News & Current Affairs

September 22, 2008

Dig pinpoints Stonehenge origins

Dig pinpoints Stonehenge origins

Archaeologists have pinpointed the construction of Stonehenge to 2300 BC – a key step to discovering how and why the mysterious temple was built.

The radiocarbon date is said to be the most accurate yet and means the ring’s original bluestones were put up 300 years later than previously thought.

The dating is the major finding from an excavation inside the henge by Profs Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright.

The duo found evidence suggesting Stonehenge was a center of healing.

Others have argued that the monument was a shrine to worship ancestors, or a calendar to mark the solstices.

A documentary following the progress of the recent dig has been recorded by the BBC Timewatch series. It will be broadcast on Saturday 27 September.

Date demand

For centuries, archaeologists have marvelled at the construction of Stonehenge, which lies on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire.

Mineral analysis indicates that the original circle of bluestones was transported to the plain from a site 240km (150 miles) away, in the Preseli hills, South Wales.

This extraordinary feat suggests the stones were thought to harbor great powers.

Trench

The dig was the first inside the ring since 1946

Professors Darvill and Wainwright believe that Stonehenge was a center of healing – a “Neolithic Lourdes”, to which the sick and injured traveled from far and wide, to be healed by the powers of the bluestones.

They note that “an abnormal number” of the corpses found in tombs nearby Stonehenge display signs of serious physical injury and disease.

And analysis of teeth recovered from graves show that “around half” of the corpses were from people who were “not native to the Stonehenge area”.

“Stonehenge would attract not only people who were unwell, but people who were capable of [healing] them,” said Professor Darvill, of Bournemouth University.

“Therefore, in a sense, Stonehenge becomes ‘the A & E’ of southern England.”

Modern techniques

But without a reliable carbon date for the construction of Stonehenge, it has been difficult to establish this, or any other, theory.

Until now, the consensus view for the date of the first stone circle was anywhere between 2600 BC and 2400 BC.

To cement the date once and for all, Professors Darvill and Wainwright were granted permission by English Heritage to excavate a patch of earth just 2.5m x 3.5m, in between the two circles of giant sarsen stones.

In the stone socket

The key was to get organic matter from the bluestone sockets

The dig unearthed about 100 pieces of organic material from the original bluestone sockets, now buried under the monument. Of these, 14 were selected to be sent for modern carbon dating, at Oxford University.

The result – 2300 BC – is the most reliable date yet for the erection of the first bluestones.

Strictly speaking, the result was rounded down to “between 2400 BC and 2200 BC” – but 2300BC is taken as the average.

An even more precise date will be produced in the coming months.

“It’s an incredible feeling, a dream come true,” said Professor Wainwright, formerly chief archaeologist at English Heritage.

“We told the world we were going to date Stonehenge. That was a risk, but I was always confident,” said Professor Darvill.

Intriguingly, the date range ties in closely with the date for the burial of the so-called “Amesbury Archer”, whose tomb was discovered three miles from Stonehenge.

Some archaeologists believe the Archer is the key to understanding why Stonehenge was built.

Analysis of his corpse and artefacts from his grave indicate he was a wealthy and powerful man, with knowledge of metal working, who had traveled to Salisbury from Alpine Europe, for reasons unknown.

Post mortem examinations show that he suffered from both a serious knee injury and a potentially fatal dental problem, leading Darvill and Wainwright to conclude that the Archer came to Stonehenge to be healed.

But without an accurate date for Stonehenge, it was not even clear whether the temple existed while the Archer was alive.

His remains have been dated between 2500 BC and 2300 BC – within the same period that the first stone circle was erected.

“It’s quite extraordinary that the date of the Amesbury Archer is identical with our new date for the bluestones of Stonehenge,” said Professor Darvill.

“These two things happening within living memory of each other for sure is something very, very important.”

Earliest occupation

Professor Wainwright added: “Was the Amesbury Archer, as some have suggested, the person responsible for the building of Stonehenge? I think the answer to that is almost certainly ‘no’.

“But did he travel there to be healed? Did he limp, or was he carried, all the way from Switzerland to Wiltshire, because he had heard of the miraculous healing properties of Stonehenge? ‘Yes, absolutely’.

“Tim and I are quite convinced that people went to Stonehenge to get well. But Stonehenge probably had more than one purpose, so I have no problem with other people’s interpretations.”

Skull

All theories about Stonehenge must follow an accurate dating

Among other key finds, the team uncovered organic material that indicates people inhabited the Stonehenge site as long ago as 7200 BC – more than 3,500 years earlier than anything previously known.

They also found that bluestone chippings outnumbered sarsen stone chippings by three to one – which Wainwright takes to be a sign of their value.

“It could be that people were flaking off pieces of bluestone, in order to create little bits to take away… as lucky amulets,” he said.

The duo are preparing to publish an academic report of their excavation, and will announce their findings to their peers next month, in a lecture at London’s Society of Antiquaries.

Ongoing debate

Experts on Stonehenge said the new date was a major milestone in understanding Britain’s most famous monument.

Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, of Wessex Archaeology, said: “This is a great result – a very important one.

“The date of Stonehenge had been blowing in the wind. But this anchors it. It helps us to be secure about the chronology of events.

Darvill and Wainwright

Profs Darvill and Wainwright believe their ideas hold true

“The theory that it was a center of healing is certainly a plausible one, but I don’t think we can rule out the other main competing theory – that the temple was a meeting point between the land of the living and the dead.

“I am not yet persuaded that the Amesbury Archer came to Stonehenge to be healed. I favour the interpretation that he was one of the earliest metal workers, who travelled to the area to make a living from his skills.

“In any case, it is still not clear if his burial predated Stonehenge.”

Dave Batchelor, Stonehenge curator at English Heritage, said: “We are pleased that the professors’ precision in targeting that small area of turf and their rigorous standards in archaeological excavations have produced such a rich collection of physical evidence.

“We are looking forward to seeing the results of the full analysis, but from what we understand so far, we believe they have added valuable information to the chronology of Stonehenge.”

August 26, 2008

Huge statue of Roman ruler found

Huge statue of Roman ruler found


Marcus Aurelius ruled over the empire for 19 years

Parts of a giant, exquisitely carved marble sculpture depicting the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius have been found at an archaeological site in Turkey.

Fragments of the statue were unearthed at the ancient city of Sagalassos.

So far the statue’s head, right arm and lower legs have been discovered, high in the mountains of southern Turkey.

Marcus Aurelius was portrayed by Richard Harris in the Oscar-winning 2000 film Gladiator and was one of the so-called “Five Good Emperors”.

He reigned from 161AD until his death in 180AD.

In addition to his deeds as emperor, Marcus Aurelius is remembered for his writings, and is considered one of the foremost Stoic philosophers.

The partial statue was unearthed in the largest room at Sagalassos’s Roman baths.

The cross-shaped room measures 1,250 sq m (13,500 sq ft), is covered in mosaics and was probably used as a frigidarium – a room with a cold pool which Romans could sink into after a hot bath.

It was partially destroyed in an earthquake between 540AD and 620AD, filling the room with rubble. Archaeologists have been excavating the frigidarium for the past 12 years.

The dig is part of wider excavations at the ruined city, which was once an important regional center.

Imperial gallery

Last year, the team led by Prof Marc Waelkens, from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, uncovered fragments of a colossal marble statue of the emperor Hadrian in the rubble.

This month, the researchers found a huge head and arm belonging to Faustina the Elder – wife of the emperor Antoninus Pius.

Archaeologists now think the room hosted a gallery of sculptures depicting the “Antonine dynasty” – rulers of Spanish origin who presided over the Roman Empire during the second century AD.

Foot of Marcus Aurelius statue (Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

The emperor wore army boots decorated with lion skins

Early on 20 August, a huge pair of marble lower legs, broken just above the knee, turned up in the debris.

They also found a 1.5m-long (5ft-long) right arm and hand holding a globe which was probably once crowned by a gilded bronze “Victory” figure.

But it was the giant marble head which identified this statue as the young Marcus Aurelius. The colossal head, which is just under 1m (3ft) in height, is said to bear his characteristic bulging eyes and beard.

Prof Waelkens said the pupils were gazing upwards “as if in deep contemplation, perfectly fitting of an emperor who was more of a philosopher than a soldier”.

He added that this was one of the finest depictions of the Roman ruler.

The emperor wore exquisitely carved army boots decorated with a lion skin, tendrils and Amazon shields.

The torso was probably covered in bronze Armour filled inside with terracotta or wood. When the niche’s vault collapsed in the earthquake, the torso would have exploded.

Bath complex

The statue of Hadrian was found lying halfway down in the frigidarium‘s rubble.

This initially led archaeologists to think it had been hauled in there from another part of the huge bath complex, perhaps to remove its gilded bronze armour, or to burn the huge marble pieces to make cement in a nearby lime kiln.

However, they now think sculptures of Hadrian, his wife Vibia Sabina, another Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, his wife Faustina the Elder, and Marcus Aurelius all once adorned niches situated around the room.

There were three large niches on both the western and eastern sides. The fragments of Hadrian’s statue were found near the south-west niche.

The front parts of two female feet were discovered in the opposite niche, on the room’s south-eastern side.

Arm and hand of Marcus Aurelius (Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

The remains of a globe can still be seen, cupped in the right hand

The archaeologists now think these belonged to a colossal figure of Vibia Sabina, who was forced into marriage with the homosexual Hadrian at the age of 14.

Remains of the statue depicting Faustina the Elder were found further along, on the eastern side.

In the opposite niche, they found the front parts of a pair of male feet in sandals, which could belong to her husband, Antoninus Pius – who succeeded Hadrian as emperor.

The experts suggest Antonine emperors occupied niches on the western side of the room, while their spouses stood opposite, on the east side.

Five good emperors

After the discovery of Faustina and her male counterpart, the archaeologists guessed the north-western niche would contain a colossal statue of Marcus Aurelius – the longest-surviving successor of Antoninus Pius.

The discovery on Wednesday confirmed this prediction, and suggests the north-eastern niche may contain remains of a statue depicting Faustina the Younger, Marcus Aurelius’s wife.

Archaeologists will get the opportunity to excavate this part of the room next year.

Lower legs of Marcus Aurelius statue (Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

The statue of Marcus Aurelius stood in the north-western niche

Despite his philosophical leanings, Marcus Aurelius had to spend much of his reign fighting Germanic tribes along the Austrian Danube where, inĀ  180AD, he died in nearby Carnuntum.

The part of Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator was one of Richard Harri’s last roles (the actor died in 2002). Although much of the storyline is fictional, it is set against an historical backdrop of the imperial succession from Marcus Aurelius to his son Commodus.

While Marcus Aurelius is considered, along with Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, as one of Rome’s Five Good Emperors, Commodus’s reign was marked by internal strife, cruelty and conspiracies.

Commodus took part, naked, in gladiatorial battles – which he always won. Opponents, whose lives were apparently spared, would eventually submit to the emperor.

He was murdered in 192AD – not by a general called Maximus, but by an athlete named Narcissus, sent by conspirators to strangle the megalomaniac emperor in his bath.

August 14, 2008

Head of Roman empress unearthed

Head of Roman empress unearthed

The facial features told excavators they were on to something very new

Archaeologists digging in Turkey have found the colossal marble head of a Roman empress.

It was discovered in a rubble-filled building where parts of a huge statue of the emperor Hadrian were unearthed last year.

The discovery, at the ancient site of Sagalassos, is thought to show Faustina the Elder, wife of Roman emperor Antoninus Pius.

Sagalassos was once an important urban centre.

It was abandoned after being hit by several strong earthquakes.

A team led by Marc Waelkens, from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, has been excavating the site since 1990.

The head of Faustina was lying face down in rubble that fills the ruins of a bath house that was partially destroyed by an earthquake between AD 540 and AD 620.

It was unearthed just 6m from the spot where the Hadrian statue was found, but was sitting higher up in the rubble.

Emperor’s line

At first, exacavators thought they had found a statue belonging to Hadrian’s wife, Vibia Sabina, who was forced into a marriage with the homosexual emperor at the age of 14.

But when they turned it over, the face was very different from the usual depictions of Sabina. This was a more mature woman with fleshy lips and a distinctive hairstyle.

Sagalassos Map

Experts said most of the features of the head identify the woman as Faustina the Elder. She married Hadrian’s successor as emperor and adopted son, Antoninus Pius.

Faustina was well respected, especially for her charity work. She enjoyed a happy marriage to Antoninus which lasted 31 years until her death in AD 141. In her memory, Antoninus formally deified her as a goddess.

The building in which the statues were found at Sagalassos was probably a “frigidarium” – a room with a cold pool which Romans could dip into after a hot bath.

It is part of a larger bath complex that is being carefully uncovered by archaeologists.

The fragments were found not on the floor of the frigidarium – beneath the rubble from the earthquake – but higher up in the debris pile.

More discoveries

This suggests they did not originally stand in this room, but were hauled there from elsewhere in the bath complex – probably from the “Kaisersaal”, or emperor’s room.

They speculate that the Kaisersaal once hosted statues of Hadrian, Faustina the Elder and other members of Rome’s so-called Antonine dynasty – many of whom belonged to a Spanish or southern French provincial aristocracy.

The Hadrian statue was probably brought to the frigidarium either to remove its gilded armour or to be burned to cement in a nearby kiln.

The fragments are now on display at the exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict at the British Museum in London.

But the frigidarium did have colossal statues of its own. On the floor of the room, experts have found the front parts of two huge female feet, surrounded by mosaics that follow the contours of the statue’s long dress.

Hadrian (Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

The statue of the emperor Hadrian was unearthed last year

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