British Museum blog

The Lycurgus Cup: transformation in glass

detail of Lycurgus cupBelinda Crerar, curator, British Museum

The Romans are famous for doing things ‘big’ – enormous private villas, the largest armies the world had ever seen, huge temples to house countless gods and of course, larger than life personalities. The power, wealth and splendour of Rome are clear to see when you approach the Late Roman and Byzantine displays in the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100. Facing you are cabinets full of gold and silver – hoards of tableware from Cyprus and Rome, bracelets and earrings encrusted with precious gems, gold crosses declaring a love of Christ in the most ostentatious way. It’s safe to say that the Roman aristocracy liked to show off their wealth, but, for the quantity of gold and silver used to craft the treasures in the gallery, the one that contains the least shines the most.

The Lycurgus cup being installed by project curator Rosie Weetch in Room 41

The Lycurgus cup being installed by project curator Rosie Weetch in Room 41

At the centre of the display is the Lycurgus Cup. A Late Roman diatretum, or cage cup, it was carved around the 4th century AD. Its exact provenance is unknown, but it was possibly created in Alexandria on account of the fine glasswork emerging from Egypt at this time. Decorated on all sides with figures painstakingly carved in high relief, the cup shows the myth of the Thracian king Lycurgus, who enraged the god Dionysus by expelling him from his kingdom and attacking his followers. Needless to say, things didn’t end well for Lycurgus, though precisely how depends on who told the story. The version depicted on the cup was told by Nonnus of Panopolis in his 48-book-long epic, the Dionysiaca. Nonnus recounts how Lycurgus attacked a female follower of Dionysus called Ambrosia. To save her, Mother Earth transformed her into a vine which ensnared Lycurgus as it grew. On the cup, Ambrosia lies on the ground in the moment of transformation while the hapless king fights for his life against the emerging tendrils. Dionysus watches, remorseless, while the fawn-legged god Pan and one of Dionysus’ followers taunt their victim and pummel him with rocks.

The carving is of exceptional skill and the preservation of the vessel is unparalleled, but the most impressive element of the cup’s design comes from an feature that cannot be seen with the naked eye. In reflected light the cup appears opaque olive green, but when transmitted light is shone through the glass, it changes to a rich and vibrant red. The effect is caused by nanoparticles of gold and silver within the glass, so tiny and in such small quantities that only in the last few decades has microscopic analysis with sufficiently high resolution been developed to detect them. As light passes through the glass the gold and silver particles scatter the waves, allowing those at the red end of the spectrum to pass though more easily, causing the dramatic colour change. The cup’s modern name is likely to be a misnomer: the original use for the vessel was possibly as a hanging lamp, only being transformed into a cup when the gilt-silver foot and rim band were added in the 19th century. As a lamp, flickering over the dinner table, the optical properties of the glass would be shown to their full effect for all to admire, although admittedly, no one has yet been brave enough to fill the fragile, 2000 year old vessel with wine and observe the effects of light through it when full.

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

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The change of colour from green to red mimics the ripening of grapes, suitable for the Dionysian theme, but whether or not the dichroic effect was deliberate or the fortunate result of contamination in the molten glass is still unclear. Nonetheless, the optical trick of this rare form of glass delighted the Roman aristocracy so much that it attracted the attention of emperors: the author of the 4th-century Historia Augusta reports that the Emperor Hadrian sent ‘a cup that changes colour’ to his brother-in-law as a gift for his banquets. It would, after all, make a fantastic conversation piece, and if its later life is anything to go by – likely preserved above ground throughout the centuries, on account of its almost perfect state of preservation, acquired by the Rothschild family in the 1800s then bought by the British Museum in 1958 – the Lycurgus Cup has lost none of its appeal.

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 recently opened after a major re-display in Room 41. Admission is free.

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Vikings Live: bringing our shared history to the cinema screen

Bettany HughesBettany Hughes, historian, author and broadcaster, presenter of Vikings Live from the British Museum

When you’re about to handle an archaeological artefact, interesting things happen to your body. In anticipation of the pleasure to come, your heart starts to race a little faster, the hair on the back of your neck might begin to rise, palms can become sticky. And of course there is the nagging knowledge that the security of that unique, precious – sometimes priceless – traveller in time is, physically, in your hands.

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

This gives the fact that we will be examining world-class Viking treasures live in front of a nationwide audience later tonight a certain piquancy. The combination of outside broadcast satellite trucks, electricians, cameramen, cables and lighting stands with 1,000-plus-year-old artefacts, is not an obvious one.

But there is form – we have done all this once before. Last year, Paul Roberts, Peter Snow, Mary Beard, Rachel de Thame, Gino Locatelli, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and I risked the world’s first ever live broadcast from a museum exhibition, with Pompeii Live. The British Museum’s notion was that we would develop the blockbuster into a private view for those who couldn’t make it to London; or who wanted a further, in-depth look at the objects. The great thing about these ‘Lives’ is that the camera can get up close and intimately personal to the displays; plus the audience gets the VIP treatment – with world experts gathered together on the night to unravel the significance of the most intriguing pieces. There was a tsunami of support from the public for our first effort. We’ve taken on board feedback (more shots of the objects themselves and less of the presenters’ mugs!).The number of cinemas hosting Vikings Live is up by a third on Pompeii, so hopefully, fingers crossed, we’re doing something right.

