British Museum blog

A medieval alchemical book reveals new secrets

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library 

Marcel Marée, Assistant Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum

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A page from the 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes (British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 50v)

Among the many intriguing objects on display in the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition is an 18th-century copy of the Book of the Seven Climes (Kitāb al-aqālīm al-ṣabah), on loan from the British Library. The book’s 13th-century author, Abū al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī, believed it held ancient secrets coded in hieroglyphic texts. He was right, but not exactly as he imagined!

Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-‘Irāqī, known as al-Sīmāwī (‘the practitioner of natural or white magic’), was an author of books on alchemy and magic. He lived in Egypt during the reign of the Mamluk sultan Baybars I al-Bunduqdārī (r. 1260–1277). His books were popular and survive in many copies, but almost nothing is known about al-‘Irāqī himself.

The Book of the Seven Climes is the earliest known study focused wholly on alchemical illustrations. The ‘climes’ (from which our word ‘climate’ is derived) are the seven latitudinal zones into which the astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy divided the inhabited world in the 2nd century AD. Their mention in al-‘Irāqī’s title expressed an intention for his book to be all-encompassing.

Al-‘Irāqī reproduced illustrations from earlier Arabic alchemical texts and tried to decode their mysterious symbols and allegories, annotating the illustrations with his own interpretations. But how faithful was he in copying the illustrations for his book, and what changes were made as they were copied and re-copied during the five centuries of transmission linking al-‘Irāqī’s lost original to the 18th-century copy held at the British Library?

Luckily, while al-‘Irāqī’s 13th-century autograph manuscript is lost, one source of his illustrations is known to us: the Book of Images (Muṣḥaf al-ṣuwar). It is attributed to the 4th-century Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis and preserved in a copy made in Egypt in 1270, during al-‘Irāqī’s lifetime. The manuscript, now in Istanbul, could even be the one that al-‘Irāqī consulted.

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Matching illustrations in the 13th-century Book of Images (left) and the 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes (right). The later image is much reduced and reinterpreted, and pseudo-hieroglyphs were added. (left: İstanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 196r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18r)

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Another pair of matching illustrations in the same manuscripts, again showing numerous changes. (left: İstanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 205r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18v)

Al-‘Irāqī was usually careful to cite his sources by title and author, but the images in his work, at least in their 18th-century versions, show many changes and omissions. In addition, some of the pages were embellished with pseudo-hieroglyphs, perhaps a code for the Arabic alphabet, not present in the original.

What did al-‘Irāqī make of the hieroglyphs in the illustrations? Were they all completely invented? To begin to understand this, it is worth examining a group of images in the Book of the Seven Climes now on display in the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. Below we illustrate a key explaining the various elements. These have been numbered for ease of reference in the rest of our discussion.

KG stela finalAl-‘Irāqī states that the material on this page comes from a ‘Hidden Book’ attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (1), a legendary sage-king of ancient Egypt who was believed to have mastered the secrets of occult sciences such as alchemy and to have recorded them in hieroglyphs on the walls of temples and tombs. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, last written nine centuries before al-‘Irāqī’s lifetime, were undecipherable to him and his contemporaries. Undeterred, and guided by the legend of Hermes Trismegistus, he gave the illustrated elements an alchemical interpretation. He refers to apparatus such as the distillation furnace (7) and the bain-marie (12), and to processes such as roasting (11) and blackening (2). Alchemical substances are referred to symbolically: the eagle (3, 4, 10) and the ‘intensely black’ raven (9) were widely employed as codes for sal ammoniac and for iron and/or lead, respectively.

But this page does not only contain alchemical secrets. The hieroglyphic composition in the lower panel is coherent enough to show that it was ultimately copied from an actual ancient monument. While distortions have crept in, the shapes of the hieroglyphs are not complete fantasy, unlike those of the interpolated pseudo-hieroglyphs mentioned further above. The Egyptologist Okasha El Daly first noted that the inspiration for the present image came from a stela carved in the name of King Amenemhat II, who ruled Egypt around 1922–1878 BC. Two of Amenemhat’s official names can still be recognised (9 and 12).

The ‘Horus name’ identified a pharaoh as an incarnation of Horus, the god of kingship. It was written inside a serekh (9): a frame representing a palace, complete with a panelled façade and with Horus, shown as a falcon, perched on top. In al-ʿIrāqī’s illustration, these elements have undergone an alchemical transmutation: at some point the panels of Amenemhat’s serekh were changed into curious implements, and the falcon into a raven! Despite further distortions, we can just discern the Horus name of Amenemhat II: Heken-em-maat, literally ‘He who rejoices in justice’. On the original monument the preposition ‘in’ was undoubtedly written with an owl. To suit the alchemist’s agenda, it has here become a red eagle (10).

A pharaoh’s throne and birth names were traditionally written inside oval ‘cartouches’, to make them stand out from surrounding text. Unaware of this fact, al-‘Irāqī identifies just such a cartouche as ‘Maria’s bath’, the bain-marie (12) or hot-water bath, which is named after the alchemist Maria the Jewess, and is still used today by the catering industry. The hieroglyphs enclosed by the present cartouche spelled out the throne name of Amenemhat II: Nub-kau-Ra, or ‘The life-forces of Ra (the sun god) are of gold’. In our manuscript a sun-disc (‘Ra’) and a necklace (‘gold’) have been transformed into a human face with neck and arms. Hieroglyphs above the cartouche still recognisably give two well-known royal epithets: ‘the great god, lord of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt)’ (11). Al-‘Irāqī interpreted the whole group as pertaining to ‘roasting’: apparently a hieroglyph representing a basket became a roasting dish, and two stretches of land below it became a grill! The hieroglyphs below the cartouche, in their ancient meaning, claim that the pharaoh is ‘given life forever’ (13).

Monuments of Amenemhat II are rare and his stela is lost, so the exploits of our medieval alchemist hold value to modern Egyptology. Comparing al-‘Irāqī’s drawing with extant stelae of similar date, we can determine more precisely how the stela of Amenemhat would have looked. The stela shown below, displayed in Room 65 of the British Museum, dates from the reign of his grandson, Senwosret III (around 1874–1855 BC). That king’s Horus and throne names again take up two-thirds of the top. The remaining third mentions a deity (‘Horus-son-of-Isis’), of whom the king is said to be ‘beloved’. The texts naming king and god were given opposed orientations, so that the actors involved ‘look’ at each other. The image in the Book of the Seven Climes reveals that Amenemhat, too, was described as ‘beloved’ of a deity (14), whose name must be sought in the hieroglyphs grouped on the left, likewise facing those naming the king. In our 18th-century copy most of these signs have been shuffled about and reshaped beyond recognition, but two of them read probably ‘Wepwa(wet)’, the name of a jackal god (16). Three hieroglyphs crammed in between the god’s and the king’s names, assuming the former’s orientation, cite blessings bestowed on the latter: ‘life, stability, dominion’ (17).

