British Museum blog

Bubbles and bankruptcy: financial crises in Britain since 1700

Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Threadneedle-Street in danger!, print, James Gillray, 1797Thomas Hockenhull, curator, British Museum

The 2008 banking crisis plunged the UK into a recession from which it has been struggling to recover ever since. However, this crisis is not the first to have affected Britain and it is unlikely to be the last. Here in the Department of Coins and Medals we decided to look at the bigger picture in an exhibition looking back at Britain’s financial crises since the 1700s.

Drawing upon our extensive collection, we found we had an object that related to almost every crisis to affect Britain since the advent of organised banking. This material ranged from share certificates for companies that failed and notes from failed banks, to reports and recriminations about crises. In some cases these objects are fragile and sensitive to light, meaning that they can never go on permanent display.

Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Threadneedle-Street in danger!, print, James Gillray, 1797.

Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Threadneedle-Street in danger!, print, James Gillray, 1797.

For the rest of the exhibition we wanted to show how ordinary people have, and will continue, to respond to financial crisis. Numerous cartoons and satirical prints have been produced over hundreds of years relating to crises, including a James Gillray print from 1797.

Champagne bottle given to a Northern Rock employee in 1997.

Champagne bottle given to a Northern Rock
employee in 1997.

Additionally, the artist Steve Bell – perhaps best known for his work in The Guardian newspaper – has loaned a work from 2011 entitled ‘Bank Levy’ that depicts a banker as a distraught fat cat in a suit having its claws clipped by the Chancellor George Osborne.

Other exhibits, for example, include a champagne bottle given out by Northern Rock to its employees when the Building Society demutualised to become a bank in 1997. This object was retained by its recipient, a former employee, and provides an ironic reminder that demutualisation was greeted optimistically, supposedly enabling Northern Rock to expand its business more easily.

Instead, history records that its investment portfolio would fail within 10 years, triggering the first run on a UK bank since that which occurred during the collapse of Overend, Gurney and Co. in 1866.

The collapse of Overend, Gurney and Co. features elsewhere in the exhibition and, in both instances the banks failed because their customers lost faith in their ability to protect and reinvest their savings.

 

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a contemporary sculpture by Justine Smith, a London-based artist. Made from real UK banknotes built into a house of cards, the artwork neatly symbolises the occasionally precarious nature of financial investment.

I hope many people will get a chance to come and see the display, to find out how 300 years of boom and bust have helped to shape Britain’s financial landscape.

Bubbles and bankruptcy: financial crises in Britain since 1700 is open from
29 November 2012 to 5 May 2013.

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The Beau Street Hoard: the end of the excavation

Beau Street Hoard excavationJulia Tubman, conservator, British Museum

My last blog post recounted the excavation of bags 5 and 6 of the Beau Street hoard, which were the two smallest bags on the edge of the large hoard. In the months since, the deconstruction of the hoard has advanced considerably: as the excavation progressed I naturally became faster and more confident in removing the coins, and am pleased to announce the end of this stage of the project. The hoard was well organised, with the coins carefully sorted into bags according to denomination and level of debasement; specialists here at the British Museum now have a fascinating mystery to interpret.

The hoard towards the end of the excavation

The hoard towards the end of the excavation

In total eight bags were found in the hoard, which is two more than originally identified in the x-ray. Squeezed between the larger ‘bag 2’ and the centre of the hoard were two tiny bags, the coins of which are very similar to those contained within bag 2 – small radiate coins minted by Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus and Tetricus I.

Luckily, at the end of the excavation I was able to lift the large, central moneybag (known as bag ‘4’), whole, as I had removed all of the bags of coins surrounding it. The excellent preservation of this moneybag, which weighs nearly 11 kilograms, presents us with a very exciting opportunity. Already a laser scan of the bag has been undertaken to produce a rotating three-dimensional image, and a second scan will be taken before the end of the year which will be used to produce a facsimile to go on display in Bath. These scans provide us with a lasting document of the moneybag, which will now be de-constructed and the coins cleaned.

Moneybag 4

Moneybag 4

The block was x-rayed before the excavation of the moneybags, and so the base holding the coins had to be x-rayed after the removal of the last bag, to check that there were no ‘surprise’ bags beneath those already excavated. The x-ray showed only a few coins on the periphery of the base, and so we can move towards giving a final count for the number of coins in the hoard as a whole: at the moment it looks to be around half of the original estimate of 30,000.

Now the excavation is complete, I will be fully focused on getting all of the coins cleaned so that they can be identified by numismatists, who will begin to compile an ‘Emperor count’.

