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‘Exceptionally high’ number of decapitated bodies found at Roman burial site

‘Exceptionally high’ number of decapitated bodies found at Roman burial site

'Exceptionally high' number of decapitated bodies found at Roman burial site
One of the decapitated skeletons found at Knobb’s Farm.

Ancient Romans left an enduring mark on present-day Britain. Crumbling stone walls across the island speak to their once-vast empire. But a cemetery uncovered in Cambridgeshire highlights another legacy of Roman rule — its brutality. Here, archaeologists discovered a high number of decapitated skeletons, likely belonging to people who somehow offended their conquerers.

Archaeologists from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit made the discovery at Knobb’s Farm in Cambridgeshire, some 70 miles north of London. There, between 2001 and 2010, they unearthed three Roman-era cemeteries from the third century.

But these cemeteries stood out. Of the 52 burials, 17 were decapitated, and 13 were buried face down. And now, researchers are pointing out the significance of the macabre site.

“Knobb’s Farm has an exceptionally high proportion of decapitated bodies and prone burials (33 per cent and 25 per cent) when compared with burial grounds locally and across Roman Britain,” noted a study published in the journal Britannica in May 2021.

The people buried at Knobb’s Farm also seemed to have died violent deaths. Isabel Lisboa, the archaeologist who led the excavations, noted that they were likely alive when beheaded.

A graphic showing that this skeleton was hit with a “blow was directed obliquely downwards from behind and to the left,” indicating that he was kneeling when he died.

Some of the skeletons even bore marks of more extreme violence. One man had several deep cuts in the back of his skull, suggesting that someone had subdued him with a sword before chopping off his head. And one woman’s skeleton bore cut marks on her face, arms, and legs.

“It is not possible to distinguish whether [her injuries] were made immediately before death (resulting from, for example, torture or flaying) or after death (for example, from corpse mutilation, post-mortem ‘punishment’ or ritual de-fleshing of the body),” noted the study.

So why does Knobb’s Farm contain so many beheaded skeletons? It likely has to do with both the age of the skeletons and their location.

Some decapitated skeletons had their skulls placed at their feet, perhaps to keep their spirits from rising.

For 400 years — until about 410 A.D. — the Roman Empire ruled over present-day England. But their grip on power started to slip in the third century. As a result, anyone who dared defy the Romans could face extreme punishment.

“Any hint of insurrection against the Roman state would’ve been dealt with extremely violently,” explained Chris Gosden, a professor of European archaeology at the University of Oxford.

Indeed, the number of crimes in Britain that Romans felt worthy of the death penalty more than doubled in the third century — and quadrupled in the fourth century.

As such, researchers also noted that Roman cemeteries of the first and second centuries contained roughly 5 per cent decapitated bodies. But cemeteries that date between the third and fifth centuries contain almost 10 per cent.

Archeologists at the burial site.

Plus, the people who worked at Knobb’s Farm served a particularly important purpose to the Roman Empire — they helped supply the Roman Imperial Army. They bore unusual scrutiny from authorities.

“Roman laws seem to have been applied particularly harshly at Knobb’s Farm because it was associated with supplying the Roman army, so there were many decapitations,” explained Lisboa.

“Crimes normally would have been let go, but there were probably tensions with the Roman army.”

Because people living in the area supplied meat and grain to Roman troops, Roman authorities harshly punished any wrongdoing. Crimes that merited the death penalty, according to Gosden, could range from murder and theft to merely desecrating a shrine.

Over the centuries, the charges brought against those killed at Knobb’s Farm have been lost. But archaeologists do have a couple of clues about the people themselves. By studying their DNA and tooth enamel, researchers believe that Romans recruited people from far-flung regions like present-day Scotland, and the Alps.

And because they were buried among non-decapitated skeletons, researchers suspect that they had people who loved and cared for them.

“They were not buried as outcasts — they were buried in the normal rite with miniature pots around their heads,” Lisboa noted.

Indeed, despite the brutality of Roman rule in England, it seems that the Romans did allow their subjects one small mercy. Roman law permitted friends and families of executed criminals to request their bodies’ return for a proper burial.

The shackled skeleton may be the first direct evidence of slavery in Roman Britain

The shackled skeleton may be the first direct evidence of slavery in Roman Britain

The shackled skeleton may be the first direct evidence of slavery in Roman Britain
The Great Casterton Roman burial shackles were found locked around the skeleton’s ankles.

His ankles secured with heavy, locked iron fetters, the enslaved man appears to have been thrown in a ditch – a final act of indignity in death.

Now the discovery of the shackled male skeleton by workers in Rutland – thought to have been aged in his late 20s or early 30s – has been identified as rare and important evidence of slavery in Roman Britain and “an internationally significant find”.

It was also desperately grim, said Chris Chinnock, one of the archaeologists working on the project, but was important because it “forces us to ask questions that we wouldn’t ordinarily ask”.

Builders came across the bones when they were constructing a conservatory at a house in Great Casterton. Police were called and subsequent radiocarbon dating showed the remains were from between AD226 to AD427.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) were called in and have been researching the skeleton, with their findings published on Monday in the journal Britannia.

No one doubts that slavery existed during the Roman occupation of Britain but discovering direct archaeological evidence is another matter. Most of what is known come from inscriptions. “To have the opportunity to study the body of a person who quite probably was a slave is really important,” said Michael Marshall, a finds specialist at Mola.

Roman soldiers direct people to build a road in Roman Britain. From a painting by Paul Hardy.

The Great Casterton discovery is the first of its type in Britain, described by researchers as the clearest case of a burial of an enslaved individual found in the UK. “This burial is exceptionally unusual,” said Marshall.

Precisely who the man was will never be known but a number of informed guesses can be made. “It could be the dead person was somebody who had earned the ire of other people,” said Marshall. “Equally it could be that the people who buried him were tyrannical and awful. We can’t really understand the moral dimensions.”

The team have been examining a number of theories including that the shackles might have been added after the man died to demean him or brand him as a criminal in the afterlife.

The few skeletons found with shackles in other countries are normally the victims of natural disasters and have not been buried. That is not the case in Great Casterton, say archaeologists.

The burial position is an awkward one, said Chinnock, with the skeleton slightly on his right side and his left side and arm elevated on a slope. There is a Roman cemetery just 60 metres away, suggesting a conscious decision not to bury him properly. The likely explanation is that he has been thrown in a ditch and covered over.

A diagram of the Great Casterton shackled burial.

Chinnock, an expert in ancient bones, said the man appeared to be between 26 and 35 and had led a physically demanding life. A bony spur on an upper leg bone may have been caused by a fall or blow or be the result of a life filled with excessive physical activity. The injury had healed by the time he died and the cause of his death remains unknown.

The Mola team say the identity of the man will never be known but “the various pieces of evidence present the most convincing case for the remains of a Roman slave yet to be found in Britain”.

A number of questions remain around the Great Casterton man but it was clear, Marshall said, that it was “extraordinary” evidence of mistreatment. “For living wearers, shackles were both a form of imprisonment and a method of punishment, a source of discomfort, pain and stigma which may have left scars even after they had been removed.”

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It was difficult to get away from the conclusion that the people who disposed of the shackled man “really hated him and were really keen to make that obvious, whether to other people or in the longer, more spiritual sense”.

2,000-Year-Old Roman Face Cream With Visible, Ancient Fingermarks

2,000-Year-Old Roman Face Cream With Visible, Ancient Fingermarks

A 2,000-year-old cream was discovered inside a sealed Roman jar, replete with fingerprints. The metal item, which measures 6cm in diameter and is in good condition, was discovered during excavations at a Roman temple complex in Southwark, London.

Experts from the Museum of London raised the cover of the spherical metal pot. The finding of the white substance with a sulphurous odour surprised and delighted archaeologists.

“I am astounded,” said Garry Brown, managing director of Pre-Construct Archaeology whose team of archaeologists have been painstakingly excavating the Tabard Square site over the past year. “It appears to be a kind of cosmetic cream or ointment. Creams of this kind do not ordinarily survive into the archaeological record, so this is a unique find.”

Further scientific analysis will determine whether the paste was used for medicinal or cosmetic purposes.

“This discovery is absolutely remarkable. The cream could be face paint applied as part of ritual ceremonies. We know that the Romans used donkey’s milk for the skin, so the scientific analysis will be very revealing”, said Francis Grew, curator at the Museum of London. “In my 20 years working in London archaeology, I have never come across a box with a sealed lid.”

“Only two similar containers, both without lids, have been found in London and both were in-market sites,” added Elizabeth Barhan, conservator at the Museum of London.

“It is a fantastic human element to find the finger marks on the inside of the lid,” said Nansi Rosenberg, senior archaeological consultant at EC Harris, the consultancy which is managing the excavation. The imprints could shed further light on whether the pot was used by an adult or child, male or female.

2,000-Year-Old Roman Face Cream With Visible, Ancient Fingermarks
Roman pot containing 2,000-year old cream or ointment, complete with finger prints.

Although at the moment there is no indication as to who might have placed the container in the sealed ditch, it is believed the drain in which it was found may have had a ritual significance.

The box is one of many items found at the site of the temple complex, one of the most important Roman sites discovered in Britain in the last 10 years.

The temple complex has been dated to the mid-2nd century AD, but the site was occupied from the earliest days of the Roman occupation, with clay and timber shops springing up around AD 50 on the Watling Street side of the site. Key finds include the Tabard inscription, which shows the earliest known naming of London, “Londinesi”, as well as a second tin object – a wide-mouthed bowl – and a life-size bronze foot.

Chemical tests on the pristine pot, which also has small circular grooves on the outside, have shown it to be made almost entirely of tin.

“The quality of the box is exquisite,” said Mr Grew. “The cap fits perfectly, it is water-tight and secure. Whoever used this pot would have been from the bourgeoisie of the Roman world. Tin was a precious metal at this time.”

“We’re lucky in London to have a marshy site where the contents of this sealed box must have been preserved very quickly – the metal is hardly corroded at all” added Ms Rosenberg.

The discovery of two Romano-Celtic temples along with a possible guesthouse has been an exciting and significant find: “It alters our whole perception – Southwark was a major religious focus of the Roman capital,” said Ms Rosenberg.

The box and its contents will be immediately placed on display at the Museum of London, along with other key finds.

Now that the excavation work has been completed, the site will not be preserved. The prime London site, owned by Berkeley Homes, will become a residential development.

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The unveiling coincides with a call by the Mayor of London, English Heritage and the Museum of London for more Londoners to get involved in archaeology through the launch of the Research Framework for London Archaeology.

Iron Age and Roman Skeletons Discovered on Alderney

Iron Age and Roman Skeletons Discovered on Alderney

A Cemetery used for centuries has started giving up its secrets, after radiocarbon dating on some of the skeletons came back showing the graves were from the Iron Age and Roman eras.

States archaeologist Phil de Jersey, in the straw hat, examines one of the Alderney skeletons.

States archaeologist Phil de Jersey said the site on Longis Common in Alderney was one of the most exciting archaeological sites in the Channel Islands because the two metres of sand over the graves has helped preserve the bones and protect the site from being disturbed.

In 2017 the laying of an electricity cable on Rue des Mielles, near Longis Bay, uncovered human bones. It led to exploration by the Guernsey Museum and the Alderney Society.

Archaeologists already knew that Longis was a Roman burial ground, in 2017 they found human remains, headstones, and tombs from the Roman period.

Radiocarbon dating for eight of the bones has now been carried out – five from the service trench along the Rue des Mielles and three from the excavation of a paddock field.

They date from about 750BC up to 238AD.

Dr de Jersey said they had expected the bones to be from the late Iron Age, based on the pottery finds, but the surprise was the wide timespan covered.

‘It does imply that the site was used for a long time – hundreds of years,’ he said.

A settlement from around the same era was excavated up the hill from the site in the 1970s and Dr de Jersey said the inhabitants possibly lived on the hill and buried their dead at its foot.

Among the bone finds was a human female, who was likely to be from between 590 and 380BC. The iron and bronze torc around her neck corresponds well with these dates.

Another adult female was also found, but she was likely to be from between 170BC and AD90. The pot buried at her head is characteristically late Iron Age, which fits in with the range of second century BC and the turn of the millennium.

Dr de Jersey said the date range was very wide and indicated that the burials were over a much larger area than they had expected. He also noted that there was likely to be a lot more to find.

‘It’s all been protected by two metres of sand and it’s never been developed. The sand is great for preserving and the bones were in very good condition for their age.’

He would be interested to carry out a large scale excavation, but the Guernsey archaeology department has a very limited budget and the area presents challenges. The sand that so well preserves the bones makes digging down two metres very difficult because the sides of the trenches are hard to stabilise, meaning large pits have to be dug.

‘You can’t dig small trenches,’ said Dr de Jersey.

‘So logistically it’s a very challenging site to dig. And we just don’t have the resources.’

However, there is some hope. If a university took on the project it would have students to help with excavating the dig, although travel restrictions due to Covid and the ordinary challenges with getting to Alderney would make it difficult.

An individual in the UK has secured a grant to carry out a ground-penetrating radar scan of the common, which would help determine the scale of the cemetery. Dr de Jersey said they were conscious there are also Second World War graves on the common, but the scan would not disturb them.

With the current travel restrictions, it is not clear when this can take place. Dr de Jersey said when they finally dig the site, it was important to do it right.

‘I would rather not dig it than dig it badly,’ he said.

‘It can only ever be dug once, as digging is very destructive, so we need to make sure we do a good job of it.’

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Fortunately, there is time to ensure it is done right.

‘It’s not threatened,’ he said.

‘It’s about as safe as it can be. So if we have to wait another 10 years, it will not make a difference.’

Somersham headless bodies were victims of Roman executions

Somersham headless bodies were victims of Roman executions

“ an “exceptionally high’ number which experts think were the result of judicial executions.

Archaeologists believe a group of beheaded bodies discovered at a burial site were likely victims of Roman military executions. A military supply farm in Somersham, Cambridgeshire, was discovered with an “unusually significant” number of beheaded remains from the third century.

Several were on their knees when they arrived. been struck from behind with a sword.

Archaeologist Isabel Lisboa said 33% of those found were executed, compared to 6% in most British Roman cemeteries.

Somersham headless bodies were victims of Roman executions

Three cemeteries were excavated revealing 52 graves, of which 17 were beheaded.

At least one of those executed – one more woman found face down – application the ears were tortured just before death or mutilated afterwards.

Their heads were found placed at their feet or at the bottom of their legs.

Dr Lisboa, of Archaeologica, said they dated back to a time of increasing instability forrl ‘Roman Empire, when the legal penalties became more severe.

“The number of capital crimes doubled in the 3rd Century and quadrupled in the 4th century, ” she says.

“As it was part of the Roman army, directly or indirectly, the severity of punishments and the application of Roman law would have been more severe in the settlements of Somersham,” he said.

The colony is believed to have supplied the Roman army, being part of a larger network of military farms at Camp Ground and Langdale Hale.

A “lack of genetic relationships ” between the bodies suggests that they were either in military service or in slavery.

At least two of those found were born in Scotland or Ireland, and one in the Alps.

Dr Lisboa said that “Knobb ‘s Farm has an unusually high proportion of beheaded bodies – 33% of those found – compared to at cemeteries locally and throughout Roman Britain. “

Elsewhere, decapitated bodies account for between 2.5% and 6% of burials.

The unit University of Cambridge Archeology Institute excavated the Knobb farm between 2001 and 2010, before gravel mining by Tarmac Trading.

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Analysis of the finds has just been published.

legend of the ‘image Most of those found were buried in separate graves with many in poor condition and some reduced to sand shadows

Damaged Medieval Seal Discovered in Eastern England

Damaged Medieval Seal Discovered in Eastern England

According to a BBC News report, a metal detectorist in eastern England discovered a 13th or 14th Century seal badly burned in Gayton, Norfolk, in August. Norfolk finds liaison officer Helen Geake said it told “quite a story”.

“Would people have known that it was Roman – was it kept all those centuries and re-set in silver, or was it a chance find?” she said.

The intaglio is now an opaque grey but was “almost certainly carnelian”, a brown-red gemstone. It depicts a winged figure, believed to be the god Mars holding a spear, with Victory to his right, a report on the find states.

Ms Geake said: “I think they [Medieval people] probably would have thought it was from the Mediterranean and the Crusades and not Roman, as in Roman Britain,” added Ms Geake.

The silver seal matrix which encases it would have been flat but due to heat damage has a lumpy, rounded reverse with a hole, revealing the back of the intaglio.

Parts of the edges are missing, making the inscription tricky to decipher – although it does not appear to show a generic motto, Ms Geake said.

“They were primarily used as a way to sign a document, to authenticate it, probably at a time when you had someone to do the writing for you,” she added.

“Somebody with this calibre of the seal was aristocratic and very high up.

“It’s still a mystery who that might have been, but these belonged to really top people – barons, bishops, the top 1%.

“If only we could read it; perhaps there is a Latin scholar out there who can.” More than 50 seal matrixes have been found nationwide, 30 of the silver, with this the fourth to be found in Norfolk.

A gold seal, found near King’s Lynn in June, contained a gemstone, probably carnelian, carved with an elephant

The Gayton find, measuring 29mm (1in) by 18.5mm (0.72in), is the only seal matrix that has been burned. It was discovered by a metal detectorist.

“It’s very peculiar – was it just an accident, was it lost in the countryside and then got in a heath or forest fire?” said Ms Geake.

“It’s seen a lot of action.”

Its status as treasure is subject to a coroner’s inquest on Monday and Norwich Castle Museum hopes to buy it.

They reveal the age of the figure of the naked giant of Cerne Abbas (it is older than previously believed)

They reveal the age of the figure of the naked giant of Cerne Abbas (it is older than previously believed)

Aerial shot of the Cerne Abbas Giant.

The age of an ancient naked figure carved into a chalk hillside is being investigated by archaeologists. The Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset was sampled for soil samples. The results of the tests are likely to show a “date range”  for when the landmark was created.

It is hoped results, on soil samples from the giant’s elbows and feet will be available in July. The technique used will be the same as that used to date the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire in the 1990s.

Prof Phillip Toms, of the University of Gloucestershire, will attempt to date the samples using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL).

Martin Papworth, the senior archaeologist at the National Trust, said the OSL technique was used to “determine when mineral grains in soil were last exposed to sunlight”.

He said the Uffington White Horse was found to be nearly 3,000 years old which was “even more ancient than we had expected”.

“It is likely that the tests will give us a date range, rather than a specific age, but we hope they will help us better understand, and care for, this famous landmark,” he continued. The earliest recorded mention of the Cerne Abbas Giant was in 1694.

The Uffington Horse is considered the oldest hill figure of them all.

To preserve the landmark, last year a team of volunteers hammered 17 tonnes of new chalk by hand.

Local folklore has long held the 180ft (55m) chalk man to be a fertility aid. It was gifted to the National Trust in 1920 by the Pitt-Rivers family.

Early antiquarians linked the giant with the Anglo-Saxon deity Helis, while others believe he is the classical hero Hercules.

Others have said he was carved during the English Civil War as a parody of Oliver Cromwell, although he is commonly believed to have some association with a pagan fertility cult.

A further layer of mystery was revealed in the 1980s when a survey revealed anomalies that suggested he originally wore a cloak and stood over a disembodied head.

There has also been a suggestion his significant anatomy is in fact the result of merging a smaller penis with a representation of his navel during a re-cut by the Victorians.

Gordon Bishop, chairman of the Cerne Historical Society, said although some villagers would “prefer the giant’s age and origins to remain a mystery” the “majority would like to know at least whether he is ancient or no more than a few hundred years old”.

In a separate analysis, environmental archaeologist Mike Allen will analyse soil samples containing the microscopic shells of land snails to learn more about the site’s past.

The Mysterious Bronze Objects That Have Baffled Archaeologists for Centuries

The Mysterious Bronze Objects That Have Baffled Archaeologists for Centuries

One August day in 1987, Brian Campbell was refilling the hole left by a tree stump in his yard in Romford, East London, when his shovel struck something metal.

He leaned down and pulled the object from the soil, wondering at its strange shape. The object was small—smaller than a tennis ball—and caked with heavy clay. “My first impressions,” Campbell tells Mental Floss, “were it was beautifully and skillfully made … probably by a blacksmith as a measuring tool of sorts.”

Roman dodecahedra date from the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD and typically range from 4cm to 11cm (1.57-4.33 inches) in size. To date, more than one hundred of these artefacts have been found across Great Britain, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Hungary.

An incomplete cast copper-alloy dodecahedron (1 – 400 AD), discovered by a metal detectorist in Yorkshire, England.

What were Roman Dodecahedra Used for?

The great mystery is: how do they work and what do they do? Unfortunately, there is no documentation or notes about them from the time of their creation, so the function of the dodecahedra has not been determined.

Nevertheless, many theories and speculations have been put forward over the centuries: candlestick holders (wax was found inside one example), dice, survey instruments, devices for determining the optimal sowing date for the winter grain, gauges to calibrate water pipes or standard army bases, staff or scepter decorations, a toy to throw and catch on a stick, or simply a geometric sculpture. Among these speculations, some deserve attention.

A popular hypothesis these days for the purpose of the dodecahedra is that they were used as knitting tools to make gloves. Whether it solves the mystery or not, the YouTube video by Martin Hallett, who tested his idea with a 3D printed replica of a Roman dodecahedron and some experimental archaeology, has inspired others to try out this knitting method to make their own hand warmers.

This idea could explain the different sizes of the dodecahedra – making gloves of different sizes – and the purpose of the holes – to form the glove’s fingers.

However, one of the most accepted theories is that the Roman dodecahedron was used as a measuring device, more precisely as a range measuring an object on the battlefield. The hypothesis is that the dodecahedron was used for calculating the trajectories of projectiles. This could explain the different sized holes in the pentagrams.

A similar theory involves dodecahedra as a surveying and levelling device. However, neither of these theories has been supported by any proof and exactly how the dodecahedron could be used for these purposes has not been fully explained.

Dodecahedron from the region of Stuttgart; 2nd to 3rd Century, shown at the Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart, Germany; Approximately 60 such dodecahedra from this region and time are known, however their function is not clear.

Or Maybe they were Astronomical Tools, Religious Relics or Toys?

One of the more interesting theories is the proposal that dodecahedra were astronomic measuring instruments for determining the optimal sowing date for winter grain.

According to G.M.C. Wagemans, “the dodecahedron was an astronomic measuring instrument with which the angle of the sunlight can be measured and thereby one specific date in springtime, and one date in the autumn can be determined with accuracy. The dates that can be measured were probably of importance for the agriculture”.

Nevertheless, opponents of this theory have pointed out that use as a measuring instrument of any kind seems to be prohibited by the fact that the dodecahedra were not standardized and come in many sizes and arrangements.

Another unproven theory claims that the dodecahedra are religious relics, once used as sacred tools for the druids of Britannia and Caledonia. However, there is no written account or archaeological evidence to support this view. Could it be that this strange item was simply a toy or a recreational game for legionnaires, during the war campaigns?

Some sources suggest they were the central objects in a bowl game similar to that of our days, with these artefacts used as markers and the players throwing stones to land them in the holes within the dodecahedra.

Two ancient Roman bronze dodecahedrons and an icosahedron (3rd c. AD) in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, Germany. The dodecahedrons were excavated in Bonn and Frechen-Bachem; the icosahedron in Arloff.

A Roman Icosahedron Adds to the Mystery

Another discovery deepens the mystery about the function of these objects. Some time ago, Benno Artmann discovered a Roman icosahedron (a polyhedron with 20 faces), misclassified as a dodecahedron on just a superficial glance, and put away in a museum’s basement storage. The discovery raises the question about whether there are many other geometric artefacts of different types – such as, icosahedra, hexagons, octagons – yet to be found in what was once the significant Roman Empire.

The Roman icosahedron found by Benno Artmann.

Despite the many unanswered questions, one thing is certain, the Roman dodecahedra were highly valued by their owners. This is evidenced by the fact that a number of them were found among treasure hoards, with coins and other valuable items.  We may never know the true purpose of the Roman dodecahedra, but we can only hope that advances in archaeology will unearth more clues that will help solve this ancient enigma.