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English Palace Identifies Marble Garden Planter as Roman Sarcophagus

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A year ago, at England’s Blenheim Palace, officials discovered a priceless piece of history hiding in plain sight when an antiques expert identified a marble flower planter—used to grow tulips in a palace garden—as part of a Roman sarcophagus. The relic was cleaned and restored, and recently put on public display inside the house, The New York Times reports.

Located in Oxfordshire, England, Blenheim Palace is the main residence of the Dukes of Marlborough. It’s one of England’s largest houses, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. As for the Roman sarcophagus, it came to Blenheim Palace sometime during the 19th century. Originally, the marble relic was used to collect water from a local spring; in later years—as early as the 20th century—it was integrated into a rock garden. There the sarcophagus sat for decades, attached to a lead cistern, until last year, when a visiting antiques specialist happened to notice it while walking through the garden.

The 6-foot-long sarcophagus fragment was once the front of a coffin, and is missing its base, sides, and back. It’s believed to date back to the 2nd century CE, and features carvings of lion heads and Roman gods, including Hercules, Ariadne, and a tipsy Dionysus leaning on a satyr. Experts don’t know whether anyone was actually buried in the sarcophagus, but thanks to its fine carving, they believe it belonged to someone of high social status.

The sarcophagus is likely valuable: It has some wear and tear, but it's mostly in good condition. Similar artifacts of lesser quality have been auctioned off for as much as $121,000. But despite its potential worth, officials at Blenheim Palace say they have no interest in selling the piece.

Blenheim Palace isn’t the only household to own a Roman sarcophagus unawares, or use it as a planter. In 2012, a Roman marble coffin—used as a flower trough by homeowners in Dorset, England—was sold at auction for $133,000. And after reading about the discovery, a retired couple in Newcastle, in northeast England, realized a marble planter in their own gardens was also a Roman sarcophagus, dating back to the 1st or 2nd century CE. They sold it in 2013 for $55,400.

[h/t The New York Times]

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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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