Ancient literary sources and data provided by archaeology offer much information about the religious beliefs of the Romans, such as their rituals and magic or funeral practices. “With this research, we are trying to find out how these beliefs are represented in Roman mosaics throughout the Empire,” said UC3M professor of Ancient History Luz Neira, who coordinates the team of twelve researchers that recently published their findings in the book Religiosidad, rituales y prácticas mágicas en los mosaicos romanos (CVG, 2014).
The researchers stress that mosaics are not only works of art, but also documentary sources of the highest order for the study of history. Their analysis reveals the vision that the most powerful citizens had regarding these subjects, as it was mainly the elite classes who commissioned them for their domestic and private spaces. “The most common representations deal with marriage, sacrifices (the ritual act of religiosity par excellence), or scenes against the evil eye and which try to protect against envy,” explained Professor Neira.
This type of mosaic had an apotropaic effect; that is, it was a kind of defense mechanism in Roman superstition to ward off evil spirits. To protect oneself from the evil eye, for example, they resorted to the representation of an eye pierced by a lance and surrounded by animals, in some cases with inscriptions. Images of mythological characters with prominent phalli or other scenes that would drive away envious people were placed in the hallways of homes. One such depiction is in a mosaic on the island of Cephalonia, where an envious person is represented by someone writhing and strangling themselves because of the envy produced by the house they are looking at.A work of historians and archaeologists
These subjects are not confined to a specific epoch, but instead are documented throughout the history of the Roman Empire. “This is very important because it documents the survival of certain customs that come from pagan imagery,” said Luz Neira. A great team of specialists were involved in her study. Jesús Bernejo, from the UC3M Institute of Culture and Technology, analyzed one of the fundamental rituals in the social and legal organization of Ancient Rome, marriage. Professor Neira worked with the topic of animal sacrifice, while Ciro Parodo, from Tünbingen Universität, researched how certain religious festivities were chosen for the representation of the months on the calendar. Dimas Fernámdez Galiano examined the change in the mentality of the owners of the villa of Fortunatus in Fraga (Huesca) through their mosaic documentation, while the director of the National Museum of Roman Art, José María Álvarez, analyzed the influx of mythological heroes from pagan imagery in the shaping of figures linked to Christianity.
The study of the complex relationship between religion and magic is credited to Santiago Montero, Full Professor of Ancient History at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. In that same line, María Pilar San Nicolás and Irene Mañas, professors at the UNED, analyzed inscriptions designed to deter envious people and representations regarding superstitions that reveal the Romans’ terror of the evil eye. Catia Mourao, from the Institute of Art History at the Universidade Nova in Lisbon, took metamorphosis into consideration, in reference to the consequences of practicing magic.
In addition to introducing us to the beliefs and funeral practices of the Romans, Desiderio Vaquerizo, Full Professor of Archaeology at the UCO, reveals in his contribution the terror that the deaths of persons with some type of physical or mental anomaly entailed and the extraordinary practices linked to their burials. It has nothing to do with the tranquil scene that funeral mosaics document, most of them of individuals converted to Christianity, studied by Luigi Quattrocchi in Cerdeña, and by José María Baázquez, from the Royal Academy of History, in Spain and North Africa.
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid – Oficina de Información Científica Header Image : Sacrifice scene. Mosaic in St. Roman en Gal. June detaille.
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A key discovery to understanding the longevity and endurance of Roman architectural concrete has been made by an international and interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers using beams of X-rays at the Advanced Light Source (ALS) of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).
Working at ALS beamline 12.3.2, a superconducting bending magnet X-ray micro-diffraction beamline, the research team studied a reproduction of Roman volcanic ash-lime mortar that had been previously subjected to fracture testing experiments at Cornell University. In the concrete walls of Trajan’s Markets, constructed around 110 CE, this mortar binds cobble-sized fragments of tuff and brick. Through observing the mineralogical changes that took place in the curing of the mortar over a period of 180 days and comparing the results to 1,900 year old samples of the original, the team discovered that a crystalline binding hydrate prevents microcracks from propagating.
