British Museum blog

Facing Enlightenment: a musical conversation with the past

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved, violinist

On Friday 13th December between 18.30 and 20.00, I am performing in a concert in the Enlightenment Gallery, setting up a musical conversation between past and present, one that is reflective of the ideas of renewal and rediscovery summed up in the word ‘Enlightenment’. Music of the 1600s and 1700s, by Giuseppe Torelli, Nicola Matteis, and Johann Jakob Walther will be played alongside brand new works, including one by leading composer David Gorton, responding to the challenge of the past.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery, 2006, photo courtsey of Richard Bram

David Gorton played a central role in my 2006 intervention in the Enlightenment Gallery, when 11 international composers created new work in conversation with my ideas about the space and the collection. Gorton’s new work takes a bold imaginative leap, inspired by the Enlightenment’s ‘discovery of the past’: how might we, in 2013, re-imagine musicians of the Enlightenment reviving, exploring, the music and the works of earlier epochs?

Gorton’s first work for the Enlightenment Gallery was inspired by the copy of the Rosetta Stone made for George III. The resulting Rosetta Caprice has been played hundreds of times worldwide, recorded and filmed, and most recently, I presented it at a TED Conference in Norway. Follow the link to see a short film of its first appearance in the British Museum, in 2006.

Some of the composers working with me were inspired by the layers of history, the ‘false leads’, overlaying some of the most ancient man-made objects in the Enlightenment Gallery. Nashville-based composer Michael Alec Rose was inspired by the Grays Inn Handaxe, at one time thought to have been a Roman weapon. The title, Palimpsest, is a reflection of these layerings.

The Enlightenment was as much a revolution of technology and science as ideas and discovery. One of its most enduring legacies proved to be the instruments of the violin family, pioneered and perfected in the Italian cities of Cremona and Brescia across this period. This concert will be performed on a beautiful early example by the ‘father of the violin’, Andrea Amati, whose grandson Niccolo, would later teach Antonio Stradivari.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved is the dedicatee of over 400 works for violin, and has recorded over 70 critically acclaimed albums of works from the 17th century to the present day. He regularly performs in over 30 countries, and has a unique record of collaboration with museums, working regularly with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Library of Congress, Washington DC and the National Portrait Gallery, where he curated a major exhibition, Only Connect, in 2011-12. To see more of his work, visit www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com

The performance Facing Enlightenment is in the Enlightenment Gallery, Friday 13 December, 18.30–20.00, Free, just drop in.

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Uncategorized, What's on, ,

‘When a find is recorded, it is truly discovered’: metal-detecting and its contribution to archaeology

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.Michael Lewis, Deputy Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum

As the second series of Britain’s Secret Treasures broadcasts on ITV in the United Kingdom, it’s been amazing to see the reaction and level of interest. The first series averaged 3.5 million viewers per episode, so we know just how captivating the stories being told are. The fact that all the discoveries featured were, and are, found by ordinary members of the British public – not professional archaeologists – makes this all the more remarkable.

Indeed, many people watching the series have probably found archaeology, albeit not necessarily recognising it as such, be it a bit of pottery from the garden, a coin on the beach, or a piece of worked flint while out walking in the countryside. Individually these objects might not seem important (though clearly some are), but together they help paint a picture of the past, helping archaeologists understand where people lived, and how they worked and played. It is this public contribution to archaeology, through recording their finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) [LINK] that is transforming the archaeological map of Britain.

A pilgrim’s badge of Richard Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s, Norwich.

A pilgrim’s badge of Richard Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s, Norwich.

To date over 900,000 archaeological objects have been found by the British public and recorded. Many of these have been discovered completely by chance, but most have been found by people proactively looking for archaeology, such as through field-walking or metal-detecting.

It is probably fair to say that archaeologists and metal-detectorists have not always seen eye to eye. It wasn’t until the 1970s that metal-detecting started to become popular and the response of many European countries was to ban or restrict such archaeological work by non-professionals. Indeed, this remains the situation in most of Europe, including our closest neighbours, the Republic of Ireland and France, where metal-detecting is prohibited.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

However in England and Wales metal-detecting, with the permission of the landowner, was not legislated against; although metal-detecting on sensitive archaeological sites (scheduled monuments) has been prohibited (since 1979) and finds of Treasure – precious metals and groups of coins or base-metal assemblages over 300 years old – must be reported. Nonetheless, heritage legislation in England and Wales (and Scotland) remains quite liberal compared to elsewhere in Europe.

