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Archaeologists discover marble statue in ancient Roman sewer

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Last week, Bulgarian archaeologists made an unexpected discovery in an ancient Roman sewer: a well-preserved marble statue that was taller than a human.

“We found it by accident,” said Lyudmir Vagalinsky, the excavation’s scientific director. “It’s amazing. A complete statue appeared before us.”

The discovery may shed light on how people in the region, now Bulgaria, fought to protect their religion as Christianity spread across the ancient world. The sewer may have been a hiding place used by pagans to protect the magnificent statue from Christian fanatics, who sometimes mutilated the heads of pagan gods.

They appear to have succeeded: The researchers have yet to excavate the entire statue, but its face and head show no signs of damage.

“It’s a miracle that it survived,” Dr. Wagarinsky said.

He and colleagues were conducting routine excavations on a hot summer day last week near the village of Rupit in southwestern Bulgaria, near the border with Greece, when they discovered the marble in the soil.

“They struggled to contain their excitement as the marble foot appeared,” Dr. Wagarinsky said. “Then they saw the intricately carved patterns on the toenails. The legs grew upward. Then the torso. And finally the head.”

“It was just waiting for us,” he said. It was as if the statue had found them, rather than them finding the statue.

This isn’t the first ancient statue to emerge from a nasty ditch: Roman builders Marble statues were also found Last year in the sewer system, it might have depicted Hercules.

Dr. Vagalinsky believes the Bulgarian statue, which may depict the god Hermes, was probably buried in the late fourth century A.D. He believes the statue was placed in the sewer a few years after 380 A.D., the year the Roman Emperor Theodosius I declared Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

The ancient city where the statue was found was called Heraclea Syntica, where pagans Probably wanting to protect their treasures from being defiled by Christians.

“They tried to preserve the memory of these gods in secret,” Dr. Wagarinsky said.

He also believes the statue may have been buried sometime after 388 A.D., when a major earthquake struck the area and destroyed the city. The earthquake appears to have damaged the infrastructure so badly that the sewers no longer functioned, he said.

But Dr. Wagarinsky added that although the sewer was no longer in use after the earthquake, it still stands strong and serves as a burial place for pagan history.

“Even though we might think a sewer is not the right place, at least it won’t be damaged,” said Rev. Prof. Martin Hennig, an expert on Roman art at Oxford University who was not involved in the excavation. “No one touches a sewer,” he added.

Dr. Wagarinsky said the statue’s right arm was missing part of something that looked almost amputated. The left hand may also have been damaged. But otherwise the statue appeared to be largely intact.

“It is rare and exciting to find a statue that is nearly intact, especially one of such high quality,” Elizabeth Marlowe, director of the Museum Studies Program at Colgate University, who was not involved in the excavation, wrote in an email.

The location of the statues may also offer some insights to the researchers. Many of the statues that are still in good condition have been looted, Dr. Marlowe wrote, “and then turned up out of nowhere in dealers’ shops in Switzerland or New York.”

That can mean that the finds, while significant, often come with no clues as to their origin. (Smugglers work to obliterate such details to prevent cultural officials from returning artifacts to where they were found.)

“If this work had appeared on the art market, we would not have thought it came from a small town in the heart of Bulgaria,” Dr. Malo wrote. “We would have guessed it came from a wealthy city or private estate in Italy.”

Such an impressive marble statue – which she said is a rare find in southwestern Bulgaria – could shed light on Heraclea Syntica. The city is not a well-known Roman site, Dr. Malo said. “This has the potential to greatly enrich our understanding of the local culture of the region,” she wrote.

For now, Dr. Wagarinsky and his team are focused on carefully removing the statue. Once it is fully excavated, which he hopes to do this week, he and other researchers will date and analyze the statue before preparing it for display at a local history museum.

“It’s such a feeling,” he said. “Statues of this magnitude are very rare.”

Borjana Dzambazova Contributed reporting.

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