Thursday, December 7, 2006

Vatican archaeologists unearth St. Paul's tomb

Vatican archaeologists have unearthed a sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the Apostle Paul that had been buried beneath Rome's second largest basilica.

The sarcophagus, which dates back to at least 390 A.D., has been the subject of an extended excavation that began in 2002 and was completed last month, the project's head said this week.

"Our objective was to bring the remains of the tomb back to light for devotional reasons, so that it could be venerated and be visible," said Giorgio Filippi, the Vatican archaeologist who headed the project at St. Paul Outside the Walls basilica.

The interior of the sarcophagus has not yet been explored, but Filippi didn't rule out the possibility of doing so in the future.

Two ancient churches that once stood at the site of the current basilica were successively built over the spot where tradition said the saint had been buried. The second church, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt.

When a fire destroyed the church in 1823, the current basilica was built and the ancient crypt was filled with earth and covered by a new altar.

"We were always certain that the tomb had to be there beneath the papal altar," Filippi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Filippi said that the decision to make the sarcophagus visible again was taken after many pilgrims who came to Rome during the Catholic Church's 2000 Jubilee year expressed disappointment at finding that the saint's tomb could not be visited or touched.

The findings of the project will be officially presented during a news conference at the Vatican on Monday.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Gendered division of labor gave modern humans advantage over Neanderthals

Diversified social roles for men, women, and children may have given Homo sapiens an advantage over Neanderthals, says a new study in the December 2006 issue of Current Anthropology. The study argues that division of economic labor by sex and age emerged relatively recently in human evolutionary history and facilitated the spread of modern humans throughout Eurasia.

"The competitive advantage enjoyed by modern humans came not just from new weapons and devices but from the ways in which their economic lives were organized around the advantages of cooperation and complementary subsistence roles for men, women, and children," write Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner (University of Arizona).

Kuhn and Stiner note that the rich archaeological record for Neanderthal diets provides little direct evidence for a reliance on subsistence foods, such as milling stones to grind nuts and seeds. Instead, Neanderthals depended on large game, a high-stakes resource, to fuel their massive body mass and high caloric intake. This lack of food diversity and the presence of healed fractures on Neanderthal skeletons—attesting to a rough-and-tumble lifestyle—suggest that female and juvenile Neanderthals participated actively in the hunt by serving as game drivers, beating bushes or cutting off escape routes.

The Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal record also lacks the artifacts commonly used to make weather-resistant clothing or artificial shelters, such as bone needles. Thus, it was the emergence of "female" roles – subsistence and skill-intensive craft – that allowed H. sapiens in ecologically diverse tropical and sub-tropical regions to take advantage of other foods and live at higher population densities.

"Earlier hominins pursued more narrowly focused economies, with women's activities more closely aligned with those of men with respect to schedule and ranging patterns," write the authors. "It is impossible to argue that [Neanderthal] females and juveniles were fulfilling the same roles—or even an equally diverse suite of economic roles—as females and juveniles in recent hunter-gatherer groups," they add.

While some degree of niche specialization between adult male and females is documented for many large-mammal species, recent humans are remarkable for cooperative economies that combine pervasive sharing and complementary roles for individuals of different ages and sexes.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Archaeologists unearth ancient Roman curse tablet

1,700-year-old curse tablet to god Maglus invokes destruction of cloak-pilferer

An ancient curse aimed at a thief is one of a number of treasures to be unveiled to the public for the first time, following the largest archaeological excavation the city of Leicester has ever seen.

Over the past three years, a team of up to 60 archaeologists from University of Leicester Archaeological Services has been working on a number of sites in the city. Almost 9% of Leicester's historic core has been subject to investigation in some form, giving new insights into the appearance and development of the Roman and medieval towns.

One of the most interesting finds from a site on Vine Street was a 'curse' tablet – a sheet of lead inscribed in the second or third century AD and intended to invoke the assistance of a chosen god. It has been translated by a specialist at Oxford University, and reads:

'To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Riomandus (etc.) ... that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus…' Then follows a list of the names of 18 or 19 suspects. What happened to them is not recorded.