We knew at the beginning of the project that this would be a short excavation, and the perfect opportunity to experiment with time-lapse photography. Before I began the excavation, a camera was positioned on a workbench above the hoard, and programmed to take a photograph of the stationary block every 10 minutes. This short video neatly captures the deconstruction of the hoard, and makes for a fantastic record of the excavation.

On Friday 30 November, Stephen Clews from the Roman Baths, British Museum curators Richard Abdy and Eleanor Ghey, and I will be discussing the story of the Beau Street Hoard so far in a lecture at the British Museum.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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Filed under: Beau Street Hoard, Conservation, Research, , , ,

Spending all over the world…

Coins from each of the 193 countries recognised by the United Nations arranged in a spiralThomas Hockenhull and Ben Alsop, curators, British Museum

The British Museum collects and displays objects from across the world, and every year we are visited by millions of people from many different countries. In one section of the new Citi Money Gallery we had a simple plan to display at least one object from every country, and we decided that we could only achieve this within the available space by using coins.

Looking at the list of UN-recognised countries we began to search the extensive collection of the Department of Coins and Medals. Where possible we planned to exhibit coins, of the national currency, rather than a sub-denomination. The UK currency, for example, is represented by a pound coin and not a penny; the Euro by a euro coin and not a cent, and so on.

Coins from around the world arranged in a spiral

Coins from around the world arranged in a spiral

For the purposes of display, it was suggested that a spiral would be a really visually arresting design. Beginning with a two Afghani coin of Afghanistan and finishing with a Zimbabwean dollar, the coins spiral alphabetically by country from the centre to the outer edge of the display panel. There are 192 coins in total, with one space representing South Sudan, which issues banknotes but is yet to issue coins, following its independence in 2011.

A glance at the spiral provides for some interesting observations. For instance, not all member states of the United Nations have their own currencies. Some are part of monetary unions, such as the Bank of Central African States, while others, such as Micronesia, use the money of a much larger neighbour, the U.S. dollar.

The symbols and images countries choose to use on their coinage can be very different, each offering a different idea of nationhood. Individual countries may choose to depict a person, animal or symbols which are very particular to their society and history. Monetary unions on the other hand need to find a unifying factor which helps to group the various countries together using one image.

We are keen to display the most recent coins possible and welcome the donation of newer coins to help us keep the display as up to date as we can.

We also created an online version: why not see how many you recognise?

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Shakespeare’s legacy: the Robben Island Bible

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace TrustMatthew Hahn, playwright

I first heard about a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare known as the ‘Robben Island Bible’ when a good friend was reading Anthony Sampson’s wonderful biography on Nelson Mandela in 2002. I was fascinated by the story and found online the subsequent article that Sampson wrote ‘O, what men dare do’ in the Observer from 2001.

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam, was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. He asked his wife to send him a book of Shakespeare’s complete works during a time when the prisoners were briefly allowed to have one book, other than a religious text, with them. The book’s ‘fame’ resides in the fact that Venkatrathnam passed the book to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells. Each of them marked his favourite passage in the book and signed it with the date. It contains thirty-two signatures, including those of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Mac Maharaj, all luminaries in the struggle for a democratic South Africa.

These men signed passages within the text which they found particularly moving, meaningful and profound. The selection of text provides fascinating insight into the minds, thinking and soul of those political prisoners who fought for the transformation of South Africa. It also speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s resonance with the human spirit regardless of place or time. But, as he explains it, he just wanted a ‘souvenir’ of his time in the Leadership Section of Robben Island.

After hearing this fantastic tale, I determined to write a play based on interviews with as many of the former political prisoners I could find intertwined with the chosen Shakespearian texts. I first encountered Sonny’s ‘Bible’ in 2006 when it left South Africa for the first time to be a part of the Complete Works Exhibition hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2008, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interview Sonny and seven other signatories of the ‘Bible’ to form the foundation of the play. I returned to South Africa in 2010 for further interviews and to workshop the research with the Market Theatre Laboratory.

It is an honour to have had the opportunity to spend time with these most gentle of men – each one a lion in the fight against apartheid. Many opened their homes to me, a complete stranger, for a couple of hours, shared with me a cup of tea and what their lives were like under an oppressive regime. As Ahmed Kathrada said, ‘After being locked up for all of these years, when I get a chance to speak to someone who is interested in my story, I find it hard to keep quiet.’

