British Museum blog

Amara West: season six is nearly upon us….

Looking down a 3,000 year-old alley at Amara West (2012)Neal Spencer, British Museum

In the next few days, our sixth excavation season begins.

Amara West was the pharaonic capital of conquered Upper Nubia in the late second millennium BC. Thus far, we have gained important insights into how houses were modified over time to suit individual needs, religious practises in the home, but also the impact of a changing landscape.

Looking down a 3,000 year-old alley at Amara West (2012)

Looking down a 3,000 year-old alley at Amara West (2012)

Analyses undertaken by a range of specialists, both inside the British Museum and at universities involved in the project, are casting light on plant exploitation practises, technologies for producing ceramics, the presence of luxurious imports from afar, and the complex array of funerary traditions evident in the cemeteries, including pyramid tombs and funerary masks, but also Nubian tumulus graves.

Faience necklace (F6436) from a house at Amara West (2012)

Faience necklace (F6436) from a house at Amara West (2012)

Highlights from Amara West will continue to be featured on this blog, as in previous years, but for more regular updates as the season progresses – the discovery of buildings, objects, burials that shed light on life in a pharaonic town in occupied Nubia – follow our dedicated project blog: blog.amarawest.britishmuseum.org.

So far, you can read a preview of upcoming excavations in the ancient town, including excavation of a villa outside the town wall, and of the last house remaining in neighbourhood E13.3. And, across a now-dry Nile channel, Michaela Binder describes the excavations she will be leading in cemetery C, a burial ground providing fascinating insights into the mixture of Egyptian and Nubian funerary cultures in the early first millennium BC.

Follow @NealSpencer_BM on Twitter for further updates from the excavations.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , ,

Digging for tales of money in Kenya

Moi Avenue, NairobiKarin Pallaver, University of Bologna

As part of my work on the Money in Africa project I was in Nairobi, Kenya earlier this year to carry out archival research.

The aim of the project is to study the adoption, use and adaptation of coins and banknotes in Africa. As a historian my role is to study the transition from the pre-colonial to the colonial period. Which were the currencies used before colonisation? How did Africans react to the introduction of colonial coins? And how did they appropriate and sometimes remake colonial coins and notes? After a three-month research period in the National Archives in London, I hoped that studying the papers in the Kenya National Archives (KNA) would help find answers to these questions.

Moi Avenue, Nairobi.

Moi Avenue, Nairobi.

The archives are situated in the busy and crowded Moi Avenue in Nairobi city centre. Every day I walked there crossing Uhuru Park, the famous venue for political gatherings and a favourite destination for families at the weekend. The KNA has a detailed paper catalogue and computer database, but nonetheless, it took several days to master the intricacies of the cataloguing. The help of Mr. Richard Ambani was invaluable. He worked for many years as archivist at KNA and is now retired, but still comes everyday to the archives to help researchers. He is a sort of living catalogue; he knows the files by heart, their content and their location and helped find the documents I was looking for.

I decided to start my research with the annual and quarterly reports coming from the various districts of the East Africa Protectorate, starting from about 1900. What emerged from these reports is that money, in the sense of physical coins and notes, really mattered to colonial administrators. They wrote to Mombasa, the headquarters of the administration, reporting on the monetary practices of their subjects and suggesting strategies to induce them to use colonial coins and abandon cloth and beads.

What is more fascinating is that for a long period pre-colonial and colonial currencies co-existed, both for payments and for paying taxes. I found one report in which the author is talking about crocodile eggs accepted in payment for taxes. He gives the exact amount of crocodile eggs corresponding to the Hut Tax: 150.

The perspective I can get from these documents is rather different from that obtainable from those collected at the National Archives in London. Local administrators sent regular reports to Mombasa on what was happening in their districts, and these were then used to write general reports on the Protectorate which were sent to London. Local reports at KNA give therefore much more in depth information on what was going on locally and precious details on how Africans used colonial coins and notes. In Kikuyu district, for instance, the local administrator noted that in 1911 “nickel cents are occasionally used in place of washers for putting on corrugated iron roofing, being cheaper than zinc washers.”

