British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: eagle coffin from Ghana

Eagle coffinFiona Sheales, British Museum

The past 60 years have seen the emergence and development of a dynamic and unique art form in coastal towns situated close to Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa.

This trend began in 1951 when two carpenters decided to honour their late grand-mother’s dream to fly by burying her in a coffin shaped in the form of an aeroplane. Soon other families began to commission other coffins that represented the life achievements or aspirations of deceased relatives, or characterised aspects of their personality.

Many coffins take the form of traditional status symbols such as this eagle which is believed to have been inspired by the eagle-shaped palanquins used to carry chiefs on important public occasions. A coffin of this shape would therefore be suitable for the burial of a man of some social standing in his community.

Eagle coffin

Eagle coffin

This eagle coffin was made in 2000 in the workshop of Paa Joe (full name Joseph Tetteh Ashong) by a team of specialist carpenters. Paa Joe was one of the first craftsmen to make representational coffins, which are all hand-made on commission. Plans, photographs and sketches are rarely used, instead the components are drawn directly on to the wood which is then sawn out, planed and painted. In some cases up to 20 individually cut and shaped pieces of wood are required to form the shape of the coffin, depending on the model ordered. The eagle coffin’s body, lid and base are carved from the hardwood of the wawa tree (triplochiton scleraxylon) which does not crack and resists attacks from insects. The two wings are carved from separate pieces of wood and are joined to the body using metal hinges which allow them to be folded down flat or to be extended.

In Ghana, death is traditionally viewed as a transition from the world of the living to that of the ancestors. Ancestors are believed to exert influence and power over their living relatives so it is important to show them love and respect. One of the ways of doing this is to bury deceased family members in expensive coffins and hold big funerals. On the day of the funeral the deceased is processed through town to the graveside and large crowds of mourners will have the opportunity to see the coffin for the first time.

Although traditional subjects such as the eagle remain popular, casket choices reflect changing fashions and social aspirations. Modern consumer goods such as laptops and mobile phones provide the models for innovative new coffin shapes.

The popularity of these so-called fantasy coffins continues to grow and has stimulated a thriving industry in Ghana. Thanks to the Internet, fantasy coffins can now be ordered online and are exported all over the world to meet the needs of the diasporic Ghanaian community.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard 15 November 2012.

The Eagle coffin from Ghana is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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London, a world city in 20 objects: ivory relief of Louis XIV

Ivory relief of Louis XIV
Aileen Dawson, British Museum

The art of ivory carving was practised in Europe above all in the town of Dieppe from the seventeenth century, often using elephant ivory from Africa. The shape of this delicately carved relief on a black velvet support conforms to a tusk. The artist responsible, whose signature ‘LE MARCHAND FECIT’ (‘Le Marchand made [it]’) appears on the lower part, was born in Dieppe and was the son of a painter. A Protestant, he left France to escape religious persecution and was in Edinburgh by 1696. Around 1700 he went to London where he carved portraits of many famous men, including Sir Isaac Newton and where a thriving French Protestant community settled around Shoreditch and Spitalfields.

Ivory relief of Louis XIV

Ivory relief of Louis XIV

The relief, measuring 14cm in height, depicts King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), often known as the ‘Sun King’, and celebrates his military exploits. He stands on a pedestal inscribed in Latin ‘To the Victory of Louis the Great’ with chained slaves at his feet and a series of flags to either side of him. The figures are framed by a laurel wreath. During his long reign Louis XIV fought many battles, vastly increasing the power and prestige of France and centralising its government. The magnificent château at Versailles was his creation and served the double purpose of demonstrating his wealth and taming the aristocracy, which was obliged to reside there.

David Le Marchand (1674-1726) is one of many artists who have sought refuge in Britain for reasons of religious persecution. It is not quite clear why he went to Edinburgh, and it seems surprising that he made this representation of the king whose religious policy led to his exile. One theory, which cannot be proved, is that the piece may have been done for a Scottish patron living in exile at Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris at the Stuart court of the ‘Old Pretender’, James Francis Edward, or his father, James II, under the protection of the Catholic King Louis XIV. There is no doubt that Le Marchand had several Scottish clients, nor that his most successful years were spent working in London where he met and portrayed the leading figures of the age: Samuel Pepys, Sir Christopher Wren, and various members of the burgeoning Huguenot (French Protestant) community in London.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 8 November 2012.

