Category Archives: ITALY

Mystery solved about the origin of the 30,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf

Mystery solved about the origin of the 30,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf

The source of the materials used to make the Venus of Willendorf, a 30,000-year-old figurine that counts among the world’s oldest artefacts, have long eluded experts.

The original Venus from Willendorf. Left: lateral view. Right-top: hemispherical cavities on the righthaunch and leg. Right bottom: existing hole enlarged to form the navel.

The figurine, which resembles a woman with fulsome breasts and round hips, is made of a rock known as oolite, which isn’t native to Willendorf, the village in Austria where it was found. At long last, how the oolite made its way to Willendorf appears to be solved.

An anthropologist with the University of Vienna and two geologists said on Tuesday that the Venus of Willendorf’s oolite most likely came from an area in the north of Italy near Lake Garda.

The findings by Gerhard Weber, Alexander Lukeneder, and Mathias Harzhauser put forward in their paper, which appears in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, have the potential to reshape how experts understand the movement of various peoples during the Paleolithic era.

Working in collaboration with the prehistorian Walpurga Antl-Weiser and the Natural History Museum in Vienna, which owns the Venus of Willendorf, the team of researchers closely examined the figurine to determine its origins.

They relied on a technique called micro-computed tomography, which uses extremely high-definition photography to offer cross-sections of objects.

Inside the oolite, they discovered remnants of shells and limonites, a kind of large grain. Some of the limonites appear to have fallen out of the figurine as it was being carved, leaving depressions behind.

Pictures derived from micro-computed tomography scans of the Venus. Left: Segmented bivalve (Oxytomidae) that was located on the right side of the Venus head; scan resolution 11.5 μm; characteristic features are the umbo and the wings. Middle: Volume rendering of the virtual Venus; six embedded limonite concretions: neck right (orange), neck left (blue), breast left (red), belly left (yellow), hip left (green), leg left (purple); three mollusc fragments: bivalve head right (blue, only 2.5 mm long, see the white line from label “Bivalve” for position), shell breast middle (orange), shell leg left (turquoise). Right: Single μCT-slice showing the porosity and layering of the oolite; note the relative density of the limonite concretion; scan resolution 53 μm.
Venus fluorescent

The experts suggested that the Venus of Willendorf’s gaping belly button was the result of this—a happy accident that was embraced by its maker.

If indeed the oolite came from northern Italy, it means that the sculpture’s maker likely travelled across an area where the Alps are sited.

But because glaciers that have since melted once covered those mountains, the creator likely circumvented the Alps.

Because the oolite went from Italy to Austria, it probably means that the people of civilization that the sculpture’s maker belonged to “looked for and inhabited favourable locations,” Weber said in a statement.

“When the climate or the prey situation changed, they moved on, preferably along rivers.”

But the archaeologists left open the possibility that the oolite may have come from a very different locale: Ukraine. Similar-looking Venus figures have been found there, the experts said, and while the oolite “clearly” seems to have come from Italy, it was “possible, though less likely,” that this sculpture could have originated in Eastern Europe.

Analysis Identifies Ancient Roman Chamber Pot

Analysis Identifies Ancient Roman Chamber Pot

Storage jar or long-abandoned lavatory? That, for some reason, is the question archaeologists from the University of Cambridge, UK, and the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada, sought to answer while studying an ancient Sicilian villa site.

Now, according to a new paper published last week in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, they’ve solved this smelly mystery.

As it turns out, a conical jar found at the site – found widely across the Roman empire and long thought to have stored unidentified objects or resources – was actually an ancient Roman toilet. 

A chamber pot from the 5th century CE from the Roman villa at Gerace, Sicily (Italy). Scale: 10 cm.

“Conical pots of this type have been recognised quite widely in the Roman Empire and in the absence of other evidence they have often been called storage jars,” says Roger Wilson, a professor in UBC’s Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies, who directs the archaeological project in Sicily. 

But Wilson says these pots were often found suspiciously close to public latrines, leading archaeologists to wonder exactly what treasures had been contained within.

“The discovery of many in or near public latrines had led to a suggestion that they might have been used as chamber pots, but until now proof has been lacking,” says Wilson.

To decode the pots’ long-disappeared contents, Cambridge archaeologists analysed a “crusty material” (yuck) formed on the inside surface of a pot found in the bathing complex at the site. Using microscopy, a team from the Ancient Parasite Laboratory confirmed the present of whipworm eggs – a human intestinal parasite.