These sorts of small details are essential in building up a broader picture of the role of money in colonial Africa and gave us plenty to work with back in London.

Find out more about the Money in Africa research project

Filed under: Money in Africa, Research

Forgery, Suffragettes and Nirvana: tracking visitors in the Citi Money Gallery

Tracking visitor paths through the gallery

Benjamin Alsop, curator, British Museum

When a gallery is radically transformed how do you judge if it’s a success? Obviously you hope that visitor numbers increase, but numbers alone do not cast much light on the individual experiences of those walking around the gallery. You hope people stay longer, read more and become so interested they go away wanting to learn more. You also can’t help but wonder which cases and objects are the most popular.

In the case of the new Citi Money Gallery are people attracted for instance by an example of the world’s first coin? A beautiful hoard of Roman gold? A Hungarian banknote with the value of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 pengo? Or simply some white frilly pants?

To help the Museum answer such questions, and to inform future projects, we evaluate all new galleries and refreshed displays. Using both visitor tracking and questionnaires we get a better understanding of not only what people may think of the new display but just as importantly how they navigate their way around it. Over the summer we welcomed into the Department of Coins and Medals Lujia Hui and Yoomin Ko, both postgraduate students from Leicester University’s Museum Studies course.

Lujia Hui tracking visitors in the Money Gallery.

Lujia Hui tracking visitors in the Money Gallery.

During the subsequent eight weeks they began the process of evaluation by tirelessly tracking visitors as they entered the Money gallery, marking which cases they looked at and for how long.

Tracking visitor paths through the gallery.

Tracking visitor paths through the gallery.

It is fascinating to see how people interact with the space and what route they take as they wend their way through 6,000 years of monetary history. Tracked visitors were asked to complete a questionnaire on leaving the gallery to give us a deeper understanding of their experiences.

It was a particularly interesting time to be conducting a gallery evaluation as with the arrival of both the Olympic and Paralympic games into London, the results do suggest a truly global audience. Over 25 different nationalities were recorded, speaking 19 different languages, and with ages ranging from 12 to 70.

The Forgery case in the Money Gallery.

The forgery case in the Money Gallery.

Preliminary results indicate the most popular cases are those entitled Forgery and Money and Society. Forgery contains two great swirls of coins and addresses counterfeiting, a practice which has accompanied the legitimate production of coinage since its very beginnings. Visitors appear to enjoy comparing the pound coins they have in their pockets to the fake ones on display, and have been so intrigued that the case has to be cleaned daily to remove all the fingerprints!

Suffragette-defaced penny. Crown copyright

Suffragette-defaced penny. Crown copyright

The case about Money and Society from the nineteenth century until today, includes a penny, defaced by suffragettes, which starred in the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ BBC Radio 4 series. Also on display are examples of money in popular culture, such as the iconic cover of the Nirvana album Nevermind, which shows a baby swimming towards a US dollar note attached to a fishing line.

The new gallery is quite different to those around it, certainly in terms of colour scheme and in-case design. Each case has a raspberry-coloured highlight panel to grab the attention of the visitor and provide a clear starting point, and a big part of the evaluation was trying to discern whether these are effective. From what we can tell, the new design is very much a success: visitors are spending longer in the space, reading more and focussing on the highlight objects in particular.

Yoomin and Lujia, after collating all the results and pulling together data from both the tracking and questionnaires, produced a final report which will form a large part of their final submission for their course. The department is incredibly grateful for all their hard work.

The evaluation of the gallery doesn’t stop here though, we are already organising for further evaluations next year so watch this space.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Money Gallery,

Amara West 2012: the first glimpses of ancient living conditions and health

A burial at Amara West, SudanMichaela Binder, Durham University

After spending four months in the British Museum analysing skeletons from the ancient Egyptian town of Amara West this summer, our picture of health and living conditions there is becoming a little clearer.

