Drought Reveals Iraqi Archaeological Treasures

by Lourdes Garcia-Navarro

March 20, 2009


Iraq is suffering one of the worst droughts in decades. While this is bad news for farmers, it is good news for archaeologists in the country.


The receding waters of the Euphrates River have revealed ancient archaeological sites, some of which were unknown until now.


For Ratib Ali al-Kubaisi, the director of Anbar province's Antiquities Department, the drought has opened up a whole new land of opportunity.


He explains that civilization began in Anbar, next to the Euphrates River.


"Everyone … thought that Anbar was only desert with no historical importance. But we discovered that this area is one of the most important archaeological areas in all of Iraq. This part of Iraq was the first to be settled," he says.


In the mid-1980s, Saddam Hussein's government dammed the Euphrates in the area, flooding a 120-mile-long stretch of land near Iraq's border with Syria.


What once was an enormous reservoir that stretched as far as the eye could see has shrunk an astonishing 90 percent since summer, officials say.


Ratib says that at least 75 archeological sites had been partially excavated before the area was flooded. They ran the gamut of civilizations — from 3,000 B.C. to the Sumerian and Roman periods. Ancient Jewish settlements were also submerged in the area. But because of the receding waters, Ratib has been able to access some sites for the first time — including, for instance, a cliff with a series of pre-Christian tombs carved into its face. Though they have been heavily damaged by the water, Ratib says they still have value.


"I wish we could excavate these sites again. If we had the money and the resources, we could complete the work we began all those years ago," he says.


But it's not only previously discovered archaeological sites that the drought has made accessible.


Ratib and a colleague are suddenly excited by something they've seen on this particular day. They kneel next to what looks like an old stone wall, shards of pottery everywhere. Ratib says he believes it is a Roman-era irrigation ditch.


"I've never seen this site before," he says. "When we excavated this area decades ago, this was all buried underneath the soil, but the receding waters uncovered it."


It's an unexpected discovery, but on the heels of their elation comes concern.


Ratib says he is worried the area will be looted. In all of Anbar, just 10 guards protect vulnerable archaeological sites.


"The area is rich with things. You can find jewelry, coins and documents — all these things are temptations for professional thieves," he says.


Or others who are just struggling to survive.


While the drought has been good for archaeologists, it has been terrible for the fishermen who rely on the Euphrates for their livelihood.


"The river level is very low, it's the lowest it has ever been that we can remember," says fisherman Sa'ad Naji. "It's frightening. The fishermen have no work anymore."


The river here is only about 3-to-4-feet deep. Sa'ad says strange structures now jut out of the water. He points to what looks like a stone arch that stands crumbling, lapped by muddy waves. He says those aren't the only things archeologists have discovered.


"About a year ago when the waters started to recede, these artifacts began to show up. We began looking around the area, and we found clay jars and old bones, coins and even some gold jewelry," he says.


For now, he says, the looting is confined to mostly local people who don't know the value of what they've taken.


Back on shore, Ratib says excitedly he will ask Baghdad's central government for money to begin new excavations and to protect the sites.


"I will demand that we rescan the whole area. And if they have the budget, we will start work on it immediately," he says.


But he acknowledges there will probably not be enough money. If we can't excavate, he says ruefully, we can at least announce our new discoveries.



Egypt unveils pharaonic embalming bed



Egyptian antiquities authorities on Thursday revealed an ancient pharaonic embalming bed unearthed from a mysterious tomb near Luxor used to prepare bodies for mummification more than 3,000 years ago.


The wooden bed was painstakingly restored after being discovered in pieces in the KV-63 tomb in southern Egypt's famous Valley of the Kings, next to Tutankhamun's tomb, the Supreme Council of Antiquities said in a statement.


The bed, featuring carved heads of a lion and a lioness at its foot, slopes downwards five centimetres (two inches) from head to toe to help drain bodies being prepared for mummification.


Bodies had their organs removed as soon as possible after death, including the brain which was thrown away as it was thought to serve no purpose in the afterlife.


