British Museum blog

A magnificent collection comes to London

St John Simpson, exhibition curator

Years of quiet behind-the-scenes conversations and negotiations through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, accelerating as the months passed, are now about to come to fruition. On 4 November 2010 an official loan agreement was signed in Kabul by Dr Sayed Raheen, the Minister of Information and Culture, and Sir William Patey, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, followed by a second signing in London on 23 November by Neil MacGregor and witnessed by Mr Homayoun Tandar, the Afghan ambassador to Britain.

Signing of the official loan agreement in Kabul

The purpose of this is to enable the bringing to London of the magnificent collection of objects from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul which have been touring the world for the past four years. This is the first and only opportunity to see these pieces in Britain.

The objects number over 200 and come from four of the most important archaeological sites in Afghanistan: Tepe Fullol (also known as Khosh Tapa), Ai Khanum (meaning ‘Moon Lady’ in local Uzbek language), Begram and Tilla Tepe (‘Hill of Gold’, better known as Tillya Tepe). They were found between 1937 and 1978 and were previously exhibited in the National Museum in Kabul.

All were feared destroyed or lost during the decades of war and unrest following 1978, during which time the collections were regularly moved, the museum occupied by the military, its upper floors destroyed in a rocket strike, pagan wooden carvings from Nuristan burnt as firewood, and finally its surviving collection of ancient figural sculpture systematically destroyed by fundamentalist Taliban in 2001.

The destroyed state of the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul 2001

The whereabouts and safekeeping of these objects was only confirmed in 2003, after the fall of the Taliban government, when newly elected President Hamid Karzai announced they had been mostly hidden in unmarked safes in vaults beneath the presidential palace.

The objects were then inventoried the following year, partly conserved and re-exhibited in Paris in December 2006. Since then they have travelled to Turin, Amsterdam, Washington, San Francisco, Houston, New York, Ottawa and are currently exhibited in Bonn. The exhibition is a remarkable story of Afghans hiding their own culture in order to preserve it and now proudly displaying it to the world. I’m looking forward to working with the Afghans on this magnificent exhibition.

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Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions, , ,

The archaeology begins at home

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Storeroom during clearance, with traditional beds (angareeb)

Work on converting parts of the expedition house has seen us create more working rooms in a western annex of the main house. As the artefact stores are also located here, it will create an area of the house for study, away from the eating and washing areas, but also the bedrooms.

Thankfully, mudbrick houses can be easily modified, as doors and windows can be inserted into walls, or blocked up.

Kawsir (left) in store, opening date containers

One of the rooms had been locked since we moved to this house, and used as a storage space for the owner’s possessions. There are many houses on the island that are unoccupied, with windows and doors blocked up – as the owner has travelled to Khartoum or abroad for work, or has passed away. In many such houses, a room is kept locked to store all manner of tools, clothing, furniture and other possessions.

When we opened Kawsir’s storeroom it provided a fascinating glimpse of local life for over a century (the house itself is perhaps 70 years old). Some objects were relatively recent – plastic jerry cans for diesel, printed school books, plastic flasks for tea, and a wide selection of aluminium kitchen ware, mattresses and blankets.

Various containers, a mudbrick mould, stove and bedpan

A photo album provided a fascinating glimpse at the people who owned these objects, their relatives and friends: colleagues on a construction site in January 1983, families in traditional houses much like ours, wedding photos, and studio portraits – something of a kaleidoscope of changing fashions.

Family photograph album

Metal crates, one from the Second World War embossed with “F&L I 1942”, were used to store books and clothing and, while a more traditional carved wooden chest also held a TV and digital satellite receiver. Such chests are typically given to women upon marriage.

Carved wood chest, with TV and satellite reciever found inside.

We also found more traditional objects, of types in use for centuries. Two wooden beds (anagareeb) with their distinctive carved legs are not dissimilar to ancient examples, fragments of which are found in the cemetery at Amara West.

A wide range of woven matting – for the floor (brish), but also used as prayer mats or to lay on beds prior to the arrival of mattresses – was found, alongside shallow basketry containers for wheat and other foodstuffs, and 12 food-covers (tabag).

Angareeb-bed, with mats.

Dating these objects is almost impossible as many are still used today alongside plastic and aluminium products. The use for individual objects has also changed across time – thus an aluminium barrel originally used to transport 70lbs of insecticide from Philips Suphar, a Dutch company, to Port Sudan, is now typically kept to store flour.

