British Museum blog

Insights in clay: luxury products and trade at Amara West


Marie Millet, College de France, Paris

I’ve recently spent two weeks working at the British Museum, meeting colleagues working on the Amara West project, drawing pottery from last season’s excavations and also looking at archive material. Though the majority of our finds, including pottery, stay in Sudan, each season we have the opportunity to bring back samples for scientific analysis, and also to borrow vessels of particular interest for conservation and reconstruction. These will be returned to Sudan in due course.

Mycenaean stirrup jar found at Amara West

Mycenaean stirrup jar found at Amara West

I have previously written about the shapes and purposes of the vessels we find in excavations, but another important part of working on pottery is to study the fabrics, that is, the different preparations of clay – often mixed with materials such as chaff – used to make the vessels. As the composition of clay varies from region to region, the fabrics can indicate where a vessel may have been made, which has implications for the organisation of production, transport and trade networks. I completed an initial classification on site using a hand-lense that provides magnification of 20x.

A photograph showing the clay fabric of a pottery vessel

A photograph showing the clay fabric of a pottery vessel

Back in the British Museum laboratories, a range of scientific techniques can be applied to refine my classification, using much higher magnifications, but also analysis of the inclusions and chemical make-up of individual samples. This research is being led by Michela Spataro of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. Preliminary results suggest that much of the ‘Egyptian-style’ pottery which dominates the assemblage at Amara West is actually being produced in the local region, from clay very similar to that used for the Nubian handmade cooking vessels. Yet we have no evidence for the kilns in which this pottery was made.

Conservator Rachel Swift carefully reconstructed fragments of Mycenaean stirrup jars, found in a domestic context in the southwestern corner of the town. These distinctive vessels were used to store oil or perfume, and can provide insights into the inhabitants’ access and desire for imported luxury products. Rachel’s work produced fragments of four different vessels, and Andrew Shapland, curator in the Department of Greece and Rome, brought us to a storeroom where a large collection of similar vessels from other excavations are housed. This provided us with a better sense of the date of these vessels, but also illustrated how much the decoration and pottery fabric itself could vary. Such variations can hint at whether the vessels were produced in Greece, or were imitations produced in the Levant or Egypt. We now plan chemical analyses to confirm where each vessel was made.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

Observation to object: bringing a small piece of fieldwork back to the British Museum

Making a Savings and Loans boxMaxim Bolt, researcher, British Museum

I have spent the last few months on fieldwork in Blantyre, Malawi for the Money in Africa project at the British Museum. I have been investigating how money is used on the ground: how people handle it, and its role in social relationships. One way I did this was to attend Savings and Loans (S&L) group meetings in peripheral areas of the city. Whether in the yard of someone’s house, a vacant room in a trading centre or a free classroom in a school, these meetings are highly ritualised settings for the handling of money. The example of one meeting will help illustrate how they work.

One group meets in the yard of Mrs Phiri, the custodian of their strongbox, in which records, calculator and money are kept – a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) provides the basic equipment. Mrs Phiri makes a living producing a non-alcoholic, fermented drink from maize and millet, and selling it. Her house, part of a settlement on the edge of the city, is half way down a steep valley, the top of the slope dominated by a church, and the bottom by a stream in which residents wash clothes.

The group, like many others, is all women – I was told that men have less patience for the meetings, and for the collaboration in business that such meetings represent. Many of the women also have more marginal positions in the economy than many men, and collaboration in the groups helps address this. All members are small-scale businesspeople, such as street vendors, owners of small restaurants, and charcoal burners.

Monthly or bimonthly meetings have variable turnout: some members have to look after their crops, others are occupied with important visits to hospital, and others again may stay away after a hard month, because they have no money to contribute to the group. Members trickle in, and eventually Mrs Ndhlovu, the chairwoman, calls for the meeting to start. A reed mat is laid out in the yard, so that the women do not have to sit on the bare earth. And the strongbox, containing records, calculator and cash bags, is brought out. After a prayer, the group is ready to begin.

Proceedings commence with a call for small contributions to a social fund (MK20, or about 8p). There may also be small fines for being late. Contributions are presented to Mrs Phiri and her neighbour in the circle, the money counter. They, in turn, place the notes and coins in a plastic tub, on display to everyone. After all members have contributed, the serious business of buying shares begins. The value of shares has been decided at MK500 (or about £2), and each member in turn buys between one and ten shares each time (or pleads lack of disposable funds), thus continually increasing the group’s capital base. The money is then used to lend to members for their everyday needs – they can each borrow to the value of the shares they have bought. Each member’s share purchase is publicly recognised, as banknotes are handed over and placed in the tub in the middle of the circle. At some meetings, applause greets contributions, as it does loan repayments and the tallying of grand totals. Indeed, this ritual keeps members contributing, even though some have little to give. The interest from loans and the social fund are put in dedicated bags, to be stored in the strongbox. The money from share purchases is taken straight to the bank, with transport paid out of the social fund.

Making a Savings and Loans box

Making a Savings and Loans box

What is all this for, and what does it tell us?

To make what is perhaps an obvious point, members are just borrowing back their own money. So why bother? At the end of a year, a sizeable money pot is divided between members, according to the proportion of shares they hold in the group. The whole scheme is a way to enforce saving. And the loans offer access to cash during the year, while adding interest to the final saved amount. When groups work well, members are left with tidy lump sums each year. To many small businesspeople, especially women, such socially enforced saving is attractive, and it keeps cash away from the competing demands of family members. I even know women elsewhere in Blantyre who are trying to sign up to such a scheme. What all this shows us is how crucial it is to understand the handling of money in social situations, if we want to grasp how it is thought about, used and saved.

What, from such fieldwork, could be brought back to the British Museum? S&L strongboxes neatly tell us things about the groups that use them. Constructed from robust metal plate with a handle on the lid, such a box has three padlocks, so that four members (three key holders and a box keeper) must be present to open it. A compartment holds the calculator, members’ record books and fund bags. Another compartment has a corresponding slot in the lid, so that, between meetings, members can make contributions (they deposit money, along with pieces of paper identifying them and specifying the amount). The box’s unlocking and relocking represent the beginning and end of each meeting. In a sense, therefore, it stands for the group itself.

Bringing such a box to the Museum comes with its own, distinctive challenges. Each is purpose built, so the first thing was to find a tinsmith with experience making such objects. A fieldworker from the NGO that established the Savings and Loans groups I attended introduced me to Word Of God tinsmith, located in an informal market. But this particular box was going to be different from any other that the tinsmith, Pastor Peter, had made. Faced with constraints on space in the redisplayed Money gallery back at the Museum, I commissioned a box with the same basic design as those generally used, but only 15 cm deep.

After some consideration, Pastor Peter proposed a design. The hinge was placed inside the box to allow it to open within this space, and the front lock pointed upwards rather than forwards – a model of space-efficiency! Pastor Peter got to work, buying used plate metal, hinges, and silver paint to finish off the job and prevent rust. Sat on a lorry’s hubcap, he beat the reclaimed scrap metal into shape on a piece of rail, visiting a welder close by in the market when necessary. Soon, an S&Lstrongbox, perfectly suited to the British Museum’s needs, was ready to be wrapped up and put in the post.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of those discussed in this post in accordance with ethical research practice

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Filed under: Money in Africa, Research

Reflections on Hajj


In November 2011, Altaf and Rashida went on Hajj.
Here, Altaf reflects on the experience.

The end of Hajj
After our third night at Mina, we travelled by coach back to Mecca where the adventure continued. The coach driver took a wrong turning and headed in the wrong direction for 20 minutes. He then did a three point turn on the motorway and then a few miles later ran out of diesel! So a short journey of 40 minutes turned into a three hour saga! Even though everyone was extremely tired, the group stayed in good spirits as this was the first and only real hiccup in the whole trip.

Once we finally arrived in Mecca we checked into a 5 star hotel for a well-deserved rest. The hotel felt so luxurious and clean after having roughed it for a week. The hotel was less than a five minute walk to the Ka’ba so we made frequent trips for prayer and tawaf. Tawaf was very difficult as the Ka’ba was packed full of worshipers. We did the circumambulation on the top floor which increased the distance of each circuit to almost double.

One evening I went to do a tawaaf and half way through I felt peckish so I went and got a cheese burger from Burger King, sat over looking the holy mosque containing the Ka’ba. It was 2am, the temperature was 27 degrees centigrade…it was surreal experience, two different worlds with me in the middle.

After Hajj

After Hajj was over, we went to Jeddah to spend some time with my older brother who lives there with his wife and son. We were eager to see them as it had been a long while and we had never met the baby.

What a contrast! One day being in the holiest Islamic site in the world, the next in an ultra-modern busy city with the latest technology and all the designer shops you can imagine. However the remembrance of Allah is never far away – life revolves around the prayer times. When we were in one of the traditional open souks we heard the call to prayer – the shops shut their doors and the market stalls just covered their goods with a sheet and went off for prayer. Ten minutes later it’s all back to normal.

Back in London

Having completed one of the pillars of Islam, I feel the need to protect the remaining four even more than I had before I went on Hajj. The experience has changed lots of things. I feel a lot more connected to the creator and have a stronger visual connection between the text of the Quran and the knowledge that I have completed an ancient rite.

I was really missing Saudi so I logged on to the Ka’ba web site and the area around the Ka’ba was virtually empty, just a few hundred people doing tawaf. It looked very different to what I had experienced with millions of people.

Doing the Hajj has reinforced my strength in my faith and helps me remember Allah more regularly.

Altaf and Rashida Abbas went on Hajj this year and blogged about the experience for the British Museum. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

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

Grayson Perry, a pot and me


Ian Jenkins, Senior curator, British Museum

I begin this post as a failure – that is to say – somebody (disarmingly described by him as ‘brilliant and funny’ but) unable to persuade my good friend Grayson Perry of the merits of Greek sculpture.

To underline this point, he has depicted me on a pictorial vessel in his current exhibition at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. I am shown, wielding a blood-dripping sword, defending the legacy of ancient Greece in the form of a Greek temple. The reference here is the ongoing conversation I have with Grayson about his view of Greek art and sculpture.

Ian Jenkins in warrior mode on the vase 'Grumpy Old God', Grayson Perry, 2010

It’s a matter of principle with Grayson that he regards Greek art as posh people’s stuff and associates it with all that he despises in Establishment art history. Although I wield the sword, it’s Grayson who sees himself as the artisan warrior and The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is his personal commemoration of the lives of all those nameless craftsmen who created the majority of the objects in the British Museum.
A question I have for Grayson is what about the nameless Greek artisans who built the Greek temples and carved the many sculptures that we have in the Museum? Why are they to be excluded from his church of craftsmen?

I say this in the spirit of the good-natured dialogue Grayson and I have been having for approaching two years. In my capacity as a curator, I assisted him in various ways including delightful car journeys to the Museum store rooms at Blythe House – ironically in that part of west London we call Olympia – if not, in George’s café over delicious bacon sandwiches and milky coffee. I would find myself enthralled by Grayson’s effervescent personality, his natural intelligence and his remarkable tendency to speak in poetic aphorism. Sometimes the things he said seemed so profound as to leave me reeling and I could only reply ‘I’m going to have to think about that one Grayson.’

The striking thing about introducing Grayson to the collections was that while others might have selected the material they wanted to feature by a process of elimination based on the things that were put before them, he seemed always to have in his head a fully formed idea of what it was he wanted. As often as not he shook his head when shown what I thought would be appropriate, declaring the object to be not what he was looking for. And that, I think, is the essential difference between how a curator might approach an exhibition – laboriously sorting and collecting material – where Grayson had in his mind’s eye a ready formed idea of what he wanted and his adventure into the reserves of the Museum was a search for the desired objects.

The thing about Grayson is that he is universally regarded by all those who had the pleasure of working with him as a thoroughly nice bloke with natural intelligence and charisma and none of the pretensions of the celebrity artist that might be found in other personalities. I hope he found in us his extended family and in the British Museum, a new home. He became, and remains, one of us and in his own way became a curator.

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

Two hoards and one unknown Viking ruler


Ian Richardson, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,
British Museum

The saying goes that one waits an eternity for a London bus to arrive, only for two to eventually show up at the same time. Dot Boughton, Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for Lancashire and Cumbria, is probably beginning to feel that the same rule applies to Viking silver hoards. It was only in April of this year that a hoard of over 90 coins and hacksilver from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria was reported to Dot. For any FLO, and indeed for the British Museum, which provides expert advice to enable the coroner to hold an inquest into the case (as required under the Treasure Act 1996), this represented a lot of material to work on. Not since the discovery of the Vale of York hoard almost five years ago had so many Viking-age artefacts and coins from one find been reported as Treasure.

But no sooner had the coroner concluded his inquest into the Barrow case than Dot was on the phone to our office again with news of an even larger hoard.

A piece of jewellery from the Silverdale Viking hoard

A piece of jewellery from the Silverdale Viking hoard

When the finder’s photographs were sent through to us, we knew this new hoard from Silverdale in Lancashire, was going to be one of the major enterprises of the year for us and our colleagues. Silver arm-rings, brooch fragments, ingots and coins had all (bar one coin) been found in, or underneath, a lead container. Barry Ager (Department of Prehistory and Europe) and Dr Gareth Williams (Department of Coins and Medals), were duly warned of the arrival of this material and they cleared their schedules.

After a furious few months spent weighing, analyzing, cataloguing and photographing the finds, the report for the coroner was ready.

Among the many stand-out objects is a coin type none of us had seen before. One side of it reads DNS (Dominus) REX, the letters arranged in the form of a cross (many Vikings had converted to Christianity within a generation of settling in Britain). On the other side, the inscription reads AIRDECONUT which appears to be an attempt to represent the Scandinavian name Harthacnut, a ruler not previously known.

A previously unrecorded coin type, probably carrying the name of an otherwise unknown Viking ruler in northern England

A previously unrecorded coin type, probably carrying the name of an otherwise unknown Viking ruler in northern England

The local museum, Lancaster City Museum, had earlier been informed of the find and as they expressed an interest in acquiring the hoard through the Treasure process, Mr Simon Jones, HM Deputy Coroner for Preston and West Lancashire has been asked to hold an inquest into the case. The inquest will be held on Friday the 16 December 2011, and we will find out whether it is ‘Treasure’ according to the criteria set out in the Treasure Act 1996.

The finder and his wife obligingly accepted our invitation to attend the launch of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Treasure Act Annual Reports, held at the British Museum today where they have been able to join us in showing the hoard to Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries.

The Silverdale Hoard

The Silverdale Hoard

Going forward, it is of course our sincere hope that Lancaster City Museum will be able to acquire the Silverdale hoard for its collection. If the coroner declares it ‘Treasure’, the next step is to have it valued by the independent Treasure Valuation Committee (TVC) who would recommend a market value for the hoard. The museum may very well engage in a fundraising campaign to acquire the hoard, and if they do so we’ll offer our full support.

A selection of objects and coins from the Silverdale Hoard will be on display at the British Museum in Room 2, from Thursday 15 December through the New Year.

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Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , ,

Ancient human remains from Sudan: training future specialists


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Sudan has perhaps one of the richest and most fascinating archaeological records in the world. Construction projects such as roads and dams are an increasing threat to its cultural heritage which prompts a large number of salvage excavations by Sudanese and international teams. Accordingly, as a large number of archaeological sites are cemeteries, the amount of human remains housed in museums and universities for use in research is steadily growing.

The pyramid cemetery at Meroe

The pyramid cemetery at Meroe, a UNESCO World Heritage site since April 2011

Despite the fact Sudan has many excellent archaeologists, the scientific potential of human remains – which can increase our knowledge about many aspects of past human cultures – is not fully harnessed. This is mainly due to the fact that there is relatively little training in the study of human remains within the country itself.

Recognising this problem, the British Museum’s Amara West project has instigated a Bioarchaeology Field School, generously funded by the Institute of Bioarchaeology. I am currently in Khartoum running a one-week workshop at the National Council of Antiquities and Museums (NCAM). Over the course of the workshop, nine participants, including senior members of NCAM and archaeologists from the universities of Khartoum, Shendi, Bahri (Juba) and Wadi al-Nil, will gain a basic understanding of the study of human remains, the methods involved and the potential information that can be obtained.

Workshop participants learning anatomy using a plastic skeleton.

Workshop participants learning anatomy using a plastic skeleton.

During the first few days, we have been busy learning about the anatomy of the human skeleton. Following practice on a plastic skeleton, the participants get hands-on experience with skeletons excavated at the Meroitic cemetery at Berber, by workshop participant Mahmoud Suleiman Bashir, an inspector at NCAM.

We have also visited excavations at al-Khiday near Khartoum, a multi-period site with cemeteries of the Pre-Mesolithic, Neolithic and Meroitic periods, where Tina Jakob of Durham University, who works on the human remains of Al-Khiday, gave a talk about her research.

Site visit to Al-Khiday. Tina Jakob showing participants the Meroitic burial she is excavating

Site visit to Al-Khiday. Tina Jakob showing participants the Meroitic burial she is excavating

You can read more about our discoveries at Amara West on the British Museum website where we have uploaded new pages about the excavation of a Ramesside house at the town, and post-New Kingdom burials in cemetery C.

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

Stunt double trouble


Janet Larkin, Curator of the Enlightenment Gallery

I’ve had an exciting time these last few months managing the installation of the objects for Grayson Perry’s exhibition. As part of this, I have also been tasked with changing the stunt double teddy bears on the back of Grayson motorbike, which you can see on display just outside the exhibition entrance. I usually work in the Department of Coins and Medals and look after the Enlightenment Gallery, and so getting up close to this fantastic motorbike is a real change for me!

Hundreds of bears entered their CVs and photos for Grayson Perry’s competition to find a stunt double for Alan Measles, who is of course Grayson’s teddy bear and ‘god of his imaginary world’. Grayson shortlisted the candidates to find his top 12 and then the public voted for their three favourites. The final three reminded us of The Story of the Three Bears, there was “a Little, Small, Wee Bear” called Dr Schmoo, “a Middle-sized Bear” called Pinny, and “a Great, Huge Bear” called John Duggan.

Last week, early one morning before the Museum opened to the public, we tried John Duggan out for size by placing him in the shrine on the back of Grayson’s motorbike. Dressed up in his leathers and wearing a fantastically ornate eye patch, he really looked the part. However, John was slightly too tall for the shrine and so, very sadly, he won’t be able to take up his place as the stand-in for Alan Measles after all.

This is incredibly disappointing for John Duggan of course. He had so wanted to sit in the shrine and for all to come and see him. However, we know that he will take comfort in knowing that he has been an internet star with thousands of votes. He now even has his own Facebook page, so do go and make friends with him! He will certainly go on to have many more adventures I’m sure. Whilst he was here, and in true stunt teddy bear spirit, he did try out a few poses on the motorbike which we caught on camera and which he wanted you to see…

John Duggan prepares for a ride on Grayson Perry's motorbike

Displaying his fine balancing skills on the handlebars

Enjoying the scenery

Posing like a true stunt double

And so, we now need a stand-in for the stand-in! The next bear on the shortlist from the final stages of the competition will be contacted and asked to take John Duggan’s place. Keep an eye out (not literally, like John Duggan) on Twitter for the announcement of who that lucky bear will be.

You may have seen Pinny and Alan Measles on Harry Hill’s TV Burp. Pinny is thrilled to have been on television. Have you seen Pinny or Dr Schmoo on display yet? Dr Schmoo is proudly wearing his Grayson Perry badge, and I’ve even found him a cushion so that he can sit on that big throne much more comfortably.

Find out more about the Grayson Perry Late event.

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

‘Gateway’ objects – storytelling in the Money gallery


Anna Bright, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

In redeveloping the Money Gallery at the British Museum we have been thinking about ways to help visitors make sense of a collection that will span 4,000 years of world history and comprise over 1000 objects. On average a visitor to the Museum may spend several hours here, but only three or so minutes in any particular gallery. Given that one of our aims is to encourage visitors to engage with the collection, we want to give them quick and accessible ways into some of the fascinating and important stories that these objects tell.

We have planned a trail of 12 key objects that have been designed to be as eye-catching as possible. Visitors can either follow the trail, or dip into it at any point. If someone reads the text that accompanies these 12 objects they will get an overview of the major themes in the gallery. We call these key objects ‘gateway objects’ as they can work as gateways into all or part of a gallery. This interpretative approach has been developed at the Museum over the last five years and we have found that it can be an effective way to help our audiences to engage with bigger stories and themes.

Maiolica offering box, Italy, sixteenth century

Maiolica offering box, Italy, sixteenth century

Gateway objects work on the principle that people are drawn to objects rather than text. By placing important contextual information in close proximity to a key object, we increase the likelihood that visitors will read that information. Ideally a gateway object would embody the following four qualities: it should work as an intellectual gateway into a section of the display; be an important object in the collection; be intrinsically attractive and eye-catching, and it should be an iconic object visitors have heard of.

One of the challenges we face in the Money Gallery is that many of the objects are small. It’s not that they are necessarily unattractive, but it is fair to say that they are less attention grabbing than, say, an ancient Egyptian mummy. We have worked closely with designers to make sure that our 12 key objects stand out as much as possible. As the design has progressed we are all getting excited about how the new gallery will look, and are looking forward to seeing whether our gateway objects do in fact entice visitors to spend more time engaging with the fascinating and diverse collection on display.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery

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