Before the discovery of this object, archaeologists only knew of the names of three or four of the inhabitants of Roman Leicester, so the find is of great significance.

Richard Buckley, co-Director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, said: "Curse tablets are known from a number of Roman temple sites in Britain, and are thin rectangular sheets of lead bearing the 'curse' inscribed with a point or stylus. They were usually rolled up and were probably nailed to the wall of a temple or shrine. Most curses seem to relate to thefts and typically the chosen god is asked to do harm to the perpetrator. It has been suggested, on the basis of name forms and the value of items stolen, that the curses relate to the lives of ordinary people, rather than the wealthy, and that they were perhaps commissioned by the dedicator from a professional curse writer.

"The Leicester curse is unusually well preserved and had not been rolled up. After initial cleaning by a conservator, it was clear that it was covered in handwritten script, including a column of text which looks rather like a list. The inscription is currently being translated by a specialist at the University of Oxford. He notes that the Latin of the script reflects the spoken language in several ways. There are 18 or 19 names, a mixture of commonplace Roman (like Silvester and Germanus), Celtic (like Riomandus and Cunovendus), and 'Roman' names found in Celtic-speaking provinces (like Regalis). The god's name might be a title - 'prince' in Celtic.

"The curse is a remarkable discovery, and at a stroke, dramatically increases the number of personal names known from Roman Leicester. So far, we have the soldier, Marcus Ulpius Novantico, from a military discharge certificate of AD106, 'Verecunda' and Lucius' from a graffito on a piece of pottery and 'Primus' who inscribed his name on a tile he had made. The name forms will help us to understand the cultural make up of the population, whilst the subject matter tells us about the spread of spoken Latin and the religious practices of ordinary people".

The excavations have also produced many thousands of sherds of pottery, together with building materials, animal bone and a large variety of smaller objects, including Roman weighing scales, coins, brooches, gaming pieces and hairpins. A find of note from the medieval period is a piece of high status chain mail.

Four large sites were excavated in 2005 and 2006 as part of the Highcross Quarter and Leicester Square Developments, funded by Hammerson plc and Thomas Fish and Co. respectively. Now that the fieldwork has finished, the archaeologists would like to share the discoveries with the public

On Saturday 2nd December, between 11am and 4pm there will be a 'meet the specialists day' at the Jewry Wall Museum (by kind permission of Leicester City Council) with posters and displays of finds to showcase some of the main results of the work.

Images of the ancient curse tablet will be on show- the tablet itself is in safekeeping with experts in Oxford.

Highlights of the project have included:

The discovery of the lost medieval churches of St Peter and St Michael and their graveyards, with the excavation of over 1600 burials

The excavation of a substantial Roman town house of the 2nd century AD and an adjacent public building.

The investigation of the northern Roman and medieval town defences and the discovery of part of the town wall, together with an interval tower.

The collapsed wall of the macellum or market hall, one of Leicester's Roman public buildings – rare evidence for the appearance of a Roman structure in the city.

The investigation of a deep sequence of medieval and post-medieval properties on Highcross Street, with evidence for a brewery

New evidence for Dark Age Leicester, from the discovery of Anglo-Saxon structures of the 5th-6th century AD

The site directors will be on hand to talk about the results of the excavations and there will be the opportunity to view some of the finds and meet specialists in Roman pottery, medieval and post medieval pottery, animal bone, human bone, building materials, small finds and environmental evidence.

Richard Buckley commented: 'The recent excavations have been on a scale rarely seen in British cities, and for the first time in Leicester it has been possible to look at large areas of the Roman and medieval town. This has made it possible to examine complete buildings and to see how an entire neighbourhood changed over almost 2000 years.

'Now begins the painstaking process of analysing the results of the project. The work will involve many specialists and is expected to take several years.'