The heart was left in the body, with other organs cleaned, perfumed and preserved in jars to be buried with the mummy.


Afterwards, the corpse spent 40 days on the bed for draining of fluids, and another 15 days being bandaged.


Antiquities supremo Zahi Hawass said in a statement that the 170-cm- (68-inch-) long bed had been reconstructed from pieces of wood found scattered around tomb KV-63.


Luxor antiquities director Mansour Bouriq told AFP that unlike most beds found in tombs, this one was not ceremonial but actually used for embalming.


"We believe this was a room used for embalming because we found some embalming materials, including herbs, oils and pottery vessels," he said.


Tomb KV-63 was discovered by Egyptian and US archaeologists in 2006, the first to be found in the area in more than 80 years.


It is believed to date from the 8th dynasty (1570-1304 BC), although there was no mummy found inside to enable the tomb to be dated more precisely.



New treasure joins Herculaneum show

Major exhibition explores life in ancient Roman town

(ANSA) - Naples, March 17


A new treasure from Herculaneum was unveiled in Naples on Tuesday, where it will join a major exhibition exploring life in the Ancient Roman town buried by Vesuvius in 79 AD. The show, running until April 13, already features over 150 artefacts and human remains uncovered over the last three centuries but the new relief, uncovered by accident last month, is stirring fresh interest. The marble sculpture, dating back to the 1st century AD, apparently depicts two separate scenes centred on Dionysius, the Greek counterpart of Ancient Rome's god of wine and merrymaking, Bacchus.


''The relief is particularly fascinating for scholars as we are not yet certain exactly the tale that is being reproduced on the work,'' explained Herculaneum's excavation chief Maria Paola Guidobaldi.


''It almost certainly shows Dionysius and what appears to be one of his female followers, a Maenad, dancing. However, there are also two other figures, one with men's hair and the other wearing female clothes that aren't yet clear.


''Nor are we certain what gift is being offered to Dionysius. It was very probably some kind of offering, perhaps a thanksgiving, much as people make today to patron saints''. The Greek marble relief was uncovered by accident in Herculaneum on February 18, during regular maintenance work.


It was located in a luxurious residential building on the northwest block of the town, which has only been partly excavated so far. The relief was fixed in the eastern wall of a large room, at about two metres above the ground. It appears to have been designed as a partner for another relief, located at the same level on the southern wall of the room, which was removed in 1997. ''The find is particularly important owing to the interpretation of the scene it shows, which is still an open question,'' said Pompeii Superintendent Pietro Giovanni Guzzo. ''So far no one has been able to find a connection between the two separate scenes dividing the relief, the dancer and the homage to Dionysius''.


The show is already hosting dozens of statues, skeletons, artefacts and textiles from the small seaside town south of Naples, which was destroyed in the same eruption that buried Pompeii on August 24, 79 AD.


While Pompeii was covered by hot ash and lava, its less famous neighbour disappeared under an avalanche of molten rock. This mingled with mud and earth and solidified, allowing fragile organic matter like wood, fabrics, wax tablets and papyrus rolls to survive.


Archaeologists began digging at the site at the start of the 1700s and continue to make discoveries today.


The exhibition is divided into three sections, focusing first on the magnificent statues of gods, heroes and emperors found among the ruins. The second section is dedicated to noble Herculaneum families such as that of the proconsul Marcus Nonius Balbus, one of the town's main benefactors, and also showcases many statues found at Herculaneum's largest residence, the Villa of the Papyri.


In the third section, the skeletons of fleeing townspeople are on show alongside everyday objects giving visitors an insight into the daily life of common people.


While bodies in Pompeii decomposed in the ash, Herculaneum's solidified mud preserved the skeletons intact, providing researchers with an extremely rare opportunity to examine remains of Ancient Romans, who usually cremated their dead.


The exhibition also includes an additional section at the end devoted entirely to Herculaneum's fabrics, which, like the townspeople, have been preserved in astonishing condition thanks to the sudden avalanche of molten rock at extremely high temperatures. Herculaneum: Three Centuries of Discoveries runs at the Naples Archaeological Museum until April 13.



