British Museum blog

A vehicle of the soul?

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

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

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

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mourning rings: portable and poignant souvenirs

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City CouncilCaroline Barton, British Museum

Mourning rings are an emotive form of jewellery; very few objects that we have the privilege of working with in the Treasure process have such potentially traceable histories, and academically they are of great interest. Examples such as the Littleton ring, which features in the ITV series Britain’s Secret Treasures can not only be accurately dated but also name the person whose death they commemorate.

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

But not all mourning rings specifically name the deceased, as this one does. They might feature or incorporate mottos or death-related prose. It was in the seventeenth century that Momento Mori rings developed more fully into what we know now as mourning rings. Momento Mori rings (with their rather stern inscriptions, such as ‘learn to dye’) acted as a reminder that youth and beauty come to an end, reflecting the Biblical reference in Ecclesiastes: ‘beauty ends in decay and putrification’. Memorial/ mourning rings marked the death of individuals rather than portraying urgings to godly living, and messages upon these rings became more personal.

Examples in the British Museum and on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database with messages/prose incorporated include inscriptions such as ‘Hope helpeth greife’, ‘Not dead but sleepeth‘, ‘not lost but gone before’, ‘In death shees blest Since heauens her rest’, ‘my friend is Dead my Joys, are fled’ and one that impacts when reading it, the really rather poignant inscription, ‘REMEMBER YOU ONCE HAD A SON GERALD‘.

Rings such as the Littleton example give a glimpse into what we today consider a very personal matter – family mourning. These rings, to the modern eye, bring imagery of a mourning family, keeping the details of their deceased loved one close by: their name, date of death, age at death forever close, worn around the finger. Mourning ritual at this time, though, was not so much a personal matter but a public one and mourning rings showed societal obligation as well as fashion trends of the time.

Mourning ring, 17th century

Mourning ring, 17th century

The colour black seen on rings such as these signifies memorial and in later production (around the eighteenth century) the ‘rules’ of mourning rings were quite strictly adhered to (black enamel for married, white for unmarried). Indeed the ritual of mourning in general was scrupulously respected. It was more than a demonstration of regret; it was a mark of respect. Widows would wear black for a year, seal impressions were black wax rather than red, mirrors were covered in the household, and indeed mourning garb itself had to avoid having a shine or reflection (with the soul being vulnerable to reflective images, especially when weakened by grief). Black apparel was not the only acceptable colour for mourning; white was appropriate for when the deceased was a young virgin of either sex; a mixture of black and white was also acceptable; red was associated with redemption and the blood of Christ, and purple/mauve was for royal mourning.

At the time of the Littleton ring, the ritual of mourning was very public. The use of mourning rings was widespread from the mid-sixteenth century and peaked in popularity in the eighteenth. Earlier examples tended to be produced by the upper classes, and by the time of the Littleton ring they were mass-produced and supplied by specialist jewellers whose trade cards advertised mourning rings at the shortest notice.

It was common practice to have rings itemised in wills, listing the number to be produced in that person’s name. For example, US president George Washington declared in his will: ‘to my sister-in-law Hannah Washington of Fairford and Mildred Washington Hayford I give each a mourning ring of the value of $1000. These bequests are not made for the intrinsic value but as mementos of my esteem and regard”.

Mourning ring, about 1696-1731

Mourning ring, about 1696-1731

The list of recipients for rings could actually be quite extensive and there are examples of itemised wills showing long (and expensive) lists of recipients. The rings tended to be distributed either at the funeral or within the mourning period, as shown in the contemporary source of Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Pepys describes a business visit to Captain Cooke of Greenwich which happened to coincide with a recent burial of a gentleman unknown to him, James Temple: “Here I had a very good ring which I did give to my wife as soon as I came home”. In fact, Pepys himself arranged for 128 rings costing over £100, to be produced upon his death.