Two traditional wooden serving dishes (gadha) were also found, with incised decor around the rim. These could date to the late nineteenth century, or even earlier.

Unsurprisingly, on an island where date production is the major source of income, several containers for dates were found in the store: a traditional clay guseeba, pottery zirs, and plastic barrels – a familiar mix of modern and traditional. The dates are often stored in houses for up to a year after harvest – a copper and bone date measure was also found.

Traditional pottery and date measure (right)

Our inspector Shadia Abdu Rabo has been helping us interpret some of the objects. The potential for anthropological research on material like this is vast, especially in a village environment that is changing so quickly.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , ,

Return to Amara West

Neal Spencer, British Museum

The steep river bank at Amara West, overlooking the Nile.

Amidst the chaos, heat and dust of our building work at the dig house, we finally managed a short visit to the archaeological site of Amara West itself earlier this week, to see whether much change is evident from the end of our excavation season in late February.

During the season our daily commute consists of a 10-minute journey downstream in a small launch with outboard motor – the return journey takes 20 minutes as the boat contends with the Nile current.

Motor-launch for the commute to Amara West.

The boat is usually laden with workmen, equipment and of course ancient pottery and artefacts being brought back to the expedition house for study and storage.

The site is much as we left it in February, though windblown sand has started to cover up the buildings we excavated.

View over Amara West, with stone architecture from the Governor’s Residence on the surface

Amara West is buffeted by strong northerly winds most of the year, sometimes so strong we have to stop work for the day. This wind, and the sand it brings, is largely responsible for the good preservation of the New Kingdom houses and other buildings.

Shadia Abdu Rabo, antiquities inspector, with Neal Spencer, in 20th dynasty house (about 1100 BC).

We also know the sand was a problem in ancient times, as the inhabitants took measures to keep it out of houses as the outside ground level rose.

20th dynasty villa, excavated in 2009, now almost covered with windblown sand.

We’re now at an advanced stage of planning next season’s excavation priorities for the town – to continue in the group of mid-sized houses near the governor’s residence, and to start work in the smaller houses at the southern end of the town.

Excavations will begin in eight weeks time.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , ,

Getting prepared

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Amara West, Sudan

Far from the British Museum, preparations are underway for the next phase of excavations in the Amara West research project.

Amara West is an ancient town in northern Sudan, which was occupied by pharaonic Egypt between 1500 and 1070 BC. We’ve been studying it since 2008, carrying out archaeological digs every year. Our next season starts in January when we’ll be writing regular updates on our progress.

For now, I’m here with Claire Messenger, who co-ordinates the British Museum international training programme, for a two-week visit to meet with colleagues from the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) and to prepare the project house for the busy season ahead.

During excavations, a team of 10-15 specialists lives in a converted mudbrick house, on the nearby island of Ernetta, a short boat-trip from the ancient site. This picturesque island features clusters of traditional Nubian houses set among date-palm groves and small plots for growing fava beans and other vegetables. Three mosques, three small shops and a cemetery are also found on the island – but no vehicles.

The island seen from the river Nile

The house, owned by local primary school teacher Kawsar Mohamed Ali, is arranged around large courtyards, and is designed for the local climate, particularly the cool verandahs to encourage airflow during the summer heat. However, aspects of the house need to be changed to fit with our requirements: installation of showers, creation of object and equipment stores, and of course more bedrooms than the typical family needs. Throughout, we are trying to retain the original appearance and ambience of the house.

Mud-bricks laid out to dry next to the expedition house

Skills not taught in Egyptology or archaeology courses are needed here! Local builders are employed to convert the house, using a mixture of traditional materials (mud, sand, mudbricks) and more modern products (cement, electrical wiring). There is no mains electricity here on the island, or in the nearby area, so we only have power in the evenings, run from the neighbour’s water-pump (it doubles as a generator). Loading up the water tank

All our water comes from the Nile, for washing, cooking and drinking – we use ceramic filters to make sure it’s pure.

Many key pieces of equipment are not available locally, so earlier this week we bought a 500-litre fibreglass water tank in the capital city, Khartoum, strapped it to the roof of a Landcruiser and drove the 700 km north to site. We hope the water-tank will ensure we have a more reliable supply of water in the coming seasons. Throughout it all we’ve had the tremendous assistance of our Sudanese inspector, Shadia Abdu Rabo.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , , ,

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