At one time, this was seen as a ‘failure to deal with the problem of metal-detecting’ by concerned archaeologists. By the 1980s the Council for British Archaeology launched the Stop Taking Our Past (STOP) campaign, based on the perception that metal-detectorists were systematically looting archaeological sites by removing objects from ‘stratified archaeological contexts’ (thus destroying important clues about how and why things were buried) to sell on the open market. Indeed, the private ownership of archaeological material, and also the buying and selling of antiquities, remains contentious, and defines relations between archaeologists and the metal-detecting fraternity today.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

Nonetheless, most agreed that the attempt to ban metal-detecting was a failure and probably counter-productive. The STOP campaign did little more than entrench views, and frustrate dialogue between the two sides.

Over time it has been understood that most metal-detectorists have a genuine interest in the past, though of course there are a relatively small minority of individuals who metal-detect just for financial gain or have little interest in archaeology. An important observation is that most metal-detectorists search on cultivated land, where objects and coins are generally already dislodged from any archaeological context by agricultural work, such as ploughing. Indeed, it may be argued that recovering these items ensures they are saved from being completely destroyed by agriculture and natural and artificial corrosion processes.

Author sieving at the site of a Bronze Age hoard found by a metal-detectorist

Author sieving at the site of a Bronze Age hoard found by a metal-detectorist

Once disregarded by many archaeologists as of little interest (the plough-zone was often machined off in archaeological excavations of the past) it is apparent this layer holds many objects that can offer clues about any underlying archaeology. Even in their own right, such stray finds are of interest to researchers studying particular object types and their distribution.

This appreciation of the potential contribution that metal-detected finds might have to archaeology led to the establishment of the PAS; set up first as a series of pilot schemes in 1997, and then extended across the whole of England and Wales in 2003. The aim of the project was to liaise with the metal-detecting community, build trust, and encourage finders (on a voluntary basis) to lend their objects for a period of time so they could be recorded. The aim was not to acquire objects for museums, but that said, many finders, realising the importance of their discoveries, have allowed museums to acquire them, or have even donated them.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

Before the PAS there was no mechanism to record such finds. Some people may have taken what they had found to their local museum (or even a national museum) for a curator to look at. But only a fraction of these were logged either by the museum or with the local Historic Environment Record. Even fewer were published, such as in a local archaeological journal. For many of these finds their discovery was only brief, as once they were returned to their finders they were probably put away in a box and forgotten, almost certainly without any record of their findspot (of most interest to archaeologists) being recorded. How then might they further archaeology?

Nowadays all the finds recorded with the PAS are logged onto its online database for anyone to look at, study and enjoy. On the public site precise findspot details are protected, to ensure archaeological sites are not damaged by looters, sometimes called nighthawks. However, the full data is made available for archaeological work and research, and is proving to be a major component in many research projects trying to understand the past.

A mount from a medieval coffett, probably enamelled in Limoges, France.

A mount from a medieval coffett, probably enamelled in Limoges, France.

Unless someone spends a reasonable amount of money on a metal-detector (several hundred pounds) they are not likely to find much archaeological material; cheap machines are nothing more than toys, with which you might find some lost change or ring-pulls at the most. Therefore it is a hobby people invest in and become quite serious about. Whatever the initial motivation to take up metal-detecting, most acquire an appreciation for history and want to learn as much as possible about the objects they find. They share the same buzz we archaeologists get about discovery. It is nonetheless important that metal-detectorists take care to avoid sensitive archaeological sites and follow the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting at all times. This Code also outlines how important it is to get permission (from the landowner) before you search and the necessity of recording finds with the PAS.

Only once a find is recorded is it truly discovered, and through recording finds with the PAS metal-detecting can make a truly positive contribution to archaeology.

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

Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,

New technology in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre

A group of children using tablets in the museum gallery
Richard Woff, Head of Schools and Young Audiences, British Museum

We have recently re-opened the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre (SDDC) after three months spent installing a range of new digital equipment and developing exciting sessions for the Museum’s young audiences. This activity has been prompted by our participation in a project initiated by Samsung, which aims to unleash the educational power of digital technologies, specifically through the use of tablet devices in schools and in other learning hubs.

Back in July, we had a touch-enabled e-board installed in the SDDC and took delivery of more than thirty of Samsung’s newest touchscreen tablets, as well as 24 new wireless-enabled digital cameras. We then transformed some of the teaching sessions we’d been running in the SDDC to take full advantage of the new devices. Having used a range of mobile technology across our offering for young audiences, we had a good idea of what worked well. For example, we know that revealing tablets in a session always produces gasps of excitement and requests to take the devices home at the end of the day; beyond this excitement, we have also seen that tablet devices can promote collaboration between students, thanks in part to the size of the screen.