From the 1860s the fashion of mourning jewellery started to change. The style of rings shifted to contain portraiture, and memento lockets, worn from the neck or from a bracelet, began to replace the ring. It’s thought by some that once the tradition became widespread, and not just a ritual of the elite, the upper classes stopped commissioning mourning rings. And with this, the fashion for them eventually declined, with the exception of course of bequests of general rings worn in memory of someone, which continues, but such rings are not easily identified.

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

By the early twentieth century, as mortality rates dropped, death seemed more remote and one may even say less feared, and so with this change in sentiment the individualised mourning ring declined and even the death toll of World War I did not revive the practice.

Though the sometimes cavalier distribution of these rings demonstrates a potential lack of connection or even mourning from some of the recipients this does not detract from the emotive nature of the rings. Mourning rings are fascinating as a datable object type but also as poignant objects in and of themselves.

I will leave you with an example which I feel fully epitomises that. Originally a betrothal/wedding ring, one example in the British Museum collection bears the inscription ‘God hath sent my hearts content’. It was later altered to become a mourning ring, with the addition of the black enamelled skeletal design on the exterior and the addition of R.C 1727 to the inscription, presumably now commemorating the death of one of the originally betrothed.

A ring that was once a romantic expression, refashioned to commemorate the loss of that same loved one. It clearly serves the intended purpose of a mourning ring; an affecting example that had much personal meaning to its owner, a sentiment that still resonates today.

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

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, ,

A significant discovery…

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust LtdAndrew Richardson, Canterbury Archaeological Trust

One evening in October last year I’d just got home from work when I received a call from Trevor Rogers, a metal detectorist I knew from my time as Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for Kent. Trevor said he had made a ‘significant discovery’.

In my line of work getting such a call is not that unusual. But Trevor went on to say that he had found what he believed to be a ‘Celtic bronze helmet’. That got my attention.

I knew of no such helmets from Kent; the ‘Deal warrior’ had a bronze head-dress, but that was not a helmet as such. Even for Britain as a whole, I knew such a find would be incredibly rare. But Trevor was very specific; he said it appeared to be a ‘Mannheim’ type helmet. I knew that Trevor was an experienced detectorist and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so I arranged to visit him first thing next morning to have a look for myself.

As I drove to Trevor’s place the next day, I really didn’t know what to expect. There was either going to be disappointment for both of us, with me having to break it to Trevor that he was mistaken and had found something actually rather pedestrian; or, it was going to be one of those rare days that you know you’ll always remember. And then I was standing in Trevor’s kitchen as he produced a cardboard box and opened it up to reveal his finds.

The helmet. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

The helmet. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

I was astonished to see that he had indeed found a Late Iron Age helmet, made of copper alloy, along with a brooch in very good condition and a small spike made out of rolled copper alloy sheet. There was also a fragment of burnt bone which had been found together with the helmet and brooch; more bone had been observed but had not been removed. So it seemed probable the finds were derived from a cremation burial.

The helmet and brooch. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

The helmet and brooch. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

We agreed that it would be best to carry out a small excavation of the find spot as soon as possible to learn as much as we could about the context of this find.

A year later, what more do we know about it? It’s reasonable to set it in the context of the turbulent middle decades of the first century BC when the Romans, under Julius Caesar, were at war in what is now France. But it is very tempting to want to go further than this and see it as much sought after evidence of Caesar’s expeditions to Britain, and the county of Kent, in around 54 BC. The helmet seems of the correct design and the find spot lies along the probable route taken by Caesar’s army of about 20,000 men.

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

But even if this was the helmet of one of Caesar’s soldiers, there are many ways by which it could have arrived at its final resting place. The person (or persons?) whose remains are buried in it need not be its original owner. Perhaps it was brought by a warrior of the Cantiaci (Iron Age tribe), returned from fighting in Gaul with a trophy? Maybe it was a Gallic refugee? Or was the helmet handed down and buried years later (although the brooch suggests burial is unlikely to date much later than 50 BC)?

