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Digs & Discoveries

Guardian Feline

By JASON URBANUS

Friday, April 10, 2020

Digs Egypt Leopard CompositeFor more than 1,000 years, Egyptians buried their dead at the Aswan necropolis, on the banks of the Nile. In one tomb, which contained as many as 30 bodies, a joint Italian-Egyptian team recently noticed a painted leopard’s face peering at them from the soil. The painting, which may once have decorated the lid of a sarcophagus, is in an extremely delicate state of preservation, making it difficult to remove. Now the researchers have digitally reconstructed the face of the painted feline, which accompanied one ancient Egyptian’s journey to the afterlife around 2,100 years ago. “We understood that the very fragile piece of wood could be restored and returned back to its original splendor,” says University of Milan archaeologist Patrizia Piacentini. “For the moment, the restoration is only virtual, but we hope to get the same results with an actual restoration.” In ancient Egypt, the leopard was a symbol of power and strength. Egyptologists believe the painted animal’s face would have been positioned directly above the deceased’s head to provide guidance and protection in the afterlife.

Off the Grid

Oppido Mamertina, Italy

By MARLEY BROWN

Friday, April 10, 2020

Digs Italy CastleRoughly 1,000 feet above sea level in the hilly interior of Calabriathe toe of Italy’s boot—the town of Oppido Mamertina is surrounded by ancient forested terrain. The modern town is the successor to a medieval town called Oppido Vecchio that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1783, and whose evocative ruins still stand for visitors to admire. These include town gates and streets, and cloisters built by religious orders. There is also a castle, dating to the eleventh-century Norman conquest of southern Italy, which was periodically renovated according to the shifting fashions of the times until the seventeenth century.

 

Archaeologists have discovered that the area was home to Iron Age settlements dating back far earlier, to at least the seventh century B.C. In the late fourth century B.C., Oscan-speaking Italic peoples indigenous to southern Italy moved into the area, which, at the time, was controlled by the coastal Greek colony of Locri, some 15 miles away. One such group, the Tauriani, built a large town at the site of Contrada Mella, a short walk downhill from Oppido Vecchio. “The Tauriani do not appear to have fought against the nearby Greeks,” says archaeologist Paolo Visonà of the University of Kentucky. “They somehow established themselves in the region and developed a multifaceted relationship with their Greek neighbors. In fact, I think they constructed a unique identity out of their entanglement with both Greek and local Italic communities.” Examples of Greek influence found at Contrada Mella include aspects of town planning, masonry styles, a wealth of Greek coins, and decorative imagery inspired by Greek theater. Visonà believes it is possible the Tauriani came to the area as mercenaries hired to defend Locri’s interests against both Greek and indigenous rivals. After initially supporting the Carthaginian general Hannibal, the Tauriani formed a judicious alliance with the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War (218–201 B.C.). Possibly through the largesse of the victorious Romans, they subsequently expanded Contrada Mella.

 

THE SITE

Begin your trip with a visit to the archaeology museum in the city of Reggio Calabria for a primer on local history and Tauriani culture. After a drive of an hour or so northeast to Oppido Mamertina, signs in the main square provide directions to Oppido Vecchio, and an interpretive display offers guidance for a self-directed tour. While Contrada Mella is mostly overgrown, the site can be seen by looking downhill from the medieval ruins.

 

Digs Italy Calabria MapWHILE YOU’RE THERE

To fully appreciate the mélange of cultures in Calabria more than 2,000 years ago, continue east from Oppido Mamertina to the coast and visit the archaeological park of ancient Locri, where, in addition to several excellent seaside restaurants, you will find the remains of a once-grand theater and Ionic temple. Be sure to visit cdc.gov/travel for updates on health risks in the area.

The Parthenon by Any Other Name?

By JASON URBANUS

Friday, April 10, 2020

Digs Greece ParthenonThe Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis is one of the best-known buildings of the ancient world. Yet, despite its renown, it turns out that for more than 2,000 years, we may have been calling the temple by the wrong name. “I knew that scholars didn’t really understand why it’s called the Parthenon,” says Utrecht University archaeologist Janric van Rookhuijzen, “so I started looking into a giant puzzle of ancient texts, inscriptions, and archaeological remains.” His surprising, perhaps even heretical, theory suggests that “Parthenon” may not have originally referred to the structure we know today—which is sometimes called the Great Temple of Athena—but to part of an altogether different temple on the Acropolis.

 

For van Rookhuijzen, the crux of the issue lies in the meaning of the Greek word parthenon—“a room for virgins or unwed maidens.” The first use of this term in reference to a building on the Acropolis appears in inscriptions dating to 434 B.C. At the time, the temples of the Acropolis were not only religious sanctuaries, but also served as banks and trophy rooms where gold and silver, jewelry, precious artifacts, and spoils of war were stored. Athenian officials took detailed annual inventories of these treasures, noting exactly where each was kept. They listed locations including the opisthodomos, “back room,” proneos, “front porch,” hekatompedos, “100-foot-long room,” and parthenon.

 

Although modern scholars have not always agreed on the location and identification of each of these rooms, almost all have assumed that “parthenon” must refer to the building we know as the Parthenon today, an association that van Rookhuijzen finds problematic. It has long been assumed that the Great Temple of Athena derived its nickname, the Parthenon, from the immense chryselephantine, or gold and ivory, statue of Athena Parthenos, or “Virgin Athena,” that once stood in the building’s large eastern cella. But van Rookhuijzen has found there is actually very little evidence to support this explanation for the structure’s name, and that there are no strong indications that the Great Temple of Athena was frequently occupied or used by maidens, virgins, or priestesses.

 

Digs Greece ErechtheionThere is, however, according to van Rookhuijzen, another building on the Acropolis, not far from the Great Temple of Athena, that better suits the definition of a parthenon. This is the enigmatic sacred complex known conventionally, but, says van Rookhuijzen, probably erroneously, as the Erechtheion. It includes six larger-than-life-size sculpted female figures called caryatids, thought to represent mythological maidens (parthenoi), that serve as the columns supporting the porch’s roof. Archaeological evidence has shown that the Erechtheion was also once amply decorated with a number of carved female figures. In this sacred space, young virgin priestesses performed religious rites, and some may have even lived there. “In the true sense of the word, this part of the building was a real ‘parthenon,’” says van Rookhuijzen.

 

The Acropolis treasure inventories from the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. document specific objects that were stored in the parthenon, including pieces of furniture and armor seized from the Persians after they were defeated in the 479 B.C. Battle of Plataea. Many hundreds of years later, the second-century A.D. writer and traveler Pausanias visited Athens and seems to have described seeing the very same objects that had centuries earlier been inventoried as “in the Parthenon,” not in the building we call the Parthenon today, but in the caryatid building. “It’s unlikely that the treasures were moved from one place to another,” says van Rookhuijzen. “Therefore, the parthenon should be known as part of the caryatid temple.”

 

Van Rookhuijzen understands that not everyone will agree with his hypothesis, but is pleased to have sparked renewed discussions about the topography of the Athenian Acropolis. “The Parthenon means so much to so many people, both in Greece and in the rest of the world,” he says. “I don’t see it as my task to dictate what others should believe, but rather to offer material for contemplation and discussion, and to invite others to investigate the roots of our knowledge of this complex, fascinating site.”

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