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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Royal Celtic burial site uncovered in France

Archaeologists uncovered the tomb dating from the fifth century BC in an industrial zone in the small town of Lavau, in France’s Champagne region. Inrap, which routinely scours construction sites in order to find and preserve the country’s archaeological heritage, began excavating at Lavau site in October 2014.

A 40-metre-wide burial mound of the Celtic ruler crowns a larger funeral complex, which archaeologists said preceded the royal’s final resting place, and could have first been built during the Bronze Age.

The prince was buried with his prized possessions, which archaeologists said were still being unearthed.

The most exciting find has been a large bronze-decorated cauldron that was used to store watered-down wine. Inrap said it appears to have been made by Etruscan craftsmen in what is now northern Italy.

Buried inside the cauldron was a surprisingly-well preserved ceramic wine pitcher made by Greeks.

The pieces “are evidence of the exchanges that happened between the Mediterranean and the Celts,” Inrap president Dominique Garcia recently told journalists on a field visit.

Garcia said the end of the sixth and beginning of the fifth centuries BC were characterised by the rise of Etruscan and Greek city states like Marseille in southern France.

Mediterranean merchants, seeking slaves, metals and other precious goods, opened trading channels with continental Celts, and often presented ornate goods as “a kind of diplomatic gifts” to local leaders, Garcia said.

View high-res image slideshow here.

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German archeologists uncover Celtic treasure

From Spiegel:

German archeologists have unearthed a 2,600-year-old Celtic tomb containing a treasure of jewellery made of gold, amber and bronze.

The subterranean chamber measuring four by five meters was uncovered near the prehistoric Heuneburg hill fort near the town of Herbertingen in south-western Germany. Its contents including the oak floor of the room are unusually well preserved. The find is a “milestone for the reconstruction of the social history of the Celts,” archeologist Dirk Krausse, the director of the dig, said on Tuesday.

The intact oak should allow archeologists to ascertain the precise age of the tomb through tree-ring dating. This is rarely possible with Celtic finds because the Celts left behind no writings and their buildings, usually made from wood and clay, have long since crumbled away.

Krausse said the artefacts found suggest that a woman from the Heuneburg aristocracy was buried there, but added that laboratory tests will need to be conducted to be certain. Only a small part of the chamber has so far been examined.

The entire room weighing some 80 tons was lifted by two cranes onto a flatbed truck and taken to a research facility in Ludwigsburg on Tuesday. The results of the analysis will be presented in June 2011, researchers said.

Heuneburg is regarded as one of the most important Celtic settlements and was a vital trading center during the period between 620 and 480 BC. Intensive excavation has taken place at the site since 1950. Other tombs found at Heuneburg over the decades had already been plundered.

The tomb and the objects are to go on show in an exhibition in Stuttgart in 2012.

From Spiegel.

The oldest burial documented in Mesoamerica?

From guardian.co.uk:

Archaeologists in southern Mexico have discovered the 2,700-year-old tomb of a dignitary inside a pyramid that may be the oldest such burial documented in Mesoamerica.

The tomb held a man aged about 50, who was buried with jade collars, pyrite and obsidian artefacts and ceramic vessels. Archaeologist Emiliano Gallaga said the tomb dates to between 500 and 700BC.

“We think this is one of the earliest discoveries of the use of a pyramid as a tomb, not only as a religious site or temple,” Gallaga said.

Pre-Hispanic cultures built pyramids mainly as representations of the levels leading from the underworld to the sky; the highest point usually held a temple.

The tomb was found at a site built by Zoque Indians in Chiapa de Corzo, in southern Chiapas state. It may be almost 1,000 years older than the better-known pyramid tomb of the Mayan ruler Pakal at the Palenque archaeological site, also in Chiapas.

The man – probably a high priest or ruler of Chiapa de Corzo, a prominent settlement at the time – was buried in a stone chamber. Marks in the wall indicate wooden roof supports were used to create the tomb, but the wood long ago collapsed under the weight of the pyramid built above…

Read the rest of this article here.

This discovery is also featured here.

