Monday, April 24, 2017

Just How Rich Were the Inhabitants of Magna Graecia Really?

Ancient Origins

A team of archaeologists excavating in the Italian city of Paestum (Poseidonia), has uncovered the remnants of a palatial structure and indispensable ceramics. Almost 2,500 years ago, Poseidonia was part of Magna Graecia’s (“Great Greece’s”) most significant sanctuaries.

Magna Graecia’s Glorious Past
Magna Graecia was the name given in antiquity by the Romans to the group of Greek colonies which encircled the shores of Southern Italy, in the present-day regions of Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily that were extensively populated by Greek settlers.

 The name is not found in any extant author earlier than Polybius, who mentions the cities of Magna Graecia during the time of Pythagoras by using the expression, “the country that was then called Magna Graecia” (Pol. 2.39). However, many historians believe that the name possibly had arisen already at an early stage of Greek history, probably during a period that the Greek colonies in Italy were at the height of their power and prosperity and before many famous city-states of Greece had reached their peak.

The Greek expansion into Southern Italy began in the 8th century BC and the settlers would bring with them their Hellenic civilization, which was to leave a lasting imprint in Italy, such as in the culture of ancient Rome. Greek colonists founded a number of city states on both coasts of the peninsula from the Bay of Naples and the Gulf of Taranto southwards and all-round the narrow coastal plain of Sicily.

Ancient Greek colonies and their dialect groupings in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia). (Public Domain)

 In their hey-day these city states, founded by farmers, traders, and craftsmen, represented the “new rich” of the Greek world. Their temples were bigger, their houses more ornate, and their aristocracy lived a life of pampered luxury. Trade between the Italian colonies and their founding cities in mainland Greece prospered, and Magna Graecia became the center for two philosophical groups: Parmenides founded a school at Elea and Pythagoras another at Croton. Croton was also famed to have the finest physicians in the Greek world and was the home of one of the greatest ancient athletes, Milo, who was a six times champion in wrestling at both the Olympic and Pythian games.

Coins from Magna Graecia. (CC BY SA 2.5)

 New Findings at Poseidonia Clearly Show the Affluence of its Greek Founders
Despite many of the Greek inhabitants of Southern Italy getting totally Italianized during the Middle Ages, the immense impact of Greek culture and language has survived to present day. One major example of this is Griko people, an ethnic Greek community of Southern Italy that can be mainly found in regions of Calabria and Apulia.

Another major example would be all the discoveries that have taken place in Southern Italy, with the most recent being a block-built building and the new artifacts in Poseidonia as Greek Reporter recently reported.

Archaeologists excavating a structure which is believed to date from when the settlement of Poseidonia was founded in southern Italy. (Parco Archeologico di Paestum)

Poseidonia was established by Greek colonists from the Gulf of Taranto around 400 BC. The city would later fall under the rule of an indigenous Italic people known as the Lucanians, who changed the city’s name.

The remains of the recently unearthed large structure, which most likely served as either a palace or a very luxurious household, seems to have been constructed within the same time period as the Doric-style temples of the Greek gods Athena, Hera, and Poseidon - for which Poseidonia was best known in antiquity.

Second temple of Hera, also called Neptune temple or Poseidon temple, Paestum (Poseidonia), Campania, Italy. (Norbert Nagel/CC BY SA 3.0)

Besides the large building, as New Historian reports, archaeologists have also uncovered a respectable amount of Attic red-figure style pottery – a proficiency invented in Athens after the Greek Dark Age -which influenced the rest of Greece, especially Boeotia, Corinth, the Cyclades, and the Ionian colonies in the east Aegean – along with other luxury objects, which clearly show how rich the city’s Greek founders became catering to the travelers and believers who came to worship at the temples. Other finds include vessels used for cooking, eating, and drinking.

An Attic vase fragment found at the Paestum site in southern Italy. It depicts the Greek god Hermes. (Parco Archeologico di Paestum)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Top Image: A richly decorate vase in the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum, Italy. Source: CC BY SA 3.0

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Tiller the Hun? Farmers in Roman Empire Converted to Hun Lifestyle

Ancient Origins

Marauding hordes of barbarian Huns, under their ferocious leader Attila, are often credited with triggering the fall of one of history's greatest empires: Rome.

 Historians believe Hunnic incursions into Roman provinces bordering the Danube during the 5th century AD opened the floodgates for nomadic tribes to encroach on the empire. This caused a destabilization that contributed to collapse of Roman power in the West.

According to Roman accounts, the Huns brought only terror and destruction. However, research from the University of Cambridge on gravesite remains in the Roman frontier region of Pannonia (now Hungary) has revealed for the first time how ordinary people may have dealt with the arrival of the Huns.

