thing historians will agree on is a name for the odd object: a Roman dodecahedron.

That part was easy, seeing as the mathematical shape of this artifact is a dodecahedron. Best described as a bronze or stone geometric object, it has twelve flat pentagonal faces, each with a circular hole in the middle (not necessarily the same size). All sides connect to create a hollowed out center.

It’s dated from somewhere around the second and third century AD, and has been popping up everywhere in Europe. Archeologists have found the majority of them in France, Switzerland and parts of Germany where the Romans once ruled.

But its use remains a mystery, mostly because the Romans who usually kept meticulous accounts make no mention of it in records. And with sizes varying from 4 to 11 cm, and some bearing decorative knobs, it only gets harder to pinpoint a function.

Speculation among historians has resulted in many different hypotheses, which is as close as we may get to an accurate answer. Few archeologists will even comment on it, because the dodecahedron isn’t defined to a specific cultural area and therefore not their area of expertise. Even the theories that do exist are highly debated among historians.

Plutarch, the famous Greek historian reportedly identified the dodecahedron as a vital instrument for zodiac signs. The twelve sides represent the twelve animals in the circle of the Zodiac, but even this theory comes under contest when the argument of the knobs as decoration is presented.

“My take is that it is yet another piece the use of which we shall never completely sort out even though we are fortunate to have Plutarch’s testimony,” said Andrea Galdy, who holds a Ph.D from the School of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Manchester and is currently teaching Art History in Florence, Italy. Galdy has not come across it in her own work, and does not regard herself as a specialist, but she does have plenty of experience in labeling artifacts.

Bloggers from all over the world are stumped as they argue over the purpose of what the different size holes can be used for, and why they are being discovered all over Europe and not in a concentrated area. One was reportedly found in a woman’s burial ground, leading many to settle on “religious artifact.”

Can you do what archaeologists can’t? Can you help solve the mystery?

As of this writing, there are 244 comments on the Fox article … the article also has a photo of what one of these things looks like. They are rather strange and their purpose is unclear. A quick look through JSTOR yesterday didn’t find many references (a couple of find reports from Britannia or JRS (sorry; didn’t write them down … one was found between the walls of a structure), one mention of an icosahedron) but it doesn’t appear to be something that folks have been worrying about too much. Googling Roman dodecahedron will bring up a pile of sites giving essentially the same info as the Fox article. Overall, though, they might not be specifically *Roman* – one of the pages which makes a guess includes a map of findspots, and most of them are UK/Northern Europe … possibly coinciding with Roman military sites (another suggestion which I read in passing yesterday).

What I find intriguing about these things — if you look at the pictures — is that they seem designed to be set on a surface and be stable thereon, and that the hole size seems to vary from dodecadron to dodecahedron. Even within specific dodecahedra, there seems to be varying hole sizes. To me, that suggests they’re being used to sort/strain something. Olives? Salt crystals? Maybe they’re just decorative …

I, Claudius Miniseries?

Latest from the Hollywood Reporter:

HBO is going back into business with Rome duo Jane Tranter and Anne Thomopoulos for a miniseries based on Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.

The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed that the BBC Worldwide Productions duo will executive produce the co-production with BBC2.

Graves’ novel was first published in 1934 as an autobiography of Roman Emperor Claudius and includes the history of the Roman Empire from Julius Caesar’s assassination to Caligula’s assassination.

The book — and its sequel, Claudius the God — were first adapted as a miniseries by BBC Television in 1976 and broadcast stateside as part of PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre. Starring Derek Jacobi as the Roman emperor, the mini picked up three Emmy nominations, including outstanding direction and limited series, winning for art direction.

The HBO/BBC co-production will be based on both books.

The project was first adapted for the big-screen in 1937 with director Josef von Sternberg with Charles Laughton as Claudius.

Relativity Media and writer-director Jim Sheridan eyed a big-screen remake in 2008.

Tranter and Thomopoulos produced HBO’s historical drama Rome, which ran for two seasons on the pay cable network. [...]

We’ll see what comes of this … last we heard (as far as I recall), they were going to make a big screen version of Graves’ novel(s).

Taciturnity Needed, Not Tacitus

Just when you think you can’t read anything in the Daily Mail that will surprise you (inter alia):

Alexander Thynn, the 7th Marquess of Bath, is a descendant of the Roman historian Tacitus and is well known for his alternative views on relationships.