Byzantine Period Church With Beautiful Mosaics Discovered

ScienceDaily (Mar. 20, 2009)


A church that dates to the Byzantine period which is paved with breathtakingly beautiful mosaics and a dedicatory inscription was exposed in an archaeological excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting near Moshav Nes-Harim, 5 kilometers east of Bet Shemesh (at the site of Horvat A-Diri), in the wake of plans to enlarge the moshav.


According to archaeologist Daniel Ein Mor, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The site was surrounded by a small forest of oak trees and is covered with farming terraces that were cultivated by the residents of Nes-Harim. Prior to the excavation we discerned unusually large quantities of pottery sherds from the Byzantine period and thousands of mosaic tesserae that were scattered across the surface level”.


The excavation seems to have revealed the very center of the site, which extends across an area of approximately 15 dunams, along the slope of a spur that descends toward Nahal Dolev.


During the first season of excavation (November 2008) the church’s narthex (the broad entrance at the front of the church’s nave) was exposed in which there was a carpet of polychrome mosaics that was adorned with geometric patterns of intertwined rhomboids separated by flower bud motifs. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the excavation this mosaic was defaced and almost completely destroyed by unknown vandals. During that excavation season a complex wine press was partly exposed that consists of at least two upper treading floors and elongated, well-plastered arched cells below them that were probably meant to facilitate the preliminary fermentation there of the must. Part of the main work surface, which was paved with large coarse tesserae, was exposed at the foot of these cells. A complex wine press of this kind is indicative of a wine making industry at the site; this find is in keeping with the presence here of a church and is consistent with our knowledge about Byzantine monasteries in the region during this period (sixth-seventh centuries CE).


Other parts of the church were revealed in the current excavation season. The area of the apse was almost entirely exposed, as were other parts of the southern aisle.


Two rooms that are adjacent to the northern and southern sides of the church were also uncovered. In the southern room a mosaic pavement was exposed that is decorated with intertwined patterns of different size concentric circles. The mosaic also includes a dedicatory inscription written in ancient Greek that was deciphered by Dr. Leah Di Signi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem:


O Lord God of saint Theodorus, protect Antonius and Theodosia the illustres (illustres - a title used to distinguish high nobility in the Byzantine period) [- - - ] Theophylactus and John the priest (or priests). [Remember o Lord] Mary and John who have offe[red - - ] in the 6th indiction. Lord, have pity of Stephen.


Various phases that were used after the church was abandoned in the later part of the Byzantine period were discerned elsewhere in the structure. The mosaic floor was completely destroyed in different places and the area inside the church was put to secondary use. Industrial installations that are ascribed to the same phase were found which attest to the functional change the building underwent during the end of the Byzantine period-beginning of the Early Islamic period (seventh century CE).


According to Daniel Ein Mor, “We know of other Byzantine churches and sites that are believed to be Byzantine monasteries, which are located in the surrounding region. The excavation at Nes-Harim supplements our knowledge about the nature of the Christian-Byzantine settlement in the rural areas between the main cities in this part of the country during the Byzantine period, among them Bet Guvrin, Emmaus and Jerusalem”.



Rare Iron Age bowls unearthed

Mar 19 2009 WalesOnline


Rare Iron Age artefacts buried as part of a religious offering have been unearthed by an amateur treasure hunter.


Two bronze bowls and a bronze wine strainer, described by an expert as of “great importance for the UK,” were found by Craig Mills in his home city of Newport, South Wales.


The 35-year-old security guard came across the items in the Langstone area in December 2007, only nine months after he took up metal detecting.


It is believed the objects were used by ancestors for eating or drinking and were deliberately buried intact as a religious offering.


The items are believed to have been made around AD 25-60 and were buried at the time of the Roman army’s campaign against the Iron Age Silures tribe of South Wales, between AD 47 and 75.


The two near-complete bowls have rounded bases, carefully formed rims and decorated fittings with rings for hanging them up and the strainer has a rounded bowl-shaped body with a wide, flat rim and a similar suspension ring.


