British Museum blog

Pigment and power dressing in Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman EgyptElisabeth R. O’Connell, curator, British Museum

‘That’s one weird looking bird,’ grinned an American student on one of my tours of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department study collection for university students last year.

And to Egyptology students he is. And to students of Classical Archaeology too. But that’s rather the point. Roman Egypt (30 BC-AD 642) witnessed some of the most interesting, innovative and transformative combinations of traditions in the ancient world.

The god sits casually on his throne, one sandal-clad foot forward, his knees apart and draped in a garment. From the waist down, he could be any of a number of senior Olympian deities, or Roman emperors masquerading as such. He wears a feathered mail armour shirt that ends just above his elbows. His arms, now broken off, would have held symbols of power, perhaps an orb and sceptre. His cloak, pushed back over his shoulders, is fastened with a circular broach. From the waist up, his costume belongs to military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire. The head, however, places us firmly in an Egyptian context.

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

It’s Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in ancient Egyptian tradition. His head is that of a falcon, rendered in naturalistic style with the bird’s distinctive facial markings articulated by the carving and also traces of paint. His eyes, however, are strangely human; instead of being placed on the sides of the head, like any ‘real’ bird, they are frontal, and his incised pupils tilt his gaze upward. In an imaginative turn, the feathers of the falcon’s neck blend into the scales of the mail shirt. In the top of his head is a hole, into which a (probably metal) crown once fit.

Big Bird, as I think of him, has been off public display since 1996 when the gallery he was formerly displayed in was reconfigured to create the Great Court. Since I arrived at the Museum in 2007, he’s been the culmination of my tours for university students, giving us the opportunity to explore cultural identity through different kinds of objects from Roman Egypt. We look at magical papyri written in Egyptian and Greek, with some of the Egyptian words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written in Greek script. Why the glosses of Egyptian words in Greek script? Because in magical spells it was very important to say the words correctly or else the spell wouldn’t work. And Greek script, unlike Egyptian, represented the vowels ensuring that the words said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in Egyptian scripts was on the wane. We also look at mummy portraits belonging firmly in the Roman tradition of individualised commemorative portraiture, but made for the specific purpose of placing over the face of a mummy, a feature that belongs unmistakably to Egyptian funerary practice. We see the same combination of traditions in this limestone sculpture of Horus and other contemporary depictions.

The opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last year when the Gayer-Anderson cat was scheduled to travel to Paris, then Shetland, for exhibition. Big Bird would get his very own case at the top of a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily identifiable as ‘Egyptian’ in the British Museum Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

While preparing the display, we also had a chance to identify some of the pigments that are apparent to the naked eye: his yellow arms, black pupils and ‘eye-liner,’ garments in two different shades of green, and his red and black throne. Using an innovative imaging technique, we were also able to detect the pigment used for his armour, and it turned out to be one of the most valued pigments of the ancient world, Egyptian blue.

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

Although no longer apparent to the naked eye, it shows up in visible-induced luminescence imaging by British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer. In addition to the strange (to us) combination of Graeco-Roman-Egyptian elements, he would also have been rather garishly painted.

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

Horus – I should really stop thinking of him as Big Bird – will not go back into the study collection when the Gayer-Anderson cat returns, but instead join a touring exhibition on the Roman Empire which will give visitors to the exhibition in locations including Bristol, Norwich and Coventry, that is, in former Roman Britain, an opportunity to see a selection of objects from Antinoupolis and other cities from the former empire’s southern frontier, Roman Egypt.

For their collaboration and enthusiasm, I thank Joanne Dyer, Tracey Sweek, Michelle Hercules, Antony Simpson, Susan Holmes, Paul Goodhead, Robert Frith, Evan York, Emily Taylor and Kathleen Scott from the American Research Center in Egypt.

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4

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Filming Shakespeare’s magic

Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter


Professor Tony Howard, University of Warwick

Caliban in The Tempest. Courtesy of the Don Boyd Archive at the Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter

When I was invited to think about curating a film programme to accompany the British Museum’s exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, my first thought was to connect with the idea of the Cultural Olympiad, and to focus on Olympic years. In 1948, when London last hosted the Games, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles respectively directed Hamlet and Macbeth; they’re two radically different films, one a self-conscious classic involving Britain’s finest actors, designers and musicians, the other a ‘charcoal sketch’ filmed in a fortnight but nonetheless one of the most visually brilliant of all Shakespearean films. Together, they invented a genre.

