British Museum blog

On medieval metalwork

Jamie Hall, contemporary and medieval metalworker

The majority of the objects on display in Treasures of Heaven are made from precious metals. In the modern age, the computer is the pinnacle of technological development, and during the Industrial Revolution it was vast machines that filled the role. But prior to that, during the middle ages, it was the products of the metalworker that represented the very best of human ingenuity. Popular culture gives the impression that arms and armour were the heart and soul of metallurgy, but work in the precious metals is no less inspiring, and in fact, the two branches go hand in hand, one feeding into the other.

As a jeweller, and a medievalist, the exhibition was a very exciting opportunity to see the labours of my predecessors first hand. It’s one thing to read about the methods they used, and another to behold these objects, and see the tool marks – remembering that each stroke of the engraving, and each strike of the hammer, had a human hand behind it, using tools that are not so different to the ones I use today. But these aren’t the works of a single artisan; rather, they represent a high level of social and economic organisation – the materials, like enamel and gemstones, would be purchased by, or given to, a particular religious order, and the work might be done within a monastic workshop, or perhaps by secular artisans in a nearby town.

Within that workshop would be masters and apprentices of various persuasions – experts in casting, forging and gilding, others who worked with the precious stones, others who would engrave and polish the metal. One such workshop is described in a 12th-century book called On Divers Arts by an artisan-monk calling himself Theophilus, where even the steel tools were produced in-house.

My favourite piece in the exhibition is the Bell Shrine of St. Cuileáin, which has an almost sci-fi quality to it. Aside from the excellent knotwork decoration, the piece is assembled from a mixture of cast and forged sections, and has a feeling of solidity that you can see across the room.

It isn’t often that we get a chance to see such a wide range of methods in one place – the exhibition is almost like a catalogue of techniques. Nor do we normally get to see objects that cover over a millenia of history, across so many different cultures, each with it’s own unique take on Christianity. From the post-classical styles of the Byzantine Empire, to the pagan-influenced works from the British Isles, and everything in between, the Treasures of Heaven exhibition is a stunning testament to the passion, inspiration and ingenuity of our ancestors, and their search for beauty in a world of tragedy and violence.

Jamie Hall (@primitivemethod) is a contemporary and medieval metalworker.

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe is open until 9 October 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

Selecting objects, X Factor style

Eleanor Bradshaw, Assistant Curator

As part of the first cohort of Inspire curating MA students at the Royal College of Art, I have had the unique opportunity to work at the British Museum for the last two years, and my time is finally coming to an end! The Art Council’s Inspire programme is unique in that it is a course aimed at BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnics) in an attempt to diversity the arts and cultural heritage workforce, hoping to bring with it some different outlooks, perceptions and ideas.

Throughout the lead up to the exhibition Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (which was an incredibly tight eight months) I was heavily involved with the initial curation and planning of the exhibition, as well as working closely with Grayson himself in selecting nearly 200 British Museum objects to go on display. Grayson planned on displaying about 30 of his own works which he wanted to sit – sometimes in juxtaposition and sometimes in harmony – with objects from the Museum collection.

Before we met, Grayson had taken photographs of over 900 objects from the collection, which he brought to me in a Tupperware box. These ranged from miniature Japanese pocket shrines to large Chinese tomb bricks and prints of the infamous transvestite Chevalier d’Eon.


A Ghanaian Asafo banner in the British Museum collection

Together, we decided it would be sensible to cull the photographs (and therefore objects) down to about 200 so they would actually fit in the exhibition space. Grayson decided he would play the role of Simon Cowell, so luckily that made me Cheryl. The selection process was truly fascinating to watch. Grayson chose many of the objects because they referenced his own works beautifully. For example, an Asafo banner connects really well with his tapestry Hold Your Beliefs Lightly. Also included in the exhibition are some late seventeenth century German stoneware jugs, which could almost be mistaken for his own ceramic pieces.

Grayson Perry, Hold Your Beliefs Lightly, 2011. © Grayson Perry

Objects were also chosen in relation to certain elements or themes of the exhibition, such as pilgrimage and the craftsman. In some cases he did not choose an object based on the aesthetic, for example the Department of Prints and Drawings has several maps of Pilgrims Progress but Grayson chose his least favourite and the least decorative simply because visually it was easier for the audience to decipher. Conversely some objects were chosen because they were purely spectacular, such as the ornate gold ceremonial headdress from Ghana.