I have now analysed 130 complete or almost complete individuals. My analyses indicate 35% of the individuals were sub-adults, which in itself is not surprising and not that high compared to other groups in antiquity. However, it is interesting to see only a very small number of children under the age of five, as very young children are generally more vulnerable to diseases. High percentages of infants in cemeteries are often an indicator of bad living conditions, and at Amara West, their absence is striking but could be explained by different burial rites – young children may have been buried elsewhere.

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

The high percentage of older children is notable, and indicates that people living at Amara West were exposed to unfavourable conditions such as a high degree of infectious diseases.

Diagnosis of infectious diseases in human remains is not easy. The changes in bones are often not specific and the same sign could be caused by a number of different conditions. Moreover, it also takes some time before bones become affected too. Therefore, only chronic diseases will leave an imprint.

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

The most common forms of infectious diseases found in the people from Amara West so far are signs of chronic sinusitis and also infections of the lung. They are visible as new bone formation on the inner side of the ribs and in the maxillary sinuses. The changes could be related to bad air quality, both in- and outdoors, such as smoke inside the houses, dust or sand, but also to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

More unfavourable living conditions are also indicated by the lengths of long bones in adult skeletons from the town. Even though height is generally determined by our genes, whether we fulfil our genetic potential depends on our state of health and nutrition during growth. At Amara West, females reached body heights of 154 cm on average, while men reached 166 cm.

In comparison, mean statures in the UK today are 175 cm for men, and 162 cm for women, according to a study published in 2002.

Another interesting finding in the human remains from Amara West so far is the high degree of fractures, particularly in the upper body. These injuries are usually associated with falls or crashes. But what happened to these people? The distribution of injuries is remarkably similar to what is observed with people involved in agricultural activities even today, especially those who regularly handle animals.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Egypt and Sudan, Research, ,

Introducing our new, fully-operational, beta collection search

‘Town and Country’ dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46Matthew Cock, Head of web, British Museum

'Town and Country' dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46

‘Town and Country’ dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46

In a recent post, I wrote about the launch of our new collection search beta. Well, we’ve now gone a bit further, and released an overhaul of the ‘advanced search’ functionality.

At heart, it works the same as before – users begin their search by selecting the ‘controlled terms’ that are used by our curators and cataloguers when creating the records, and retrieve all objects in the database that have been tagged with that term, or set of terms in combination. So, for example, you can find groups of objects for any combinations of terms – all the prints made in Japan between AD 1800 and 1835 perhaps, or all objects from London, Exeter and Glasgow made of bronze and so on.

Most of the lists of terms are also structured in hierarchies – for example, Paris is under France – so a search for objects from France retrieves all objects tagged with France, and any objects tagged with one of the many place names that are nested under France. In addition, we allow people to filter on the different ‘associations’ after they have made a search, for example, they can choose whether or not to include objects based on whether they are made by, attributed to, a depiction of, an artist.

In the current collection search interface (launched 2007), the user had to follow quite a process to build up their search terms and get to a page of results, and the interface wasn’t very intuitive. Only a small proportion of people used the advanced search, and most people we talked to said it wasn’t obvious how to use it.

There are two main changes that we have made to improve it. Firstly, we are using “auto-complete” – so that as you write the first few letters of your search term, a set of possible complete terms is shown based on the terms that we have in the database, along with some description so you can be sure it is the term you intended (for example, dates to help distinguish several artists with the same surname).

Secondly, we have kept the search criteria and the results showing on the same page. The user doesn’t have to travel back and forth between different pages to update their search.

We’re very aware that we have been looking at this for quite a while, and it is about time it was let loose and tested in the wild. We are really interested in any comments or questions that you have on how it works – whether you are a regular user, or using it for the first time. We hope to release this as the main interface to the collection database in the Spring.