I was, and continue to be, fascinated by the resonance of the chosen texts and the men’s biographies – how life imitates art and; how great art, like holy books, seems to give strength to the oppressed.

Read more about this post and Matthew Hahn’s work on his blog .

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.

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Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, Shakespeare: staging the world, Uncategorized, , , ,

Quoting Shakespeare

Jacopo de’ Barbari, Bird’s eye view of Venice, a woodcut. Italy, 1500.Dr Peter Kirwan, University of Nottingham

As you walk around the exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, you’ll see objects drawn from across continents and time periods, all linked by Shakespeare. Sometimes the connection is to Shakespeare’s life and immediate world, but more often it’s the quotations from his plays that frame the exhibits and create the overarching theme of the exhibition. When seen in this fragmented way, it can be easy to take the words for granted, but in fact their presentation is less than straightforward.

Jacopo de’ Barbari, Bird’s eye view of Venice, a woodcut. Italy, 1500.

Take the quotation that illustrates the birds-eye map of Venice, drawn from Love’s Labour’s Lost:

I may speak of thee as the traveller doth of Venice:
Venetia, Venetia,
Chi non ti vede non ti pretia

The Italian proverb translates roughly as “Venice, he that does not see thee does not esteem thee”, and captures the wonder experienced by those standing before de’ Barbari’s magnificent woodcut. Yet the words read very differently in the 1598 quarto of the play:

I may speake of thee as the traueiler doth of Venice, vemchie, vencha, que non te vnde, que non te perreche.

For a modern reader of Italian, this is nonsensical; yet is it also ‘Shakespeare’, in the strictest sense. The role of the editor of an edition is to decide when to intervene to clarify meaning. Here, ‘traueiler’ would have carried the dual meanings of ‘traveller’ and ‘one who travails’, but the decision to modernise to ‘traveller’ is a useful clarification.

More difficult is deciding how to present the Italian. Is the character Holofernes accidentally misquoting this Italian proverb? Has Shakespeare written a phonetic version to help the actor speaking the line? Or is this a case of the scribe not understanding Italian and making a mess of what he heard or read?

In making the decision to ‘correct’ Shakespeare to recognisable, contemporary Italian, we make a decision to prioritise meaning and clarity over slavish fidelity to the earliest texts, a sometimes subjective process which results in every edition of Shakespeare being slightly different. As the actors’ performances throughout the show remind us, Shakespeare is remade every time he is performed or quoted, and the same is true of our quotations.

To read Jonathan Bate’s rationale for editing the Complete Works volume from which most quotations are drawn, please visit http://www.rscshakespeare.co.uk/first.html .

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

Will the penny drop?

Gold medal of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard. England, c. 1580–1590Barrie Cook, exhibition curator, British Museum

Perhaps there should be an official warning: working in a museum can spoil your fun. Well, not really and I don’t want it put anyone off a museum career, but while a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, too much knowledge can sometimes put a damper on things.

I spent the autumn and winter of 2011 preparing the exhibition running now in Gallery 69a until 25 November 2012, Crowns and ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals, and the accompanying book. As a result, I have moved from having a vague awareness of Shakespeare’s use of coin and money references to, at least for a while, a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the subject.

So now I can’t see a Shakespeare play without a constant internal running commentary – and it’s usually: ‘Oh no! They’ve cut that out!’ But, in way, this points up why the exhibition is there in the first place. Shakespeare uses the coins and monetary units of his time constantly (native and foreign): angels and ducats, drachmas and doits, groats and crowns, dollars and pennies. He also makes metaphoric use of the ways in which coins are made, used and abused and he does this in every play he wrote. And all this was to help the audience, to give them an idea of value, to demonstrate character (Falstaff makes money-jokes constantly), to make a joke about what they had in their purses and what they all knew so well.

But, what was put there to help the audience is now more of an obstacle. Jokes based on what a three-farthings looks like are hardly going to bring the house down and will instead be utterly baffling. So it’s hardly a surprise when a performing edition trims them out on the ground that we don’t know that an angel is a coin, let alone how much it is worth; that we don’t routinely weigh our coins or check if the metal content is right. But if you come to the exhibition, you will know this and have the chance to get frustrated too.

Crowns and ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals is on display at the British Museum until 25 November 2012.

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Shakespeare: staging the world

Virtual autopsy: discover how the ancient Egyptian Gebelein Man died

Scan of Gebelein Man shown on an autopsy tableDaniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology,
British Museum

In recent months the naturally-preserved mummy known as Gebelein Man (on display in Room 64, the Early Egypt gallery at the British Museum) has been revealing some of his long-held secrets.

