Category Archives: ITALY

Tests Suggest Ancient Romans Imported Wood from France

Tests Suggest Ancient Romans Imported Wood from France

The blocks of trees that went over a thousand meters from the French woods, where they grew, were buried at the foundations of an ancient Roman villa, a journey that probably involved floating along rivers and being transported across the sea.

Such new findings demonstrate how long-haul trade has helped build the Roman Empire.

Although the Roman Empire is now famous for monuments like the Colosseum and the Pantheon, for the most part, the ancient Romans largely built their empire using timber.

Soprintendenza Speciale Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio di Roma, Italy

The distinction in Latin between firewood (lignum) and construction timber (material) suggests the critical role timber had for the ancient Romans — timber was so important that the ancient Romans considered it as signifying matter or substance in the modern English sense of the word “material,” said study lead author Mauro Bernabei, a dendrochronologist (he studies tree rings) at Italy’s National Research Council’s Institute for BioEconomy.

The demand for wood for construction, shipbuilding, and fire led to the rapid depletion of the woodlands surrounding Rome and in much of the Apennine Mountains running up the length of Italy.

As such, Rome grew to rely on wood from abroad, but researchers have been unable to find many timber samples from the area that have survived the intervening millennia. “The finding of wood in archaeological excavations in Rome, and in Italy in general, is very, very rare,” Bernabei said.

However, scientists investigated 24 unusually well-preserved oak timber planks excavated from 2014 to 2016 during the construction of an underground railway line in central Rome.

These boards had been part of the foundations of a lavishly decorated portico that was part of a vast, wealthy patrician villa, they said.

The planks survived because they came from waterlogged earth. Wood is best preserved in conditions where destructive fungi do not grow well, such as when the wood is kept either very dry or, conversely, completely immersed in water, Bernabei explained. “The area where the samples were found was completely submerged by the wet mud of the Tiber River,” he said.

The researchers focused on growth rings in the planks. If you cut into the trunk of a tree, you can see that it is divided into rings that each represent a tree’s growth in a given year.

The researchers found that four of the planks came from trees that were more than 250 years old when they were cut down.

Growth rings reflect the environmental conditions a tree experiences over time in an area, so one can pinpoint where wood comes from by looking for trees with matching growth ring patterns.

The researchers measured the widths of the tree rings for each of their planks with an accuracy of 0.01 millimeters, and by comparing the planks with records of Mediterranean and central European oak growth rings, they found their planks likely came from the Jura mountains in northeastern France, more than 1,055 miles (1,700 kilometers) away from where they ultimately ended up.

“This is the first evidence of long-distance timber trading in the Roman Empire,” said Paolo Cherubini, a dendrochronologist and forest ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, who did not participate in this study.

The scientists also found that some of the planks included sapwood, the part of living wood where sap flows. By comparing the rings within the sapwood with rings from trees with known histories, they could determine that the trees the planks came from were probably felled between A.D. 40 and 60.

These findings shed new light on the “huge, impressive logistic machine” the ancient Romans were capable of, Bernabei said. “Just think — planks, around 4 meters long, were transported across Europe just to be placed underground in the foundations” of this portico, he said.

Given the length of the planks and the great distances they traveled, the researchers suggested that ancient Romans or those they traded with likely floated the timber down the Saône and Rhône rivers to what is now the city of Lyon in present-day France. It was then likely transported on ships across the Mediterranean Sea and then up the Tiber River to Rome.

“This research opens up a new view of the wooden material found in archaeological excavations,” Bernabei said. “The timber found in other important sites — Pompeii, Herculaneum — may be of foreign origin.”

Mysterious Mummy Girl Died Nearly 100 Years Ago Blinks Her Eyes In Her Coffin — Remains a Mystery

Mysterious Mummy Girl Died Nearly 100 Years Ago Blinks Her Eyes In Her Coffin — Remains a Mystery

Rosalia Lombardo did not only make of a secret formula one of Earth’s most well-preserved mummies but many even swear she can open her eyes.

A young girl lies in an open casket in the middle of a deep Sicilian catacomb. She was nicknamed Lombardo Rosalia and died in 1920 when she was tragically died at a young age due to complications from pneumonia.

