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Epic Find

Olympia, Greece


Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten Greece Olympia Inscribed BrickWhen an inscribed brick was first found amid a heap of discarded building material in a village outside the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, it appeared to be nothing special. Now, to researchers’ great surprise, they have learned it contains an excerpt from the Odyssey, the epic poem that tells of the Greek hero Odysseus’ 10-year journey following the Trojan War. The poem, which relates events of the twelfth century B.C., is thought to have been composed in the eighth century B.C. and was first written down in the sixth century B.C. Based on the style of its lettering, researchers have dated the newly discovered excerpt to the third century A.D. at the latest. They believe it is likely the oldest inscribed section of the Odyssey ever found in Greece.


The inscription consists of the first 13 verses of the poem’s fourteenth book, in which Odysseus finally returns home to Ithaca, where he is reunited with his trusted swineherd, Eumaeus. “I think the brick was inscribed at some point, and later it was used for construction,” says Erofili-Iris Kolia, director of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia. Kolia adds that, in her opinion, the inscription was originally commissioned by a landowner in Olympia who fancied himself a latter-day Odysseus.


But Odysseus went up from the harbor by the rough path up over the woodland and through the heights to the place where Athena had showed him that he would find the noble swineherd, who cared for his property above all the slaves that noble Odysseus had acquired.


He found him sitting in front of his house, where his court was built high in a place with a wide view, a beautiful great court with an open space around it. This the swineherd had himself built for the swine of his master that was gone, without the knowledge of his mistress and the old man Laertes. With huge stones he had built it, and set on it a coping of thorn. Without, he had driven stakes the whole length, this way and that, huge stakes…


The Odyssey, Book 14, lines 1–13

Return to Pompeii

Pompeii, Italy


Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten Pompeii Fresco Street BlockDespite more than 250 years of almost continuous exploration, fully one-third of the ancient city of Pompeii had never been excavated. In 2018, this all changed.


The A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius left the city buried under volcanic material, creating a nearly perfect record of the day’s activities—bread baking in ovens, houses under renovation, gardens being tended. But, in the unexcavated sections, all that mud, ash, and hardened bits of lava called lapilli has been collapsing and sliding toward previously excavated properties. This threatens the safety of both visitors and the ancient houses. “Something had to be done,” says Massimo Osanna, general director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.


The array of frescoes unearthed during the first large-scale excavations of the previously unexcavated area called Regio V, one of the nine regions into which archaeologists divide the city, has been truly extraordinary. And, says Osanna, “They are the first to be uncovered using the most up-to-date techniques of analysis, conservation, and preservation.”

Hominin Hybrid

Denisova Cave, Russia


Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten Russia Denisova Cave Bone FragmentGenetic testing of a single, 90,000-year-old sliver of bone from an approximately 13-year-old girl has confirmed something researchers had long suspected: It has provided clear evidence of interbreeding between two distinct groups of early humans.


Earlier analysis of the girl’s mitochondrial DNA had shown that her mother was of Neanderthal ancestry. The new research, led by paleogeneticists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, examined her entire genome. They then compared it to previously sequenced paleogenomes, including those of other ancient humans. The results were unambiguous—the girl’s DNA matched Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes to an equal degree. She had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. Denisovans were a type of early hominin named after the cave in the Altai Mountains of present-day Russia where their remains were found around a decade ago. “When I first saw the combined Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry, I got worried that I had made a mistake in the lab, and that this was somehow a mix-up of two different bones,” says Max Planck’s Viviane Slon. “It was only after repeating the experiments several times, and consistently seeing the same result, that I convinced myself—and my colleagues—that the girl’s mixed ancestry was real.”


The team’s finding of a direct offspring of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan implies that individuals from the two groups mixed when they had the opportunity to meet. “Taken together with evidence that Neanderthals and Denisovans also mixed with ancient modern humans,” says Slon, “this suggests that different groups of humans have always mixed when encountering each other.”

Mummy Workshop

Saqqara, Egypt


Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten Egypt Saqqara Faience UshabtisAt the vast Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara, German and Egyptian archaeologists have unearthed a type of ancient funeral parlor. This establishment, the first of its kind ever identified, provided mummification services as well as communal burial chambers for the dead. It has revealed tantalizing new clues to how mummies were made during the Saite-Persian period of the mid-first millennium B.C. The rectangular building, composed of mudbrick and limestone blocks, contained large vats where bodies and linens were prepped for preservation. At the bottom of a 40-foot-deep shaft, the team found an embalming chamber where hundreds of ceramic bowls and cups were stored. Many of these vessels had labels listing specific oils and substances, along with instructions for how they should be used in the mummification process.


Top Ten Egypt Saqqara Gilded Silver MaskFrom the workshop’s open courtyard, a nearly 100-foot-long tunnel led down to a series of burial chambers that contained dozens of mummies. One stone sarcophagus, belonging to a lady named Tadihor, was surrounded by dozens of protective faience ushabti figurines inscribed with her name. A painted and plastered wooden coffin identified its occupant as the second priest of the mother goddess Mut and a priest of the goddess Niut-shaes, a serpent form of Mut. Placed over the mummy’s head was a rare gilded silver mask, with inlaid calcite, obsidian, and onyx eyes. “Gilded silver masks had deep religious meaning,” says project leader Ramadan B. Hussein of the University of Tubingen. “Egyptian religious texts indicate that the bones of the gods are made of silver and their flesh is made of gold. A mummy mask of silver and gold is a step toward the transformation of the deceased into a god.”

Ancient Shipwreck

Black Sea


Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten Black Sea Classical ShipwreckA Greek merchant ship discovered more than a mile under the surface of the Black Sea has been radiocarbon dated to 2,400 years ago, making it the world’s oldest known intact shipwreck. The vessel was located by the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project as they surveyed the seafloor some 50 miles off the coast of Bulgaria with a remote deep-sea camera system.


The 75-foot-long wooden ship remains remarkably well preserved because the Black Sea’s depths are oxygen-free. This has allowed experts to examine elements of ancient ship construction for the first time, including the design of the mast, twin rudders, and rowing benches. “A ship, surviving intact, from the Classical world is something I would never have believed possible,” says Jon Adams of the University of Southampton. “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.”