British Museum blog

Archaeological findings at Shakespearean playhouses

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Snacking Through Shakespeare: A Theatre Goer’s Fork looks at what it would have been like inside Southwark’s playhouses.

Fruit seeds and nutshells from the Rose Theatre © Museum of London


Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology

Excavations have been carried out at the sites of quite a range of Shakespearean playhouses, including from the site of the Theatre built by James Burbage in 1576, the Rose built in1587. We’ve also found a small area of the Globe built in 1599 and another small area of the Hope built in 1614.

The excavation at the Rose playhouse in 1988-90 was certainly the largest excavation and has produced the greatest amount of evidence about the construction of these types of buildings. It was the first time we’d seen one of these playhouses for 400 years. Being able to understand the layout of these buildings and the position of the stage and the galleries have been very important discoveries.

But we’ve also recovered many artefacts that enable us to look at the average Elizabethan theatre-goer in terms of foodstuffs, clothing and personal items.

There are a number of contemporary accounts saying that you could buy food and drink within these theatres. Amongst the groundlings standing in front of the stage, people would have sold their wares, rather like the old cinema usherettes with a tray on a strap around their neck. The theatres didn’t have any room for a bar or foyer in a modern sense so things like nuts, apples, fruit, beer, or wine, or water could all be bought inside.

We know that people were eating shellfish; oysters, muscles, periwinkles, whelks, we even found a cuttlefish. The groundlings would have just dropped the shells on the ground, although they would have been swept up at the end of the day – most of the shells we’ve found are in the dumps at the back of the building.

In contrast, the richer members of the audience sitting up in the galleries would have probably brought their own food, drink, glasses and cutlery. Everybody had their own set of cutlery, although that usually meant a spoon and a knife because forks were very rare at this time.

A plan of the excavation at the Rose playhouse. The fork featured in today's programme was found in the top left corner of the stage. Click on image to enlarge. © Museum of London

The fork that features in today’s programme was found in a layer underneath the stage area of the Rose. We know it was buried there in 1592 because, like many buildings, the Rose underwent a series of alterations and enhancements and a new second stage was built at that date. Amongst the debris, in between the two stages, was this fork.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Snacking Through Shakespeare:
A Theatre Goer’s Fork

Find out more:
Museum of London Archaeology
Excavations at the Rose

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , ,

The Protestant state under Elizabeth I

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Communion and Conscience: The Stratford Chalice explores religion in Elizabethan England.

A communion cup from Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, which features in today's episode.
© Inspired Images


Eamon Duffy, University of Cambridge

Everybody in 16th-century England took religion for granted as a fundamental part of life. In the Protestant state under Elizabeth I, attendance at church and the reception of communion were increasingly enforced. It became, in a way, a test of citizenship.

Catholics would have been required to receive the Protestant communion at least once a year, and Catholics who stayed away from services would have been fined.

For everybody, these were changes that affected fundamental views of the meaning of life and of the afterlife. The Mass was no longer in Latin, but in English. We tend to see this as a move towards intelligibility. Some people were thrilled by it, the arrival of the English Bible. For many, it was a revelation and an empowerment.

But for others, it was tiresome gobbledegook. When the English communion service was first introduced in 1549, most of the people in the west of England were outraged. They felt this was some bizarre game that was being imposed on them and rebelled against it, which led to a horrendous siege at Exeter. The rebels denounced the new service as a sort of Christmas game and demanded the return of the Latin Mass.

So it took people time to accustom themselves to these changes, and the date on this communion cup – 1571 – is one indicator of the time it takes simply to change material culture. When we look at this cup, we are looking at a whole culture in movement, adjusting itself. By 1571 it’s becoming clear to everybody that there is not going to be a return to Catholicism in the near future.

In the late 1560s, even before the sterner [religious] enforcement began, communities all over England are beginning to say, oh well stuff this for a game of soldiers, we better do it. Here in Cambridge in the late 1560s, the church wardens of the main town churches begin to sell off the Catholic vestments, they were beginning to equip themselves properly for Protestantism.

This doesn’t mean to say that Catholicism disappeared. Catholic beliefs remained current in one form or another, especially around things like funerals, for a very long time. When Shakespeare was young, there would still have been old people saying the rosary, crossing themselves when there was thunder, using holy water.

Shakespeare couldn’t have avoided knowing about Catholicism, it’s probable that every family in England had Catholic relatives. Shakespeare himself had a second cousin, Robert Saville, who became a Jesuit priest. Saville was executed at Tyburn and is a Catholic saint.

