Oldest-known astrologer’s board discovered in Croatia

From LiveScience:

A research team has discovered what may be the oldest astrologer’s board, engraved with zodiac signs and used to determine a person’s horoscope.

Dating back more than 2,000 years, the board was discovered in Croatia, in a cave overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The surviving portion of the board consists of 30 ivory fragments engraved with signs of the zodiac. Researchers spent years digging them up and putting them back together. Inscribed in a Greco-Roman style, they include images of Cancer, Gemini and Pisces.

The board fragments were discovered next to a phallic-shaped stalagmite amid thousands of pieces of ancient Hellenistic (Greek style) drinking vessels.

An ancient astrologer, trying to determine a person’s horoscope, could have used the board to show the position of the planets, sun and moon at the time the person was born.

“What he would show the client would be where each planet is, where the sun is, where the moon is and what are the points on the zodiac that were rising and setting on the horizon at the moment of birth,” said Alexander Jones, a professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. [See Photos of Astrologer’s Board]

“This is probably older than any other known example,” Jones said. “It’s also older than any of the written-down horoscopes that we have from the Greco-Roman world,” he said, adding, “we have a lot of horoscopes that are written down as a kind of document on papyrus or on a wall but none of them as old as this.”

Jones and StašoForenbaher, a researcher with the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, reported the discovery in the most recent edition of the Journal for the History of Astronomy.

A ‘King Tut experience’

In 1999, the team was digging near the entrance of the Croatian cave, a site well known to archaeologists and people at the nearby hamlet of Nakovana who simply called it “Spila,” which means “the cave,” Forenbaher told LiveScience.

But what nobody knew at the time was that the cave had a section that had been sealed off more than 2,000 years ago. Forenbaher’s girlfriend (now his wife) burrowed through the debris, discovering a wide low passageway that continued in the dark for nearly 33 feet (10 meters). Forenbaher described going through the passageway as “the unique King Tut experience, coming to a place where nobody has been for a couple of thousand years.”

Stepping into the cavern “there was a very thin limestone crust on the surface that was cracking under your feet when you went in, which meant that nobody walked there in a very, very, long time,” Forenbaher said.

The team would later determine that it had been sealed off in the first century B.C., possibly in response to a military campaign waged against the local people by the Romans.

When the archaeologists investigated they found the phallic-shaped stalagmite, numerous drinking vessels that had been deposited over hundreds of years, and something else. “In the course of that excavation these very tiny bits and pieces of ivory came up,” said Forenbaher, “we didn’t even realize what we had at the time.”

The team went to work. “What followed was years of putting them together, finding more bits and pieces, and figuring out what they were,” Forenbaher said. In the end they found themselves staring at the remains of the oldest-known astrologer’s board.

How did the board wind up in the cave?

Archaeologists are not certain how the board came to the cave or where it was originally made. Astrology originated in Babylon far back in antiquity, with the Babylonians developing their own form of horoscopes around 2,400 years ago.

Then around 2,100 years ago, astrology spread to the eastern Mediterranean, becoming popular in Egypt, which at the time was under the control of a dynasty of Greek kings.

“It gets modified very much into what we think of as the Greek style of astrology, which is essentially the modern style of astrology,” Jones said. “The Greek style is the foundation of astrology that goes through the Middle Ages and into modern Europe, modern India (and) so on.”

Radiocarbon dating shows that the ivory used to create the zodiac images dates back around 2,200 years ago, shortly before the appearance of this new form of astrology.

Researchers are not certain where the board was made although Egypt is a possibility. The ivory itself likely came from an elephant that was killed or otherwise died around that time, they suspect. Being a valuable item, the ivory would have been stored for several decades, or even a century, before it was used to construct the zodiac. These signs would then have been attached to a flat (possibly wooden) surface to create the board, which may have included other elements that didn’t survive.

At some point it may have been put on a ship heading through the Adriatic Sea, an important route for commerce that the cave overlooks. The people who lived in Croatia at the time were called Illyrians. Although ancient writers tended to have a low opinion of them, archaeological evidence suggests that they interacted with nearby Greek colonies and were very much a part of the Mediterranean world.

It’s possible that an astrologer from one of the Greek colonies came to the cave to give a prediction. A consultation held in the flickering light of the cavern would have been a powerful experience, although perhaps not very convenient for the astrologer.

