British Museum blog

A correspondence with the history of Egyptology

A gallery display at the Roman Baths Museum, Bath

Patricia Usick, Honorary Archivist, Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

The archive of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan has recently acquired a fascinating collection of letters from Joseph Bonomi (1796-1878) to his friend and colleague Samuel Sharpe (1799-1881). Both men were important figures in early Egyptology with close connections to the British Museum; their friendship and interests are reflected in this lively, scholarly, and intimate correspondence of 1857-1878.

Bonomi’s contribution to Egyptology and his long and productive career have not been sufficiently appreciated.

A horse-drawn van advertising Joseph Bonomi’s ‘Panorama of Egypt’ exhibited in London in 1849

A horse-drawn van advertising Joseph Bonomi’s ‘Panorama of Egypt’ exhibited in London in 1849

Bonomi, artist and sculptor, Egyptologist curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum, and Sharpe, Egyptologist and biblical scholar, first met in 1837 when Sharpe was publishing inscriptions from the British Museum. They developed a close friendship while collaborating on the Egyptian Rooms at the Crystal Palace, and numerous biblical and Egyptian publications, including the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, which the architect and collector John Soane had purchased when the British Museum Trustees, alas, refused it.

Bonomi had joined Robert Hay’s expedition to Egypt as his artist in 1824, producing drawings and helping to make the plaster casts of Egyptian reliefs which are now in the British Museum along with Hay’s collections. Bonomi subsequently spent nine years in Egypt in the company of many of the eminent scholar-travellers of the day. In England, Bonomi illustrated John Gardner Wilkinson’s books on Egypt, made drawings for a Panorama of Egypt, and worked in the British Museum arranging exhibits. He designed the first hieroglyphic font produced in England for Samuel Birch, Keeper of Oriental Antiquities in the British Museum, and even designed an Egyptian temple façade for a flax mill in Leeds. Birch thought that, after Gardner Wilkinson, Bonomi knew more about Egypt than anyone of his time.

One of the Bonomi letters

One of the Bonomi letters

The letters touch on many of the Egyptological issues of the day: damage to Egyptian monuments, both natural and the deliberate ancient effacement of the name and image of the god Amun; the embalming of animals; their joint publication of the Soane sarcophagus – and how well their publications were selling; the statue of Khaemwaset (now EA 947), which Sharpe purchased and presented to the British Museum; Schliemann’s discovery of Troy; the provenance of a disputed basalt stone in Bologna and a fragment of a sarcophagus with the Asiatic Society; excavations at the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III in Thebes; the mathematical papyrus ‘in Birch’s room’ (The Rhind Papyrus P. BM 10058); the discovery of the famous Moabite Stone, the oldest Semitic inscription then known; and the Museum’s paintings from the tomb of Nebamun.

Bonomi considered Rev. Lieder’s collection ‘inferior much to Mr. Hay’s’, though worth a visit, and Birch had bought ‘20 pounds worth’. Rev. Rudolph Theophilus Lieder was a German missionary and collector who worked in Cairo for many years under the Church Missionary Society and collected Egyptian antiquities. In 1861 Lord Amherst purchased his collection of 186 items for £200, the inventory of which is in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan archives. A glimpse of what must be Rev Lieder’s son in 1869 is revealing; ‘I found Mr Lieder with eyes denoting neglected ophthalmia hand trembling from much tobacco and perhaps excess in wine. I knew him a little boy in Cairo as I then thought much neglected by his mother’.

Despite tragedy in Bonomi’s private life – his four young children died of whooping cough in one week in 1852 and he was left to bring up his four following children when his wife Jessie, the daughter of the painter John Martin, died in 1859 aged 34 – his output was enormous, and his humorous observations and cheerful disposition bring a seminal figure to life.

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Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection,

Recording, and sharing, our money

Citi volunteers working in the Department of Coins and Medals

Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

The Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum has a collection of around a million objects – coins, paper money, tokens, credit cards, and other money-related objects, as well as medals and badges. Any objects going on display – including the more than 1,000 objects in the new Citi Money Gallery – need to have been photographed beforehand for our records. But, we’re also working to create images of as many of the objects in our collection as possible, to upload to our collection online.

Working on this database is a hugely important part of the day-to-day work of curators at the Museum, since the better the records and images available online, the more people can access and study our collection, from anywhere in the world.

Recently, we were helped in this task by some volunteers from Citi, who each gave up a day of their time to do what curators sometimes think is a rather boring task: individually photographing both sides of large numbers of objects.

Volunteers from Citi adding objects to the database

Volunteers from Citi adding objects to the database. © Citi

Yiting Shen, co-chair of the Citi London Volunteer Council, explained that voluntary work in a museum had long been an ambition:

‘Thinking that even counting the coins (over a million objects) would be fun, we managed to land a project to photograph and scan objects from the American coins and medals collection. A total of 565 objects were scanned and catalogued over the two days between two groups of six volunteers.’

We chose the American tokens for these two days, since Citi are celebrating their 200th anniversary this year, and the bank began – in 1812 – in the then newly-formed United States of America.

