British Museum blog

Sutton Hoo, treasure hunters and a lucky escape

Sutton Hoo helmet
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

Fifteen years ago I visited the British Museum as an undergraduate. As someone who’d most recently studied the English Civil War, I’d taken a course on Anglo-Saxon England because I was curious to learn what life was like at a time when the date only had three numbers in it. Our professor brought us to Room 41, the gallery of Early Medieval Europe – and there I had a fateful encounter with the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Dating to the early AD 600s, this remarkable Anglo-Saxon grave in Suffolk was arranged inside a 27-metre-long ship and covered with an earth mound, known to posterity as ‘Mound 1′. The burial’s spectacular nature has fuelled speculation that it belonged to a king of East Anglia. Seeing it back then for the first time, I was genuinely inspired. I’ve studied the Anglo-Saxons ever since.

Curators Sue Brunning (r) and Rosie Weetch (l) installing the Sutton Hoo helmet in the gallery

Curators Sue Brunning (r) and Rosie Weetch (l) installing the Sutton Hoo helmet in the gallery

Tomorrow, after four years of very hard teamwork, Room 41 re-opens following a major refurbishment that was generously facilitated by Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock, with additional support from the DCMS /Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund. Sutton Hoo takes pride of place in the centre, acting as a gateway into the rest of the gallery. Visitors entering through Room 40 will be met by the striking face of the helmet, standing sentinel at the head of his ship. My spine still tingles when I gaze into its hollow black eyes, especially out of hours in the quiet, dark gallery space. A haunting sight; but something else chills me when I look at these treasures – the true-life tale of how close we came to losing them forever.

The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Drawing showing the cross-section of the mound where the treasure hunter's pit was discovered

Drawing showing the cross-section of the mound where the treasure hunter’s pit was discovered

When excavating Mound 1 in 1939, archaeologist Basil Brown found signs of what he described in his diary as a ‘Medieval disturbance’. These comprised a 10-foot-deep pit dug into the top of the mound, containing pottery sherds (more of which were found during further excavations in 1969), animal bone and traces of a fire. Experts identified the pottery as Bellarmine ware, dating to the 1500s or 1600s. Not much to write home about, you’d think; but these seemingly banal traces are, to me, some of the most hair-raising discoveries in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. They show that, at some time in the Tudor period, a group of treasure hunters (if that was their aim) had targeted Mound 1; but after digging vainly for some time, they stopped, built a fire, ate a meal and departed, leaving their waste behind. Archaeological drawings show that they would have had their prize if they had dug just a few feet further west. The sorry results of more fruitful looting expeditions are illustrated by the other burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Mound 2, another ship burial, was found to contain only the tiniest hints of its former magnificence: a chip of a blue glass vessel; part of a pattern-welded sword; and fragments of gilded silver drinking-horn mounts.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

While writing this blog, I visited the Sutton Hoo reserve collection to photograph sherds of the hapless looters’ jug. Handling them was an unnerving experience. Sutton Hoo is so central to our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons that a world without it is unthinkable. Its alternative fate is too horrifying for me to contemplate: the great gold buckle melted down; the garnets of the shoulder clasps chipped out and recycled; the iron fragments of the helmet ignored and discarded. For an Anglo-Saxonist, the tale of what Charles Philips, another excavator at Sutton Hoo, dubbed ‘the lunch of the disappointed’ is more hair-raising than any vampire or werewolf yarn. It’s incredible to think that we owe the new gallery’s centrepiece to the miscalculations of a few opportunists. That makes me feel even luckier to be the curator of this precious collection.

 

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 opens 27 March 2014 in Room 41. Admission is free.

The finds from Sutton Hoo were donated to the British Museum by Mrs Edith Pretty.

The site is managed by The National Trust – to visit and find out more, go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo

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Did women in Greece and Rome speak?


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, Cambridge University
Did women in Greece and Rome speak? Stupid question; of course they did. They must have chattered and joked together, laughed at the silliness of their menfolk, advised (or chatted up) their husbands, given lessons to their children… and much, much more.

But nowhere in the ancient world did they ever have a recognised voice in public – beyond, occasionally, complaining about the abuse they must often have suffered. Those who did speak out got ridiculed as being androgynes (‘men-women’). The basic motto (as for Victorian children) was that women should be seen and not heard, and best of all not seen either.

This streak of misogyny made a big impression on me when I first started learning ancient Greek about 45 years ago. One of the first things I read in Greek back then was part of Homer’s Odyssey – one of that pair of great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey that stand at the very beginning of the whole tradition of western literature.