“It doesn’t sound like a very practical place for doing the homework for the horoscope like calculating planetary positions,” Jones said.

Another possibility is that the Illyrians traded for or stole the astrology board from someone, not fully understanding what it was used for. The board, along with the drinking vessels, would then have been placed as an offering to a deity worshiped in the cave whose identity is unknown.

“There is definitely a possibility that this astrologer’s board showed up as an offering together with other special things that were either bought or plundered from a passing ship,” Forenbaher said. He pointed out that the drinking vessels found in the cave were carefully chosen. They were foreign-made, and only a few examples of cruder amphora storage vessels were found with them.

“It almost seems that somebody was bringing out wine there, pouring it and then tossing the amphora away because they [the amphora] were not good enough for the gods, they were not good enough to be deposited in the sanctuary,” Forenbaher said.

The phallic-shaped stalagmite, which may have grown on the spot naturally, appears to have been a center for these offerings and for rituals performed in the cavern. Forenbaher cautioned that all stalagmites look phallic to some degree and it’s difficult to determine what meaning it had to the people in the cave. “It certainly meant something important,” he said.

“This is a place where things that were valued locally, were deposited to some kind of supernatural power, to some transcendental entity or whatever [it was].”

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Ancient temple unearthed in Heraion-Teikhos

From Hurriyet Daily News:

Ongoing excavations at the Heraion-Teikhos ancient city in the western province of Tekirdağ have unearthed a temple at the city’s acropolis. The temple, belonging to the ancient Thracian civilization, was thought to have disappeared in a fire that occurred in 2 BC. The continuing work at the temple has revealed many interesting artworks thus far, the excavation chairwoman says.

Many important pieces of art have reportedly been unearthed in the northwestern province of Tekirdağ in a temple previously thought to have been destroyed in a fire in 2 B.C.

The ongoing excavations in the pantheon of the ancient city of Heraion-Teikhos in Tekirdağ’s Karaevlialtı district started this year at the beginning of August, according to the excavation chairwoman, Professor Neşe Atik from Ahi Evran University’s archaeology department.

The excavations, which have been conducted since 2000, have unearthed the ancient Thracian civilization for the first time, Atik said, adding that a team of 40 people, including workers, students, archaeologists and anthropologists, was carrying out the work.

She said that they were working to uncover the temple at the acropolis (the highest hill) of the city. “According to the data we have, we thought that the temple burned down in a fire. We have so far removed statues of gods including Kybele, Eros and Aphrodite as well as bronze coins, amphora and similar pieces from the temple,” she said.

This year’s excavations are continuing in the northeastern part of the city, the professor added, noting that they had found a square tower with two-and-a-half-meter-deep walls, resembling city walls, during the first excavations and had started to uncover the tower. “The tower is a solemn structure. It should be a part of a gate in the northeast. But we have not found the city walls that are connected to this tower. We understand that the walls were built for defense, because this tower is huge,” Atik said, adding that the acropolis covered an area of 300 meters and was surrounded by city walls.

“It is possible to see the continuation of these walls on the coast. Some part of the hill is under protection, just like the tower,” she said.

In just one week of work, the temple has yielded very interesting pieces of art, Atik said, noting that dogs were blessed animals in the Thracian civilization. “Dogs were sacrificed for good luck in this period. We saw light yellow spots in the earth when we first started the excavations. And then we found oblation valleys. We found the head of a bull last year, too,” she said, noting that the temple had three different phases.

“According to our research, there had been a holy place here since the 6th century. This magnificent temple was built in the 2nd century,” Atik said. “This temple sheltered many cultures.”

Atik said previous excavations showed that there were different tumulus graves in the northwest part of the acropolis, and they wanted to unearth these graves. “These are extraordinary graves. In this year’s project we want to open one or two undisturbed graves. In this way, we will be able to prove that the Thracian men were buried with their wives, because according to the historian Herodotus, Thracian men had many wives,” she said. “When they died, their wives wanted to be buried with them. A council chose among these wives and these women were buried with their men. But this information has never been confirmed. We need to excavate an undisturbed grave to get definite information.”

The excavations will continue for one month and the area should be set aside to allow the work to continue, Atik added.

Stating that archaeological excavations need a lot of money and patience, Atik said they continued working with the support of the Tekirdağ Governor’s Office.