The embalmer Alfredo Salafia then mummatized Rosalia Lombardo so perfectly that one century later the inner organs were still intact. Her father was so distressed that he sought the help of an embalmer to preserve his kid.

Indeed, it is difficult to gaze upon the tiny body in the glass coffin and not believe that she will awaken at any moment. Her skin is still smooth and porcelain and her golden hair are neatly tied back with a large, silk bow. And most hauntingly, her crystal blue irises are visible underneath her blonde eyelashes.

The gaze of Rosalia Lombardo is what has fueled Sicilian lore for the past hundred years. She is among one of 8,000 mummies in the catacombs underneath the Capuchin convent in Palermo, Sicily and of the thousands of visitors that flock to see the blonde-haired girl, many reports witnessing her eyes slowly open.

In fact, a popular composite of several time-lapse photographs appeared to reveal Lombardo opening her eyes by a fraction of an inch:

While this set the internet ablaze with tales of the mummy who could open her eyes, in 2009, Italian biological anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali debunked the central myth surrounding Rosalia Lombardo.

“It’s an optical illusion produced by the light that filters through the side windows, which during the day is subject to change,” he revealed in a statement.

Piombino-Mascali made this discovery when he noticed that the mummy’s case had been moved by workers at the museum, which caused her to shift slightly, allowing him to see her eyelids better than ever before.

“They are not completely closed, and indeed they have never been,” he said. So, when the light changes and hits her eyes at different angles, it can appear as though the eyes are opening.

Furthermore, Piombino-Mascali also managed to discover the elusive formula that was used for Lombardo’s impeccable preservation. When Salafia passed in 1933, he took the secret formula to the grave.

Piombino-Mascali tracked down the embalmer’s living relatives and uncovered a trove of his papers. Among the documents, he stumbled upon a handwritten memoir in which Salafia recorded the chemicals he injected into Rosalia’s body: formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.

Formalin, now widely used by embalmers, is a mixture of formaldehyde and water that eliminates bacteria. Salafia was among one of the first to utilize this chemical for embalming bodies.

Alcohol, along with the arid climate in the catacombs, dried Lombardo’s body. Glycerin kept her body from drying out too much and salicylic acid prevented the growth of fungi.

But it was the zinc salts, according to Melissa Johnson Williams, executive director of the American Society of Embalmers, that was the key element in retaining her remarkable state of preservation. Zinc, a chemical no longer used by embalmers, petrified her small body.

“Zinc gave her rigidity,” Williams said. “You could take her out of the casket prop her up, and she would stand by herself.” The embalming procedure itself was very simple, consisting of a single point injection without any drainage or cavity treatment.

Additionally, Rosalia Lombardo is now housed in a new glass case. “It was designed to block any bacteria or fungi. Thanks to a special film, it also protects the body from the effects of light,” Piombino-Mascali said.

Now, Piombino-Mascali hopes, tourists will stop fabricating “totally unfounded stories” about the child mummy.

Restored Pompeii Kitchens Give Us An Idea Of How Romans Cooked

Restored Pompeii Kitchens Give Us An Idea Of How Romans Cooked

In a new project that seeks to give visitors a taste of the everyday life within the city the ancient roman kitchens of the Pompeii launderette were once again equipped with pots and pans.

The kitchens were once used to provide food for the hungry attendants of the three-story launderette, Fullonica di Stephanus before they were destroyed by a volcanic eruption in AD 79.

It was the location where rich Roman patricians were sent to clean their togas to be washed in huge baths using clay and urine. The garments were then rinsed, dried and placed on special presses to ensure they returned to their noble owners crease-free.

Thanks to a refurbishment which finished on Monday, the kitchens inside the Fullonica now appear as they did 2,000 years ago, complete with metal grills, pots, pans, and earthenware crockery.

The new installment provides an interesting window on Roman cooking practices.

Instead of using gas or electric hobs, the Romans cooked their food over specially-made troughs, in which beds of flaming charcoal were placed.

Hunks of meat, fish, and vegetables were then laid on grills directly over the coals, while soups and stews simmered away in pots and pans that were stood on special tripods to elevate them above the scorching embers.