Some of the tokens the team photographed were from the period of the American Civil War, others were gambling tokens from modern Las Vegas, and one volunteer was particularly excited by a “chucky cheese” token.

Making a record

Making a record. © Citi

‘We learned that this is time consuming work, but all of the volunteers were very happy about having made an impact and giving the US collection international exposure. We also learned a lot about behind the scenes work at the Museum, from the basics on how to read a coin record and the meaning behind all the numbers each object has been given, to naming them consistently for automatic bulk upload. We also learned more about each other and our strengths beyond our professional banking jobs. One of our volunteers is a former archaeologist and was very active in sharing his insights. Volunteers had fun wearing the ever so fashionable finger gloves curators wear to handle the objects, and shared laughs on discovering the old and quirky coins, such as shower tokens.’

The next step was to upload the images to the collection online and make them available for all the world to see. I’ll leave the last word to Yiting:

‘For me it’s a real source of pride –to contribute to public learning of the past, present and future of money, and seeing many visitors taking photos, the finger prints on the glass cases as they try to get a closer look, and the Citi virtual card for Google Wallet on display makes me smile.’

Staff from Citi were volunteering as part of the annual Citi Global Community Day

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi .

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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery

A closer look at what the Chiseldon cauldrons are made of

High magnification image of one of the cauldrons

Quanyu Wang, scientist, British Museum

I am a scientist specialising in metalworking technology, particularly in relation to non-precious metals such as iron and copper-alloys. The scientific examination and analysis of the Chiseldon Iron-Age cauldrons is a key aspect of the investigative process as a whole and is crucial in supporting our understanding of them.

For the Chiseldon cauldrons I have been examining the microstructure of the metal under very high magnification in order to see its composition, deduce how it was worked and explore manufacturing techniques. Some of the questions I will be trying to answer include: ‘How were the cauldrons made?’, ‘Were different components from an individual vessel made in the same workshop?’, ‘Were the same parts, such as the iron handles for different vessels, made from the same metal stocks’ and, perhaps the most important question of all; ‘Were the cauldrons made especially for burial or collected together for a particular occasion?’

Taking a sample from one of the cauldrons

Taking a sample from one of the cauldrons

Finding appropriate samples to test can be extremely difficult as the metal, particularly the iron, is extremely corroded and very fragile. The sampling process is made additionally complicated by attempting to sample a potential area that is as discrete as possible to make sure that we do not endanger the structural integrity of the artefact but will yield the best results. This is not a decision that is taken lightly and sample positions are chosen in consultation with curators and conservators. In order to reveal the structure of the metal the samples are mounted in resin, their cross-section polished, and then examined using metallographic microscopy up to x1000 magnification and a scanning electron microscope equipped with energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry (SEM-EDX) that allows us to examine them up to 300,000 times its actual size.

We have been able to deduce that the iron handles from both the cauldrons studied so far were probably formed by repeatedly hammering an iron bar while it was rotated. Additionally, iron used for the same parts of different cauldrons showed differences in microstructure and slag (impurity) inclusions, and was therefore from different stocks of metal, suggesting that these cauldrons were probably collected together rather than being made at the same time specifically for burial.

A high magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of a copper alloy sample from one of the cauldrons. Darker horizontal lines were caused by many cycles of working and heating

A high magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of a copper alloy sample from one of the cauldrons. Darker horizontal lines were caused by many cycles of working and heating

The copper-alloy is likely to have been subjected to many cycles of working and annealing (heating) to reduce the sheet metal to its final thickness (and shape). Significantly, there are differences in the content of sulphide within the copper alloy from one of the cauldrons, which suggest that the metal of the bowl and that of the band were probably refined to different levels or were from different sources.

Some of the results we have achieved so far are intriguing and much more revealing than expected given the condition of the material. Further analysis of the remaining cauldrons will not only provide further details of how the metal was processed and how the cauldrons were made but will help us build up a more complete picture of the deposit as a whole.

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, Research

Pompeii and Herculaneum: two ordinary cities with an extraordinary story

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

David Prudames, British Museum

In AD 79, late in the year, two cities – Herculaneum and Pompeii – along with various small towns, villages, and farms in the south of Italy were wiped out in just 24 hours by the catastrophic eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius. This event ended the life of the cities, but preserved them to be rediscovered by archaeologists nearly 1,700 years later.

These were not extraordinary cities; they died in an extraordinary way, but they were ordinary ancient Roman cities, and because of this they have been able to become a lens through which we can see and understand a whole civilisation.

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

In spring 2013, these two cities and their unique story will be explored in a major exhibition at the British Museum, that will – in the words of Museum Director, Neil MacGregor – be a chance ‘to visit the cities and to visit the houses in the cities; to be inside a Roman household, inside a Roman street; to know what it felt like, to know what was going on.’

Through objects from the British Museum collection and an immensely generous loan of 250 objects from Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum – many of which have never been seen outside Italy – the exhibition will focus on the daily lives of the ordinary people who lived there.