What is certain is that every literate person in England in the 1590s and early 1600s had some acquaintance with Catholicism, even if it was so that they knew the enemy.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Communion and Conscience:
The Stratford Chalice

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

The role of maps in Shakespeare’s England


Peter Barber, Head of Map Collections, British Library

The most obvious place a person in Shakespeare’s England would have encountered a map would have been in a Bible. Protestant Bibles in particular contained maps to prove the veracity of the scriptures, and this tells us a lot about the role of maps in society. Maps were used sometimes (but not often) to get from A to B, and from about the 1520s onwards for administration purposes, but most of all they were regarded, quite consciously, as stages for human history.

If you were lucky enough, you might have been invited into the home of a merchant. It’s quite likely you would have seen wall maps adorning his parlour and his dining room. The most common maps would have shown the Holy Land as well as maps of the continents of the world. These maps were not there to show where his ships were travelling – their purpose was to show that its owner was a man who knew about the world.

Most wall maps served propagandas purposes. On the whole maps, whatever their size, were much more useful for merchants than for seamen. The merchant could use them for planning purposes but, as English sailors told the authorities repeatedly in the 16th century, charts weren’t much use once you were actually at sea because in the northern Atlantic it was usually so misty you couldn’t see any coastlines: it was far more practical to navigate using a plumb line to measure the depth of the sea, rather like a mole on land.

So rather than maps being navigational tools, maps – when not being used for practical purposes on land – tended to be symbolic, and educational. In 1570 the first modern atlas of printed maps was published, called The Theatre of the Lands of the World. This idea of the world as a stage, picked up by Shakespeare, was around long beforehand.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme England Goes Global:
Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal

Find out more:
The unveiling of Britain – maps of the British Isles
Maps at the British Library
Maps at the National Maritime Museum
British Library

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

New treasure!


Richard Hobbs, curator, British Museum

‘New treasure!’ was the title of an email I received two weeks ago from a colleague. It refers to a new hoard, or ‘treasure’, of late Roman silver plate, recently discovered in Croatia at Vinkovci. In Roman times the town was known as Colonia Aurelia Cibalae (Cibalae for short) in the Roman province of Pannonia. Cibalae was the birthplace of the Roman emperors Valentian I and his younger brother Valens (both AD 364-375). The Cibalae treasure dates to around a similar time, i.e. the fourth century AD.

My Croatian being non-existent I’ve managed via ‘Google Translate’ to glean that the treasure was discovered during rescue excavations in advance of construction right in the centre of Vinkovci, then transported under armed guard to the Mimara Museum in Zagreb where it is now on display to the public. It consists of about 50 items of silver tableware weighing a total of around 30 kilos. For comparison, the Mildenhall treasure, the treasure I am currently researching, has about half that number of objects, but weighs almost as much (around 26kg). It is clear from the images that many of the objects are rather damaged and heavily tarnished, but cleaning and restoration over the coming months will no doubt do much to rectify this.

The Cibalae Treasure. Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

The Cibalae Treasure. Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

A more perfect set of circumstances surrounding the discovery of such a treasure could not be dreamed of. It is, to put it mildly, highly unusual for a silver treasure of this magnitude to be found at all, let alone by professional archaeologists. Such discoveries are exceedingly rare: the daily diet of most archaeologists is lots of pottery and animal bone, the occasional find of low value metalwork (perhaps an iron nail, or a copper brooch or coin). Even single finds of gold and silver objects are rarely found, let alone entire hoards. And because it has been excavated by professionals, we are likely to know a great deal more about it: we know exactly where it was buried, how deep it lay in the ground, and how it might have been buried, for example there might still be traces of a container in which it had been placed. In contrast such information relating to the burial circumstances of the Mildenhall treasure is sadly lacking.

Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

The exact contents of the treasure will become clear in the next few weeks, months and years as the painstaking process of conservation and research is carried out. At the moment, I have to content myself with scrutinising the few images which have emerged from TV and newspaper reports. I can see, for example, that the Cibalae treasure has three large platters and at least two wide and deep bowls – in comparison the Mildenhall treasure has only two platters. It has at least another dozen smaller bowls and dishes – Mildenhall has six. It has many other vessels which are not represented in the Mildenhall treasure, but are paralleled in other treasures: these include silver beakers, also known from the Kaiseraugst treasure, discovered in Switzerland in the early 1960s; at least two silver jugs, also known in other treasures; and a number of spoons and ladles, again similar in appearance to ones known in other treasures. Most intriguingly, there are some pieces which are nicely decorated: one shows what appears to be Bellerophon slaying the chimera. This scene is in the centre of a platter with a very unusual flat rim decorated with a dozen recesses in the shape of scallop shells.

Even more exciting perhaps is a pastoral scene in the centre of another platter, which shows a shepherd leaning on a crook and surrounded by sheep: as my colleague Chris Entwistle, the curator of our Byzantine collections suggested, it would be tempting to think of the Parable of the Good Shepherd. If this is the case, it would be a very rare example of a Biblical scene on late Roman silver plate.