The decoration on all the vessels is of the late Celtic or La Tene style of the late Iron Age.


Adam Gwilt, curator of the Iron Age Collections at the National Museum of Wales, said: “This discovery is of great importance for Wales and the UK. Similar bowls have been found in western and southern Britain, but few find-spots have been carefully and recently investigated by archaeologists.


“It seems these valued and whole containers were carefully buried at the edge of an ancient bog or lake, as part of a ritual offering.


“We are looking forward to researching and investigating further during 2009, in order to reveal the full story of how these impressive decorated pieces were made, used and buried.”


Mr Mills said: “I didn’t realise how significant it was and I didn’t have a clue how old they were.


“I was detecting for nine months before that and I have found nothing like it.”


The items were declared treasure by Gwent coroner David Bowen under the Treasure Act of 1996.


It is hoped the bowls and wine strainer will be displayed at the National Museum of Wales in 2010 in the Origins: In Search of Early Wales gallery.



Roman finds at park-and-ride site


Excavation of a proposed park-and-ride site in Taunton has revealed one of the largest prehistoric roundhouses in Britain and a number of Roman burials.


The house dates from the Iron Age (400-100 BC) and was constructed from wooden posts with a thatched roof and had a diameter of 17m (56ft).


The finds unearthed from the Cambria Farm site since December 2008 are to be displayed by the Museum of Somerset.


Construction of the new park-and-ride site is due to start in April.


Archaeologists also found three Iron Age spearheads, a pair of Roman shears loom weights, Roman brooches and large amounts of pottery.


Experts said there were originally four houses on the site that were next to fields where mixed agriculture of cereal crop and sheep farming were practised.


It appears that after the roundhouses went out of use, the site was used to bury the dead. A number of Roman graves have been excavated including some very unusual burials.


Deputy leader of Somerset county council Justin Robinson said: "This significant collection of finds is another piece in the jigsaw of Somerset's rich history.


"I hope residents and visitors to the county will be able to share in this information when it goes on display in the Museum of Somerset."



Google Earth reveals fish trap made from rocks 1,000 years ago off British coast

By David Derbyshire

Last updated at 11:58 PM on 16th March 2009


For a millennium it has lain undisturbed beneath the waves a stone's throw from one of Britain's best-loved beaches.


But now modern technology has revealed this ancient fish trap, used at the time of the Norman Conquest.


The giant fish trap, built during the Norman Conquest and designed to trap fish behind rock walls, was spotted on Google Earth


Stretching more than 280 yards along the sea bed, the V-shaped structure was used to catch fish without the need for a boat or rod. Scientists believe it is one of the biggest of its kind.


The trap close to Poppit Sands on the Teifi Estuary in Dyfed was discovered by archaeologists studying aerial photographs of the West Wales coast.


'The fish trap is a fascinating find,' says project leader Dr Ziggy Otto


It was designed to act like a rock pool, trapping fish behind its stone walls as the tide flowed out.


At its point is a gap where fisherman would have placed nets to catch fish. They could also have blocked up the gap, and then scooped up fish trapped in the shallows.


Now, however, it is submerged even at low tide and fish are no longer trapped as the water recedes. Researchers believe it has sunk into the sand over the centuries.


Dr Ziggy Otto, a diver and lecturer in the coastal environment at Pembrokeshire College, believes the trap is around 1,000 years old.


'It is an amazing structure,' he said. 'It looks well defined on the photographs, but when you are in the water it looks just like a natural reef.'


The trap, made of stones, is located on the Teifi Estuary in Dyfed, Wales


Although it was only recently spotted on aerial photographs, an armchair archaeologist could have discovered the trap on Google Earth.


Google said the V-shaped structure has been visible on its collection of satellite and aerial photos since at least December 2006.


Fish traps, or fish weirs, were common and controversial in Britain 1,000 years ago.


They were so effective at removing fish from rivers that they were banned in the Magna Carta, and were allowed only on the coast.