Archaeologists find door to the afterlife

The recessed niches found in nearly all ancient Egyptian tombs were meant to take the spirits of the dead to and from the afterworld. The nearly six-foot- tall (1.75 meters) slab of pink granite was covered with religious texts.

The door came from the tomb of User, the chief minister of Queen Hatshepsut, a powerful, 15th century BC queen from the New Kingdom with a famous mortuary temple near Luxor in southern Egypt.

User held the position of vizier for 20 years, also acquiring the titles of prince and mayor of the city, according to the inscriptions. He may have inherited his position from his father.

Viziers in ancient Egypt were powerful officials tasked with the day-to-day running of the kingdom’s complex bureaucracy.

As a testament to his importance, User had his own tomb on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, where royal kings and queens were also buried. A chapel dedicated to him has also been discovered further south in the hills near Aswan.

The stone itself was long way from its tomb and had apparently been removed from the grave and then incorporated into the wall of a Roman-era building, more than a thousand years later.

False doors were placed in the west walls of tombs and faced offering tables where food and drink were left for the spirit of the deceased.

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Did Howard Carter steal from The Tomb?

Howard Carter, the British explorer who opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, will forever be associated with the greatest trove of artifacts from ancient Egypt. But was he also a thief?

Dawn was breaking as Howard Carter took up a crowbar to pry open the sealed tomb door in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. With shaking hands, he held a candle to the fissure, now wafting out 3,300-year-old air. What did he see, those behind him wanted to know. The archaeologist could do no more than stammer, “Wonderful things!”

This scene from Thebes in November, 1922, is considered archaeology’s finest hour. Howard Carter, renowned as the “last, greatest treasure seeker of the modern age,” had arrived at his goal.

Carter obtained about 5,000 objects from the four burial chambers, including furniture, jars of perfume, flyswatters, and ostrich feathers — the whole place was a dream of jasper, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. He even discovered a ceremonial staff adorned with beetles’ wings.

The “unexpected treasures,” as Carter described them, suddenly brought to light an Egyptian king previously almost unknown — Tutankhamun, born approximately 1340 B.C., who ascended the throne as a child. A statue shows the boy king with chubby cheeks and a delicate face. Tutankhamun later married his older sister and conceived two children with her, both born prematurely. The fetuses were found in small but magnificent coffins.

The king died at the age of 18. An ardent racer — six of his chariots were also discovered in the tomb — who often went ostrich hunting in the Eastern Desert with his dog, Tutankhamun may have suffered a chariot accident and died of subsequent blood poisoning.

Lotus Flowers and Nightshade Berries

Interest in the young Egyptian monarch remains high today. An exhibit of replicas currently on show in Hamburg has drawn 150,000 visitors to date. Nothing even nearly comparable has ever been recovered from these earliest periods of human culture. With 27 gloves, 427 arrows, 12 stools, 69 chests, and 34 throwing sticks, the sheer volume of objects is breathtaking.

When Carter first opened the cavern, it still smelled of embalming oil. Lotus flowers and nightshade berries still rested on the coffins.

The grandeur of the find rubbed off on its discoverer. Carter was awarded an honorary doctorate and US President Calvin Coolidge invited him to tea. Horst Beinlich, Egyptologist at Würzburg University, calls him a “thoroughly honest man full of idealism.”

It appears, however, that this isn’t quite true. Documents show that the hero of the tombs cheated on many counts, manipulating photographs, forging documentation on the discovery and deceiving the Egyptian Antiquities Service.

The discoveries in that tomb set in motion a power struggle that has been only partially uncovered. Carter wanted to send as much of the treasure as possible to England and the United States. This plan quickly met with resistance. Egypt had been a British protectorate since 1914, but the administration of antiques lay in the hands of a particularly intractable Frenchman.

In the end, Carter’s entire scheme went awry and the pharaoh’s golden treasures remained in Cairo, marking the end of an era of ruthless appropriation of cultural assets. Carter and his team went away empty-handed.

Pocketing This and That

Or at least, that was the official word. Secretly, however, the Carter team helped themselves, despite lacking authorization. Objects in several museums have now been revealed to belong to Tutankhamun’s treasures.