A group of children using a tablet in a Museum gallery

A group using a tablet in a Museum gallery

The touchscreen interactivity of the tablets can involve students in a way that paper resources cannot, and can also provide links to a range of media, including sound and video. As well as providing the students with information through tablets, one huge benefit for us is that they can also capture their findings on the same device. The photos, text, videos, drawings or voice recordings that are captured on the tablets in the sessions are instantly uploaded to our cloud storage, making it quick and easy for us to send this work back to schools for further study. This is especially valuable in the activities we run in galleries, where the tablets serve to guide the students, prompt responses and investigation and record their findings and experiences.

Children working on the floor, with paper, pencils and a tablet

Children using a tablet as part of an SDDC activity

One of our sessions focuses on Greek temples and aims to introduce children to the styles of Greek architecture and the functions of a temple, as well as to highlight the diverse nature of the Greek world. Previously, children used laptops to build a virtual temple using the British Museum’s Ancient Greece website with the added challenge of a fixed budget which determined how extravagant they could be in the materials they used and the decoration they applied. We have redeveloped the session so that pairs of children use tablets to test their growing understanding of the architectural styles, and then vote on how they want their communal temple to look – as they vote on the tablets, the scores appear on the e-board until a final decision becomes clear. The children also scan QR codes with their tablets to find out more about the city state they represent and to build their temple. All of the children’s tablets are linked to the e-board, so the session leader can easily select temples that demonstrate the diversity of the groups’ responses to the task.

We have kept the overall aims of the session: the children learn lots about temples; they use maths in a practical context; they learn collaboratively; they get to understand something of the extent and diversity of the ancient Greek world and the politics of temple-building – groups of students that go under budget are usually surprised to learn that this might not delight their city’s rulers any more than going over budget. What has changed is the level of engagement through the tablets. The children’s contributions to the session are more meaningful and apparent, all of them are able to contribute equally rather than a small number children dominating, and they are noticeably even more motivated and enthusiastic than they used to be. The teachers are in no doubt about the richness of the experience: “What amazing technology!” one of them commented, unprompted, as her class left the Centre.

Looking to the future, we aim to maximise the capability of these tablet devices even further. For example, we will be piloting the use of tablets for our digital sessions for students with special educational needs, using the range of media they can showcase for interactive gallery visits. We are also looking to expand our family offering across the devices, including a session planned for the New Year where families will make digital sketches of some of the Museum’s Neolithic collection, and then use these sketches to create their own 3D models.

In the middle of our busy summer preparing to re-open, we received the news that Samsung have agreed to fund the SDDC for a further five years until 2019. This not only secures the existing sessions and activities in the SDDC, it offers us the chance to build on an already large and highly innovative programme to make even more imaginative use of digital technologies to engage young people with the Museum’s objects and the cultures they represent.

The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre is sponsored by Samsung

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Filed under: Samsung Digital Discovery Centre

Limoges enamelled plaque: a dazzling object

Limoges enamelled plaqueNaomi Speakman, curator, British Museum

Decorated with jewel-like enamelled colours and covered in gilding, this Limoges enamelled plaque found on the Isle of Wight, would have been a dazzling religious item for its original owner.

Limoges enamelled plaque, shown from all angles.

Limoges enamelled plaque, shown from all angles.

The plaque bears the image of a winged man, standing on a wave-like cloud, who most likely represents Matthew, one of the four Evangelists who created the four gospel accounts of the New Testament, in the Christian Bible. The plaque is church shaped, formed of a steep roof topped with an orb and cross. On the other side the plaque is recessed, and pierced by a hole, indicating that this small piece may have been attached to something much larger – quite what, we don’t really know.

What we do know, however, is that enamelled plaques of this kind were very popular in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century across Europe. Two key ways to spot Limoges enamel work are its vibrant blue colour, and, in many cases, stylised rosettes, examples of which have been found in England.

Enamelled mount from Limoges

Enamelled mount from Limoges

Their namesakes come from the city of their making, Limoges in central France, which was one of the centres of enamelling in the Middle Ages. The industry of enamel making in Limoges boomed in the twelfth century, and particularly famous examples of these are reliquary caskets commemorating the murder of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. One of these is on display at the British Museum in Room 40: Medieval Europe and another in Room 1: Enlightenment.

