Category: bija

300 Looted Antiquities Displayed in the Colosseum

More than 300 looted antiquities, estimated to be worth more than EUR15 million, were displayed to the press this morning in Rome, having been repatriated to Italy after they were discovered in a warehouse in Switzerland.

It was a scene slightly reminiscent of a Victorian detective novel, in which the robber and his looted candlesticks is unveiled before an impressed gathering of country house guests.

Only today’s unveiling took place inside the Colosseum rather than on the pages of a 19th century novel and while there was no criminal present, there was plenty of loot, which consisted of objects such as Etruscan ceramic vases, bronze statues from Sardinia and frescoes from Pompeii 337 objects in total.

The heat was oppressive for the motley crew of assembled journalists and cameramen who were there to hear the declarations of officials from Italy’s special police force that specialises in tracking down looted antiquities (or to give them their full name, the Carabinieri del Reparto Operativo Tutela Patrimonio Culturale).

This is one of the most significant recoveries of our national heritage to this day. We hope to return these artefacts to their original localities so that they can be displayed within their historical contexts

The investigation, code-named Andromeda, led by the carabinieri and the Swiss authorities, discovered about 20,000 artefacts in the free port of Geneva, stored in warehouses that were associated with an unnamed Japanese dealer.

The artefacts were illegally taken from archaeological sites in Lazio, Puglia, Sardinia and the area of Magna Grecia southern Italy and Sicily. They span a period of 1,200 years, dating from the eighth century BC to the fourth AD.

According to Dr Giuseppe Proietti, superintendent for archaeological heritage in Rome, this is one of the most important recoveries of looted antiquities in recent times. He said: “This is one of the most significant recoveries of our national heritage to this day. We hope to return these artefacts to their original localities so that they can be displayed within their historical contexts.”

Investigating Looted Artefacts

When the Swiss authorities and the Italian carabinieri began to investigate in 2008, the story developed dramatically in a way that could lead to a sequel of The Medici Conspiracy, a factual book that pieces together the circumstances of the Medici antiquities scandal.

Their attention was initially drawn to the British art dealer Robin Symes, who curated the sale of the Venus of Morgantina to the Getty Museum in Malib, which will be repatriated to Italy in January 2011. According to the Italian carabinieri, Symes moved to Switzerland, where his activities were monitored and this led the Swiss and Italian team to discover several sham companies, some of which were based in tax havens.

Further inquiries led the authorities to a company administrator in Basle who was involved in managing trafficked archaeological objects for his clients one of whom was Mr Symes, say the Italian carabinieri.

When the carabinieri searched the administrator’s luxurious villa in Basle, they found extensive documentation detailing antiquities that were illegally taken from sites around Italy. The documents indicated that Geneva’s free port was used as a clearing centre for the illicitly imported artefacts. In December 2008, nine properties and warehouses were sequestered. This is where the 20,000 archaeological artefacts were discovered.

It took the authorities the whole of 2009 to catalogue the antiquities. The 337 objects repatriated back to Italy have been proved to be from illicit Italian excavations. The majority of the objects remain under Swiss jurisdiction.

Many of the antiquities display in the Colosseum are from Puglia. There are important Kylixes, ceramic vases from Etruscan necropolises at Cerveteri and Vulci and Etruscan candelabra. The area of ancient Etruria is one of the areas that has been particularly targeted by looters.

What will happen to these objects now? That hasn’t been decided yet. According to Francesco Maria Giro, the Ministry of Heritage and Culture’s undersecretary, it will take time to scientifically examine the artefacts, but it is hoped that they will be housed in museums near to the sites they were looted from.

Photos by Bija Knowles.

Roman Villa Discovered Near Tewkesbury

The Abbey of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Tewkesbury. Image Credit - Hadyn Curtis.

A previously unknown Roman villa has been discovered in England by archaeologists excavating an area in preparation for a pipeline to be laid near Tewkesbury. The excavation has uncovered part of a wealthy Roman villa north of Bredons Norton in Gloucestershire. Two burials pre-dating the villa have also been discovered.

According to Stuart Foreman, an archaeologist from Oxford Archaeology, the most likely dating of the villa is the late-third to the mid-fourth centuries AD. He said: So far we have discovered a masonry building with plaster walls. It’s not impossible that it’s a shrine, but the most likely explanation is that it is a villa. The bit we have exposed is well preserved, with intact flagstone flooring and walls. He explained that the plaster walls were painted with a simple design in dark red and cream colours an indication that the building’s owners were wealthy. The part of the building that has been exposed is built on a terrace cut into a hillside.