… I’d love to see that family tree in print … this guy sounds more like he’s related to Turdulus Gallicanus than Tacitus …

Praeneste Fibula Authentic?

Fíbula de Preneste, presumptament l'escrit en ...

Image by Sebastià Giralt via Flickr

I’ve been sitting on this one for a few days, hoping some English coverage might appear, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.  In the Italian press, however, there is much coverage of some non-invasive testing of the Praeneste Fibula (on which is inscribed our oldest example of Latin), and it is now being declared as “authentic”, in a vague and somewhat troublesome way (unless I’m losing something in translation, which is entirely possible).  Here’s the coverage from La Repubblica, which is typical of most of the coverage:

Vera o falsa? Il caso della Fibula Prenestina, esposta nel Museo Nazionale Etnografico ‘Luigi Pigorini’, è finalmente risolto. L’autenticità della preziosa spilla, datata al VII secolo a.C., e della sua iscrizione, ritenuta la più antica testimonianza della lingua latina, è stata confermata da indagini scientifiche condotte da Daniela Ferro dell’Istituto per lo studio dei materiali nanostrutturati (Ismn) del Consiglio nazionale delle ricerche e da Edilberto Formigli, restauratore e docente presso l’Università ‘La Sapienza’ di Roma e quella di Firenze.

La Fibula, trovata a Palestrina, l’antica Preneste, fin dalla sua presentazione ufficiale nel 1887 da parte dell’archeologo tedesco Wolfgang Helbig è stata oggetto di accesi dibattiti, in merito alla sua autenticità e al contesto di appartenenza.

I due specialisti, che da anni conducono analisi multidisciplinari sulla tecnologia orafa antica, presentano oggi, presso il Museo ‘Pigorini’, i risultati delle indagini micro-analitiche condotte nel laboratorio del Dipartimento di chimica dell’Università di Roma con il microscopio elettronico a scansione.

Il gioiello d’oro, lungo 10,7 cm. e datato attorno alla metà del VII secolo a. C, ha, sulla parte esterna della staffa, l’iscrizione Manios med fhefhaked Numasioi, in latino classico Manius me fecit Numerio ovvero ‘Manio mi fece per Numerio’, la più antica testimonianza della lingua latina che ci sia pervenuta.

“Lo studio di un reperto” spiega Daniela Ferro dell’Ismn-Cnr, “impone la scelta di metodi analitici non distruttivi e non invasivi. L’utilizzo della microscopia a scansione elettronica accoppiata alla microsonda elettronica per raggi X a dispersione di energia, consente osservazioni ad alta risoluzione della superficie e contemporaneamente permette di acquisire dati sulla composizione chimica in elementi. In particolare, la fibula è stata studiata con una strumentazione dotata di una camera porta campioni che permette di muovere ampiamente l’oggetto e di investigarne ogni parte, senza danneggiarlo”.

Le apparecchiature scientifiche hanno permesso di accertare metodologie e composizione della stessa età rispetto alla datazione attribuita alla spilla, nonostante tentativi di pulitura e abrasioni di secoli più recenti. Infatti, se per l’oro non sono stati ancora trovati metodi di datazione, oggi sappiamo che alcune tecniche orafe hanno raggiunto un alto grado tecnico solo con gli Etruschi ed i numerosi studi oggi esistenti ne tracciano le caratteristiche.

“E’ un manufatto di alta oreficeria, realizzato nella parte della staffa, con una lamina ad alto contenuto d’oro, materiale duttile per essere inciso con la punta a stilo” continua la ricercatrice. “L’iscrizione è stata realizzata nello stesso modo. Sono stati anche individuati le riparazioni effettuati anticamente come la presenza di una foglia d’oro per nascondere una piccola frattura, mentre l’uso di amalgama d’oro per rinforzare la parte mobile dell’ardiglione (ovvero il puntale ndr) potrebbe essere recente. E’ improbabile che un falsario operasse particolarità di lavorazione ed uso delle leghe auree in un periodo dove la conoscenza delle procedure dell’oreficeria etrusca non erano particolarmente conosciute in dettaglio in quanto avrebbero potuto essere rilevate se non con le più sofisticate strumentazioni tecnologiche”.