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Stela from the reign of Senwosret III, whose ornamental inscription at the top is laid out very similarly to that on the lost stela of Amenemhat II, as illustrated by al-‘Irāqī. (British Museum, EA 852)

Amenemhat’s ornamental inscription would have been bordered at the bottom by a stroke representing land and at the top by a band representing heaven, supported at the ends by divine sceptres symbolising the full extent of the king’s god-given ‘dominion’. Only the top of the left-hand sceptre (18) has made it into our 18th-century manuscript, but its identity is unmistakable.

The very fact that a hieroglyphic inscription from around 1900 BC can still, in part, be read in an 18th-century copy of a 13th-century Arabic text testifies to the care Arabic scribes took in copying and recopying earlier manuscripts through the centuries. The inclusion of an authentic hieroglyphic text in the Book of the Seven Climes also demonstrates the interest in Egyptian antiquities taken by some medieval Arabic scholars. Al-ʿIrāqī’s alchemical understanding of that text highlights the differences between medieval interpretative frameworks and those employed by the modern science of Egyptology.

More accurate copies of the Amenemhat inscription may still await discovery in unpublished earlier copies of al-‘Irāqī’s Seven Climes in Dublin, Cairo or elsewhere. Furthermore, the identification of more works from which al-ʿIrāqī took his illustrations could bring us closer to the ancient monuments from which some of the illustrations were ultimately copied. We plan to study the other manuscripts of the Book of the Seven Climes and search for the sources of its illustrations. This will throw more light on how al-‘Irāqī adapted his material and may enable a fuller reading of the original inscription of Amenemhat II. It might even reveal further authentic hieroglyphic texts.

The 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

 Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , ,

Study, conservation and display of a rare pair of curtains from Late Antique Egypt

Project curator Amandine Mérat gives us an overview of the historical background of the curtains, whilst conservators Anna Harrison and Monique Pullan describe work carried out in order to prepare them for display.

An exceptionally well preserved pair of curtains is amongst the remarkable objects displayed in the exhibition, Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. They are said to be from Akhmim in Upper Egypt and date from the 6th–7th centuries AD. Acquired for the British Museum by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge in 1897, they are displayed here for only the second time in the Museum’s history. Made of fine linen and colourful wool, the curtains measure more than 2.7m in height by 2.1m in width, and provide a unique example of complete large scale furnishings from Late Antique Egypt.

Because of its dry climate, Egypt preserves a range and abundance of organic material that rarely survive elsewhere. This is particularly true of clothing and furnishing textiles, which provide unparalleled insight into the lives of individuals from Roman, Late Antique and early Islamic times. From the 2nd century AD, Egyptian people progressively gave up mummification, instead burying their dead in the clothes they wore in life, and sometimes wrapping them in furnishing textiles reused as funerary shrouds. This explains why the great majority of the textiles were discovered since the late 19th century in cemeteries and burial contexts. Visible staining from contact with a body suggests that these curtains were used in this way. Although they are now separate, the two textiles were originally sewn together at the top, indicating that they were probably door curtains, before being used as a shroud.

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Colourful classical Graeco-Roman motifs decorate the curtains

The curtains represent a good example of continuity and the re-use of classical themes and imagery throughout Late Antiquity, here in a demonstrably Christian context. The lower part of the curtains is ornamented with birds and vegetal motifs in floral lozenges. At the top is a decorative band containing an inhabited vine scroll, below which erotes (gods of love) holding floral garlands stand between baskets of produce. Below them, two winged nikai (victory figures) hold a wreath containing a jewelled cross with the remains of a Greek inscription. Both erotes and nikai figures come from the Classical, or Graeco-Roman, repertoire, the latter often depicted holding busts of mythological heroes or victorious emperors; later such figures were ‘re-employed’ to present the bust of Christ or other Christian symbols.

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One of the curtains before conservation in 1994

Although at first sight the curtains appear intact, on closer inspection their fragility is obvious. In particular the stained areas which had been in contact with the body are brittle with many holes. The wool motifs retain their vivid colours but sections are missing, possibly eaten by insects during burial.

The curtains were extensively conserved for the 1994 British Museum exhibition Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture. Each curtain was stitched on to new cotton fabric, applied to secure the damaged areas and attach the curtains evenly across their entirety. Working in fine silk threads, this stitching took over 200 hours to complete. The new lining strengthened the ancient textiles and made each curtain appear whole. The missing coloured wools were not replaced; one of the principal ethical guidelines for conservators is to focus on stabilising remaining original material rather than restoration of the original appearance.

In 2013 the curtains were re-assessed for their suitability for the current exhibition. As the largest and most vulnerable textiles to be selected, any conservation issues needed to be raised well in advance with the exhibition planning team. Due to their fragility, it was impossible to gather and drape the curtains as they would have been originally, as this would put too much physical stress on the ancient threads. In order to get as close to their original appearance as possible, a compromise was reached by mounting them on a board angled just off the vertical, which would give them the appearance of being upright and also give some additional support.

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Conservators checking the condition of the curtains in 2015

Examination of the curtains in preparation for the current exhibition showed that the conservation stitching worked 20 years previously was holding the textile securely in position. However, a little more work was required for this near vertical display. Extra lines of stitching were applied in the vertical direction, particularly in the less damaged areas which had not been previously stitched. The curtains were also surface cleaned using a soft sable hair brush and a special vacuum cleaner set to a low setting.

In order to attach the curtains to their fabric-covered display board, Velcro tape was stitched along the top edge of each curtain. Velcro is often used to display textiles because it ensures a continuous, even support along the top of the textile.

