Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week’s post is one of my favorites to make every year: the top archaeological finds of the previous year! 2023 held a lot of amazing discoveries and it was hard for me to narrow it down to just a few. But, I tried to pick ones that show we still have so much to learn about our collective past! So, without further ado, let’s get started!
In the Judean Desert in 2023, archaeologists unearthed a collection of Roman swords concealed within a cave. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) disclosed the find during an investigation of a cave in the En Gedi Nature Reserve, where a known Hebrew script inscription adorned the walls.
During the examination, Asaf Gayer from Ariel University noticed a remarkably well-preserved Roman pilum (the heavy javelin of a Roman foot soldier) nestled in a deep, narrow crevice on the upper level of the cave. In an adjacent niche, pieces of worked wood were discovered, revealing components of the swords' scabbards.
IAA was promptly notified, leading to the retrieval of four remarkably well-preserved swords dating back approximately 1,900 years to the Roman period. Researchers suggest that these swords were likely concealed by Judean rebels as spoils during the Jewish–Roman wars, a series of significant revolts by the people of Judaea against the Roman Empire ( 66 - 136 CE).
The cave's arid conditions contributed to the exceptional preservation of the swords, with three of them still retaining wooden scabbards attached to the iron blades. Measuring 60–65 centimeters in length, these three swords are identified as Roman spatha swords, a straight-bladed type commonly used by the Romans from the 1st to the 6th century CE. The fourth sword, shorter in length, is identified as a ring-pommel sword. This is a thrilling find because it helps to provide a sense of physicality and realism to an ancient revolt.
Archaeologists excavating at the Casas del Turuñuelo site in the Southwest Iberian Peninsula made a groundbreaking discovery in 2023—the first human representations of the ancient Tartessos people. The Tartessos culture, which emerged during the Late Bronze Age in Spain, was a blend of local Paleo-Hispanic and Phoenician cultures, and the people spoke a now-extinct language called Tartessian.
Famed for their skill in metallurgy and metalworking, the Tartessos people created intricate objects such as pear-shaped jugs, braziers, incense burners, fibulas, and belt buckles. They worshiped the goddess Astarte or Potnia and the masculine divinity Baal or Melkar, influenced by their Phoenician trading partners.
During excavations at Casas del Turuñuelo, images depicting human beings were discovered in a sanctuary used for ritual animal sacrifices, dating back to the 5th century BCE. Two of the reliefs are interpreted as female figures, possibly Tartessian deities, while the others, though fragmented, include one identified as a Tartessian warrior. This finding challenges the traditional view of Tartessos as an aniconic culture, shedding new light on their symbolic representations beyond animal, plant motifs, or sacred stones. A truly exciting discovery!
If you’ve been listening to the latest of Accessible Art History: The Podcast, you’ll know that I’ve been covering the Tudor Dynasty through art. So, this makes this next find even more exciting! In 2023, an Englishman named Charlie Clarke took up metal detecting while grieving the loss of his dog. He made a significant discovery in Warwickshire, England connected to the history of one of England’s most notorious dynasties.
While using his metal detector on a friend's property, he found a heart-shaped gold pendant with a gold chain. The ornate pendant, bearing the initials "H" and "K" on the reverse, is believed to be linked to Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. The discovery is considered the most notable Tudor find in 25 years! Historians have dated this pendant to around 1521. Decorated with a Tudor rose and pomegranate bush, the pendant's reverse features red and white enamel inscriptions in Lombardic script. Despite uncertainty about its recipient, experts believe it is associated with high nobility or a courtier. It is highly unusual that this pendant survived because, after his divorce from Katherine, Henry worked to erase all traces of her from his life. Clarke, intending to share proceeds with the landowner, has yet to get the pendant valued, and the British Museum anticipates acquiring the artifact for display in a museum.
Harriet Tubman was not only one of the crucial players in the success of the Underground Railroad, but she is also a great American hero! In 2023, it was announced that archaeologists, led by Maryland Department of Transportation Chief Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky, discovered the foundations of Harriet Tubman's childhood home at the Thompson Farm.
The two-year excavation near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge revealed the home of Tubman's father, Ben Ross, along with hundreds of artifacts, including buttons, pottery fragments, a West African spirit cache, and a glass heart-shaped stopper. The findings contribute to uncovering Tubman's personal history and the Underground Railroad. Ben Ross's great-great-great-grandson, Douglas Mitchell, emphasized the importance of the excavation's role in self-empowerment, awareness, empathy, understanding, and community growth. The discoveries will be displayed at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center.
The final discovery of this video comes from one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites: Pompeii and Herculaneum! The Herculaneum scrolls, discovered in the 1700s in the library of a grand villa believed to have belonged to Julius Caesar's father-in-law, have long been an intriguing puzzle for archaeologists and classicists. These scrolls, carbonized due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, were considered too fragile to be unwrapped, leaving the contents hidden for centuries.
In recent developments, a breakthrough has been achieved in deciphering these ancient texts. The first word to emerge from the scrolls is "porphyras," an ancient Greek term for purple. This accomplishment is credited to Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old computer science student participating in the Vesuvius Challenge—a competition supported by Silicon Valley funds that leverages machine learning and computer vision to accelerate the deciphering of the 2,000-year-old texts.
The word was found using a technique called "virtual unwrapping". Thousands of 3d X-Rays were taken of the seals and then AI and other computer technology were used to digitally straighten out the scrolls.
Excitingly, Farritor's success in deciphering the word earned him a reward of $40,000, a part of the $700,000 grand prize. This is just one small step into new technology that will allow us to unlock even more secrets from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
These are only 5 of the exciting, archaeological discoveries made in 2023. I wonder what 2024 will hold!