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily GR 1867,0508.402

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily. GR 1867,0508.402

I remember even now coming across an extraordinary passage in the first book of the poem. Penelope, who is waiting loyally for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the Trojan War, comes downstairs from her apartment in the palace to find a bard singing. His song tells of the terrible and deathly struggles the Greek heroes are having in getting back home after the war to conquer Troy. Not surprisingly Penelope, thinking of her own husband’s troubles, is upset and asks the bard to choose a happier theme. But no sooner has she spoken than her son Telemachus – not much more than a wet-behind-the-ears teenager – tells her to pipe down and go back upstairs to her weaving, “for speech is the business of men”.

It stuck in my mind (as I kid, I always rather admired the Greeks, but this seemed a terrible black spot almost to match slavery). I never imagined then that I would come back to reflect on this incident again, when I was thinking about how the voices of modern women have often been silenced too. Of course, that silence isn’t so dramatic. But when I agreed to give a London Review of Books Winter Lecture at the British Museum, on the public voice of women today, I kept coming back to the ancient world – and to the sense that women’s silence was very deeply embedded in our culture.

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper.  Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, 'The Legend of Goode Wimme’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper. Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, ‘The Legend of Goode Wimmen’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

It was fascinating (if slightly chilling) to collect some of the different ways that the Greeks and Romans so clearly paraded the idea that women should not speak out. These ranged from Ovid’s story in his Metamorphoses about the rape victim Philomela having her tongue cut out to prevent her naming her rapist (though she eventually managed to denounce him by weaving an account of what happened) to the abuse of one Roman woman who did get up to speak in the forum as a ‘barking’ (that is, non-human) androgyne.

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena's temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena’s temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

In fact, it was hard to choose which examples to use for my lecture, and many people have written in since with even more, and sometimes even better, examples. One of the very best is the myth of the virgin prophetess Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy, who was – when the city fell – taken by king Agamemnon to be his concubine (she was eventually murdered, with the king, by his wife Clytemnestra). But before that, Cassandra’s lot was always to prophesy the truth but never to be believed. It is a wonderful twist on the idea that women’s speech is never authoritative: even when it really is true, it doesn’t seem so to listeners.

In antiquity, it is true that – almost without exception (perhaps the weird Diotima in Plato’s Symposium is one) – you only hear a woman speak when she is about to die, or when she is speaking up for the concerns of women and the home (as did Antigone, when she defends the proper burial of her dead brother). Otherwise, as Telemachus put it, speech is for men.

Now, of course, I don’t think that the classical tradition simply explains why many women have such a hard time getting their voice heard even now. We have come a long way since then. All the same, my lecture does argue that if we want to do something about some of the current issues women face when they try to speak up, it’s important to think of the very long western history of women being shut up.

Mary Beard blogs at A Don’s Life.
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New evidence of human cancer found at ancient Amara West

scan of human bone

Michaela Binder, Durham University and Neal Spencer, British Museum

Cancer is one of the world’s most common causes of death today, but there is little evidence from before industrialisation: almost nothing is known about the history of the disease in the past. We generally assume cancer is strongly related to modern lifestyle and environment. But the analysis of skeletal and mummified human remains recovered during archaeological excavations can provide insights into such diseases in the distant past.

Until now, only a small number of skeletons with evidence for cancer have been identified. While the oldest primary bone cancer is around 6,000 years old, the earliest example of bone metastases related to a soft tissue cancer dates to around 3000 BC. However, because only the skull is preserved, there are doubts about the accuracy of the diagnosis. Only nine more individuals with – often tentative – evidence of cancer predate the first millennium AD. The majority of these individuals come from Ancient Egypt. This is perhaps mainly because the long history of archaeological research has resulted in a very large amount of skeletal and mummified human remains becoming available for study. They are very well preserved and have received a great deal of attention from medical doctors and physical anthropologists since the 19th century.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

In February 2013, the skeleton of a man who died between the age of 20 and 35 years was excavated in a tomb at Amara West, in northern Sudan. Founded around 1300 BC in the reign of Seti I, the town was designed as a new centre of the Egyptian control of Upper Nubia (Kush). The British Museum has been working at the site since 2008. Excavations in the town allow us glimpses of ancient lives: how houses were refurbished, what people ate, religious and ritual practices, where rubbish was disposed – and how the town changed over two centuries of occupation. Bioarchaeological work in the cemeteries is providing further insights into the ancient inhabitants: their life expectancy, diet and health.