The carving was purchased for the Museum in 2009 with the help of the Art Fund and the British Museum Friends and is on display in Room 46: Europe 1400-1800

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London, a world city in 20 objects: the Taíno sculpture

 Taino sculptureRebecca Allen, British Museum

This is a Taíno sculpture, probably dating from the fifteenth century. The Taíno were one of the pre-European, native peoples of the Caribbean, and this figure is from Jamaica. The sculpture stands at just over a metre tall, and is made of a very dense tropical hardwood called Guayacan, which has been polished with pebbles to give the surface a deep shine.

It depicts a male spirit-being in a drug-induced trance, and may have been used in religious rituals. In Taino culture this figure embodied the life force, or cemi, which takes many forms and which could do powerful things. The figure is beautifully carved; the sculptor has seen the form of the figure within the wood and carved through to it, meaning that the spirit is found within the wood itself.

 Taino sculpture

Taino sculpture

On the figure’s back a prominent spine has been carved, showing each individual vertebra very clearly, while on the face of the figure tear channels are shown. These are made more conspicuous by the use of gilding. The figure is in suspended animation, frozen in time, as tears stream down his face.

This object featured in the British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, supported by BP. At first glance it may seem an odd choice for an exhibition which focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean London, but it has very strong visual and imaginative links with one Shakespeare play in particular: The Tempest.

In the play, a group of sailors are frozen in time by Prospero, a shaman-like figure with magical powers. Prospero commands Ariel, a spirit of the island who owes his freedom to Prospero, to tell him how the enchanted prisoners are faring. Ariel describes the enchantment and tells how one man in particular – Gonzalo – has been trapped in time while tears flow down his cheeks:

Him that you termed, sir, the good old lord Gonzalo:
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds.
(The Tempest 5.1.17-19)

This description is evocative of the kind of magical transformation represented by this sculpture. The enchantment Ariel describes is matched in the face of this figure.

Another thematic link with The Tempest lies at the point where Ariel is freed by Prospero from being trapped in an enchanted tree: ‘it was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out’ (1.2.340-2). This is reminiscent of the Taíno understanding that to carve wood is to free the form within it. Ariel, the spirit, has been freed from his imprisonment in the pine.

There are surprising and poetic links between the way Shakespeare imagined the nature of enchantment, and the understandings and insights of the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 1 November 2012.

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London, a world city in 20 objects: The Colossus of Dali

Colossus of DaliThomas Kiely, British Museum

Colossus of Dali

Upper part of a colossal limestone statue of a bearded man

This colossal limestone statue of a worshipper – identified by the elaborate wreath of leaves and berries around his head – was found in the ruins of a sanctuary near the village of Dali in central Cyprus in 1869. His missing left arm once held a laurel branch, another sign that he is taking part in a religious ritual, perhaps in honour of a god of the countryside. The costume, facial features and beard combine early classical Greek and Persian styles in an eclectic manner very typical of Cypriot artists who drew widely from their neighbours to create a unique Cypriot look.

The size of the figure and the high quality of the carving suggest this is an image of a king or priest. During the first millennium BC Cypriots erected thousands of large-scale images of themselves in sanctuaries to ensure their prayers to the gods continued for eternity. Cypriot sanctuaries were typically open air enclosures with few grand buildings such as temples. The sanctuary at Dali honoured a male god, depicted as a lion killer who protects humans from the wild forces of nature. He was later associated with the Greek Apollo and Phoenician Reshef who had similar attributes. This ‘Master of the Animals’ also acted as the patron god of the ancient city of Idalion where his sanctuary was once located.

The statue was discovered along with hundreds of others by Robert Hamilton Lang, then manager of the Imperial Ottoman Bank on Cyprus. Lang’s career is a typical example of nineteenth-century social mobility, from a relatively humble background in Scotland to being one of the most respected bankers and financial administrators in both the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. Lang’s interests in archaeology on Cyprus were encouraged by a Cypriot antiquarian, Demetrios Pierides, who introduced many foreign travellers and amateur archaeologists to the heritage of the island. Pierides lived in London for a time in his youth and, on return to his homeland, became a leading figure in Cypriot economic and intellectual life, helping to establish the Cyprus Museum in 1882.