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Installing the curtains

During installation, each of the rolled curtains was lifted up to enable the two sides of the Velcro to be connected, also ensuring the top decorative borders were lined up correctly. The curtains were then unrolled as far as the case would allow, with the remaining rolled portion being rolled and placed underneath the support board. Each step of the installation had been planned in advance, using accurate measurements and diagrams to minimise the need for unnecessary handling of these fragile textiles. Finally, the long fringing at the top of each curtain was held in place with strips of semi-transparent net, pinned to stop it flopping forward.

Visitors to the exhibition might be surprised by how much time and effort goes on behind the scenes in order to prepare the displays. A seemingly straight forward task, such as hanging a pair of curtains, in fact required an immense amount of planning and coordination to ensure that these rare and beautiful, yet extremely fragile, textiles could take their place in this show.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Exhibitions, , , ,

Ten years of the Asahi Shimbun Displays: focussing in on objects in focus

Laura Purseglove, Project Assistant and David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

2015 saw the ten-year anniversary of the Asahi Shimbun Displays at the British Museum. Located in Room 3, to the right of the main entrance, these displays have provided the opportunity to focus in depth on individual objects within the Museum’s collection. They were also conceived of as an experimental space, where the Museum could explore new methods of displaying and interpreting objects. Channelling this experimental spirit, members of the project team, Laura Purseglove and David Francis, engage in a critical dialogue in this blog post about the Asahi Shimbun Displays and the relationship to trends within museological and cultural theory.

DF: One of the most innovative things about the Asahi Shimbun Displays has been the opportunity to tell stories about individual objects, which we wouldn’t have the space for in the permanent galleries. In Room 70, the Roman Empire gallery, the Meroë head of Augustus is one of hundreds of objects and there is only scope to present the head as an example of Roman portraiture and tell the story of Augustus’ rise to power.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome (11 December 2014–15 February 2015)

DF: For The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome (2014) display, we were able to go into much more depth. This display explored Rome’s relationship with the African kingdom of Meroë and the story of the object’s discovery in the build-up to the First World War. It even made comparisons between the beheading of Augustus’ statue and the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Iraq in 2003. In many ways this use of a single object to tell a wider historical narrative can be seen as a precursor to the A History of the World in 100 objects series broadcast on Radio 4 in 2010. That in turn has popularised an object-based approach to history – now objects are used to tell the story of lots of things, from baseball to Doctor Who.

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Marketing poster for The Asahi Shimbun Display Made in Africa (2005)

LP: Yes, from a fine art perspective, which is my area of expertise, it’s been interesting to see this renewed focus on objects, as opposed to context, in humanities scholarship and in our museums and galleries. You might say that the first display in 2005, Made in Africa, reflected this idea by consciously aestheticising three stone hand axes, encouraging visitors to engage directly with the objects’ physical properties rather than seeing them as illustrative of a wider historical context. The hand axes themselves were presented as things to be experienced rather than ‘read’. This approach is mirrored in cultural theory, for instance in the ideas of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who used the term ‘affect’ to frame the art object as a bundle of ‘sensations’ activated when perceived.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Akan drum: the drummer is calling me (12 August–10 October 2010)

DF: In archaeology and anthropology as well, you have what’s known as ‘the material turn’ – a focus on a thing’s materiality as opposed to treating objects as ‘texts’ to be read. I’m an interpretation officer and so my focus is very much on an object’s relationship to text. This involves creating accessible text for a non-specialist audience, and also using objects to construct narratives about the past that allow us to better understand the present. At the same time, there are some things text alone cannot capture. The display Akan drum: the drummer is calling me (2010) told the story of the oldest African-American object in the Museum. Made in West Africa and collected in Virginia, this leather drum was brought to America as part of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. As well as interrogating the terrible practices of the slave trade the display also looked at the transmission of musical heritage from Africa to America. We created an accompanying soundtrack, tracing early African drumming to the development of call and response and gospel music, and its development into jazz, blues, RnB and hip-hop. If you were to tell that story through text alone so much would be lost.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Xu Bing: Background Story 7 (12 May–10 July 2011)

LP: Right, by not relying solely on text to explain an object we acknowledge that objects can’t necessarily be reduced to their more ‘textual’ properties, they are more than the sum of their parts. For the display Xu Bing: Background Story 7 (2011) we experimented with a white cube display style, which privileges experiencing the object over explanation. The design encouraged viewers to encounter the object directly, with text positioned to the side so as not to interfere. The back of the installation revealed the materials Xu Bing used to create the illusion of a traditional Chinese scroll painting – debris and plant materials. We relied on the power of the object to draw visitors to the back of the screen. Signposting, on that occasion, would have detracted from the experience of encountering the work in an unmediated way.

DF: You mentioned using a white cube approach and I think it’s interesting how different disciplines have their own styles of display. If you think about the one object in a room approach, it can be seen as rooted in the tradition of the modernist art gallery. Although I suppose it has its origins in the treasuries of the medieval church, setting aside a relic or icon to be encountered and venerated. However, such an approach can limit the meanings of an object, especially when it’s entangled within a wider network, or assemblage of objects.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion (19 June–17 August 2014)

DF: Since the publication of Edmund de Waals’ The Hare with the Amber Eyes, netsuke have been popularly conceived as object d’art – tiny, beautiful things to be collected and aestheticised. But this is only one aspect of their story. They’re also part of a network of objects designed to provide a specific function. Japanese kimonos have no pockets and so, in the Edo Period, small personal items – such as tobacco or money – would be carried in a small pouch. Netsuke were used as toggles that allowed these pouches to be hung from the belt of the kimono. It is only by displaying the netsuke alongside a kimono and other accompanying male accessories that you can really understand their purpose, as well as appreciate their aesthetic qualities and idiosyncratic personalities.

LP: Yes, the example of the Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion (2014) display does point to the limits of the single object, unmediated approach. It’s an example which demonstrates that sometimes objects need to be understood through their relation to other objects, but also that sometimes their meaning lies in their relationship with people.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Larrakitj: Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi (12 March–25 May 2015)

LP: The Sikh Fortress Turban (2011) display presented a dastaar boonga turban as an example of a living tradition. It was co-curated by members of the Sikh community in London and placed their voices and experiences at the centre of the story. More recently, the Larrakitj: Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi (2015) display, an installation by the indigenous Australian artist, defined the piece in terms of its relationship to the artist and his cultural heritage. A short film showing the artist talking about the work demonstrated that what makes the piece so special is its connection to the artist’s personal and clan histories, as well as the relationship to the landscape of Arnhem Land.  But, that said, visitors could still enjoy the beauty and craftsmanship inherent in the work without watching the film. So perhaps this leaves us in agreement; the Asahi Shimbun Displays are at their best when they reveal the ways in which our objects connect to the wider world but don’t reduce them to mirrors of their contexts. It’s the beautiful, strange, sometimes baffling nature of ‘things’ that makes us want to visit museums, isn’t it?