“The mortar resists microcracking through in situ crystallization of platy strätlingite, a durable calcium-alumino-silicate mineral that reinforces interfacial zones and the cementitious matrix,” says Marie Jackson, a faculty scientist with the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who led this study. “The dense intergrowths of the platy crystals obstruct crack propagation and preserve cohesion at the micron scale, which in turn enables the concrete to maintain its chemical resilience and structural integrity in a seismically active environment at the millennial scale.”
Jackson, a volcanologist by training who led an earlier study at the ALS on Roman seawater concrete, is the lead author of a paper describing this study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) titled “Mechanical Resilience and Cementitious Processes in Imperial Roman Architectural Mortar.” Co-authors of the paper are Eric Landis, Philip Brune, Massimo Vitti, Heng Chen, Qinfei Li, Martin Kunz, Hans-Rudolf Wenk, Paulo Monteiro and Anthony Ingraffea.
The mortars that bind the concrete composites used to construct the structures of Imperial Rome are of keen scientific interest not just because of their unmatched resilience and durability, but also for the environmental advantages they offer. Most modern concretes are bound by limestone-based Portland cement. Manufacturing Portland cement requires heating a mix of limestone and clay to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit), a process that releases enough carbon – given the 19 billion tons of Portland cement used annually – to account for about seven-percent of the total amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere each year.
Roman architectural mortar, by contrast, is a mixture of about 85-percent (by volume) volcanic ash, fresh water, and lime, which is calcined at much lower temperature than Portland cement. Coarse chunks of volcanic tuff and brick compose about 45-to-55-percent (by volume) of the concrete. The result is a significant reduction in carbon emissions.
“If we can find ways to incorporate a substantial volumetric component of volcanic rock in the production of specialty concretes, we could greatly reduce the carbon emissions associated with their production also improve their durability and mechanical resistance over time,” Jackson says.
As part of their study, Jackson and her collaborators at UC Berkeley used ALS beamline 12.3.2 to make X-ray micro-diffraction measurements of slices of the Roman mortar that were only about 0.3 millimeters thick.
“We obtained X-ray diffractograms for many different points within a given cementitious microstructure,” Jackson says. “This enabled us to detect changes in mineral assemblages that gave precise indications of chemical processes active over very small areas.”
The mineralogical changes that Jackson and her collaborators observed showed the mortar reproduction gaining strength and toughness over 180 days as calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate (C-A-S-H) cementing binder coalesced and strätlingite crystals grew in interfacial zones between volcanic scoria and the mortar matrix. The toughening of these interfacial zones is reflected in the bridging crack morphology, which was measured by co-author Landis at the University of Maine, using computed tomography scans of the fractured mortar specimens. These experimental results correlate well with computations of increasing fracture energy determined by co-author Brune, now at Dupont Technologies. The strätlingite crystals show no corrosion and their smooth surfaces suggest long-term stability, similar to geological strätlingite that persists for hundreds of thousands of years.
“The in situ crystallization of the strätlingite crystals produces interfacial zones that are very different from any interfacial microstructure observed in Portland cement concretes,” Jackson says. “High porosity along the interfacial zones of inert aggregates in Portland cement concrete creates the sites where crack paths first nucleate and propagate.”
A future challenge for researchers, Jackson says, will be to “find ways to activate aggregates, as slag or as volcanic ash for example, in innovative concretes so that these can develop strätlingite reinforcements in interfacial zones like the Roman architectural mortars.”
The fracture testing experiments at Cornell University were led by co-author Ingraffea. The samples of mortar from Trajan’s Markets were provided by co-author Vitti and the Sovrintendenza Capitolina di Roma Capitale. Co-author Kunz is the principal scientist at ALS beamline 12.3.2.
Known to its Polynesian inhabitants as Rapa Nui, Easter Island is thought to have been colonized around the 13th Century and is famed for its mysterious large stone statues or moai.
Otago Anatomy PhD student Monica Tromp and Idaho State University’s Dr John Dudgeon have just published new research clearing up their previous puzzling finding that suggested palm may have been a staple plant food for Rapa Nui’s population over several centuries.
However, no other line of archaeological or ethnohistoric evidence supports palm having a dietary role on Easter Island; in fact evidence points to the palm becoming extinct soon after colonization.
Nevertheless, the researchers had found that the vast majority of phytoliths (plant microfossils) embedded within the calculus were from palm trees.
The teeth were from burials excavated in the early 1980s from multiple coastal archaeological sites around the island.
To clear up the mystery, the pair undertook further analysis, newly published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. This included identifying starch grains in the dental calculus removed from 30 teeth.
After removing and decalcifying the plaque from each tooth, Ms Tromp and Dr Dudgeon identified starch grains that were consistent with modern sweet potato. None of the recovered grains showed any similarities to banana, taro or yam, other starchy plants that are hypothesised to be part of the diet.
The researchers went on to test modern sweet potato skins grown in sediment similar to that of Rapa Nui’s and found that as tubers grow, their skins seem to incorporate palm phytoliths from the soil.
“So this actually bolsters the case for sweet potato as a staple and important plant food source for the Islanders from the time the island was first colonised,”Ms Tromp says.
She and Dr Dudgeon are the first biological anthropologists to study dental calculus in the Pacific.
“It is an excellent target for looking at the plant component of ancient diets as microfossils become embedded in dental calculus throughout a person’s life. You can get a good idea of some of the plant foods people were eating, which is not an easy task.
This research also shows that the plant foods you find evidence for in dental calculus can come from the environment that foods are grown in and not necessarily from the food itself – this finding has the potential to impact dental calculus studies worldwide. ”
Determining plants’ role in ancient Oceanic diets is extremely difficult due to the scarcity of plant remains, but this research of microscopic plant remains is providing one more piece of the dietary puzzle.
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Researchers reporting in the journal Geoarchaeology discovered that the interior of the container, which was found at an archaeological site on southern Baffin Island, contains fragments of bronze as well as small spherules of glass that form when rock is heated to high temperatures.
The object is a crucible for melting bronze, likely in order to cast it into small tools or ornaments. Indigenous peoples of northern North America did not practice high-temperature metalworking.
The Norse would likely have travelled to the area to obtain furs and walrus ivory.
“The crucible adds an intriguing new element to this emerging chapter in the early history of northern Canada,” said lead author Dr. Patricia Sutherland, who has recovered other specimens in Arctic Canada that resemble those used by Europeans of the Viking and Medieval periods.
“It may be the earliest evidence of high-temperature nonferrous metalworking in North America to the north of what is now Mexico.”Background
The Viking-age Norse established settlements on the southwestern coast of Greenland about A.D. 1000, and these continued to be occupied until the early 15th century. Although less than 400 km separated the Norse Greenlandic colonies from the coasts of Arctic Canada, and explorations to the west of Greenland are described in Icelandic sagas, surprisingly little is known of ventures to North America.
The archaeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland confirms saga accounts that the Norse established a short-lived station in Atlantic Canada at some time around A.D. 1000 (Ingstad, 1985; Linderoth Wallace, 2003, 2006). In Arctic Canada and northwestern Greenland a number of Norse artifacts have been found in the remains of early Inuit settlements dating to the 13th or 14th centuries, suggesting occasional contact with the Greenlandic Norse or the salvage of a Norse shipwreck by Inuit who had recently arrived in the area from their Alaskan homeland (Schledermann, 1980; McCullough, 1989).
Until recently the Norse presence in the eastern North American Arctic and Subarctic was assumed to have been limited to brief and infrequent explorations (Jones, 1986; Linderoth Wallace, 2003).
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