All of the cooking equipment now on display was found in and around the kitchens when they were first excavated in 1912 by the then Superintendent of Pompeii, Vittorio Spinazzola.

Restored Pompeii Kitchens Give Us An Idea Of How Romans Cooked
The kitchens at the Fullonica di Stephanus.

Spinazzola initially left all the items in the kitchen, but his predecessors packed them away in storage or placed them in glass display cabinets in different areas of the site.

“We’re delighted the pieces have finally been put back on display where they were found and we’re certain they will be appreciated by modern tourists, eager to learn how people lived in antiquity,” said Massimo Osanna, the current Archaeological Superintendent of Pompeii.

As part of the same initiative, further examples of ancient Roman culinary practices were also given a permanent exhibition at the city gym, the Palestra Grande, on Monday.

Visitors can now marvel at a carbonized loaf of two-millennia-old bread and admire a metal pot containing the fossilized remnants of a bean and vegetable soup.  

Genetic Study Reveals Exactly Who ‘The Romans’ Were

Genetic Study Reveals Exactly Who ‘The Romans’ Were

Ancient Rome was the capital city of an empire that encompassed some 70 million inhabitants. An international research team now reports on data from a genetic study suggesting that, just as all roads may once have led to Rome, in ancient times, a great many European genetic lineages also converged in the ancient city.

Results from the research present possibly the most detailed analysis to date of genetic variability in the region. They reveal a dynamic population history from the Mesolithic era (~10,000 BCE) into modern times, which spans the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

“This study shows how dynamic the past really is,” said Hannah Moots, a graduate student in anthropology at Stanford University, who is the co-lead author of the published paper, which is reported in Science, and titled, “Ancient Rome: A genetic crossroads of Europe and the Mediterranean.”

At that time, “Rome was like New York City … a concentration of people of different origins joining together,” says Guido Barbujani, a population geneticist at the University of Ferrara in Italy who wasn’t involved in the study.

“This is the kind of cutting-edge work that’s starting to fill in the details [of history],” adds Kyle Harper, a Roman historian at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

The study, published today in Science, traces 12,000 years of history using genomes from 127 people buried at 29 archaeological sites in and around the city of Rome.

Alfredo Coppa, a physical anthropologist at the Sapienza University of Rome, sought hundreds of samples from dozens of previously excavated sites. Ron Pinhasi of the University of Vienna extracted DNA from the skeletons’ ear bones, and Jonathan Pritchard, a population geneticist at Stanford University, sequenced and analyzed their DNA.

The oldest genomes came from three hunter-gatherers who lived 9000 to 12,000 years ago and genetically resembled other hunter-gatherers in Europe at the time. Later genomes showed the Romans changed in step with the rest of Europe, as an influx of early farmers with ancestry from Anatolia (what is now Turkey) reshaped the genetics of the entire region some 9000 years ago.

But Rome went its own way from 900 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E. That’s when it grew from a small town into an important city, says Kristina Killgrove, a Roman bioarchaeologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who wasn’t involved in the study.

During its growth, “probably a lot of migration [was] happening,” she says—as the genomes of 11 individuals from this period confirm. Some people had genetic markers resembling those of modern Italians, whereas others had markers reflecting ancestry from the Middle East and North Africa.

That diversity increased even more as Rome became an empire. Between 27 B.C.E. and 300 C.E., the city was the capital of an empire of 50 million to 90 million people, stretching from North Africa to Britain to the Middle East. Its population grew to more than 1 million people. The genetic “diversity was just overwhelming,” Pinhasi says.

But people from certain parts of the empire were far more likely to move to the capital. The study suggests the vast majority of immigrants to Rome came from the East. Of 48 individuals sampled from this period, only two showed strong genetic ties to Europe.

Another two had strong North African ancestry. The rest had ancestry connecting them to Greece, Syria, Lebanon, and other places in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

That makes sense, Harper says, because, at the time, areas to the east of Italy were more populous than Europe; many people lived in big cities such as Athens and Alexandria. And Rome was connected to Greece and the Middle East by the Mediterranean Sea, which was far easier to traverse than overland routes through the Alps, he says.