“It was incredibly exciting to find the eggs of these parasitic worms 1,500 years after they’d been deposited,” says co-author Tianyi Wang, of Cambridge, who took part in the microscopy work.

Whipworms are human parasites, around five centimetres long, that live on the lining of our intestines. Their eggs would have mixed in with human faeces, and built up as residue over time with continuous use.

“We found that the parasite eggs became entrapped within the layers of minerals that formed on the pot surface, so preserving them for centuries,” says co-author Sophie Rabinow, also of the Cambridge team.

This is the first time parasite eggs have been identified from concretions inside a Roman ceramic vessel, and it confirms the Sicilian pot must have been used to contain human faeces.

A microscopic whipworm egg from the chamber pot. The black scale bar represents 20 micrometres.

Archaeologists say the 31x34cm pot could have been sat on but was more likely used in conjunction with a wickerwork or timber chair, under which the pot could be set.

The researchers say their method of parasite analysis could help unlock the stinky secrets of ceramics across the ancient Roman world.

“The findings show that parasite analysis can provide important clues for ceramic research,” says Rabinow.

Although the technique only works if the person producing the poop was infected with a common parasite, the researchers note that where parasites are endemic in the developing world, around half of all people are infected by at least one type. If Romans were as often infected, it’s likely many if not most chamber pots will be identifiable.

“Where Roman pots in museums are noted to have these mineralised concretions inside the base, they can now be sampled using our technique to see if they were also used as chamber pots,” says Piers Mitchell, a parasite expert and leader of the laboratory study. 

2,500-Year-Old Helmets Worn By Ancient Greek Warriors Found Among The Ruins Of An Acropolis In Italy

2,500-Year-Old Helmets Worn By Ancient Greek Warriors Found Among The Ruins Of An Acropolis In Italy

Archaeologists in southern Italy have discovered ancient warrior helmets and the ruins of a painted brick wall at a site that might have been a forerunner of a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, officials said Tuesday.

The temple and helmets were found at the ‘acropolis’ of Velia.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said the remains dug up at the popular tourist site of Velia were found on what had been an acropolis of one of Magna Graecia’s most important cities.

Velia is 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of Paestum, a much-visited site of ancient Greek temples.

2,500-Year-Old Helmets Worn By Ancient Greek Warriors Found Among The Ruins Of An Acropolis In Italy
The two helmets were found in the same location at Velia.

The recently completed excavation at Velia unearthed a pair of helmets in good condition, the remains of a building, vases with the Greek inscription for “sacred” and metal fragments of what possibly were weapons, the culture ministry said.

State Museums Director Massimo Osanna, who formerly had long directed excavations at Pompeii, Italy’s most celebrated excavated site, said the area explored at Velia probably contained relics of offerings made to Athena, the mythological Greek goddess of war and wisdom, after a key naval battle in the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea.

In the 6th-century B.C. battle of Alalia off the coast of Corsica, Greek forces were victorious over Etruscan forces and their Carthaginian allies.

Velia is famed for being the home of an ancient Greek school of philosophy, including philosophers Parmenides and Zeno.

It was part of Magna Graecia, the area of southern Italy colonized by Greek city-states.

The settlement at Velia occupied an upper part, or acropolis, of the area as well as hillsides, and was surrounded by a wall. The city’s ancient name was Elea.

Velia’s founding dates to about 540 B.C. by colonists from Asia Minor.

Franceschini said the discoveries yielded by the Velia excavation underscored the importance of investing in archaeological research to reveal “important pieces of the history of the Mediterranean.”

Carthaginians sacrificed their own children, archaeologists say

Carthaginians sacrificed their own children, archaeologists say

A collaborative paper by academics from institutions across the globe, including Oxford University, suggests that Carthaginian parents ritually sacrificed young children as an offering to the gods.

The paper argues that well-meaning attempts to interpret the ‘tophets‘ – ancient infant burial grounds – simply as child cemeteries are misguided.

And the practice of child sacrifice could even hold the key to why the civilisation was founded in the first place.

A Tophet outside Carthage, a special part of a cemetery dedicated to the burial of infants, according to Josephine Quinn.