A 14th-century chivalric-romanticized painting of the Huns laying siege to a city. (Public Domain)

Biochemical analyses of teeth and bone to test for diet and mobility suggest that, over the course of a lifetime, some farmers on the edge of empire left their homesteads to become Hun-like roaming herdsmen, and consequently, perhaps, took up arms with the tribes.

 Other remains from the same gravesites show a dietary shift indicating some Hun discovered a settled way of life and the joys of agriculture -- leaving their wanderlust, and possibly their bloodlust, behind.

Lead researcher Dr Susanne Hakenbeck, from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology, says the Huns may have brought ways of life that appealed to some farmers in the area, as well learning from and settling among the locals. She says this could be evidence of the steady infiltration that shook an empire.

 "We know from contemporary accounts that this was a time when treaties between tribes and Romans were forged and fractured, loyalties sworn and broken. The lifestyle shifts we see in the skeletons may reflect that turmoil," says Hakenbeck. "However, while written accounts of the last century of the Roman Empire focus on convulsions of violence, our new data appear to show some degree of cooperation and coexistence of people living in the frontier zone. Far from being a clash of cultures, alternating between lifestyles may have been an insurance policy in unstable political times."

For the study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, Hakenbeck and colleagues tested skeletal remains at five 5th-century sites around Pannonia, including one in a former civic center as well as rural homesteads.

The team analyzed the isotope ratios of carbon, nitrogen, strontium and oxygen in bones and teeth. They compared this data to sites in central Germany, where typical farmers of the time lived, and locations in Siberia and Mongolia, home to nomadic herders up to the Mongol period and beyond.

A suggested path of Hunnic movement westwards (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The results allowed researchers to distinguish between settled agricultural populations and nomadic animal herders in the former Roman border area through isotopic traces of diet and mobility in the skeletons.

All the Pannonian gravesites not only held examples of both lifestyles, but also many individuals that shifted between lifestyles in both directions over the course of a lifetime. "The exchange of subsistence strategies is evidence for a way of life we don't see anywhere else in Europe at this time," says Hakenbeck.

She says there are no clear lifestyle patterns based on sex or accompanying grave goods, or even 'skull modification' -- the binding of the head as a baby to create a pointed skull -- commonly associated with the Hun.

Lithographs of skulls by J. Basire (Public Domain)

 "Nomadic animal herding and skull modification may be practices imported by Hun tribes into the bounds of empire and adopted by some of the agriculturalist inhabitants."

The diet of farmers was relatively boring, says Hakenbeck, consisting primarily of plants such as wheat, vegetables and pulses, with a modicum of meat and almost no fish.

The herders' diet on the other hand was high in animal protein and augmented with fish. They also ate large quantities of millet, which has a distinctive carbon isotope ratio that can be identified in human bones. Millet is a hardy plant that was hugely popular with nomadic populations of central Asia because it grows in a few short weeks.

Roman sources of the time were dismissive of this lifestyle. Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman official, wrote of the Hun that they "care nothing for using the ploughshare, but they live upon flesh and an abundance of milk."

"While Roman authors considered them incomprehensibly uncivilised and barely human, it seems many of citizens at the edge of Rome's empire were drawn to the Hun lifestyle, just as some nomads took to a more settled way of life," says Hakenbeck.

However, there is one account that hints at the appeal of the Hun, that of Roman politician Priscus. While on a diplomatic mission to the court of Attila, he describes encountering a former merchant who had abandoned life in the Empire for that of the Hun enemy as, after war, they "live in inactivity, enjoying what they have got, and not at all, or very little, harassed."

Top image: Example of a modified skull, a practice assumed to be Hunnic that may have been appropriated by local farmers within the bounds of the Credit: Susanne Hakenbeck

The article ‘Tiller the Hun? Farmers in Roman Empire converted to Hun lifestyle -- and vice versa’ was originally published on Science Daily.

 Source: University of Cambridge. "Tiller the Hun? Farmers in Roman Empire converted to Hun lifestyle -- and vice versa." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 March 2017.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

7 Victorian jokes have been given a modern twist - and they're hilarious

History Extra

A team led by Dr Bob Nicholson from Edge Hill University is creating a new extensive database of Victorian jokes, which will analyse gags and semi-automatically pair them with an appropriate image (or series of images) drawn from the British Library’s digital collections and other archives.

 Historians, researchers and members of the public alike will be able to re-generate the pairings until they discover a good match (or a humorously bizarre one), to create their own meme that can then be shared on social media.

 Nicholson’s team will trawl thousands of Victorian newspapers in order to build up the joke database. The jokes will then be revived and brought up-to-date by the meme machine.

 “It will convert [Victorian] jokes into new forms of humour, inspired by the kinds of humour that do the rounds on the internet… We’re imagining Victorian jokes in new ways,” said Nicholson.