Pottery and two coins have been found at the site. The pottery is mainly from the Severn Valley and the Malvern area. The coins are the best indicator that the villa was occupied during the fourth century AD. Mr Foreman added: We haven’t had a huge number of coins from the site, I think because it’s always been a popular spot for metal detectors. But the two coins we have are from the mid fourth century AD. One of them shows the emperor Magnentius and his brother or son, with whom he ruled from 350-353 AD.

Mr Foreman was quoted by thisisgloucestershire as saying: Whenever you find a new villa, it’s of national importance. It’s pretty unusual to find a new villa that hasn’t been recognised before.

Roman Villas in the Cotswolds

There are quite a few Roman villas dotted around the Cotswolds, many of them would have belonged to rich families connected to Cirencester, the capital of Britannia Prima in the fourth century AD.

It’s not impossible that it’s a shrine, but the most likely explanation is that it is a country villa. The bit we have exposed is well preserved, with intact flagstone flooring and walls

Within a 20-mile radius of Cirencester, there are approximately 30 Roman villas, including the well known ones such as Chedworth and Hucclecote and smaller sites such as Barnsley Park Roman villa, Bibury, Clear Cupboard, Spoonley, Wadfield, Rodmarton, Barnes Green and Withington.

The mid-third century was a disturbed period for the Roman empire and, according to Stuart Foreman, the Cotswolds, around Cirencester, was something of a haven from some of the military turbulence that was happening in Britain and the rest of the empire. The ‘third century crisis’ played out during the greater part of the third century AD (from 235-284 AD).

There is no clear evidence of who would have lived in the villa. At this stage, itis impossible to say whether they were part of the Roman elite, settled military personnel or a Romano-British family who had made their fortune.

Two Burials

Two burials have also been found at the site. One is a crouched inhumation but no objects or material have been found in the burial, so the date could range from the Iron Age to Anglo-Saxon times. It’s about 150m away from the villa.

The second burial is an Iron Age cremation. According to Mr Foreman, both burials are pretty much what you would expect from late Iron Age or Roman burials.

Making Way for a Water Supply Security Pipe

Although the site being excavated is a 15m-wide strip, which is being prepared for a pipeline to be laid, the Roman villa is thought to extend much further and part of it is likely to be buried beneath the village of Bredons Norton. Geophysical surveys will have to be carried out to establish the exact layout of the villa.

The pipe is being laid as part of the Gloucester security water supply pipeline, managed by Severn Trent Water.

Review: July’s American Journal of Archaeology Focuses on the Classical World

The July issue, volume 114.3, of the American Journal of Archaeology (AJA) is out now.

This month’s issue brings six main articles on subjects ranging from the statues of Manitushu, the culture of late Bronze Age Mycenaean settlements in Thessaly and the legendary ideals of Greek womanhood.

While the emphasis is heavily on the Classical period, with some articles on the Bronze Age and the Akkadian empire as well, there is little inclusion of archaeology of the post-Classical world, save for reviews of two publications looking at Medieval pottery and an 11th century shipwreck.

The lead article, by Karen Stern, discusses the painted ceramic tiles of the Dura Europos synagogue ceiling. Stern, who is assistant professor of history at Brooklyn College at the City University of New York, points out that the synagogue has been until now mainly noted for its interior biblical murals. However, the 234 decorative and inscribed ceiling tiles are also worthy of attention, as Stern states: While consideration of the decorated surface remains important for its own sake, an evaluation of its context inspires novel hypotheses about space and use.

The Chimaera of Arezzo was on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu until February 2010.There are six articles in this issue, but one of the more interesting discussions I found came nearer the back, in the form of a museum review written by Beth Cohen. She discusses the Chimaera of Arezzo, which was on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu until February 2010 (it’s usually found at Florence’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale). Cohen’s argument gathers together recent studies that suggest this 4-foot bronze statue of a mythological creature (a lioness with a snake for a tail and a goat’s head on her back) could in fact have been made by Greek artisans in Magna Graecia, rather than by Etruscans in Etruria as has been widely believed.

Her discussion of the importance of this large bronze as a symbol of Etruria (often seen in juxtaposition to Rome’s bronze Capitoline She-wolf, the date of which has been questioned) and the significance of the Etruscans producing such statues or possibly commissioning them from Greek artisans provide interesting insights into Etruscan art and culture.

There are several other articles of interest in July’s issue. Anthony Mangieri, an assistant professor of art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, Georgia, writes about women in ancient Greece and the layers of meaning ascribed to the Heroines Pyxis, an Attic red-figure vase in the British Museum. The women depicted on the vase represent mythological heroines and Mangieri discusses how their traits are juxtaposed on the vase, and what this tells us about the female ideals of the fifth century BC.

Lynne Lancaster writes about the Parthian construction technique borrowed by the Romans and then used in Roman-occupied Greece. The associate professor in the Department of Classics and World Religions at Ohio University argues that the ‘pitched-brick’ vaulting technique was first used after Trajan‘s war in Parthia and became more widely used under Hadrian and Antoninus Pius.
Barry Molloy looks at the practical function of ancient swords. Image credit - _arktoi
The dynamic relationship between war and society in the Aegean Bronze Age is the subject of an article by Barry Molloy, director of the excavations at Priniatikos Pyrgos in east Crete. His discussion touches on the practical functions of swords from that era including a look at experimental archaeology and metric and use-wear analysis.

The 2010 newsletter focuses on excavations in Jordan during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, including author contact details. There is also a museum review looking at new installations of Greek antiquities, particularly in the new Acropolis Museum.

And with reviews of 20 new archaeological publications on subjects including the family in Roman art, Etruria and early Rome, the Elgin drawings at the British Museum and Athens during the Pelopennesian war, there seems to be something to appeal to many areas of interest, although the emphasis is firmly on the classical world.

Roman Mystery Woman Discovered Near Hereford: Not a Female Gladiator

Hereford Cathedral

An unusual Roman burial has been uncovered at a site near Hereford. The female, buried in the first or second century AD, was unusually strong and is buried in a well made coffin.

Robin Jackson, senior project manager from Worcestershire council’s Historic Environment and Archaeology Service, was excavating at the site. He said: We’ve been working on the site for three months now and four burials have been found under a building. One of these is slightly unusual, in that it contains the remains of a woman who was very strongly built. She had obviously done hard physical work during her life, suggesting possibly a peasant labourer, but the anomaly is that she is buried in a slightly higher status coffin.

The explanation for this intriguing set of circumstances is not yet clear. At first it was thought the individual was male due to the long thigh bones. However, according to an archaeological osteologist at the site, the pelvis and skull show female characteristics, suggesting that the individual was in fact a tall female.

The experts were able to tell that she had been physically strong due to ridges and puckering on the bones where the muscles and tendons had been attached and had exerted pressure on the bone.

The bones need to be analysed at a laboratory to establish a more exact date of burial, the age of the woman and other information such as height, health and race or provenance. This process will take up to a year.

Roman Kenchester

The site being excavated is on the outskirts of Credenhill about 6km north-west of Hereford. It’s at the site of the Roman town of Kenchester, known as Magnis to the Romans, which was an important market town for the Dobunni tribe. It’s also near a Roman road built in the first century AD, which today runs between Stretton Sugwas and Burcott.

The excavations are being carried out in preparation for the Yazor Brook Flood Alleviation Scheme, which is diverting a local river in order to avert flooding at Hereford. The excavation is being carried out by Amey Consulting and Herefordshire Council’s archaeology team.

Roman Burials

The woman is laid out in a foetal position and the remains of three metal straps and bronze decorative bindings suggest that the coffin may have been large and similar to a sea chest in shape.

A much more likely explanation is that she was born into a peasant family in Roman-occupied Britain, but then made a good marriage and was buried in a well made coffin

Burial traditions during the four centuries of Roman occupation of Britain varied. Cremations, burial in pots, coffins and shrouds were all used. Robin Jackson said: It was common to be buried in a coffin in Roman times, but it would indicate someone who had a bit of money.

Pottery and a cow bone have also been found in the grave, suggesting that the woman was buried with an offering of beef not uncommon, according to the site’s excavators.

The Female Gladiator?

The BBC reported yesterday that the burial could possibly be that of a female gladiator.

This is highly unlikely, according to Robin Jackson. He said: There are no weapons buried in the grave with her, nor are there any icons that gladiators often had buried with them. There isn’t even any evidence of an arena at Kenchester, so there is no evidence suggesting this was a female gladiator.

So there are few similarities between the strong woman buried near Hereford and the grave of the female gladiator excavated in London near the Roman arena.

Is there a more rational explanation for this female burial near Hereford?

