Uncovering the Past: Nero’s Revolving Restaurant and more

Cara Schulz —  July 24, 2014 — 8 Comments

As some Pagans attempt to revive ancient or indigenous religions they often rely on the work of historians, primary texts and archaeologists. For this reason, when something new pops up that challenges long held academic ideas on cultural or religious practice, we pay attention. Here are some of the new(er) finds making waves in archaeological circles.

Previously unknown ancient culture found in Peru
Archaeologists working in the Atacama Desert in Peru discovered more than 150 burials belonging to a previously unknown farming culture dating to between the 4th-7th century CE.

Artifacts found in one of the graves. [Photo: Archives of the Tambo Project of the University of Wrocław]

Artifacts found in one of the graves. [Photo: Archives of the Tambo Project of the University of Wrocław]

The graves didn’t have any stone structures or other ways to mark them, and experts think this may be why they were not looted by grave robbers or found by earlier explorers. The desert conditions also preserved the graves, and many artifacts were discovered with the bodies. The items found in the graves show that there were clear social divisions. Some of the items uncovered were headgear made of felted lama wool, decorated weaving tools, jewelry, bows, and arrows with obsidian heads. The differences in quality show that some persons were more powerful than others and could afford to take such treasures into the afterlife with them.

The bodies were wrapped in woven mats, cotton burial shrouds, or nets. What was most curious was the reeds attached to the ears of the bodies which poked up out of the graves. Archaeologists think the reeds may have enabled the living to communicate with the dead.

 

Controversial sale of Sekhama statue completed
A statue of an Egyptian scribe named Sekhama was recently sold to a private buyer by the Northampton Museum. The museum said the sale was necessary to raise funds to reinvest in other cultural projects. Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh El-Damati opposed the exchange saying private sales of ancient artifacts are against the values of museums world wide as they should act as vessels to spread culture, rather than businesses searching for a profit.

[Promotional video by Christie’s Auction House]

The 4500 year old limestone statue stands only 30 inches high, but is considered culturally important due to the detailed scroll on his lap listing his funeral offerings.

Due to the sale, the Northampton Museum may be found in breach of the Museums Association Code of Ethics. If it loses its Museums Association Accreditation, public, charity, or lottery funding may be cut off.

The statue was put up for auction by Christie’s Auction House on July 10 and sold for a reported $20 million.

 

Newly uncovered Roman tombs display different funeral rites
Archaeologists uncovered a new cemetery in the old Roman port of Ostia. The funeral rites included cremations and burials. The variation wasn’t limited to a specific time period and all remains are from a single extended family. The cemetery “shows the free choice that everyone had with their own body, a freedom people no longer had in the Christian era when burial became the norm,” said Paola Germoni, the director of the sprawling dig.

Ostia was a bustling, cosmopolitan city dating back to the 7th century BCE and was Rome’s main port. The city was also quite large – larger than Pompeii.

 

Fabled city Thonis-Heracleion found
Like Troy,Thonis-Heracleion was once believed to be a myth. In fact, archaeologists thought Thonis-Heracleion were two separate cities. But Thonis is its Egyptian name and Heracleion is the Greek name. Found by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio in 2000, this ancient city near Alexandria is revealing that it not only existed, but played an important role in ancient Egyptian religion and commerce.

Click this link for spectacular photos

Founded in the 12th century BCE, Thonis-Heracleion was the port of entry to Egypt for all ships coming from the Greek world. It also had a religious importance due to the grand temple of Amun and his son Khonsou (Herakles to the Greeks). Also discovered was the head of a colossal statue of the god Hapi. Hapi is the god of the flooding of the Nile, who granted abundance and fertility. That large of a representation of Hapi has never been found before and casts new light on his importance in Egyptian religion.

Thonis-Heracleion had its peak occupation from the 6th to the 4th century BC and is thought to have been destroyed over 1,200 years ago, possibly due to major earthquakes and floods. It now lies 4 miles off today’s coastline.

Although the excavation has been going for over 13 years, new and well preserved discoveries are being made constantly. Keep your eyes open for more news on Thonis-Heracleion and how those discoveries are changing views on ancient Greco-Egyptian culture and religion.