The finds are now undergoing specialist study at the British Museum, as part of the Treasure process, and this analysis will yield further information, as will investigation of the wider landscape around the find spot. We will certainly learn more about this find, but we may also have to face up to never knowing one way or the other exactly how and why it ended up where it did.

But what is certain, is that Trevor was right when he described this as a ‘significant discovery’.

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

Filed under: Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , ,

Finding, studying and sharing the ‘treasure’ beneath our feet

Finding, studying and sharing the ‘treasure’ beneath our feetIan Richardson, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,
British Museum

Last year, the ITV television series Britain’s Secret Treasures was a welcome hit, averaging 3.5 million viewers every evening for six programmes over the course of a week. It featured stories about 50 archaeological finds made by members of the public throughout Britain.

The majority of the finds had either been recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) or reported as ‘Treasure’ under the Treasure Act 1996 (or both!). The series culminated with the story of the Happisburgh Handaxe, a discovery which eventually led to the understanding that humans have inhabited Britain for hundreds of thousands of years longer than previously thought.

Filming at the British Museum

Filming at the British Museum

The popularity of Britain’s Secret Treasures meant that it was re-commissioned for a second series, with Michael Buerk and Bettany Hughes returning to present the show. It begins on Thursday 17 October 2013 at 20.30 on ITV1. Once again, the British Museum and the PAS were delighted to take part, and were the ideal partners to do so.

Since 1997, Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) of the PAS, based throughout England and Wales, have recorded over 900,000 finds on a freely accessible database. Most of these have been returned to the people who found them. Additionally, over 8,000 finds from England have been reported as Treasure, and these have all been seen by specialist curators at the British Museum.

Finds of Treasure – generally speaking, gold and silver objects, groups of coins more than 300 years old, and prehistoric base-metal assemblages – must be reported to the coroner in the area where they are found, and are legally the property of the Crown. Accredited museums are able to acquire these items for the benefit of all. Most Treasure finds, if acquired, end up in local museums, and Britain’s Secret Treasures visits many of these places.

The Ringlemere Gold Cup

The Ringlemere Gold Cup

The British Museum itself has also acquired finds of Treasure, including the Ringlemere Gold Cup and the Hockley Pendant, which featured in the first series of Britain’s Secret Treasures. For the second series, the British Museum’s Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, which coordinates the PAS and administers the Treasure Act, assisted ITV in the selection of more ‘Secret Treasures’ to feature on the show. Some of the items will be here in London, some with local museums, and others with the people who found them.

Through the stories it tells, Britain’s Secret Treasures highlights the benefits of responsibly searching for and reporting archaeological finds. Objects can be nice to look at in isolation, and we can guess at how they might have been made or used, but it is their context (where the objects were found) which provides the most exciting information. The accumulation of this contextual information for hundreds of thousands of finds allows us to build an improved picture of the lives of people in the past. That’s why it is so important that finders of archaeological material report them to a museum or their local FLO – for the record, Britain’s Secret Treasures uses the terms ‘treasure’ to refer to all archaeological finds, both those which are legally ‘Treasure’ in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and those that are not.

Fragments from a Roman statue found in Lincolnshire

Fragments from a Roman statue found in Lincolnshire

It’s always an interesting experience to work with media and this time was no exception. An institution like the British Museum tends to prefer that most of its activities are planned well in advance and that nothing is left to ‘spur of the moment’ or chance – a style which contrasts to the creative spontaneity of a film crew working to a tight deadline, trying to capture just the right shot. Thankfully everyone involved, from the presenters and camera crews to the experts here at the Museum who were interviewed, were all so skilled that they produced some fine footage in a minimal amount of time.

Britain’s Secret Treasures was filmed in locations all over the British Museum, from public galleries to private offices and study areas, and although it involved some complicated logistics, the chance to convey this aspect of the Museum’s function was worthwhile. ITV provides a fantastic platform on which to broadcast, reaching a wide and diverse audience from all over the country and we hope viewers will agree that the finished product is an informative and entertaining programme, and that it ignites an interest in archaeology among them. The PAS is a great starting point for more information about getting involved in archaeology – visit finds.org.uk for more information.