At this stage, very little can be said with certainty but Mr Jackson would bet money on her not being a female gladiator: That is very unlikely, he said. A much more likely explanation is that she was born into a peasant family in Roman-occupied Britain, but then made a good marriage and was buried in a well made coffin.

Excavations at the Mamertine Prison Find Evidence of Pre-Christian Cult and the Cult of Saint Peter

On Tuesday this week public offices in Rome shut down as the city celebrated the feast-day of two of its patron saints, Peter and Paul. So it was an appropriate time for Rome’s archaeological superintendency to announce some of the findings of an archaeological investigation at the Mamertine prison, in which Peter and Paul were allegedly imprisoned during the first century AD.

The recent excavation established that the Carcer Tullianum was the site of a religious cult from the fifth century BC, according to Dr Patrizia Fortini, an archaeologist from the Superintendency for Archaeological Heritage in Rome, who worked on the excavation.

She explained: We have confirmed the religious aspect of the site and also that this was linked to a water spring, traces of which have been found along with votive deposits from the sixth to the third centuries BC.

Dr Fortini added that the religious significance of the site during the sixth to the third centuries BC was note-worthy. The site was previously believed to have been a Roman cistern before it was used as a prison.

The site consists of a complex of chambers, some of which are integrated into the Campidoglio’s defensive walls. The earliest wall at the site dates from the eighth century BC. Two of the chambers, known as the Carcer and the Tullianam, are built one on top of the other, with the Carcer on top.

A series of frescoes in vibrant colours have also been restored and uncovered during the recent excavation and it’s a miracale that they have survived.

The Tullianum was already known to include a central circular structure, known as a ‘tholos’. The location of the water spring has been identified in the original flooring and the sacred nature of this is underlined by evidence of votive offerings (ceramic shards, fauna and burnt small animal bones).

Dr Fortini explained: When the republican walls were built next to the Capitoline slopes, the Tullianum would have been partly dismantled and incorporated into the complex of the prison.

She added: The sacred function of the site, connected to the spring water, continues into the Christian era and is associated with the cult of Saint Peter. This is supported by the discovery of a small stone basin in the Tullianum next to an archaic rectangular trough that the faithful would have used to sprinkle themselves with the water.

Sacred Frescoes

Dr Fortini said: “A series of frescoes in vibrant colours have also been restored and uncovered during the recent excavation and it’s a miracale that they have survived.”

The frescoes, dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries, were covered in a layer of calcium deposits and have been restored by the team working with Dr Fortini.

She describes the frescoes as a ‘palimpsest’ of religious images in three layers, which have been re-painted at various times in history.

Some of the images include a scene of Jesus with his hand resting on Saint Peter’s shoulder; a scene of the Madonna della Misericordia, or Virgin of Mercy, sheltering the faithful under her cloak; a scene of Saint Peter and Saint Paul; as well as a landscape view of the Capitoline hill, the Tabularium and a tower.

Other frescoes at the site include a representation of the hand of God or Jesus and an angel with a crown.

Was Saint Peter Jailed Here?

Some Christians believe that Peter was jailed at the Mamertine prison before being taken to the Vatican hill to be martyred in Nero’s Circus in 64 AD, the site of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The story goes that Peter converted and baptised his jailers Processus and Martinian, as well as 47 other prisoners, at the Mamertine prison.

Dr Fortini said: Our findings do not prove that Peter was held in the Mamertine prison. However, they support historical sources that refer to the presence at this site of the early church of San Pietro in Carcere. This church was built in 314 AD by Pope Silvester I.

Saint Peter’s Prison

According to Dr Fortini, enemies of the Roman state were held in the Tullian prison, while perpetrators of common crimes were held in the Lautomiae, an old quarry at the side of the Capitoline hill near the Mamertine prison.

The Mamertine prison is a multi-level site, comprising the upper chamber known as the Carcer, or prison, built in 640-616 BC by the fourth king of Rome, Ancus Marcius, and the lower Tullian chamber built in 578-534 BC by Rome’s sixth king, Servus Tullius.

A travertine faade was built on the structure in the middle of the first century AD, with a senatorial dedication from C. Vibius Rufio and M. Cocceius Nerva.

The circular Tullian chamber is about 7 metres in diameter and the Carcer is about 10 metres wide.

The church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami (Saint Joseph of the Carpenters) was built on top of the site in the 16th century and below it is a chamber housing a holy crucifix.