Once selected, I had the daunting task of locating all 200 objects. Luckily, Grayson has almost total recall and could remember what every single object was, what department it was from and if not the name of the curator responsible, then whether or not they had a beard!

Throughout the selection process, many people have questioned why a contemporary artist like Grayson Perry would want to do an exhibition at the British Museum. I think this provokes a very interesting question: can the contemporary and the historical speak intimately to each other and create an interesting dialogue, or should they be kept apart?

Grayson Perry takes you behind the scenes of the making of this exhibition in a new BBC documentary. Come along to free screenings at the Museum on 10 November or 1 December 2011.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Perspectives on the world

Jonathan Williams, Keeper of Prehistory and Europe

The Museum’s latest exhibition exploring spiritual journeys closes in the next couple of weeks. Treasures of Heaven is all about what it was like to be human in medieval Europe, and an inherent part of medieval European life was religion. Whether you were a woman or a man, young or old, rich or poor, Christianity was part of everyday life and the exhibition explores the role of worship and the objects associated with it – and how these objects were thought to provide a bridge between heaven and Earth.

The way that Christianity permeated all elements of medieval European life is one of the big things that make medieval Europeans different from us, and that’s why we need to know about it. For better or worse, medieval people lavished their money and time, their art and their passion on their religion above all else, and made some extraordinarily beautiful and moving things along the way, many of which feature in the show.

It’s been an amazing opportunity to gain a new insight not just into the craftsmanship and sophistication of the middle ages but, more importantly, into the minds and hearts of people in a particular moment in time.

You can say something similar about the Museum’s next big show, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, about the great annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which will also give all of us a way into understanding a phenomenon that is central to the lives and imaginations of millions of people around the world, and millions of Britons too. The exhibition will explore the history of this famous pilgrimage through rarely-seen objects from across the world and will shed light on how the pilgrimage continues to be experienced today.

To explore human history is to explore human beliefs and experiences. This is what the British Museum is for – to enable us to see the world from different perspectives.

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe is open until 9 October 2011.
Book tickets now.
Sponsored by John Studzinski

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012. Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, Treasures of Heaven

Digging Domuztepe: Weeks three and four – tantalising glimpses of the past

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the weekly progress of their recent excavation season.


Alexandra Fletcher, British Museum

Shopping in the Gaziantep souk

Shopping in the Gaziantep souk

We all returned from a weekend break refreshed and then a couple of days later Rachel had to return to London. As she left, we were joined by Ben Gearey, an environmental archaeologist from the University of Birmingham.

Ben is here to take sediment samples from the floodplain surrounding Domuztepe, which he will examine for pollen, beetle remains and shells in order to try and reconstruct the ancient landscape.

Ben examining the floodplain sediments

Ben examining the floodplain sediments

Getting the samples out of the ground could be done by drilling out vertical cores by hand, but in the dry clay soils this proved very difficult. So we decided to dig very deep holes with a large JCB. Meanwhile, the excavation of the Neolithic well has been making steady progress.

The view down the Neolithic well

The view down the Neolithic well

Stuart Campbell, the dig director, has been working to excavate this feature. He has now removed over six metres of soil and each one has to be laboriously hauled up to the surface. He has to put on a safety harness and a helmet before climbing down a rope ladder to begin digging.

Dig director, Stuart gets his safety harness on

Dig director, Stuart gets his safety harness on

Despite being difficult to use on the floodplain , the coring equipment proved very useful in looking at the soils in the bottom of the well and finding out how much more there is to dig (about 1.5 metres). Much to Stuart’s relief we should get through that before we have to stop digging altogether.

Lowering the heavy metal coring equipment down into the well with Stuart at the bottom was difficult and had to be done very carefully indeed.

As the well walls have to be cut back and held in place with wood panels it has also allowed us to see layers of the site that it would take us years to reach with normal excavation. Tantalising bits of Neolithic pottery have been coming out with the soil and we have been able to see periods of building, abandonment and even large scale burning within the settlement.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

When the Pharaohs came to town


Victoria Page, Great North Museum: Hancock

When thousands of years of Egyptian history came hundreds of miles from the British Museum to the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle, it wasn’t just the artefacts that needed extra care; I nearly burst with excitement when the crates were popped open.

A statue of Ramesses II on display in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Photo: Great North Museum: Hancock

A statue of Ramesses II on display in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Photo: Great North Museum: Hancock

My role throughout Pharaoh: King of Egypt has been that of publicity, marketing, events management, print production, social media and any other ad hoc duties that arise. Being a provincial museum employee has its advantages! The regional broadcast and press have been regular advocates, as has BBC History magazine.