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , ,

A hoard from the dawn of Roman Britain

Coin from the hoardEleanor Ghey, curator, British Museum

Sometimes as curators we are lucky enough to be brought the most amazing new finds that through careful study can offer a tantalising glimpse into the ancient past. One such discovery that sheds light on the earliest years of Roman Britain is now on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

Coins from the hoard on display.

Coins from the hoard on display.

In 2010 metal-detector user Jason Hemmings found – in a field in Dorset, southern England – what at first glance seemed to be just a handful of Roman and Iron Age coins. When he reported them to the Portable Antiquities Scheme it soon became apparent he had a hoard that can be closely linked to the years following the Roman conquest of AD 43.

It is a mixed sample of the different coins in use in Britain during these turbulent years. It contains worn silver Roman republican coins that had been in circulation in the Roman Empire for around 150 years and were also valued by local people as a source of silver. There were a few Iron Age staters, base silver coins issued by the native inhabitants of Dorset before the Roman conquest. Finally, and most significantly, there were copper alloy coins of the emperor Claudius issued between AD 41 and 50.

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Official issues of the emperor Claudius are rare in Britain, although they were later copied in large numbers, probably to meet a shortage of supply. Two of the coins from this hoard are stamped with an official mark of approval found only in Rome and Britain. It is thought that these coins were produced in Rome in order to supply the invading army with useful currency whilst on campaign in Britain and may have even arrived with them. So they are likely to be close in date to the conquest of Britain in AD 43.

If this hoard belonged to a soldier, we can assume he was of lower rank, probably a legionary. At this time a legionary would have received an annual salary of 225 denarii. The hoard represents 4.25 denarii. A hoard of 34 Roman gold coins buried at Bredgar in Kent during the Claudian invasion – a vast amount of money more likely to have belonged to a high-ranking officer – is on display in Room 49. It is easier to imagine these coins from Dorset as the sort of sum carried by an individual: one of the lowest value Roman coins in the hoard would have bought two small sausages in ancient Pompeii!

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

So how did these coins get into the ground in Dorset? It could be that we are seeing the contents of a purse lost by a Roman soldier as the famous Legio II Augusta advanced through the county in the years immediately following the conquest (under the command of the future emperor Vespasian). Alternatively, the coins could have found their way into local hands, which might explain the presence of local issues alongside Roman ones.

The question of how and why coin hoards were buried in the Roman period is currently being investigated in a new AHRC-funded research project by the British Museum and Leicester University. It will study the large number of hoards now known from Roman Britain (about 2,700) with a view to understanding the circumstances of their burial and what changing patterns of hoarding behaviour tell us about the economy and society of the time.

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

For now, we can only speculate as to why these coins ended up where they did; while being grateful, of course, that some 2,000 years later we have the opportunity to try and tell their story.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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A very versatile Roman oven

A very versatile Roman ovenSally Grainger, chef and author

In my previous post about Roman cooking I described a type of oven used to bake and roast food about 2,000 years ago. Known as a clibanus it was a sophisticated piece of cooking technology most likely used by the wealthy, and one with which I have spent many years experimenting.

These ovens were made with very course gritted clay and ranged in size from 15-50 cm in diameter, with walls of up to 10 cm high. A central hole seems to have been for regulating the temperature and could also allow cooks to keep an eye on the food baking inside. A flange allowed the fire to be placed on the top of the oven.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

The sites in Italy where these ovens have been identified tend to be rather elite villa complexes where one could imagine the baking of delicate cakes and also warm bread for dinner. It is not necessarily apparent that these ovens were used by the less well off as a means of cooking simpler fair, and it is often assumed that they took their bread to be baked at large bakery complexes in towns, while we do not know what the rural poor did about baking at home. There was an assumption that they didn’t eat bread but made puls wheat porridge in a cooking pot over a wood fire.