What I get out of all that is that the pin itself dates the period it is claimed to come from in that the gold matches (composition-wise and manufacture-wise) other fibulae from the same period. But that’s not really what the issue is with the Praeneste Fibula, is it? Its importance lies in the inscription — as previously-mentioned, the oldest Latin inscription — and none of this announcement (or the hype for the talk which seems to have given rise to it) seems to address this. Archaeology Magazine has an excellent  feature on assorted hoaxes and fakes, and the Praeneste fibula is among those mentioned. Here’s a salient excerpt (the Helbig mentioned is Wolfgang Helbig, a reputable archaeologist who announced the discovery of the fibula back in 1886):

But Helbig hadn’t told the Institute audience all he knew. He said a friend owned it, and that friend was Francesco Martinetti, a seller of antiquities, faker, and smuggler. And there were signs that something was wrong with Helbig’s tale. The fibula was later said to be from the Bernardini Tomb, which was excavated in 1876. That contradicted Helbig’s story, but he didn’t challenge it. The few who raised questions about the fibula, such as archaeologist Giovanni Pinza in 1905, were ignored. Helbig said it was genuine and if the exact circumstances of its discovery were murky, so what.

Though he was intellectually gifted, Helbig’s personality did not impress everybody. Archaeologist Otto Jahn had thought him lacking in self-discipline, and the great classicist Theodor Mommsen said he was “a lightheaded fly” and a “loafer.” In fact, things were worse, and the real story of Helbig and the Praeneste fibula is one about “the world of the salon, of the collector, of the rich and famous, of the dealer, of the masterpiece and the fraud” (Holloway 1994).

A comprehensive study by Margherita Guarducci in 1980 showed that suspicions about the fibula were well founded. In La cosiddetta Fibula Prenestina. Antiquari, eruditi e falsari nella Roman dell’ Ottocento, Guarducci, a University of Rome Greco-Latin epigraphist, pointed out that the inscription was rather poorly executed, compared to genuine ones, as though engraved by an amateur. She noted how, compared to ancient gold, which can be brittle, the fibula could bend quite easily. Chemical analysis showed that the gold was unlike specimens known to be from Palestrina. Finally, examination of the inscribed area showed that the surface had been treated with acid to look old. Guarducci knew of Helbig’s involvement with Martinetti, who could have made the fibula, basing it on real ones from Palestrina. But analysis shows the inscription matches Helbig’s handwriting.

… the whole piece is definitely worth reading. I have no reason to doubt that the recent testing suggests the fibula itself might be authentic, but we really do need some confirmation that the inscription comes from the same time as the pin. Until that can be confirmed (although I don’t know how), this seems to be an analogous situation to the James Ossuary; i.e., we have an object that is definitely ancient, which seems to have been recently altered to give it additional archaeological interest/value.

Here’s some more coverage from the Italian press:

Smashing Rituals at Keros?

Interesting coverage from the Guardian, which — even more interestingly — seems to go beyond the original Cambridge press release:

To say it has been an archaeological mystery may be an understatement: why are fragments of beautiful but deliberately smashed bronze age figurines buried in shallow pits on a small, rocky Greek island whose main inhabitants have always been goats?

Today, academics at Cambridge University will release findings that shed light on the 4,500-year-old puzzle of Keros, a tiny Cycladic island in the Aegean.

It appears Keros was the ceremonial destination for a ritual that involved islanders breaking prized possessions and making a pilgrimage with fragments for burial.

“It is rather remarkable,” said Professor Colin Renfrew, who led the most recent excavations.

“We believe that the breaking of statues and other goods was a ritual and that Keros was chosen as a sanctuary to preserve the effects.”

The Keros story began in 1963 with Renfrew himself. Then a long-haired research student – he is now Lord Renfrew – he stepped off a caïque boat on to the island (human population: two goatherders) after being tipped off about a site of archaeological interest.

“I was amazed to find fragments of marble bowls and marble figurines,” said Renfrew. The fragments were of a type of sculpture found across the Cyclades, examples of which can be seen in the British Museum and have inspired artists including Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore.

The Keros sculptures were almost all broken. Archaeologists found thousands of marble vessel fragments and hundreds of figurine body parts, such as a pair of thighs, a folded arm or an elongated foot.

The matter rested there until 1987 when Renfrew, by now the Disney professor of archaeology at Cambridge, returned to Keros to begin more serious excavation.