It’s early days in the life of this new discovery. Maybe in the next few months I will be able to see the treasure for myself.

Richard Hobbs is curator of Romano-British collections and is currently on a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to publish the Mildenhall treasure

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

Filed under: Archaeology, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , ,

What is the city but the people?


Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum

In 2012, as the world’s gaze turns on London in this Olympic year, the British Museum will be exploring this capital city from a slightly different viewpoint – by trying to get inside the heads of the people who lived here over 400 years ago.

In Shakespeare’s Restless World, a series starting on BBC Radio 4 next week, we will explore the stories of 20 objects – some grand, some everyday things – that help us imagine what the world looked like to the groundlings inside the Globe theatre around 1600.

I’ll be talking to Shakespeare scholars, historians and experts on the fascinating issues these 20 objects raise – everything from exploration and discovery abroad to entertainment, monarchy and even the deadly threat of plague closer to home.

Detail of London ('The Long View'), Wencelaus Hollar, 1647, showing the Globe Theatre.

Detail of London ('The Long View'), Wencelaus Hollar, 1647, showing the Globe Theatre.

As well as objects from the British Museum, many are from collections across the UK. I have been travelling across Britain to get a closer look at what these objects, such as a fork found on the site of the Rose Theatre, a book of royal murder plots, and sunken treasure from Morocco, can reveal to us about daily life, national politics and global economics at the turn of the 16th century.

Throughout the series there is something else that allows us to picture these turbulent times so vividly: the works of William Shakespeare himself. In the programmes, we delve into his plots and characters, his speeches and soliloquies, to seek glimpses of the uncertain times in which he lived.

Later in the year, the British Museum will open its doors to Shakespeare: staging the world, bringing together a vast and eclectic array of Elizabethan and Jacobean objects, including the 20 featured in the radio series. This exhibition will provide a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. Featured alongside these objects will be digital media and performance created in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and soon you will be able to follow the work that’s going on behind the scenes here on this blog.

From next week on the blog, to coincide with the series broadcast on BBC Radio 4, we will be featuring contributions from some of the many people I’ve spoken to in the making of Shakespeare’s Restless World.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is broadcast on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 on weekdays.

Shakespeare: staging the world opens at the British Museum on 19 July 2012.
Supported by BP
In collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , ,

Saving money: protecting the past from the future


Duygu Camurcuoglu, Money Gallery project conservator, British Museum

As project conservator for the re-display of the Money Gallery, it is my job to keep an eye on the ceramics, glass and metal objects going on show in June. While the re-display continues and the final work has started on the design of the gallery, myself and seven other conservators who are specialised in different materials (ceramics, glass, stone, organics, paper and prints), are responsible for checking through more than 1,000 objects to ensure they are in good condition to go on permanent display, so our visitors get the best out of these fascinating artefacts.

I joined the project in late January 2012 and since then I have looked at nearly 1,000 coins and objects mainly made from metal. There are 19 cases in total containing mixed materials and my responsibility is to check all the objects in these cases and direct specialist conservators to their related items.

Examining coins in the lab

Examining coins in the lab

Luckily most objects require only light cleaning or simple stabilisation work, but fragile objects needing more detailed work such as paper and prints are given more time to complete their treatments.

One of the most interesting parts of this project is to be in contact with other curatorial departments and see all money related objects from different parts of the world and from different eras. Even though the number of objects to be checked is very high, we maintain a good communication with the departments to complete the work on time while considering the requirements from specific curators. In the mean time, we give advice to the design team on the environmental conditions inside cases such as relative humidity and light levels as well as on the use of conservation grade case materials such as boards, tapes, fabrics and mounts, which must be used for the long-term display of the artefacts.

High relative humidity and light levels can cause problems on objects such as those made from metals, wood, paper and textile, while dry conditions can also be very damaging particularly on organic objects; the effects can be warping, shrinking or drying. Higher light levels can cause textile, paper and painted surfaces to fade away.

The most challenging situations take place when different materials are desired to be displayed in the same cases. For instance, an iron dagger with a velvet-covered scabbard from the collection of the Department of Asia, was assessed and we decided that the light levels should be minimum and the object should only stay on display for a year due to the vulnerability of velvet under display conditions. Relative humidity levels must be mid-range for textiles (40-55%), while iron requires the lowest levels as possible. In a situation like this, curators and conservators need to be in agreement, with support from the design team, that the display requirements for certain objects can be met.

Our work, of course, is not complete without monitoring the cases throughout the display, checking how the most susceptible objects react with changes in the case environment. Apart from the risk of very dry and damp conditions, fluctuations of relative humidity can create undesirable conditions for the objects and need to be addressed immediately.

Conservators, preventive conservation scientists and museum assistants work closely to make sure all the objects are safe and plan to deal with unexpected situations during the course of display. Small monitoring units for temperature and humidity will be placed in the cases in order to check the conditions regularly.

