Category Archives: ITALY

Ancient Latin texts written on papyrus reveal new information about the Roman world

Ancient Latin texts written on papyrus reveal new information about the Roman world

Ancient Latin texts written on papyrus reveal new information about the Roman world

Researchers funded by the European Union have deciphered ancient Latin texts written on papyrus. This work could reveal a lot about Roman society and education, as well as how Latin’s influence spread.

Although the number of Latin texts found on papyrus dating from the first century BCE to the eighth century CE has grown as a result of new archaeological discoveries, these texts are frequently not given the attention they require.

Therefore, they represent a vast untapped source of information and insight into the development of ancient Roman literature, language, history, and society.

Latin texts on papyrus in particular could provide information about the period’s literary and linguistic emigration. This might also reveal more about the educational environment, and paint a clearer picture of the Roman economy and society.

New approach to Latin texts

The EU-funded PLATINUM project, which was funded by the European Research Council, was launched to achieve just this. It began with a preliminary census of existing Latin texts on papyrus, in order to assemble and update collections.

Herculaneum papyrus part.

“A key innovation was the multidisciplinary way we worked on these texts, bringing them under the spotlights of Latinists, linguists, historians – of Classicists, in general,” explains PLATINUM project coordinator Maria Chiara Scappaticcio from the University of Naples Federico II in Italy.

This work was pulled together to produce the Corpus of Latin Texts on Papyrus, six volumes of which will shortly be published by Cambridge University Press. “This is the major output of the project,” adds Scappaticcio.

“This work collects all the texts of interest, and offers scholars a reference source and tool. Its importance is clear when one compares what we knew about Latin papyri before PLATINUM, and what we know today.”

Groundbreaking linguistic findings

Several interesting findings were made in the course of the project. These include the startling discovery of Seneca the Elder’s Histories. “None of us could have imagined that such an important work would be found in one of the charred papyri from Herculaneum,” says Scappaticcio. “A new chapter in Latin literature has been rewritten thanks to PLATINUM.”

Part of Herculaneum Papyrus 1005.

In addition, many previously unknown texts are now circulating among scholars as a result of the project’s work.

The team has helped to forge new partnerships and exchanges between academic and cultural institutions.

“We also discovered the only known Latino-Arabic papyrus,” remarks Scappaticcio. “In this text, the Arabic language has been transliterated in Latin script. This text is unique and provides evidence of interactions between Latin language and culture, and Arabic language and culture in the early medieval Mediterranean.”

Cultural interactions uncovered

The PLATINUM project has helped to shine new light on the spread of Latin, especially in the provinces of the Late Antique Roman Empire.

Careful examination of the actual books, tools and materials that were circulating at the time has provided insights into, for example, how Latin was taught as a foreign language.

“We know now that Latin literature was circulating in the Eastern Roman Empire, and how this literature might have shaped knowledge,” notes Scappaticcio. “One of the main reasons for learning Latin, for example, was the necessity of familiarising oneself with Roman law.”

Scappaticcio believes that this research will benefit not only ancient historians and classical philologists, literates and linguists, but also cultural historians. “The work has opened the door to better understanding cultural interactions at the time,” she says.

“The work of PLATINUM touches on Roman Orientalism, as an aspect of multiculturalism in Antiquity and Late Antiquity.”

Head Wounds of Medieval Victim Analyzed

Head Wounds of Medieval Victim Analyzed

Head Wounds of Medieval Victim Analyzed
The facial reconstruction of the Cittiglio murder victim, who was killed sometime between the 11th and the 13th centuries in what seems to have been a surprise attack.

More than 700 years ago, a medieval “case of raw violence” ended a young man’s life with four sword blows to the head, according to a new study of the medieval “cold case.”

The brutality of the wounds suggests the murder may have been “a case of overkill,” study lead author Chiara Tesi, an anthropologist at the University of Insubria’s Center for Osteoarchaeology and Paleopathology in Italy, told Live Science. Tesi and her colleagues analyzed the victim’s skeletal remains with modern forensic techniques, including computed tomography (CT) — three-dimensional X-ray scans — and precision digital microscopy of the skull injuries.