The poem attributed to Virgil called moretum suggests that a relatively lowly market gardener baked his bread sub testu: under one of these ovens, though the status of this man is quite difficult to determine. He is considered a peasant, but he sells his produce in town and comes home with a heavy purse on occasion. Identifying these ovens is also not easy as they often come to pieces after prolonged use and recognising the shards (broken pieces) as testa (ovens) is problematic.

There is quite a detailed description of this oven in use in an agricultural manual written by Cato the Elder, in 150 BC. The recipe is for a special sacrificial cake called rather unfortunately placenta: the reason for which is another story altogether. It is a complex layered construction with sweet pasta sheets and cheese and honey bound in an outer pastry shell which might best be described as a round cheese strudel. While being constructed, the cook is advised to ‘heat the hearth and the testum where you are to cook’. Then ‘make the hearth ready beforehand and place the placenta on it, cover with a heated testum and place hot coals on top and around it’ (i).

From original drawings and reconstructed ovens the instructions on how to use it seemed quite logical, although my initial experiments were rather haphazard. I used a wood fire at first and rapidly broke the first oven I owned – we find evidence of metal versions of these ovens in Greece which could be used with a wood fire but ceramic, even very coarse material as these were, could not tolerate an open flame for long. Subsequently I used charcoal with much greater success.

Now I bake so often it has become second nature. The oven needs to be raised above the fire in order to be heated, so a trivet is used. Leaving the vessel directly on the fire caused rapid heat differential which caused cracking and sometimes put the fire that was inside the dome out.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

I left the oven to heat over a charcoal fire and found that the hole acted as a chimney to draw the fire quite well. After a time it seemed better to close the hole and keep the heat in. The hearth I used was a raised platform and its position was crucial as a strong draft also helped the fire to heat. After about an hour or sometimes longer when the heat from the surface caused our spit to sizzle – a past visit to a wood-fired bakery had already told me that when the roof of these ovens is white hot that is when the baker knows it is ready to use.

At this point the hearth needs to be prepared which meant cleaning away the fire so that the cake or bread could go directly onto a tile or ceramic hearth. The fire was brushed aside to make space as big as the oven, and my freshly proved loaf or a Roman cake called a libum was placed on this hot surface with a bay leaf beneath for flavour.

The oven is put back over the cake and then the fire is piled around the sides and on top. A good bake requires good quality ‘restaurant charcoal’ (heavier and therefore long lasting) to retain plenty of latent energy. It is then possible to place fresh charcoal close to the already alight coals so that a continuous fire can be maintained. The remaining embers and smaller pieces of charcoal are pushed around the sides of the oven evenly spaced so that no area is left unheated. Doing this I was able to reach 410F (210C) on a regular basis when baking bread, so could then bake and roast very efficiently.

I can only indicate the quality of the bake by offering the following:

The crust on my sour dough was beautifully thick and crisp even when cooled; meat on the legs of a small chicken roasted for 45 minutes in a dish rather than directly on the hearth, fell to pieces; a lamb shank cooked for one and a quarter hours was similarly tender, and belly pork fell apart and had super crackling after the same amount of time.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the relatively small space inside the oven is such that any potential moisture both from bread and also meat is retained around the food being cooked so that a steam/roast/bake process is going on. Bakers know of course that you need steam to create a good crust and now it has become common to find modern catering ovens with added steam.

All manner of complicated techniques are used to achieve the desired moist atmosphere yet 2,000 years ago the Romans had invented the technique already.

i. C. Grocock and S Grainger, 2002 Moretum: a peasant lunch revisited. The meal: proceedings of the oxford symposium on food and cookery 2001, Prospect books Totnes, pp.95-104.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

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Filed under: Chiseldon cauldrons, Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, , , ,

Wine and monks in Christian Egypt

Wine and monks in Christian EgyptJennifer Cromwell, British Museum

For the better part of three months, I’ve been obsessed with wine and monks.