The conservation work on all the objects needs to be completed by the end of April, so time is tight! There will be many silver and gold coins put on display, mounted on new grey background fabric – and visitors will be able to really see their detail thanks to the way, particularly the silver coins, have been cleaned.

Most of the objects are now ready to be placed in cases and the conservation team will be on hand throughout to work with the museum assistants and curators, advising them on the safest display options while still giving visitors the best view of these objects.

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

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Money Gallery

Opening up an ancient Egyptian library


Richard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

For many years before joining the British Museum as a curator in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, my life was tied up with the so-called ‘Ramesseum papyri’: a library of ancient Egyptian papyri that were discovered in 1895-6 under the temple of Ramses II, now known as the ‘Ramesseum’. As a school boy I had bought Alan Gardiner’s 1955 partial publication of some of the papyri and my doctorate was a commentary on one of the poems preserved in them, The Eloquent Peasant.

With Mme Nelson examining new finds from her excavations at the site of the Ramesseum in 2006

With Mme Nelson examining new finds from her excavations at the site of the Ramesseum in 2006

The 24 papyri are an almost unique surviving example of an ancient Egyptian library that was buried in its owner’s tomb around 1680 BC, but although some of them have been much studied they are extraordinarily fragmentary and fragile. Over the years, Bridget Leach, the Museum’s papyrus conservator, and I have helped many students and scholars examine them, and every time we have worried about their extreme fragility. And so we were eager to have a full visual record made in high resolution colour, so that the papyri could also be studied remotely without being disturbed too often, as well as enabling a global audience to access them. Nothing can substitute for working on an original manuscript, of course, and this will continue, but a good visual record allows much of the preliminary work to be done virtually, before a final collation with the actual fragile originals.

The British Museum’s Online research catalogue format offered a marvellous tool for this visual presentation, especially as it is linked to the collections database with its descriptions and bibliographies. Unlike a print catalogue it is continually updatable (and it needs to be: in May I am in Geneva to examine a new doctoral thesis by Pierre Meyrat on the previously untranslated magical texts in the library). Many of the fragments have not been fully published, some have never been published in photographs before, so this format will open up the library for study – as a whole and for the first time in its modern history.

Lisa Baylis photographing the papyri in Berlin in 2007

Lisa Baylis photographing the papyri in Berlin in 2007

Most satisfyingly for me, the catalogue includes all of the papyri. Two of the most important manuscripts are now in the great Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection in Berlin (including the poem of my doctorate). Thanks to their immensely kind collaboration, I was there with Lisa Baylis, a British Museum photographer, in 2007, and these two papyri now sit together with the London papyri in this new virtual version of the ancient library. The excavator had distributed the objects that he found with the papyri to the various institutions that had funded him, and they are now in Manchester, Cambridge and Philadelphia, but the catalogue has links to these items in their various institutions, and so reunites not only the papyri but the whole surviving tomb-group.

Underlying the project is the sad and rather irritating fact that Egyptologists often study texts away from their material context – both their physical reality as manuscripts and their archaeological findspot – and I hope that the catalogue will help change this and encourage a more grounded and theoretically informed approach in line with the so-called ‘Material philology’ school of textual studies. But my dominant memory of the whole enterprise is simpler: the sheer fun and overwhelming kindness I’ve encountered with so many helpful friends, students and colleagues in Britain, France, Germany, America and Egypt, who all have helped us get to this point in a common project.

But this is only a beginning, simply one step in encouraging people to start re-reading these texts that have miraculously survived (only just!) from 1680 BC.

Find out more about the Ramesseum papyri project and read the catalogue

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

Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection, Conservation, Research, , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 9,297 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Happy #Diwali! This painting shows women celebrating with lanterns and fireworks
#Diwali2014 #art Actress Sarah Bernhardt was born #onthisday in 1844. Here’s her portrait in @vanityfair 
#portrait #vanityfair #art #history Paul Cézanne died #onthisday in 1906. Here’s his print of bathers from 1897. Teachers: teaching history with 100 objects now has fantastic new objects, which all feature teaching ideas and classroom resources. Check them out now!
teachinghistory100.org
#teaching #resources #history #museum Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series looking at all the Museum's galleries: Room 5.
This space is a gallery for temporary exhibitions. The current display is Ancient lives, new discoveries, looking at #8mummies from ancient Egypt and Sudan. Previous exhibitions in this gallery have included Power and Taboo, A New World and Michelangelo drawings. #museum #art #ancientegypt #history Horatio Nelson died #onthisday in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. This commemorative medal was intended for presentation to the men who fought under Nelson at Trafalgar, with 19,000 struck in copper, of which 14001 were distributed.
#history #medal #trafalgar #nelson
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,297 other followers

%d bloggers like this: