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Digs & Discoveries

Bath Buddy


Thursday, December 05, 2019

Digs Bulgaria Balsamarium BlockDigs Bulgaria GraveWhile excavating a mound in southeastern Bulgaria, archaeologists uncovered the third-century A.D. brick grave of a man aged 35 to 40. Among the objects buried with him were a tool used to scrape oil from the skin known as a strigil and a finely crafted copper alloy vessel called a balsamarium. This container is thought to have held skin-cleansing oils or balms used after exercise and during bathing, explains archaeologist Daniela Agre of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Balsamaria were especially trendy in the eastern Roman provinces of Thrace, Moesia, and Pannonia, though they were not produced locally. The vessel was fashioned in the shape of a man’s head covered in a tight, spotted feline-skin cap that may have been intended to evoke the Nemean lion slain by Hercules. “We believe the balsamarium was brought to Thrace either by the deceased himself, or by a close relative,” says Agre. She notes that the popularity of such vessels was due to the spread of Roman bathing and hygiene practices throughout the empire’s eastern provinces. 

As Told by Herodotus


Thursday, December 05, 2019

Digs Egypt Hull

Their boats with which they carry cargoes are made of the acacia, of which the form is most like that of the Cyrenean lotus, and its sap is gum. From this acacia, then, they cut planks two cubits long and arrange them like bricks, building their ships in the following way: on the strong and long tenons they insert two-cubit planks. 

Herodotus, Histories, Book 2, Chapter 96


For the first time, researchers working in a ship graveyard in the ancient Egyptian port city of Thonis-Heracleion have identified a vessel precisely matching the firsthand description given by the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus of a common type of Egyptian cargo ship known as a baris. “It’s a very rare case when a written source and archaeological material make such a perfect match,” says archaeologist Alexander Belov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The short, thick planks of local acacia wood that form the hull of what is known as Ship 17 are arranged in the staggered, brick-like pattern described by Herodotus, and its keel contains a shaft that the historian notes held a rudder. 


Dozens of other similar barides that remain submerged at the site appear to have been discarded after years of transporting goods on the Nile, Belov explains. Ship 17, which was sunk before the mid-fourth century B.C. and pinned to the seabed with wooden poles, seems to have been used to increase the length of a nearby pier.

Digs Egypt Digital Rendering

The Man in Prague Castle


Thursday, December 05, 2019

Digs Prague BurialIn the aftermath of World War I, as a result of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, several new countries were created in Central Europe. In a quest to define themselves, they sought new national stories. However, such narratives are often not new at all. Instead, they hark back to a past that is sometimes part mythology, part history—but always potent. At the heart of Czechoslovakia’s national story was a 1,000-year-old skeleton of a warrior buried with his weapons deep within the oldest part of Prague Castle. For almost a century, the shifting interpretations of this man’s identity have reflected the cataclysmic political upheavals of the twentieth century—from the Nazi occupation to the era of Soviet domination and, finally, a return to independent statehood.


Recently, a team of archaeologists including Nicholas Saunders of the University of Bristol, Jan Frolik of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Volker Heyd of the University of Helsinki reengaged this topic. “Physical remains stay the same, but our interpretations of them reflect and reinforce views and attitudes of the time in which we make them,” Saunders says. “We wanted to explore issues of contested identity across the twentieth century and the role of conflict and political ideologies in the manipulation and creation of the past in the present.” The Prague Castle skeleton provided them with the perfect case study.


An excavation was begun in 1925 to pinpoint the earliest remains of Prague Castle, which had become the seat of government of the new post–World War I state. The body was found on the edge of a graveyard within the castle grounds dated, at the time, to between A.D. 800 and 1000. Along with the body were an ax, two knives, a badly corroded sword, a leather pouch containing a decorated fire-striker and a small flint, and other assorted metal objects. The man was tentatively identified as Bořivoj I or his son Spytihněv I, members of the Slavic Přemyslid Dynasty that ruled the region around Prague from the ninth to early fourteenth centuries, explains Frolik.