There were attractions to the idea of tracing the parallel progress of the Olympics and Shakespearean film from London to Rome to Tokyo and beyond. But it was soon obvious that our programme should actually relate to the exhibition itself, and to its content. The exhibition is called Shakespeare: staging the world – how has cinema re-imagined the worlds that Shakespeare staged?

So there are three parts to the film programme: ‘Shakespeare’s Rome’, ‘Shakespeare’s England’, and ‘Shakespeare’s Magic’.

With both ‘Rome’ and ‘England’ we have presented two films. First an early landmark in the development of Shakespeare’s adaptation for the screen, then a more recent work, able to build on the groundwork and eager to experiment with ideas of history, politics, and the ways we all encounter them – via the media.

We began with the 1953 MGM Julius Caesar starring Marlon Brando, and we’ll follow it with Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant updating of Coriolanus into the Balkans War and our era of 24-hour television news. Then comes Olivier’s beautiful Henry V and Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen’s Richard III, set in an Alternative History version of 1930s London, where King Edward married an American divorcee and lived in St. Pancras Station while his brother George…I’d best stop there: spoilers.

The season began with a packed house for Julius Caesar and a post-screening discussion that carried on into the street. We’ll conclude with a study day on Saturday 17 November. We’ll ask how directors have accepted the challenge of visualising the supernatural in Macbeth and The Tempest.

In the morning we’ll focus on ‘Macbeth on Six Continents’, exploring versions from Hollywood (Welles gets in after all), Ladywood, Madagascar and…sorry. No. Spoilers.

And that afternoon we shall celebrate Derek Jarman’s astonishing counter-cultural Tempest, which he filmed in Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire during the 1979 Winter of Discontent.

We shall, I’m thrilled to say, be joined by Don Boyd, The Tempest’s producer (who himself went on to direct Richard Harris as King Lear) and David Meyer, Jarman’s Ferdinand (who previously played Hamlet on screen opposite Helen Mirren). Actually, to be precise, Don directed a modernised Lear set in Liverpool gangland, and David and his twin brother Tony played Hamlet simultaneously opposite Helen Mirren as Ophelia and the Queen.

Shakespeare on screen is extraordinary. It can be something very rich and strange.

The study day Filming Shakespeare’s magic: Macbeth on six continents and Prospero in England is at the British Museum on Saturday 17 November.
Book tickets now >

See all Shakespeare events >

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Shakespeare: staging the world

Digging deeper into Shakespeare


Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology

For me, the Shakespeare; staging the world exhibition at the British Museum creates a wonderful journey through the worlds we associate with Shakespeare; the real and the fictional, the physical and the imaginary. Most journeys taken by Shakespeare’s contemporaries will have been the fictional and imaginary since few people at the time will have set foot outside England. Shakespeare – and others – certainly knew about, and exploited knowledge of, that outside world. Historical and archaeological evidence provides a wealth of such knowledge.

Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1644 view of Bankside showing the Globe and the bear baiting house, both of which have been partially excavated. In this picture, the labels were switched by the engraver. The Globe (1599) to the left whilst the baiting arena, originally the Hope playhouse (1613), is to the right.

London was a major port with international mercantile contacts. It was one of the largest cities in the world – and growing. Immigration – albeit mostly internal – made it a cosmopolitan city. It was the seat of royal power, national parliament and the country’s commercial and legal centre. The exhibition also introduces us to the great and the good, from the queen and the aristocratic patrons of the playhouses such as Leicester, Essex and Hunsdon to the playwrights and actors. By the 1570s there was a large and diverse ready-made audience with a thirst for leisure and entertainment which made London the first home of the professional theatre. Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright Thomas Heywood was immensely proud of his adoptive city and very conscious of its theatrical pre-eminence. He compared it with ancient Rome, but stressed this international importance:

Playing is an ornament to the Citty, which strangers of all Nations, repairing hither, report of in their Countries, beholding them here with some admiration: for what variety of entertainment can there be in any Citty of Christendome, more then in London?