That led him to the discovery that the breakages were not the result of careless looting. “It became clear that this was a very strange site.”

In 2006 Renfrew found an unlooted site of buried broken figurines and the remains of a settlement on an islet about 100 metres away, Dhaskalio.

There the team found evidence of a kind of bronze age guesthouse where visiting villagers would have congregated on their pilgrimage.

Geological examinations showed it was built from imported marble rather than the flaky local limestone.

The team had found – from around the same time the Pyramids were being built – evidence of huge amounts of marble being transported across the sea to build Dhaskalio.

Renfrew’s theory is that Cycladic villagers would have used the figurines and bowls in a ritualistic way, perhaps carrying them in processions as icons are carried in Greek villages today.

“After they had been used for some time, perhaps decades, the time would come that it would go out of use,” he said. So they were broken and fragments taken to “one remarkable ritual centre”.

Renfrew said it was likely that the islanders would go to Keros at regular intervals, in much the same way that the ancient Greeks held the Olympics every four years.

“No doubt it was a ceremony of renewal – a new generation of icons being used and a new generation of people growing up.”

The evidence suggests fragments were ritualistically deposited on Keros for about 400-500 years, until around 2000BC.

Renfrew said there were still many more puzzles at Keros and Dhaskalio to be answered. The latest research will be published as a basis for further investigations.

… I wonder how they can tell if something was smashed, then transported, as opposed to being smashed in situ (maybe because some of the figurines ‘don’t fit together’ as a photo accompanying the Guardian’s coverage suggests in a caption). Whatever the case, there seems to be a lot of imagination being added here

Rugby Classics? Classical Rugby?

Rugby doesn’t get much airplay up here in the Great Humid North, so I can’t honestly say I’ve heard of Jamie Gibson, but it’s always nice to read when folks with a talent on a playing field also take part in activities in the Classics field. Some excerpts from the Express:

JAMIE GIBSON is living proof that it is possible to combine a ­burgeoning professional ­career with even the most exalted academic discipline.

Flanker Gibson, 20, from Wiltshire, somehow combines Premiership rugby for London Irish with studying Classics at Oxford University, his reading list including Homer, Virgil, Euripides and Aristophanes.

Then he become an England Saxon. Appearances off the bench against the Barbarians and the United States confirmed the quality Gibson had already shown as a Marlborough schoolboy who represented all of England’s age-group sides.

“There are things to work on but I’ve been very pleased with how it’s gone so far, especially in the Barbarians game when I came up against some world-class players in their back row,” said Gibson.

“Next season I need to nail down one of the back-row positions at London Irish and, in terms of England, keep pushing along in the Saxons squad post-World Cup. The 2015 World Cup would have to be the ambition but I’m not thinking that far ahead.”

“My supervisor at Oxford says God gives us eight hours for sleeping, eight hours for fun and playing rugby and eight hours for working,” said Gibson. “I’m not sure it’s quite like that but, if that’s his viewpoint, I’m happy to give it a go.

“Even if I had a tough couple of weeks’ training or in the winter when the weather is tough, I never feel there’s any stress to it. If there’s a chance to do some studying, I take it wherever I am. It means you keep engaging your mind and don’t go stale.

“This is my nature. When I work for two hours, I make sure I get two hours’ work done, whereas if you have four hours’ free time you might spend every 30 seconds gazing out of the window.”

Gibson makes it sound so simple. But last night he was back in Oxford from the Saxon’s Bath base for a tutorial and still has four more essays to write during the final fortnight of the second of his four undergraduate years. As a classicist with a knowledge of seven languages – Latin, Greek, French, Russian, Mandarin and Spanish as well as his native tongue – Gibson inevitably raises the intellectual tone wherever he may be, including at London Irish.


“I always believed I could make it work, combining my studies with a rugby career, but the speed at which everything has gone has been very surprising especially in the last six months,” said Gibson.

“I’m not going to complain about playing rugby and being at university in Oxford. I started 12 games on the trot for London Irish at the end of the season and had no difficulties managing that. We even went to Leeds in the middle of the exam period.

“I’m prepared to do whatever is necessary but I’d like to get my course done in the two years that remain.”



Also Seen: Classics Dream Job Followup

No, the job hasn’t been filled yet (I don’t think), but the  Daily Mail has a lengthy piece on the lifestyles of tutors of the rich and famous … it includes this:

However, tutors exist in a world in which clients have so much money, their fees are almost irrelevant. Indeed, the more these parents are charged, the happier they are.