The British Museum has benefited enormously from the generosity of more recent Cypriot entrepreneurs with close links to United Kingdom. The A.G. Leventis Foundation has supported the work of the museum for many years in displaying and studying what is recognised as one of the most important collections of Cypriot antiquities outside of the island. If the A.G. Leventis Gallery of Ancient Cyprus had provided a mirror to the extraordinary culture of the island in antiquity, then it also bears witness to the vibrancy and dynamism of the modern Cypriot diaspora in the United Kingdom.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 25 October 2012.

The Colossus of Dali is on display in Room 72: Ancient Cyprus

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Maori cloak from Aotearoa

Maori cloak from AotearoaPolly Bence, British Museum

Maori cloak from Aotearoa

Maori cloak from Aotearoa

This feather cloak is made from woven New Zealand flax fibre (Phormium tenax). It is decorated with dyed fowl feathers and the green feathers are from the rare kākāpō bird – a ground-dwelling parrot species native to New Zealand.

This is one of 153 cloaks in the British Museum’s Oceanic collection, 49 of which have feathers as a decorative element. Feathered cloaks (kahu huruhuru) became increasingly popular from the end of the nineteenth century, becoming the most prestigious type of cloak at the beginning of the twentieth century. This cloak is in superb condition, dating between 1900 and 1906. It was donated to the British Museum by Sir Herbert Daw in 1936 after being one of several cloaks placed on the coffin of Richard John Seddon, a former New Zealand Prime Minister at his funeral in 1908.

Weaving is predominantly undertaken by women, and cloak manufacture (whatu kākahu) is one of most highly respected of all fibre arts. Historically the finest cloaks were worn by high status men, reserved for special occasions. Some were given personal names, reinforcing their significance. Starting with the collection and preparation of the flax fibre and made without using a loom, a cloak can take several months to make depending on the style, complexity and materials used. It is thought that early cloaks took up to two years to finish. Today cloaks are held in extremely high regard because of their associations with chiefly status.

A large number of people visit the Oceanic collection every year, many of whom come to research, contemplate and admire the fibre arts in the Māori collection. The manufacture of cloaks experienced a number of stylistic and material adaptations over time and they continue to be made today. Many contemporary fibre artists are keen to study and to replicate traditional techniques, as well as introduce new materials.

The London-based community group Ngāti Rānana promotes Māori values and traditions, welcoming anyone with an interest in Māori culture. Also part of this wider community is Te Kōhanga Reo o Rānana, an environment for young children and families to experience and learn Māori language.

Ngāti Rānana actively participates in a wide variety of events including those in the museums and gallery sector. When the Māori display case was opened in the Wellcome Trust Gallery in 2008, the group performed a traditional blessing of the taonga or treasures on display.

Cloaks in particular are widely understood to be symbols of national Māori identity. The complex artistry is not only respected by the local London Māori community but by those farther afield, by fibre artists, academics and Museum professionals alike.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 18 October 2012.

The Māori cloak from Aotearoa is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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Amara West 2013: a kaleidoscope of life and death in Egyptian Kush

Aerial view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to rightNeal Spencer, British Museum

Fifty-six days after flying out to Khartoum, I landed this morning at a grey, icy, Heathrow. The temperature gradient – perhaps a difference of 35°C – is but one reminder that our sixth season of fieldwork at Amara West is now complete. Many of the team are still in the dig house today, completing documentation and closing up our house ahead of the next season. I spent yesterday finishing paperwork in Khartoum, while also working with curators Shadia Abdu Rabo and Ikhlas Abdel-Latif to accession our newly-discovered objects into the collection of the Sudan National Museum.

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Yet as with all archaeological projects, the end of the season really marks the beginning of the next, and most time-consuming, phase: digitisation, post-excavation work and, trying to make sense of it all. It’s a little overwhelming to consider the kaleidoscope of work undertaken by a team of 20 specialists from nine countries (from Australia to Sudan) over the last weeks. Many thanks to everyone, and also all those in Abri, Ernetta island and Khartoum who made the season possible – amidst sandstorms, plagues of biting flies, chilly mornings, electrical blackouts, dawn boat journeys on the Nile, crocodile sightings and fantastic breakfasts with the workmen….