Foreign visitors indeed left accounts of the new fangled London playhouses – they were very different from those in contemporary Spain but a playhouse built in Gdansk in 1611 was itself based on the Fortune playhouse built in north London in 1600.

1989 excavation showing the Rose remains amongst
20th-century concrete foundations. The outline of the
first stage of 1587 can be seen on the left whilst that of
the rebuilt stage of 1592 – either side of the 2m scale –
can be seen to the right, just in front of the modern
concrete

As an archaeologist I have specialised in the ‘Shakespearean theatre’ for a number of years and we, at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), have now excavated parts of the Theatre (1576), the Curtain (1577), the Rose (1587), the Globe (1599) and the Hope of 1613. We have also excavated two of the Bankside bear gardens. The archaeological contribution to Shakespearean studies has now provided a vast and immensely useful body of information on these early theatres and thousands of artefacts that illustrate the working life of Shakespeare and his audiences. Details of all these sites, and others, have been gathered in my book Shakespeare’s London Theatreland, published by MOLA this year. I was thus delighted to be asked what objects we have unearthed that might illustrate aspects of everyday life in Shakespearean London. The spirit of cooperation we, and other institutions, have had with the British Museum this year has triumphed in this exhibition.

In theatrical terms, the ‘Shakespearean period’ covers the years between 1567 when the first playhouse was built (when Shakespeare was 3 years old) to 1642 when parliament closed them all (26 years after Shakespeare died). It is this period that saw the flowering of English drama and the unique playing spaces built in London that Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote for and acted in. Here, you could imagine yourself in the ‘vasty fields of France’, ‘the greatest part of Spain’, in ‘fair Verona’ or ‘with us in Venice’ and in more distant exotic worlds such as the ‘the furthest inch of Asia’ or even ‘America, the Indies?’

The archaeological finds on display in the British Museum’s exhibition are all from the Rose excavations of 1989 and represent the building itself (the baluster), what might be a prop (the fork, found in the stage area), and everyday items that might be lost by either actors or, more likely, audiences. Like the evidence for what playgoers ate and wore, many of these finds represented rich and exotic imports.

A luxury fork discovered on the site of the Rose playhouse

The objects from Stratford – shovel, watering can and ceramics – represent (Shakespeare’s) life in the country through similar everyday items. One of the striking pieces in the exhibition is a bear skull that was found on a building site near the modern Globe where the original bear baiting rings were situated. This cruel ‘sport’ was just another form of ‘entertainment’ to people at the time.

The range of material within the exhibition is wonderfully evocative of Shakespeare’s whole world(s) but a particular thrill for me was seeing, for the first time in the flesh, the Titus Andronicus drawing . Shakespeare’s play was first performed at the Rose on 23 January 1594 and the line at the front must represent the stage that we excavated there 23 years ago!

Julian Bowsher will be giving a lecture at the British Museum on Thursday 25 October on ‘Shakespeare and his theatres in London‘.
Find out more about Shakespeare events programme

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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

Filed under: Exhibitions, Shakespeare: staging the world

The British Museum acquires medals awarded to Captain Scott

Royal Geographical Society medal, awarded to Captain Scott in 1904
Philip Attwood, Keeper, Coins and Medals

The British Museum has a world-famous collection of around 70,000 medals, but it’s not often that we have the chance to get up close to a national icon. Just 100 years after Captain Scott of the Antarctic died during his ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic, the Museum has acquired a group of medals awarded to this internationally celebrated explorer both during his lifetime and posthumously. Together they form a glittering record of an extraordinary man.

Gold Royal Geographical Society medal, awarded to Scott in 1904

Gold Royal Geographical Society medal, awarded to Scott in 1904

The 24 medals always remained within the Scott family, passing from Scott’s widow, the sculptor Kathleen Scott, to the couple’s son, the well-known ornithologist and conservationist Sir Peter Scott. Following the death of Peter Scott in 1989, his widow Philippa Scott – also an active conservationist and an accomplished photographer – placed the medals on long-term loan in the British Museum, and, following the death of Lady Scott in 2010, they were allocated to the British Museum under the government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme. This arrangement has now been made permanent, and the medals now form part of our permanent collection. Descriptions and images of them all will soon be available on the British Museum’s website.