Just over a decade after this identification, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Nazi scientists accused the original excavator of hiding the man’s true identity and declared, on the basis of the artifacts, that the man had actually been a Viking, not a Slav. In Nazi ideology, says Saunders, Viking, Nordic, and Germanic identity was conflated to justify German occupation and control of Eastern Europe, as well as the Nazi extermination of Slavs, Jews, and other populations they deemed inferior.


Digs Prague CastleAfter the Germans were defeated, the Communist Party came to power in Czechoslovakia and the nation became a satellite state of the U.S.S.R. Seen through the eyes of  the country’s new Slavic Soviet masters, the warrior buried in Prague Castle was once again deemed a Slav. He was also once again identified as a member of the Přemyslid Dynasty. For decades the skeleton remained in storage. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the new state of Czechoslovakia reinvented itself. Yet again the warrior was placed at the core of the nation both literally—in 2004 his remains were put on display in the castle—and psychologically. “The grave is clearly that of an important person from the beginning of Prague Castle,” says Frolik, “and therefore indirectly also the beginnings of the Czech state.”


Frolik has completed DNA studies in an attempt to establish the identities of several other medieval skeletons excavated in the castle, including one he suggests may be the son of the early Přemyslid prince Boleslav I, and another interred next to him that may be his wife. However, DNA and isotope studies, as well as CT scans, on the warrior have not yet been completed. In any case, explains Saunders, biological reality is not the only reality. “Scientific analyses can tell, often in fascinating detail, one kind of truth about an individual, such as where he grew up, but they cannot tell us how he was perceived at the time,” says Saunders. “Perhaps we are asking twenty-first-century questions of a thousand-year-old body that do not accurately reflect how he saw himself and was regarded by others.”

Off the Grid

Malinalco, Mexico


Thursday, December 05, 2019

Digs Mexico Malinalco TempleThe town of Malinalco, just over two hours southwest of Mexico City by car, is home to two historic sites that may seem to represent distinct worlds. The first is a complex built by the Aztecs between 1476, when they conquered the region, and 1519, when the Spanish arrived. The complex’s main temple, named Cuauhcalli, or “House of the Eagles,” was built directly into a hillside. It is the only example of such rock-cut architecture in the Aztec world, and one of only a handful in the Americas.


The other site is the Augustinian monastery of San Cristobál, now called Divino Salvador, which was built in 1540 and is still in use today. The monastery features vivid murals of biblical scenes that were painted by subjugated Aztecs shortly after its founding. Art historian Manuel Aguilar-Moreno of California State University, Los Angeles, says that native people wove traditional Aztec religious and cosmological beliefs into this artwork. “Many aspects of Aztec religion have parallels in Christianity,” he says, “and one such parallel is expressed at both the monastery and Cuauhcalli.” Iconography at the temple suggests that it was dedicated to the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who is often depicted as an eagle and was said to have been born to a virgin mother.


Digs Mexico Malinalco MapTHE SITE 

Begin your Malinalco experience by climbing up a hill known as the Cerro de los Idolos to reach the Aztec ruins 700 feet above the town. Cuauhcalli stands atop a pyramid platform and is guarded by now-headless statues of jaguars. The temple’s doorway was designed to mimic a serpent’s open mouth. Its interior features motifs, carvings, and animal-shaped thrones, all of which served as avatars for gods. The thrones were also the setting for rituals involving the Aztec eagle and jaguar warriors. In the center of the temple, an eagle sculpture faces the doorway, which Aguilar-Moreno says represents Huitzilopochtli emerging into the world to lead the conquering Aztecs to the promised land. He recommends spending a few hours taking this all in before returning to town to see the monastery. There, a mural of the Garden of Eden—the concept of an earthly paradise was shared by the Aztecs and the Spanish friars—is resplendent with local Mexican animals and plants.



Though it boasts a burgeoning restaurant and boutique hotel scene, Malinalco has retained its traditional sixteenth-century layout, and residents still identify strongly with their own barrios. Between meals, be sure to visit the various barrio chapels, each of which is dedicated to its own patron saint.




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