Reliquary casket produced in the Limoges workshops after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170

Reliquary casket produced in the Limoges workshops after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170

Limoges enamelled plaques could be made for many types of religious objects, including book covers, portable altars and reliquary caskets. What this plaque was attached to we cannot be certain, but we do know that it was used for religious worship, perhaps forming part of an object used to decorate an altar or for other use in public worship.

Equally, we cannot be certain who it belonged to. An expensive item, the plaque was most likely owned by someone of a higher status with the necessary wealth to afford such an item. But, unfortunately, we will probably never know.

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

Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,

Expecting the unexpected: a royal hawking vervel in Norfolk

The flat outer face of the band is inscribed 'Henrye Prince'. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art GalleryTim Pestell, Curator of Archaeology, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

As an archaeology curator in Norfolk you get used to the unexpected, perhaps even expecting it. With over 20,000 finds recorded every year in the county, we perhaps take it for granted that there are lots of unknown treasures waiting to be brought to us. To that extent, the discovery of another silver hawking vervel – the ring attached to a bird of prey giving its owner’s name – was fairly unexceptional.

Despite being quite rare finds, vervels are a well-recognised class of object, and Norfolk seems to have been prime turf for hawking, as a number of them have been found in the county over the years. Indeed, we have a large collection of them in the Castle Museum.

The Cley hawking vervel.

The Cley hawking vervel.

Recently, though, when I was told that another one had been found I was very interested. The news that the owner’s name on it was Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales and son of King James I (1566-1625), naturally made me sit up.

Hawking, or falconry, was a popular past time among the upper echelons of society in Europe during this period. Aristocratic men and women would pay large sums of money for birds of prey which would be trained and then used for hunting.

Now, my own sporting passion as far as birds are concerned is limited to following our beloved Canaries (Norwich City Football Club), but what on earth was this vervel doing in Norfolk? Those of us lucky enough to come from the county obviously know what a fine place it is, but what about Henry? With there being no evidence for him visiting Norfolk as Prince of Wales, it set all sorts of possibilities racing.

The flat outer face of the band is inscribed 'Henrye Prince'. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The flat outer face of the band is inscribed ‘Henrye Prince’. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Was Henry simply here for a weekend hawking with the boys? Or was the hawk being trained for him up here? Had the hawk just legged it (or winged it) from somewhere much further away?

While we have no simple answers, and perhaps may never know how this one ended up in Norfolk, I was reminded of another of our hawking vervels, found by a detectorist in Emneth (in west Norfolk) in 2007. Inscribed, less than helpfully, ‘Come buck of Chichly in’ the bird seems to have singularly failed to have returned. That it may well have died in west Norfolk is hinted at by another find that came from the same hole that produced the vervel – a silver bell, presumably also once attached to the hawk.

Indeed, the number of these vervels that are now being found is fascinating. Not only is there an obvious human angle, enabling us to relate finds to actual people – some of whom we can even visualise through their portraits – but also, for me, they conjure up the colour of life as it would have been all those years ago. They bring to mind scenes in which numerous grumpy aristocrats wonder where on earth their expensive birds have flapped off to (answers to which we may at last be finding out several centuries later).

In the meantime the Cley vervel will be seen, alongside our other vervels, in our forthcoming exhibition at Norwich Castle on The Wonder of Birds from 24 May – 14 September 2014.

Hopefully Henry would have been pleased.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,

A vehicle of the soul?

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton CultureJody Joy, curator, British Museum

Today we are so used to seeing images of ourselves in mirrors and photographs it is difficult to imagine a world without reflections. But just try.

Imagine a world in which you don’t really know what you look like, where the only way to see your own reflection is in a pool of still water. Using a mirror like the one found in Pegsdon, Bedfordshire, and featured in the ITV series Britain’s Secret Treasures, meant that for the first time Iron Age people, about 2,500 years ago, were no longer reliant on others to tell them how they looked.

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

Today the mirror is part of our everyday routine but cheap, mass-produced mirrors are a product of the past few centuries. Before that mirrors were rare and expensive social objects allowing people to monitor physical appearance and apply cosmetics. Their reflective surfaces were also perceived in different ways, taking on religious, medical and artistic functions. For example, a mirror allows you to see behind as well as in front, extending the realms of ‘normal’ human physical experience.

In the Greco-Roman world looking backwards was linked to looking into the future or the past and the reflection from a mirror was used in divination – attempts to predict events, or peoples fate. Mirrors were lowered into water and the reflections ‘read’. Alternatively mirrors were used to evoke light or the vehicle of the soul.