Please add a comment below, or email us at web@britishmuseum.org and include COL Beta in the subject line.

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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection

Murder and mayhem in Predynastic Egypt

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handleRenee Friedman and Daniel Antoine, curators,
British Museum

Using some of the latest imaging technology we now know that about 5500 years ago (about 3500 BC) the natural mummy known as Gebelein Man was stabbed in the back.

The ability to determine the cause of death in ancient remains is rare enough, but because his skin and muscle tissue are so well preserved, further detective work has allowed us to trace the trajectory (from above) and estimate the size (about two centimetres across, maximum) of the implement responsible.

Based on this information, the murder weapon was most probably a dagger.

While a projectile point is also a possibility, it is unlikely that it could have been removed without causing further tissue damage, and the cut on his skin is not lacerated. Only if it were a broad-edged transverse arrowhead, like those carried by the men on the Hunters’ Palette, might this be possible.

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters' Palette

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters’ Palette.

While this type of arrowhead was common in Predynastic Egypt, it was rarely made in a size matching the wound in Gebelein Man’s left shoulder.

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handle

Composite image of a Predynastic silver dagger
blade and ivory handle.

We can probably also rule out flint knives, although they were prevalent throughout the Predynastic period (3800-3100 BC), with various examples displayed in the British Museum’s Room 64: Early Egypt gallery.

From their shape it is clear that they were mainly for cutting and slashing, using their edge rather than their point to inflict wounds. Most are also too wide to fit the forensic evidence from Gebelein Man. Instead, it seems most likely that he was done in by a metal blade.

Tools and weapons of metal (mainly copper but also silver) are rare in Predynastic Egypt mainly because implements of such valuable materials would have been recycled rather than discarded by the living and were among the first things to be robbed from the dead. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that copper was widely used at this time. For example, the central ridge depicted on the lances carried on the Hunters Palette (slightly later in date than Gebelein Man) indicate they were made of metal.

Six dagger blades of copper and silver have been preserved. Some still have their ivory handles, while all have a triangular blade with a mid-rib down the centre, and are 15-16.5 cm long with a maximum width of four-five cm. These blades are so far the best fit for the weapon used against Gebelein Man, and the two cm cut at the rib level suggest such a blade was plunged into his back for most of its length. The composite example shown here gives an idea of the original appearance, and evidence from one Predynastic cemetery suggests they were worn interlaced through armlets on the left upper arm for easy and rapid access.

We will never find the perpetrator responsible for Gebelein Man’s death, or determine his motives (revenge?, a hunting accident?, an act on the battlefield?), but the iconography and artefacts of Predynastic Egypt suggest it was not always a peaceful place.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters' palette.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters’ Palette.

Already 200-300 years before Gebelein Man met his end, scenes on pottery show human prisoners threatened with stone maces. Mace-heads of hard stone are well-known throughout the period. While they were probably used mainly in hunting, that they were also used against humans is clear from excavations in a cemetery at Hierakonpolis, contemporary with Gebelein Man, where several individuals suffered massive and fatal skull fractures inflicted by such an instrument. Further defensive wounds suggest these injuries were attained in battle.

These may have been minor skirmishes, but shortly after Gebelein Man died, scenes depicting pitched battles begin to appear.

While Gebelein Man may simply have been the unfortunate victim of interpersonal violence, he lived in a time when several regional centres in Upper Egypt, Gebelein being one of them, were beginning to vie for power and territory, in a process that ultimately led to the so-called unification of Egypt and the establishment of the Dynastic Egyptian nation state at about 3100 BC. Diplomacy may have been influential in this process, but there is no doubt that violence also played a major role, as the scene on the Battlefield Palette (about 3200 BC) leaves little to the imagination.

Was Gebelein Man a victim of his times? Recent research, suggesting that he was buried in a large well-endowed grave and with a number of lethal weapons of his own, only adds to the mystery that now surrounds him.