The town

Within the walls of the ancient town, we continued work in neighbourhood E13. Sarah Doherty and Shadia Abdu Rabo revealed the full plan of E13.5, a medium-sized dwelling at the east end of the block. The inhabitants had fitted out each room with sandstone doorways, many built using re-used blocks from an earlier building, one naming an ‘overseer of the granaries, Horhotep’, presumably one of the high-ranking officials who lived at Amara West. Unlike other houses in the block, the bread ovens, charcoal pits and cereal grinding emplacements were housed in an annex outside the house itself, excavated by Shadia. Despite plans to investigate the phase beneath, we were instead tempted north of the house, where Sarah revealed parts of another house (?) and an area with large ovens or kilns – with tantalising evidence hinting at faience production.

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Mat Dalton completed the excavation of the communal area E13.13, which provided food processing, and charcoal making, facilities, for the inhabitants of houses E13.3-N and E13.3-S. Returning to the ‘white house’ E13.7, Mat revealed the striking schist and sandstone floor of one of the large storage rooms that characterised the area before it became a block of houses. Mat also spent time taking block samples of floor layers and occupation deposits from the excavated houses: these will be studied as thin sections under high-magnification, revealing ancient activities invisible to the naked eye.

Right in the heart of the neighbourhood – a room rather difficult to find! – Anna Stevens grappled with a small space that provides important evidence for many building phases, how the magazines with vaulted roofs were converted for use as houses. The ancient inhabitants were clearly unhappy with the idea of living in long corridor-like spaces, and went to considerable lengths to change the proportions created by the existing architecture.

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

We managed to empty all previously excavated rooms in the neighbourhood so that Susie Green could capture untold gigabytes of digital images. These will be used to create a 3D model using the concept of ‘Structure from Motion’ – all with the challenge of photographing everything before the sun’s rays created shadows. The stunning kite photographs will not only embellish this visualisation, but also provided us with a new perspective of the site and its landscape.

Outside of the town walls, Rizwan Safir and Vera Michel persevered through layers of wall collapse and roofing remains – further hampered by deep sandpits left behind when the ancient brick walls were mined out. As the season ended, we had gained further insights into the different type of house sought by those who moved beyond the town walls; there may have been more space, but the new households had to cope with more exposure to the elements.

A flying visit from Alexandra Winkels, conservation scientist, allowed her to collect wall plaster samples which will be compared to sites from across Egypt, including Tell el-Amarna.

Cemetery C

The highlight of our third season in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, was the discovery of the largest tomb yet found at Amara West: G244. Beneath a low mound (tumulus), the vertical shaft led to two burial chambers, one to the east, one to the west. What was not expected were the three other chambers.

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Patience was needed as the first chamber was meticulously excavated, with remains of painted coffins and a fine ceramic assemblage, being studied by Loretta Kilroe. More work is needed here, but the tomb seems to be late Ramesside in date.

Just to the north, Barbara Chauvet spent most of her season in the eastern chamber of a post-New Kingdom niche grave (G243), where another complicated array of superimposed bodies needed disentangling. Mohamed Saad, archaeologist at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, and participant in the Institute of Bioarchaeology Amara West Field School, excavated the smaller western chamber, as well as a number of niche burials in the southeast of the cemetery.

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan National Museum SNM 34615).

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan
National Museum SNM 34615).

Back in the house …

Our expedition house was home to all the necessary tasks of excavation paperwork, processing archaeological samples and of course organising and storing the finds and masses of ceramics. Marie Vandenbeusch documented all the finds from town and tombs, from epigraphic recording of the inscribed blocks in E13.5, matching scarabs with ancient clay impressions, to wondering what to make of enigmatic pieces of worked clay. Alongside rediscovering wonderful wooden objects from our 2009 excavations, with Michaela, Marie also found time to continue work on the roofing fragments from houses – with Vera providing a particularly steady supply from villa D12.5.

The masses of sherds from the town were processed on site by Alice Springuel and Anna Garnett. After an early season handover from Marie Millet (now directing the Louvre excavations at el-Muweis), Anna is studying our town ceramics, particularly the dating and whether certain types of vessel are associated with particular rooms or spaces. Amidst many pottery drawings, Alice managed archaeological illustrations of key artefacts – from scarabs to fertility figurines.

The first weekend saw us host a small workshop on ceramics in New Kingdom Nubia, though discussions ranged well beyond pottery, with colleagues from Kerma, Sai, Sesebi and Tombos.

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Philip Kevin, British Museum conservator, joined us for the last three weeks, and proved invaluable in recovering remains of headrests and painted coffins from the cemetery, coaxing out hidden inscriptions in the town, and revealing the exquisite decoration on copper alloy cobras (perhaps statue fittings) found by Shadia in the 2012 season.

