British Museum blog

Treasures of Heaven

James Robinson, Exhibition Curator

Next month, over 120 sacred relics (the physical remains or belongings of saints) will begin arriving at the British Museum from across Europe and the USA for the forthcoming exhibition Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe. As curator of the exhibition, I will be one of the first to see these amazing objects coming out of their travelling cases – and I can’t wait.

But why am I so excited about seeing a bunch of old bones? In the medieval period the relics of saints were enshrined in the most precious and valuable materials. These containers, known as reliquaries, were made by the finest craftsman of the age. Gleaming gemstones and luminous enamels were placed in sublime combinations with precious metals to speak to the viewer of the reliquaries sacred contents. It is these containers that will be showcased in the exhibition.

Medieval Christians believed that the physical remains of saints provided a tangible link to the divine. Saints sat beside God in heaven and could be petitioned to ask God for help. If I were suffering from plague in the Middle Ages I would want to pray to and venerate the relics of St Blaise, an expert in healing the plague. St Blaise might then ask God to help me and I might be miraculously healed. Some Christians hold similar beliefs today. In 2009 over 90,000 pilgrims came to Westminster Cathedral in London to venerate the travelling relics of French nun St Thérese of Lisieux.

Reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion
of St Ursula. South Netherlandish, c. 1520–1530.
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In researching this exhibition we have discovered some extraordinary medieval legends. One is the story of the English princess Ursula who before her marriage went on pilgrimage to venerate relics in the Holy Land. She never got there and was captured and martyred along with her 11,000 virgin travelling companions by pagans in Cologne. This captivating reliquary made from delicately painted wood would once have contained the skull of one her companions.

We still have a lot of work to do before the exhibition opens but I couldn’t resist giving a sneak peak at these unusual stories and astounding objects.

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Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven, , ,

The doors are open but the work goes on…

St John Simpson, Exhibition Curator

Many people think that once an exhibition is open then the work of the curatorial team is finished. Far from it! The space needs regular checking as thousands of visitors flock to see the objects. There is continuing press interest and therefore interviews, special visits, public enquiries and ongoing evaluation of how the public react to the exhibition itself.

There is also the events programme to think about. This has been planned well in advance and ranges from curator introductions lectures to gallery talks and special events. Most are free and the first curator’s introduction attracted almost 400 people although sadly this meant we had to turn some away as our largest lecture theatre only seats 320.

On the weekend of 12-13 March we held a conference aimed at specialists and public alike, which focused on some of the periods represented in the exhibition and involved 18 papers by speakers from museums, universities and other organisations in Afghanistan, the UK, France, Italy, Norway and America.

Glass fish found in the Begram storerooms. Bill Gudenrath, Corning Museum of Glass, gave a presentation during which he showed a replica he'd made himself. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Glass fish found in the Begram storerooms. Bill Gudenrath, Corning Museum of Glass, gave a presentation during which he showed a replica he'd made himself. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

However, the aim was more than simply to hold a conference on ancient Afghanistan which would be aimed at a very narrow group of specialists. The aim instead was to involve colleagues who are not only working on material from within Afghanistan itself but also directly related sites or material from neighbouring regions.

In short, in order to appreciate Afghanistan you have to look at its physical and cultural relationship with other regions, and at times this means more than just the immediate neighbours.

The order of papers was carefully choreographed so that each complemented the other and gradually rippled out geographically so that ancient Afghanistan was tied into neighbouring Parthia, the steppe connections evidenced by the Tillya Tepe finds, the Indian connections of the Kushan court and the Indian Ocean world of trade by which the Roman luxuries found at Begram were brought by sea from Egypt.

The conference ended with papers outlining recent developments and finds in Afghanistan. Two colleagues from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul showed how it was being restored and some of the numismatic finds from rescue excavations of Buddhist monasteries in the copper-rich valley of Mes Aynak in Logar province.

A very distinctive type of stamp-decorated and red-slipped pottery previously known from sites such as Begram (Period III) and Tapa Sardar has also been found here. Despite these sites having been looted in the recent past, the state of preservation is striking: wall-paintings, a polychrome-painted Gandharan sculpture and a unique wooden carving of Buddha were among the latest archaeological finds to be shown in two separate papers on new excavations there and at Tapa Zargaran (Balkh) by M. Nicolas Engel, the deputy director of the French archaeological mission to Afghanistan.

Some of the Mes Aynak finds have already gone on display in Kabul, timed to coincide with the announcement that the American and Afghan governments are pledging eight million dollars to the construction of a new annexe to the museum.

The conference was a great success and proof, if proof was needed, that context is everything and that to fully appreciate the stunning objects in the exhibition one must look again at how or where they were made and brought into the country.

Roll on the next event …

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

Unearthing the story of the Hackney Hoard

Ian Richardson, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum

Ian Richardson holds up one of the gold coins. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Ian Richardson holds up one of the gold coins. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

On 18 April 2011, the Coroner for Inner St Pancras (London) concluded an inquest into the ‘Hackney Hoard‘ of 80 gold American double eagle coins.

The coins had been found buried in a residential back garden and it was for the coroner to decide if they qualified as ‘Treasure‘ and were the property of the Crown.

As a group of precious metal objects deliberately hidden with the intention of being recovered at a later date, the coins met most of the criteria for Treasure, but in a surprise twist, the family of the original owner of the coins came forward to claim them successfully.

The coins were minted between 1854 and 1913. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The coins were minted between 1854 and 1913. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The court heard how Mr Martin Sulzbacher, a German Jew, had fled Nazi Germany with his wealth and settled in London in 1938.

When Mr Sulzbacher was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ in 1940 and sent to Australia, his family, fearing an imminent German invasion of Britain, buried his coins in the back garden of their Hackney property. Tragically, they perished in the Blitz and the property was destroyed.

When Mr Sulzbacher was allowed to return home, he was unable to locate the coins amid the rubble and destruction. 70 years later, they were found by accident as the residents dug a frog pond for their garden.

The coins were found wrapped in greaseproof paper, in a jar. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The coins were found wrapped in greaseproof paper, in a jar. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Mr Sulzbacher passed away in 1981 but his surviving relations were made aware of this recent discovery, and came forward to claim the coins. The coroner determined that the coins were not Treasure because the Sulzbacher family had sufficiently supported their claim. The Sulzbachers graciously gave permission for the coins to be displayed at the British Museum for a week following the inquest.

But how did the British Museum become involved in this historical mystery in the first place?

The answer lies with one of the newest and smallest departments in the Museum, Portable Antiquities and Treasure. The coins of the Hackney Hoard had been discovered by residents who reported them to an archaeologist working for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

The entire hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The entire hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The PAS is a network of specialists called Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) based at museums and universities throughout England and Wales who record finds of archaeological objects made by individuals in those countries.

The Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure coordinates the PAS and runs the online database where this information is stored and made accessible to researchers, students, and the general public. The department also performs much of the administration of the Treasure Act 1996 by keeping a registry of all the finds of potential Treasure made every year, and helping to ensure that the most important of those finds are acquired by public museums.

Each coin is a $20, known as a 'Double-Eagle'. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Each coin is a $20, known as a 'Double-Eagle'. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

In the case of the Hackney Hoard, the Finds Liaison Officer to whom the discovery was reported worked with the Department of Coins and Medals to write a report on the coins for the coroner, and produced the information for the database record.

The hoard is a totally fascinating find. Most of the finds recorded by the PAS (over 90,000 last year) and reported as potential Treasure (850 last year) are older than 300 years old, and represent a vast array of object types and coins from prehistoric times through the period of Romano-British settlement and into the middle ages.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , ,

Trips to Xiamen Museum and Lanzhou conference on paper conservation

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Examining the condition of a painting

The conservation studio at Shanghai Museum is often asked to conserve paintings for other Museums, which has given me the opportunity to observe the staff here working on a number of different, challenging objects.