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

As an historian this is all truly great news: Memory matters to our species. From before the time of Homer we have chosen to join together in shared space to tell one another stories, to make sense of our world, our past and our shared futures. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the Viking story. My own fascination has always been that here in the UK we tend to think of the Vikings as OUR problem. But of course these men and women (‘Viking’ doesn’t mean a particular ethnic group but refers to an activity, vikingr, or raiding) were raiding and trading across four continents. From Kiev to Constantinople, from Gibraltar to Greenland, the Vikings meant something; they are all our ancestors. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is a necklace found in a woman’s grave in Finland. Semi-precious stones from the Baltic are joined by Islamic coins – dirhams. Face to face with that bit of jewellery you can just imagine the pride of the original owner; knowing that her loved ones’ adventures across the seas in Asia or Al-Andalus connected her to a rich, cosmopolitan world.

Odin, or v&oumlaut;va figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

Odin, or volva figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

I hear that one of Neil MacGregor’s favourite objects in the exhibition is the small silver figurine of Odin, but particularly the representations of Odin’s pet ravens – Huginn and Muninn – representing Thought and Memory. The British Museum – and indeed museums across the globe – are the custodians, caretakers and communicators of our collective memories. Although slightly terrified, I can’t wait to share these with you (and the screen with my long-time hero Michael Wood (who wrote yesterday on this blog). Oh, and incidentally, honey and dried fish were top Viking dishes; maybe have those as refreshment tonight rather than popcorn: Get in that Viking mood!

Bettany Hughes is one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

Follow @Bettany_Hughes and @britishmuseum on Twitter

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 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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Vikings Live on the horizon

Michael WoodMichael Wood, historian and broadcaster, presenter of Vikings Live from the British Museum

Hotfoot back from Shanghai where I am filming The Story of China, and now very excited about tomorrow night at the British Museum! We had a production meeting yesterday going through the script and suddenly the spine-tingling ‘liveness’ of it all felt very immediate. Vikings Live is now really coming together, with a series of very exciting scenes and a team of terrific contributors. Gareth, the exhibition curator, will even be sweltering in full Viking war-gear to explain the ethos of a warrior society. A string of inspiring experts will be your guides through the glitter and violence of the age, led by everybody’s favourite museum director / magician, Neil MacGregor, who has now turned his hand to A History of the Viking World in a Thousand Objects!

Vikings Live presenters, from left: Michael Wood, Bettany Hughes and Gareth Williams

Vikings Live presenters, from left: Michael Wood, Bettany Hughes and Gareth Williams

The British Museum has gathered some really amazing things together for this thrilling exhibition about the turbulent and spacious Viking epoch that extended roughly from the 750s to around 1100. Tomorrow night the cinema audience will be getting privileged close-up access to some wonderful artefacts: designer sword blades, fabulous gold torcs (neck-rings), looted treasure and a jaw-dropping display of headless skeletons of Vikings executed near Weymouth during the disastrous reign of Ethelred the Unready (979–1016) when the Danes conquered England.

An intimate detail? The piece that caught my eye (and I’ll be talking to Gareth about it tomorrow night) is a severed skull with filed teeth that were once coloured. An Arab account of Vikings on the Caspian Sea describes them tattooed and even wearing make-up – the men as well as the women. With their bling and braided hair they were definitely making a statement: Pirates of the Caribbean goes Viking?

At the heart of the exhibition is the wreck of the longest Viking ship ever found – sunk in Roskilde in around 1025, it was discovered in 1996. Only the lower part of the original boat survives, but the elegant curving steel frame over 120-feet long is a staggering sight, which will be explored with dramatic crane shots tomorrow night. Clinker-built, slim and very flexible, such ships travelled west to Greenland, south to Morocco and east to the Caspian Sea: there are even Viking graffiti on the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Going further west, there was even a permanent Viking settlement in Newfoundland, and for all we know, some inquisitive summer voyager coasted down the shores of New England. Our own pirate explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher would certainly have seen them as kindred spirits.

And what about the Vikings themselves? As you’ll see tomorrow night they had a very dark sense of humour – but they also had a very down-to-earth view of life which reminds me a lot of the kind of humour you can still hear in the Yorkshire Dales or the Cumbrian Fells: and not all of it in jest… Take these sample Viking ‘thoughts for the day’ from the famous wisdom text, the Havamal:

Don’t trust a blade until you have tested it in battle.
Don’t trust ice until you have walked across it
Don’t trust your wife until you’ve buried her….

No new men there then!

So there you are: courageous practical, realistic, cruel, curious – the Viking spirit took them across the western world between 750s and the late 11th century. That amazing age is our subject tomorrow night – experts and enthusiasts all. Speaking personally, I must say I am looking forward very much to presenting Vikings Live with Bettany Hughes, who I have known for years, but it’s the first time we have done an event together. What a time!


