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]

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

Advanced CT Scans Reveal Blood Vessels and Skin Layers in a Mummy's Hand

Jenny Romell, et al./Radiology
Jenny Romell, et al./Radiology

Mummies hold some intriguing secrets to their pasts, like the food they ate and the diseases they had when they were alive. Now scientists are using a tool originally designed for medicine to get an even deeper look at the clues mummified bodies carry with them into the present day, Gizmodo reports.

In a proof-of-concept study published in the journal Radiology, researchers from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden detail how a new-and-improved CT scanning technique can be used to visualize the interior of mummies on a microscopic level. By creating detailed X-ray images, CT scans allow doctors to see inside their patients without invasive surgery. Archaeologists have been using this technology to study delicate ancient artifacts for years, but the level of detail that can be achieved this way—especially when it comes to looking at interior soft tissue—is limited.

The upgraded version of the tech, called phase-contrast CT scanning, measures the phase shift, or the change in the position of a light wave, that occurs when X-rays pass through solid objects. The images generated this way have a higher contrast level than conventional X-rays, which means they capture more detail.

Cross-section of mummy hand.
Jenny Romell, et al./Radiology

Doctors have been using this 10-year-old technology to examine soft tissues like organs and veins in living patients, but it hadn't been used on a mummy until recently. Working with a mummified human right hand dating back to 400 BCE in Egypt, which they borrowed from the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, the researchers fired up a phase-contrast CT scanner. It produced images with a resolution of 6 to 9 microns, giving a clear picture of the different layers of skin, individual cells in the connective tissue, and the blood vessels in the nail bed—all without damaging the artifact. Previously, researchers looking to study these same tissues in mummies would have needed to use a scalpel.

As Ars Technica reports, a phase-contrast CT scanner is similar in cost to the conventional machine. The study authors hope their work will lead to phase-contrast CT scanning becoming just as common in archaeology as regular CT scanning, potentially creating new research opportunities in mummies that will be discovered in the future and even in artifacts that have already been examined.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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