The Asahi Shimbun Display Scanning Sobek: mummy of the crocodile god is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 21 February 2016.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

 

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, ,

How do you put on a torc?

Julia Farley, Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum

As curator of the Celts exhibition, I get to spend a lot of time showing people wonderful Iron Age treasures. Some of my favourites are the big metal neck rings called torcs that were worn across much of Europe (and beyond) around 2000 years ago. One of the things I get asked most often is, ‘But how did you put them on?!’ It’s a very good question, seeing as they often look like solid metal rings with nowhere near enough space to squeeze your neck through.

Many British torcs are a bit like this one:

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The Snettisham Great Torc. Found in Snettisham, UK. Electrum, 150 BC–50 BC. Diam. 19.9 cm. British Museum 1951,0402.2. (Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

Although this is one of the most famous examples, the form is typical: open at the front, with a flexible neck-ring made of coiled or twisted wires. This type of torc is put on and taken off by being bent out of shape. You can see that one of the terminals of this torc has been pulled slightly forward compared to the other one. This is the result of it being repeatedly pulled open to be slipped on. A re-enactor friend of mine has told me that he often puts a torc on from the front, and then twists it round to bring the terminals to the front. I’ve tried with replicas, and I tend to slip mine on from the back, so there are different ways of doing it.

This constant flexing caused a lot of stress to the metal neck rings of the torc. When you bend metal in this way, it tends to harden and become brittle. You may have experienced this first hand if you have ever wanted to break off a piece of wire for hanging a picture or working in the garden and did this by bending it back and forth until it broke. The same thing happened to some torcs. We have many examples of truly beautiful neck-rings which were worn to destruction – taken on and off so many times that they broke at the back. They have often been somewhat clumsily repaired, as in this case:

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(Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

The break is covered with a thin sheet of gold foil, but X-radiography of the torc shows that all the wires have snapped! Torcs were quite fragile objects, and they were frequently broken and then repaired in this way. This is curious, because there was an easy way to avoid the problem. If you anneal the metal – heat it up to cherry-red temperature, around 600-700 degrees centigrade – it re-softens. This would have been a simple matter with the technology available. So why were so many torcs allowed to break? And why do the repairs often look like shoddy afterthoughts? I wonder if being the proud owner of a ‘vintage’ torc (old enough to be in need of flamboyant repairs) might have been something to be proud of. Rather than an unfortunate accident, breakage could have been part of the natural lifecycle of a torc. The repaired torc pictured above was buried in a hoard with many other, much newer, ones. By the time it went into the ground, it was probably an heirloom object, perhaps as much as 100 years old. It would have been possible to carry out much more subtle repairs, but perhaps they were supposed to be obvious? Being a member of a family with such a long history of wealth and power was probably a source of great pride, and the repairs might have emphasised the age of the object, and reminded people of the many stories attached to it.

I had a go at making a torc myself, closely based on this one:

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Although the wires are thick, it’s actually much easier to bend open than you’d think. I made my version a couple of years ago, and have used it regularly for teaching and outreach sessions, where it has been much manhandled, bent and stretched. The metal is just getting to the point where it is too stiff to allow this, and so I plan to anneal it soon to soften it up (I don’t fancy breaking my own!). So the process of wear-hardening (especially on softer metals like gold and silver) probably took quite a long time.

On the Continent, there are other types of torc, which sometimes have clever hidden clasps, hinges, or removable sections such as these ones:

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(Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

When worn they would have given the impression of a solid ring of metal, but in fact they were relatively easy to put on and take off.

The idea of a hinge was taken up in later British neck-rings found in south-western Britain. They have a discreet hinge at the back, and a clasp at the front that was hidden when the terminals were closed.

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(Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

From these kinds of evidence, I strongly suspect that torcs were put on and taken off quite regularly, rather than being intended to be worn for very long periods of time. The most decorative were probably worn for special occasions, and some of the simpler designs may have been for everyday wear. But we have so little evidence for what constituted ‘day-to-day wear’ in the Iron Age that it’s hard to be sure.

But there are some torcs which I don’t think could be opened up, such as this one from Trichtingen in Germany, also in the Celts exhibition:

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Torc. Silver, iron, 200–50 BC. Trichtingen, Germany. Diam. 29.5 cm. (Photo: P. Frankenstein/H. Zweitasch; (c) Landesmuseum Wurttemberg, Stuttgart 2015)

The gap isn’t wide enough to squeeze your head in, and there is a solid iron core under the silver, so it couldn’t have been bent. It also weighs nearly seven kilos! And if you did wear it, which way up would it go? It seems designed to be viewed upright, like in the picture. But with the terminals at the back the bulls would have been hidden, and with the terminals at the front their heads would be upside down, not to mention how uncomfortable those horns would be, sticking into your collar bone…

I think it’s most likely that torcs such as the one above weren’t worn at all. They might have been symbols of status to be brandished aloft, rather than worn around the neck, just like the way that the antlered god on this plaque from the Gundestrup cauldron hefts a torc into the air, terminals upright.

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Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

However it was used, the torc was obviously a powerful symbol.

LAST CHANCE: Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, Uncategorized, , , ,

Copts of the Nile: the Coptic community in Egypt today through the lens of photographer Nabil Boutros

Sarah Johnson, Curator of Islamic Collections, British Museum

The exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, examines religious identity in the first millennium AD, when Egypt became first a majority Christian population and later, Muslim. Today, Egyptian Christians, or Copts, are a significant minority. The extraordinary collections of the British Museum allow us to explore religious identities in Egypt up to the present, here through contemporary photography.

In 1986, the artist, Nabil Boutros, decided to return to Egypt after living in France for ten years to explore what it meant to be Egyptian. He had trained as a painter but he decided to take up photography because he found it more useful in studying his identity as an Egyptian.