The monks in question were residents of an Egyptian (Coptic) monastery dedicated to Apa Thomas and located in Wadi Sarga, a valley in central Egypt, dating from the sixth to late eighth centuries AD (from the fourth century, Egypt was one of the most important centres of monasticism in the early Christian world). The site was excavated in a single season before the First World War and the British Museum was the principal recipient of objects found at that time: almost 2,800 objects made from pottery, glass, metals, wood, stone, bone, and textiles. The Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan also holds the original excavation notes and photographs of the excavator Reginald Campbell Thompson. Despite this wealth of material, the monastery is often overlooked in studies on Egyptian monasticism.

Archival photograph showing remains of the monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga (AES Ar 1260)

Archival photograph showing remains of the monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga (AES Ar 1260)

One of the reasons for this is that less than 15% of this material has been published. My three-month postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan has been part of the process to rectify this, as part of Wadi Sarga at the British Museum, a larger project under the direction of curator Elisabeth O’Connell. This project brings together specialists from across the UK and overseas, focussing on different aspects of the collection. My focus is on the written evidence from the site.

A selection of texts from Wadi Sarga (clockwise from top left): EA 56631 (fragment of a liturgy); EA 55778 (an order to pay wine to a nun called Irene); EA 69889 (a broken inscribed bowl, preserving ‘Jesus Christ, Brother …’); EA 55876 (a wine receipt, dated 8 September)

A selection of texts from Wadi Sarga (clockwise from top left): EA 56631 (fragment of a liturgy); EA 55778 (an order to pay wine to a nun called Irene); EA 69889 (a broken inscribed bowl, preserving ‘Jesus Christ, Brother …’); EA 55876 (a wine receipt, dated 8 September)

Some 385 texts written on pieces of pottery, or potsherds (the standard writing medium at the site, known as ostraca), limestone stelae, papyrus (now in the British Library), and wall graffiti were published in 1922. Over 1,000 additional items bear text of some type, from letters to lists to labels. My first task was to photograph all this material. A search for “Wadi Sarga ostracon” in the Museum’s collection online now returns 1,441 objects with images. This resource is available for everybody interested in this topic, and means that I can continue my own work on the monastery upon my return to Australia (Macquarie University, Sydney).

My main interest is how these monks lived and how the monastery functioned: how they spent their time, what they ate and drank, and who they communicated with in the outside world and why. In everything, wine looms large.

Jennifer Cromwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, photographing ostraca from Wadi Sarga

Jennifer Cromwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, photographing ostraca from Wadi Sarga

The monastery owned vineyards throughout Egypt, as far north as the Fayum, almost 400 km away along the Nile. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of wine entered the monastery each year. A proportion of this wine was used to pay labour wages for camel herders, craftsmen, and goods suppliers and was sent out to other communities. But the monks also consumed a fair share themselves. Wine was the main drink in this period of Egyptian history and the monks were no exception; remains of glass goblets (currently being studied by my colleague Jane Faiers) attest to its consumption on site. In addition to standard wine, which didn’t have the same alcoholic content as that which we consume today, we find “new” wine, “old” wine (probably not “vintage” — there was no Château-Lafite Rothschild being supped over dinner), and “unmixed” (pure) wine. After consuming the wine, many amphorae, easily identifiable by their thick pitch internal coating, were broken and used to write other texts, often themselves mentioning wine.

The names of many monks are known, but it’s difficult to build biographies of most of them and to understand who they were. We know even less about what they looked like, but every now and again we are treated with a more personal glimpse. Two unpublished ostraca preserve broken visages. The first, EA 70766, has a doodle of a shaggy-haired monk with a thick mono-brow above two heavy eyelids. This (self?-) portrait was drawn in a moment of boredom from practicing writing exercises and is one of a couple of doodles on this school text. The second, EA 69879, is part of a bowl with the name Phib scratched into the surface. On the broken base of this bowl are the scratched-in eyes, nose, hair, and hands of Phib, his hands waving at us from over 1,300 years ago.