 Here we reveal seven of the Victorian jokes brought to life by the meme machine, which will be developed over the coming months:

Friday, April 21, 2017

Sam’s historical recipe corner: Sloe gin

History Extra

In every issue of BBC History Magazine, picture editor Sam Nott brings you a recipe from the past. In this article, Sam recreates sloe gin – a fruit-flavoured drink made with the bounty of wild blackthorns.

 With the enclosure of the countryside in the 16th and 17th centuries came a huge increase in blackthorn bushes, used to divide up fields, and therefore lots of sloes. The popularity of gin at the time meant that there was an ideal way of making otherwise quite unpalatable sloes a bit more exciting.

 Sloe gin is a great drink to prepare in time for Christmas and the long winter months that follow. I love the whole process, from picking the sloes to hiding the bottles in a dark corner to mature.

 I’ve never made sloe gin the same way twice – it’s always a bit haphazard – but for me the two most important things are not to use too much sugar, and to wait three months before you drink it (always hard!).

 Quantities depend on how many sloes you pick, and are very rough – but, broadly speaking, use enough sloes to half-fill your bottle, and about 50g of sugar per litre.

 500g ripe sloes
 50g sugar
 1 litre gin

Wash the sloes and pick off any stems, then pat them dry with a tea towel or paper towel. Prick the sloes, or freeze them overnight so that their skins split. Add the sloes to a sterilised bottle or jar till it’s just under half full.

 Top up the bottle or jar with gin and add the sugar. Seal the jar or bottle and leave for three months or longer, shaking the jar periodically to ensure that the sugar dissolves.

 Before drinking, strain the gin from the sloes through a sieve or muslin and re-bottle.

 Note: this recipe uses a bit less sugar than most. More sugar can always be added to taste before drinking.

 Verdict: Country Christmas in a glass!

 Difficulty: 2/10

 Time: 20 minutes preparation, 3 months maturation

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Extremely Rare Alabaster Statue of Queen Tiye Found in Egyptian Funerary Temple

Ancient Origins

A team of archaeologists has uncovered a unique carved alabaster statue of Queen Tiye in Luxor, Egypt. The exciting find was made by the European-Egyptian mission that works under the wings of the German Archaeological Institute.

 Impressive Carved Alabaster Statue of Queen Tiye Discovered
An impressive statue, most likely of Queen Tiye, the grandmother of King Tutankhamun and wife of King Amenhotep III, has been unearthed at Amenhotep III’s funerary temple in Kom El-Hittan on Luxor's west bank, as archaeologists from Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities announced on Thursday, March 23. Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany who went to the site to examine the discovery, referred to the statue as "unique and distinguished". Excited with the fascinating discovery, he told Ahram Online, “No alabaster statues of Queen Tiye have been found before now. All previous statues of her unearthed in the temple were carved of quartzite.”

Minister of Antiquities examining the discovery of the Queen Tiye statue. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

Getting to Know Queen Tiye
As Natalia Klimczak eports in a previous Ancient Origins article, Tiye was one of the most influential and powerful women in ancient Egypt despite her name been forgotten in the centuries that followed her death. She is believed to have lived from about 1398 BC – 1338 BC, but the story of her life is as mysterious as most of the people who lived in this period. The world she lived in collapsed with the capital city of her son Akhenaten – Amarna.

Tiye, the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Akhenaten and grandmother of Tutankhamun (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

According to ancient inscriptions, Tiye was the daughter of Yuya and Tuya and sister of the pharaoh Ay. Some Egyptologists say that there is no link between Ay and Tiye, but the position of her brother seems to be a proof. Ay was the Second Prophet of Amun and inherited most of the titles of Yuya. She would later become wife of the great Amenhotep III and grandmother of King Tutankhamun. It is also believed that Tie had great influence on her husband and was the only adviser that he blindly trusted. She was married to him during his second year of reign, when they basically were both very young and thus they spent their whole lives together. Tiye appears in history as a smart adviser and the most important woman in Amenhotep’s court, who also became an important person during the reign of her son.

Queen Tiye, whose husband, Amenhotep III, may have been depicted to her right in this broken statue (CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)

She played an active role in the politics of Egypt and foreign relations for many years and she became the first known Egyptian queen whose name appeared in official acts. When Amenhotep died after 39 years of his reign, she was the one who arranged his burial in the Valley of the Kings in a tomb known nowadays as WV22. Tiye died, perhaps during the 12th year of her son Akhenaten's reign, possibly in 1338 BC. It is speculated by Egyptologists that she probably died due to an epidemic even though nothing is historically confirmed.

The mummy of Queen Tiye, now in the Egyptian Museum. (Public Domain)

Statue is in Great Condition
Fast forward to 2017 and the discovery of Tiye’s statue, Hourig Sourouzian, leader of the mission was very happy to see that the statue is in great condition of preservation and has retained its colors. She told Ahram Online, ”The statue was founded accidentally while archaeologists were lifting up the lower part of a statue of king Amenhotep III that was buried in the sand. The Queen Tiye statue appeared beside the left leg of the King Amenhotep III statue,” and added that the statue will now be the subject of restoration work.

Top image: The newly-discovered alabaster statue of Queen Tiye. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

 By Theodoros Karasavvas

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

4,000-Year-Old Unlooted Tomb Complete with Mummy and Grave Goods Discovered in Egypt

Ancient Origins

A Spanish team of archaeologists has unearthed a 4,000-year-old unopened tomb in West Aswan, Egypt. The tomb belongs to the brother of Sarenput II, one of the most dominant and powerful Pharaonic governors of the 12th Dynasty in ancient Egypt.

 Tomb Belongs to the Brother of Sarenput II
In a great day for Egyptian archaeology, the previously unknown and unopened tomb was discovered in West Aswan, Egypt. The discovery was the outcome of a Spanish archeological mission that was determined to unlock the biggest mysteries of this ancient Egyptian burial area. The newly found burial belongs to the brother of Sarenput II, one of the most significant governors of the 12th Dynasty, according to Luxor Times Magazine. “The discovery is important because not only for the richness of the burial but it sheds light on those individuals who were shadowed by others in power. In fact, there is no much information about them,” said Mahmoud Afifi, head of the ancient Egyptian antiquities department of the antiquities ministry. Additionally, director of Aswan Antiquities, Nasr Salama, stated that the present finding is unique because it has been located with all the funerary goods, which consist of pottery, two cedar coffins and a set of wooden models, which represents funerary boats and scenes of the daily life.

Archaeologists open a tomb that has remained sealed for 4,000 years. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

A Mummy Also Discovered Inside the Burial Chamber
Another important discovery took place thanks to the efforts of Alejandro Jiménez-Serrano, director of the Spanish mission of the University of Jaen. A mummy covered with a cartonnage that was painted in several colors, an impressive mask and collars in a great state of preservation, was discovered but hasn’t been examined yet, and photos have not yet been made available.

 The inscriptions of the coffins bear the name of the defunct, Shemai (Sarenput II’s brother), followed respectively by his mother and father, Satethotep and Khema. Serrano explained that Sarenput II, the eldest brother of Shemai, was one of the most powerful governors of Egypt under the reigns of Senwosret II and Senwosret III. “This discovery, the University of Jaen Mission in Qubbet el-Hawa adds more data to previous discoveries of fourteen members of the ruling family of Elephantine during Dynasty 12. Such high number of individuals provides a unique opportunity to study the life conditions of the high class in Egypt more than 3800 years ago,” the director of the mission said as Egyptian Streets reported.

Egyptologists consider this a very important discovery, which will possibly uncover more secrets of the great and historic culture of Egypt. More expeditions are expected to unravel the mysteries of Aswan and it is just a matter of time when another find will fill the news.

The door to the tomb before it was opened. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities.

Top image: Painted eyes on the newly discovered tomb. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

By Theodoros Karasavvas​

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Amazing Crystal Weapons Discovered Within 5,000-Year-Old Megalithic Tomb in Spain

Ancient Origins

Archaeologists in Spain have unearthed an extremely rare set of weapons, including a long dagger blade, twenty-five arrowheads and cores used for creating the artifacts, all made of crystal! The finding was made inside megalithic tombs dating to the 3 rd millennium BC in the southwest of Spain.

 An excavation of megalithic tombs in Valencina de la Concepción in Spain led to the dramatic discovery of the rare relics, which experts described as exceptional and magnificently well-preserved. The objects are estimated to be over five thousand years old (dating back to at least 3000 BC). As Signs of the Times reports , the Montelirio tholos, excavated between 2007 and 2010, is a great megalithic construction which extends nearly 44 meters (144 ft) in total, constructed out of large slabs of slate. At least 25 individuals were found within the structure. Analyses suggested that there was one male and numerous females who had drunk a poison substance. The remains of the women sit in a circle in a chamber adjacent to the bones believed to be of their chief.

The crystal weapons were discovered inside the Montelirio tholos. Copyright: ipolca (ARTURO DEL PINO RUIZ)

Incredible Crystal Arrowheads
They also found "an extraordinary set of sumptuous grave goods...the most notable of which is an unspecified number of shrouds or clothes made of tens of thousands of perforated beads and decorated with amber beads,” according to the study.

 In addition to the human remains and textiles, the archaeologists found the large hoard of crystal arrowheads. The fact that they were discovered altogether indicates that they could have been a ritual offering at an altar. The arrowheads have the distinctive long lateral appendices of flint arrowheads from the region, but archaeologists noted that even greater skill must have been required to produce these unique features when using rock crystal.

A: Ontiveros arrowheads; B: Montelirio tholos arrowheads; C: Montelirio dagger blade; D: Montelirio tholos core; Montelirio knapping debris; F: Montelirio micro-blades; G: Montelirio tholos microblades. Photograph: Miguel Angel Blanco de la Rubia.

Corpse of a Young Male Discovered in Second Structure
In a second structure, also constructed from slate slabs and dubbed 10.042-10.049, archaeologists discovered the corpse of a young individual estimated to have been between 17 and 25 years of age at the time of his death. The body was lying in a fetal position encircled by a large set of valuable objects. These included an elephant tusk laid above the young man’s head, a set of twenty-three flint blades, and several ivory artifacts. As Signs of the Times reports the experts mentioned, “The rock crystal dagger blade appeared in the upper level of Structure 10.049 of the PP4-Montelirio sector, in association with an ivory hilt and sheath, which renders it an exceptional object in Late Prehistoric Europe… The blade is 214 mm in length, a maximum of 59 mm in width and 13 mm thick. Its morphology is not unheard of in the Iberian Peninsula, although all the samples recorded thus far were made from flint and not rock crystal.”

The crystal dagger blade. © Morgado, A., et al.

Crystal Weapons Belonged to a Few Elite Individuals
After examining the finds closely, archaeologists observed that the weapons are almost of the same shape as the flint arrowheads that were pretty common in that region during that time. However, the fact that there are not any crystal mines near the area, implies that the skillful builders of the crystal weapons possibly traveled for many miles to find the material they needed for the construction of their weapons and tools. The shortage of crystal also suggests that these weapons were destined for a select group of people. According to Signs of the Times , experts report in the study, “The more technically sophisticated items, however, were deposited in the larger megalithic structures…As such, it is reasonable to assume that although the raw material was relatively available throughout the community…only the kin groups, factions or individuals who were buried in megaliths were able to afford the added value that allowed the production of sophisticated objects such as arrow heads or dagger blades.”

In conclusion, the experts taking part in the study concerning rock crystal, confirmed Valencina's status as an exceptional location with a high concentration of exotic raw materials and rare products coming from all over Iberia.

 Top image: Dagger blade from Structure 10.049 (PP4-Montelirio sector). Photograph: Miguel Angel Blanco de la Rubia.

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bones Reveal Gruesome Fate of Scottish Clan Members Who Were Smoked to Death in a Cave

Ancient Origins

More than 400 years ago, the Macleod clan massacred about 400 of the Macdonalds on the Isle of Eigg in Scotland, when the Macleods smoked them to death in a cave in which they took refuge. Now a group of tourists have found more bones of the Macdonalds clan in that cave.

The attack on the Macdonalds wiped out most of the island’s residents after a clan feud erupted over some Macleod men possibly molesting some Macdonalds girls. As many as 400 Macdonalds islanders were slain in this outbreak of clan warfare.

Entrance to the cave on Eigg where the Macdonalds clan bones were found in October. Authorities intend to rebury the bones after researchers are done with them. ( Wikimedia Commons /Christian Jones photo)

Archaeologists have dated the 53 bones, discovered in October, to roughly the same era as the massacre, which happened in or around 1577.

The feud dated back to earlier in the 16 th century, when Macleod of Dunvegan’s son was beaten and left to die in a boat, says the BBC . The legend says the boat drifted back to Skye, his home.

Another account of the clan warfare, in the Scotsman, says three young Macleod men were kicked off Eigg and tied up in their boat after they harassed some girls on Eigg. The Macleod men made it back to Dunvegan in Skye, and the clan vowed revenge.

A fleet of Macleod warriors left Skye for Eigg, but a Macdonalds watchman spotted their boats, and the islanders fled to a cave, the entrance of which was reportedly covered by a waterfall.

The historic Isle of Eigg as seen from Knoydart, Scotland. ( Wikimedia Commons /Graeme Churchard photo)

All the Macleods found was an old woman who didn’t reveal where the clan had hidden. Searches were futile, so the Macleods destroyed the Macdonalds’ home before leaving for Skye.

However, it had started to snow when the raiders saw an Eigg islander who was sent to see if the Macleods had left. The Macdonalds made landfall again and followed the Eigg man’s footprints to the cave.

When the Macleods reached the cave, they demanded the Mcdonalds surrender. The Macdonalds refused, and the Macleods smoked the Macdonalds by setting fire to turf and ferns.

Just one family escaped.

 In October, police were notified that some tourists had found human remains in the cave on Eigg. Historic Environment Scotland was called to date the bones and found they dated to roughly the same era, 1430 to 1620.

Map showing the location of Eigg near Skye and the Small Isles ( Wikimedia Commons /Howeard photo)

About 250 years after 1577, Sir Walter Scott visited the cave and found some bones, which the authorities reinterred.

In the years after, parts of skeletons were taken by souvenir seekers. Authorities intervened at the islanders’ request and buried all the bones in the Eigg cemetery.

"Some people don't like to go into the cave because of the narrow entrance and they reflect on this as the place where so many people perished,” Ms. Dressler told BBC Radio Scotland. Ms. Dressler added she hopes the discovery of the bones will spur new research into the massacre and the history surrounding it.

 Kirstey Owen, a lead archaeologist with Historic Environment Scotland, told The Scotsman :

“This would of course tie in with the cave being used as the resting place of most of the population of Eigg following the massacre of 1577. There are likely to be more bones in the cave but we are treating it like a war grave and will not pro actively look for them.”

 Featured image: Clan warfare in Scotland (

By Mark Miller

Sunday, April 16, 2017

1,400-Year-Old Coins are the Forgotten Remnants of a Terrifying Siege on Jerusalem

Ancient Origins

Israeli archaeologists have announced the discovery of a hoard of rare Byzantine bronze coins from a site dating back to 614 AD. The coins were discovered during excavations for the widening of the Tel Aviv- Jerusalem highway.

 Persian Invasion and Siege of Jerusalem
The newly found coins are clear evidence of the Persian invasion of Jerusalem at the end of the Byzantine period. As the Persian army (supported by many Jewish rebels) marched on Jerusalem in 614 AD, Christians living in the town rushed to hide their possessions, including a hoard of the valuable coins, hoping that things would soon go back to normal.

Nine bronze coins dating to the Byzantine period were hidden in the remains of a settlement near a highway to Jerusalem. (Yoli Shwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Annette Landes-Naggar, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist and the one who announced the discovery to the press said, as The Jerusalem Post reports, “The cache was buried adjacent to an area of collapsed large stones. It appears that the owner hid them when there was danger, hoping to return to pick them up. But now we know he was unable to.” She continued, “Apparently, this was during the time of the Persian Sassanid invasion, around 614 AD,” noting that the invasion was among the factors that ended the reign of the Byzantine emperors in Israel. “Fearing the invasion, residents of the area who felt their lives were in danger buried their money against the wall of a winepress. [However], the site was abandoned and destroyed,” Landes-Naggar concluded.

The excavation area and the collapsed wall where the Byzantine coin hoard was found. (Maxim Dinstein, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Sasanian Empire – the last imperial dynasty in Iran before the rise of Islam – conquered Jerusalem after a brief siege in 614, during the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, after the Persian Shah Khosrau II appointed his general Shahrbaraz to conquer the Byzantine controlled areas of the Near East.

More than 20,000 Jewish rebels joined the war against the Byzantine Christians and the Persian army, reinforced by Jewish forces and led by Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias, captured Jerusalem without resistance. According to Sebeos, a 7th-century Armenian bishop and historian, the siege resulted in a total Christian death toll of 17000 and nearly 5000 prisoners, who were massacred near Mamilla reservoir per Antiochus.

Battle between Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrau II. Fresco by Piero della Francesca, c. 1452. (Public Domain) Experts believe the coins were hidden while there was a siege on Jerusalem in 614, during the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628.

The Coins Tell the Story of the Site
Fast-forward 1,400 years to the summer of 2016, Israeli archaeologists excavating some Byzantine ruins in the area unearthed a cache consisting of nine bronze coins dating from the Byzantine Period around 324-638 AD. The announcement was scheduled to precede the upcoming Easter holiday, which falls this year on April 16, as part of a push coordinated with the Tourism Ministry to boost Christian pilgrimage to Israel. “The coins were found adjacent to the external wall of one of the monumental buildings found at the site, and it was found among the building stones that collapsed from the wall,” Landes-Naggar told The Times of Israel.

Byzantine coins found by Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists in 2016 and shown to the press in March 2017. (Ilan Ben Zion/Time of Israel staff)

The coins depict the faces of notable Byzantine Emperors such as Justinian I, Maurice, and Phocas, and were minted in Constantinople, Antioch, and Nicomedia. Despite not being particularly rare or of great value they “betray” the story of the site as Landes-Naggar noted,

“It’s the context of the coins that gives us the puzzle of what happened. This site is situated alongside the main road from the entrance to Jerusalem and was used by Christian pilgrims to enter the city. Settlements were developed along the road.”

 Local authorities along with the Israel Pipeline Company are committed to working together to preserve the site for the public.

Top Image: The Byzantine coins found near Jerusalem have been dated to around the time of a 614 siege. Source: YOLI SCHWARTZ/IAA

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Sam’s historical recipe corner: Beef olives

History Extra

Beef olives. © Sam Nott

In every issue of BBC History Magazine, picture editor Sam Nott brings you a recipe from the past. In this article, Sam recreates beef olives – a deliciously traditional dish enjoyed across Europe.

 I’ve often heard about beef olives but in never sounded that appetising. I didn’t realise though that I’ve been eating if for years. My German grandmother would often cook rouladen, which is the same as beef olives, and it’s delicious!

 I have early memories of my mum pounding meat with a rolling pin, which I’m sure was for roulade. Most parts of Europe have their equivalent recipes and one of the earliest I found was in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 book, The Art of Cookery. I based my dish on a modern version from

 400g of beef thinly sliced (any cut)
1 tbsp of dijon mustard
1 medium onion
220g celery
 150g carrot
250ml red wine
600ml beef stock
2 tbsp of passata 

For the stuffing:
 1 small onion
 3 rashers of smoked bacon
4 mushrooms
1 tsp of thyme leaves
1 clove of garlic
1 tbsp of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 175˚C. Fry the onions, garlic and mushrooms until soft. Add to the raw bacon and set aside: this is your stuffing.

 Place the beef on a flat surface and beat with a rolling pin or food hammer until very thin – this part is very satisfying!

 Spread each beef slice with the mustard, add the stuffing and then roll the beef slice (with the stuffing inside). Secure with a cocktail stick or string. Fry on all sides until brown and place in an oven-proof dish.

 Fry the remaining onion, carrot and celery in a pan for five minutes. Add passata, red wine and beef stock and stir. Pour over the beef olives and cook in the oven, with a lid on, for three hours.

 Remove the beef olives from the dish and keep warm. Blend the remaining sauce until no lumps remain.

 My verdict
This was really delicious, despite the fact I let it cook too long so the gravy vanished (as you can see from the photo). But with mashed potatoes and gravy, it’s a very hearty dinner.

 Difficulty: 5/10

 Time: 210 mins

 This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Face of ‘Ordinary Poor’ Man from Medieval Cambridge Graveyard Revealed

Ancient Origins

New facial reconstruction of a man buried in a medieval hospital graveyard discovered underneath a Cambridge college sheds light on how ordinary poor people lived in medieval England.

 The audience of an event at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival found themselves staring into the face of a fellow Cambridge resident – one who spent the last 700 years buried beneath the venue in which they sat.

The 13th-century man, called Context 958 by researchers, was among some 400 burials for which complete skeletal remains were uncovered when one of the largest medieval hospital graveyards in Britain was discovered underneath the Old Divinity School of St John’s College, and excavated between 2010 and 2012.

Finds beneath the Old Divinity School, St John's College. Credit: Craig Cessford, Cambridge University Department of Archaeology and Anthropology

The bodies, which mostly date from a period spanning the 13th to 15th centuries, are burials from the Hospital of St John the Evangelist which stood opposite the graveyard until 1511, and from which the College takes its name. The hospital was an Augustinian charitable establishment in Cambridge dedicated to providing care to members of the public.

“Context 958 was probably an inmate of the Hospital of St John, a charitable institution which provided food and a place to live for a dozen or so indigent townspeople – some of whom were probably ill, some of whom were aged or poor and couldn't live alone,” said Professor John Robb, from the University’s Division of Archaeology.

In collaboration with Dr. Chris Rynn from the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, Robb and Cambridge colleagues have reconstructed the man’s face and pieced together the rudiments of his life story by analysing his bones and teeth.

Dr. Sarah Inskip examines the skull of Context 958. Image credit: Laure Bonner

The work is one of the first outputs from the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge’ for which Robb is principle investigator. The project is analysing the St John's burials not just statistically, but also biographically.

“Context 958 was over 40 when he died, and had quite a robust skeleton with a lot of wear and tear from a hard working life. We can't say what job specifically he did, but he was a working class person, perhaps with a specialised trade of some kind,” said Robb.

 “One interesting feature is that he had a diet relatively rich in meat or fish, which may suggest that he was in a trade or job which gave him more access to these foods than a poor person might have normally had. He had fallen on hard times, perhaps through illness, limiting his ability to continue working or through not having a family network to take care of him in his poverty.”

There are hints beyond his interment in the hospital’s graveyard that Context 958’s life was one of adversity. His tooth enamel had stopped growing on two occasions during his youth, suggesting he had suffered bouts of sickness or famine early on. Archaeologists also found evidence of a blunt-force trauma on the back of his skull that had healed over prior to his death.

The face of Context 958. Image credit: Dr. Chris Rynn, University of Dundee

 “He has a few unusual features, notably being buried face down which is a small irregularity for medieval burial. But, we are interested in him and in people like him more for ways in which they are not unusual, as they represent a sector of the medieval population which is quite hard to learn about: ordinary poor people,” said Robb.