“The Ministry of Culture and Tourism allocated us 30,000 Turkish Liras for this excavation. We have received half of this money so far. It is impossible for us to continue with this amount,” Atik said. “Other archaeologists have the same problem as me. Since we don’t have a chance to show our daily expenditures like cleaning and eating in an official document, we have a big problem. We need support to reveal our history.”

Marriage, Divorce and the Prostitute in Ancient Mesopotamia

The most shameful custom,” Herodotus called it. He was writing, in his account of the events leading up to the war between Greece and Persia, about the goings-on at the temple of Ishtar in Babylon, in which, he claimed, once in her life every woman had to accept the sexual advances of a stranger in exchange for a silver coin in order to fulfill a duty to the goddess.

The most shameful custom the Babylonians have is this: every native woman must go sit in the temple of Aphrodite, once in her life, and have sex with an adult male stranger. Many of them disdain to mix with the rest, on the high horse of wealth, and so drive to the temple on covered carriages, taking their stand with a large retinue following behind them. But many more do as follows: they sit in the sanctuary of Aphrodite, these many women, their heads crowned with a band of bowstring. Some arrive while others depart. Roped-off thoroughfares give all manner of routes through the women and the strangers pass along them as they make their choice. Once a woman sits down there, she does not go home until a stranger drops money in her lap and has sex with her outside the temple. When he drops it he has to say “I call on the goddess Mylitta.” Assyrians call Aphrodite Mylitta. The money can be any value at all—it is not to be refused, for that is forbidden, for this money becomes sacred. She follows the first one who drops money and rejects none. When she has had sex, she has performed her religious dues to the goddess and goes home; and from that time on you will never make her a big enough gift to have her. All those who have looks and presence quickly get it over with, all those of them who have no looks wait for a long time unable to fulfill the law—some of them wait for a three- or four-year spell.

This is the fifth and last of the Babylonian customs Herodotus found especially worthy of mention. The first and second, which Herodotus deemed the wisest and second wisest customs, involved a bride market with two auctions (one a straightforward bidding for the most beautiful, the other a Dutch auction for the ugliest [1.196]) and a method of medical diagnosis and treatment by which the Babylonians (whom he claimed had no physicians) laid out their sick in the public square to solicit and take the advice of all passersby who had ever suffered from similar ailments (1.197). The third custom noted by Herodotus is that the Babylonians bury their dead in honey (1.198). And the fourth custom of the five described is a post-coital ritual purification involving incense and washing (1.198).

It is certainly no accident that two of the five “customs” involve illness and death and the other three sex and marriage. These are the hot topics, those that attract and hold the attention of an audience. But, as is now generally accepted among scholars, Herodotus was not talking about a historical Babylon at all, but about the non-Greek “other,” about the “anti-type of the Greek polis” by which the Greek population could define itself (Beard and Henderson 1998, 56–79; Kurke 1999). Nonetheless, his fantasies or musings found a receptive audience in antiquity, were echoed in Strabo (16.1.20) and in the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah (= Baruch) 6:43, and retain their prurient appeal even to a modern audience. Although there is not a single modern piece of scholarship that gives any credence at all to any of Herodotus’s other “Babylonian customs”—whether wise or shameful—his story about the ritual defloration and sexual accessibility of common women in the sacred realm (“Babylonian sacred prostitution”) remains stubbornly embedded as an accepted fact in the literature…

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This essay is an excerpt from the BOOK

Aztec royal tomb discovered in Mexico City

moctezuma maskArchaeologists working amid the smog and din of Mexico City may be on the verge of unlocking an extraordinary time capsule.

The leaders of a team exploring a site opened up by earthquake damage believe that they have found the first tomb of an Aztec ruler. If they are right the site may yield one of the great treasures of antiquity, the sort of haul that fires the imagination of people far beyond academic circles.

None of the finds has been put on public display but Britain will get an early preview. Fourteen gold objects from the site will feature in the British Museum’s exhibition on Moctezuma II, the last great Aztec ruler. These could prove to be the early pickings of a much richer harvest. Colin McEwan, head of the British Museum’s Americas section, said: “There is no question that this has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation find”.

The dig is in the middle of what was the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Near by stands the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, which was built from the stones of Moctezuma’s Templo Mayor, which was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521. The temple’s ruins were subsequently lost for nearly five centuries and discovered only by accident in 1978. Colonial buildings built around it made further exploration difficult but an earthquake in 1985 cleared the way for the present dig.