The excavations were carried out by three organisations: the Sacred Art and Cultural Heritage of the Vicariate of Rome, the Superintendency for Archaeological Heritage in Rome and Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi.

Open to the Public

Whether the Mamertine prison was actually where Saint Peter was jailed or not, the 2,800 years of history and the restored frescoes make it nonetheless an interesting site to visit.

The Mamertine prison will open to the public in July. A series of guided tours and seminars are being organised at the site by Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi. Details of these will be posted here when they become available.

Photos by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma and Romanus too from the Heritage Key Flickr pool.

Roman Ships and Amphorae Found off Sardinia and Panarea

Roman ship-discovery season is in full flow, with several finds and explorations announced in the past week.

Yesterday Ansa ran a story about the discovery of a 25-metre merchant ship from the first century AD with its cargo of 500 amphorae containing fruit and vegetables still on board. The ship is said to be in perfect condition and was found south of Panarea, in the group of Aeolian/Lipari islands north of Sicily. The news agency reported that Italy’s Maritime Superintendency and the Aurora Trust, an American foundation, were responsible for the find.

Aurora Trust found five wrecks off the Italian island of Ventotene last year, and in fact finding Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean is not a rare occurrence. Several discoveries from 2009, at Ventotene and Cyprus, were reported on Heritage Key, while another company searching off the coast of Campania (Capo Palinuro) earlier this year also found a Roman ship carrying amphorae.

Last week two discoveries were announced off the coast of Sardinia. A Roman merchant ship, dating from around 100 BC, was found off the coast of La Maddalena, an island off the north-eastern coast of Sardinia, while another wreck site has been detected off the north-western coast, near Costa Paradiso.

Fragments of amphorae and bronze nails have been found on the surface and it is archaeologically interesting. However, it’s a very well documented type of archaeological discovery

According to a local newspaper, La Nuova Sardegna, the ships are from between the second century BC and the first century AD.

However, the ‘normality’ of coming across a 2,000-year-old ship in the Med is reiterated by Dr Rubens D’Oriano, an expert in under water archaeology at the Superintendency for Archaeological Heritage for the provinces of Sassari and Nuoro, in Sardinia.

Speaking earlier this week about the discovery of the ancient shipwreck near La Maddalena, he said: Traces of a Roman sailing vessel have been found, which is to say that there are traces on the surface of the sea bed, showing that part of a Roman ship is buried under the sand.

Dr D’Oriano added: Fragments of amphorae and bronze nails have been found on the surface and it is archaeologically interesting. However, it’s a very well documented type of archaeological discovery. He emphasises that the discovery off La Maddalena is nothing out of the ordinary and describes it as completely normal.

When asked if the site may be investigated further or excavated, he is highly sceptical, noting that there is absolutely no funding at all from the Italian state for this type of archaeological site in Sardinia.

The sites were first noticed by amateur divers and were then investigated by archaeologists accompanied by a team of underwater experts from the Carabinieri’s cultural heritage guards in the province of Sassari.

The site off Costa Paradiso is near the town of Trinit d’Agultu e Vignola. Large Roman ceramic vases, known as dolia, from the first century AD have been found at a depth of 50 metres.

Roman Infanticide in Buckinghamshire: Unwanted Babies Linked to Brothel?

The site of the Roman villa at Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, was excavated by Alfred Cocks in 1912. Photo courtesy Dr Jill Eyers of Chiltern Archaeology.Why were 97 new-born babies buried in the grounds of a Roman villa at Hambleden near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, during the third and fourth centuries AD? This is a mystery that has endured for almost a century, since the site was first excavated in 1912 by the naturalist and archaeologist Alfred Cocks.

The sheer number of burials led the early 20th century archaeologist to conclude that it was an irregular burial, and that perhaps the babies had been buried there secretly perhaps having been murdered over a period of a century or more towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britain.

Almost 100 years later, boxes of bones and archaeologists’ notes were found in storage in Buckinghamshire County Museum at Aylesbury. It’s believed that the boxes hadn’t been opened since the 1920s, and interest in this case of ‘mass infanticide’ was rekindled. Dr Simon Mays, an expert in bones at English Heritage, was asked to conduct further tests.

Of the original 97 infant skeletons discovered during Alfred Cocks’s excavation, the bodies of just 40 have been found in the museum’s storage.