EA 70766 (left) and EA 69879 (right) showing broken images of monks from Wadi Sarga

EA 70766 (left) and EA 69879 (right) showing broken images of monks from Wadi Sarga

The texts, as part of a large body of material from Wadi Sarga, provide an excellent source for understanding life in these centuries, and are the next best thing to actually sitting down with Phib over a glass of wine and picking his brain.

A select number of items from Wadi Sarga is on display in Room 66: Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt.

Find out more about the Wadi Sarga at the British Museum research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , , , , ,

New discoveries of cave art in the Caribbean

New cave art discoveries in the pre-Columbian CaribbeanJago Cooper, curator, British Museum

At the end of May, I returned to the British Museum from an exploratory research visit to an uninhabited national park on the island of Mona in Puerto Rico. My colleague Dr Alice Samson, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and I had found more than we planned or expected when we flew to the Caribbean two weeks earlier.

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There are hundreds of caves on Isla de Mona many with entrances like this one on cliff faces overlooking the coastline below.

Alerted to the potential presence of archaeological sites dating to the pre-Columbian period (prior to AD 1492 when Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas) by National park manager Tony Nieves, we went to take a look. We discovered extensive pre-Columbian mining and artistic practices deep inside caves, with an astonishing abundance and diversity of new rock art including pictographs and finger-incised designs representing abstract, human and animal images.

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The pre-Columbian iconography found in many of these cave systems extends through galleried chambers covering large portions of the walls and ceilings.

Designs, which cover the walls and ceilings of hundreds of metres of the darkest caverns and tunnels across the island were executed by the application of pigments to cave walls, and by previously undocumented techniques such as incising and dragging fingers through the very soft, plaster-like deposit on the cave walls. This particular technique left white trails of surprising freshness, complexity and elaborateness.

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Many of the representations are clearly identifiable. This figure with the swirling arms represents Guabancex, the pre-Columbian deity associated with the destructive force of the hurricane.

Strikingly the technique also appears to have been a way of harvesting the soft deposit on the cave walls as is attested by the vigorous finger scratching across large expanses of cave surfaces in all of the sites we visited. These extractive activities, or evidence for ancient mining, rather than being indiscriminate movements, were systematic and deliberate actions leaving complex designs.

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This figure is identical to the famous Puerto Rican Sol de Jayuya rock art image found in central Puerto Rico.

Alongside Dr Samson I’m working in collaboration with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture to develop a project to study the pre-Columbian archaeology of the island and protect this unique Caribbean heritage. Many of the caves we explored have not been visited since guano (essentially bat excrement, a very effective fertilizer) miners working there downed tools 120 years ago, leaving the ruins of railway tracks, wagons and sometimes their initials on the cave walls.

The caves are incredibly well preserved sites, but are at very high risk of future destruction due to the soft texture of the walls and confined spaces for visitors to gain access. A glimpse of this archaeology is shown in our project gallery page.

The evidence we found not only dramatically expands our repertoire of pre-Columbian iconography, but has the potential to change understandings of past cave use in this area at this time, as well as traditional definitions of rock art.

The fieldwork discussed in this blog was consequently reported in detail at the International Association of Caribbean Archaeology in San Juan, Puerto Rico on 17 July 2013 and more information can now be found on the Antiquity Journal website. Samson, A., Cooper, J., Nieves, M. A., Rodriguez Ramos, R., Kambesis, P. N. and Lace, M. J. 2013 (Dec). Antiquity. vol 87. Issue 338 (http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/samson338/).”

Filed under: Archaeology, Research, , , ,

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

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

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

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

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

The town

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

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cemetery C

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

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

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

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

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

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

Back in the house …

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

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

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

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

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

Last, but not least…

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

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

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

Returning to the Museum

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

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

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Egypt and Sudan, Research,

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