The site of Templo Mayor, where archaeologists believe a royal tomb lies waiting to be discovered

The new finds appear to be offerings left at the entrance to a tomb. Among them is a fearsome stone sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli, goddess of the Earth. Dr Lorenzo López Luján, who discovered it, thinks that it is a capstone to a burial chamber. When archaeologists moved the sculpture in 2007 they found four containers filled with more than 3,000 items, including animal skeletons, a fire god sculpture, blocks of incense and wooden masks.

Next to this they detected what looks like an entrance. Electronic checks indicate that there is an anomaly beyond it, which Dr López Luján believes is a royal tomb, although some suggest it may be the equivalent of an ancient Greek bothro, where offerings to the underworld were placed.

aztec360_571884a

Gold was not especially significant for the Aztecs in religious terms but it was associated with the nobility, another hint that there is a ruler behind the entrance. It won’t be Moctezuma, who was killed in 1520, but it could be his predecessor, Ahuitzotl, who ruled from 1486 to 1502.

The archaeologists found several plaster seals, which means that the site has not been looted. Between the seals there are several offerings blocking the entrance, including the skeleton of a dog, an animal that traditionally led the dead to the afterlife. “This is a good signal that under these offerings we will find a royal tomb,” Dr López Luján said. “In more than 30 years of excavating this site this is totally new.”

Just how rich a seam they have hit will become clear over the next year, probably within months.

Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler runs from September 24 to January 24, 2010 in British Museum

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Sardonic grin – mystery solved?

smiling-death-potion_big

The word ‘sardonic’ has its roots in the name Sardinia, because a plant commonly found on the island was used in potions which gave corpses a grimace after death.

Researchers have established that chemical compounds in the plant, tubular water-dropwort, cause muscles in the face to contract, producing a strange rictus grin.

“Our discovery supports what many cultural anthropologists have said about death rituals among the ancient Sardinians,” said Mauro Ballero, a botanist from Cagliari University in Sardinia.

The plant was used in pre-Roman times for the ritual killing of old people who had become a burden to society.

“According to ancient historians, elderly people unable to support themselves were intoxicated with the herb and then killed by being dropped from a high rock or by being beaten to death,” the research team wrote in the latest edition of the US Journal of Natural Products.

“The facial muscular contraction induced by the sardonic herb mimicked a smile, and the expression risus sardonicus (sardonic smile) to indicate a sinister smile is well documented in the Latin and Greek literature and in most modern European languages.”

The Greek poet Homer first used the word ‘sardonic’ after learning that the Punic people who settled Sardinia gave condemned men or elderly people the grimace-inducing potion.

“The Punics were convinced that death was the start of new life, to be greeted with a smile,” Dr Ballero told Italy’s Ansa news agency.

The plant, which is common on the Mediterranean island, is known in Latin as Oenanthe crocata but to Sardinians as water celery. It is distantly related to carrots and parsnips but is highly poisonous.

The discovery may have applications in medicine today, the research team believe. Its properties could be adapted so that instead of causing muscles to contract, they would cause them to relax – helping people with facial paralysis.

“The good news is that the molecule in this plant may be retooled by pharmaceutical companies to have the opposite effect,” said Dr Ballero.

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nora sardinia

Ancient Death-Smile Potion Decoded?

By the eighth century B.C., Homer had coined the term “sardonic grin”—”sardonic” having its roots in “Sardinia”—in writings referring to the island’s ritual killings via grimace-inducing potion.

Elderly people who could no longer care for themselves and criminals “were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death,” according to the new study.

For centuries the herb’s identity has been a mystery, but study leader Giovanni Appendino and colleagues say they have discovered a sardonic grin-inducing compound in a plant called hemlock water-dropwort.

The white-flowered plant grows on celery-like stalks along ponds and rivers on the island, now part of Italy.

Modern Suicide, Ancient Mystery

About a decade ago, a Sardinian shepherd committed suicide by eating a hemlock water-dropwort, leaving a corpse with a striking grin.

The death spurred study co-author Mauro Ballero, a botanist at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, to study every dropwort-related fatality on the island in recent decades.

For the new study, Ballero and colleagues detailed the molecular structure of the plant’s toxin and determined how it affects the human body.

