Colchester Archaeological Trust
Roman jewelry from 61 A.D. was unearthed under a department store 50 miles outside of London.
Sept. 12, 2011 --
In the search for buried history, archaeologists pour their resources into uncovering the remnants of the distant past. With know-how, persistence and a little luck, archaeologists can push aside dirt and rock and find an artifact of historical significance. Although chance plays a big role in unearthing history, archaeological treasures have been stumbled upon purely by accident, often by those outside the scientific community. In these photos, explore several particularly serendipitous finds of unique artifacts, some of which reach as far back as prehistory.
On Sept. 12, 1940, four teenagers followed their wayward dog into a cave complex near the village of Montignac in southwestern France. To their surprise, the caves hosted something remarkable: nearly 2,000 paintings and etchings of animals, humans and abstract shapes on the walls dating back between 15,000 and 25,000 years. Known as the Lascaux caves, the complex features figures depicted in surprising detail given the age of the illustrations. Animals portrayed on the cave walls included horses, stags, bison and felines. Archaeologists believed the caves were used for ritualistic purposes. Some parts of the illustrations even appear to construct a narrative, but what they mean exactly has yet to be deciphered. The caves were open to the public in 1948, but closed in 1963 in order to preserve the site from damage.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of over 800 biblical texts made of animal skin and papyrus. Dating to around 2,000 years ago, between the years 200 B.C. and 70 A.D., the scrolls could well be the oldest such documents in existence and have deepened historians' understanding of religious history. These documents may have been lost to history had a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib and his cousin not stumbled upon the first manuscripts along the northern shore of the Dead Sea at a remote site known as Qumran in 1947. The last fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection was uncovered in the mid-1950s. Although the scrolls have been extensively studied and translated, one big mystery remains: Who exactly wrote them?
As Napoleon Bonaparte's army marched through north Africa during his campaign in Egypt, they stumbled upon what would become known as the Rosetta Stone, after the town where it was discovered. Within Bonaparte's army was a squadron of scholars called Institute of Egypt, also known as the Scientific and Artistic Commission. As the military settled around the Nile Delta, the Institute explored local ruins and artifacts. After the discovery of the stone in 1799, several copies of the inscriptions on its face were made, since no one could read them at the time. By 1802, the Greek and Demotic portions of the stone had been deciphered by scholars. The hieroglyphics posed a different challenge all together, however, and it would take 20 years before French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced that he had cracked the code. By deciphering the hieroglyphs, Champollion opened a whole new door to understanding the civilization of ancient Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is currently kept in the British Museum.
In case you don't know what a geoglyph is, ancient Peruvians went through the trouble of leaving a picture-perfect definition. Known as the Nazca Lines, these giant carvings into the Earth were only discovered by airplane in the 1930s. Located in the Nazva desert in southern Peru around 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Lima, the geoglyphs resemble a number of animals including a spider (as seen here), a condor, a monkey, a tree, as well as human figures and geometric patterns. Why exactly indigenous tribes living in the area between 100 B.C. and 650 A.D. felt compelled to produce these works remains a mystery, though archaeologists agree that it is likely tied to religious customs.
In 1991, German tourists stumbled upon a frozen body in a glacier on the Ötztal Alps between Italy and Austria. Although they originally thought the corpse to be the result of a recent death, the iceman mummy, named Ötzi, in fact dated back 5,300 years. Since Ötzi's discovery, the mummy has been extensively studied. Scientists have learned everything from his last meal to his cause of death to his possible occupation and they have even made reconstructions of his face. Ötzi died in the spring as a result of an arrowhead striking his left clavicle artery. He likely received a ceremonial burial and was found beside tools and other personal items.
Over the years, metal detector enthusiasts, particularly those in the United Kingdom, have uncovered archaeological treasures buried beneath the Earth. In 2009, 30-year-old Nick Davies hauled in 10,000 ancient Roman coins that he had found inside a clay pot buried in Shropshire, U.K. That same year, a trove of 1,500 gold and silver pieces dating back to the Dark Ages were found on a farmer's field in the western region of Staffordshire, England. Last year, 63-year-old David Crisp uncovered 52,000 ancient Roman coins, later given a value of around $1 million, in a clay pot in southwestern England.
Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita Culturali,
In 1986, divers stumbled upon a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck some six miles off the coast of the town of Grado, Italy. Measuring 55 feet long and 16 feet wide, the small trade vessel was stocked with 600 amphorae, or vases, packed with sardines and other fish. Further study of the shipwreck revealed that the ancient Roman engineers also had built in a hydraulic system that allowed the ship to carry an aquarium with live fish.
A 2,000-year-old story of terror and devastation has been brought to light during renovation work at an English department store, revealing one of the finest collections of Roman jewelry as well as human remains of people who were slaughtered at the site.
The jewelry had been undisturbed since 61 A.D. in Colchester, some 50 miles northeast of London. It was found in a wooden box and bags under a department store in the town’s high street.
The small treasure includes three gold armlets, a silver chain necklace, two silver bracelets, a silver armlet, a small bag of coins and a small jewelry box containing two sets of gold earrings and four gold finger-rings.
According to Philip Crummy, the director of Colchester Archaeological Trust who excavated the area, the jewelry belonged to a wealthy Roman woman who may not have survived to recover her treasure.
“The find is a particularly poignant one because of its historical context,” Crummy said in a statement.
“It seems likely that the owner or perhaps one of her slaves buried the jewelry inside her house for safe-keeping during the early stages of the Boudican Revolt, when prospects looked bleak,” he added.
The revolt against the Roman rule was led from 60-61 A.D. by the warrior Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, a British tribe. In her unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Romans, Boudicca, also known as Boadicea, managed to burn to the ground three towns.
Colchester was her first target.
“The inhabitants knew a large British army was marching towards them and they knew that they were practically defenseless with only a small force of soldiers on hand and no town defenses,” Crummy said.
“Imagine their panic and desperation when they learned of the massacre of a large part of the Roman Ninth Legion on its way to relieve them,” he added.
Terrified, the Roman woman hastily hid her valuable jewelry in a small pit dug in the floor of her house, hoping to come back and recover her belongings. But after a two day siege, the fate of her home was sealed.
Near the jewelry, Crummy and his team found vivid evidence of the last dramatic moments in the house.
Foodstuff including dates, figs, wheat, peas and grain lay burnt black on the floor with a collapsed wooden shelf. The ingredients were carbonized by the heat of the fire so their shapes were preserved perfectly.
“The dates appeared to have been kept on the shelf in a square wooden bowl or platter,” Crummy said.
In the thick red and black debris layer left by the revolt, the archaeologists also found human remains which include part of a jaw and shin bone. They appear to have been cut by a sword.
“These remains suggest that at least one person fought and died in the building during the revolt,” the archaeologists said.
Nothing is known about the fate of the jewels’ owner, but it was likely unpleasant.
As reported by the ancient historian Dio Cassius, during the sacking of Colchester the “noblest” of the women were taken to sacred groves where they were killed in a horrific way.
“The quality of the jewelry suggests that the owner would have been in this category, although there is no direct evidence to indicate that she ended up in a sacred grove,” the statement said.
As the excavation continues, the archaeologists expect to find more artifacts.