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man's hands.

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man’s hands.

This individual (skeleton 244-8) was buried in a large underground chamber tomb (G244), perhaps used for a family around 1200 BC. The body was placed in a painted wooden coffin, with an Egyptian-style scaraboid placed in the hands. The bones of the torso, upper arms and upper legs have a large number of holes, 5-25mm in diameter. Radiographic examination of the bones revealed the holes are even larger beneath the bone surface. These holes were caused by metastatic carcinoma spreading from a soft tissue cancer: the oldest complete skeleton of a metastatic cancer found, anywhere, to date. The study, jointly conducted by researchers at the British Museum and Durham University is being published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

What caused such a case of cancer? Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease which was and still is a major health problem in the Nile valley, can cause breast cancer in men. Smoke from woodfires within houses continues to be a problem in modern Sudan. At Amara West, most of the small houses were provided with cylindrical bread ovens, often three side-by-side in a small room. Careful excavation has revealed that many of these oven rooms were roofed: these would have quickly filled up with smoke, exposing people to potentially harmful substances.

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Understanding the evolution, history and factors that could have caused cancer prior to the onset of modern living conditions is important not only for archaeology but even more so for medical research. Skeletal human remains, set within a well-documented historical, archaeological and environmental context are a key element for any such attempts. This may in future be crucial to develop new research strategies and therapies in order to tackle what has become the world’s deadliest disease.

The identification of such cases, and other diseases, among the population of towns such as Amara West, provides a more direct sense of ancient experience than those provided by ancient texts, architectural remains or the objects people left behind.

Follow the latest from the British Museum team now excavating at Amara West: http://blog.amarawest.britishmuseum.org/
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The power of gold: communication, identity and transformation


Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

While admiring the stunning works of art in the exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, you might ask yourself who commissioned, owned and used such magnificent gold objects. In most cases, they were mainly in the hands of the powerful elites. However, depending on their final shape, they could have a very different function and meaning. In the exhibition we explore three of the main uses for these gold artefacts.

Tunjo representing a warrior with bow, arrows and a trophy head in his hand. (exh. cat. p. 120). © Museo del Oro O00296

Tunjo representing a warrior with bow, arrows and a trophy head in his hand. (exh. cat. p. 120). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O00296

Some were created as offerings to the gods, placed in rivers, lakes (such as Lake Guatavita), caves and other liminal places in the landscape, to mediate for the community. Votive offerings, which included ceramics, stones, and gold figures and scenes, were probably intended to petition the gods or to thank them for their intervention in favour of an individual, group or the wider community. These figurines, known as tunjos, give us a wonderful window into the life of those ancient people, portraying images that ranged from female figures with children to musicians, warriors and chiefs.

Gold objects were also widely used as body adornments. As such they marked the belonging of an individual to a group through a very specific style and type of ornament. They also indicated the status and rank of the wearer within the group. Gold objects acted as very public displays of power and identity with an incredible range of styles and shapes that included diadems, nose rings, ear spools and earrings, pectorals, necklaces, bracelets and anklets. Each group also mastered specific metalworking techniques that gave the final character and look to their pieces.

Crocodile-shaped pendant, 700 BC - AD 1600, Late Quimbaya, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 147). © Museo del Oro, O05928

Crocodile-shaped pendant, 700 BC – AD 1600, Late Quimbaya, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 147). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O05928

Anthropomorphic bat-man staff finial, AD 900-1600, Tairona, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 157). © Museo del Oro O26176

Anthropomorphic bat-man staff finial, AD 900-1600, Tairona, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 157). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O26176

But perhaps the most complex and intriguing use of gold was in rituals, ranging from musical instruments, paraphernalia used as part of the consumption of powerful plants, such as the chewing of coca leaves, to the rituals of transformation. In ancient Colombia people believed that by changing one’s physical appearance one would undergo a total transformation and take on the characteristics of the creature. But what did ancient Colombian people want to transform themselves into? Spiritual leaders wished to transform themselves into the powerful animals that surrounded them, such as jaguars, birds and even bats, to experience the world from a very different perspective. This transformation was aided by gold objects that helped in the long process that might have taken months or even years to achieve. Wonderful necklaces, impressive masks and body piercings, spectacular pectorals and other body adornments helped leaders take those magical journeys to gain knowledge of the world from a very different point of view and later recount back to the community all they has learned and experienced.