Study leader Appendino, an organic chemist from the Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale in Italy, said, “The compound is highly toxic and causes symptoms similar to those described by the ancients for the sardonic smile, including facial paralysis.”

Hemlock water-dropwort “was already known to contain neurotoxins and was the most likely candidate for the sardonic herb,” Appendino said.

The hairy buttercup (aka the Sardinian buttercup) was also a candidate, but that plant doesn’t grow in the damp places mentioned in ancient texts, nor does it make sense in terms of its toxic properties, Appendino said.

“Besides, Sardinia is the only place all over the Mediterranean where [hemlock water-dropwort] grows,” he added.

Nora-sardinia

A Better Botox?

A member of the deadly hemlock family, the herb is especially dangerous because of its fragrant smell and sweet-tasting roots.

“Generally poisonous plants are bitter or in some way repel people,” Appendino said.

Hemlock water-dropwort “is only the second case I know of a toxic plant that is actually attractive to our senses. People might easily eat it in a potion,” he added—or perhaps apply it in a lotion.

Appendino speculates that the plant may prove to have a cosmetic application.

“It relaxes the muscles,” he said, “so it removes wrinkles.”

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The Maya suffered for their looks

maya-palenqueWe may think we make sufficient sacrifices for our idea of beauty, what with false eyelashes, body perforations supporting various bits of metalwork from earrings to tongue studs, toupees and hair extensions, Spanx and padded bras. The Ancient Maya went much farther, however, reshaping their children’s skulls and inlaying their own teeth with jade.

“The Maya went to extreme lengths to transform their bodies,” Professor Mary Miller reports in the new year issue of Archaeology, the US journal. “They invested vast wealth and endured unspeakable pain to make themselves beautiful.”

As an example, Professor Miller cites K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who ruled the western Maya city of Palenque from AD615 to 683, and after his death at the age of 80 was interred in a great carved sarcophagus below the Temple of the Inscriptions. His skeleton shows that soon after his birth, his head was strapped between two cradle-boards to compress it from back to front, not unlike the crystal-skulled aliens in the recent Indiana Jones film.

This left an indentation above his browline, which was emphasised by an artificial nasal bridge, probably of clay or plaster, built up on to his forehead. Although this does not survive in the burial, a stucco portrait head found below the sarcophagus shows it clearly. The head also shows that Pakal’s hair was cut in a series of bluntly trimmed tresses, with longer strands on top flopping forward, which Professor Miller interprets as imitating the leaves and corn silk on a maize plant: at the site of Cacaxtla, Maya-style murals show maize cobs on the plant as human heads. Pakal was shown as ever-youthful, like the maize that springs up anew each year.

Pakal’s front teeth were filed into an inverted T-shape, marking him as also being the Sun God, something shown on his jade burial mask as well. For many Maya, notably those of the elite, dental decoration was seen as highly desirable.

Teeth, especially the upper incisors and canines were filed and notched in a variety of designs, giving in some cases a distinctly crooked smile. Most striking, however, were the dental inlays: a shallow hole was drilled into the front face of the tooth enamel (using a reed or bone hollow drill and an abrasive such as sand or jade dust), sometimes reaching the dentine within.

maya-sculpture1

Small discs of jade, obsidian or haematite were then cemented into the holes: the plant adhesive was so powerful that many burials found by archaeologists today still have the inlays firmly in place. Up to three discs were inserted into a single tooth, and jade and the other materials were combined to give a flash of apple-green, dull red and shiny black across the mouth; inlays and filing were also

combined. Dental decoration was probably applied as a rite of passage to adulthood, according to Professor Stephen Houston, of Brown University, Rhode Island.

The Maya also painted their bodies, in life and in death. Narrative scenes on polychrome vases show pigments applied to face, chest and buttocks. In death, Pakal’s corpse was treated with alternating layers of red and black pigments, Professor Miller reports. Red to the Maya was the colour of the sunrise, black of the sunset, alternating with each other in the diurnal cycle.

Some facial designs are in the form of long strings of dots, especially around the mouth, and when this is shown in sculpture or vase-painting it may be intended to show tattooing rather than just make-up. “Beauty was a way to display social, if not moral, value among the ancient Maya,” Professor Miller concludes. “The wealth they invested and pain they endured to create bodies that reflected their social beliefs make our modern-day obsession with beauty seem less excessive.”

Archaeology Vol 62 No. 1: 36-42

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