 

70,000 year old African settlement shows they did it first
The first permanent living structures were thought to have been made by humans as they left Africa for colder areas of Europe or Asia. A 70,000 year old northern Sudan village is challenging that long held assumption.

Archaeologists say Affad, the name they are calling the dig site, not only had wood living structures, but also had a large flint workshop and a space for cutting hunted animal carcasses. They’re also trying to pin down a more exact date for when the village was inhabted. So far they know Affad existed some time during the Middle Palaeolithic period when the area was a wetlands. However, the region was a wetlands during two different time periods; about 75 millennia and about 25 millennia ago.

Remnants of the Palaeolithic settlements in Affad. [Image: M. Osypińska]

Remnants of the Palaeolithic settlements in Affad. [Image: M. Osypińska]

Did Nero really have a revolving restaurant?
It appears he did.

The dining room was first discovered in 2009, but it took them years to figure out what it was and what it was designed to do. Archaeologists at first didn’t know what they had under their feet. They were on an artificial terrace constructed by the Flavians, which they built over the top of Nero’s famous palace. However, the retaining wall was too thin to hold up the terrace. They wanted to know why it hadn’t collapsed, so they did what archaeologists do – they started digging.

They found a round 39 foot tall tower with a 13 foot diameter central pillar and eight arches supporting two floors. Along the top of the upper arches were holes filled with slippery clay. This was the clue needed to uncover the purpose for the room. The holes would contain ball bearings and the slip was a lubricant, and this supported a revolving floor. The floor’s constant movement may have been powered by a system of water and gears.

Model of the parts of the revolving dining room [Francoise Villedieu and Edikom]

Model of the parts of the revolving dining room [Credit: Francoise Villedieu and Edikom]

Roman historian Suetonius had written that Nero’s “main dining room was round, and revolved continuously on itself, day and night, like the world.” However most historians thought this was exaggeration typical of early ‘historical’ accounts.

Lead site archaeologist Francois Villedieu says the proof that this was Nero’s revolving dining room isn’t definitive, and the claim caused enough controversy that funding for the excavation was delayed for several years, but he feels the clues are convincing. Now that funding is secured, the work can continue. 

Nero, best known as the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, is emerging as more complex man. Most of what’s known about him comes from those who opposed his populist economic policies which favored the poor. He was a patron of the arts, and if the revolving dining room pans out, he may have been more involved with furthering science and technology than originally thought.

 

 

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Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.
  • Deborah Bender

    I hope this kind of reporting will be a recurring feature here.

    To the extent it’s practical to do so, I’d also like to read roundups of research results in other academic disciplines and sciences that have a bearing on pagan religions. (I know; everything is relevant to our religions, but I’m thinking of historical controversies, research on mechanisms of alternative methods of healing, lost manuscripts turning up or finally being translated, and so forth.)

    • http://www.myspace.com/kadynastar Khryseis_Astra

      I second that notion. :) “Uncovering the Past” seems like a good title for a recurring column!

  • KhonsuMes Matt

    The statue sold at Christie’s is of Sekhemka, not Sekhama. (The typo occurs once in the linked article, so did not originate at Wildhunt). The name occurs multiple times on the open papyrus scroll held in his lap.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    “What was most curious was the reeds attached to the ears of the bodies which poked up out of the graves.” What with bodies poking out of the graves, you’d think they’d have discovered them before now.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Considering how important history is in understanding the practices of the historic cultures that inform the various religions counted under the umbrella of “Paganism”, you’d think there’d be a lot more of this kind of article being shared around.

    Mind you, I think a lot of people get defensive when history can be shown to be at odds with their UPG/MUS.

  • http://saffronrose.livejournal.com/ A. Marina Fournier

    That darned set of Heraklion photos led me off on tangential voyages to see amazingly wonderful photos….for about three hours.

    Sort of miss the time spent, but not the beauty found.

    I’m a history buff (no, I’m cinnabar!), so I appreciate your having gathered these tidbits together.

  • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

    I don’t think there’s enough artifacts above and under the ground in all the world that could redeem Nero’s reputation.

  • Laura Megehee

    Fascinating. I’d also love to see “Uncovering the Past” become a recurring column!