Dr Simon Mays told me earlier today: I’ve always been interested in infanticide and the site at Hambleden was infamous although it was thought that the burials from Cocks’ excavation had been lost. Jill Eyers of Chiltern Archaeology found the box and when it was opened, it contained bones and handwritten notes by the Scottish anthropologist and anatomist, Sir Arthur Keith. Mays explained that in the early 20th century, there was interest in establishing the racial origins of modern Britons, and that Keith’s notes refer to this.

Dr Mays has been studying the bones for six months. He said: I measure the bones and then use a method, which I devised some 20 years ago, to show whether the infants were killed naturally or not. The measurements indicate the baby’s age at death and, in the case of infanticide, we would expect there to be a spike of deaths at 40-42 weeks of gestation, because the baby would be killed almost as soon as it is born.

The burials of natural deaths could also be present at the site (for example, still-born or premature babies or infants who died naturally within the first few weeks of life) but so far analysis of the bones has shown there is indeed a spike in the number of deaths immediately after birth, which is congruent with infanticide, according to Dr Mays.

Was the Infanticide Linked to a Brothel?

So why were so many infants deliberately killed and buried at this one site?

To my mind, it just doesn’t make economic sense to have a brothel in a quiet countryside location such as Hambleden

A tempting conclusion is that this Roman villa could have been used as a brothel. Dr Jill Eyers of Chiltern Archaeology told BBC News: “The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel.” The article reasons that “with little or no effective contraception, unwanted pregnancies could have been common at Roman brothels.”

The burials at Hambleden Roman villa have been compared to the discovery of the skeletons of 100 Roman-era infants discovered in a sewer beneath a bath house in Ashkelon, southern Israel, in 1988. It has also been suggested that the burials at Ashkelon could have been the result of unwanted pregnancies at a brothel, although this is not conclusive and, according to this article on, there is evidence from classical texts that suggest that prostitutes at that time knew how to avoid or terminate pregnancies, making it unlikely that prostitutes would have many full-term pregnancies.

Another crucial difference is that Ashkelon was a busy seaport in Roman times, while the Roman villa at Hambleden may have been, at most, something similar to a country manor, home to a rich family of landowners, perhaps Romanized Britons, surrounded by their servants and workers. It was not a town. As Dr Mays put it: To my mind, it just doesn’t make economic sense to have a brothel in a quiet countryside location such as Hambleden.

The Mystery Continues

So what other explanations could there be for the large number of child burials?

According to Dr Mays, infanticide was an accepted practice in many historic societies, and it could have been practised in Roman society too.

The infants could have been buried over several centuries, although it’s thought that most of the bones date from the third and fourth centuries AD.

Dr Mays said: We don’t know how they were killed in other societies infanticide was often carried out by smothering, and this could well be the case in Roman times too.

He also reports that cut marks have been found on some of the bones, which raises the possibility of other causes of death. He adds: The next phase of the project will closely examine all the bones for cut marks.

DNA analysis will soon be carried out to try, if possible, to determine the sex of the infants. It is possible, therefore, that the site was a burial place for unwanted babies born into a community of farm workers and servants on a rich country estate during the third and fourth centuries AD.

While there may not yet be a convincing and conclusive explanation for the mass infant burial, perhaps the most compelling scenario was conjured by Cocks, who imagined that the bones came from children secretly disposed of in the grounds of the country villa. However, Cocks may have been influenced by the Victorian images of child murder, as documented in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summersdale.

More information will emerge after further analysis determines the sex of the infants, and how many of the bones have cut-marks on them.

Photos courtesy of Dr Jill Eyers, Chiltern Archaeology.

The Source of Trajan’s Aqueduct at Risk – from Men and Fig Trees

It was reported in the Telegraph earlier this month that the documentary researchers who identified and filmed the source of an aqueduct built by Trajan in 109 AD are battling for access to the site with a local farmer, owner of the land on which the ancient site stands.

The film-makers, father and son Mike and Ted O’Neill, visited the site with archaeologists during 2009 and their research was announced in January 2010 (read the full story here).

However, since the end of January, the O’Neills and the archaeologists they are working with have not been able to gain access to the site.

They claim that the farmer has destroyed vegetation above and around the ancient nymphaeum and 13th century chapel at the site, including a mature fig tree, whose roots are now holding the fragile Roman structure together.

On the 4th June the team sent a letter calling for help to Rome’s Superintendents of Archaeology, asking for their intervention.

An inspection of the sitelast week by representatives of Rome’s archaeological superintendents, along with members of the local council, the archaeologist Professor Lorenzo Quilici from the University of Bologna and Italy Carabinieri, did not bring good news.

