Unusual 'Coffee Table' Is a Mosaic From One of Caligula's Party Ships

While visiting Italy in the 1960s, antiquities dealer Helen Fioratti and her Italian journalist husband acquired a souvenir: a red-and-green inlaid marble mosaic, which the couple purchased from Italian aristocrats and later re-purposed as a coffee table. But when Italian police came knocking on their apartment door in New York City decades later, the two learned that their “table” was actually a fragment of one of the Roman Emperor Caligula's pleasure ships, according to NBC News.

A mosaic tile that once adorned a pleasure barge owned by the Roman emperor Caligula.
A mosaic tile that once adorned a pleasure barge owned by the Roman emperor Caligula.
Manhattan District Attorney's Office

Caligula—who came to power in 37 CE and was assassinated just four years later—was a sadistic leader whose cruelty was perhaps only matched by his excess. The empire wasted taxpayer money on lavish construction projects. He's said to have drank pearls dissolved in vinegar and provided his horse with a marble stall and ivory manger.

When he wasn't conducting shameless affairs with allies' wives or making politicians run for miles in front of his chariots, Caligula enjoyed pleasure cruises on Lake Nemi, a small crater lake located about 15 miles southeast of Rome. The emperor is said to have owned three lavish vessels, which he used to host raucous parties. The barges were made of wood and decorated with gold, marble, ivory, and, yes, mosaic floors. 

At least two of these cumbersome boats sank, and they were excavated between 1928 and 1932 under the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, according to The Daily Beast. These artifacts were displayed in a museum, which was used as a bomb shelter during World War II. Many of their mosaic tiles were destroyed—but against all odds, a floor fragment from the ships ultimately ended up across the world in Fioratti's living room.

It's unclear how, exactly, the Italian military police's Art Recovery Unit and New York's district attorney office learned of Fioratti's mosaic. (She thinks they may have spotted it in a magazine photo shoot of her apartment.) Authorities seized the artifact and returned it to Italy in a repatriation ceremony on October 19, along with a host of other recovered stolen Italian artifacts.

Fioratti—who claims that she legally purchased the mosaic for thousands of dollars—won't face any criminal charges, although she told NBC she's sad to see the relic go.

[h/t NBC News]

Remains of Late 19th-Century Shipwreck Found on Jersey Shore

iStock.com/Sierra Gaglione
iStock.com/Sierra Gaglione

The holiday season isn't usually associated with the beach, but nature has a funny way of delivering surprises no matter the time of year. The weekend before Christmas, the remains of an old ship stretching over 25 feet long were discovered at the southern area of Stone Harbor beach, according to nj.com.

Local historians believe the vessel is the D.H. Ingraham, a schooner that sank in 1886 during a voyage from Rockland, Maine, to Richmond, Virginia. Archives from the time recount that while the ship was delivering a cargo of lime, it caught fire. Thanks to station employees at the nearby Hereford Lighthouse, all five men aboard were rescued and given proper shelter for the next four days. The rescuers even received medals of honor from Congress, which are still on display inside the lighthouse, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

This is not the only shipwreck to have been discovered along the Jersey Shore; in 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found one while making repairs to the Barnegat Inlet jetty. (New Jersey has its own Historical Divers Association, and at one point its president, Dan Lieb, estimated that the state had up to 7000 shipwrecks off its coasts.)

To check out more coverage about shipwrecks, like this 48-foot find in Florida earlier this year, click here.

[h/t nj.com]

People Have Been Dining on Caviar Since the Stone Age

iStock.com/Lisovskaya
iStock.com/Lisovskaya

Millennia before caviar became a staple hors d'oeuvre at posh parties, it was eaten from clay pots by Stone Age humans. That's the takeaway of a new study published in the journal PLOS One. As Smithsonian reports, traces of cooked fish roe recovered from an archeological site in Germany show just how far back the history of the dish goes.

For the study, researchers from Germany conducted a protein analysis of charred food remains caked to the shards of an Stone Age clay cooking vessel. After isolating roughly 300 proteins and comparing them to that of boiled fresh fish roe and tissue, they were able to the identify the food scraps as carp roe, or eggs. The scientists write that the 4000 BCE-era hunter-gatherers likely cooked the fish roe in a pot of water or fish broth heated by embers, and covered the pot with leaves to contain the heat or add additional flavor.

The clay shards were recovered from Friesack 4 in Brandenburg, Germany, a Stone Age archaeological site that has revealed about 150,000 artifacts, including items crafted from antlers, wood, and bone, since it was discovered in the 1930s. In the same study, the researchers report that they also found remnants of bone-in pork on a vessel recovered from the same site.

Other archaeological digs have shown that some of the foods we think of as modern delicacies have been around for thousands of years, including cheese, salad dressing, and bone broth. The same goes for beverages: Recently a 13,000-year-old brewery was uncovered in the Middle East.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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