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

He was buried in about 3500 BC (if not earlier) at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. Direct contact with the hot, dry sand naturally mummified his body, making him one of the best-preserved individuals from ancient Egypt. He has been in the British Museum collection for over 100 years and in 2012 he was taken out of the Museum for the first time to be CT scanned.

On the morning of 1 September this year, Gebelein Man was carefully packed and taken to the Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London. The detailed images and 3D models created from the high resolution X-rays taken there have allowed us to look inside his body and learn more about his life and his death in ways never before possible. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a well-preserved Predynastic mummy has ever been CT scanned.

Not only have we been able to discover that Gebelein Man was young when he died (18-21 years) but, unexpectedly, we have also learned that he died because he was stabbed in the back. The analysis of ancient human remains rarely reveals the cause of death but the cut on his back, as well as the damage to the underlying shoulder blade and rib, are characteristic of a single, fatal, penetrating wound.

With the help of the Interactive Institute, a virtual autopsy table (a new state-of-the-art interactive exhibit based on medical visualisation technology) is on show in Room 64 for a limited time (16 November to 16 December 2012) and will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves, using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture-based interface. Information points at relevant locations guide visitors to the more significant discoveries we have made.

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Come and explore Gebelein Man for yourself using the autopsy table and perhaps you will spot something we’ve missed.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
Tweet using #murder3500BC and @britishmuseum
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Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , , ,

Guy Fawkes, Shakespeare and Occupy

Print portrait of Guy Fawkes, about 1606Sheila O’Connell, curator, British Museum

Members of the Occupy movement have recently taken to wearing Guy Fawkes masks. The face is distantly based on a print of the Gunpowder Plotters published in Germany early in 1606. Guy Fawkes’s grinning mask lends a playful air to political protest. We remember him because we enjoy bonfires and fireworks on 5 November, the anniversary of the day he was arrested in a storeroom beneath the House of Lords. But his contemporaries, including Shakespeare, would have seen nothing light-hearted in the plan to ignite 36 barrels of gunpowder under the chamber where parliament was due to be opened by the king.

A contemporary Guy Fawkes mask

A contemporary Guy Fawkes mask, complete with Halloween decorations

If the plot had succeeded, those killed, or at least seriously injured, would have included King James I, the entire government, senior members of all the leading families in the country, the queen and both the young princes, not to mention very many less eminent people. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth during the following months, when the plotters and their associates were being hung, drawn and quartered in the streets of London – some outside St Paul’s Cathedral at the very spot where the Occupy camp was set up earlier this year.

Group portrait of the eight Gunpowder plotters, all named, with title and text beneath. Etching, about 1606.

Group portrait of the eight Gunpowder plotters, all named, with title and text beneath. Etching, about 1606.

Macbeth’s story of the assassination (the first literary use of the word) of an ancient Scottish king has clear allusions to the Gunpowder Plot and to the terror it provoked. When Lennox arrives at Macbeth’s castle on the morning after the murder, he speaks of premonitions of disaster:

The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Parallels with modern assassinations and politically- and religiously-inspired terrorist attacks are easy to make, and if the conspiracy had been successful the shock effect would have been comparable with that of 11 September 2001, the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Benazhir Bhutto. The outpouring of public grief at the tragic death of Princess Diana is some indication of how Britain would have reacted to the sudden violent death of members of the royal family.

The Gunpowder Plot was a horror on an unprecedented scale and, in the context of the continuing wars of the Reformation, conspiracy theories abounded. The Plot was not seen as the work of a small group of extremists, but as the latest in a succession of Roman Catholic threats to Britain. It was, after all, just 17 years since the Spanish Armada, when England only narrowly escaped invasion by the most powerful Catholic state of the day. Popular imagery linked the events of 1588 and 1605: the horseshoe-shaped fleet of Spanish ships and Guy Fawkes with his dark lantern approaching the vault beneath parliament.

Over the following centuries, the image of Guy Fawkes became shorthand for a threat to government and national security, see www.britishmuseum.org/collection for more than 70 examples. The Occupy movement is just the latest element in a legacy lasting more than 400 years.

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

The art (and science) of a colourful, cross-culturally dressing statue

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have lookedJoanne Dyer, scientist, British Museum

Following our post last week about a cross-cultural statue of Horus, British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer explains how we know what he once looked like.

