I’ll be doing a regular round up of archaeology and history stories that make it into the mainstream press every couple of weeks with links to the original stories. The focus will be on Roman history, but anything that catches my fancy will be fair game. This post features several finds in Britain including a hoard of coins, a controversial skeleton initially thought to be a female gladiator, and the graves of 97 infants; Roman frescoes, canals and looted artifacts; and renewed speculation over Cleopatra’s death. Snakebite or poison?
I don’t know if it’s because the stories are printed in English, Britain has an abundance of archaeologists and amateur treasure hunters, or some other fluke of randomness, but fully half the stories that caught my attention this round up are from Britain. We’ll start with the bones and end with the treasure.
In Caistor (from the Anglo-Saxon ceaster meaning Roman camp or town), archaeologists have discovered a large, well-organized late Roman cemetery. They’ve recovered 46 sets of human remains from the site of the derelict Talbot Inn which is being redeveloped into a Lincolnshire cooperative food store. The remains – including complete skeletons – will be studied and reburied. Colin Palmer-Brown, Director of the Pre-Construction Archaeological Services Ltd team overseeing the site believes there are “hundreds if not thousands of people buried in this part of Caistor.”
Dr. Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at the English Heritage‘s Center for Archaeology, is studying the remains of 97 infants found at a Roman villa in Hambleden over 90 years ago by archaeologist Alfred Heneage Cocks. More than 300 boxes full of artifacts, pottery and bones were recently re-discovered at Buckinghamshire County Museum along with Cocks’ original report published in 1921. Mays believes the infants died at about 40 weeks or shortly after birth. Infanticide was common among the Romans who believed children were not fully human until about the age of two. The large number of infants led Dr Jill Eyers, of Chiltern Archaeology to speculate the villa may have been a brothel.
Controversy surrounded the discovery of a skeleton of a “massive, muscular woman” in Credenhill, Herefordshire. The Daily Mail Reporter quoted Archaeological Project Manager Robin Jackson as saying: ‘When we first looked at the leg and arm bones, the muscle attachments suggested it was quite a strapping big bloke. But the pelvis and head, and all the indicators of gender, say it’s a woman.’ This coupled with the location in a suburb instead of the cemetery (gladiator burials were not allowed in city cemeteries) and the richness of the burial led to the explanation she was a female gladiator. There are archaeological artifacts depicting and literary references to the existence of female gladiators, but this was not one. In the Hereford Times, Jackson said the body was merely of a woman of “considerable stature” representing a lifetime of hard work. Darn! I love those gladiatrix stories and hoped this would prove true.
And finally, Britain was the site of two treasure stories. A thumb-sized piece of bronze from Silchester (an abandoned Roman city in Hampshire) is the earliest representation of an Egyptian deity (Harpocrates) from any site in Britain. The Roman’s thought Harpocrates, was the god of spymasters because of a transcription error. “In Egyptian mythology the figure is known as Horus, the child of Isis and Osiris,” said Professor Mike Fulford of the University of Reading, director of the Silchester excavation. “He is often shown with his finger in his mouth, a gesture that in Egypt represented the hieroglyph for his name, but was misinterpreted by the Greeks and Romans, resulting in his adoption as the god of silence and secrecy.”
Dave Crisp, a treasure hunter using a metal detector, located over 52,500 Roman coins (valued at over $5 million) in a field in southwestern England. The coins were buried in a large jar about a foot deep and weighed about 350 pounds. The hoard is one of the largest ever found in Britain, and will reveal more about the nation’s history in the third century, said Roger Bland, of the British Museum. The find includes more than 760 coins from the reign of Marcus Aurelius Carausius, the Roman naval officer who seized power in 286 and ruled until he was assassinated in 293. This follows closely on the discovery last year of a Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins and more than 1,500 objects, mostly made from gold.
Moving on to other parts of the world: AP reported, “Italian police have recovered hundreds of ancient artifacts in their latest effort to crack down on the looting of art…the pieces were returned from Switzerland in June after a two-year investigation…and included vases, bronze tools and marble statues of Venus, some dating as far back as the 8th century B.C.” Some 337 pieces (worth about $20 millions) were displayed in the ancient Roman Coliseum. On the coast, archaeologists have discovered a massive 100-yard wide canal from Portus to Ostia, two miles away, which was probably used to transport goods from ocean vessels to river boats which then continued to the docks at Rome. Contemporary canals are known that were 20-40 meters wide, but this is the largest ever known to be built and included an island and a bridge.
Another Roman find includes unique wall paintings in a residence in the late Roman town of Novae, located in northern Bulgaria. Pavlina Vladkova, an archaeologist from the Regional History Museum in Veliko Tarnovo, researched the residence outside of a legionary base and found valuable frescos in the dining room. And in Israel the 2010 Kinneret Regional Project discovered an ancient synagogue, in use at around 400 AD. Together with the well-known synagogues at Capernaum and Chorazin (both around the fifth and sixth century AD, the new synagogue at Horvat Kur adds new evidence for a very tight net of synagogues in a relatively small area on the Northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee.
And finally, did Cleopatra die of snake bite or poison? According to Christoph Schäfer, a German historian, professor at the University of Trier and author of a best-selling book on Cleopatra in Germany, “There was no cobra in Cleopatra’s death.” According to German toxicologist Dietrich Mebs, a poison specialist, the symptoms occurring after an asp bite are very unpleasant, and include vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory failure. Ancient texts also record that Cleopatra’s two handmaidens died with her — something very unlikely if she had died of a snake bite, says Schäfer. None of the contemporary sources tell us exactly how she died. Plutarch admits as much. The asp bite may be myth…or not!