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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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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
13-Year-Old Amateur Archaeologist Discovers the Buried Treasure of a Danish King
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

In January, amateur archaeologist René Schön and his 13-year-old student Luca Malaschnitschenko were scouring a field on an island in the Baltic Sea when something small and silver triggered their metal detector. What they initially thought was aluminum trash turned out to be a coin from a 10th-century treasure hoard that once belonged to a Danish king, AP reports.

Schön and Malaschnitschenko discovered the site on the eastern German island of Ruegen, but it wasn't until mid-April that state archaeologists uncovered the hoard in its entirety. Both of the amateur archaeologists were invited back to take part in the final dig, which spanned 4300 square feet.

The treasure trove includes pearls, jewelry, a Thor's hammer, and about 100 silver coins, with the oldest dating back to 714 CE and the most recent to 983 CE. Experts believe the collection once belonged to the Viking-born Danish king Harald "Harry" Bluetooth, who abandoned his Norse faith and brought Christianity to Denmark.

Pile of silver coins.
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

Threatened by a rebellion led by his son, the king fled Denmark in the late 980s—around the same time the silver hoard was buried—and took refuge in Pomerania, on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. He died there in 987.

Harry Bluetooth derived his nickname from his bluish dead tooth. Today his legacy lives on in the Swedish Bluetooth technology that bears his name. The symbol for the tech also uses the runic characters for his initials: HB.

According to the archaeologists who worked there, the dig site represents the largest trove of Bluetooth coins ever discovered in the southern Baltic region.

[h/t AP]

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