“You’ve got to see this statue in stone conservation!” said Janet. “It’s a Horus!” she continued excitedly. “And?” I answered, thinking that surely there was nothing unusual about a statue of Horus at the British Museum. “It’s dressed as a Roman emperor!” she smiled knowing that she now had my full attention.

The promise of a cross-culturally dressing Horus was irresistible, especially when she added that it also had considerable traces of red, yellow, green and black pigment remains on its surface.

One of my main roles as a scientist in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, is the study of polychromy; the colours once found on ancient objects and what these materials can tell us about the artistic traditions of the ancient cultures in which they were used. So naturally, I was eager to explore whether the collision of the Egyptian and Roman worlds apparent in this very unique statue of Horus, was also reflected in the materials, in particular the pigments, used to create it.

I started by carefully documenting the location of the pigment remains (by taking images using different types of light) and then taking microscopic samples for investigation using Raman and FTIR Spectroscopy.

Detailed images of traces of polychromy on the statue

Detailed images of traces of polychromy on the statue

From these studies it was found that the red used was a hematite-containing red earth – or ochre – the yellow, a yellow ochre, and the black used was amorphous carbon. All of these are pigments which are typical of a palette strictly within well-defined Egyptian traditions. The real cross-cultural nature of the piece came upon analysis of the green pigment used on the cloak and sword blade, which revealed the use of green earth (celadonite), a pigment virtually unknown in dynastic Egypt but one of the most common green pigments found in Roman art. The discovery demonstrates that the object was truly blending traditions not only at the iconographical level but also its very fabric.

But our Horus held still more secrets. Conspicuous by its absence so far in this investigation was a pigment that is inextricably linked with the Egyptian palette – Egyptian blue, virtually the only blue pigment used in ancient Egypt.

Egyptian blue is a calcium copper tetrasilicate (CaCuSi4O10) that has the same composition and structure as the rare natural mineral cuprorivaite, and is one of the earliest-known synthetic pigments. This bright blue inorganic compound was extensively used and highly-prized not only in Egypt, where it was used from the Fourth Dynasty (about 2500 BC), but throughout the Mediterranean until the end of the Roman period in Europe. In addition, this pigment has a very particular property: it is one of a very few materials which luminesce (emit light) in the infrared range when excited by visible light. This emission can be recorded by using a camera with some sensitivity to infrared radiation in the circa 800–1000 nm range.

We used such a camera to investigate if any Egyptian blue was present on Horus as often, even when no blue seems to survive, the visible-induced luminescence technique (VIL as it is known) is sensitive enough to detect even single particles of the pigment. And we found considerably more than one particle!

(left) Visible-reflected image and (right) visible-induced luminescence image in the infrared range (800–1000 nm) of the front of Horus. Bright white areas correspond to the presence of Egyptian blue.

(left) Visible-reflected image and (right) visible-induced luminescence image in the infrared range (800–1000 nm) of the front of Horus. Bright white areas correspond to the presence of Egyptian blue.

The pictures above show our results compared with the appearance of the sculpture in visible light. The areas of ‘bright white’ in the monochrome VIL image represent the emission from Egyptian blue while all other materials appear grey or dark. Comparing the images allows the spatial distribution of surviving Egyptian blue pigment to be mapped and it is clear that its presence is very extensive even though hardly anything was discernible with the naked eye. Traces can be seen around the outer rim of the eyes and possibly within the proper left eyeball, as well as in the folds of the cloak worn across the shoulders. Perhaps more dramatically, remnants are also evident on many of the feathers around the lower throat and ears and the feathers or scales which make up the armour.

With this last piece of the puzzle in place it was time to ask ourselves the inevitable question: what might our Horus have looked like? Our imaging and analytical results were used as a basis to create computer-enhanced images suggesting how the sculpture might originally have looked. And here he is: meet the Egyptian god Horus in Roman military costume, both Roman and Egyptian even in how he was made.

A computer enhanced version of Horus re-coloured to suggest its original appearance. Colour has only been applied to those areas where analysis and imaging provided strong evidence for pigments. Areas which have been restored or where there was no analytical evidence for colour are shown as grey.

A computer enhanced version of Horus re-coloured to suggest its original appearance. Colour has only been applied to those areas where analysis and imaging provided strong evidence for pigments. Areas which have been restored or where there was no analytical evidence for colour are shown as grey.

For more on the technical imaging and analytical examination of this object see Analysis of pigment traces on a limestone sculpture of the Egyptian god Horus in Roman military costume (pdf).

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4
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Filed under: Collection, Research

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