The research pulls together literary, epigraphical, archaeological and historical evidence and confirms the Greek and Roman account of events that held sway until the 1970s when scholars began to argue that the theory was simply anti-Carthaginian propaganda.

The paper is published in the journal Antiquity.

Dr Josephine Quinn of Oxford University’s Faculty of Classics, and author of the paper, said: ‘It’s becoming increasingly clear that the stories about Carthaginian child sacrifice are true. This is something the Romans and Greeks said the Carthaginians did and it was part of the popular history of Carthage in the 18th and 19th centuries.

‘But in the 20th century, people increasingly took the view that this was racist propaganda on the part of the Greeks and Romans against their political enemy and that Carthage should be saved from this terrible slander.

‘What we are saying now is that the archaeological, literary, and documentary evidence for child sacrifice is overwhelming and that instead of dismissing it out of hand, we should try to understand it.’

The city-state of ancient Carthage was a Phoenician colony located in what is now Tunisia. It operated from around 800BC until 146BC when it was destroyed by the Romans.

Children – both male and female, and mostly a few weeks old – were sacrificed by the Carthaginians at locations known as tophets. The practice was also carried out by their neighbours at other Phoenician colonies in Sicily, Sardinia and Malta. Dedications from the children’s parents to the gods are inscribed on slabs of stone above their cremated remains, ending with the explanation that the god or gods concerned had ‘heard my voice and blessed me.

Dr Quinn said: ‘People have tried to argue that these archaeological sites are cemeteries for children who were stillborn or died young, but quite apart from the fact that a weak, sick or dead child would be a pretty poor offering to a god, and that animal remains are found in the same sites treated in exactly the same way, it’s hard to imagine how the death of a child could count as the answer to a prayer. It’s very difficult for us to recapture people’s motivations for carrying out this practice or why parents would agree to it, but it’s worth trying.

‘Perhaps it was out of profound religious piety, or a sense that the good the sacrifice could bring the family or community as a whole outweighed the life of the child. We have to remember the high level of mortality among children – it would have been sensible for parents not to get too attached to a child that might well not make its first birthday.’

Dr Quinn added: ‘We think of it as a slander because we view it in our own terms. But people looked at it differently 2,500 years ago.

‘Indeed, contemporary Greek and Roman writers tended to describe the practice as more of an eccentricity or historical oddity – they’re not actually very critical.

‘We should not imagine that ancient people thought like us and were horrified by the same things.’

The backlash against the notion of Carthaginian child sacrifice began in the second half of the 20th century and was led by scholars from Tunisia and Italy, the very countries in which tophets have been found.

Dr Quinn added: ‘Carthage was far bigger than Athens and for many centuries much more important than Rome, but it is something of a forgotten city today.

‘If we accept that child sacrifice happened on some scale, it begins to explain why the colony was founded in the first place.

‘Perhaps the reason the people who established Carthage and its neighbours left their original home of Phoenicia – modern-day Lebanon – was because others there disapproved of their unusual religious practice.

‘Child abandonment was common in the ancient world, and human sacrifice is found in many historical societies, but child sacrifice is relatively uncommon. Perhaps the future Carthaginians were like the Pilgrim Fathers leaving from Plymouth – they were so fervent in their devotion to the gods that they weren’t welcome at home anymore.

‘Dismissing the idea of child sacrifice stops us from seeing the bigger picture.’

Ancient Helmets and Temple Ruins Exhumed Where Greeks Settlers First Arrived in Italy

Ancient Helmets and Temple Ruins Exhumed Where Greeks Settlers First Arrived in Italy

Archaeologists in southern Italy have discovered ancient warrior helmets and the ruins of a painted brick wall at a site that might have been a forerunner of a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, officials said Tuesday.

Remains of an ancient helmet found in southern Italy.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said the remains dug up at the popular tourist site of Velia were found on what had been an acropolis of one of Magna Graecia’s most important cities.

Velia is 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of Paestum, a much-visited site of ancient Greek temples.

The recently completed excavation at Velia unearthed a pair of helmets in good condition, the remains of a building, vases with the Greek inscription for “sacred” and metal fragments of what possibly were weapons, the culture ministry said.

State Museums Director Massimo Osanna, who formerly had long directed excavations at Pompeii, Italy’s most celebrated excavated site, said the area explored at Velia probably contained relics of offerings made to Athena, the mythological Greek goddess of war and wisdom, after a key naval battle in the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea.