The most recent example is a small ushabti, or servant for the dead, made of white faience and standing in the Louvre. On a recent visit to the Paris museum, Egyptologist Christian Loeben couldn’t believe his eyes. “Tutankhamun’s throne name is written on the figure,” he explains. “It can only have come from his tomb.”

Forbidden treasures in the form of two golden hawk’s heads were also found in Kansas City. Examination revealed them to be part of a collar that had lain directly on the mummy’s skin, which was coated with 20 liters (5 gallons) of embalming oil. The jewelry broke when it was pulled away, and Carter collected the pieces to give as a present to his dentist.

Objects of Tutankhamun’s have also wound up in Germany. A museum director in the state of Saxony, who wishes to remain anonymous, confessed to SPIEGEL that he is in possession of several blue faience beads. “Carter pocketed them as the tomb chambers were being cleaned and later gave them to his secretary,” he says. The museum director came across these dubious items through an auction house.

‘Unstamped Things’

Such handling of foreign property only serves to strengthen a suspicion Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, raised in the 1970s. Based on internal file notes, he documented cases in which Carter and his partner, the English Earl of Carnarvon, allowed their fingers to wander. They gave a clasp that showed the pharaoh on a war chariot as a present to Egyptian King Fouad I, for example. American oil baron Edward Harkness received a gold ring.

Carnarvon himself was looking for a fresh supply of such treasures. He wanted “unstamped things,” he wrote from Highclere Castle to Thebes on December 22, 1922, meaning pieces without a cartouche containing a name, so that they would be difficult to identify.

Carter was only caught in the act once. He’d slipped a painted bust of the young pharaoh into a side chamber, without a registration number. Inspectors discovered the bust, a “masterpiece of antique sculpture” in Hoving’s words, in a wine crate. The archaeologist talked his way out of the situation, and the scandal was never made public.

Most of the time, Carter’s subterfuge worked. A series of mostly small objects disappeared. Who stole what when — and where the pieces ended up — remains one of Egyptology’s greatest mysteries.

Ancient Tomb Robbers?

What’s known for sure is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone contains around 20 objects presumed to have originated from KV 62, Tutankhamun’s tomb. These include a small dog made of ivory, a gazelle, rings, a splendid painter’s palette, and even two silver coffin nails.

The Brooklyn Museum has in its possession, among other things, a statue of a girl, an ointment spoon, and a blue glass vase. A cat carved from black hematite turned up in Cleveland. The owners release very little information on the disputed objects.

“Nobody likes to talk about these unpleasant things,” explains Loeben, the Egyptologist. In England, Carter is known as a brilliant counterpart to Heinrich Schliemann, the German archeologist who excavated ancient Troy. That Carter earned his money through antique dealing, though, is normally hushed up.

The most recent allegations go further. Carter is said to have fudged archaeological facts, leading generations of researchers astray. The focal point of the criticism is Carter’s theory that the tomb had been looted multiple times in antiquity.

Thieves broke into the sanctuary “immediately following the burial rituals,” Carter wrote. Backed up by corrupt necropolis officials, they ransacked all the tomb’s chambers, he claimed, and other bandits later came and stole cosmetic oils.

The archaeologist gave signs of a break-in as proof, saying he had to force his way through a series of doors that had been broken open and then re-sealed by necropolis guards, all in ancient times.

Robbers With a Thing for Small Jewelry

Carter described the robbers’ destruction in vivid detail. Chests had been rifled through and stoppers pulled from alabaster vases and thrown to the ground, he said. The robbers had torn ornamentation made of precious metals from the furniture and chariots, as well as stealing a 30-centimeter (12-inch) solid gold statue.

That scenario represents the prevailing opinion today. In his standard work “The Complete Tutankhamun,” British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves accepts the figure that 60 percent of the tomb’s small ornaments and jewelry were lost. But is it true? No independent witnesses were present when Carter first entered the tomb.