“The camera was and remains for me an instrument that allows me to go to places where I would not go otherwise. Of course, the point is to collect images; that is the compensation. Without photography, I would not have made the exploration, and I would have not had those contacts…”

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Salam, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of three photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.5-7

Boutros grew up in a Coptic Christian family and decided to document the community in Egypt in order to better understand his own roots and to highlight the modern aspects of Coptic religious practice. Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. According to tradition, the church was founded by Saint Mark in Alexandria during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (r. AD 54–68). Today, Copts make up about ten percent of the Egyptian population with a large diaspora living elsewhere.

Boutros spent seven years, from 1997 to 2004, photographing the Coptic community around Egypt. He visited major historic sites such as the Monastery of Saint Paul (founded 5th century AD) and Deir El-Maymoun (founded AD 361–363), and attended ceremonies that have continued for thousands of years. As a Copt himself, he wanted to highlight the contemporary individuals who visit and worship at these locations, or as he says, “to get as close as possible to the quotidian.”

He always includes people in his photographs, noting that Western photographers often depict these monuments without figures, as if they are no longer in use. His photographs often only show one or two people, even in the midst of large ceremonies. For example, he portrays a single woman in front of a small statue of the Virgin Mary at the pilgrimage to Deir Dronka, near Assiut, which draws thousands of people in August each year. In this way, he draws attention to individual worship and personal stories.

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Vendredi Saint, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of four photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.1-4

“I knew it was a part of me, from my upbringing and my culture, but to be able to make the connection between things from the distant past with more contemporary things strengthened me. To know the history of things that I experienced personally, to understand the historical links allows me to find the foundation; that comforts me a lot, fulfils me.”

Boutros arranges his photographs in the same way as they are found in the screens of Coptic churches where Biblical stories are depicted (polyptychs). However, unlike church paintings, his compositions do not form a clear narrative. Instead each photograph in a composition is taken from a different time and place. Boutros explains that his photographs are not meant to be documentary but instead resist the viewer’s preconceptions about the Coptic community. In his early photography exhibitions, he presented his photographs individually and allowed researchers to add text. However, he found in this case that the researcher’s words took over the images and did not convey his original intentions.

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Prière, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of three photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.8-11

“This experience was a good lesson for me: I understood that if I did not engage in a discourse with the images, the written discourse would take the place of my intent. After that, I started to reclaim my photographs – on Copts, the city, etc. – and to create new compositions working with polyptychs. I also started adding titles, to indicate what I was talking about, but I could no longer content myself with the image alone…I started to complicate things, first by combining groups of black and white images, and then by introducing strips of colour photography in-between the black and white photographs.”

In response to an attack on a Coptic church in December 2010, Boutros and the artist Moataz Nasr, created a poster using another series by Boutros called Egyptians, in which he portrayed himself with different identities throughout the year. The poster included the slogan “We are all Egyptians” (كلنا مصريون), and was popular in Tahrir Square during the revolution.

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Nabil Boutros and Moataz Nasr, All Egyptians, 2010 (© Nabil Boutros)

Nabil Boutros was born in Cairo in 1954. He studied decorative arts in Cairo and then painting at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1973). He worked as a painter and lighting designer for theatre before committing himself to photography in 1986.

 

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , , ,

Exploring the First Gaster Bible: a British Library Hebrew manuscript

Ilana Tahan, M.Phil. OBE, Lead Curator of Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies, British Library

The Hebrew Bible, commonly termed in the Christian West as ‘The Old Testament’ but known to the Jews as the Tanakh, is a literary mosaic made up of tales, laws and commandments, ritual directives and precepts, genealogical records, prophecies, poetry, speeches, royal chronicles, decrees and much more. The Tanakh’s three main divisions are: the Torah (i.e. Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im meaning Prophets, and the Ketuvim or Writings. The word Tanakh is in fact an acronym based on the first consonantal letters of these principal sections.

In antiquity the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible was penned on scrolls made either of strips of parchment or papyrus. Bound books with pages known as codices (singular codex) appear in Judaism around the 8th century AD, although they may have been in use before then. Codices of the Hebrew Bible became abundant in the 10th century AD, and some, similar to the First Gaster Bible, have survived to this day.

The First Gaster Bible currently displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, shows visible signs of wear and tear. Its parchment pages boasting fine calligraphy, masoretic rubrics and gilded decorative motifs, testify nonetheless to its former glory. What would have originally been a complete codex of Ketuvim (Writings), the third main division of the Hebrew Bible, has survived in a fragmentary state comprising just sections from the Books of Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ruth and Daniel.

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Psalm 71 with palmette (top left) and ornamental fillers. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9879 f.17r © British Library Board

When turning the manuscript’s pages one’s eye is caught by the small script annotations that accompany the biblical text. These are collectively known as the Masorah from the Hebrew root msr denoting to hand down. The Masorah is a body of rules on the pronunciation, reading, spelling and cantillation of the scriptural text that ensured the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible. It was developed by Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes (conveyors of tradition) who were active in Tiberias, in the Holy Land, between the 7th and 10th century AD. The Masoretes’ greatest achievement was the compilation of a system of vowels and signs that established in writing the exact way of reading the consonantal Hebrew script, which had been previously riddled with ambiguities and uncertainties.

There are two main types of masoretic notation both of which have been penned in the First Gaster Bible: the large Masorah (masora magna) which is inscribed at the top and at the foot of pages, and the small Masorah (masora parva) which is written between the columns of text or in the margins. The former is keyed to the words in the text and contains old traditional readings and grammatical notes. It serves as a quality control system and protects the scriptural text from modifications. The latter is ampler and includes lists of entire passages from the biblical text distinguished by typical orthographic variants or other peculiarities.

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Psalm 102 with divisional motifs and a decorative chain executed in Islamic style; the masora magna in very small script can be seen above and beneath the textual columns. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9879 f.23v © British Library Board

Named after its illustrious last owner Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, the manuscript was created most probably in Egypt around the 10th century AD. The colophon – a statement at the end of a manuscript supplying facts about its production – is missing, thus nothing is known about the original commission. Its date and place of production have therefore been established through comparison with extant Hebrew Bibles written in Egypt and/or the Middle East between the 9th and 10th century.

It is interesting to note that, with very few exceptions, most of the surviving oriental Hebrew Bibles dating from the 9th–11th centuries are incomplete. The Aleppo Codex copied c. AD 930 – the oldest and most authoritative extant manuscript of the Hebrew Bible that was proofread and vocalised by Aaron ben Asher, one of the greatest Masoretes from Tiberias – is held in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The manuscript is incomplete, having lost apparently 196 of its 491 original pages. The oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible is the Leningrad Codex. Copied most probably in Egypt and dated to around AD 1010, it is preserved in the Russian National Library (Saltykov-Schendrin Public Library), St Petersburg.

