Thursday, 23 February 2012

Landscape of an object

The surface of an artefact is a landscape to be studied in the same way as a terrain in the real world. Objects have been scanned and studied microscopically for some time now and the scanning electron microscopes (SEM) used to study the edges and use wear of flint and other stone tools are used also to study other types of marks and details left by manufacturing, decoration and use. The resulting images allow studying the traces of the tools used in manufacturing or showing interaction between different materials. The grooves and polishes of the surfaces can be viewed as surface models in the same way as LiDAR images are the digital representations of real landscapes.

The photo provided by

Not many people outside the discipline of classical archaeology – or more precisely Italian or Roman archaeology – know the story of the Fibula Prenestina. This delicate golden brooch was presented by the famous German archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig in 1886 in the German Archaeological Institute in Rome as carrying the oldest Latin inscription (MANIOS:MED:FHE:FHAKED:NUMASIOI, Manios has made me [or, had me made] for Numasios) on its catch. There were some muted murmurs since the exact circumstances of the find were not known and it was just alleged to have been found in Praeneste, an ancient Latin town and a finding place of two of the richest Orientalizing tombs of pre-Roman period dating to the 7th century BC. Many people have assumed that it possibly originated from one of these, the Bernardini tomb. This so-called princely tomb had been excavated in 1876. The details of the find were reported only later and the detailed catalogue of all grave-goods does not exist. The unknown provenance makes it difficult to evaluate the genuinity of the object and the alleged earliest inscription.

The photo provided by

An Italian scholar Margherita Guarducci studied the object in detail in 1980 and concluded that the inscription was poorly executed and the surface had been treated with acid. The gold was also different from the one in the real brooches from Praeneste. These findings and the resulting arguments became the source of a long-standing controversy. However, now the microscopic study has been said to have proven without doubt that this brooch is a genuine article. Last year a round table presented the new results from a detailed study. The surface of the object had been cleaned during some clumsy restoration and conservation operations but there were also signs of ancient repairs with thin layers of different gold placed on the surface. Physicist Daniella Ferro from the National Research Institute (CNR) told press that the inscription had been inscribed in the similar manner as the decorations on the brooch and that the technique was unlikely to have been mastered by a faker in the late 19th century when the knowledge of the brooches was still scarce. In this case it is known that the specimen was provided by a dealer and a faker, named Martinetti, a fact Helbig had tried to hide.

The sad truth is that even if the brooch clearly stems from the period, the genuinity of the inscription can always be considered uncertain because the lack of provenance. If it was not a loose find passed down by the dealers but an object discovered during the excavations, these long discussions and doubts would not exist. Archaeological finds lacking their context and requiring the observation of the landscape of their surface and the testing of their materials leave always the ultimate answer with a tiny amount of doubt. The proof in this case also has to include the undoubted proof that no faker could imitate at the time the ancient techniques used in manufacturing the few then known fibule.

See also:
Maras, D. M., 2012. ‘Scientists declare the Fibula Prenestina and its inscription to be genuine “beyond any reasonable doubt"’, Etruscan News, 14, Winter 2012 on

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Chronologies and landscapes

I am currently writing an article for which I have looked for the application of the suggested calibrated carbon date chronology for the central Italian later prehistory. Originally, there was controversy about this scheme based for the Final Bronze Age and Early Iron Age on the dates from south of the Tiber in Latium Vetus (see Nijboer et al., 2002). Due to the analogical use of period names in Etruria and the similarity of the material culture these new periods should also be used north of the Tiber and this seemed to raise opposition. This discussion was ongoing when I did my PhD and now I am returning to the subject.

The difference of chronologies is important since the new datings shorten the Final Bronze Age and extend the length of the Early Iron Age. The former is cut from 300 years to 200 years in maximum and the same amount of time is added to the latter. This would give more time for the emergence and expansion of the large Etruscan towns on the coast and less time for the blooming and restructuration of the ‘Proto-Villanovans’.

I had heard mentioned that the opposition for the new calibrated chronology may have somewhat died out but as I have noticed while assessing the situation, there are still problems with the absolute datings. I noticed that Bietti Sestieri’s and De Santis’ (2007) article – with the new calibrated chronology – was recently the only one on the period in an Italian prehistoric conference. However, it discussed the changes during the Iron Age more than chronology and thus I will still have to read the volume edited by Bartoloni and Delpino (2005) carefully, especially since the disparity between the periodization and absolute dates of some phases of the Early Iron Age in Bietti Sestieri’s and De Santis’ (2007) paper raised my eyebrows. In addition Bartoloni and Nizzo (2005) did not seem to be impressed by the new high chronology.

When reading and using the newish volume on the Final Bronze Age settlements in southern Etruria (Barbaro 2010), I noticed that this volume did not discuss any absolute dates in length. It strictly confines itself to the use of different sub-periods (BF1-2, BF3A1, BF3A2, BF3B). The diagnostic features of the material culture, or more fittingly those of the decorative schemes, were divided between the sub-periods and the settlement sites of the period were classified and periodised accordingly suggesting which sites were settled during which sub-period. This was all fascinating and useful but left the periods of times these sites were truly or tentatively settled unanswered. The question of how lomg and which sites were settled simultaneously is complicated.