The inspection only confirmed that the fig tree has been cut down and that the network of its roots are holding together the Roman cement, bricks and the plaster on the walls of the Roman structure.

Ted O’Neill said: This is a loss to art as well as a loss to science because the mysterious (and antique) Egyptian blue paint which lines the roman spring chamber is painted onto that Roman intonaco (plaster).

The use of the expensive ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment indicates the site would have been an important building.

O’Neill adds that there is now likely to be a long drawn-out expropriation process while the landowner, the local council and the archaeological authorities thrash out the matter of access and ownership.

During this time, the fear is that there could be irreversible damage to the inside of the ancient aqueduct’s headwaters.

The Bad Fig Tree?

While the fig tree may seem like an innocent member of the plant kingdom, in fact its roots are a big problem for archaeological structures in Italy’s countryside. Ted O’Neill explains in his blog, The Aqueduct Hunters, that the tree’s roots suck up calcium from the soil. However, they also find calcium in the brickwork and cement of the ancient Romans and, when this is removed, the structure is left in a fragile state. Ironically, at the moment the fig tree’s roots are also holding the plaster, brick and cement together and there is a danger that if the roots are removed, then parts of the structure may collapse.

Yet, it appears the real problem for the site of the headwaters of Trajan’s Aqueduct, also known as the Acqua Traina, is the threat of humans and, until a decision can be made on how best to preserve and protect the site, it’s likely that its condition will deteriorate further.

Earliest Paintings of Jesus’s Apostles Uncovered in Roman Catacomb

It was announced at a press conference yesterday in Rome that the oldest known images of the apostles Peter, Andrew and John have been uncovered in one of the city’s Christian catacombs.

The images date from the late fourth century AD and were found in the underground chambers of the catacombs of Santa Tecla, in the south of the city near San Paolo Fuori le Mura on via Ostiense.

Professor Fabrizio Bisconti, a university professor at lUniversit Roma Tre and an expert in christian and medieval iconography, told me: Last year the earliest image of Saint Paul was discovered at Santa Tecla. This year the restoration work has continued and more images have been uncovered. It’s an exceptional discovery that was made by using a laser technique to uncover the yellow and red pigments beneath layers of calcium deposits. The tomb is believed to have belonged to a noble woman of Rome.

This announcement comes after the initial discovery last year of the portrait of Saint Paul, reported here on Heritage Key.

The restoration of the frescoes in the tomb was managed by the Vatican’s archaeology office, the Pontificial Commission for Sacred Archaeology, and cost EUR 60,000.

Chief restorer Barbara Mazzei told Associated Press: Using the laser, restorers were able to sear off all the layers of calcium that had been bound onto the painting because the laser beam stopped burning at the white of the calcium deposits, which when chipped off left the brilliant darker colors underneath it unscathed.

According to L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily newspaper, the delicate restoration programme began two years ago.

The face of Saint Paul was uncovered last year, recognisable by its pensive eyes, hollow cheeks and pointed dark beard.

It’s an exceptional discovery that was made by using a laser technique to uncover the yellow and red pigments beneath layers of calcium deposits

Saint Peter’s face was characterised by his white beard and square face, while Andrew and John were identified by comparisons with other monuments.

The tomb itself is square with arches on three sides a typical layout for Roman tombs of that time, which were arranged in clusters around large sanctuaries in the suburbs of imperial Rome.

A noblewoman, dressed in luxurious clothes and standing next to a child and between two saints, is depicted in one of the arches.

The rest of the tomb is painted with Biblical scenes, including Saint Peter drawing water in the Mamertine prison, Jonah, Daniel, Mary and the Magi and an image of Abraham and Isaac.

On the ceiling, a central panel shows Jesus as a shepherd, while four smaller circles depict the faces of Paul, Peter, John and Andrew.

Does Jesus Have Roots in Iran? Meet Mithras, the Pagan Christ

Mithras von HeddernheimIt sounds like a plot that Dan Brown might have dreamed up: Christianity has nebulous but symbiotic roots in an underground pagan religion and the figure of Jesus himself was modelled on a pagan god worshipped by the Romans (Find out about what the Romans did in London by watching the Ancient World in London video).

The scenario sounds far-fetched and could even be shocking to Christians (if they thought it had any truth in it), but nonetheless, it’s a story that has been given some mileage, particularly among some historians and youtube broadcasters who persist in claiming that Mithras and Jesus were one and the same.