Last, but not least…

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin returned for a third season to investigate the river systems in and around Amara West. Easily outpacing all other team-members in terms of logistical demands, we nonetheless managed two deep trenches which provide fantastic slices through the history of the Nile river in this region. One trench ran across the edge of the ancient island and into the channel bed, north of the temple, the other in the ‘Neolithic Nile’ 2km into the desert. We have the C14 dates already, and await the OSL dates, but a very exciting story is emerging … watch this space.

Returning to the Museum

Unlike nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations conducted by many museums, excavations in Egypt and Sudan no longer lead to the acquisition of objects for collections in other countries. So why does the British Museum still undertake archaeological projects? New techniques – including those outlined above – mean we gain insights into the ancient past, and its people, that were not possible in previous excavations. None of the objects in the British Museum, or indeed any collection, can be fully interpreted without understanding the particular time, place, culture and indeed natural environment experienced and created by those who made the objects. Amara West provides an opportunity to better understand life in Nubia during the late second millennium BC, in a region where the climate was deteriorating. It was an area under the control of the mighty Ramesside state, ruled from the royal residence city of Per-Ramses, far away near the Mediterranean.

An important pharaonic town in a long-occupied land, the inhabitants of Amara West lived in an age of international diplomacy, cosmopolitan taste and competing superpowers. We are building up a picture of how people lived, and treated their dead, at this town, but also the nature of the Egyptian entanglement with local, Nubian, cultures, and the responses to considerable ecological changes. A story very relevant to the present.

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Cloisonné decorated jar

Cloisonne jar with dragonJessica Harrison-Hall, British Museum

Cloisonne jar with dragon

Cloisonné decorated jar

Philanthropic Londoners are supporting the Evening Standard’s campaigns to encourage London primary school children to read more and to find young adults work through apprenticeship schemes. This culture of selfless giving is a vital part of London life. Visitors to the British Museum have benefited greatly from this generosity, which manifests itself in new buildings, refurbished galleries and acquisitions of new objects.

Jimmy Riesco (1877-1964) from Croydon was one such benefactor. He collected Chinese art and bequeathed his collection of Chinese ceramics to his home town, where it is now on display in the Riesco Gallery in the Museum of Croydon. This magnificent cloisonné jar, a testimony to the quality of Chinese craftsmanship, was once in his collection. It is decorated with powerful dragons with snake-like bodies and horns flying through the clouds.

Cloisonné is a method of decorating metal objects with a network of wire cells. Cloisonné wares are particularly time-consuming and labour-intensive to make. Craftsmen sketch a design onto a metal jar using a brush and black ink. Wires are cut out of sheet copper and fixed to the body of the jar, forming cells. The cells are filled with multicoloured opaque glass, which produces a brightly coloured surface. The jar is then fired in a kiln at about 600 degrees centigrade. After firing, the jar cools and the glass shrinks. Any gaps in the design are filled in and the jar is refired. This process is repeated up to four times. Finally the jar is polished and the metal wires gilded.

From two inscriptions around the rim of this jar, we know who commissioned it and where it was made. Zhu Zhanji (1399-1435), the Ming Emperor from 1426 to 1435, commissioned it and eunuchs in the Forbidden City Palace in Beijing supervised its manufacture. Ming Emperors ordered such brightly coloured objects to decorate the vast halls of their palaces. The magnificent dragons were symbolic of the emperor. As you can see from walking around Chinatown today, dragons continue to be a powerful symbol of good luck.

There is only one other jar like this one in the world. It is in Switzerland in the Reitburg Museum, on loan from a private collection. Originally the two jars would probably have been displayed together in the Forbidden City Palace. The British Museum plans to reunite the jars in an exhibition beginning in September 2014, which will show the splendour of early Ming courts and the extraordinary connections that Ming China established with the rest of the world. [Note: This was not in fact possible, and the two jars are not displayed together in the exhibition. 22 September 2014]

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 11 October 2012.

The Cloisonné decorated jar is on display in Room 33: Asia

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figureNeil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

Otobo masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figure

This extraordinary painted steel sculpture was made in London by British/Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp, CBE. It depicts a man of the Kalabari people of southern Nigeria in an Otobo or hippopotamus masquerade costume; masquerade is a composite phenomenon in which song, movement, music and the different elements of the dancer’s costume are all integral parts of the performance.