‘Parents get carried away,’ said Will Petty, a tutor who went to Harrow, got an MA in philosophy at Edinburgh University and now works for London educational consultancy Bonas MacFarlane.

‘They think: “She’s only four, but why not get a Classicist?” They start out looking for just a normal tutor and end up with a skiing instructor or sailing expert because it’s an honour badge.

… which got me thinking: imagine the job opportunities if it become de rigueur for everyone to have their own Classicist! Imagine the potential donations to keep departments alive … this could have interesting implications …

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem iv idus junias

Caligula (AD 37-41). Orichalcum sestertius (27...

Image via Wikipedia

ante diem iv idus junias

  • 17 B.C. — ludi Latini et Graeci honorarii (day 6)
  • 38 A.D. — death of Drusilla, the much-beloved sister of the emperor Gaius (Caligula)
  • 86 A.D.. — ludi Capitolini (day 5)
  • 120 A.D. — martyrdom of Gaetulius and companions at Tivoli
  • 204 A.D. — ludi Latini et Graeci honorarii (day 7)


Roman Burial in Dr Jenner’s Garden?

Interesting item from the University of Bristol:

A skeleton, possibly dating from Roman times, has been unearthed by archaeologists from the University of Bristol during a dig in the garden of vaccination pioneer Dr Edward Jenner in Berkeley, Gloucestershire.

The archaeologists, led by Professor Mark Horton and Dr Stuart Prior, have been excavating part of the garden of The Chantry, the former country home of vaccination pioneer, Dr Edward Jenner (1749-1823), during a series of annual digs since 2007. They have already established that Berkeley is an important Anglo-Saxon site with a mynster of the same scale and status as Gloucester.

Last week, they uncovered a skeleton believed to date from the Roman or possibly sub-Roman (that is the ‘Dark Ages’) period. The Roman occupation of Britain ended in 410AD, making this an extremely rare find of great historical significance.

As the skeleton was painstakingly excavated it became clear that it was cut in half by a later ditch. Roman material was found in this ditch, which could have either been deposited by the Romans themselves or later inhabitants of the area as they were robbing the Roman buildings nearby.

The skeleton is known to be adult but its sex has not yet been determined. It was found underneath the sealed remains of part of the Anglo-Saxon Mynster, founded in the 8th century. This latest discovery, however, clearly puts Berkeley on the map as an even earlier religious site than previously thought.

Professor Mark Horton said: “This was a completely unexpected but really important discovery because it fills in the history between the Roman villa that we believe is on the site and the Anglo-Saxon monastery discovered during earlier digs.

“It just goes to show that you never quite know what lies under your feet. It is unlikely that Dr Jenner was aware of these unexpected neighbours lurking at the bottom of his garden.”

Sarah Parker, Director of Dr Jenner’s House said: “Year on year the archaeology and recorded data that the University of Bristol uncovers from Dr Jenner’s garden never ceases to amaze. It reinforces the importance of this historic site alongside the Birthplace of Vaccination. We are very pleased to be working with the university, sharing history being made being with the public.”

… I’m curious what the “Roman material” found in the ditch might have been

Iranian Salt Men Update

Salt man's head, Iran Bastan Museum

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A year ago (almost to the day) we were mentioning that the remains of some so-called ‘salt men’ from Iran had been saved from a sad decompositional fate in a museum and we also reminded folks of Adrienne Mayor’s plausible suggestion that such ‘salt men’ may have had some connection to tales of satyrs and the like. Now, the fine folks at Past Horizons alert us to a recent study on the actual origins of the men themselves, inter alia:

Recently isotopic analysis was carried out on five of the salt-preserved bodies which are now dated to between  4th century BCE through to the 4th century CE. In an attempt to identify the geographical origins of these people, researchers from the Department of Environmental Sciences, Università Ca’ Foscari in Italy, matched osteological samples from various sites in Iran and those from the salt mine bodies. It was possible for them to hypothesise that two of the “mummies” may have come from the Tehran/Qazvin Plain region (local to the salt mine), and a further two appear on isotopic grounds to have come from the northeast of Iran or the Turkmenistan steppes. The fifth appears to have come from further afield.

… the article continues and includes some nice links for your further investigatory pleasure: