Subscribe to Archaeology


Recovering Hidden Texts

At the world’s oldest monastery, new technology is making long-lost manuscripts available to anyone with an Internet connection


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Palimpsest St Catherine s monastery


Sometime in the eighth century, a monk at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was preparing to transcribe a book of the Bible in Arabic and needed fresh parchment. New parchment was an expensive commodity at the time and was difficult to obtain, especially for a humble monk copyist living in a remote desert monastery. Luckily for him, the venerable religious community had a massive library that included books that were no longer in use. These manuscripts, some written in extinct languages, or thought to be unimportant, were valued only for their potential as sources of recycled parchment. No one in the monastery would have thought twice, for instance, when, while searching for writing material, the monk plucked out of the collection an ancient Greek text that had gone unread for a generation or more. None of his brothers would have batted an eye as he used a knife to carefully scrape away the centuries-old ink. Soon, the words were gone and the parchment was ready for the monk’s fresh transcription of Bible verses. Today, erasing an ancient text seems an incalculable loss, but to the eighth-century scribe, it was an act of devotion and even a measure of progress—an obsolete text was gone, and a holy manuscript that would enrich countless spiritual lives was left in its place.


Palimpsest spectral imaging systemThe original words on this reused text, or palimpsest, have been lost for over a thousand years. But now with the help of modern multispectral imaging technology, a team of scientists and scholars is able to peer through the manuscript’s visible ink and read the long-vanished text below. The library at St. Catherine’s contains well over a hundred such palimpsests, each one offering vivid new glimpses of the early Christian era. Later this year, after a large number of the palimpsests have been studied and translated by specialists, the monastery will make them available online, meaning that texts that have gone unread for a millennia can be pored over by scholars and interested laypeople from all over the world. “These are cultural treasures that are important to our common history,” says Michael Phelps, executive director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, which works with the UCLA Library to coordinate the project. “We’re helping recover lost communities that made important spiritual and literary contributions, and allowing their voices to speak again.”

Agnes Smith
The Bible Hunters

France’s Roman Heritage

Magnificent wall paintings discovered in present-day Arles speak to a previously unknown history


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Arles Roman FrescoThe Roman city of Arelate, today known as Arles, France, was one of the most important ports of the later Roman Empire. After siding with Julius Caesar during his civil war against Pompey, the town was formally established as a Roman colony for Caesar’s veterans in 46 or 45 B.C. Strategically located along the Rhône River in southern Gaul, Arelate developed into such a major economic, political, and cultural center that it was referred to as the “little Rome of the Gauls” by the fourth-century poet Ausonius.


Today, the city’s left bank, which served as the Roman settlement’s civic and administrative heart, is strewn with the remnants of ancient monuments: a theater, an amphitheater, baths, and a circus. It has long been thought that the city’s right bank was far less developed in the early Roman period, only witnessing significant growth decades or centuries later. However, this perception of ancient Arles is beginning to change as an ongoing investigation uncovers parts of a wealthy Roman residential area, providing new evidence of the early development of Arles’ periphery and also revealing some of the finest Roman wall paintings found anywhere in France.


A project led by the Museum of Ancient Arles is in the middle of a multiyear campaign to excavate the site of an eighteenth-century glassworks factory in the Trinquetaille district along Arles’ right bank. The glassworks complex—itself a designated historic site—was acquired by the city in the late 1970s. During the initial excavation of the property in the 1980s, archaeologists discovered a second-century A.D. Roman residential neighborhood buried beneath it, but the investigation was short-lived.


Over the past two years, a plan for rehabilitating and restoring the site has brought archaeologists back for the first time in decades. According to lead archaeologist Marie-Pierre Rothé, the renewed excavation has allowed researchers to dig deeper beneath the property and to unravel the surprisingly early history of the site. Beneath at least one Roman house discovered in the 1980s lies the much earlier foundation of an opulent Roman property dating back to the first decades of the Roman colony. Researchers know that as the new colony was incorporated into the Roman political and economic system, there was a sudden influx of wealth into the city, along with opportunities for advancement for both locals and Romans who migrated there. “One of our objectives,” says Rothé, “is to better understand the development of the Roman city of Arles during this early period in a neighborhood that was assumed to have been deserted.”


Arles Second Pompeian StyleThe discovery of this first-century B.C. domus, or home, is remarkable not only because it dates to a time when archaeologists believed the Trinquetaille area was void of such structures, but also for the quality of the house’s wall paintings. Its frescoes were designed in the Second Pompeian Style, according to August Mau’s nineteenth-century classification of the four major styles of Roman painting. The Second Style, which dates to between 70 and 20 B.C. in Roman Gaul, frequently used trompe l’oeil composition and painted architectural elements such as columns, windows, and marble panels to create the illusion of three-dimensional masonry. Although paintings such as these are common in Italy, especially Pompeii, they are rare in France, where only around 20 known examples exist. The excavations in Trinquetaille have uncovered the best in situ Second Style paintings in France, thanks to the preservation of a nearly five-foot-tall Roman wall to which the frescoes are still attached.


While some sections of the frescoes still remain in situ, most of the painted plaster must be retrieved from the debris and fill layers. Archaeologists now have hundreds of boxes containing thousands of fragments that need to be pieced back together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Although this process will take years to complete, large portions of the painted ceilings and walls are already being reconstructed.

Öland, Sweden. Spring, A.D. 480

A hastily built refuge—a grisly massacre—a turbulent period in European history


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sandy Borg Excavations CIS



The scene might have been lifted from the pages of a Scandinavian crime novel: Under a steely sky, a half-dozen skeletons emerge from the cold, wet earth. A strip of yellow and blue tape, fluttering in the wind blowing in from the Baltic Sea, holds back curious onlookers. Portable fences, the kind that go up around construction sites, form a protective ring-within-a-ring around the scene. Yellow plastic stakes mark the spots where bodies, some with clear evidence of brutal blows to the head with an ax or other edged weapon, have already been found.


Slowly, trowelful by trowelful, a 12-person team of investigators is excavating the scene of a gruesome mass murder on Öland, an island several miles off the coast of Sweden. In the last five years, they’ve found body after body, sprawled out with many of their bones shattered, on the rough limestone slabs and gravel floor of a 1,500-square-foot house. But it’s a cold case.


The floor is part of a house—the scene of the crime—surrounded by an oval ring of stones and earth, the remains of what was once a wall. Built around A.D. 400, it encircled an area the size of a football field. Now called Sandby Borg, the site is one of more than a dozen similar “borgs,” or forts, on Öland, all built during the Migration Period, a tumultuous era in Europe that began in the fourth century A.D. and hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire. The forts were like safe rooms in case of a siege or surprise attack and could be reached within a few minutes at a dead run from surrounding farms. Sandby Borg’s 15-foot-high ramparts once protected 53 houses and their stores of food. What remains of Sandby Borg’s walls now surround a flat expanse of grass, and aren’t even tall enough to break the strong winds. But 1,500 years ago, Sandby Borg would have been impossible to miss.


Despite its defensive advantages, its end was violent and swift. In a sudden onslaught not long after its construction, its residents were slaughtered, with just enough warning before the attack to hide their valuables. Their bodies were left where they lay, on the floors of their homes and even in smoldering fire pits. The houses were closed up and the place was abandoned. It wasn’t looted after the murders, and neighbors on the densely populated island didn’t interfere with the site, so archaeologists believe that the area was considered taboo for years after the attack. As the turf walls of its houses collapsed, Sandby Borg became a shallow grave, with bones concealed just inches below the surface. It’s unique, says Helena Victor, an archaeologist at the Kalmar County Museum on the mainland just across from the island, because the attack and destruction were so sudden, and the site was never resettled. “This intact moment of an ordinary day is very important, because we know so little about daily life at this time,” she says.


The Sandby Borg project began in 2010 in response to the threat of looting. Researchers at that time had little idea of what they would actually find. Archaeologists testing geophysical prospecting methods in the area noticed that treasure hunters had recently dug pits around the fort, perhaps looking for gold coins. Professional metal detectorists were mobilized to search for anything the looters had missed. They uncovered five different jewelry stashes from houses at the center of the fort. The caches include silver brooches and bells, gold rings, and amber and glass beads. There were even cowrie shell fragments, pierced to be strung on a necklace.