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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

Face of Scythian warrior revealed

The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw. Photograph: British Museum

The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw.
Photograph: British Museum

The real face concealed by a clay mask on the mummified head of a Scythian warrior has been revealed for the first time in almost 2,000 years. The head is on display in an exhibition opening at the British Museum along with the scan, made in a St Petersburg hospital, which reveals that he had fine teeth, a ginger moustache, a pierced ear, a hole in his skull where his brains had been removed, and a savage wound, beautifully stitched and healed, which originally ran from the corner of his eye socket to the point of his jaw.

Since the real head closely resembles the painted mask, the curator St John Simpson assumes that the faintly smiling mask of a young woman beside him, which has yet to be scanned, is also based on her appearance in life.

Her body was found lying beside his in a timber-lined tomb chamber, and she almost certainly did not die a natural death.

Dr Svetlana Pankova with the head as it is scanned in St Petersburg. Photograph: British Museum

The Greek historian Herodotus left vivid accounts of the nomadic Scythian horsemen and archers who terrorised their neighbours from an empire stretching for centuries from the Black Sea to the borders of China. His stories, often doubted, have been vindicated by recent archaeological finds, and he wrote that when a princely warrior died, a concubine was often chosen to accompany him to the grave, along with servants and horses.

“Herodotus says garrotting was used, so that would have been relatively quick and merciful,” Simpson said. “The horses we find in tombs were usually killed by a single blow between the eyes from a pointed battle axe – quite humane, like a captive bolt for a fallen race horse – so that could be another consideration.” He added hopefully: “We do also have to remember that people really do die of a broken heart.”

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The man’s clay mask. Photograph: British Museum

The scans were completed and processed so recently that they were seen for the first time in London by the Russian curators who accompanied the spectacular loans from the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, including some of the first superb golden belt buckles and dress ornaments collected in the 17th century by Peter the Great.

The exhibition, Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, also has loans from the new National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Ashmolean and the Royal Collection in the UK.

The nomads had no writing and built nothing permanent except their tombs, but fortunately buried everything from their world for the dead to use in the next. The displays include not just the superb golden ornaments and metal work including weapons and utensils, but, astonishingly preserved by the permafrost of Siberia, furs, textiles, wooden furniture and containers, tattooed human skin, horse harnesses and saddles, the oldest pair of chopsticks ever found outside China, and two lumps of cheese.

Their luxury imports from China included beautiful silks so precious that even scraps were carefully kept and re-used, including a piece used to trim a child’s quiver of arrows, found with the masked mummies in the Oklakhty burial ground in southern Siberia. There was also a tiny sheepskin coat, on which the man’s head was pillowed.

The same tomb held two even more eerie objects, which Simpson hoped to borrow for the exhibition: literally straw men, two life-size stuffed effigies, with clay masks similar to those on the real heads. They were too fragile to travel, and are still being studied – but the first x-rays suggest they contain cloth bags of cremated human remains, presumably carried on horseback across the plains until they could be added to the bodies lying in the family tomb.

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear, part of the exhibition. Photograph: V Terebenin/The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

“When I saw them lying in a dimly lit room in St Petersburg, and one of the curators lifted the head – shedding bits of straw – to look at me, it was an image straight out of some Hollywood horror movie,” Simpson recalled. “I put the photograph on my office door as a way of saying ‘keep away from here’ in the last three weeks I was working flat out trying to get the catalogue finished – it was very effective.”

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Black death burial site in Italy yields a rare coffin birth

Researchers investigating a 14th century burial ground have identified a rare case of “coffin birth” – a gruesome phenomenon in which a deceased pregnant woman’s fetus is expelled within the grave.

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The remains of a mother and fetus were buried alongside those of two other children in the early days of the Black Death in Italy, however researchers cannot say for certain that they died of the plague [Credit: Fabrizio Benente (Universita di Genova – DAFIST)]

The event, which has seldom been reported in archaeology, is known as postmortem fetal extrusion. It results from a build-up of gas pressure within the decomposing body.

“In this case, we have a partial expulsion of a 38- to 40-week-old fetus, which was found to be complete and to lie within the birth canal,” Deneb Cesana, at the University of Genova, told Seeker.

The remains of the woman and her unborn baby were originally uncovered in 2006, interred with two other young individuals that scientists say were aged 12 and three years old. Only recently has the discovery been fully investigated.

The research was led by Cesana and her colleagues Ole Jørgen Benedictow, a plague historian at the University of Oslo, and Raffaella Bianucci, a bioanthropologist at the University of Warwick in England. Their work appears in the journal Anthropological Science.

The gravesite was found in the cemetery of the “ospitale” (hostel) of San Nicolao di Pietra Colice, located some 45 miles from Genova.

The hostel, which also housed a church, was situated in the Northern Apennines at about 2,600 feet above sea level, and was used as a resting place by travelers and pilgrims heading to Rome and trekking along the two major transit routes of the Liguria region.

“The woman was found laying slightly on her side, while on her left there were two young individuals of unknown sex,” said archaeologist Fabrizio Benente, of the University of Genova.

Benente, who was not involved in the anthropological study, directed the excavation campaign with a team of the International Institute of Ligurian Studies and the University of Genova.

“This was the only multiple burial found at the cemetery,” he said. “The others were all single graves.”

(a) Skeleton of the adult female (b) Skeleton of the 12-year-old sub-adult (c) Skeleton 
of the 3-year-old sub-adult (d) Skeleton of the 38–40-week-old fetus [Credit: Cesana, D., Benedictow, O.J., & R. Bianucci]

He added that the corpses had been buried simultaneously and directly into the soil, and dated the burial to the second half of the 14th century.

The timing corresponded to the arrival of the Black Death in Genoa in 1348. The researchers hypothesized that the woman and the two children likely died of the bubonic plague.

Bianucci’s analysis confirmed that three of the four individuals – the woman, the fetus, and the 12-year-old child – tested positive for the F1 antigen of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague.

“This is the first evidence of Y. pestis infection in 14th-century Liguria,” Bianucci said.

“Our finding supports the notion that the contagion, which had originally started from Genoa’s port area, progressively spread and disseminated through the main communication routes,” she added.

Anthropological investigations carried out and funded by the Archaeological Museum of Sestri Levante and the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria showed that the woman, who was about 5 feet 11 inches tall, was between 30 and 39 years old when she died.

It emerged that she had several ailments during her life. Her teeth revealed localized periodontitis and linear enamel hypoplasia – a band-like dental defect that denotes childhood physiological stress – while her bones showed evidence of other diseases.

The woman also suffered from congenital hip dysplasia and was likely affected by Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease, a childhood condition that affects the hip, resulting in a permanent deformity of the head of the thigh bone (femur). She likely walked with a limp.

The skeleton of the 12-year-old showed signs of lesions that were possibly linked to metabolic diseases or nutritional deficiencies. The 3-year-old child had no evidence of disease.

The researchers have not yet conducted DNA analysis that will determine the sex of the children and whether they have a relationship with the pregnant woman.

According to Benente, it is possible that they were her children. He believes that they ended up in the mountains, far from the villages, because the hostel of San Nicolao might have worked as a lazaretto, a hospital for people afflicted with contagious diseases.

“She was in advanced pregnancy and limping,” Benente said. “This wasn’t the best condition to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly with two kids.”

According to the authors of the study, every conclusion is premature before DNA tests and further research are carried out.

“At the moment we can really only say that the skeleton of this unfortunate and frail woman is providing us with a new case of coffin birth,” Bianucci said, “which adds to the limited number reported so far.” 

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