“The individual was probably taken by surprise by the attacker” and was unable to properly protect his head, she said in an email. After initially attacking the victim from the front, the murderer seems to have chased the man as he turned, likely trying to escape, as the deepest wounds were inflicted from behind, according to a study published in the December issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Brutal murder

Archaeologists discovered the victim’s skeleton in 2006 at the church of San Biagio in Cittiglio, a small town in Italy’s northern Varese province.

The oldest parts of the church are thought to date from the eighth century A.D., but the battered skeleton was found in a tomb in an atrium built near the entrance in the 11th century; radiocarbon dating indicates the victim was buried there before A.D. 1260.

The new study suggests the victim was a man who was between 19 and 24 years old when he was murdered. A study of the excavation published in 2008(opens in new tab) in the Fasti Online journal noted some of his injuries, but Tesi said the new study has revealed further injuries and the sequence of the murder.

She said the young man likely blocked or dodged the assailant’s initial attack, though the first blow still caused a shallow lesion on the top of the skull. 

As he turned away to escape, however, “the victim was then hit in rapid succession by two other strikes, one affecting the auricle [ear] region and the other the nuchal [back of the neck] region,” she said. “At the end, probably exhausted and face down, he was finally hit by a last blow to the back of the head that caused immediate death.” This “evident overkill” suggested there may have been a complex motive for the murder,  Tesi said; such a frenzied attack appeared to show the attacker was determined to finish his deadly job.

The latest study found the murder victim was probably killed by four sword blows to the head; the first caused a slight wound, but the others seem to have killed him as he was trying to escape the attack.

Medieval remains

The new study shows that the injuries were all caused by the same bladed weapon — probably a steel sword — while the position of the wounds suggest the injuries were inflicted by a single assailant, she said.

The researchers scoured historical records in an attempt to determine the victim’s identity, but “we didn’t find anything,” Tesi said. 

His prominent burial, however, suggests he may have been a member of the powerful De Citillio family that had originally established the church. 

A healed wound on the victim’s forehead suggests that he had experience in warfare; while features of his right shoulder blade were probably caused by “the habitual practice of archery and the use of a bow from an early age,” Tesi said — possibly a sign that he had often gone hunting for sport.

To examine how the sword blows impacted by the victim’s now-decomposed soft tissues, the researchers created a reconstruction of the victim’s face. “We tested wound formation by placing a blade on the reconstructed head and replicating the blows received by the subject,” she said.

The reconstruction helped assess the severity of the injuries.

“They’re using the head as a way of showing these multiple wounds to the skull,” Caroline Wilkinson(opens in new tab), the director of the Face Lab(opens in new tab) at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom, told Live Science. “It’s really interesting — a good use of forensic techniques to look at trauma to the head, and how those wounds have been caused.”

Wilkinson was not involved in the new study but has worked on reconstructing the faces of some of the victims of a medieval massacre of Jews in the English city of Norwich. Facial depictions “can create a personal narrative around human remains, rather than just looking at specimens in a glass box,” she said.

Tesi also believes that the reconstruction can help people relate to the victim. 

“Seeing the face and eyes of a young man is definitely more emotional than simply looking at a skull,” she said.

Archaeologists uncover an ancient mosaic of the living room of brutal Publius Vedius Pollio

Archaeologists uncover an ancient mosaic of the living room of brutal Publius Vedius Pollio

Archaeologists uncover an ancient mosaic of the living room of brutal Publius Vedius Pollio

In the Pausilypon Archaeological Park, archaeologists from the University of Naples’ “L’Orientale” uncovered an ancient mosaic. The park is located in Posillipo, which was an elite quarter of Naples in modern-day Italy during the Roman period.

The park is accessible via the 770-meter-long “Grotta Seiano” tunnel, which was excavated during the Roman period.

This park consists of ancient structures that face the sea but actually extend far below the sea’s surface. In fact, the Pausilypon Archaeological-Environmental Park shares boundaries with the Gaiola Sunken Park.

Pausilypo (“Pausilypon” in ancient Greek means “relieving from pain”) was a luxurious zone where the most famous people of the ancient Roman world, such as senators and wealthy cavaliers, had their extravagant villas.

The main attraction of the park is the villa of Publius Vedius Pollio, Emperor Augustus’ right hand, which was built in the first century B.C. This wealthy Roman cavalier was born into a freed slave family but was best known for his exploits with his own slaves.

He became infamous for his luxurious tastes and cruelty to his slaves – when they displeased him, he supposedly had them fed to lampreys in an eel pond. In addition to his villa, he built a theater that could seat 2000 people, an Odeon for small shows, a Nymphaeum, and a spa complex.

When Publius Vedius Pollio’s slave broke a crystal cup, he sentenced him to death and insisted that he be thrown into a pool of moray eels. Emperor Augustus, a close friend of Pollio, told the self-made gagillionaire to spare the slave’s life. Augustus then ordered all Pollio’s expensive drinking vessels smashed and his pool filled in.

Pollio left his estate to Augustus after his death in 15 BC, along with instructions to erect a suitable monument on the site. Up until the time of Hadrian, who passed away in AD 138, the villa was owned by the empire and passed from one emperor to the next.

A mosaic floor from the villa’s initial construction phase has been discovered by archaeologists from the University of Naples “L’Orientale.”

The mosaic, which is composed of tiny white tesserae with a double black frame, was discovered purposefully buried beneath renovation projects that Augustus had ordered following Vedius’s passing.

Stratigraphic dating is still missing, but based on the style that hall could date back to the late Republican age or Augustan at the latest”, says Marco Giglio, of the L’Orientale University of Naples, who led the excavation brought to light.

A refined white mosaic carpet with a double black frame delimits the living room overlooking the sea of Naples.

Roman Colosseum’s Sewers Investigated With Robots

Roman Colosseum’s Sewers Investigated With Robots

Roman Colosseum’s Sewers Investigated With Robots
The Colosseum is one of Italy’s most popular tourist sites

Spectators at Rome’s ancient gladiator arena, the Colosseum, may have enjoyed snacks of olives, fruit and nuts, archaeologists have found.

Food fragments of figs, grapes, cherries, blackberries, walnuts and more have been unearthed at the site. Archaeologists also found the bones of bears and big cats that were probably used in the arena’s hunting games.

The discoveries were made by archaeologists examining the 2,000-year-old landmark’s sewers.

Relics like these provide a snapshot into the “experience and habits of those who came to this place during the long days dedicated to the performances”, said Alfonsina Russo, Director of the Colosseum Archaeological Park.

Researchers say bones from bears and lions were probably left by animals that were forced to fight each other and gladiators for entertainment. Smaller animal bones belonging to dogs were also found.

The study began in January 2021 and involved the clearance of around 70m (230ft) of drains and sewers under the Colosseum, which remains one of Italy’s most visited landmarks.

Specialist architects and archaeologists used wire-guided robots to navigate the arena’s complex drainage system – aiding their understanding of daily life in Rome as well as ancient hydraulic structures, researchers said.

The Colosseum was the biggest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire, falling into disuse around 523 AD. It was famous for hosting gladiatorial fights and other public spectacles in front of crowds of tens of thousands.

Ancient coins were also discovered in the dig, including 50 bronze coins dating back to the late Roman period, spanning roughly 250-450AD and a silver commemorative coin from around 170-171AD celebrating 10 years of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ rule.

Researchers Revisit Circumstances of Ötzi the Iceman’s Death

Researchers Revisit Circumstances of Ötzi the Iceman’s Death

Researchers Revisit Circumstances of Ötzi the Iceman's Death
A reconstruction of Ötzi on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in the city of Bolzano in South Tyrol, Italy.

The ancient, mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman was found decades ago by hikers in the high Alps — but how did it get there? A new study questions the prevailing story of Ötzi’s death more than 5,000 years ago, suggesting that Ötzi did not die in the gully where he was found. Rather, his remains may have been carried there by the periodic thawing of the ice that surrounded his body.

And researchers propose that other prehistoric people who died in icy, mountainous regions could have been preserved by the same process.