The Otobo masquerade has been danced by Kalabari men for at least 200 years, yet here is a version made by a woman working in metal, a traditionally male medium of expression in Africa. Masquerade in Africa is an art of transformation, harnessing the powers of the natural and spirit worlds for the benefit of humankind, so Sokari’s innovative re-interpretation of a long-standing tradition would seem entirely appropriate.

Sokari was born in 1958 in Buguma, Nigeria, the cultural capital of the Kalabari people who live on 23 islands in the Niger Delta. She moved to Britain as a child and now lives and works near the Elephant and Castle in London. “My work is about what’s going on in London” she says, though part of that is a celebration of her own Kalabari culture, a theme which occurs in different ways in her work. “I live the reality of being both Nigerian and British, but feeling outside both cultures”.

The UK’s largest Nigerian population is found in the capital, in Lambeth and Southwark, but in particular, Peckham. Census figures show Peckham – one of the most diverse areas of the country – with the most Nigerian-born people in Britain.

Sokari’s version of an Otobo masquerader is displayed in the African Galleries next to three examples of carved wooden Otobo masks, one of which (collected by Sokari herself) was made in the late twentieth century, over a century after the other two, though stylistically they are almost identical.

However, avant-garde European artists of the early twentieth century would almost certainly have assumed these masks to be examples of spontaneous creativity, unfettered by the artistic conventions of Western tradition, rather than representing slowly changing, highly conservative artistic traditions – the very things European artists were trying to escape.

The African Galleries – with the help of artists such as Sokari – seek to overturn this approach, showing the strength and diversity of art from across the continent from the earliest times to the best of contemporary art from Africa.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 4 October 2012.

The Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure is on display in Room 25: Africa

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Discovering objects in the archives

counterfeit 1938 two shilling West African Currency Board coinEllen Feingold, Project Curator: Money in Africa, British Museum

When conducting archival research, historians look for documents that can help them to better understand people, events, and objects from the past. Rarely, however, does an historian looking through documents at archives come across objects inside files. It is even more unusual to discover objects that not only help to piece together an historical narrative, but are the subject of the research itself.

As a Project Curator for the Money in Africa project at the British Museum, I am conducting research on counterfeiting in British colonial Africa. One of the goals of my research is to understand how British colonial authorities thought about and responded to counterfeiting in colonial Africa during the twentieth century. A key source for this research is the Colonial Office files at the National Archives at Kew (UK). These files hold correspondence, memos, and internal minutes that have helped to shed light on how authorities in London reacted to counterfeiting across the British Empire.

Some of the correspondence in the archives is focused on keeping officials in the Colonial Office up-to-date with respect to recent counterfeiting cases and related issues in the colonies in Africa. Yet officials in the colonies not only wrote to the Colonial Office and Currency Boards in London about counterfeiting, they also sent evidence of the problem, including actual counterfeit notes and coins. These objects were small and light, typically encased in relatively plain envelopes. It seems that they have remained with the correspondence since the 1930s.

The obverse (left) and reverse (right) of a counterfeit 1938 two shilling West African Currency Board coin found at the National Archives (UK).

The obverse (left) and reverse (right) of a counterfeit 1938 two shilling West African Currency Board coin found at the National Archives (UK).

Finding these objects in the files was thrilling, not only because the experience of discovering objects in an archive is exceptional, but because of the unique way in which they can enhance my research. By examining the counterfeit notes and coins confiscated in West Africa in the 1930s, I am able to collect evidence to help me answer questions about counterfeiting in colonial Africa that documents alone cannot provide. For example, were these counterfeit notes and coins ‘good’ imitations of the legal tender? With access to the counterfeit coins and notes in the archives, I can compare them to the authentic legal tender held in the British Museum’s collection. This enables me to judge whether counterfeit currency specimen could have easily passed for legal tender or were poor imitations that could have been deemed fake by a person with an untrained eye. This information is useful in thinking about how counterfeits circulated and who detected them.

Furthermore, having found counterfeit currency opens up the possibility of querying what materials and tools people in the colonies used when making counterfeit coins and notes. Colonial authorities speculated about the means of production and materials, but finding and handling the counterfeit money allows me to consider whether their judgements were correct.