Michael Wood is one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 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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Building a Viking boat today

dragon stem head
Mike Selwood, Assistant Boat Manager, National Maritime Museum Cornwall
In September 2013, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall was approached by the British Museum and asked if we would produce something Viking to be filmed for their Vikings Live cinema broadcast, after seeing the Bronze Age boat replica that we had built and launched in March 2013.

Of course, we said yes. After plenty of chats with Gareth Williams, the curator of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend and Patricia Wheatley, Executive Producer of Vikings Live, our boat restoration team started to build the stem section of a Viking-style boat, to be constructed using traditional methods.

I was to manage the project, with my team of boat crew volunteers and boat-builder Brian Cumby, who had built the Bronze Age boat. The stem section was approximately sixteen feet long, eight feet beam (width) and about 12 feet at its highest, to be surmounted with a Viking dragon’s head. The section is equivalent to about 25% of a boat that we are planning to build next year as a feature of our Viking Voyagers exhibition in 2015.

Having assembled the team, I had to source the materials. There was no time to make nails, so they came off the shelf as galvanised Scandinavian boat nails with square roves made by our local blacksmith. The keel and stem post were to be oak, and we decided to plank in Cornish larch, not always durable for boats, but good for this project. Our friends at Tregothnan Estate, not far from us in Falmouth (also known for its excellent tea plantation) provided all of our needs, including a lot of crooks or timber turns, used for making frames to brace the planking.

Gareth, Will and Martin cutting the keel rabbet (or rebate)

Gareth, Will and Martin cutting the keel rabbet (or rebate)

Gloucester Mike cutting a plank (left). Gareth and Mike riveting a plank , and Brian doing what he does so well (supervising!)

Gloucester Mike cutting a plank (left). Gareth and Mike riveting a plank , and Brian doing what he does so well (supervising!)

Brian set up the keel and the rabbet (the groove or rebate that takes the first planks) was cut. A joint was then cut for joining the stem post to the keel to create the backbone of the boat ready for planking. Brian and his team of volunteers then built up the layers of planking by riveting overlapped planks one on to the other. This method is called clinker in Europe and Scandinavia, and lapstrake in the America and Canada. We planned on seven planks to each side, each about one inch thick and twelve inches wide. The larch planks had to be steamed in a long steam box to make the wood malleable enough to fit to the keel and stem rabbet.

Brian and Mike fitting a plank with a traditional wooden clamp, tightened by driving in a wedge.

Brian and Mike fitting a plank with a traditional wooden clamp, tightened by driving in a wedge.

To get the shape of a Viking boat we built moulds or section shapes that acted as guides. It is thought that the Vikings would have set up an overhead strong back supported by an A-frame, in order to brace the struts or shores to brace the planking. They are also likely to have heated stones to make the planks malleable as an alternative to steaming.

Gloucester Mike preparing a plank (left) and Brian setting a plank clamp (right).

Gloucester Mike preparing a plank (left) and Brian setting a plank clamp (right).

The crooks and turns were shaped and fashioned into frames, floors and knees (boatbuilding terms to describe brackets and braces that were fitted to the planking to add cross-sectional strength). Finally the thwarts or cross-section benches were fitted. All were fastened with nails or trenails (pegs of oak or tree nails that would swell and tighten when wet, sometimes with a small wedge driven down the grain to further expand and tighten).

Viking ship construction developed boats that were light, strong, but flexible so that they worked well with the stresses of the sea. They were also shallow draught, which meant that they could still move through shallower river and estuary waters. Climbing in and out was also easier, as speed and surprise were a feature of many Viking visits!

Detail of dragon's head

Pin with dragon’s head (detail), AD 950–1000. Hedeby, modern Germany. Copper alloy. Archäologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig. © Wikinger Museum Haithabu

Dragons head prow, carved by artist Rob Johnsey, NMMC volunteer.

Dragons head prow, carved by artist Rob Johnsey, NMMC volunteer.

While all of this frantic construction was going on, our woodcarver Rob (a National Maritime Museum Cornwall volunteer) began to work on the stem head. His brief was to make something that would frighten the natives. With help from Patricia from the British Museum, he researched some designs, and decided to use a Viking pin that was being displayed in the exhibition as his inspiration. The head was to be detachable, following the Vikings practice – apparently the raiding boat would remove the stem head on return to its home port so as not to bring bad spirits back with them or scare those on dry land.

The project has enabled our team to get in a ‘Viking’ mind-set , as we will not only be building a replica of a 57-foot Roskilde boat, but likely some very Viking stage sets for the National Maritime Museum Cornwall Viking Voyagers exhibition, supported by the British Museum.


Vikings Live is at cinemas around the UK on 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 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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Viking women, warriors, and valkyries


Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham

Odin:
What a dream! I dreamt I woke at dawn
to tidy Valhalla for the fallen ones;
I … made the Valkyries bring wine, as a prince was coming.
I’m expecting some renowned heroes
from the human world; my heart is glad!

Anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend promises to reveal ‘a world of warriors, seafarers and conquerors’ and its iconic image is a sword. As that suggests, much of this world is a male world, and this chimes with popular perceptions of the Vikings as large, aggressive and bearded men. A more nuanced view of the Viking Age would recognise that even large, aggressive and bearded men had mothers, and very likely sisters, wives and daughters, and if you look closely at the exhibition you will find some personal items associated with such women. Nor did these women all stay at home while their menfolk went out into the wide world of raiding and trading. There is evidence for female traders in Russia, for instance, for far-travelling women, for queens and mistresses of large estates, as well as for women as victims and slaves. Also, women were an absolute prerequisite for the lasting establishment of a successful new nation in the uninhabited island of Iceland. Women can boast of many achievements in the Viking Age yet, in a quarter of a century of studying them, I find that the one thing I get asked about most often is the one thing I do not think they ‘achieved’, which was to become warriors.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A very small silver figurine, found in Hårby, in Denmark, in late 2012, may seem to contradict this. It undoubtedly represents a woman: she has the knotted pony-tail and long garment characteristic of many other representations of female figures in Viking art. What is unusual is that she is carrying an upright sword in her right hand and a shield in her left. The function of this figurine is unknown, and what it represents is also mysterious. If it is intended as an image of a woman warrior, then it is not a realistic one. Her garment is elaborate and beautifully decorated, and would be a real hindrance in combat, as would her uncovered head and its pony-tail. Male warriors did not always have helmets, as these were expensive, but would have had some kind of protective headgear like a leather cap. So we are left to conclude that the figure must be symbolic, rather than realistic, and most experts are inclined to label her as a valkyrie.

Valkyries are interesting and significant figures in the warrior cultures of the Viking Age. We know about them mainly from Old Norse literature, the poetry and prose written down in Iceland in the thirteenth century and later. The medieval Icelanders understood the function of valkyries literally from their name (valkyrja means ‘chooser of the slain’), and presented an image of them as handmaidens of the war-god Odin. He would send them to battle to choose those warriors who were worthy of dying and going to Valhalla, the hall of the slain, where they prepared themselves for the final battle of Ragnarok. There, the valkyries acted as hostesses, welcoming the dead warriors and serving them drink, as in the anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe cited above. This literary understanding is confirmed by many Viking Age images of female figures, with long hair and gown, rather like the Hårby figurine, but holding out a drinking horn. When carrying out their duties on the battlefield, however, valkyries needed to be armed and the literary texts suggest that they were usually equipped with helmets, mail-coats and spears. Any association between valkyries and swords, on the other hand, is very rare as a sword, closely associated with masculinity, would be incongruous on a female figure. The sword was the weapon of choice, the prized possession and the status symbol of the better sort of Viking warrior. Many men, not all of them necessarily professional warriors, were buried with their swords, although they would also have an array of other weapons, like the man in the Kaupang burial, or the helmeted warrior depicted on the Middleton cross from North Yorkshire.

The undoubted successes of the Vikings in warfare and conquest were rooted in a well-developed Odinic ideology that sustained and strengthened them through their campaigns. The myth of Valhalla, the idea of death as a reward for the successful warrior, mediated by a female figure, is a powerful part of this ideology. It provided the warrior going into battle with an incentive and the dying warrior with a kind of consolation. Some of the literary texts develop this idea in a romantic way by telling of love affairs between warriors and valkyries though these, too, generally end in death. This martial ideology of which valkyries are a part also seeped into daily life. A typical valkyrie name, like Hild, means ‘battle’, and many ordinary women in the Viking Age also bore names (Iike the very common Gunnhild, or ‘War-battle’) that contained such elements. Yet that did not make them women warriors. Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.


Professor Judith Jesch is the author of Viking Poetry of Love and War and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 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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The Viking way of death

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil PriceNeil Price, Professor of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen

Among the most fascinating things in the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend are the numerous objects from burials and graves. The way that a people treat their dead can say a lot about their attitudes to life, and the Vikings were no exception. Although their graves take certain standardised forms – an earthen mound, a wooden chamber, a buried boat, and so on – in the detail of the rituals it’s clear that almost every funeral was different, a personalised send-off. We know that this was an age of individuals, but what can we understand from this infinity of responses to death? Let’s look more closely at just one example, which in all its unique complexity can stand for all the others.

The scene is a small, beachfront trading community, located in the outer reaches of the Oslofjord in Norway. We know this place as Kaupang, it just means ‘market’, but to its inhabitants it was known as Skíringssalr – something like ‘the shining hall’, perhaps named after its lord’s residence on the hill behind. Nearly twenty years of excavations there have revealed rows of small houses and workshops strung out along the water’s edge, with access to wharves where the ships came in from around the whole region. But this is for the living; outside the settlement, on promontories and on the low heights along the edges of the fjord, are the graves of the dead.

One of them seems at first to be a relatively simple affair. In the middle of the 9th century a man of indeterminate age was buried on his left side, probably dressed in a cloak because a brooch was found at his shoulder. His chest was pressed up against a large stone, and his body had been covered from the waist down with a cloth of very fine quality, drawn up like a blanket over his legs. With him were a handful of objects: two knives, a fire steel and two flints, a whetstone, some fragments of a soapstone bowl and what the excavators called an ‘egg-shaped stone’. Little in this is particularly exciting, though even this meagre grave has its own character and individualism, everything in it being there for a reason. However, it is what happened next that is remarkable.

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early tenth century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

Several decades later in the early 900s, an 8.5m-long boat was placed exactly on top of the dead man, its keel aligned precisely along the axis of his grave (which tells us that its location was remembered). Inside the boat were the bodies of four people: a man, two women and an infant, together with a number of animals. Around and above the bodies, laid out together with them or deposited above them as the boat was filled with earth, were masses of objects. Let us look a little closer.

In the prow a man and a woman lay apparently on blankets covering the decking. The woman was aged about 45-50 when she died, arranged on her back with her right hand on her breast, ankles crossed and her feet pointing into the prow. Her head was resting on a stone, like a pillow. She was expensively dressed, her clothes held together with silver jewellery. From her belt hung a knife and a key. To her immediate right was a bucket. Balanced across her knees, a weaving sword.

A baby was wrapped in the woman’s dress, bundled at her hip with her left hand resting on its head.

Lying head to head with the woman, arranged symmetrically with his feet pointing to the stern, was a man of unknown age. He had been placed slightly twisted, on his back but with legs flexed and bent to one side at the waist. Laid out around him were weapons: two axes, of which one was an antique; a throwing spear; a sheathed sword, its point precisely at his head, with two knives and a whetstone next to it; a shield (two more lay nearby); a quiver of arrows and therefore probably also a bow. A silver arm-ring lay above him. On his midriff lay an inverted frying pan. On the sword scabbard two spindle whorls had been carefully placed. A pot of German manufacture had been smashed and its pieces scattered over the man’s body along with three glass beads, near a soapstone vessel. Two more of the latter were deposited at the man’s feet. An iron dog chain was draped next to him, with a sickle somewhere nearby.

Amidships, a bridled horse had been killed and laid on the deck. Its throat was probably cut, and it seems to have been decapitated and roughly dismembered, its limbs and body parts then placed back in approximately their anatomical positions. A single spur was placed on the mangled corpse.

In the stern of the boat was a second woman, apparently buried sitting up, either in a chair or hunched up against the rising end of the vessel. From her location and posture it is possible that the steering oar of the boat was resting in her hands. A whetstone and a bridle-bit leant against her feet, which touched the carcass of the horse. She was well-dressed in high fashion. Behind her was a shield. To her right, resting on the deck, another of those enigmatic ‘egg-shaped stones’ and a weaving sword of iron. To her left, an unusual iron staff pinned down under a large rock. Somewhere near her was an axe. In the woman’s lap was an imported bowl of bronze that had been scratched with runes, i muntlauku, ‘in the hand basin’. The bowl contained some unidentified little metal objects, and the severed head of a dog. Its body lay across the woman’s feet. One pair of its legs, perhaps detached, lay a little below the torso; the other legs were missing. Marks on the bones suggest crude carving of the flesh before the ragged skeleton was reassembled. Around the woman were also found fragments of wood and bark, pieces of sheet iron and objects of copper alloy; we do not know what they were.

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

The iron staff might offer a small clue to the nature of the dead steerswoman, as it is of a kind identified as a tool of the sorceresses called a völur, and other female magic-workers, who feature extensively in the Icelandic sagas. Several staffs of this kind can be seen in the exhibition.

The whole burial was then covered with earth and complex stone constructions, building up to a low mound. The excavators also found patches of cremated bone and wood mixed here and there in the deposit, hinting at further rituals about which we know nothing.

In all of this, note the detail, the precision, the deliberate choice and positioning of objects. The treatment of these Viking-Age dead is eloquent in its sheer specificity.

So what were they doing, on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the early tenth century? A burial of four people in a boat, itself placed on top of another grave, a few decades old. Were the man and woman a couple, with their child? Or were they unrelated? Who was the woman sitting in the stern, apparently some kind of witch? Did they all die together, either violently or through illness? Was one or more of them killed to accompany the others in death? Whose were the boat and the animals, or did they belong to none of the dead? What do the objects mean, and would a contemporary understanding of them even approximate to our own? What connection did all of this have with the man under the keel? One thing is certain: it does not resemble any kind of funeral familiar to us.

They died a long time ago and we do not know their names, but these people of the Viking Age faced the same eternal questions of life and its meaning as still puzzle us today. The boat burial at Kaupang was one of their answers.


Neil Price is a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 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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Holy hand-bells: the endless histories of Irish relics

hand-bell
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

Several weeks ago I broke a green glass tumbler when emptying the dishwasher. The vessel wasn’t rare or expensive; in fact, it was a free gift that I’d received when buying a meal at a fast food restaurant. But that restaurant happened to be on a stretch of the autobahn in Bavaria, Germany, to where I’d driven from London to attend a friend’s wedding. To me, the glass embodied cherished memories of a very special holiday; putting it into the recycling bin with ordinary rubbish made me pretty sad!

This idea, that the objects we own, use and wear become infused with meaning through our interactions with them, is one of the things I find most fascinating about archaeology. Some of my favourite objects in the British Museum’s collections are those which show clear evidence of human use: patches of wear, repairs, or modifications to their original form. I see these as the fingerprints of real people in the past: their choices, their very hands brought about these changes. This brings those people back to life in my imagination.

A group of objects under my curatorial care illustrate this particularly well: hand-bells from early medieval Ireland. Made around the AD 500s–900s, hand-bells were used to call monks to prayer in Irish (and north and west British) monasteries. Clues indicate that their significance exceeded this simple function. The earliest bells were made from wrought iron sheets that were folded and riveted into shape, then brazed with copper alloy (as recent discoveries in Clonfad, County Westmeath confirm).

Experiments have shown that this process was incredibly labour-intensive, requiring plenty of time, raw materials and technological skill: in other words, the type of effort afforded to very special artefacts. Contemporary carvings show figures with croziers – the symbolic hooked staffs of holy office – also carrying hand-bells, suggesting that the latter too were symbols of high standing in the Irish church.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Bell (1889,0902.22)

Hand-bell of Saint Conall Cael with later brass mount (1889,0902.22)

The special nature of some hand-bells became, quite literally, enshrined. Tradition has linked a number of bells, including several in the British Museum’s collections, with early Irish saints. Some became relics and were embellished with ornate mounts or glittering shrines centuries after the bells themselves were made. Two such bells are now displayed in Room 41, the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100, which reopened last month after a major refurbishment. One, associated with Saint Cuileáin of Glankeen, County Tipperary (subject of a recent post), was fitted with a lavish ‘crest’ writhing with interlaced designs and human faces. The other, said to have belonged to Saint Conall Cael of Inishkeel, County Donegal, was later fitted with a brass plate engraved with Irish and Viking ornament.

Shrine made for Saint Conall Cael's bell in the AD 1400s (1889,0902.23)

Bell-shrine (1889,0902.23)

In the 1400s a gem-encrusted shrine (displayed in Room 40) was made to house it. These were not just objects of veneration: they were also thought capable of miraculous actions, such as healing the sick or bringing success in battle. As late as the 1600s Saint Cuileáin’s bell was being used as a lie-detector in the local community, its life-history already a millennium long and counting.

Each object displayed in Room 41 is infused with history, of course; but the hand-bells of Saints Cuileáin and Conall Cael wear it on their sleeves more than most. Objects like these set my imagination off and running, and perhaps I’m not the only one. Since I joined the Museum, I’ve found that hand-bells are second only to the Sutton Hoo ship burial in terms of the number of public enquiries that I receive. The colourful histories, sacred associations and local connections acquired over their long lives must be partly responsible for their popularity. Now newly installed in Room 41, the bells have just begun the next chapter of their extraordinary biographies.

The newly re-opened Room 41

The newly re-opened Room 41


The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 is now open in Room 41. Admission is free.
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The die that struck Britain’s first coins?

Ian Leins and Emma Morris, curators, Department of Coins and Medals, British Museum

Iron age coin die

Iron Age coin die. 2014,4014.1

Iron Age coin die, showing two sides and the face. 2014,4014.1

Iron Age coin die, showing two sides and the face. 2014,4014.1

One of the most recent acquisitions made by the Department of Coins and Medals is a highly unusual object – an ancient punch or ‘die’ used to manufacture coins in the second century BC. The die was found in Bredgar, Kent by a metal detector user in 2013 and is being used to shed new light on when the first coins were made in Britain.

The earliest coins found in Iron Age Britain date from around the second century BC and, until recently, it was believed that they were produced in Gaul (a region roughly equivalent to modern day France and Belgium) and imported into south-east England. These coins, known as Gallo Belgic A, were based on the gold coinage (staters) issued by King Philip II, ruler of the Greek kingdom of Macedon from 359 – 336 BC and father of Alexander the Great.

Gold stater of Philip II, showing obverse (front) and reverse. 1911,0208.2

Gold stater of Philip II, showing obverse (front) and reverse. 1911,0208.2

Gallo Belgic A stater_544

Philip’s coin shows a representation of the god Apollo on one side and a chariot drawn by two horses on the other. Iron Age coins derived from these staters carry abstract versions of these images. The hair and laurel wreath on the image of Apollo, for example, are much exaggerated. Similarly, the image of the horse on the reverse of the coin has been stylised and is reminiscent of the Prehistoric chalk horses found on the hillsides of Britain, such as the one at Uffington.

Aerial view from a paramotor of the White Horse at Uffington. Photo by Dave Price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence

Aerial view from a paramotor of the White Horse at Uffington. Photo by Dave Price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence

Close examination of the coin die revealed that it was used in the production of the early Gallo-Belgic A coins. What this means is that, although it is the third Iron Age coin die to be found in the UK (the others are also in the British Museum), it is almost certainly the earliest. The most significant aspect of this discovery is the fact that it is a British find. This raises the intriguing possibility that the earliest known coins from Britain were actually made here and not just imports from the Continent.

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

Around 250 Gallo-Belgic A coins are known from Britain and France, but unfortunately the new die cannot be linked to any of them. This fact has been used to suggest that it may have been a forger’s die. In reality, however, we can read very little into the fact that we do not have an example of a coin struck using this die. Little is known about the mechanics of coin production in the Iron Age and, in particular, about the authorities that produced them. The distinction between an ‘official’ and a ‘forger’s’ die may not be have been relevant in Iron Age society. A programme of scientific analysis will tell us more about how the die was made and used, but its precise origins are likely to remain a mystery.
The die is on display in the Citi Money Gallery.


The Money Gallery is supported by Citi
To find out more about what to do if you find an ancient coin or other artefact with a metal detector or otherwise, visit the Portable Antiquities website, where we answer frequently asked questions about treasure and other finds.

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Vikings: hearts of darkness?

iron slave shackle, © National Museum of IrelandTom Williams, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

The tidal current runs to and fro […] crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Here, surely, we have a passionate and evocative description of the Vikings: bold adventurers stepping forward onto the world stage, ready to set a blaze on four continents and pave the way for the nations that would rise in their wake.

In fact, this passage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describes the explorers, buccaneers, settlers and merchants – ‘the dark ‘interlopers’ of the eastern trade, and the commissioned ‘generals’ of the East India fleets” – who had set out from the Thames from the 16th to the 19th century, laying the foundations of the British Empire and changing the world forever.

But striking similarities between the Vikings and the British of the early modern and modern age underlie this coincidence of images: societies alienated in politics and religion from their closest neighbours and rivals, possession of a technological edge at sea, bravery, curiosity, a lust for gold and a willingness to use violence and brutality to whatever end. It was a comparison that the Victorians were not slow to identify, though they saw the comparison in a generally positive light.

…much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!

R M Ballantyne, Erling the Bold: A Tale of Norse Sea-Kings (1869)

But just as the legacy of Empire is constantly being re-evaluated, so too is the impact of the Vikings on the people with whom they came into contact, and the darker side of both has frequently been at the foreground of contemporary thought. The Vikings were happy to acquire goods by plunder and extortion when it was expedient, and to open up new markets for trade by the sword. Evidence from Viking military camps in Britain suggests that trade and manufacturing could go hand in hand with raiding and conquest: perhaps an early equivalent of ‘gun-boat diplomacy’. And just as the early wealth of the British Empire was founded on the horrors of the slave trade, so too were slaves a major trading commodity for Vikings. Written sources give a sense of some of the misery experienced by people subjected to early medieval human trafficking:

Stumbling the survivors
Scattered from the carnage,
Sorrowing they fled to safety,
Leaving the women captured.
Maidens were dragged in shackles
To your triumphant longships;
Women wept as bright chains
Cruelly bit their soft flesh.

Valgard of Voll, c. AD 1000–1100, quoted in ‘King Harald’s Saga’, Heimskringla (c.1230) by Snorri Sturlusson, 1179–1241; translation by M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson in King Harald’s Saga (Penguin Books, London, 1966, 2nd ed. 2005).

Slave collar. © National Museum of Ireland

Slave collar, St. John’s Lane, Dublin, E173:X119. © National Museum of Ireland

Viking slave shackles excavated in Dublin and Germany bear a startling similarity to those used in the transportation of Africans to the Americas and West Indies in the 18th and early 19th centuries by British slave-traders, such as these in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.

But at the same time, the rapacity and technological edge that made the Vikings so feared were also to effect lasting change on a continental scale. Settlements in Ireland, Russia and Ukraine played a pivotal role in the development of urban civilisation in those regions, and the influx of trade goods and silver from the east contributed in no small way to the economic development of European markets. New settlements and cultures grew out of Viking exploration, sometimes where none had existed before. The birth of an Icelandic nation was to give Europe its oldest living parliamentary system and lead to an extraordinary flowering of medieval literature in the shape of the Icelandic sagas.

The legacy of the British Empire remains highly controversial. But it is even more problematic trying to judge the Vikings by the standards of 21st-century morality. As with all stereotypes applied to large groups of people, labelling the Vikings as heroes or villains, raiders or traders, distorts history and oversimplifies complex phenomena. The Vikings were many things in equal measure, and their diversity of expression, activity and ethnicity is a defining aspect of what Vikings: life and legend seeks to explore.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 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
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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The Beau Street Hoard: Not quite the end… conservation, outreach and further investigations

replica of coin block before conservation
Hazel Gardiner, Metals Conservator, British Museum

The soil block after excavation of the hoard and prior to dismantling and return to the archaeologists who carried out the excavation.

The soil block after excavation of the hoard and prior to dismantling and return to the archaeologists who carried out the excavation.

For those who have been following the progress of the conservation of the Beau Street Hoard on the blog, I am delighted to announce that all the coins – around 17,500 of them – have now been cleaned to required identification standards, that is, to the point where the legend and significant features are readable. Conservator Julia Tubman carried out the bulk of this work on the c.17,500 coins contained within the hoard. Additional work has been carried out on a small number of these coins and conservation has also been carried out on c.400 coins that were initial finds from the outer edges of the hoard, before the hoard proper was unearthed. This last group of coins were in particularly poor condition and most required substantial chemical and manual cleaning. These coins were held in numbered paper envelopes, some of which corresponded to small find numbers allocated when the hoard was excavated.

Envelopes containing initial coin finds associated with the Beau Street Hoard

Envelopes containing initial coin finds associated with the Beau Street Hoard

The soil block that held the hoard has now been dismantled and returned to the archaeologists who carried out the initial excavation for final sifting and checking for palaeoenvironmental remains: that is, material that might provide further contextual information about the coin hoard.

A washed but otherwise untreated coin from surface scatter coins showing the thick cuprite (copper oxide) layer obscuring the surface.

A washed but otherwise untreated coin from surface scatter coins showing the thick cuprite (copper oxide) layer obscuring the surface.

At the time of Julia’s last post, she reported that one of the coin clusters (bag 4), had been scanned. As with the other coins in the hoard, the clustered corroded coins retained the positions that they would have held in the bag in which they had been deposited. In this instance the bag shape was particularly well preserved. The initial scan was carried out at the British Museum by Martin Cooper of the Conservation Technologies Unit, National Museums Liverpool (NML). The scan data was used to create a 3D computer model, which was then 3D printed to make a replica of the coin bag using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a process that uses a laser to fuse particles of plastic or other material into the required three-dimensional form. A plaster cast was then made from the print and this was painted to resemble the original coin cluster, by conservators at NML.

replica of excavated coin block

The replica of bag 4

The replica has proved very popular among visitors to the Roman Baths and was shown at a Beau Street Hoard community consultation event run by staff at the Roman Baths earlier in 2013. Members of Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association (BEMSCA) were among those who handled the replica. As a three-dimensional record of the original form of the coin bag, which of course no longer exists now that the coins have been conserved, the replica is an excellent supplement to the information gathered about the hoard, an invaluable means of allowing people to gain some sense of the physicality of (at least part) of the hoard.

Further exciting news is the forthcoming analysis of what appear to be animal skin remains from the bags used to store the coins. In one of Julia’s earlier posts she noted that traces of what appeared to be skin product, preserved by metal corrosion products, were found on the outside of each cluster of coins, suggesting that leather bags may have been used to house the coins. Professor Matthew Collins and colleagues at BioArCh (University of York), are hoping to extract collagen from the samples provided and to identify the species of animal skin used. Identification of the animal species will be made by peptide mass fingerprinting, an analytical technique for protein identification. We look forward to hearing the results of their investigations.

Possible skin product preserved by corrosion products from the coin beneath.

Possible skin product preserved by corrosion products from the coin beneath.

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

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Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series looking at all the Museum's galleries: Room 5.
This space is a gallery for temporary exhibitions. The current display is Ancient lives, new discoveries, looking at #8mummies from ancient Egypt and Sudan. Previous exhibitions in this gallery have included Power and Taboo, A New World and Michelangelo drawings. #museum #art #ancientegypt #history Horatio Nelson died #onthisday in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. This commemorative medal was intended for presentation to the men who fought under Nelson at Trafalgar, with 19,000 struck in copper, of which 14001 were distributed.
#history #medal #trafalgar #nelson Dutch artist Aelbert Cuyp was born #onthisday in 1620. He seemed to be very fond of cows! The Sydney Opera House opened #onthisday in 1973.

Designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House provoked fierce public controversy in the 1960s as much over the escalating cost of its construction as the innovative brilliance of its domed sail-like halls. Now recognised the world over as a magnificent architectural icon jutting into Sydney Harbour, the Sydney Opera House finally opened in 1973. 
In this Christmas card for 1972 Eric Thake (1904–1982) cheekily anticipates the long awaited opening with his domestic version of the grand architectural statement. Crockery stacked in a drying rack forms the shape of the Sydney Opera House, with water from the kitchen sink adjacent. The small housefly resting on one of the stacked plates adds an unmistakably Australian touch.

Text from Stephen Coppel’s 'Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas'
#art #architecture #sydneyoperahouse #sydney #print Born #onthisday in 1632: architect Sir Christopher Wren. Here’s a freehand drawing showing the relationship of the domes of the new St Paul’s Cathedral
#history #architecture #stpauls #London #art Room 4, Egyptian sculpture, is the next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. The objects in this gallery range in date from 2600 BC to the 2nd century AD. Large-scale sculpture was an important feature of the great temples and tombs of ancient Egypt and was believed to be imbued with powerful spiritual qualities. Sculptures on display in Room 4 include stylised depictions of kings, deities and symbolic objects ranging from the time of the Old Kingdom to the middle of the Roman Period. There are also architectural pieces from temples and tombs.
An imposing stone bust of the great pharaoh Ramesses II presides over the room, while the world-famous Rosetta Stone (in the foreground of this pic), with its inscribed scripts, demonstrates how Egypt’s ancient form of pictographic writing was deciphered for the first time.
#museum #art #sculpture #history #ancientegypt #egypt #hieroglyphs
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