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Rare 2000-Year-Old Sundial Sheds New Light on Ancient Roman Politics

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When a Roman citizen named Marcus Novius Tubula won an important election some 2000 years ago, he didn’t have the technology to tweet about it. He opted for more permanent brag, and commissioned a marble sundial inscribed with both his name and position.

Paid for with the politician’s own money, the timekeeping device served as a public monument in his hometown, the small Italian municipality of Interamna Lirenas. But as millennia passed, memories of the proud politician faded, only to be recently revived by a group of Cambridge University archaeologists who discovered the marker still intact, according to National Geographic.

Located in Italy’s Liri Valley, Interamna Lirenas was likely founded in the fourth century BCE and abandoned by the sixth century CE. Archaeologists have been conducting a fieldwork project at the ancient site since 2010, trying to figure out how the town was affected by Rome's shift from republic to empire.

They discovered the 2000-year-old sundial—one of only a handful known to have survived the millennia—while excavating a roofed theater. Lying facedown by one of its street-side entrances, the sundial had probably been overlooked by scavengers, who picked apart the Roman town for building materials during and after the medieval era.

A 2000-year-old Roman sundial, discovered by Cambridge University archaeologists in the ancient Italian town of Interamna Lirenas.
A 2000-year-old Roman sundial, discovered by Cambridge University archaeologists in the ancient Italian town of Interamna Lirenas.
Alessandro Launaro

Experts think the sundial once sat atop a pillar in the nearby forum. Carved from limestone, it has a concave face that’s engraved with lines and curves that indicated both daylight hours and the current season. Its shadow-casting iron needle is mostly gone.

“Less than a hundred examples of this specific type of sundial have survived, and of those, only a handful bear any kind of inscription at all—so this really is a special find,” said Alessandro Launaro, a classics lecturer at Cambridge University, in a statement. “Not only have we been able to identify the individual who commissioned the sundial, we have also been able to determine the specific public office he held in relation to the likely date of the inscription.”

Based on the inscription’s lettering and other factors, experts were able to date the sundial to around the middle of the first century BCE. And thanks to its engraving, they know that Marcus Novius Tubula held the office of Plebian Tribune. These officials were non-aristocratic men who provided governmental checks and balances.

Until the Republic fell, members of the Plebian Tribune enjoyed a sizeable amount of prestige. Archaeologists were surprised to learn that Marcus Novius Tubula—who hailed from a no-name town—was one of them.

“In this sense,” Launaro added, “the discovery of the inscribed sundial not only casts new light on the place Interamna Lirenas occupied within a broader network of political relationships across Roman Italy, but it is also a more general indicator of the level of involvement in Rome’s own affairs that individuals hailing from this and other relatively secondary communities could aspire to.”

[h/t National Geographic]

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Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

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Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Scientists Just Found the Oldest Known Piece of Bread
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen

An old, charred piece of long-forgotten flatbread has captured the interest of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians around the world. Found in a stone fireplace in Jordan’s Black Desert, this proto-pita dates back 14,400 years, making it the oldest known example of bread, Reuters reports.

To put the significance of this discovery in context: the flatbread predates the advent of agriculture by 4000 years, leading researchers to theorize that the laborious process of making the bread from wild cereals may have inspired early hunter-gatherers to cultivate grain and save themselves a whole lot of trouble.

“We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture,” Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a researcher with the University of Copenhagen, told Reuters. “It is possible that bread may have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming, if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food.”

A report on these findings—written by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London, and University of Cambridge—was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was once thought that bread was an invention of early farming civilizations. A 9100-year-old piece of bread from Turkey was previously regarded as the oldest of its kind. However, the Jordanian flatbread was made by a group of hunter-gatherers called the Natufians, who lived during a transitional period from nomadic to sedentary ways of life, at which time diets also started to change.

Similar to a pita, this unleavened bread was made from wild cereals akin to barley, einkorn, and oats. These were “ground, sieved, and kneaded prior to cooking,” according to a statement from the University of Copenhagen. The ancient recipe also called for tubers from an aquatic plant, which Arranz-Otaegui described as tasting “gritty and salty."

[h/t Reuters]

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