In the 6th-century B.C. battle of Alalia off the coast of Corsica, Greek forces were victorious over Etruscan forces and their Carthaginian allies.

Velia is famed for being the home of an ancient Greek school of philosophy, including philosophers Parmenides and Zeno.

It was part of Magna Graecia, the area of southern Italy colonized by Greek city-states.

The settlement at Velia occupied an upper part, or acropolis, of the area as well as hillsides, and was surrounded by a wall. The city’s ancient name was Elea.

Velia’s founding dates to about 540 B.C. by colonists from Asia Minor.

Franceschini said the discoveries yielded by the Velia excavation underscored the importance of investing in archaeological research to reveal “important pieces of the history of the Mediterranean.”

Archaeometry also confirms that the Curia Pompeia in Rome was built in several phases

Archaeometry also confirms that the Curia Pompeia in Rome was built in several phases

The Curia of Pompey was one of the great meeting rooms of profound historical importance during the Roman Republic. Located on the eastern flank of the ancient Portico of Pompey, within its walls the senators of ancient Rome discussed weighty political affairs in private meetings.

What is now a visible site for pedestrians who circulate through the Roman square of Largo Argentina, was actually constructed in several phases, ranging from the time of Pompey himself to the medieval era.

This is, at least, what has been corroborated by a study carried out by an Italian/Spanish research team on which the University of Córdoba participated.

Recreation of the Curia in its phase II

This fact had already been ascertained by stratigraphic studies carried out by the Spanish team that worked on the site between 2013 and 2017.

Now, these conclusions have been ratified from the point of view of archaeometry, a different scientific discipline used in Archeology that applies physical and chemical analysis techniques to archaeological materials.

Specifically, the work analyzed samples of mortar from the monument; that is, the conglomerate that was used to prepare the different construction elements. The results made it possible to establish an indirect dating method confirming that Pompey’s Curia did, in fact, feature several different construction phases.

Archaeometry also confirms that the Curia Pompeia in Rome was built in several phases
The site of the Curia of Pompey.

The first of them, according to the results of the study, was during the time of Pompey himself, around 55 BC. The samples analyzed indicate that the monument also had the second phase of construction, which must have been around 19 BC, under Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

Finally, a last stage of construction during the early medieval period has also been documented.

Tell me where you are from and I’ll tell you when

The dating of these stages was established indirectly thanks to the knowledge of the origins of the materials with which the monument was built. Analysis of the compositions of the samples analyzed allowed the authors, F. Marra, E. D´Ambrosio, M. Gaeta and A. Monterroso-Checa to ascertain the quarries from which they were extracted.

The compositions and dates of removal from the quarries revealed that there were different chronological phases in the use of these construction materials.

All of this is evident because there is a clear distinction between the composition of the samples attributable to the first construction phase and those of the Augustan and medieval ones.

For example, while in the initial stage of the monument’s construction a material known as pink pozzolana, extracted from volcanic deposits in the interior of Rome, was exclusively used, in the samples linked to the second phase of construction volcanic glass is found, which is characteristic of a different kind ofpink pozzolana that, due to the expansion of urban planning, was extracted from areas further away from the city’s monumental center.

In this way, the work, published in the University of Oxford’s prestigious journal Archaeometry, confirms, from a different perspective, the different construction phases of the building where Julius Caesar, one of history’s most important politicians and soldiers, died, a fact pertinent not only to Archeology but also to Roman History.

The study benefitted from collaboration with the Sovrintendenza Capitolina, the site’s managing body, the University of Cordoba, the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology of Italy, and Sapienza University in Rome.

It was financed by two projects: HAR 2011 25705 and HAR2013 41818P, under the Spanish Science & Innovation Ministry’s National R&D Plan.

Scientists Hope to Solve the Mystery of 163 Child Mummies Discovered in Italy

Scientists Hope to Solve the Mystery of 163 Child Mummies Discovered in Italy

The 200-year-old secrets of the child mummies of the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in northern Sicily are to be revealed by a British-led team of scientists using X-ray technology.

Scientists Hope to Solve the Mystery of 163 Child Mummies Discovered in Italy
Catacombs of Palermo

Dr Kirsty Squires, of Staffordshire University, will head a first attempt to tell the stories of some of the 163 children whose remains lie within the corridors and crypts of the famous underground tomb.