It’s also clear that he lied on at least a few points. Alfred Lucas, one of Carter’s employees, revealed that his boss secretly broke open the door to the burial chamber himself, afterward relocking it with deceptive authenticity using an antique seal, to hide his transgression. That report appeared in 1947, but only in a little-read scientific journal in Cairo. Hardly anyone took notice.

‘The Break-In Was Faked’

Hoving’s revelations in the 1970s similarly attracted little interest. Many saw him as fouling the nest.

But suspicions continue to grow, especially among German Egyptologists, who doubt that the looting of the tomb in antique times really played out the way Carter described. “Much of the story is exaggerated,” Loeben believes. His colleague Rolf Krauss goes further and says, “The break-in was faked.”

Feeding these suspicions are articles 9 and 10 of the excavation license, which allowed goods from a tomb to be contractually divided up only if it had been previously robbed. If a pharaoh’s tomb was found intact, all its contents would go to Egypt.

“Under these conditions, it’s clear the discoverers must have tried construe the state of their find in their favor,” is Krauss’ analysis. This casts a dubious light on the man considered a leader in his field.

The Ambitious Young Carter

The son of an artist known for his portraits of animals, Carter arrived in Egypt in 1891, when Victorian-era colonialism was at its height. The young man developed a knack for finding hidden burial chambers. Before hitting it big with Tutankhamun’s tomb, Carter had already found three other royal tombs — all of them empty. He liked being connected to the powerful, working intermittently for American millionaire and amateur archaeologist Theodore Davis.

The young Carter was somewhat awkward in his personal interactions. After coming to blows with some French tourists, he lost his job as inspector for the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Carter was stubborn and hot-tempered, Hoving says, adding, “Few people could be around him for an extended period without being driven up the wall.” But his knack for finding tombs is undisputed. Starting in 1907, Carter began his obsessive pursuit of the child pharaoh whose corpse had never been found, hunting every possible clue.

Eventually he defined a triangle in the Valley of the Kings. The untouched sanctuary would be found there, he believed, somewhere under the mounds of detritus.

Carter quickly found a sponsor for the plan, although dozens had failed before him in the same pursuit. Lord Carnarvon was in poor health after a serious car accident, but the nobleman dandy, who had once circumnavigated the globe, had a mania for eerie shrines to the dead and embalmed mummies.

The Path to Tutankhamun

During the Tutankhamun project, Carnarvon’s teeth fell out one after another, and he died of an inflamed mosquito bite five months later — the beginnings of the myth of the “curse of the pharaoh.”

Carter didn’t have an easy time either. Oppressed by the heat and buffeted by dusty winds, he urged on a team of local laborers. One unsuccessful season followed another. After four years, the group was only a few centimeters from the discovery site. Suddenly, though, the boss withdrew his workers and continued the dig elsewhere.

There is a strong case for the theory that Carter had tracked down the entrance to the tomb at this point, but kept silent for tactical reasons, keeping a trump card up his sleeve. It can be said, at the very least, that when Carnarvon wanted to cut off funds in the summer of 1922, things moved surprisingly fast. Carter returned to Britain and begged for financial backing for one last campaign.

‘A Magnificent Tomb With Seals Intact’

Hardly had he arrived back in Thebes, or so runs the legend, when an assistant dashed into the excavation tent and reported a sensational find — a buried set of stairs leading down to a sealed door. Was there intrigue behind this announcement? A half brother of Lord Carnarvon thought so. He claimed Carter had crept secretly into the underground chambers three months before.

The official story is that Carter, by his own account, felt “almost overwhelmed” by the urge to break open the irksome door, but resisted, and buried the stairs once again. The next day, November 6, 1922, he cabled Lord Carnarvon, “At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same for your arrival. Congratulations.”

Then he waited more than two weeks, ostensibly without taking any action, for his chain-smoking sponsor to arrive. Carnarvon traveled to Luxor by ship, railroad, and steamboat on the Nile. Together with his daughter Evelyn, then 21, he alighted at the glamorous Winter Palace Hotel and rushed, having barely slept, to the Valley of the Kings. Not until then did the men open the sealed door, whose mortar showed clues of a previous break-in.

Behind it lay a corridor filled with rubble.