The medals include the gold Royal Geographical Society medal, awarded to Scott in 1904 as soon as news arrived in England of his first Antarctic expedition’s safe return to New Zealand. There is also a gold example of the special Scott medal commissioned by the Society from the sculptor Gilbert Bayes (illustrated here). This bears Scott’s portrait on one side, and on the other an Antarctic scene complete with penguins. This medal was presented to Scott at a ceremony held in the Albert Hall on 7 November 1904.

Also within the group are Scott’s Commander of the Royal Victorian Order neck badge, as well as Royal Victorian Order, Polar Medal and Legion d’Honneur miniatures.

Silver medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp, awarded in 1906

Silver medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp, awarded in 1906

Other awards come from geographical and other societies in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France, Belgium, Austria, Italy and the United States, and reflect Scott’s international status as an explorer. The silver medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp, awarded in 1906 (also illustrated here), has globes on both sides and quotes from the Psalms: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof’. Other medals were awarded following Scott’s death during his Antarctic expedition of 1910-13 as testimony to his achievements and his bravery.

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Amara West 2012: the life-story of a pot

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8Marie Millet, British Museum

The Amara West team is now beginning to finalise plans for its next excavation season, in January and February 2013. In recent months, we’ve been digitising our field documentation (drawings, plans, maps …), which has allowed us to reconstruct biographies for objects found during our excavations earlier this year. This work is shedding light on life at the town of Amara West, the principal administrative centre of Upper Nubia during the Ramesside Period, at the end of the second millennium BC.

One object in particular caught my attention: a large vessel (C4460) buried in the floor of house E13.8. This single object enables us to tell a chapter in the story of “House of Ramesses-ruler-of-Thebes”, as Amara West was called in ancient times.

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8

House E13.8 was excavated last season by Tom Lyons and Shadia Abdu Rabu, between the enclosure wall and house E13.3. It was built over the remains of a production area with a kiln. Though this house was built over an empty, trapezoid-shaped space, it features all of the key elements of an Amara house: hearths, bread ovens, room with mastaba-bench.

Excavation at Amara West, 2012

Excavation at Amara West, 2012

In the back room, to the left of the door, we came across a large buried pot. Why was it there? Usually in archaeology we go back in time, because we are discovering the most recent part of a site and ‘peeling back’ the layers to find earlier remains. But with this object, we can tell the story from beginning to end.

We know that this very large jar was made on a potter’s wheel, as we can see wheel-marks on the interior surface. The exterior is a white colour. It’s made from Nile clay, which makes it difficult to distinguish whether it was produced in Egypt or in Upper Nubia: was it imported, or made locally at Amara West? Such pots are usually made from more specific Egyptian clay, ‘marl clay’, though in Abydos, examples made from Nile clay have been found with a white slip added to the exterior, to imitate pots made from marl clay.

Storage-jar, found at el-Amarna, Egypt, 1350 BC from the British Museum collection

Storage-jar, found at el-Amarna, Egypt, 1350 BC from the
British Museum collection

Egyptologists call this kind of jar a ‘meat jar’, as ink labels found on them, especially in Amarna, state that meat was stored inside. Some jars from this site in the British Museum collection offer a good comparison with the newly-excavated material.

The Amara West pot bears a hieratic inscription, carefully conserved by Philip Kevin, saying it held cqw- (bread) loaves (thanks to Robert Demarée for the translation). So this jar was used to transport or store a number of loaves. At a later stage, it was then buried in the floor at the back of the house, possibly to keep food cool, a change in function we often see with this type of jar, both at Amara West and at Amarna. The archaeological stratigraphy suggests that it was buried during the 20th dynasty. As to what was stored inside; that’s a question for our archaeobotanists, Caroline Cartwright and Philippa Ryan, who will be studying the jar in due course.

Unfortunately, this jar lost its neck, perhaps while it was in use at the back of the house or when the area was refilled and the pot completely forgotten. The room was filled with rubble, containing doum-palm trees seeds, charcoal, wood, fish bones and ochre. The weight of these deposits caused the pot to collapse in on itself.

So this jar tells us its own life through its breaks, marks, shape, material and location in the archaeological stratigraphy. This provides us with a glimpse into the daily life of the inhabitants of Amara West.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

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

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