The Catacombs contain 1,284 mummified and skeletonised bodies, the largest collection of mummies in Europe. While many of the children contained there are now skeletal, others have been described as appearing as if they are sleeping.

Scientists Hope to Solve the Mystery of 163 Child Mummies Discovered in Italy

The two-year investigation will focus on the children who died between 1787 and 1880 and, initially, on 41 bodies residing within a bespoke “child chapel”.

None of the children’s identity, cause of death and medical history is known, and descriptive tags attached to them have long eroded away.

It is hoped that a better picture of the children’s lives and passing will be revealed by cross-referencing the anatomical findings with archival records, including two books containing names and years of death.

“We are going in January to carry out our fieldwork,” Squires said. “We will take a portable X-ray unit and take hundreds of images of the children from different angles.

“We are hoping to better understand their development, health and identity, comparing the biological fundings with the more cultural kind of things: the way the individuals have been mummified and the clothes they are wearing as well.”

The catacombs, once solely for the deceased friars of the Capuchin order, have become a popular, if macabre, tourist attraction, with every niche and crevice bearing bodies on open display. The preserved dead were often dressed in their finery and would be visited by their relatives.

The friars first established themselves at the church of Santa Maria della Pace in 1534. They created a mass grave for their dead which opened like a tank under an altar but, when that became full, the deceased was held in a vault, or charnel house, while a new crypt was dug.

When it came to relocating the bodies from the overfull vault, 45 of the deceased friars exhumed were found to have been naturally mummified, with their faces recognisable, a development that was taken to be an act of God.

Rather than bury the remains, the bodies were displayed as relics, propped in niches along the walls of the first corridor of the new cemetery. In 1787, a letter was published stating that everyone, including children, in the region had the right to be accommodated in the catacombs after death.

Almost all the research until today has been on the adult mummies, excepting a headline-grabbing examination of Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia a week shy of her second birthday on 6 December 1920.

Her startlingly complete preservation was investigated a decade ago by Dr Dario Piombino-Mascali, who is working with Squires on the latest project at the catacombs.

He said: “Many of the mummies are a result of natural dehydration. Other mummies were chemically treated. Those chemically treated are normally better preserved.

“Some of them are superbly preserved. Some really look like sleeping children. They are darkened by the time but some of them have got even fake eyes so they seem to be looking at you. They look like tiny little dolls.

“Of course, you want to do something to preserve them and to make sure their stories are told and give a sense that they are children. It is very upsetting when you deal with children in anthropology.”

Radiographic images – 14 per mummy, from head-to-toe – will be taken and examined by Dr Robert Loynes, a retired orthopaedic surgeon who has previously investigated ancient Egyptian mummies. Piombino-Mascali said it was vital that the work on the fragile corpses was “non-invasive”.

Images will be drawn by an artist from Los Angeles, Eduardo Hernandez, who will produce illustrations for use in educational leaflets for handing out at the catacombs and elsewhere. The project has received over £70,000 in funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. The last bodies interned in the catacombs died in the early 20th century.

Terracotta Dog Unearthed in Rome

Terracotta Dog Unearthed in Rome

Because of its long history, Rome has often yielded archaeological treasures in the most unexpected of places.

Terracotta Dog Unearthed in Rome
An ancient statue of a dog discovered in December may have once been positioned on a sloping roof.

The latest of these riches is an ancient dog statue, which was discovered during work on Rome’s water system just before Christmas.

An arm of the Italian Ministry of Culture devoted to archaeological endeavours announced the find on January 1, saying that the dog statue was found in the city’s Appio Latino district, which is also home to ancient Roman villas and an array of burial structures. Along with the statue, three tombs were also found.

According to the Ministry of Culture, one of the tombs seemed to contain evidence that a fire had taken place there, which may explain why it fell out of use.

The tombs were once part of a larger funerary complex built sometime between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE.

The dog statue, as well as an urn, were found about half a meter below street level, which means that these archaeological objects were essentially right underneath current-day Romans’ feet.

Fashioned out of terra cotta, the statue looks a lot like forms that once appeared as part of drainage systems on sloping rooftops.

Because this one has no holes in that water could pass through, however, the statue was likely intended just as a cute canine decoration.

In a statement, Daniela Porro, the special superintendent of Rome, said, “Once again Rome shows important traces of the past in all its urban fabric.”