By afternoon on November 26, the workers had removed the debris and exposed a further walled-in doorway. Carter managed to clear a peephole in the blockade, and caught a glimpse of the “wonderful things” in the antechamber.

Again and again, authors have attested to this “solemn moment,” in which the archaeologist looked in on that “eternal place,” dazzled, spellbound, awed — yet managing to keep his head. Then, according to the excavation leader, he stopped, in order to notify the Egyptian inspector general as duty required.

Carter’s words: “We had seen enough. We plugged the hole again.”

Lord Carnarvon’s Alternate Story

All that is a lie. What really took place can be gathered from a report — to this day never published, but studied in detail by Hoving — that Lord Carnarvon wrote shortly before his death. Instead of waiting dutifully as regulations required, the party forced its way through the narrow opening right away.

Using tallow candles and a weak electrical lamp, the interlopers first entered the antechamber. Golden beds and beautifully carved chairs were piled up in the narrow room, as well as gaming tables and precious vases. Oval basins held food for the dead pharaoh.

Animal figures shone from the posts of gilded litters, monstrous in the weak cone of light from the lamp. The explorers moved chests, trampled brittle woven baskets, and pocketed perfume jars, opening chests in the side chamber as well.

But the most important question remained: Where was the mummy? At last the intruders discovered another bricked-in entranceway, framed by two life-sized black sentinels. Although being found out would have cost them their license, the group broke blocks of stone away from the door. And everyone pushed their way through.

Now they stood inside the room with the four gilded wooden shrines, each inside the next, with four coffins nested inside. In the innermost of these lay the mummy, with a beaded skullcap on its shaved head. Carter rattled the outermost door and the hinges sprang open, creaking. It wasn’t until yet another seal obstructed his progress that he paused, with a shiver.

A Holy Mess

The conspirators left the underground tomb chambers hours later. Overwhelmed and blissful, they rode home by donkey in the wan moonlight, agreeing to keep silent about their activities. Only Lady Evelyn hinted at the events of that night in a letter, thanking Carter for taking her into that “most holy place.”

The negative scientific consequences of those nighttime misdoings are still felt to this day. No one knows how the tomb really looked in its untouched state. Carter always attributed this to the barbarism of ancient thieves — but the chaos in the tomb could just as well have been caused by Carter himself.

In any case, he exaggerated the damages, asserting for example that seals were already broken off the jugs of wine. But where, in that case, are the remains of those seals? Carter also claimed that objects had been stolen out of the chests. “But that can’t be substantiated using the content labels attached to the chests,” Loeben says.

Loeben also considers the claim that previous thieves had broken off golden figures from the wagons absurd: “That kind of ornamentation didn’t even exist.”

Thus the suspicion remains that the tomb’s discoverer systematically lied and misled. He wanted to present Tutankhamun’s tomb as already defiled, hoping in this way to obtain permission to remove half of the finds from the country, in accordance with the license agreement.

That the British explorer left empty-handed after all had to do with Carnarvon’s untimely death in April 1923. With Carnarvon went the excavation license, and the cards were reshuffled. Even the US State Department intervened — on Carter’s side — in the political and legal tug-of-war that ensued.

In the end, Egypt won. Carnarvon’s heirs received £36,000 (about $137,000 at the time) in compensation for costs incurred by the excavation.

‘The Very Footprints…’

It can hardly be denied any longer that antique dealer Howard Carter grabbed Tutankhamun’s valuables and helped himself to artifacts from the 3,300-year-old tomb. The details of the swindle, however, have only come to light in bits and pieces.

Carter’s theory of grave robbery in ancient times has also lost most of its clout. It has become increasingly clear that his arguments are often based on exaggerations — or are simply nonsense.

The British archaeologist claimed, for example, to have discovered “the very footprints of the last intruder” on a white bow case.

Krauss, the German Egyptologist, examined the photographic evidence from the 1920s. “A footprint is indeed visible in the photograph,” he explains, “However, it was made not by Egyptian sandals, but by modern shoes with heels.”

His suspicion? “They could be Howard Carter’s own prints.”

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