“I think the possibility now is perhaps a bit larger” of finding another prehistoric body, archaeologist Lars Pilø told Live Science. “It’s not so large that I can promise there will be a body in the next decade, but I think that there’s definitely a chance.”

Pilø is the lead author of the new study, published Nov. 7 in the journal Holocene, which takes a fresh look at evidence from Ötzi.

He also leads the Secrets of the Ice project, which is associated with Norway’s Innlandet County Council and the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo; it studies the archaeology of glaciers and ice patches, many of which are now melting and revealing frozen troves of ancient artefacts.

The iceman cometh

The remains of Ötzi, who’s named after the Ötztal Alps where he was found, were discovered on Sept. 19, 1991, by German tourists in an Alpine pass between Italy and Austria.

The hikers first thought they’d found the preserved body of a modern mountaineer, but investigations later determined that Ötzi died about 5,300 years ago.

According to the Secrets of the Ice website, the generally accepted story of Ötzi’s death comes from investigations by archaeologist Konrad Spindler of the University of Innsbruck in Austria.  

Spindler found that Ötzi had probably been murdered: an arrowhead was embedded in his shoulder, and a deep cut in his hand appeared to be a defensive wound suffered while warding off a blow. He also noted that Ötzi’s backpack, bow and arrow quiver were damaged, which Spindler proposed was a sign of combat.

But Pilø and his colleagues argue that the damage to Ötzi’s equipment was probably caused by the pressure of the ice that surrounded them.

“There’s definitely been a conflict,” he said. “But what we say is that the damage to the artefacts is more easily explained by natural processes.”

Ötzi’s remains were found in a gully, marked here on the lower right with a black arrow, near the Tisenjoch pass in the Ötztal Alps along the border with Italy and Austria.
Otzi’s remains were found at a height of 10,530 feet (3,210 meters) at the place marked with a black circle. An axe that’s thought to have belonged to him was found lower down the slope, at the place marked with a black square.
The site where Otzi’s remains were found, marked here with a red dot, was excavated by scientists from Austria’s University of Innsbruck in 1992.
Ozti’s upper body was found partially resting on the half-submerged rock on the left of this photograph, where one of the scientific team is resting his green boot.
Several artefacts were found near Ötzi’s remains, including this quiver with arrows. They’re damaged, which was interpreted as a sign of conflict, but the new study proposes it might have been caused by the pressure of the ice.

Alpine death 

The most significant proposal in the new study is that Ötzi didn’t die at the bottom of the gully where he was found, but rather that his body was carried there as the ice thawed and refroze over several summers.

Early investigations proposed that Ötzi was killed in the gully in the fall season and that his body was protected there from the crushing pressure of a glacier above.

But analysis of the food in Ötzi’s intestine suggests instead that he died in the spring or early summer when the gully would have been filled with ice, Pilø said.

In the new study, the authors propose that Ötzi died somewhere on the surface of a stationary ice patch — not a moving glacier — and that his remains and artefacts were carried into the gully by the periodic thawing and refreezing of the ice.

That means the body and artefacts were exposed at times and may have been submerged in melted ice water, but they nonetheless stood the test of time for thousands of years. So, it’s likely that other long-dead bodies may have been preserved in the same way, he said.

Archaeologist Andreas Putzer of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano in Italy, where Ötzi’s body and artefacts are on display, said that closer investigation of the mummy could confirm if it had indeed been exposed to glacial meltwater over time. 

“A mummy submerged in water would lose its epidermis [skin], hair, and nails,” Putzer, who was not involved in the new research, told Live Science in an email. “Normally this happens to bodies of drowned persons.” Pathological research could determine if the remains were ever submerged in melted ice water, as the new study proposes, or if they were continually frozen in ice, he said.

A 2,000-year-old theatre found 25 metres below Pompeii ruins revealed

A 2,000-year-old theatre found 25 metres below Pompeii ruins revealed

Herculaneum, like its neighbouring city of Pompeii, was buried under volcanic ash and pumice during the tragic event 2,000 years ago. Now found below the modern-day town of Ercolano, the city was rediscovered by chance in 1709 during the digging of a well. 