As the resident lay person among many highly specialist professionals from both museums – Egyptologists, conservators, curators, designers, learning officers, marketing and public relations experts, builders, and administrators – I had the luxury of prowling around the curatorial team as they put the exhibition together. I got so close to the two-metre tall tomb guardian statue from the tomb of Ramesses I that I could smell the wood and bitumen on him. It gave me goose pimples: he’s over 3,000 years old.

The Great North Museum has a strong family audience; generations of north easterners have enjoyed visits to this museum, and I myself used to come to see the mummies as a child. Pharaoh: King of Egypt has been a delight for the people of this region; so far, over 120,000 people have visited the museum since opening on 16 July.

Two participants at a mask-making workshop. Photo: Great North Museum: Hancock

Two participants at a mask-making workshop. Photo: Great North Museum: Hancock

Our learning teams have welcomed 2,000 children to their exciting and innovative free events programme to celebrate Pharaoh, which included historical re-enactment, Egyptian jewellery crafting, making Egyptian masks, and learning about mummification.

The ‘make your own mummy’ session was a particular favourite with a flurry of social media activity generated by a Facebook competition about which was the best mummy. We had over 400 children come to make masks one day too – our learning officer Stephen had his hands full.

Thinking about the entire exhibition process, the word that springs to mind is illumination; I have learnt so much, from playing witness to the talents of my Great North Museum colleagues (and feeling mighty proud of them too), to having the professional support from the staff of one of the best museums in the world.

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Pharaoh: King of Egypt

Digging Domuztepe: week two – sore arms and bruised palms

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the weekly progress of their recent excavation season.


Rachel Swift, British Museum

The trickle of small finds from site has increased as the digging has really got going and I have been cleaning lots of Neolithic beads, including a group found lying together as if they were once a necklace. I have also had the chance to do some digging on site giving me a better understanding of the context for the finds I work on.

Neolithic beads found at Domuztepe, undergoing conservation

Neolithic beads found at Domuztepe, undergoing conservation

I helped to excavate a large oven which I then had to draw a plan of – resurrecting archaeological skills I haven’t used in a while.

At the end of this week the whole dig team has a slightly longer break than normal – two days off instead of one. It’s great to get sleep without being bothered by mosquitoes and recharge our energy that tends to get low in the relentless heat. It gets hotter than 40˚ C on most days.


Alexandra Fletcher, British Museum

The site is working really well and the plan of a Late Neolithic house with several rooms is gradually emerging.

Alexandra Fletcher (left) and Rachel Swift, excavating on site at Domuztepe

Alexandra Fletcher (left) and Rachel Swift, excavating on site at Domuztepe

The walls are made from mud and are surrounded by soil formed from the collapse of more mud walls. This makes them very hard to see and excavate properly. You end up scanning the soil carefully for slight signs of straight lines or different textures. Then you feel your way through the deposits using your trowel with a forward thrusting, twisting motion. This looks most odd to anyone used to working in the wet soils of Britain, where you tend to scrape the soil backwards.

Hopefully, the thump and twist motion means you spot the point where the soil breaks vertically and that’s your wall face. You really have to have the courage of your own conviction, because if you keep digging past the face – it’s gone forever.

Needless to say everyone is getting sore arms and bruised palms from chasing wall edges.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

The British Museum has created a Semantic Web Endpoint


Dominic Oldman, IS Development Manager, British Museum

This month the British Museum launched a service known as a Semantic Endpoint that will allow more direct online access to the collection database. Although it is a technical service it will support the creation of new web applications and services accessible to many different audiences.

What is a Semantic Endpoint?

Since 2007, visitors to the British Museum website have been able to search the collection through regular web pages. The Collection Online system has nearly two million objects and is still growing but provides only one way of viewing the information.

Rosetta Stone, from Egypt, 196 BC

Rosetta Stone, from Egypt, 196 BC

So, although people can search the collection using our website, the search interface cannot really meet the needs of all the many different audiences that might use it. The Endpoint allows external IT developers to create their own applications that satisfy particular requirements, and these can be built into other websites and use the Museum’s data in real time – so it never goes out of date.

Why have we done this?

The demand for new digital services and products increases as the Internet grows. Research projects require particular datasets; aggregation projects need data to help make cultural assets more accessible to larger audiences; educational software requires access to up-to-date knowledge, and so on.