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, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, ,

Peering into the Iron Age through the Portable Antiquities Scheme

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme

David Prudames, British Museum

This helmet is Iron Age (over 2,000 years old), and was found in Kent, in southern England, by a metal-detectorist in October 2012. It had been upturned and used to hold a human cremation – the first accompanied by a helmet to have been found in Britain. In fact only a handful of Iron Age helmets are known from Britain at all.

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

On the north-western edge of Europe, the mid-first century BC was a time of war, travel, communication, connections and change. Caesar was at war in Gaul (modern France) and mercenaries from Britain had travelled to join the fighting, so it’s possible that the person who owned this helmet might have fought in Gaul – perhaps against the Romans, or even alongside them.

Before Gaul fell, Caesar would make his first expedition to Britain, landing on the shores of Kent not far from where this helmet was found. I find it quite appealing to imagine that the owner, or the people who placed it in the grave, may have lived through the beginning of the story of Roman Britain.

The 2011 Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Treasure annual reports, launched on 3 December at the British Museum, make for a slightly mind-blowing round-up of finds made by members of the public last year. There were 97,509 unearthed in England and Wales last year, not to mention 970 cases of Treasure – that’s gold and silver objects, and groups of coins from the same finds over 300 years old, as well as prehistoric base metal objects.

Such numbers give a very real sense that the ground beneath our feet is teeming with chapters in the story of its human occupation. Many of these chapters are being found and told thanks to the PAS, whose website – www.finds.org.uk – now includes 820,000 finds with nearly 400,000 images.

Invariably the finds are made – often while metal-detecting – and reported by members of the public, and this growing project is an incredible contribution to the archaeological record, with the potential to transform what we know about the past in England and Wales.

Here are some more of the amazing things discovered recently:

An important hoard of Viking Age gold and silver metalwork found in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

An important hoard of Viking Age gold and silver metalwork found in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The Bedale Hoard

An iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques, four gold hoops (from the hilt of the sword), six small gold rivets (probably from the pommel or hilt), four silver collars and neck-rings, a silver arm-ring, a silver ring fragment, a silver penannular brooch, and 29 silver ingots.

Found in May 2012 on farmland in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire, some of the objects, which date to the late ninth to early tenth centuries, are decorated in late Anglo-Saxon style, or reflect Hiberno-Scandinavian forms and ornament.

Boar mount associated with  Richard III. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Boar mount associated with Richard III. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

A boar mount associated with Richard III

A copper-alloy mount in the form of a boar, found on the foreshore of the River Thames in London. Badges in the form of a boar were ordered for use at Richard III’s coronation (in July 1485) and also for the investiture of his son, Edward, as Prince of Wales (in September). It is not certain what the mount from London came from, maybe a piece of furniture or used to decorate an item of leather once owned by a supporter of Richard III, or possibly even the king himself.

The second largest hoard of Roman solidi (gold coins) ever found in Britain. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The second largest hoard of Roman solidi (gold coins) ever found in Britain. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The St Albans Hoard

Altogether, 159 gold, Roman solidi coins dating to the late fourth to early fifth century AD, the second largest such hoard found in the UK.

The dating of the coins suggests their burial could have been associated with the turbulent separation of Britain from the Roman Empire in about AD 410. Gold solidi were extremely valuable coins and under Roman law couldn’t be spent in everyday marketplace situations. They would have been used for large transactions such as buying land, or goods by the shipload, and were an especially handy source of portable wealth for travellers (in much the same way as gold sovereigns were to Britons abroad prior to traveller’s cheques or internationally accessible bank accounts). Therefore it is likely that the ancient owners of these coins were very rich, typically Roman elite, merchants or soldiers receiving bulk pay.

The Bedale Hoard (Room 2) and the St Albans Hoard (Room 68) are on display at the British Museum from 4 December 2012.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , ,

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