So what, if anything, has Jesus got in common with Mithras, the god and figurehead of a secret religion much-loved by the Roman army?

Well, for a start, the two cults were practised at the same time from the first to the fourth centuries AD. Mithraism (see the video below to find out more about London’s Temple of Mithras) became popular during the first century AD at the time when Christians faced persecution. Christians were blamed by the emperor Nero for starting the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD and hundreds of them were consequently put to death. It’s not hard to imagine that this kind of behaviour might have driven them to practice in private, if not in secret. It wasn’t until Constantine the Great became emperor in the fourth century that Christianity went mainstream and was finally accepted as the official religion of the empire. Meanwhile, mithraism seems to have died out after the fourth century possibly because of its secret nature and because much of the Roman army would have been disbanded during the fifth century when the Western Roman empire fell.

The Religious Melting Pot

But mithraism and Christianity were just two of many sects and cults actively practised throughout the empire. As well as the pantheon of Rome’s pagan gods (many derived from Etruscan and Greek mythology), other religions from far-off provinces also took hold back in Rome, such as the cult of Isis and Serapis during the Flavian era. The Roman empire may have been a bit of a religious melting pot at that time, where some cults assumed some of the characteristics, rituals and imagery of others.

The Roman empire may have been a bit of a religious melting pot at that time, where some cults assumed some of the characteristics, rituals and imagery of others

Mithraism never became the official imperial religion though. Rather, it was practised in secret in underground caves and cellars and no evidence has been found of any official doctrine or of its secret rituals. In fact, very little is known about mithraism at all. Most of the archaeological evidence we have comes from the mithraic temples dotted widely around the empire for example, there are two well-preserved mithraea in Rome, one in Ostia Antica and the Roman mithraeum in London. Statues and reliefs show the figure of Mithras usually dressed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap (a conical felt hat, often the symbol of freedom) standing behind a large, tired bull as he kills it with his sword or dagger. The scene is often set in a cave.

Just a Coincidence?

It seems at first glance that, apart from the fact that they were both practised from the first to the fourth centuries AD, there isn’t much that the Mysteries of Mithras, as the cult was called, and the sect of Jesus of Nazareth had in common. There are several connections though, including:

temple of mithras

  • Some scholars have suggested that Mithras was born on the 25 of December, although this is more speculation than fact. Of course that’s famously Jesus’s birth date too, but there is no evidence to prove that Jesus was born on that day either. It’s more likely that the celebration of these religious birthdays was assigned to a date that was already a winter festival celebrated by the pagan population at that time.
  • It’s also been asserted that both Mithras and Jesus were born of virgins. This is slightly problematic because a more widely-accepted legend has it that Mithras was born as a fully grown adult and emerged from a rock (complete with Phrygian cap). If it’s possible for a rock to be virginal, then we could say that this is a similarity, but it seems to be scratching the bottom of the barrel a bit.
  • Banqueting was also a central part of mithraism, and its temples had two rows of stone platforms on either side of an aisle, which could accommodate reclining diners. Eating implements, animal bones and cherry pips are often found in mithraea. This has attracted comparisons with the Last Supper, however, feasting is a part of most religions so it’s difficult to pinpoint this as something that connects Jesus and Mithras.
  • There are examples of mithraea underneath Christian churches in Rome (beneath Santa Prisca and San Clemente) although elsewhere in the empire this is not so common. Is it possible that these underground mithraea were actually meeting places for persecuted Christians? And once it became safe to practise Christianity, they were free to build openly above ground? It’s hard to jump to this conclusion because mithraea aren’t often found beneath churches outside Rome.
  • The idea of salvation also existed in mithraism. On the mithraeum underneath the church of Santa Prisca on the Aventine hill in Rome, there is some lettering that reads: et nos servasti . . . sanguine fuso (and you have saved us … in the blood that has been shed). This probably refers to the blood of Mithras’s bull. However, it’s not thought that Mithras’s ideal of salvation was the same as the salvation of Jesus in the afterlife.

In all, the arguments for saying that Jesus and Mithras might have been the same person are pretty weak. Jesus of Nazareth is portrayed as having been a living person while Mithras (born of the rock) is clearly a mythical god. There may be similarities in rituals, artworks and mythologies due to the fact that the two sects co-existed in the same culture for several centuries. This doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus and Mithras were somehow the same, but it’s easy to see how this idea is very intriguing for some. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Brown had started work on it already…

HD Video: Londinium Tour (Part 2)

(Click here to read a transcript of this video)