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From the Trenches

A Major New Venue


Monday, April 08, 2013

stage-theatreOutdoor Roman theaters are common in northwest Europe, but strangely absent from the British Isles. Now, a 2,000-year-old theater has been uncovered, cut into a hillside in southeast England.


Up to 12,000 people could sit in a semicircle of 50 rows of seats. Below was an orchestra pit and a narrow stage, featuring holes that may have allowed the stage to be flooded for aquatic displays such as naval battles. “It was like a spiritual form of the Glastonbury Festival, where people congregated to feast, fair, and communicate with the gods,” says Paul Wilkinson, director of the Kent Archaeological Field School.


The theater overlooks sacred freshwater springs, where inscribed rolls of lead were found which, perhaps, were requests to the gods. Foundations of two temple-like structures, with fragments of a fine, colored mosaic floor, confirm the site’s important sanctuary status. So why aren’t there more Roman theaters in Britain? “I think we just haven’t spotted them yet,” says Wilkinson.

Thracian Treasure Chest


Monday, April 08, 2013

thracian-treasures"The Thracians are the most powerful people in the world, except, of course, for the Indians,” wrote the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus. In citing the Thracians, he was referring to the group of tribes who inhabited a large part of the Balkans and parts of Western Anatolia—from the Aegean to the Carpathian Mountains, and as far as the Caucasus—from approximately the twelfth century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. Despite their fearsome reputation, relatively little is known about them. Few examples of their writing survive, and what other information we have comes from Greek literary sources and Thracian burial mounds. Many of  these mounds have been excavated since the end of the Cold War, when their former lands, Bulgaria and Romania in particular, became accessible to well-trained archaeologists and modern methodology.


This past November, archaeologist Diana Gergova of the National Institute of Archaeology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences entered the burial chamber of an almost 60-foot-tall mound in the Sveshtari necropolis, some 250 miles northeast of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. There she discovered a wooden chest filled with hundreds of gold artifacts. Gergova believes that the burial belonged to a ruler of the Getae, one of the most powerful of the Thracian tribes, who, around 2,400 years ago, were “at their absolute height, politically, culturally, and militarily.”


According to Gergova, the finely crafted gold treasures from Sveshtari help confirm the ancient writers’ accounts of Thracian culture. The craftsmanship also reveals previously unknown stylistic connections to other tribes in the northern and western regions of the Black Sea, providing evidence for a wide cultural ring across Thracian lands. The site could also provide new insight into the Thracian religion, including their belief in the immortal nature of the human soul, which may have influenced early Christianity, says Gergova. “These finds have given us an incredible amount of information about the burial and post-burial practices of the northern Thracians.”

A Pyramid Fit for a Vizier


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

VizierPyramidBelgian archaeologists recently uncovered a mudbrick structure on a hill at Thebes (modern Luxor) that is actually the base of a pyramid erected for a top minister of 19th Dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt from 1279 to 1213 B.C. Bricks from it are stamped with a rectangular hieroglyphic inscription,“Osiris, the vizier of Upper and Lower Egypt, Khay.” The minister, Khay, who is buried in a tomb beneath the pyramid, can be seen in the structure’s capstone, which pays respect to Re-Horakhty, a combination of the sun god Re and sky god Horus. The pyramid would have measured 40 feet along each side, stood roughly 50 feet tall, and overlooked Ramesses II’s funerary temple.


Multiple waves of settlements helped keep the pyramid hidden. Laurent Bavay, an archaeologist at the Université libre de Bruxelles, notes that parts of the monument were used to construct Coptic hermitages atop the site more than 1,300 years ago. Then, in the nineteeenth century, Egyptians arrived at the Theban necropolis to hunt for antiquities they could sell to Europeans. “They literally settled on the tombs to plunder them, systematically,” he explains. The exact location of Khay’s tomb is under one of the remaining local residences, to which the archaeologists do not currently have access.

Second to Whom?


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

TombOver the past three years, archaeologists working at an ancient necropolis outside the city of Suizhou in southern China’s Sichuan Province have excavated 65 tombs. But according to excavation director Huang Fengchun of the Hubei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, tomb 18 in particular is “quite special.” The shape of the tomb resembles the ancient form of the Chinese character “Ya,” which means “second” or “inferior.” The quality of the grave goods found in the tomb, including numerous precious bronze vessels, indicates it likely belonged to a state official of the eastern Zhou Dynasty (770–256 B.C.). But exactly what or whom he was second or inferior to is unknown. Perhaps the answer lies in a 66th tomb.

Europe's First Farmers


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

DanubeGorgesThousands of years ago, the steep geologic folds of the Danube Gorges region, in present-day Romania and Serbia, were lushly forested and filled with game. The Danube River itself teemed with fish. It was an ideal home for the foragers who had lived there for millennia.


But around 6200 B.C., foreigners began appearing. They came from the south and east, and hailed from farming communities, says anthropologist T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Price recently analyzed strontium isotopes in 153 sets of human teeth from ancient burials in the Gorges. Strontium, which is present in the environment and becomes a permanent part of our tooth enamel in childhood, leaves a distinctive signature that lets scientists pinpoint an individual’s place of origin.


The technique allowed Price and Dušan Borić, of Cardiff University, to document an influx of farmers into the area, including a number of women, who may have married into foraging groups. The work helps settle a decades-old debate about whether farming was brought to Europe by colonizers or diffused from community to community. “In Southeastern Europe,” Price says, “the colonization model is what’s going on.”