Digital services on the Web can only fully develop if the information that underpins them is more freely available. If more organisations release data using the same open standards then more effort can go into creative and innovative uses for it rather than into laborious data collection and cleaning.

Why is it a ‘Semantic Web’ Endpoint?

The Museum’s Endpoint specifically uses a global open standard technology for data storage and retrieval – the Semantic format. This means that developers can potentially bring together data from different cultural organisations (if they adopt the open standard) using a common language, and use it, for example, to study and compare all drawings by the artist Rembrandt held in one, two, three or however many museums and galleries.

The result is applications that are more sustainable and robust, and this means that developers can provide general open source tools that can be downloaded and used by anyone for free.

Also, the ‘semantic’ element of the technology means that it is structured in such a way that allows the discovery of connections and relationship between data from different sources that would be difficult, if not impossible, to discover with traditional technologies. With this, we can improve our understanding and knowledge of objects and events even further.

You can find more information and the endpoint itself on the British Museum website.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, , , , ,

Craft in the information age

With Grayson Perry:The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman opening on 6 October 2011, the Museum has been asking contributors from the craft world including the Crafts Council and The Craftivist Collective to share their thoughts on the importance of craft today. In this special blog post, Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry gives us his opinion on craft in the digital age, one of the diverse themes he explores in his exhibition.

Tell us your views and debate with Grayson Perry live on Twitter at 13.00 BST on Friday 16 September 2011 – join the conversation using #craftdebate

I often feel I am under pressure to somehow represent the craft ‘community’, to be the poster boy for the handmade. I am a great lover of craft skill but I am not going to fetishise technique over artistry. The difference between craft and art I define as craft being something that can be taught, and art coming much more from the inspired individual. Many artists are extremely poor craftsmen, many crafts people are rubbish artists. I see many beautifully made things that I find pig ugly. What I will stand up for is the relevance of craft in the information age. Some people think that craft is a nostalgic activity like knitting with grandma or throwing medieval peasant pottery, I say craft is necessary and thriving more than ever in the age of the internet, Photoshop and rapid prototyping. There are some great examples in the current show at the V&A, The Power of Making.

The Walthamstow Tapestry (detail) by Grayson Perry

One of my pleasures now I have had a bit of success and a bit more money is commissioning and working with great crafts men and women. I like nothing more than designing a dress, some shoes or a motorcycle and collaborating with highly skilled individuals or teams to bring my ideas to life. I employ crafts people to assist me in casting my sculptures, printing my etchings or digitising my tapestries. None of these individuals would I describe as nostalgic or an anachronism in the digital age. In fact every one of them uses to a greater or lesser degree the wonderful technology now so woven into our lives.

My shoemaker very much depends on her website as a shop window, her footwear is for a niche market and she needs to be found by her far-flung international clientele. A rock star in L.A. can order a pair of lace thigh boots with seven-inch heels and my shoemaker can make them in an inexpensive studio in north London. I can email drawings of a detail of my motorcycle design to a custom bike builder on the south coast where he can skillfully convert them into CAD/CAM programme and the parts get milled to a standard that would be hugely time consuming and expensive if not impossible if made by hand. A friend alters photographs in Photoshop for me to get turned into ceramic transfers that I will fire onto a vase. These will be printed on a specially built inkjet printer which uses ceramic enamels making it possible to make full colour transfers much cheaper than with the old litho or silk screen method.

A pair of Grayson Perry's shoes

Digital technology brings to the craftsman and artist a range of tools that offer creative opportunities that before were too expensive for an individual making one offs, or too time consuming or just plain impossible. This technology is coming down in price all the time it won’t be long before 3D printers are as common as kilns. I think that to become skilful with these newer technologies is to be just as much of a craftsman as with a traditional weaver or potter. To get great results the user has to be just as sympathetic to the material effects of a particular digital technique. Tests have to be done and responded to just the same as I do with glazes in the kiln. The results of digital production often have a lifeless feeling that is because the machine will do exactly what is asked of it and no more, there are few ‘gifts of the fire’ as in pottery. Crafts people will become better at predicting and nuancing their instructions to the machines and digital manufacturing machines will become more refined. I look forward to an amazing era of craft and art using computers in various ways and in combination with the old techniques we know and love.