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Section from the Book of Ruth (3:14–4:7) with masora parva penned between the columns and marginal decorations in Islamic style. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9879 f.23v © British Library Board

Nineteenth-century scholars argued that the early masoretic bibles were created by Karaites. Funded by Anan ben David (c. AD 715–795 or 811) in Babylonia, the Karaites were a Jewish sect who split up from mainstream Judaism accepting the Tanakh as their only norm of religious authority. Some scholars went as far as maintaining that the most prominent Masorete Aaron ben Asher may have been a Karaite. Recent scholarship has firmly rejected this view claiming that he was in fact a rabbinic Jew. An illuminated specimen of a Karaite biblical text is displayed in this exhibition.

It is very likely that the First Gaster Bible was commissioned by a wealthy patron for a synagogue rather than for personal use. The manuscript is a very good example of manuscript illumination from the Islamic East, i.e. Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Syria and the Holy Land. Islam’s aniconic approach had a profound and lasting impact on Hebrew manuscripts created in Muslim lands. The decorations found in extant Hebrew Bibles produced in these areas strongly suggest that Jewish scribes and artists would have had access to decorated Islamic handwritten books which influenced their art. Like Qur’ans, early Hebrew Bibles are devoid of human and animal imagery and their ornamentation is clearly functional.  Carpet pages with geometric and arabesque designs, micrography (patterned minute lettering) and divisional motifs adapted from Islamic art typify their decoration. In the First Gaster Bible there is an abundance of gilded decorative elements executed in Islamic style. These include undulating scrolls and spirals, foliage, interwoven buds, palmettes and golden chains.

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Section from Ecclesiastes (2:24–3:12) with masora magna and masora parva (above and between the columns of text) and Islamic style embellishments. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9789 f.32v © British Library Board

The First Gaster Bible is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

 Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , ,

Faith after the pharaohs: Egyptian papyri conservation

Bridget Leach, Conservator: Pictorial Art, British Museum

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Examination under the microscope (prior to repair) of the Egypt Exploration Society’s papyri.

In preparation for the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition five papyri, kindly loaned from the Egypt Exploration Society, came into the Paper Conservation studio. As papyrus conservator at the British Museum I have worked on a wide range of manuscripts held by our Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan over the years. The collection includes many fine examples of papyri from ancient Egypt such as temple accounts from Abu Sir dating from approximately 2400 BC, some of the longest and beautifully illustrated funerary rolls from throughout Egypt’s long Pharaonic history, as well as literary texts and day to day legal documents. Working on such material has always been fascinating but I was particularly delighted to be able to work on these five papyri as they were excavated at Oxyrhynchus. The story of this excavation had fired my initial interest in papyrus as a paper conservation student many years ago.

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A group of papyrus rolls as excavated. (Courtesy of The Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford)

The ancient town of Oxyrhynchus, meaning ‘city of the sharp nosed fish’, modern al-Bahnasa lying 120 miles south of Cairo, was excavated between 1896 and 1907 by papyrologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. This excavation began as part of a systematic exploration of the sites of Greco-Roman settlements and their discoveries were made in the sandy mounds on the outskirts of the town. The mounds turned out to be ‘drifts’ of rubbish tips which proceeded to yield approximately half a million fragments of papyri with ancient texts including early Christian literature. Grenfell and Hunt spent six seasons at Oxyrhynchus and their discoveries were by far the most exciting of the time in terms of quantity and range of the manuscripts found. Here was found several centuries worth of archives where official and private documents collectively provided a rare insight into the everyday life of this Roman town’s inhabitants during the 1st to 6th centuries AD. The papyri that came to the paper conservation studio included a rental agreement between two female monks leasing part of their home to a Jewish man (P.Oxy 3203) excavated in the first season, a small fragment containing the Greek Septuagint (P.Oxy 3522) and another depicting an informal drawing of Daniel in the lion’s den, both excavated in the fourth season. It is unknown during which season the last two papyri were found but they addressed matters relating to the Roman requirement for all citizens to sacrifice to the gods and include a Certificate of Sacrifice (P.Oxy 3929) and a letter from a Chrisitian man named Copres about a way to avoid the obligation (P.Oxy 2601).

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The Cyperus papyrus L. plant. 

Undoubtedly helped by the dry climate of Egypt, papyrus has proved to be a very durable writing material with remarkable powers of preservation. Made from Cyperus papyrus L., a sedge plant about four metres high that grew plentifully along the banks of the Nile in antiquity, a sheet a papyrus was made from sections of the lower part of the stem where it was at its thickest. The outer rind is peeled off to reveal a spongy white inner pith which can be sliced longitudinally to make thin strips. These strips are laid side by side to form one layer before laying a second layer on top at right angles, then pressing and drying the whole. Individual sheets made in this way could then be joined to form a roll.

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A peeled section of the lower stem showing the pith inside being peeled into strips.

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Two layers of strips are laid at right angles over each other. The two layers are then pressed together to form, when dry, a sheet of the writing material.

The five papyri for the exhibition were in need of minor repair and all except the small fragment of Daniel were in need of remounting between new sheets of glass. It was decided to exhibit Daniel in a passe-partout without glass to try and enhance viewing for the visitor. Generally papyri are so fragile that glass mounts are necessary for their protection but in this case, the fragment being small and in reasonable condition, an exception was made for the duration of the exhibition.

1. Before conservation and remounting

The papyrus in it’s old mount.

2. With the papyrus removed, the density of the salt bloom on the glass is visible

The old mount with the papyrus removed showing a thick salt bloom.

3. After conservation

The papyrus in a new glass mount.

All the papyri were examined under magnification before opening the old glass mounts and starting any treatment. Once opened a bloom or ‘halo’ could be immediately seen on the old glass, in the case of P. Oxy 3203 it was very pronounced. This is a common feature with papyri enclosed in glass, particularly those found by excavating rubbish tips where they are found together with other material such as potsherds, ash, charcoal, rags, straw, and various kinds of kitchen waste. In this type of archaeological context papyri will absorb soluble salts. When later enclosed in glass, and even in conditions where relative humidity changes very little, the salts absorb small amounts of moisture from the surrounding air. As the air slowly dries out again these soluble salts migrate outwards and deposit themselves on the nearest surface which in this case is the glass. This can happen repeatedly over the years and a substantial ‘bloom’ can build up inside the mount making the papyrus quite hard to read. Scientific analysis has found the bloom to consist of mainly sodium chloride, common salt, and it can be wiped off the glass very easily. However the Oxyrhynchus papyri were all remounted in new glass for the exhibition.

Repairing fractured areas using small tabs applied with tweezers

Repairing a loose fragment of P.Oxy 3203 using small ‘tabs’ applied with tweezers.

Before remounting some conservation work was undertaken on the manuscripts. This involved laying back loose or twisted fibres and repairing along fractures. Repairs – in this case small pieces of Japanese paper, used for its strength and quality and toned to a sympathetic colour – are applied to the papyri with starch paste. The newly mounted papyri now take their place in the exhibition alongside the other fascinating objects that tell the story of faith after the pharaohs.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

 

 

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

The makers of Codex Sinaiticus

Cillian O’Hogan, Research Fellow, University of Waterloo, formerly Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies, British Library

Most books from Graeco-Roman antiquity only survive in fragmentary form – scraps ranging in size from a postage stamp to (if we’re lucky) a few leaves from a codex, or a long section of a papyrus scroll. For books to survive in anything close to their original form is very unusual. It’s with that thought in mind that we should approach Codex Sinaiticus, currently on display in the British Museum’s Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition.

Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest copy of the complete New Testament. Dating from the middle of the fourth century, the manuscript originally contained some 743 leaves (1,486 pages), each measuring some 380 x 345mm – a massive book even by today’s standards. Remarkably, over half of these leaves survive today. The book’s scale was only made possible by the use of parchment (animal skin) rather than papyrus, and the fine quality of the manuscript indicates that substantial resources lay behind its production.

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A rare occurrence of striation (bunching of the animal skin that can occur in the parchment-making process). Codex Sinaiticus, Q64 F4v (Proverbs 7:27–8:34). © British Library Board

Who were the people involved in commissioning and producing this manuscript? Although we will probably never know their names, the detailed research conducted as part of the Codex Sinaiticus Project has shed new light on its creators and scribes. For instance, close examination by conservators revealed that the material chosen contains very few imperfections (which could be caused by ticks or skin diseases, or could occur during the treatment of the animal skin). The scarcity of such imperfections is remarkable. It tells us that the animals were raised with considerable care, that there was some selectivity in deciding which skins to use for parchment, and that the workers who manufactured the parchment were highly skilled. All of this points to considerable resources lying behind the production of Codex Sinaiticus, and suggests that the manuscript was created in a location where skilled workers were already present and accustomed to producing high-quality parchment.

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Offset of the ink on the facing page visible towards the right-hand edge of the column. Codex Sinaiticus, Q63 F3r (1 Maccabees 12:28–13:3). © British Library Board

After the parchment had been prepared came the exacting task of writing out the text. As a result of the transcription of the entire manuscript for the Codex Sinaiticus Project, four distinct scribes can now be identified in the manuscript. They are referred to as Scribes A, B1, B2, and D. Each scribe appears to have been responsible for producing his own ink, since the differences in degradation of the inks imply that a slightly different preparation recipe was used by each individual scribe. Based on the surviving leaves, it has been suggested that Scribe A copied the bulk of the manuscript (some 995 out of 1,486 pages); while the other three scribes shared the remaining pages roughly equally (scribe B1 copying slightly more than the other two). The scribes also corrected their own work (some also correcting the work of others), and some books within the Codex were clearly worked on by more than one scribe. Based on the patterns of correction, it has been suggested that Scribe D, though he copied relatively few pages himself, was the head scribe, directing the work of the others and correcting it as needed – he appears to have been the most competent of the four scribes.

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Reading of ΑΝΤΙΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ instead of ΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ in the fourth line, corrected by a later reader of the manuscript. Codex Sinaiticus, Q74 F8v (Matthew 13:41–14:15). © British Library Board

Copying a manuscript is a time-consuming and often tedious task, and there are naturally errors that occur in a scribe’s work. Two particularly intriguing errors in Codex Sinaiticus, however, have often been taken as evidence of where the manuscript itself was copied. Both occur in New Testament pages copied by Scribe A. The first, at Matthew 13:54, reads ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΑΝΤΙΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ instead of the correct reading, ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ (‘to his homeland’). Antipatris, the placename introduced by Scribe A, is the name of a (relatively minor) town about thirty miles from Caesarea. The second error, at Acts 8:5, gives us ΚΑΙΣΑΡΙΑΣ (Caesarea) instead of the correct ΣΑΜΑΡΙΑΣ (Samaria). (Both readings were corrected by later readers of the manuscript.) When scribes make mistakes, it is often because their minds wander, and it is not uncommon to find words from daily life entering a manuscript instead of what should have been copied. Do these two errors, then, reveal that the manuscript was copied at Caesarea? This would fit with other evidence, such as the fact that the manuscript contains what is known as the ‘Eusebian apparatus’, a method of numbering the Gospels devised by Eusebius of Caesarea probably in the AD 320s. Some have gone even further than this and linked the manuscript with the workshop of Eusebius himself, by pointing to the famous evidence provided in the Life of Constantine (4:36), where Constantine asked Eusebius to provide him with fifty copies of ‘the divine Scriptures’ (θείων γραφῶν). On the other hand, there are counter-arguments to such a hypothesis (most recently set out by Harry Gamble in his contribution to the new book Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript) and we cannot, after all, discount the possibility that the manuscript from which Codex Sinaiticus was copied was the one that contained these errors. Regardless of what one thinks about where the manuscript was produced, however, such errors, along with the many other habits of individual scribes, remind us of the human figures behind the production of this great manuscript.

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Reading of ΚΑΙΣΑΡΙΑΣ instead of ΣΑΜΑΡΙΑΣ in the third line, corrected by a later reader of the manuscript. Codex Sinaiticus, Q87 F3v (Acts 7:55–8:25). © British Library Board

Further information about Codex Sinaiticus can be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website, and in two books published as part of the project: Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible, by D. C. Parker, and Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, edited by S. McKendrick et al.