Bartoloni, G. & Delpino, F. 2005. Oriente e Occidente: metodi e discipline a confronto. Riflessioni sulla cronologia dell'età del ferro in Italia, Atti dell'Incontro di studi, Roma, 30-31 ottobre 2003. Mediterranea 1.

Bartoloni, G. & Nizzo V. 2005 at

Bietti Sestieri, A.-M., & De Santis, A. 2007. ‘Il Lazio antico fra tarda Età del Bronzo e Prima Età del Ferro: gli sviluppi nell’organizzazione politico-territoriale in relazione con il processo di formazione urbana’, Atti della XL riunione scientifica: strategie di insediamento fra Lazio e Campania in età preistorica e protostorica, Roma, Napoli, Pompei, 30 novembre-3 dicembre 2005, dedicati ad Amilcare Bietti, 205-230.

Nijboer, A.J., van der Plicht, J., Bietti Sestieri, A.M. & de Santis, A. 2002 'A high chronology for the Early Iron Age in central Italy’, adapted from Palaeohistoria 41/42, 1999 at the University of Groningen web site

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Landscape under snow

A couple of my friends posted photos onto Facebook after this weekend’s snowfall in Rome. The newspapers printed pictures of Colosseum under snow – with some brave Italians driving on the main road curving by it. However, the Italians are well used to snow since many people living in Rome are from small towns on a higher ground in central Italy where snow is an annual visitor and the roads are steep and windy. Rome lies much lower nearer the sea so the snow on the uplands dow not reach urbs.

Photo by Ettore Ferrari/EPA

People – or hominids – have to have been able to deal with the snow for thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. We know from the Ötzi find that by the Bronze Age people customarily crossed the Alps and were able to dress appropriately for the conditions. They must have done this a way back since otherwise the expansion of the humans into the northern areas of the globe after the Ice Age would have been impossible. Winter weather must have existed and those mammoths needed hunting all year round. The preservation of non-organic materials only means that our perception of the Stone Age is primitive and we do not see the full skill set of ‘the Eskimos’ of the earlier time. Even the Neanderthals buried their dead so it is likely they were capable of inventing or using a bone needle and gut string.

Now whole England grinds to halt with a snowfall of 5 cm of snow. In the past the wintertime was hindering the movement of those with no means of getting proper clothing or lacking with skies or sledges and animals or humans to pull them. For appropriately geared individuals and groups moving across a landscape covered in snow is not too much of an effort. Ice cover joins large areas with each other along the coasts and it allows ice hole fishing and seal hunting around the breathing holes.

The past wintertime is mostly invisible in archaeological record and only accessible indirectly since the ice finds such as the Ötzi are not as common as for example the bog finds. It is easy to point out the cold years from the environmental record and the ice cores allow a direct access to snow volumes at certain points. In the north much of the food storage must have been meant for the wintertime and the huts and houses were essential. When we see photos of the landscapes of the famous hillforts covered in snow we get a glimpse of the winters past in the present.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Google Earth to archaeology

Stonehenge and handful of other famous archaeological sites such as the Pyramids serve often as a testing ground for new computer methods and prospecting tools. This is because of their easy recognisability among the non-archaeologists and the awe these structures raise. Now the Stonehenge Riverside Project has extended its accessibility to the Google Earth and iPhone. This has been achieved in collaboration with the Google Research Awards, a program with which Google tries to create relationships between the firm and the academia as part of its ambitions related to information and its accessiblity.

‘Google Under-the-Earth’ is an extension of the Google Earth; with it you can add archaeological layers to the base terrain provided by the tool. The data excavated and gathered by the Universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Bristol, Southampton and London has been used to develop ‘Seeing beneath Stonehenge’. The layers allow access images, geophysical data, site plans and video. The selection also includes reconstructions, such as the timber monument of the Southern Circle.

Stonehenge Google view by the Bournemouth University

This type of beneficial relationships are nothing new and the same kind of pilot projects were created and made publically known when geophysics and computer modelling were in their infancy and the large corporations developing the technologies needed to show that the products had several different kinds of uses in the real world. However, it is without doubt that this project in particular increases the knowledge of the wider public of the results of the Stonehenge Riverside Project. One does not have to travel anywhere in order to study the results and the presentations in detail.

Naturally, the developers at Bournemouth University hope that other great archaeological sites could be incorporated in this way and Google Under-the-Earth could display some of the archaeological [digital] excavation data from the great archaeological sites collected during the last twenty years. However, this will require funds and it will be seen if these continue to be distributed by the Google Research Awards now when the world-famous pilot is out and done and dusted. I am sure the archaeologists are eager to participate but the creation of materials will require the main stakeholders at different sites and different excavation areas collaborating and somebody to do a lot of preparations and work. I also hope that the copyright issues have been thoroughly discussed.

Similar pilot involving Stonehenge is the ‘Stonehenge Experience’, an iPhone App developed by the University of Huddersfield and the web developers Ribui. Now one can see the reconstructed Stonehenge on their phone. It seems the Stonehenge is the most modelled site of them all and unlike much of the world heritage can be seen over most of the platforms - also by your avatar. yes, and I remember sitting through a number of virtual Stonehenge presentations already ten years ago. One can only hope that the funds can stretch to include more data from other sites into these systems – and not only through free labour.