Roman ‘Chianti’ Research

From an FSU press release:

Call it a toast to the past.

A Florida State University classics professor whose decades of archaeological work on a remote hilltop in Italy have dramatically increased understanding of the ancient Etruscan culture is celebrating yet another find.

This time around it’s not the usual shards of pottery and vessels, remnants of building foundations or other ancient artifacts unearthed in past years, but rather a treasure that’s far more earthy: grape seeds.

Actually, Nancy Thomson de Grummond has discovered some 150 waterlogged grape seeds that have some experts in vineyard-grape DNA sequencing very excited.

The tiny grape seeds, unearthed during a dig this past summer in Cetamura del Chianti, were discovered in a well and are probably from about the 1st century A.D., roughly about the time the Romans inhabited what is now Italy’s Chianti region. The seeds could provide “a real breakthrough” in the understanding of the history of Chianti vineyards in the area, de Grummond said.

“We don’t know a lot about what grapes were grown at that time in the Chianti region,” she said. “Studying the grape seeds is important to understanding the evolution of the landscape in Chianti. There’s been lots of research in other vineyards but nothing in Chianti.”

Nearly every summer since 1983, de Grummond, the M. Lynette Thompson Professor of Classics, has shepherded teams of enthusiastic Florida State students into Italy’s Tuscany region to participate in archaeological digs at Cetamura del Chianti, a site once inhabited by the Etruscans and later by ancient Romans.

Over the years, she and her students have unearthed numerous artifacts that have reshaped current knowledge of the religious practices and daily lives of a long-gone people.

De Grummond is a leading scholar on the religious practices of the Etruscans, a people whose culture profoundly influenced the ancient Romans and Greeks. Her book “Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend,” the first comprehensive account of Etruscan mythology, was published in 2006. She also co-wrote another book, “The Religion of the Etruscans,” with fellow Etruscan scholar Erika Simon; that book was published the same year.

The Etruscans, who once ruled most of the Italian peninsula, were conquered and absorbed by the Romans in the second and first centuries B.C.E. (“Before the Common Era”). Prior to that time, however, they were a highly advanced civilization that constructed roads, buildings and sewer systems and developed the first true cities in Europe. They also built large, complex religious sanctuaries.

De Grummond, who next summer will celebrate her 30th anniversary of taking Florida State students on research trips to Cetamura, said that fellow scholars at the site now include professors who were her former students at FSU. And those professors are now leading their own teams of students.

“We’re now getting the ‘grand-students,’” de Grummond said — a fond reference to the third generation of researchers she now works with in Cetamura.

Florida State’s international archaeological summer program in Italy features field trips to sites and museums that help enrich students’ knowledge of the cultures under excavation at Cetamura. It’s open to all interested students and is particularly recommended for students majoring in anthropology, art history and classics. Learn more about the program at http://international.fsu.edu/Types/College/Italy/Cetamura/Archaeology.aspx.

De Grummond said researchers in southern France who are compiling a database of vineyard seeds will study the grape seeds from this year’s dig.

“It’s kind of hard for me as an art historian who studies religion to think that these grape seeds might be my finest hour,” de Grummond said with a laugh. “But they might be.” […]

via: Classics professor unearths archaeological clues about ancient Roman vineyards

Roman Giant

I’ve been sitting on this one for a week, hoping there’d be a bit more coverage, but the National Geographic seems to have an exclusive. Some excerpts:

It’s no tall tale—the first complete ancient skeleton of a person with gigantism has been discovered near Rome, a new study says.

At 6 feet, 8 inches (202 centimeters) tall, the man would have been a giant in third-century A.D. Rome, where men averaged about 5 and a half feet (167 centimeters) tall. By contrast, today’s tallest man measures 8 feet, 3 inches (251 centimeters).

[…]

Two partial skeletons, one from Poland and another from Egypt, have previously been identified as “probable” cases of gigantism, but the Roman specimen is the first clear case from the ancient past, study leader Simona Minozzi, a paleopathologist at Italy’s University of Pisa, said by email.

[…]

The unusual skeleton was found in 1991 during an excavation at a necropolis in Fidenae (map), a territory indirectly managed by Rome.

At the time, the Archaeological Superintendence of Rome, which led the project, noted that the man’s tomb was abnormally long. It was only during a later anthropological examination, though, that the bones too were found to be unusual. Shortly thereafter, they were sent to Minozzi’s group for further analysis.

To find out if the skeleton had gigantism, the team examined the bones and found evidence of skull damage consistent with a pituitary tumor, which disrupts the pituitary gland, causing it to overproduce human growth hormone.

Other findings—such as disproportionately long limbs and evidence that the bones were still growing even in early adulthood—support the gigantism diagnosis, according to the study, published October 2 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

His early demise—likely between 16 and 20—might also point to gigantism, which is associated with cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems, said Minozzi, who emphasized that the cause of death remains unknown. (Explore an interactive of the human body.)

[…]

The original article is avaliable here (payfer; not even a free abstract, grumble): Pituitary Disease from the Past: A Rare Case of Gigantism in Skeletal Remains from the Roman Imperial Age (JCEM)

Roman Burials from Somerset

From the BBC:

A Roman cemetery containing several human burials has been found during work on a new water mains in Somerset.

The finds were made by archaeologists during the laying of a four-mile (7km) long mains between Banwell and Hutton.

Among the skeletons, which have been exhumed for further study, there was one in a partially-preserved coffin.

A Bristol Water spokesman said the excavation had been described as “potentially the most important for 100 years in North Somerset”.

The cemetery was discovered “isolated from the surrounding landscape” in a curved water-filled ditch.

Roman cemeteries, according to Neil Shurety from Border Archaeology, are generally sited outside settlements and away from areas of human habitation.

Pottery and brooches

“In this case, the cemetery is evidently associated not with a town but with a villa site and it could thus represent a private burial ground serving a wealthy landowner and his immediate family,” he said.

The human remains were orientated north-south “with the head to the north, which suggests a pre-Christian burial practice,” said Mr Shurety.

“One of these individuals seems to lie within a partially-preserved wooden coffin – constructed from timber planking,” he added.

He said the site provided evidence of a “landscape almost continually in use for the last 5,000 years”.

“It covers a period ranging from an intriguing prehistoric timber structure to a Roman cemetery and defensive ditches through medieval land management features to today’s agricultural activity,” he said.

The finds, which include an estimated 9,000 pieces of pottery, brooches, a coin of Constantine the Great and a pin of Roman date are due to go on display at Banwell Village Hall on 19 November.

Cat Finds ‘Catacomb’

… but given that it was associated with a cliff, it seems more likely (and appropriate?) that it might be a columbarium of some sort … from the Guardian:

Rome may not exactly be short of catacombs, but one discovered this week is more deserving of the name than the city’s countless other subterranean burial chambers. For Mirko Curti stumbled into a 2,000-year-old tomb piled with bones while chasing a wayward moggy yards from his apartment building.

Curti and a friend were following the cat at 10pm on Tuesday when it scampered towards a low tufa rock cliff close to his home near Via di Pietralata in a residential area of the city. “The cat managed to get into a grotto and we followed the sound of its miaowing,” he said.

Inside the small opening in the cliff the two men found themselves surrounded by niches dug into the rock similar to those used by the Romans to hold funeral urns, while what appeared to be human bones littered the floor.

Archaeologists called to the scene said the tomb probably dated from between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD. Given that niches were used to store ashes in urns, the bones had probably tumbled into the tomb from a separate burial space higher up inside the cliff.

Heavy rains at the start of the week had probably caused rocks concealing the entrance to the tomb to crumble, they added.

Soft tufa rock has often been used for digging tombs over the centuries in Italy, but its softness means that ancient sites are today threatened by the elements. The cliffs near Via di Pietralata have also been extensively quarried.

Romans are often underwhelmed and sometimes irritated to find they are living on top of priceless remains. Shoppers arriving at the Ikea store on the outskirts of Rome leave their cars alongside a stretch of Roman road unearthed in the car park, while fans queueing to enter the city’s rugby stadium need to skirt around archaeologists excavating the Roman necropolis that stretches under the pitch. At the concert hall complex next door, halls had to be squeezed around an unearthed Roman villa.

But Curti said he was nonetheless amazed to wander into a tomb so close to his house, calling it “the most incredible experience” of his life.

… can’t seem to find any decent photos (this one doesn’t count)

Roman Ship From Antibes Redux

We mentioned this one last week when most of the coverage was in French … the story finally did hit the English papers, e.g., the Guardian (which picked up coverage from Le Monde)

It looks like the rib cage of a large marine mammal, whose bones turned black as it was fossilised. The wreck was discovered in May during a dig in Antibes, on the French Riviera, prior to construction of a car park on the site of the Roman port of Antipolis.

Archaeologists have gradually uncovered a 15-metre length of hull and structural timbers, in “exceptional” condition, according to Giulia Boetto, a specialist in ship design at Aix-Marseille University who is involved in the dig. Saw and adze marks are still visible on the wood. Luckily the ground in which it was found is always waterlogged so this prevented the timber from rotting and decomposing.

Sprinklers have kept the hull and its structure moist since its discovery. “Otherwise, in just a few weeks we would lose everything,” says Isabelle Daveau, an archaeologist at France’s Rescue Archaeology Research Institute (Inrap) and head of the project.

The ship – a merchant vessel from the imperial period – was probably about 22 metres long and six or seven metres across. It is thought to have sunk in the second or third century in the port at Antipolis. “It has a typical Graeco-Roman flat-bottomed design,” Boetto says, with a hold three metres deep and a square sail to drive it, suspended from a mast, which has not been found.

The archaeologists have made some touching discoveries, including a little 15-centimetre brush that must have been dropped by a shipwright busy caulking the hull. It most likely fell through a gap between the floor of the hold and the outer shell, only to be discovered 19 centuries later.

“A ship like this could carry a cargo of up to about 100 tonnes,” Boetto says. This may seem a lot, but it is well below the tonnage reached by other vessels. “At the time, the boats transporting Egyptian corn back to Rome could be as long as 40 to 50 metres, loaded with up to 400 tonnes of grain,” she adds.

The remains of the ship, which will be donated to Antibes by the state, will be dismantled and the timber treated for lasting conservation. “Just the process of treating the timber will take two years,” says Jean-Louis Andral, head of the Antibes museum. “Then the wreck will be reconstituted and set up in a centre for study and preservation, where it can also be seen by the general public.” It should be ready in three or four years.

How did the ship come to be lying at a depth of barely two metres in the port of Antibes? “We can’t be absolutely sure, but it’s possible, as sometimes happened, that it was deliberately scuttled to serve as a landing stage,” Daveau suggests. “It may also have been swamped by a freak wave.”

Another possible explanation is that it sank at its mooring, but this seems unlikely. Nowhere on the section of the vessel that has been uncovered have archaeologists found any signs of repairs, suggesting that it was not particularly old when it sank. In due course the timber itself will be properly dated.

The team of 20 or so archaeologists working on the dig have found no evidence of any cargo. When a ship went down, efforts would be made to salvage as much as possible. “At a depth of less than two metres it would have been fairly easy to raise goods,” Boetto says. “On the Roman shipwreck discovered in the 1970s off Madrague de Giens, at a depth of 20 metres, part of the cargo had been recovered.”

At the time underwater excavation of the great wreck, led by maritime archaeologists André Tchernia and Patrice Pomey, revealed gaps in the cargo. Heavy stones had been placed alongside the missing amphorae. It is thought that they were used to weight the divers who specialised in salvaging ship-wrecked goods. Such divers were often mentioned in ancient texts but the Madrague de Giens wreck provided the first material proof of their activity and daring.

In excavating the 5,000-square-metre site the archaeologists have uncovered more than just the remains of the vessel. The floor of the old Roman port holds a remarkable record of the diversity of sea trade between the late fourth and early sixth centuries, including amphorae dropped in the water during unloading, damaged crockery thrown overboard and the soles of leather shoes.

It is also testimony to far-reaching trade in the Mediterranean. Goods from so many different regions converged on Antipolis that “we often discover unknown objects from indeterminate sources”, Daveau says. Some finds reveal the identity of their owner. Here, for instance, is a ceramic bowl marked Rutili, probably the name of a sailor who dropped it in the water because it was broken or chipped.

Such finds are particularly valuable in the eyes of Inrap researchers as nine-tenths of the port was destroyed in the 1970s by the construction of a modern marina. In those days there was still no legislation requiring a preventive rescue dig.

All the excavated material will be kept and made available to the scientific community in appropriate premises adjoining the hall where the wreck will be on display. “We have found large numbers of amphorae from Italy and Marseille, dating back to the port’s earliest period,” says archaeologist Robert Thernot. “Then, as time passed, there were more and more items from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.” This suggests that the main centres of production shifted, just as is happening now with Asia’s growing importance and Europe’s industrial decline.

The cargo that the ship brought to Antipolis will probably remain a mystery but the odds are high that it would have sailed away loaded with garum, a fermented fish sauce that contributed to the prosperity and fame of the city for several centuries.

The article includes a photo of the ship …