A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By JARRETT A. LOBELL
Thursday, October 06, 2022
The Roman orator and rhetorician Eumenius delivered a speech to the Roman governor of Gallia Lugdunensis in A.D. 298 advocating for the restoration of the famous schools called the Maeniana in the city of Augustodunum, at the center of the province. At the time of Eumenius’ speech, the once-thriving city had fallen on hard times. In A.D. 269, its residents had taken sides against Victorinus, the emperor of the ill-fated breakaway state now known as the Gallic Empire (ca. 269–271 A.D.), and the city was besieged for seven months. Access to the high level of culture and education that had been central to Augustodunum’s identity fell victim to a combination of circumstances, perhaps including damage to the Maeniana, funding diverted to the conflict, or a diminished student population.
Augustodunum (modern Autun) had been founded around 13 B.C. by the emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14) as a new capital for the Aedui, a Celtic tribe that was—mostly—allied with the Romans. By 121 B.C., the tribe had been awarded the title of “brothers and kinsmen of Rome.” The Aedui largely supported Julius Caesar in his campaigns in Gaul, with the exception of a brief defection in 52 B.C. when they joined an unsuccessful rebellion led by Vercingetorix, the doomed chief of the Arverni tribe. The capital of the Aedui had been located at the settlement of Bibracte, but when the tribe became a civitas foederata, or allied community, of Rome, it was moved 15 miles east to its new location. It was given a name that combined its Roman and Gallic identities: Augusto- for Augustus, and -dunum, the Celtic word for “hill,” “fort,” or “walled town.”
From the start, Augustodunum was a city with a status and appearance befitting the prestige of the Aedui and their Roman governors. The provincial capital city of Lugdunum (modern Lyon), a little over 100 miles south, was its only superior in architectural splendor, economic prominence, and population in the region. “Augustodunum was one of the most important cities in Gaul,” says archaeologist Carole Fossurier of France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP). For most of the nearly three centuries preceding Eumenius’ oration, it was a thriving university town and one of the most Romanized in Gaul. It was encircled by a stout 4.5-mile city wall that enclosed an area of about 500 acres, with straight Roman streets laid out on a grid plan. It was also home to Gaul’s largest theater, an amphitheater, shops, manufacturing quarters, public baths, luxuriously decorated residences, a forum, numerous temples, and, eventually, places for Christian worship. The city was traversed by a major Roman road built by Augustus’ son-in-law Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa for military use and to encourage trade by connecting the province to the English Channel. Under the emperor Claudius (r. A.D. 41–54), who was born in Lugdunum, the Aedui became the first Gallic tribe whose members were allowed to serve as senators in Rome. In Augustodunum, writes the first- and second-century A.D. Roman historian Tacitus, “the noblest youth of Gaul devoted themselves to a liberal education.”
After the siege by Victorinus that damaged the city, the emperor Constantius I (r. A.D. 293–306) became Augustodunum’s benefactor. He promised to restore the city to its former status and appearance, an effort that was continued by his son, the emperor Constantine I (r. A.D. 306–337). “Augustodunum wanted to be a provincial capital,” says University of Kent archaeologist Luke Lavan, “and to become one, it competed with other provincial centers in Gaul for the emperor’s patronage.”
Christianity was well established in Augustodunum by the early fourth century A.D. In A.D. 313, its first recorded bishop, Reticius, was honored with an invitation to Rome to help resolve the schism in the church caused by the Donatists, a North African sect of Christians. One of Gaul’s oldest Christian inscriptions was found in a city cemetery in 1839. According to INRAP archaeologist Michel Kasprzyk, it dates to the late third or early fourth century a.d. The document’s Greek text, he explains, includes the name of a Christian man, Pektorios, and an acrostic of the Greek word ichthys, or fish, an early Christian symbol of Christ.
Another rare text included in a set of panegyrics called the Laudes Domini dates from A.D. 290 to the 310s and describes the city’s appearance in antiquity. This collection of speeches was made by delegates from Augustodunum to the imperial court at Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier). From about A.D. 250 to the middle of the next century, Trier was one of the largest cities in the empire and served as a residence for the Roman emperor. The texts mention many monuments in Augustodunum, some rebuilt after the crisis of the late third century A.D., including baths, aqueducts, houses, and the schools of the Maeniana. One describes a visit to Augustodunum by Constantine at the end of A.D. 310 during which he was shown “all the statues of their gods,” a clear indication, says Kasprzyk, that the city was both pagan and Christian at the time.
Archaeologists have explored Autun periodically for decades. Still, very little of Augustodunum—perhaps only 3 to 4 percent—has been investigated, and only through small surveys, limited excavations, and sometimes accidental discoveries. Researchers have unearthed the remnants of ancient structures, including possibly the Maeniana, as well as aqueducts, marble sculptures, and finely crafted mosaics that once covered the floors of the city’s wealthiest residents’ homes. Some of these mosaics depict scenes from Greek mythology, such as the story of the hero Bellerophon, who killed the mythical beast the Chimera. Others include portraits and sayings of Greek philosophers. These are testaments to the influence of Greco-Roman high culture in Augustodunum and to its well-educated citizenry. Part of Augustodunum’s fourth-century A.D. church was excavated in the 1970s, and several acres of one its largest ancient cemeteries were dug in 2004.
In 2020, INRAP archaeologists Fossurier and Nicolas Tisserand led an excavation, which they have since completed, in an area of Autun known as Saint-Pierre-l’Estrier. There they uncovered new evidence of the lives and deaths of Augustodunum’s residents. On the site where a house was being built, they made a spectacular discovery—a necropolis containing more than 250 burials dating to the third through fifth centuries a.d. The graves represent a variety of religions and economic statuses and contain some of the most valuable artifacts from the Roman world.
Among the types of burial the team discovered were several mausoleums, a tiled tomb, a wooden building, six sandstone sarcophaguses, and at least 15 lead coffins. Some of the dead were interred with extremely high-quality objects, among them some of the rarest to be found in Roman Gaul. Although some graves almost certainly belonged to members of Augustodunum’s early Christian community, researchers have not been able to definitively establish the religious affiliations, or even the names, of any of the deceased—very few of the funerary containers are inscribed. Some are marked with “X”s, which Tisserand explains were used to indicate the position of the body inside—a single mark for the head and two for the feet—so that once the coffins were closed, the heads could be oriented to the west, as was customary. “This is simply a question of practical and not religious marks,” says Tisserand.
The necropolis’ earliest burials seem to date to between A.D. 200 and 250, and it was fully in use by the 270s. It eventually became the city’s main cemetery. “For the earliest graves there are no clear signs of Christianity, as the grave goods, mainly ceramics, also occur in ‘pagan’ graves,” says Kasprzyk. “The main question regarding these early graves is are they already Christian, since we know that Saint-Pierre is Augustodunum’s main Christian cemetery from the fourth to sixth centuries, or is this cemetery a ‘pagan’ cemetery in the third century and later ‘Christianized’?” Both Kasprzyk and Lavan raise the question of whether grave goods are reliable indicators of religious affiliation. “People at this time don’t show their identity through their jewelry or clothing,” Lavan says, “but there was a secular value system and a strong civic and secular culture of wearing social displays of rank.”
Nevertheless, the necropolis provides scholars with a wide-ranging opportunity to learn about the burial practices used in Augustodunum at the time. “The diversity of burial methods probably illustrates the diversity of the society in this period,” says Fossurier. “People whose status seems to have differed were interred side by side in the necropolis, and the variety of funerary containers and accompanying goods indicates that the cemetery was used for common people as well as the high-status rich or the very rich. We also know that men, women, and children were buried there.”
In the largest sarcophagus, which was deeply buried and sealed with iron spikes, the team found a gold hair ornament, a gold ring with a garnet, and a collection of pins made of amber. These pins, says Tisserand, are similar to examples made from other materials, but are the only known pins of this style carved from amber in the Roman world. Other burials contained pins and bracelets made of jet, a blue glass bead, coins, several glass and ceramic vessels, a child’s pair of gold earrings, and a copper-alloy belt buckle shaped like an amphora. The archaeologists also discovered dyed textile fragments, some of which were woven with gold threads. The pigment, characteristic of very wealthy burials of the period in the region, was extracted from the glands of murex snails from the Mediterranean.
A tremendous surprise awaited the team in a sarcophagus belonging to one of Augustodunum’s richest citizens. In it they discovered an example of one of the most luxurious artifacts from the Roman world—a type of late Roman glass vessel known as a cage cup, of which very few examples survive. These cups have intricate three-dimensional openwork designs in deep relief, usually geometric and much less frequently figural. “Cage cups are incredibly rare,” says ancient glass expert Carolyn Needell of the Chrysler Museum. “You almost never see them, and never in the ground.” In fact, the vessel found at Augustodunum is among the 10 best-preserved examples of Roman cage glass and the first complete vessel found in Gaul.
The cage cup from Augustodunum represents the pinnacle of Roman glassmaking. “What makes this cup extraordinary is the manufacturing technique,” says Tisserand. “It was probably carved from a single block of blown glass using techniques similar to those used by goldsmiths.” In fact, says Needell, cage cups are so difficult to make that scholars still debate how Roman glassmakers accomplished it. The Augustodunum cup must have been extraordinarily valuable. By way of comparison, says Tisserand, one of the last cage cups discovered was unearthed at the city of Taranes in what is now the Republic of North Macedonia in the 1970s. That cup was found along with a gold fibula, or clasp, inscribed with the name of the emperor Maximian (r. A.D. 286–305), an indication of its tremendous value. The inscription on the Augustodunum cage cup reads vivas feliciter, or “live happily.” The vessel is currently being restored at the Romano-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz, Germany.
Eumenius was born in Augustodunum to a family of educators—his grandfather came to Gaul from Athens and was a teacher of rhetoric. It is likely Eumenius attended the Maeniana, where he perfected the skills that led him to a career as Constantius’ private secretary, a position in which he was responsible for answering all petitions on the emperor’s behalf. In his A.D. 298 speech, Eumenius praised Constantius—no doubt to secure his patronage of Augustodunum and funds for its restoration. He pledged to donate half of the enormous salary of 60,000 sesterces the emperor had awarded him as the schools’ newly appointed head—twice what he had earned as his secretary—for the effort. This set in motion the restoration not only of his prestigious alma mater, but also of his hometown. Most of the burials discovered by the INRAP team date to after the late third-century siege, and the extraordinary grave goods likely provide evidence of the city’s recovery and its return to the thriving center of learned culture it had once been.
Jarrett A. Lobell is editor in chief at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By ZACH ZORICH
Friday, July 15, 2022
Some 2,000 years ago, Maya leaders in the city of San Bartolo entered a temple chamber with vibrant murals depicting supernatural beings and mythical humans painted on its walls. Then they destroyed them.
Although the murals—painted exclusively with black, red, yellow, and white pigments—had been executed by three master artists, some cycle of time known only to the city’s priests had ended, and so too had the murals’ life span. The artwork had probably been commissioned by the city’s rulers and had been on display for 50 to 100 years, but the time had come to build a new temple over the old one. This renovation meant tearing down part of the mural chamber, which was located at the base of the temple, known today as the Pyramid of Paintings.
Many of the figures painted on the chamber’s south and east walls were broken by hammer blows, and the plaster fragments containing their faces were removed. The walls were then knocked down. The chamber, which was just above ground level and opened onto a public plaza, was sealed off by a new wall. Builders faced the entire pyramid in a new layer of stone, and a new structure was built. Most of the chamber, which had been created during the sixth such renovation of the pyramid, was left relatively intact. But its remaining murals were hidden from view until 2001, when University of Boston archaeologist William Saturno discovered the chamber during a survey in Guatemala’s Petén rain forest. Until then, the site had been known only to the local Maya community.
Close study of the intact San Bartolo murals revealed that the narrative they told is an ancient version of the creation story Maya people were still recounting when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. This story was recorded in an eighteenth-century text known as the Popol Vuh. These murals are among the earliest known Maya wall paintings, but their style and iconography seem to researchers to reach even further back in time. “One of the beautiful things about the discovery of San Bartolo is that it’s a distillation of a lot of key concepts of Maya cosmology in one place,” says archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin. “We’re looking at a system of iconography that’s already quite developed and quite old by 100 B.C.”
The chamber’s destruction initially obscured the narrative’s beginning and end. According to Skidmore College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer Heather Hurst, who codirects the San Bartolo Project with her colleague Boris Beltrán, also of Skidmore College, the destruction was not simply part of the building’s renovation. It was also part of a ritual that commemorated the end of one cycle of time and the beginning of another. Since painting the chamber had imbued it with supernatural significance, destroying some of the murals to clear the way for the renewed temple without acknowledging and managing the paintings’ power could have meant angering supernatural beings. “You can’t just bury it,” says Hurst. “As the new temple is built, you are honoring the temple that came before it.”
Not all the fragments from the destroyed murals were removed from the chamber during this ritual. About 3,400 of them remained piled on the floor. It took 10 years, beginning in 2002, to excavate and collect them all. It took another six years for the team to reassemble them under the watchful eye of the University of New Mexico’s Angelyn Bass, who has been the project’s principal conservator since the first mural fragments were collected. This painstaking process involved fitting the plaster fragments together like jigsaw puzzle pieces and studying them using X-ray fluorescence, a technique that allows the researchers to identify subtle variations in the amount of the element barium in the plaster. They used this information to match pieces with similar chemical compositions. The reassembled fragments are now on display at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City.
By the end of the process, the team had reassembled enough painted fragments from the beginning and end of the murals’ narrative to more fully re-create the experience of viewing the murals as they appeared 2,000 years ago. “You would have entered the room and been immersed in a series of stories,” says Hurst. She believes the painted chamber may have been a place where young initiates to the priesthood learned how the cosmos was created.
Stuart sees the murals as a creation story in four acts that not only lays out humanity’s place in the universe, but also establishes the basis for the rulership of the ajaw, or king, and the proper way to make sacrificial offerings to the gods. Reassembling the mural fragments has allowed Stuart, Hurst, and their colleague Karl Taube of the University of California, Riverside, to glimpse a creation narrative that is at once familiar from the Popol Vuh and features previously unknown or obscure Maya deities and religious concepts. These four scenes, each of which seems to be linked to one of the first four days of a ritual calendar, function as a sort of picture book that expresses ancient Maya ideas about community and the role of humanity in the cosmos.
I: CREATION OF THE WORLD
The center of the first scene is a fragmentary image from the demolished east wall that depicts a four-lobed shape representing a cave. As reconstructed by the team, this section of the mural shows two humanlike creator gods seated within the cave and implies that the gods are in the underworld. Between the two gods is a gourd marked with glyphs that say the gourd holds “the blood of humanity.” To the right of the cave is an image of the rain god Chahk sitting on a temple platform and receiving an offering of tamales from a hand that Hurst believes may belong to the maize god’s wife. Tamales were a common Maya offering that evoked maize as one of the foundations of life.
The rest of the scene continues on the intact north wall, where the mural depicts the mountain god known as Witz, whose gaping mouth also represents a cave. Animals, including a jaguar, an iguana, snakes, and birds, emerge between flowers and other plants surrounding Witz’s mouth. This imagery suggests that the cave is an opening into a supernatural paradise known as the Flower Mountain, a sacred place in the cosmology of many cultures throughout Mesoamerica. For the Maya, the Flower Mountain was a place of creation. The sun god emerged from the mountain each morning, while the maize god emerged once a year. It was also where, in a distant time, the ancestors of the Maya originated.
In this scene, four human couples, who may have been the founders of lineages of families who lived in San Bartolo, are shown bringing gifts out of the Flower Mountain and presenting them to the maize god. The god in turn distributes them to the other people in the scene. One of the couples kneels before the god. The woman holds a basket containing tamales, while, in front of her, the kneeling man holds a gourd full of water above his head. On the other side of the maize god, another ancestral couple hold bundles that were taken from the cave, which Taube believes may contain sacred books.
When viewed as a whole, this first scene shows the conditions being created for the birth of humanity and Maya society. The creator gods have made the blood from which humanity will be born, and the ancestors have emerged from the underworld to bring forth maize and water, which form the basis of Maya life and community.
II: BIRTH OF HUMANITY
At the center of the second scene, an image depicts Earth as a turtle floating in primordial waters, reflecting the ancient Maya belief that they lived on the back of a turtle swimming in the ocean. Inside the image of the turtle, the maize god dances and plays a turtle-shell drum.
Immediately to the right of Turtle Earth, a human ruler is shown being enthroned. To the right of the throne, two sets of infant twins burst out of a gourd, which may be the same one that holds the blood of humanity in the first scene. A fifth child emerges from the gourd with arms raised. “With that exploding gourd and the infants, now we’re looking at the birth of humanity,” says Stuart.
To the left of this scene, a series of partially intact images shows the maize god’s enthronement as a mythical ruler, and his birth, death, and rebirth. This image of the god’s enthronement establishes a basis for Maya rulership. The researchers believe the scene would have impressed on ancient Maya viewers that the rulers of San Bartolo received their authority from the maize god.
III: WORSHIPPING THE GODS
The next scene is the best preserved of the narrative. It shows four young men standing and offering sacrifices in front of supernatural trees that anchor Earth at its four cardinal directions. At the top of each tree sits a monstrous bird scholars have named the Principal Bird Deity. According to Taube, the bird deity has a dual nature—it is associated with creation and the sun but also with darkness. The tree closest to the center of the scene has the twisted trunk of a gourd tree. The bird deity is shown descending from heaven to land in it.
All four of the young men making sacrifices, says Taube, are depictions of Hunahpu, one of the mythical hero twins who are the protagonists of many Maya stories. In three of the images, Hunahpu is shown carrying animals that he has hunted, which he offers as a sacrifice. The three animals are a fish representing the underworld, a deer representing Earth, and a turkey representing the sky. In the fourth depiction of the hero, Hunahpu has sacrificed aromatic flowers. In each of the four images he is shown impaling his genitals as an act of ritual bloodletting. Hurst says this scene, on the chamber’s west wall, establishes the basis for the Maya’s negotiations with supernatural powers through sacrifice.
IV: ENTERING THE UNDERWORLD
The last scene is from the destroyed south wall and has been entirely reconstructed from fragments. It takes viewers into the underworld and though it is the least complete scene, it has several identifiable figures. The most complete image depicts an aspect of the sun god known as the solar eagle, according to Stuart and Taube. The deity has the glyph for “sun” painted on his cheek. Above the sun god is a depiction of an obscure god named Wak Tok. Stuart believes that Wak Tok is related to the rain god Chahk, but very little is known about the deity. There is only one other reference to Wak Tok, which dates to A.D. 700 and was found on a stone panel at the site of Palenque in southern Mexico. “We are missing much of this mythical religious knowledge,” Stuart says, adding that it was probably kept in books that have not survived. “We just happen to see little pieces of this lost world, and Wak Tok Chahk is a great example of a Maya deity who was important enough to be in the murals, yet there are only two mentions of him anywhere in the Maya region.”
Two figures stand behind the sun god. One is a depiction of an unknown male deity who has star markings on his legs, indicating that he has some connection to the night. The other wears a headdress made of a bloody femur and an eyeball that sprays blood. Taube has identified this grim individual as the god Akan. “He is the god of alcohol and drunkenness,” says Taube. “He’s also a very unpleasant death god.” A long curving forelock of hair, one of the identifying marks of the maize god, also features on Akan’s headdress. Taube believes these different iconographic elements suggest that the figure of Akan also represents the dead maize god, whom the Maya imbibed in the form of maize beer. The maize god is a central cultural hero in Maya stories. He sets the world in order, says Taube, and even in death he provides something. “When you drink fermented maize beer,” he says, “you’re drinking the rotting maize god.”
Stuart says that while the meaning of the fourth scene remains elusive, it seems to abound in images of death. He points out that the fourth day in the ritual calendar is Ak’bal, which means “darkness,” ending the narrative in the same supernatural space where the first scene begins.
The chamber at the base of the Pyramid of the Paintings isn’t the only space in the building that was furnished with such rich visual narratives. During the same construction phase in which the lower chamber was built, another chamber was constructed at the top of the temple. Its interior was once decorated with its own finely painted murals. The archaeologists have named this chamber Ixim, which is one of the Maya’s words for maize.
These murals feature blue-green, dark green, brown, and purple pigments in addition to the lower chamber’s simpler color palette. They also have a large number of hieroglyphic inscriptions. The style of some of the motifs in these murals is identical to that of those in the lower mural chamber, but they are painted with a much finer hand. These paintings were also destroyed in the same ritual during which the murals of the lower chamber were smashed. About 3,200 mural fragments have been recovered from the Ixim chamber, and they are now being pieced together. The overall narrative told in the mural is still unclear, but facets of the story have begun to emerge. According to Taube, some of these murals reference mountains in distant places. One fragment depicts a pine tree, which is not native to the Petén rain forest. Some of the other fragments show the mountain god Witz devouring blood, which Taube says indicates that Maya artists may have been marking the mountains as a place of sacrifice.
The Ixim chamber’s location at the top of the pyramid made it difficult to access. This suggests that the paintings were viewed mainly by a specialized group of royalty and fully initiated priests, unlike the creation mural at ground level, which would have been more easily viewed by initiates or lower-ranking members of society.
“Public art was a way for rulers to promote ideology and community building,” says Hurst. The lower chamber’s creation story likely functioned in this way, as a means for the people of San Bartolo to learn about their shared history and beliefs. By contrast, the Ixim chamber displays private art, which featured stories and ritual knowledge that would have only been passed on to specialized initiates. “The Ixim chamber is where they really did the business,” says Taube. “The most important rituals were not public.” San Bartolo’s high-ranking citizens would have considered the Ixim chamber a house for the gods and would likely have stored sacred regalia and books there.
Comparing the murals of the lower chamber with those of the Ixim chamber will eventually allow researchers to explore the differences in the public and private messages sent by San Bartolo’s rulers. “The Ixim chamber is another set of murals that could have a revolutionary impact on our understanding of Maya religion and politics,” says Hurst. It’s likely that the Ixim chamber murals told stories that the Maya understood on many different levels, much like the narrative in the lower chamber. The people of San Bartolo probably understood that the different stories the murals told were much greater than the sum of their parts. For instance, says Stuart, once viewed all together, the murals of the lower chamber seem to follow a cycle of solar movement. “Sun emergence, zenith, sunset, nadir,” says Stuart. “It’s like they’re grafting a grand narrative onto that cycle. It’s a perpetual story.”
Zach Zorich is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By DANIEL WEISS
Monday, November 22, 2021
On a hilltop at the edge of the town of Noceto on northern Italy’s Po Plain, a 2004 construction project had gotten just a few feet into the ground when a wooden structure began to emerge. A team of archaeologists led by Mauro Cremaschi and Maria Bernabò Brea was called in to investigate. “At the beginning, we thought it was probably some sort of residential building,” says team member Andrea Zerboni, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Milan. “But soon after we started the excavation, we noticed that the sediments inside the structure weren’t related to domestic activity.” Rather than material such as ash and charcoal, typically found where people lived or worked, the structure was filled with natural sediments of the sort that would be found in a lake. The structure they were excavating was not a building at all, the researchers realized—it was an artificial pool. What they have learned about this pool in the years since has provided surprising new insights into the social organization and ritual practices of a culture that thrived in this fertile region for centuries during the second millennium B.C. before disappearing. “The Noceto pool is unique in Italy—it’s unique in the world,” says Zerboni. “Building such a structure implies very careful planning, coordinating the work of many people, and a very clear architectural plan. We don’t expect to find such majestic structures from prehistory.”
When they reached the bottom of the pool after several years of careful work, the archaeologists marveled at the feat of ancient engineering before them. Twenty-six wooden poles were arranged vertically to form a tank measuring roughly 40 feet long, 23 feet wide, and at least 16 feet deep. More than 240 interlocking boards lined the pool’s earthen walls and were held in place by the poles. The poles, in turn, were pressed against the walls by two networks of horizontal beams that crossed the pool perpendicular to each other. And, for good measure, a pair of long beams were arranged diagonally to buttress the four corner poles. As the researchers would learn, the pool’s builders had good reason to take extra care to ensure the soundness of their design. “When we arrived at the bottom, we said, ‘OK, our job is done, we have finished the excavation,’” says Zerboni. “But we dug a few more trenches just to check what was below the tank, and we found evidence of another wood structure.” This turned out to be an earlier attempt at building a somewhat larger tank, which had collapsed before it was completed. It’s unclear whether the earlier design simply couldn’t withstand the pressure of the earthen walls or whether one of the area’s frequent earthquakes contributed to its demise. In any case, the upper tank, whose design included additional supports, held strong for millennia.
Bronze Age Ritual Pool
The team found no indication that the pool had served any practical purpose. There was no sign of a mechanism for channeling water in or out, and the fine-grained sediments had accumulated slowly at the pool’s bottom without the sort of regular disturbance that would have occurred if it had served as a reservoir. Their excavations did, however, uncover an extensive array of material in the pool. The finds include around 150 complete vases and 25 miniature vessels, which pottery experts dated to this region’s Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1300 B.C.). Zerboni notes that the pottery found in the pool is of a type that would have been highly valued and used only for special occasions. The excavators also uncovered seven small clay votive figurines depicting horses, pigs, cows, and, in one instance, an anthropomorphic figure. Similar examples from the period in Europe are known, but are quite rare, says Zerboni. A large number of animal remains were unearthed as well, primarily deer antlers, but also a complete skeleton of a baby pig. There were spindles, numerous baskets, and several large blocks of wood, as well as hundreds of wooden farming tools, including four whole and fragmentary plows. These items had all been carefully deposited in the pool in distinct layers, as if during multiple events. “From this evidence, and from the greatness of the structure, we started thinking it was related to some sort of ritual,” says Zerboni. “The Noceto pool was probably built to celebrate something.”
During the Middle Bronze Age, farmers belonging to a culture known as the Terramare settled the Po Plain, which is bordered by the Alps to the north and west, the Apennine Mountains to the south, and the Adriatic Sea to the east. The Terramare completely cleared the area’s forests and intensively cultivated the land. The landscape proved bountiful, producing bumper crops of wheat, barley, and other cereals, and supporting plentiful herds of livestock including sheep, goats, and pigs. To further their agricultural endeavors, the Terramare embarked on extensive irrigation projects. They located their settlements along the Po River and its tributaries, and dug a large number of wells. These settlements were surrounded by moats, which were at once defensive features and additional sources of water. The Terramare built their houses on wood piles, using timber harvested from the rapidly depleting forests.
Over time, the remains of Terramare villages grew into mounds that became stores of rich organic material. This phenomenon is the source of the culture’s name—from terra marna, which means “rich land” in the local Emilian dialect. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the decayed contents of many of these mounds were used to fertilize the fields of the Po Plain, which continues to be one of the most agriculturally productive regions in Europe. Such was the fate of the mound containing the remains of the Terramare village closest to the Noceto pool, which lay just a few hundred yards away.
To determine when exactly the tanks were built, the University of Milan team recently collaborated with Sturt Manning, an archaeologist and dendrochronology expert at Cornell University. The tanks were built primarily from oak, which meant that conventional dendrochronology was not an option—there is not a continuous securely dated sequence of oak tree-ring records that goes back as far as the Middle Bronze Age in northern Italy. Instead, Manning used a technique called tree-ring radiocarbon wiggle matching. This involved measuring the amount of radioactive carbon in samples drawn from a number of rings in wood from the tanks. Given that the baseline amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere fluctuates over time based on factors such as the level of sunspot activity, the amount of radiocarbon in a sequence of tree rings does not decline at a steady rate that corresponds to the rings’ ages. Instead, a graph of the rings’ radiocarbon content includes a series of “wiggles,” or fluctuations in the amount of radiocarbon. By comparing these wiggles with measurements of radiocarbon in trees whose precise ages are known, Manning was able to estimate the age of the wood from the tanks. The presence of the tree ring immediately below the bark in one case along with two groupings of “sapwood rings,” which are close to the bark, helped establish that the timber used to build the tanks was felled at two different points. According to the results, the lower tank was built around 1444 B.C. and the upper tank was built about 12 years later, around 1432 B.C. There is some uncertainty in the measurement of radiocarbon levels, but both estimates are thought to be accurate to within around four years.
Bronze Age Ritual Pool
This technique gave the team a far more precise date than had been possible using pottery styles or conventional radiocarbon dating. It placed the pool’s construction very close to a time when a major shift in the Terramare culture occurred. Around 1450 B.C., the number of Terramare settlements increased and some grew much larger. The overall population also increased and people exploited the land more aggressively. There are indications that what had been a relatively egalitarian society grew more hierarchical at this point. To Zerboni, the pool and the items deposited in it were likely intended to represent many of the elements contributing to the culture’s success. These included wood, which they used to build their villages; farming tools, which they used to work the land; and water, which they used to nourish crops. “These were probably offerings to a divinity or to nature to show how grateful they were,” Zerboni says. “The pool was a sort of monument intended to celebrate the agriculture and the natural resources that supported their community.”
Manning believes that the process of building the pool may have helped fortify the hierarchy that appears to have developed as the Terramare population exploded. “You might speculate that this is the sort of group building and regional collective activity that an ambitious ruler or priest might engage in to link together a community or even a couple of communities,” he says. “Creating the thing means people have to gather together, work together, create a common purpose, and then it becomes a sort of venue to come and visit afterwards.” Those members of the community who climbed the hill to gaze into the pool’s waters might have been rewarded with a transcendent experience. “You could almost see this as a mirror in which you would have been both looking at the reflection of the world around you, but also looking through it to see some form of netherworld or underworld,” Manning says. “I wonder if this wasn’t symbolic of connections between the divine and the earthly for these people.”
Around 1150 B.C., the Terramare culture collapsed, and all their settlements on the Po Plain were abandoned. This was most likely a result of a strain on resources due to increasing population, exacerbated by declining rainfall. According to Zerboni, the Terramare likely moved to the Apennines or the southern edge of the Alps. The plain was resettled around 200 years later, and, when people returned, they once again cultivated the region, employing Terramare tools and techniques, which continued to be used until quite recently. Among the tools excavated in the Noceto pool, Zerboni, who himself grew up on the Po Plain, recognized a small piece of bent wood used to poke holes in the soil in which farmers would then plant seeds. “I remember my grandfather used the same tool to cultivate his garden,” he says. “In the Noceto pool, we have the roots of the traditional culture of the Po Plain, which probably dates back almost 3,500 years.”
Daniel Weiss is executive editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
Bronze Age Ritual Pool
By KAREN COATES
Tuesday, February 01, 2022
The sun shines nearly 300 days a year over southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, where bright white sand ripples across the desert. Here, in White Sands National Park, the world’s largest gypsum dunes abut the dried-up bed of prehistoric Lake Otero, which once covered 1,600 square miles. In the summer, park temperatures can soar to 110°F, and the intense sunlight stings the eyes. It was one of those hot but slightly hazy days in May 2021 when Bonnie Leno and Kim Charlie, sisters from Acoma Pueblo, about 175 miles north, found the fossilized tracks of a giant ground sloth and two humans, all of whom lived at least 10,000 years ago, at the close of the Pleistocene Epoch.
Leno and Charlie didn’t expect to uncover evidence of ancient history at the park, but there they were, the kidney-shaped footprints of a 10-foot-tall, 2,000-pound long-extinct mammal and the imprints of human toes—the marks of two species that coexisted thousands of years ago. “I was down on the ground, brushing everything off,” says Leno, recalling the adult human footprint she found not far below the surface. “I was ecstatic.” Just inches away, she spotted the giant sloth track. “There were a lot of prints in that area,” says Charlie, who uncovered the tiny footprint of a child nearby.
Charlie is a member of the Acoma Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) board and participates in a consultation program with the National Park Service. Any time park employees conduct studies that might affect a Native cultural site, pueblos and tribes affiliated with that site are asked to consult on the research and preservation. Acoma is one of six Native groups currently studying and protecting the park’s prehistoric trackways, says David Bustos, White Sands’ resource program manager. He invited Charlie to accompany scientists and park staff on one of the first field trips to the park since the pandemic began in 2020. She in turn asked Leno, an Acoma cultural monitor who works with the THPO to study and assess archaeological sites in culturally sensitive areas. It’s a role that the sisters say is akin to retracing their ancestral footsteps.
White Sands has the world’s largest collection of fossilized Ice Age footprints, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. For several years, a team of archaeologists, geographers, geologists, environmental scientists, and tribal members has worked to find and analyze as many prints as possible. No one knows who the early human trackmakers were or whether they were genetically related to Native groups in the region today, but recent findings suggest people walked through these lands far earlier than scientists commonly thought. In 2019, researchers found human tracks amid sediment layers containing seeds from an aquatic plant that grew around the ancient lake. The discovery presented a rare opportunity—the scientists could radiocarbon date the seeds to derive an approximate age of the footprints. The results confirmed the presence of humans there between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago, at a time when much of modern-day North America was under ice. That discovery revived longstanding questions about how and when people first inhabited the continent. If the dates are correct, they would disprove a commonly held theory that humans arrived thousands of years later, toward the end of the Ice Age.
For Leno and Charlie, the new dates simply confirm the histories Native people have long understood. “We’ve always stressed that we’ve been here,” Charlie says. “We’ve always stressed that we’re the Indigenous people that lived here on this continent.” She and Leno don’t know whether their family has a direct ancestral line to the White Sands walkers, but there’s no denying the sisters’ sense of connection to the trackways and the people who made them. “Even though it’s been thousands of years,” Charlie says, the tracks “are still a part of us.”
Her people have centuries-old roots in this Southwest landscape. Acoma Pueblo is one of the oldest continually occupied communities on the continent, founded atop a sandstone bluff around A.D. 1150. Charlie says she grew up learning stories about an even older migration that took her Acoma ancestors from the far north of what is now the United States south into Mexico. “We did a lot of traveling,” she says, pointing out that her ancestors traded with people across the region, and possibly around White Sands. The two sisters hope the emerging evidence from the trackways will help bolster Native voices in the stories that other people tell about Indigenous history across these lands.
Today, the White Sands landscape, with its crests of glimmering dunes, forms a panorama of snow-white land in a summer broil. There are no trees, save for a few solitary invasive species that suck whatever moisture they can from the land. Miles of undulating sands give way to the crisp, flat surface of the dried-up ancient Lake Otero, which is dotted with iodine bush, a desert shrub adapted to sandy, salty, alkaline soils. To the east and west of the park, a heat haze distorts the peaks of towering mountains; to the north is White Sands Missile Range, the U.S. Army’s largest land-based open-air testing site. But the ancient trackways follow no modern borders—footprints crisscross both sides of the fence dividing the national park from the missile range.
At the time when many of the tracks were made, researchers think Lake Otero had already begun to evaporate and a series of small seasonal bodies of water covered the area. As the water evaporated over time, it formed a playa—the flat bottom of a desert basin that occasionally fills with water. About 15 years ago, a rare flood filled that playa with so much water that waves beat against the ancient shoreline and eroded its sediments, exposing trackways never before seen. Not long after that, Bustos began finding prints left by mammoths on the shoreline as well as elongated prints he thought might be human. As time passed, he and other researchers found more and more trackways from what appeared to be an array of species, including humans, mammoths, bison, camels, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats. Some of the marks show evidence of people and animals slipping and sliding across what was then a muddy surface. “Many of the footprints actually have layers of algae, which would have required moisture to grow,” says Cornell University archaeologist and team member Tommy Urban.
So many footprints emerged that park staff sought guidance from Bournemouth University fossil footprint expert Matthew Bennett, who visited White Sands in 2017 and confirmed the presence of human and animal tracks. He has since made 10 trips to the park, and has no doubt that White Sands is one of the world’s most significant track sites, with tens of thousands of trackways. By comparison, Laetoli, the Tanzanian site with the world’s oldest-known hominin footprints, extends about 88 feet and contains fewer than 100 tracks.
The geological makeup of the area has preserved a wide variety of prints that allow scientists to discern an array of mammalian behaviors. “This gives us a rare window into a world that’s mostly lost to time and beyond our current reach,” Urban says. The length and breadth of the trackways at White Sands open a range of questions about early hunting practices, the lives of Ice Age species, and what the world was like when humans and Pleistocene megafauna shared this landscape. “Each of these trackways will have its own story to tell,” says Urban.
For example, the team found a human pathway that goes out and back, extending nearly a mile. Based on footprint size, scientists believe it was made by a woman or adolescent male, accompanied by a toddler on the outward journey. Between the outbound and return legs of the trip, a giant ground sloth and a mammoth crossed the pathway. The mammoth walked in a straight line, leaving no evidence of having noticed, or cared, that humans were in the vicinity. But the sloth behaved differently. Variations in the animal’s footprints appear to show that it stood on its hind legs and spun around, possibly catching a whiff of danger before dropping to all fours and rambling off in a different direction.
The researchers concluded that the chaperone on the excursion at times carried the toddler, shifting the child from hip to hip. This subtle change in behavior is reflected in the alternating shape of the footprints, which broaden with added weight to form a banana shape created by the outward rotation of the older person’s foot. They can also tell this was a speedy trip, completed at a pace of 5.5 feet per second through slick mud—far faster than that of a person walking at a comfortable pace of four feet per second over dry, flat land. They determined this by creating a mosaic of aerial images of a large section of the trackway that encompassed hundreds of prints. This allowed them to calculate the people’s average stride lengths. The researchers don’t know the purpose of the trek, or why it was made so quickly, except to note that the dangerous beasts of the Ice Age world would have given people plenty of reasons to hurry, especially with a child in tow.
Another trackway reveals possible evidence of an ancient hunting party. There human footprints appear directly inside the tracks of a giant ground sloth. Every indication suggests one person followed quickly behind the animal. The person matched the sloth’s stride—which was much longer than a comfortable human stride—for more than 10 paces until the sloth, it seems, rose on its hind limbs and flailed in defense. Meanwhile, a second person approached the animal on tiptoe from the side. The tracks are the best direct evidence of late Pleistocene interactions between humans and megafauna found anywhere in the world, and it seems likely they were made by two hunters confronting their prey—though whether they or the sloth prevailed isn’t clear. The notion of hunting in the region fits with more recent Native oral histories, too. “Our tribal partners have stories about the ‘white sands’ and coming down for hunting parties,” says White Sands archaeologist Clare Connelly.
With the exception of the trackways discovered in 2019, researchers have not yet been able to precisely date the footprints at White Sands. The team isn’t certain what cultures the trackmakers belonged to or when exactly they lived. “We’re dating them on the basis of the coexistence with the animals, which have known extinction dates,” says Urban. The team estimates that many of the tracks were made between 15,500 and 10,000 years ago, during a period that overlaps with the widespread North American Clovis culture, as well as the later Folsom tradition. Both peoples were hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups and are known today for their distinctive tools. Characteristic flaked Clovis spearpoints have been found with the bones of megafauna such as mammoth, and smaller worked Folsom points are often associated with bison kill sites. The White Sands tracks indicate the people—whoever they were—followed, stalked, harassed, and possibly hunted big game.
The footprints tell other tales, too. Bennett says that he and the team have uncovered evidence of many children jumping, skipping, and sloshing in the mud, their horseplay preserved in time. As a father himself, these findings spark his imagination. “Every kid loves to jump in a puddle. And basically, prehistoric children were no different,” he says.
Each day in the field is different for the research team, partly because weather conditions have to be just right in order to discern the tracks—too wet or too dry, and little is visible. For this reason, the White Sands prints are often called ghost tracks. “They can be very clear on the surface one day, and then another day, you can barely see anything,” Bennett says. “They’re quite mercurial.” That makes the work of identifying the trackways even more challenging. “It’s hard to orient yourself,” says Connelly, “because the site is never the same.”
Not only are the tracks difficult to identify, but one by one, the White Sands archive of Pleistocene life is steadily disappearing. Wind erodes the fine surface that covers the footprints and, once exposed, they quickly vanish. “We’re not sure if it’s climate change, or what’s happening,” Bustos says. “We’re losing them.”
The team is documenting trackways as rapidly as they can, using an array of tools to locate new prints and quickly gather information from those already identified. While erosion constantly exposes new trackways, the team also searches for those that are less visible. Urban has spent most of his time in the park conducting geophysical surveys using magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar, which allow researchers to create images of tracks that lie below the surface. The team then uses traditional tools to carefully remove sediments and expose the prints and record them. They make plaster casts and 3-D models of some of the tracks, though there are far too many to record them all in this way.
All around the playa, in every direction, the paths of creatures from the past preserve very specific moments. Humans ran on the balls of their feet. Families of all species—people, mammoths, camels—traveled together. There is also other evidence of ancient life lying on the surface. When Leno and Charlie visited, they immediately spotted what they thought was a grinding stone resembling those still used to smash corn or make jerky at Acoma today. “I’ve walked by here like forty times and I haven’t seen that,” says Bustos. “We’ve had geologists look at these rocks and tell us, ‘Oh no, they’re here naturally,’” adds Connelly. No one else had identified what Leno and Charlie saw.
The two sisters say that when they visit a cultural site, they think of how their people live today, how their grandparents lived, and how the Ice Age trackmakers might have done things, too. “What were the women doing?” Charlie always asks. When they look across White Sands, they think it must have been a hunting ground with nearby campsites where the community gathered. “You see the footprints, you see children’s footprints,” Charlie says. “So you’ve got to think…” Leno finishes her sister’s thought: “…that was family.”
The team is further scouring the area, searching for the remains of hearths or other clues to how people lived, camped, and hunted in the area. They’ve also found perplexing grooves in the ground that might be related to the human tracks. “We’re not sure exactly what’s going on,” Connelly says, but the team suspects the people dragged something on a large stick. “We only see these where we see human footprints, so we just call them drag structures,” she adds.
After examining the grooves, Charlie and Leno think these abrasions could be additional evidence of hunting. “You take down the mammoth, there’s no way you’re going to carry that big carcass on your back and take it home,” Charlie says. Perhaps, the sisters say, the marks were left by sleighs that hunters used to haul the meat of especially large prey.
The two also spotted a group of rocks situated in a near-circle that reminded them of sundials common in the Southwest. Across the region, Native populations have long looked to the sun, the moon, and stars to keep track of time. Leno wonders if, at some point, the rocks signified that people did something similar at White Sands.
For Charlie and Leno, it’s not enough to simply study the trackways and other artifacts; it’s also important to honor the ancient people who left them. When the Acoma people visit a cultural site, they always ask permission from the spirits of those who passed, akin to asking permission to enter somebody’s home, explains Leno. “If they want to let you know something, find something, they will,” she says. “They will show you,” adds Charlie.
The sisters count themselves lucky to have seen these footprints, which appear and disappear so quickly. Most people will never have that opportunity. The National Park Service is creating replicas of the trackways for visitors to view and touch, but the experience isn’t the same as being under that blazing sun, in the exact locations where so many thousands of people and animals made their marks ages ago. “I wish we could keep those tracks intact for everybody to see,” Charlie says, but she accepts that she has no control over their survival. “That’s really up to Mother Nature.”
Karen Coates is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
When the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C., the country’s system of temples, which had sustained religious traditions dating back more than 3,000 years, began to slowly wither away. Starved of the funds that pharaohs traditionally supplied to religious institutions, priests lost their vocation and temples fell into disuse throughout the country. The introduction of Christianity in the first century a.d. only hastened this process. But there was one exception to this trend: In the temples on the island of Philae in the Nile River, rites dedicated to the goddess Isis and the god Osiris continued to be celebrated in high style for some 500 years after the Roman conquest. This final flowering of ancient Egyptian religion was only possible because of the piety and support of Egypt’s neighbors to the south, the Nubians.
Philae lies just south of the Nile’s first cataract—one of six rapids along the river—which marked the historical border between ancient Egypt and Nubia, also known as Kush. In this region of Kush, called Lower Nubia, the temple complex at Philae was just one of many that were built on islands in the Nile and along its banks. Throughout the long history of Egypt and Nubia, Lower Nubia was a kind of buffer zone between these two lands and a place where the two cultures heavily influenced one another. “Often official Egyptian texts were demeaning to Nubians,” says Egyptologist Solange Ashby of the University of California, Los Angeles. “But this cultural arrogance doesn’t reflect the lived reality of Egyptians and Nubians being neighbors, intermarrying, sharing cultural and religious practices. These were people who interacted for millennia.”
From 300 B.C. to A.D. 300, Nubia was ruled from the capital city of Meroe. The Meroitic kings took a special interest in Philae, where the most important Egyptian temple dedicated to Isis was located. In part this may have been because the island had been significant to the Nubians for centuries. Even its ancient Egyptian name, Pilak, which means “Island of Time” or “Island of Extremity,” may have been of Nubian origin. And while many of the other temples on Philae were built by Egypt’s Ptolemaic kings, Greek rulers who held sway from 304 to 30 B.C., the continued survival of the religious practices there owed much to the Meroitic kings. They, and later other Nubian rulers, funded annual celebrations at Philae and devoted resources to maintaining its temples in the centuries before Christianity finally eclipsed Egypt’s ancient traditions.
The Cult of Isis
Recent research has highlighted the deep and enduring nature of this connection. Ashby has studied a corpus of ancient inscriptions recorded at Philae in the early twentieth century by British Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith and, more recently, by the late Egyptologist Eugene Cruz-Uribe of Indiana University East. Among these, she identified at least 98 inscriptions that were written on the walls of the temples at Philae on behalf of Nubians. These are mainly in the form of prayers offered to the gods. These inscriptions were written mostly in Greek and Demotic, a script used for writing ancient Egyptian, though some were also written in the Nubians’ own Meroitic script, which remains largely undeciphered. Ashby expected the inscriptions to have been commissioned by Nubian pilgrims to Philae, but she found that many were left by Nubians who had a much deeper connection to the island. “High-ranking priests, temple financial administrators, and officials were sent to Philae as representatives of the king in Meroe,” says Ashby. “Those Nubians eventually held power in the temple administration.”
By exploring the millennium-long presence of Nubians at Philae, Ashby and other researchers are asking questions not only about how Nubians celebrated their own beliefs and combined them with traditional Egyptian religious practices, but also about how they kept Egyptian rituals dedicated to Isis and Osiris alive long after they had died out elsewhere in the land of the pharaohs.
Today, the island of Philae lies submerged as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. All the complex’s structures were moved to higher ground on the nearby island of Agilkia in the 1960s and 1970s. These include the island’s main temple, dedicated to Isis, and its entryway of two monumental sets of pylons, as well as a number of smaller temples dedicated to other gods. Archaeological excavations on the island prior to the flooding showed that, for much of Egyptian history, Philae was not a major Egyptian religious site along the lines of Thebes or Memphis, but that it did seem to have long-standing significance to Nubians. This may have had to do with its proximity to the island of Biga, where Nubians worshipped Hathor, a goddess who took the form of a cow. Hathor was especially revered in Nubia, where many people were pastoralists.
The earliest clear evidence of the Nubian connection to Philae dates to the reign of the Kushite kings who invaded Egypt in the eighth century B.C. and ruled it for nearly a century as the 25th Dynasty. One of the dynasty’s mightiest pharaohs, Taharqo (r. 690–664 B.C.), oversaw the construction of new temples and a revival of ancient Egyptian culture in the Nile Valley. This included commissioning a complex at Philae dedicated to Amun, a chief ancient Egyptian and Kushite deity closely associated with kingship. Blocks from this temple inscribed with Taharqo’s name were unearthed in the twentieth century before the island was submerged.
The Cult of Isis
A number of extant small temples in the forecourt of the temple of Isis that were dedicated to Nubian gods provide further evidence that Philae was significant to Nubians. One such temple was devoted to Arensnuphis, a local god of Lower Nubia who is often depicted as a desert hunter and companion of Isis, and who sometimes appears as a lion. Another small temple, in the form of a kiosk, or a colonnaded pavilion, was built at Philae during the reign of the pharaoh Nectanebo I (r. 380–362 B.C.), founder of the 30th Dynasty, the last native-born Egyptian dynasty. Cruz-Uribe proposed that the building was used as a shrine for a hybrid Nubian-Egyptian god known as Thoth Pnubs, whose name links him to the ancient Nubian city of Kerma, which was known as Pnubs to the Nubians. There was also a small temple at Philae dedicated to the Nubian deity Mandulis, a sun god associated with the nomadic people known as the Blemmyes, who lived in the deserts to the east of Egypt and Nubia. “There are all kinds of Nubian religious activities that happened before the Ptolemaic Isis temple was erected,” says Ashby.
Another piece of evidence linking Nubian religious practices to Philae is found on some of the massive reliefs in the island’s temples that depict Ptolemaic pharaohs and other important religious officials offering libations to gods, often Isis and Osiris and their son Horus. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was killed and dismembered by his brother Seth. Their sister and Osiris’ wife, Isis, managed to reassemble his body and he was brought back to life as the god of the underworld. The Egyptians offered libations, usually water or wine, to Osiris during rituals intended to symbolically aid in his rebirth. At Philae, depictions of this ritual include examples that show Ptolemaic pharaohs offering Osiris water in two small bottles, as was customary in Egyptian practice. However, others appear to show them offering Osiris libations of milk, which they pour out before the god from a situla, a long narrow vessel with a looped handle. This, Ashby believes, was a distinctly Nubian practice. “What we see at these temples is this different type of libation, which is to pour out a stream of milk that goes over offerings laid out on an offering table,” she says.
Egyptologists have debated for a century whether or not these scenes are intended to depict milk libations or offerings of wine or water. “I say this is milk,” says Ashby. She points to a scene inside the temple of Isis at Philae depicting Ptolemy VIII (r. 170–116 B.C.) offering a libation to Osiris, with Isis standing behind the god. “The hieroglyphs around him say this milk comes from the breast of the goddess Hesat,” Ashby explains, referring to a celestial cow goddess. Some scholars have argued that even if the depictions show milk libations, they must represent an Egyptian tradition. For Ashby, even though the depictions of the milk libation occur in Ptolemaic temples, the ritual is a purely Nubian practice. “I suggest they adopted it from Nubian worshippers,” she says. She points out that the earliest depictions of milk libations are found in Lower Nubia at the temple of Dakka, in a sanctuary that was built by the Meroitic king Arkamani (r. 275–250 B.C.). Milk libations are also depicted in royal funeral chapels farther south, in Upper Nubia, which is part of modern-day Sudan. At the temple of Musawwarat es-Sufra, for example, reliefs depict herdsmen preparing milk offerings for the Nubian lion-headed god Apedemak. But there are no such depictions in temples north of the first cataract, in Egypt proper.
The Cult of Isis
Hieroglyphs at Philae’s temple of Isis refer to milk as ankh-was, or “life and power.” “Milk seems to be infused with this magical element of transferring life and power to the one who is deceased, much in the way that the breast milk of a mother keeps her infant alive and growing,” says Ashby. “There seems to be this connection in the mind of Nubians.” For the Nubians, then, milk would have been the ideal offering to aid in the rebirth of Osiris.
Milk libation rituals would have been performed during annual funerary rites for Osiris. Known as the Festival of Entry, this ceremony was held during the month of Khoiak, in the early fall, when the Nile flooding reached its peak. Gilded statues of Isis and Osiris were taken from the Isis temple at Philae to boats moored outside a structure known as the Gate of Hadrian. They were then rowed across the Nile to the island of Biga, where Osiris was thought to have been buried. There, at a sanctuary known as the Abaton, milk libations were offered to the god.
Ashby notes that, until quite recently, milk played a central role in rituals surrounding death in Nubia. Within living memory, a widow would traditionally pour milk on her husband’s grave on the second day after his death, a distant echo, perhaps, of the milk libations offered to Osiris.
During a rebellion against Ptolemaic rule in southern Egypt that lasted from 205 to 186 B.C., Meroitic rulers seized control of Lower Nubia and took possession of Philae’s temple precincts. Once Ptolemaic forces regained control of the region, the Nubians were forced to pay an annual tax to the priests at Philae. This ensured they would be allowed to continue visiting the island to worship their own gods. Prayer inscriptions left on the walls of the temples during this period were made by Greek and Egyptian officials and pilgrims, but none were left by Nubians.
That changed once the Romans annexed Egypt and temple revenues began to dwindle. Ashby has identified several inscriptions at Philae dating to between 10 B.C. and A.D. 57 associated with the names of Nubians who were active there. Their titles indicate they were local Nubians who were leaders of cult organizations or village elders. Written in Demotic, the inscriptions were left mainly on the walls of temples dedicated to Nubian gods. They record mandatory donations to singers at temples or to specific temples, including those honoring the Nubian gods Arensnuphis and Thoth Pnubs. During this period, the forecourt of the temple of Isis was expanded, probably to accommodate the numbers of Nubians coming to worship on Philae. While there do not seem to have been Nubian priests at Philae during the early Roman period, Nubians were involved in the temple administration, and were perhaps in a position to monitor how their tithes were being spent.
A second group of inscriptions Ashby has identified date from A.D. 175 to 275 and reflect the pinnacle of Nubian influence at Philae. Many of these inscriptions were commissioned by Nubians who, by this point, were active as priests at the top of the religious hierarchy. The inscriptions, which were made populain the most restricted areas of the temples, show that Nubians were claiming the loftiest religious titles, such as prophet or purity priest, as well as Meroitic titles such as the King’s Son of Kush and the Royal Scribe of Kush. The inscriptions also refer to the Nubian priests’ astronomical knowledge and imply that they were fluent in Egyptian, Greek, and Meroitic. Most prominent in the inscriptions are five generations of a Nubian family known as the Wayekiyes, who were powerful priests and who had both religious and military obligations.
The Cult of Isis
Many of the inscriptions in the most sacred spaces refer to the annual Festival of Entry celebrations that honored Osiris and Isis. While some Egyptian names do appear in references to the festival, most of the participants appear to have been Nubian, in particular members of the Wayekiye family, says Egyptologist Jeremy Pope of the College of William and Mary. “In addition to being a focus of sincere piety, theological reflection, and communal bonds,” he says, “the worship of Isis would also have been important to elite Nubian families like the Wayekiyes as an occupation, a mark of social status, and thus a source of political power.”
Ashby says that Nubian inscriptions tend to be clustered together at Philae in particular buildings, such as the Gate of Hadrian and a room in the temple of Isis known as the Meroitic Chamber. She notes that Nubians seem to have been especially interested in leaving inscriptions near depictions of milk libations, reinforcing their importance in Kushite rituals. The Nubian expressions of piety also differ from those left by Greeks, which are short, often one-line inscriptions, and by Egyptians, which tend to be dry and repetitive. “They are much more heartfelt, longer, and more reverent toward Isis,” says Ashby. “They often have very dramatic phrases, such as ‘I am bending my arm, I am calling out to you, Isis!’” It’s likely that Nubians recited these prayers aloud in front of the reliefs and statues depicting Isis and Osiris.
The inscriptions are not just filled with pious expressions. They also detail particulars of the annual voyage made by envoys from the kings of Meroe to the Festival of Entry, such as the amount of gold the Meroitic rulers sent to Philae. The longest such inscription was written on behalf of one of Meroe’s envoys to Rome, a man named Sasan. Dating to April 10, A.D. 253, this is not just the longest Demotic inscription at Philae, but the longest known in Egypt. Its 26-line text suggests that Nubian pilgrims and priests journeying to Philae played both political and religious roles at the temples. In the inscription, Sasan discusses how he was commanded by the king of Meroe to set aside funds and throw a party for the entire district. “When these Nubian priests came, the local population would have been so excited to see them arriving on their majestic ships down the Nile,” says Ashby. “They knew that the Nubians were coming with pounds and pounds of gold, and that part of that money would be used to buy and slaughter animals and to provide beer, music, and dancing.” The entire district, the inscription says, celebrated for eight days in the forecourt of the Isis temple at Philae. From a long colonnade along the west side of the island, people could watch as Sasan crossed the Nile with his entourage to the Abaton sanctuary on Biga to worship Osiris. Another festival sponsored by the kings of Meroe was nearing its end, and Philae’s coffers were replenished for another year.
The Cult of Isis
Nubian sponsorship of the temples at Philae ensured the continued survival of the worship of ancient Egyptian gods for centuries. But by the fourth century A.D., Christianity had begun to win many converts in the region. Around this time, Meroe fell to the Axum Empire, based in modern-day Ethiopia, ending Nubia’s contribution to the rites at Philae. Christians and adherents of traditional Egyptian and Nubian religions, however, continued to share the island for at least another 100 years. Ashby has found that a number of Nubian inscriptions date to this period, from about A.D. 408 to 456. These were made by priests representing the kings of the Blemmyes and included religious officials known as the prophets of Ptiris, a crocodile-like Nubian god. A Nubian family known as the Esmets served at Philae as priests for three generations, and its members eventually attained the rank of First Prophet of Isis. But the inscriptions they left were in isolated and marginal areas of the temple complex, suggesting that the priests no longer had access to the most sacred spaces. They even made inscriptions on the roof of the Isis temple, probably placed there to avoid scrutiny by Christians. One Demotic inscription, on the western wall of the temple of Isis, refers to “an abominable command,” possibly an allusion to the A.D. 435 edict of the Roman emperor Theodosius II (r. A.D. 408–450) that called for the destruction of all pagan temples in the empire. The last Demotic inscription was written in A.D. 452 on the roof of the temple of Isis, and the last pagan Greek inscription was made in A.D. 456.
The Nubians continued practicing their traditional religion at Philae until the Byzantine emperor Justinian (r. A.D. 527–565) outlawed pagan worship on the island. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the manner in which the Nubians preserved these ancient traditions than a hieroglyphic inscription inside the Gate of Hadrian that accompanied a depiction of the sun god Mandulis. The inscription was made by Esmet-Akhom, a member of the Esmet priestly family, and refers to words spoken by Mandulis “for all time and eternity.” It dates to A.D. 394 and is the latest hieroglyphic text known anywhere. “This final hieroglyphic inscription was made for a Nubian god,” says Ashby. For her, it comes as no surprise that the site where the last Egyptian hieroglyphs were written was, in fact, a sacred Nubian space.
Isma’il Kushkush is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.
The Cult of Isis
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