I was kindly invited to join the conservators on a trip to the Xiamen Museum to return 15 conserved paintings and collect 10 new paintings in need of conservation. I was fortunate to be able to see the Xiamen Museum paintings before conservation – in quite poor condition and to follow the conservation assessments.

At Shanghai airport on the way to Xiamen Museum

An international conference on paper conservation across East Asia that I went to in December gave me an opportunity to learn more about the spread of expertise across the region in greater detail.

The conference took place in Gansu province, Lanzhou. Its theme was the research and conservation of paper from the Silk Road. The first gathering of this conference took place in Beijing in 2006, and was followed by a second and third event in Japan and Korea respectively.

Langzhou National Museum

This symposium was held by Unesco, the Chinese Academy of Cultural heritage, Gansu Provincial Museum and Gansu Archaeology research Institute, and united conservators from the five Asian countries of China, Japan, North and South Korea and Mongolia to share and discuss the conservation of paper relics.

On this occasion particular focus was put on the different techniques used in traditional paper-making in each country, and modern solutions for preserving the region’s paper heritage were presented by the various expert guests. A special exhibition also gave me a chance to see unearthed paper relics from the Silk Road itself.

The hectic city of Shanghai

Back in hectic Shanghai, the environment in which I work is unique with an intense daily rhythm of tasks. The experience of learning from the wonderful professionals in this field really is a privilege.

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Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai, , , ,

Putting the Chiseldon Cauldrons in context

Jody Joy, British Museum

I am the curator responsible for the European Iron Age collection at the British Museum, and will be working with Alexandra Baldwin and Jamie Hood on the Chiseldon Cauldrons project throughout the next year.

At the moment I am taking a back seat in the project, to support Alex and Jamie as far as I can in their conservation work. But once the conservation and scientific analysis is completed it is up to me to work out why so many cauldrons were placed together in a large pit alongside two cattle skulls sometime between 200-50 BC.

In the meantime I have begun to research cauldrons and other metal vessels.

The Battersea cauldron, an example of an Iron Age cauldron on display in the British Museum

Cauldrons are a very well-known type of Iron Age artefact but surprisingly little is known about them. We think they were used to boil meat and/or to serve alcoholic beverages such as beer or mead. They are substantial artefacts and quite rare so we think they were used for feasting.

A hook from about 1050-900 BC, possibly used to cook meat over a cauldron

Part of the problem is that many cauldrons were discovered in rivers or bogs during the nineteenth-century so we have very little evidence to work with other than the artefacts themselves. This is why the Chiseldon discovery is so exciting. Because the objects were well-excavated we have a detailed record of how they were deposited. We also have up to 13 vessels to compare and contrast.

The discovery has certainly sparked a lot of interest among fellow archaeologists and I have already given a number of public lectures to various universities and archaeological societies.

Late last year I gave a lecture at Leicester University and there was a fantastic turnout. Usually one of the students bakes a cake or biscuits; however, in honour of the cauldrons we were treated to a steaming vat of punch served in a miniature cauldron!

I am extremely excited by what Alex and Jamie have discovered so far. One of the major questions we have is whether the cauldrons were made especially for deposition.

I think we can already suggest that they weren’t. The cauldrons that have been excavated so far are very different and look to have been made by different people using different techniques. Some also show possible evidence of repair and past use.

This is giving us a fantastic insight into Iron Age technology and methods of artefact manufacture. It also opens up further questions.

If cauldrons are rare artefacts and the examples we have were not all made at the same time, can we suggest that different communities brought their own vessels to a large feast at Chiseldon?

If so what was the purpose of the gathering and why were the artefacts placed in a pit at the end of the feast? We may not ultimately be able to answer these questions but I can’t wait to see what further discoveries Alex and Jamie make so we can at least try.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , ,

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