 

The Codex Sinaiticus is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

 Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

 

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , ,

Announcing the new Waddesdon Bequest collection explorer

 

George Oates, Director of Good, Form & Spectacle

We’re pleased to share the new Waddesdon Bequest collection explorer with you. The collection contains almost 300 objects made of all sorts of things, perhaps united by their exceptional craftsmanship and of course their collectors, Baron Anselm von Rothschild, and his son, Baron Ferdinand Rothschild.

One of the key design themes for our work on the explorer was to easily help people who might be lucky enough to be in Room 2a to find out more about the object they’re in front of, as quickly as possible. We decided that using the actual floorplan and general layout of the gallery as our central organising principle would be more useful than a search box.

Here’s Case 7i, for example, which contains some amazing high relief boxwood carvings, such as Portrait of a young man, aged 18:

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Screenshot of Case 7i, in the collection explorer.

Wherever you are in the gallery, or even if you’re exploring from somewhere else in the world, all the photographs of objects are grouped and arranged to reflect their locations in the gallery. It’s a gentle way to express their curatorial arrangement, and leads to some nice thematic surprises. You can see these subject groupings throughout the collection explorer – one group, for example, includes objects that relate to birds in some way.

We’ve also introduced some fun and simple arrangements of the objects to help people figure out how they interrelate, such as by weight, by height, where things were made, and what things are made of. There’s nothing like an ordered list of things to clearly show relationships. These sorts of lists can quickly show people that the heaviest object is this Iron Coffer weighing 16.5 kilograms, and the lightest the Gaming piece with portrait of a woman, at three grams.

Looking at the who, where and when or how the collection came to be also reveals some interesting stories. You can see that just over half the collection was made in Germany and France. You can see how techniques and makers changed over time. The Rothschilds assembled the collection from all sorts of other collections and characters.

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Within the collection explorer, there is a chart showing when each of the objects were made.

When you’re exploring a collection online, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine the objects in real life when all you see is photos on a screen. In addition to arranging everything to reflect the arrangement in Room 2a, we also wanted to help people get a sense of the scale of some of these things – some of them are very small and remarkably ornate. We created a visualisation that shows you the size (or volume, actually) of everything, and uses a tennis ball as a ‘universal scale’ object. We picked a tennis ball because lots of people will have seen one, we reckon, and it’s also an object that falls somewhere between the biggest and smallest objects in the collection.

You can see all the objects’ volumes and corresponding tennis balls in a big list here (and also on each object’s page):

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Personally, one of my favourite aspects of working on the project, and on this collection specifically, was witnessing the incredible craft in the objects that the Rothschilds collected. When we made the zoom interface, it was a thrill to see the amazing and intricate detail in these objects, particularly in this prayer nut, which is smaller than a tennis ball!

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The prayer nut in the Waddesdon Bequest.

We hope you enjoy exploring the collection.

The Waddesdon Bequest gallery (Room 2a), funded by The Rothschild Foundation, is open. You can find out more about the gallery and the Bequest here.

Filed under: Collection, , , , , ,

An interview with manga artist Nakamura Hikaru

In the final of our three interviews to celebrate the Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations An Van Camp, Curator of Dutch and Flemish drawings and prints, interviews the up-and-coming manga artist Nakamura Hikaru. Her series Saint Onisan follows the adventures of Jesus and Buddha as two young men on their gap year in Japan and has already garnered a cult following.

Combining metaphysical dilemmas with playful humour, this manga sees the two divine beings confronted with the problems of everyday life in suburban Tokyo. Individual episodes see them negotiating the Tokyo Metro during rush hour and exploring how Christmas is celebrated in Japan. In this interview, Nakamura Hikaru talks about her inspiration for the series, the effect digital technology has had on her work, and the possibility of Jesus and Buddha visiting the British Museum.

Nakamura Hikaru (b. 1984), Jesus and Buddha drawing manga. Cover artwork for Saint Oniisan vol. 10. Digital print, hand drawn with colour added on computer, 2014. (© Nakamura Hikaru/Kodansha Ltd)

Nakamura Hikaru (b. 1984), Jesus and Buddha drawing manga. Cover artwork for Saint Oniisan vol. 10. Digital print, hand drawn with colour added on computer, 2014. (© Nakamura Hikaru/Kodansha Ltd)

An Van Camp: Can you tell us how you came up with the concept of a young Buddha and Jesus sharing a flat in Tokyo?

Nakamura Hikaru: I was asked to create a four-page manga using an inspirational figure for Morning 2 in August 2006. I immediately thought about Jesus Christ. But realised it would be best to depict him with another figure having fun in Tokyo. I did not want a disciple, so Buddha came to mind. I believed this manga would be a one off, so I just enjoyed creating it. I chose Tachikawa (a suburb of Tokyo) as I am from a rather rural Shizuoka and my older sister went to university in Tachikawa. For me Tachikawa was the big city.

An: What has been the reaction to your manga in Japan?

Nakamura Hikaru: I have had surprisingly positive reactions to my manga. Most letters are from religious specialists, university professors, Buddhist priests and Christian clergy. I have also had requests to use my manga in universities for teaching purposes. The readership seems quite broad judging from the letters from young adults to people in their sixties.

An: How do you create your story lines? What is your inspiration?

Nakamura Hikaru: I plan everything out seasonally and also through yearly events, such as Christmas or Halloween. I think about what would surprise them about what they saw occurring in Japan and how they would interpret what was occurring around them.

An: Will Buddha and Jesus visit the British Museum?

Nakamura Hikaru: They would of course like to but they have no funds at the moment to do so sadly. Perhaps if they win the lottery…

An: How does technology affect the way that you create your manga?

Nakamura Hikaru: Recently technology has made a big difference in the creation of my manga. For the first eleven volumes I drew each individual sheet and when colour was needed I scanned the sheets to the computer and coloured them by hand. But from volume twelve onward I create the manga entirely on a tablet or computer. This is because the G pen has become much more sensitive and easy to use. There is no smudging and mistakes can be redrawn. The resolution is amazing and even small marks can come out crisply in print. In addition the whole process is in fact much quicker.

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Nakamura Hikaru (b. 1984), Jesus and Buddha  seated at a low table eating dinner. Cover artwork for Saint Oniisan vol. 7. Coloured digital print, 2011. (© Nakamura Hikaru/Kodansha Ltd)

The Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 15 November 2015. Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

The cover illustration for volume 7 of Saint Oniisan is on display in the Mitsubishi Corporation Galleries from October 2015 until April 2016. 

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , , ,

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This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge...’
#repost #regram
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum
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