Exhibition curator, Paul Roberts explained how in exploring daily life we have a chance to see how people like us would have lived in an ancient reflection of our own lives:

‘Daily life; the home, and domestic life, it’s something that we all share. The home gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore how people like us lived in Roman times: perhaps they didn’t all go to the baths, or the amphitheatre, but poor or wealthy they all had a home.’

Through some of the most famous objects to have emerged from the two cities, and finds unearthed during recent archaeological work there, the exhibition will look at the make-up and activity of homes – and the people who lived in them – at both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Often the stories revealed are surprising. For example, from Pompeii, the large industrial centre of the region with a population of around 12-15,000, comes a statue of a woman commemorating her funding – with her own money – of the largest building in the forum, the heart of the city. This, in a male-dominated society where women might not usually be known as the rich patrons of civic monuments.

While at the same time, the more mundane elements of life are revealed in objects such as an extraordinarily well-preserved loaf of bread that, in Paul’s words, ‘went in the oven in AD 79 and came out in the 1930s’.

But of course the reason we know this story and can see these wonderful objects is because of the tragedy which struck in AD 79. Incredible finds from Herculaneum, a smaller seaside town of some 4-5,000 inhabitants, include food, leather, and wooden furniture – from a table to a baby’s cot – and survive only because they were carbonised (turned into charcoal) by the 4-500 degree Celsius volcanic avalanche that engulfed the city.

As Paul explained:

‘We can’t imagine the horror of that day, but we can see what people did. Some of them were practical, taking a lantern or a lamp to help them stumble through the total darkness of the volcanic blizzard. Other people took gold and silver in the form of coins or jewellery. One little girl took her charm bracelet with pieces from all over the Roman world and beyond, such as cowries from the Indian Ocean, amber from the Baltic, rock crystal from the Alps, faience from Egypt. She had this with her when she died on the beach at Herculaneum with hundreds of others.’

Some 2,000 years later that charm bracelet will be among the objects on display at the British Museum next year, allowing us as it does to recall and remember the real people whose lives we are so privileged to be able to see and understand:‘We had to have the death of Pompeii and Herculaneum to know so much about the people who lived there, but it’s their lives that we will be celebrating in this exhibition.’

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is open from 28 March 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Tweet using #PompeiiExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, , , , , , ,

A famous feline travels far north….

Bronze figure of a seated cat

Neal Spencer, and Claire Messenger, British Museum

As the exquisite copper alloy figurine of a cat, inlaid with silver and adorned with gold jewellery, was carefully placed in the showcase, we wondered whether pharaonic objects had ever been seen this far north. Not in the UK, but elsewhere? Lerwick, site of the Shetland Museum and Archives lies at 60°15’N, eclipsing St Petersburg, and its Hermitage Museum, but also Helsinki, Uppsala and Bergen.

Claire Messenger and Neal Spencer put the finishing touches on the display

Claire Messenger and Neal Spencer put the finishing
touches to the display

This collaboration is one of a series of ‘spotlight loans’ of iconic British Museum objects to museums across the UK, supported by the Art Fund. The Shetland Museum opened in 2007, with state of the art security and climate control, combining historic boat sheds with a new building overlooking Hay Dock. Galleries within explore the history and cultures of the islands, alongside space for temporary exhibitions. The British Museum collaborated on the loan of the Lewis Chessmen last year, objects with a clear Scottish history. But why send an Egyptian cat?

The loan allows audiences that might never
visit museums with Egyptian collections to appreciate first hand the exquisite quality of ancient Egyptian bronze-working, while also evoking the mysterious nature of Egyptian religion, where gods could be depicted as animals. Schools in England typically teach ancient Egypt, but this is not normally the case in Shetland. The cat’s arrival has prompted some Shetland teachers to introduce the subject, and hundreds of schoolchildren are booked in to see the display in the coming months. And, as in London or Paris (the only cities to have ever seen the cat since it first appeared in Cairo in 1934) many of the visitors I met also professed to an obsession with cats. Ancient Egypt and felines: a potent mix!

Bronze figure of a seated cat, from Saqqara, Egypt Late Period, after 600 BC

Bronze figure of a seated cat, from Saqqara, Egypt Late Period, after 600 BC

But this was no pet. The statue represents a goddess, most likely Bastet, and was probably set up in a temple dedicated to her. As the original base of the figure is lost, we will probably never know who donated the statue to a temple, though the size, quality and precious adornments of this cat suggest it was a wealthy individual, perhaps even a king. In return, the donor might have hoped for a long life, children or a good burial, gifts the goddess could bestow on an individual. More prosaically, the donor would surely have enhanced his or her reputation among their contemporaries.

The display also highlights the work undertaken by museum scientists, which revealed the extensive repairs Gayer-Anderson undertook on the cat.

British Museum objects from ancient Egypt can also currently be seen in two partnership galleries, in Newcastle and Glasgow, while the touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt, is currently on display in Birmingham.

The Gayer-Anderson Cat is on display at Shetland Museum and Archives until December 9

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