Tunnels were soon added at the site by treasure hunters, and some artefacts were removed but now, 200 years later, TV cameras explored the area during Channel 5’s “Pompeii: The New Revelations”.

Historian Dan Snow detailed how an incredible discovery was made.

He said earlier this month: “In 1709, a well was dug in this town that had grown up on the coast eight miles north of Pompeii.

“The workers started to pull up slabs of beautiful marble.

Dan Snow explored the ancient city
Dan Snow headed down the well

“A French aristocrat, Emmanuel d’Elbeuf, was building a mansion nearby, so he was in the market for marble.

Quite quickly he realised this must have been a Roman theatre

Dan Snow

“He decided to cut out the middleman and bought the well for himself.

“First a worker, and then d’Elbeuf himself were strapped into slings and lowered 15 metres down the well.”

Mr Snow went on to detail how an ancient Roman theatre was uncovered, in a remarkable breakthrough.

He added: “At the bottom, he discovered this cavity and he started crawling around and found broken bits of marble and statues.

“Quite quickly he realised this must have been a Roman theatre, it could only be a theatre from the lost town of Herculaneum that the Roman authors had talked about.

A series of tunnels have been dug

“A group of convicts were sent down here and told to tunnel through and mine it for treasure.

“They’ve left us with this warren of tunnels that they hacked out.

“Luckily, they didn’t take all the murals, they left some here, you can still see some of the beautiful Roman paintings.”

Mr Snow explored the theatre, detailing how key features could still be made out today,

He continued: “Look at that, it’s been underground ever since that invasion in 79AD, the colours still perfect.

A 2,000-year-old theatre found 25 metres below Pompeii ruins revealed
A theatre was uncovered
Dan Snow said it could have housed 2,500 people

“Look up there on the arches, just beautiful, they stripped whatever they could find.

“Slowly, these convicts hollowed out more and more of this structure, until they’d uncovered pretty large parts of the theatre.

“They revealed the stage, the steps to the auditorium and some of the rows of seats – in total would have accommodated up to 2,500 people.

“This is where the people of Herculaneum would have sat side-by-side, watching the action on the stage below.  (video link below)

“It’s a Roman theatre buried under 25 metres of volcanic rock.”

Although it was smaller than Pompeii, Herculaneum was a wealthier town.  It was a popular seaside retreat for the Roman elite, which is reflected in the extraordinary density of grand and luxurious houses with a marble finish.

Famous buildings of the ancient city include the Villa of the Papyri and the so-called boat houses in which the skeletal remains of at least 300 people were found.

Archaeology breakthrough: Bombshell discovery unearths third-century human mountains’

Archaeology breakthrough: Bombshell discovery unearths third-century human mountains’

The discovery was made near Rome, as researchers came across the remains of a man that would have been classed as a giant when he lived in the third century A.D.

It represents an incredibly rare find – as today gigantism affects about three people in a million worldwide.

The condition begins in childhood, when a malfunctioning pituitary gland causes abnormal growth.

Two partial skeletons, one from Poland and another from Egypt, had previously been identified as “probable” cases of gigantism, but the Roman specimen is thought to be the first clear case from the ancient past, study leader Simona Minozzi, a paleopathologist at Italy’s University of Pisa said.

The figure stood at about 6ft 8 inches, classed as a giant in third century A.D when the average height for a man was 5ft 5 inches.

The unusual skeleton was found in 1991 during an excavation at a necropolis in Fidenae (map), a territory indirectly managed by Rome.

At the time, the Archaeological Superintendence of Rome, which led the project, noted that the man’s tomb was abnormally long. It was only during a later anthropological examination, though, that the bones too were found to be unusual. Shortly thereafter, they were sent to Minozzi’s group for further analysis.

Archaeology breakthrough: Bombshell discovery unearths third-century human mountains'
Archaeology news: The researchers found a ‘human mountain’
The figure has gigantism according to the study

o find out if the skeleton had gigantism, the team examined the bones and found evidence of skull damage consistent with a pituitary tumor, which disrupts the pituitary gland, causing it to overproduce human growth hormone.