Tell us your views and debate with Grayson Perry live on Twitter at 13.00 BST on Friday 16 September 2011 – join the conversation using #craftdebate

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton. Book tickets now

Images © Grayson Perry

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Back in the lab: analysing skeletal remains from Amara West


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Since early July, I’ve been in London, finally getting to analyse the human remains we excavated last season at Amara West. The human skeleton acts as a unique database about a number of different aspects of past human life. It can reveal information about a person’s life such as sex, age at death, diet or health – even a few thousand years after the person died.

Tracing this information is part of my job as a physical anthropologist.

Working in the bioarchaeology laboratory in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

Working in the bioarchaeology laboratory in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

This does not necessarily require special technical equipment or analysis but can usually be deduced from visible inspection of the bones alone. For example, while certain shape traits in the skull and pelvis give information about whether the individual was male or female, attrition of the teeth and degenerative changes in specific parts of the hip bone can tell us how old a person was when he or she died.

Currently, I’m working on the human remains from the chamber of Grave 234. One of the more challenging tasks working on the burials from this grave is to find out how many people were actually buried there. Since the grave was re-used so many times, many of the burials had become jumbled together. Attributing all elements to an individual is unfortunately not always possible. Nevertheless, I can identify two more adult men and a juvenile, in addition to the four intact burials in the centre of the chamber.

Commingled burials in Grave 234 at Amara West

Commingled burials in Grave 234 at Amara West

One of the most interesting aspects of my work is when we find evidence of injuries or diseases. Even though we usually don’t find out how a person died, some injuries and diseases that occur during lifetime leave a well visible imprint on the bones. One particularly striking example from Grave 234 is a hip bone which was fractured in three different places.

The right pelvis of an adult male with fractures in three locations. Note the tiny holes – these were caused by termites.

The right pelvis of an adult male with fractures in three locations. Note the tiny holes – these were caused by termites.

Injuries of this type require high energy and are nowadays mainly associated with motor vehicle accidents or falls from great heights. Moreover they often lead to serious complications and death if the internal organs are affected as well. Although we will never know the causes of this individual’s injuries, we can speculate that it may have been a fall that occurred during building work or agricultural labour.

Such injuries are very painful but nevertheless, with two-three months rest and stabilisation, they usually heal well and do not lead to any significant walking problems. The same apparently happened in this person as the injuries are well healed, indicating that he lived on for at least several months – if not for years.

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

Digging Domuztepe: a season at a Neolithic site in Turkey

The camp at Domuztepe

The camp at Domuztepe

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the weekly progress of their recent excavation season.

Rachel Swift

The dig’s base camp consists of old-fashioned canvas tents clustered around the buildings of a deserted school and arriving again is a strange experience. The weathered statue of Ataturk, stifling heat and friendly faces that greet me are now so familiar that the months since my last visit instantly disappear.

Rachel Swift at work in the conservation area

Rachel Swift at work in the conservation area

As usual, sleep during the first few nights is sporadic and I am woken at intervals by barking dogs, mooing cows and the 4.20am call to prayer. At 7.30am on day one I get to work preparing ‘Conservation Corner’ for action. I discover that writing an inventory of my conservation supplies last year was time well spent as I can now find just about anything in seconds. Oh the wonderful power of lists!

The archaeologists have been busy on site for a week now and a tidy pile of finds awaits my attention. I spend the next few days cleaning 7,000 year-old bone tools, tiny stone beads and fragments of wall plaster (a first for me at Domuztepe) whilst gently sweating and guzzling water to avoid dehydration.


Alexandra Fletcher

Like Rachel I have the strange sense of never really having been away and quickly settle into life in camp. I am pleased to see that the colony of owls that live in the building we use as our workroom are raising babies and that life in the rest of the village continues as normal.

A shade erected over the excavation area keeps the sun off the archaeologists at work

A shade erected over the excavation area keeps the sun off the archaeologists at work

I drive straight out to the site (very carefully as the track is rough and bumpy) and get my first look at what we will be digging this year. Several Neolithic graves have been found and over the next few days these will be photographed, drawn and lifted so excavation can continue beneath them.

A neolithic burial found on site

A neolithic burial found on site

Work has also begun to put in place all the safety equipment we need to dig out a deep well (2.5 metres and still going down).

Our team of workmen shout greetings as I join them and we catch up on a year’s worth of gossip. They come from the villages that nestle alongside other ancient tells (mounds created by hundreds of years of human occupation in one place) that dot the plain around us. This area was once marshland, although it is now drained for farming. Herds of wild pigs once lived here giving the site its name. ‘Domuztepe’ is ‘Pig Hill’ in English.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

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