“The genetic information parallels what we know from historical and archaeological records,” Killgrove says. She and others have identified individuals from imperial Roman cemeteries who likely didn’t grow up in Rome, based on isotopes in their teeth that reflect the water they drank when young—though the studies couldn’t show their precise origins. Ancient texts and words carved on tombstones also point to large populations of immigrants in the city, Harper says.

But once the empire split in two and the eastern capital moved to Constantinople (what is now Istanbul, Turkey) in the 4th century C.E., Rome’s diversity decreased. Trade routes sent people and goods to the new capital, and epidemics and invasions reduced Rome’s population to about 100,000 people.

Invading barbarians brought in more European ancestry. Rome gradually lost its strong genetic link to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. By medieval times, city residents again genetically resembled European populations.

“People perhaps imagine that the amount of migration we see nowadays is a new thing,” Pritchard says. “But it’s clear from ancient DNA that populations have been mixing at really high rates for a long time.”

The Medieval Woman Who “Gave Birth” In A Coffin

The Medieval Woman Who “Gave Birth” In A Coffin

In Italy, a macabre discovery brought insight into two rare medical phenomena from the early Middle Ages. 

In Imola, Italy, among several burials. The well-preserved remains of an adult laid to rest with the bones of a fetus positioned between the legs were found by archaeologists.

A deeper analysis has now shown that the pair is an unusual case of ‘ coffin birth. ‘

Among several burials unearthed in Imola, Italy in 2010, archaeologists found the well-preserved remains of an adult laid to rest with the bones of a fetus positioned between its legs (shown). A closer look has now revealed the pair represents an unusual case of ‘coffin birth’

During the funeral both the mother and the child had already died-but, it wasn’t until after that the stillborn baby was pushed from her body.

It remains a mystery how exactly the pregnant woman died hundreds of years ago around the age of 25-35, but markings on her skull indicate she underwent medieval brain surgery at least a week prior, with a hole drilled neatly into her skull.

Researchers from the Universities of Ferrara and Bologna have detailed the grim findings in a paper published to the journal World Neurosurgery.

The procedure exemplified in the burial from the 7th-8th century AD is known as trepanation and is thought to date back to the Neolithic era.

It was used to treat all sorts of ailments by drilling or cutting into the skull – including a pregnancy disorder still common today.

‘Eclampsia is the outcome of seizures of pre-eclampsia, which can affect women after the twentieth week of pregnancy, and hypertensive diseases are still the first cause of maternal death,’ the authors wrote in the study.

‘Some of the most common manifestations of this disease are high fever, convulsions, consistent frontal, and occipital cephalalgia, high intracranial pressure, and cerebral hemorrhage.

‘All these symptoms, from Prehistory to the 20th century, used to be treated with trepanation.’

It remains a mystery how exactly the pregnant woman died hundreds of years ago around the age of 25-35, but markings on her skull indicate she underwent medieval brain surgery at least a week prior, with a hole drilled neatly into her skull. The procedure is known as trepanation

The nature of the lesion observed in the ancient skull suggests the injury was the result of surgical intervention, rather than violent trauma.

And, the researchers say it even exhibits signs of early bone healing, indicating the woman survived at least a week after the procedure was done. At the time, she was roughly 38 weeks into the pregnancy.

While it’s impossible to know for sure why the trepanation was performed, the researchers say it was likely an attempt to reduce pressure in the skull stemming from eclampsia.  How she died is even less certain.

‘There are still several unknown points about the woman’s cause of death,’ the authors explain, noting that she could have died from the pregnancy disorder, labor-related complications, or the surgery itself.

Coffin birth is rare, particularly in modern times where modern embalming practices remove bodily fluids and insert chemicals to prevent decomposition

In any case, the researchers say the discovery of both trepanation and coffin birth in the same set of remains is incredibly rare.

‘This finding is one of the few documented cases of trepanation in the European Early Middle Ages, and the only one featuring a pregnant woman in association with a post mortem fetal extrusion phenomenon,’ the authors wrote.

‘Considering all these factors, this case represents a unicum and sheds more light on the clinical history of neurosurgery and pregnancy during this historical period.’