Other findings — such as disproportionately long limbs and evidence that the bones were still growing even in early adulthood — support the gigantism diagnosis, according to the study, published October 2 2012 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

His early demise — likely between the age of 16 and 20 — might also point to gigantism, which is associated with cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems, said Minozzi, who emphasized that the cause of death remains unknown.

A statue of Maximinus Thrax

Charlotte Roberts, an archaeologist at Durham University, said she was “certainly convinced with the diagnosis” of gigantism in 2012, but that she’d like to know more.

She said: “You can’t just study the disease, you have to look at the wider impact of how people functioned in society, and whether they were treated any differently.”

She added that one thing researchers to know is that the second-century A.D. emperor Maximinus Thrax was described in the literature as a “human mountain.”

Archaeologists have found other remains that could have been giants

Minozzi noted, though, that imperial Roman high society “developed a pronounced taste for entertainers with evident physical malformations, such as hunchbacks and dwarfs — so we can assume that even a giant generated enough interest and curiosity”.

Roberts also highlighted how the find has been useful in learning about gigantism.

She said: “Normally a doctor will be looking at a patient with a disease over short-term span.

“We’ve been able to look at skeletons from archaeological sites that are thousands of years old. You can start to look at trends of how diseases have changed in frequency over time.”

An Ancient Fast Food Restaurant in Pompeii That Served Honey-Roasted Rodents Is Now Open to the Public

An Ancient Fast Food Restaurant in Pompeii That Served Honey-Roasted Rodents Is Now Open to the Public

The thermopolium, or fast food restaurant, of Regio V in Pompeii. Photo courtesy of Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

Archaeologists studying the Roman city of Pompeii recently discovered a thermopolium—a kind of ancient fast food restaurant—and it is now open to the public.

Visitors won’t be able to try the Roman delicacies that would have been served at the original restaurant—since this is a society that thought honey-roasted rodents raised in jars were a delicacy—but they will be able to see the establishment’s colourful fresco paintings.

One artwork seemingly features ingredients that would have been prepared at the thermopolium, such as a rooster, while another shows a scene from mythology, with a Nereid riding a sea-horse.

A third depicts a collared dog and Roman-era graffiti that roughly translates to “Nicias Shameless Shitter,” presumably an insult to the owner, Nicias.

A fresco of a collared dog at the thermopolium with Roman-era graffiti.

The discovery, in 2019, “led to a greater understanding of the diet and daily life of Pompeians,” Massimo Osanna, the former head of the Pompeii archaeological park and now director general of Italy’s museums, said in a statement.

Experts believe prepared food would have been displayed in large dolia jars set in holes carved in the stone counter, similar to today’s take-out restaurants.

The excavations uncovered duck, pig, goat, and fish bones, as well as snail shells amid shards of earthen pottery, suggesting that some kind of meat and seafood stew may have been on the menu. Typical dishes served at a thermopolium would have included salty fish, baked cheese, lentils, and spicy wine, according to the Guardian. (One jar apparently still smelled strongly of wine when archaeologists first discovered it.)

The dining culture and culinary traditions of Pompeii are currently the subject of “Last Supper in Pompeii,” an exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum.

The city’s sudden destruction with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D. instantly carbonized food and cookware, leaving a record of day-to-day life frozen in time.

The thermopolium was a fixture of Pompeii—the newly discovered site is just one of 80 such restaurants that have been found in the city—because poor Roman families couldn’t afford to have kitchens in their homes. And, in an inversion of contemporary society, the wealthy didn’t go out for expensive meals. Instead, they had enslaved workers prepare feasts at home, served up in richly decorated banquet halls.

The thermopolium, or fast food restaurant, of Regio V in Pompeii.

Archaeologists uncovered the thermopolium during excavations at Regio V, a section of Pompeii that is not yet fully open to the public and has been home to most of the active digging on the site since the 1960s. In addition to the restaurant, sections of the Casa di Orione and Casa del Giardino mansions are also opening to visitors this week.

Other recent Regio V finds include a skeleton of a man believed to have been killed fleeing the volcano and a selection of amulets that may have belonged to a female sorcerer.

Human bones found at the new thermopolium suggest the business’s proprietor may have died on the premises.