 “Most historical records are about well-off people and especially their financial and legal transactions – the less money and property you had, the less likely anybody was to ever write down anything about you. So skeletons like this are really our chance to learn about how the ordinary poor lived.”

Context 958 buried face-down in the cemetery of St John's. Image credit: C. Cessford

The focal point of the ‘After the Plague’ project will be the large sample of urban poor people from the graveyard of the Hospital of St John, which researchers will compare with other medieval collections to build up a picture of the lives, health and day-to-day activities of people living in Cambridge, and urban England as a whole, at this time.

“The After the Plague project is also about humanising people in the past, getting beyond the scientific facts to see them as individuals with life stories and experiences,” said Robb.

 “This helps us communicate our work to the public, but it also helps us imagine them ourselves as leading complex lives like we do today. That's why putting all the data together into biographies and giving them faces is so important.”

The Old Divinity School of St John’s College was built in 1877-1879 and was recently refurbished, now housing a 180-seat lecture theatre used for College activities and public events, including last week’s Science Festival lecture given by Robb on the life of Context 958 and the research project

The refurbished Old Divinity School of St John’s College, Cambridge. (CC BY SA 3.0)

The School was formerly the burial ground of the Hospital, instituted around 1195 by the townspeople of Cambridge to care for the poor and sick in the community. Originally a small building on a patch of waste ground, the Hospital grew with Church support to be a noted place of hospitality and care for both University scholars and local people.

Top Image: The facial reconstruction of Context 958 Source: Chris Rynn, University of Dundee

The article ‘Face of ‘Ordinary Poor’ Man from Medieval Cambridge Graveyard Revealed’ was originally published on University of Cambridge and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Have We Got a Temple, Theater, and Gate? Check! New Details Emerge on Roman Urban Planning in Central Italy

Ancient Origins

Archaeologists have discovered a magnificent ancient Roman temple the size of St Paul's Cathedral in central Italy. The discovery took place with the help of a radar device that was attached to the back of a quad bike in order to explore the hidden details of the excavation site.

Getting to Know Falerii Novi
An archaeological team of Cambridge University discovered the remains of the immense Roman temple in central Italy. The ancient temple had lines of columns on three sides covering an area of about 400 ft. (120 meters) long and 200 ft. (60 meters) wide and was unearthed many feet below Falerii Novi, an abandoned walled town in the Tiber River valley, about 50 km (31 miles) north of Rome. The small town was created by the Romans, who resettled the inhabitants of Falerii Veteres in this much less defensible position after a revolt in 241 BC. It is placed on a modest volcanic plateau and housed around 2,500 people during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. The town also gives insight into the Roman Empire’s expanding interchange from other cultures, as Greek-style buildings were also discovered there.

Archaeological area of Falerii Novi, Italy. ( Camminare nella storia blog )

 Radar Device Helped to Explore the Excavation Site
Archaeologists used a radar device attached to the back of a quad bike to explore the excavation site. Martin Millett, professor of classical archaeology at Cambridge University said as International Business Times reports , that the radar helped the team to discover in depth the layout of the town as well as its development and growth. The fascinating antiquities excavated so far are the remains of a theater, a basilica that was probably used for meetings and legal proceedings, as well as a large defensive gate. Experts suggest that some of these finds (such as the gate) will provide historians with valuable information in order to understand a little more about the urban planning in the early days of the Roman period.

Remnants of the theater. Falerii Novi, Italy. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

 The Role of the British School at Rome’s Tiber Valley Project The Roman colony of Falerii Novi was excavated during the 1990s but it was just recently that it was thoroughly examined as part of the Tiber Valley Project , which shows the urbanization of this area by the Romans. The plan produced by the British School at Rome using magnetometry reveals in great detail the subsurface archaeological features of the Republican city, as this technique can detect metals at a much greater depth than basic metal detectors, which have a standard range of about two meters (6.56 ft.).

Photo of the necropolis of "Tre ponti": the "Cavo degli Zucchi" with the Roman Amerina via (road) near Falerii, Italy. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

 According to its official website , the British School at Rome’s Tiber Valley project, studied the changing landscapes of the middle Tiber valley as the hinterland of Rome through two millennia. It drew on the vast amount of archaeological work carried out in this area to examine the impact of the growth, success and transformation of the Imperial city on the history of settlement, economy, and society in the river valley from 1000 BC to AD 1000. The project involved twelve British universities and institutions as well as many Italian scholars.

A plan of of Falerii Novi - taken from ‘Falerii: A New Survey of the Walled Area, 2002.’
Investigations conducted by the Department of Archaeology of the 'University of Southampton. (Comune di Fabrica di Roma/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Top Image: Entrance gate to Falerii Novi. Source: Comune di Fabrica di Roma/ CC BY SA 3.0

By Theodoros Karasavvas