In ancient Colombia, gold was a powerful metal, which not only allowed people to communicate with the supernatural and display one’s identity as a member of a community, but it also allowed you to gain a new one.

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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The Vikings are here…

Gareth Williams, Exhibition Curator, British Museum
Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Lo, it is nearly thirty-five years since the Vikings last came to this Museum, and nobody believed that such an influx of fantastic material from overseas (as well as the UK) could be made…*

To be fair, the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend lacks some of the drama of the original Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793. We haven’t had fiery dragons in the sky (unless you count the Aurora Borealis coming unusually far south), and there hasn’t been much in the way of destruction or slaughter. Nor is it likely that this exhibition will be remembered 1200 years after the event, although in an age of globalised communication, there is no doubt that the exhibition has attracted considerably more notice in the last few days than the attack on Lindisfarne did at the time. Nevertheless, as the largest Viking exhibition in the UK for over 30 years, it has the potential to shape our definition of the Viking Age.

The attack on Lindisfarne is often used as a starting point for a period which extended until around 1050 or 1100. The defeat of the Norwegian Harald Hard-ruler (whose story is so brilliantly told in a new illustrated children’s adventure book by Project Curator Tom Williams) at Stamford Bridge near York in 1066 provides another convenient end date from an English perspective, although it doesn’t have much meaning elsewhere. The idea of a ‘Viking Age’ has formed part of modern historical perceptions since the 19th century, but the interpretation of that period, and of the Vikings themselves, has changed many times since then. One of the most memorable experiences of my own childhood was visiting the great Viking exhibition here at the British Museum in 1980. It brought together an unprecedented collection of Viking material, interpreted in line with what was then current thinking on the Vikings. Recent archaeological discoveries in Viking settlements in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia played an important part in raising public awareness of the less violent aspects of life in the Viking Age. It was an exhibition that helped to define the Vikings for a generation, and the catalogue Viking Artefacts by the guest curator James Graham-Campbell remains an essential reference for any serious study of Viking culture.

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30.  © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30. © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Of course, things have changed since 1980. There have been many new finds, due in part to the introduction of the Portable Antiquities Scheme which encourages the reporting of metal-detected objects. The Vale of York Hoard, for example, displayed in its entirety for the first time at the British Museum in this exhibition, was found by metal detectorists in 2004. And new material keeps on coming, with dramatic finds excavated even in the course of preparing this exhibition, necessitating rewrites and adaptations as we went along. The mass grave of Vikings found near Weymouth excavated in 2009 and the 2011 Ardnamurchan burial (the first complete example of a Viking boat burial from the British mainland) are prime examples.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. Exh. cat. Chapter 4. fig. 3. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A tiny three-dimensional Valkyrie amulet, found as recently as 2013, demonstrates how up-to-date the finds presented in this exhibition really are. Of course, the star of the show – the remains of Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship ever discovered – is one of the most important and awe-inspiring Viking discoveries of recent times.

Just as important has been the impact of new research, particularly in the areas of ritual and belief and Viking-age economies. Some of this work has been pioneered by those behind the 1980 exhibition, and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to present their work and set out the state of current thinking for a new generation. As Professor Ronald Hutton astutely observed in his review in the New Statesman, the major overarching themes of the exhibition – global communication, cultural interaction and diversity, technological sophistication – are ideas with a profound significance to the modern world.

Looking back through the email trail, Vikings: Life and Legend has been over six years in the making. Apart from the challenge of delivering an engaging and informative exhibition, we have had the added issues of incorporating a 37 metre-long ship, and being the first exhibition in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, on which building had not yet even commenced when we started planning the exhibition six years ago. It has been an enormous team effort to get us here; While curators get the media attention on such occasion, the conservators, designers, loans administrators, object handlers and many other staff have equally important roles behind the scenes. The process has at times been exhilarating, exhausting, and frustrating. As Charles Dickens wrote, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and he only had to deal with two cities. This exhibition has had the added complication of being planned in three. Despite all that, we have finally reached the point where the exhibition is ready to show to the public, and it is enormously rewarding to see the positive response which we have already had from journalists and those who have seen the exhibition. If the response of the public as a whole is as positive, I think that all of us involved in the exhibition will be very satisfied. And if a single visitor is as inspired by this exhibition as the younger me was by its predecessor, then I shall personally be delighted.

*(With apologies to Alcuin of York.)

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend at the British Museum is on from 6 March to 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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