It is impossible to determine the true significance of the Pegsdon mirror. The fact that it is so beautifully made and decorated and that it was carefully placed in someone’s grave indicates it was a valued and treasured object. The association between mirrors and cosmetic sets in other Iron Age graves links them to the main function of mirrors today, as a means to monitor appearance.

However, there is no reason why mirrors did not also have other kinds of significance in Iron Age society. For example, even today we still see breaking a mirror as bad luck.

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

Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, ,

The Corrard gold torc – Bronze Age jewellery with a twist to the tale

The Corrard gold torc. © National Museums Northern Ireland: Collection Ulster Museum Dr Greer Ramsey, Curator,
National Museums Northern Ireland

I am not sure if this happens to anyone else, but my work routine seems to revolve around how quickly I can get the computer turned on in the morning to view my inbox of emails. Then of course the ‘ping’ of incoming mail catches my eye at the bottom right hand corner of the screen. I know that I should not let it distract me from whatever I am doing but it inevitably does.

Such was the case when I received an attached image of an object to identify that was found at Corrard in County Fermanagh. With a click of the mouse the most intriguing artefact materialised on screen – a Bronze Age torc, quite simply the most fantastic single item of prehistoric gold jewellery ever found in Northern Ireland.

The Corrard gold torc. © National Museums Northern Ireland: Collection Ulster Museum

The Corrard gold torc. © National Museums Northern Ireland: Collection Ulster Museum

The first thing that struck me was its coiled shape, which resembles a spring. This deliberate coiling has caused a bit of confusion in that the word ‘torc’, which comes from the Latin to twist, does not refer to this spring-like shape. The torc started its life as a square bar of gold and it is the action of twisting the bar along its entire length to create a corkscrew pattern that gives this object its name.

Why was it coiled? Some people think that in this coiled state it could have been worn as an armlet. I need come convincing about this as the majority of torcs are not coiled like a spring, but form a circular hoop where the cone-like terminals at either end act as a clasp. These must have functioned to allow the torc to be opened and closed, rather like a belt or necklace. Surprisingly, most Bronze Age metalwork, including torcs, have not been found in burials with skeletal remains which would allow us to know how they were worn. If the Corrard torc was straightened you would be astounded by its length – care to guess?

The deliberate coiling prior to burial may have made the act of concealment easier. Perhaps it was buried as a kind of decommissioning, sending out a signal that it was not intended to be used again. Under these circumstances it could almost be seen as a type of grave good (a burial without a body), or even an offering to the gods.

And, here’s another puzzle – weighing an impressive 720 grams (with a measured gold content of about 86%, equivalent to approximately 20 carat gold – the upper limit used for jewellery as any higher would make it too soft and easily scratched), where did the gold come from? Is it conceivable that the image Ireland has as an ancient El Dorado of prehistoric Europe depended on importing gold as opposed to having a local supply? This is part of a wider archaeological debate as to the origin of torcs. Was the Corrard torc ‘made in Ireland’ or somewhere else?

The torc is on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

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

Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

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

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This is Room 69, Greek and Roman life. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
Room 69 takes a cross-cultural look at the public and private lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The objects on display have been chosen to illustrate themes such as women, children, household furniture, religion, trade and transport, athletics, war, farming and more. Around the walls, supplementary displays illustrate individual crafts on one side of the room, and Greek mythology on the opposite side. This picture is taken from the mezzanine level, looking down into the gallery. The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 68, the Citi Money Gallery. The history of money can be traced back over 4,000 years. During this time, currency has taken many different forms, from coins to banknotes, shells to mobile phones.
The Citi Money Gallery displays the history of money around the world. From the earliest evidence, to the latest developments in digital technology, money has been an important part of human societies. Looking at the history of money gives us a way to understand the history of the world – from the earliest coins to Bitcoin, and from Chinese paper money to coins from every nation in the world. You can find out more about what's on display at britishmuseum.org/money The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 67: Korea. The Korea Foundation Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen on 16 December 2014. You can find out more about the refurb at koreabritishmuseum.tumblr.com  The unique culture of Korea combines a strong sense of national identity with influences from other parts of the Far East. Korean religion, language, geography and everyday life were directly affected by the country’s geographic position, resulting in a rich mix of art and artefacts.
Objects on display in Room 67 date from prehistory to the present day and include ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, painting, screen-printed books and illuminated manuscripts.
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These cultures traded extensively with Egypt and for two brief periods Nubian kingdoms dominated their northern neighbour.
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