A cigarette case with the image of a 1934 twenty shilling note issued by the West African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

A cigarette case with the image of a 1934 twenty shilling note issued by the West African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

Though counterfeit notes and coins were the primary concern among colonial authorities, the Colonial Office was also worried about unauthorized use of images of British colonial currencies. In the 1930s, Japanese manufacturers produced silk handkerchiefs and cigarette cases that depicted West African Currency Board and East African Currency Board notes and exported them to African colonies (see images above and below). Upon learning about these items, colonial administrators sent samples to London, so that the Colonial Office and Currency Boards could decide whether they were a cause for alarm and how to curb their circulation in Africa.

A silk handkerchief with the image of a 1933 ten shilling note issued by the East African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

A silk handkerchief with the image of a 1933 ten shilling note issued by the East African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

A Japanese handkerchief depicting an East African Currency Board note was the first object I found in the archives. I was surprised to learn that the somewhat bland description of these handkerchiefs in the documents did not do them justice. Made from silk and dyed vibrant colours along the edges, it is easy to see their appeal to buyers.

Seeing the handkerchief raised many questions for me: Why were notes used as decoration? Who bought the handkerchiefs? What did the image of currency on the handkerchief mean to those who bought them? Did the presence of the note on the handkerchief matter to buyers or did the handkerchiefs circulate because they were colourful and attractive?

Though I will not be able to answer all of these questions with the evidence available, the discovery of this object in the archives, as well as the others, has served as a valuable reminder that while archival documents alone can tell a story, objects can enhance and even challenge that story in unexpected ways.

Note: after discovering these objects, I handed them to the National Archives information desk with the relevant files, so they could be examined by their staff.

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Filed under: Money in Africa, Research

Amara West excavations 2013: the past from above

Aerial photograph of a house undergoing excavationNeal Spencer, British Museum

After a test flight over Ernetta and our dig house, Susie Green – working with us to create three-dimensional visualisations of the town’s architecture – flew her photographic kite over the Ramesside town, occupied between 1290 and around 1000 BC, at Amara West on Sunday. The brisk breeze – Beaufort scale 2-3 according to our trusted weather forecast – and crisp morning light made it a perfect day.

The kite above villa D12.5

The kite above villa D12.5

The camera rig sits well below the kite itself, and needs to stay in range of the remote control. Susie controlled the camera (rotating 360 degrees horizontally, or 90 degrees vertically) and triggered the shutter, as I did my best to walk the kite around the site in an attempt to provide a full coverage of the excavation areas… the results are spectacular.

The town of Amara West

Aerial photograph showing the town of Amara West with the River Nile in the background

Amara West sits on the north bank of the Nile, where a line of tamarisk trees prompts the formation of sand dunes. Villa D12.5, still being excavated, lies in the centre of the photograph. Villa E12.10 is near the bottom, excavated in 2009, partly engulfed in windblown sand. The distinctive Jebel Abri (‘Abri mountain’) is on the horizon.

The cemetery

The low mounds of cemetery C mark graves, with the town in the background, before the Nile

The low mounds of cemetery C mark graves, with the town in the background, before the Nile. The low lying sandy area in between cemetery C and the town is an ancient river channel, now dry but probably flowing during some of the period the town was inhabited. The white and blue tarpaulin in the middle of the image is the location of tomb G243, now being excavated.

Excavating in the town

The two areas under excavation

The two areas under excavation. Outside the town wall, at the bottom of the image, villa D12.5 features a large courtyard, and rooms partly filled with sand during recent windy days. At the top, inside the wall, lie the houses of neighbourhood E13, under excavation since 2009. In the centre of the image, the white sandstone west gate of the town can be seen.

Unearthing a house

House E13.5, with Shadia Abdu Rabo standing in the front room, next to the hearth

House E13.5, with Shadia Abdu Rabo standing in the front room, next to the hearth. A low bench, or mastaba, can be seen to the right, and the six large ovens in the annex. Sandbags protect the front of the house from sand, while a photographic ladder lies on the ground, for use in taking more gravity-bound views of the excavation.

We’ve only a few days excavation left at Amara West, in which we hope to answer some questions about the early history of the villa, complete photography for three-dimensional visualisations, explore further an area perhaps used for faience production, finish work in the western part of the multi-chamber tomb, conserve delicate wooden objects from the cemetery… the list of things still to do is, in reality, much longer!

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