British Museum blog

A second look at a Byzantine icon: The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Robin Cormack, classicist and art historian

And life slips by like a field mouse,
Not shaking the grass.

Working on a new edition of my book Icons – first published by the British Museum in 2007 – I was reminded of these lines by the poet Ezra Pound on the rapid passing of time. I had to think what changes might be necessary to my work after seven years. In writing Icons my hope was to do two things: to celebrate the importance of the collection of Byzantine and Russian icons in the British Museum, and at the same time to give reasons why icons form a significant part of the history of Europe too. To use a favourite phrase of art historians, if art is embedded in society, then how can we understand that society through looking at its art? Icons are a special case because they are a medium that was produced in Europe from the early centuries of Christianity, became an essential element in the lives of the people of the Middle Ages, especially in the Byzantine world with its capital of Constantinople, but continue to be produced today. In other words, if you go into an Orthodox church, you will see in use icons first painted centuries ago side by side with new icons. That makes icons a very special form of art. There is the further complication that you may also see icons, not in a church, but in a ‘secular’ setting like the British Museum. Do they have the same impact in that context?

Icon with the Nativity of Christ. Egg tempera on wood with linen and gesso. Crete, 17th century (2012,8039.1)

Icon with the Nativity of Christ. Egg tempera on wood with linen and gesso. Crete, 17th century (2012,8039.1)

What changes have there been since 2007? The Museum has acquired a dozen more icons since then, which are illustrated at the end of the catalogue. For me the most charismatic new icon is the Nativity of Christ (cat. no. 112), painted on Crete in the 17th century. It came to the British Museum in 2012 as a bequest from the artist and Royal Academician John Craxton who for most of his life worked in a studio at Chania and produced colourful and joyful paintings of life in modern Crete. He wanted this, the best icon in his collection, to be in the British Museum collection, and so the Museum has in its possession a painting previously owned by the artist who encouraged art historians to appreciate the icons of Crete.

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. Icon painted with egg tempera, with gilding, on a wooden panel faced with linen and gesso. Byzantine (late), around 1400, Constantinople (1988,0411.1)

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. Icon painted with egg tempera, with gilding, on a wooden panel faced with linen and gesso. Byzantine (late), around 1400, Constantinople (1988,0411.1)

Possibly the best known icon in the British Museum is the Triumph of Orthodoxy, dating to the 14th century. It celebrates the end of the period of Iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries when icons were banned in Byzantium. From AD 843 onwards, the ban was revoked and icons became a defining feature of the Orthodox Church. The people who fought for icons are represented on the icon. As part of my research for the new edition of the book, I looked closely again at the icon, especially at the fragmentary Greek inscriptions giving the names of these iconophile ‘heroes’. I decided that I – as well as everyone else who had looked – had made some wrong deductions about who some of the figures were. In the new edition I identify the two central saints in the lower register, who jointly hold an image of Christ, as the two most famous iconophiles: St Stephanos, who was reputedly martyred in the 8th century, and St Theodore who was exiled on the 9th century for promoting the veneration of icons. As for the saints on the right, it is now argued that the artist wrote the wrong names beside some of the figures. The most likely explanation is that the icon copies an earlier icon of the same subject and the artist made a few mistakes, probably because the model was larger and had a few more figures.

So a second edition gives a second chance to look and interpret. Perhaps Ezra Pound was unduly pessimistic.

Icons by Robin Cormack, published by British Museum Press, is available online for £14.99, Members’ price £13.49

Robin Cormack is Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and is currently teaching Ancient art and archaeology at the Classics Faculty, University of Cambridge

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

Filed under: Collection, , , , , , , , , , ,

A new look at ancient Egyptian textiles

textile fragmentAmandine Mérat (Curator) and Emily Taylor (Museum Assistant), British Museum

We have recently taken the opportunity to audit, document and re-house the textiles dating to the 1st millenium AD – around 1,800 in number – that are looked after by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (AES). The main aims of this project are the re-organisation and distribution of the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic textiles into a coherent and accessible storage system, along with the improvement of their documentation by adding photographs, technical analysis, iconographic and cultural information.

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870).  Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870). Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

As in many museums today, the British Museum’s Egyptian textiles collection is mostly composed of fragmentary pieces, acquired through excavation and purchase in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, decorative elements considered as spectacular or aesthetically pleasing were often cut out from large pieces when discovered, as only the most vibrant and colourful pieces were wanted by European collectors. However, this meant that they were also cut off from their archaeological contexts. It was for this reason that, with the exception of two great sets of textiles from excavations at Qasr Ibrim and Wadi Sarga, we decided to reorder the Museum’s collection not by provenance or date – as these are rarely known – but by technique. Indeed, a close visual examination of technique, and drawing on knowledge of their cultural background, allows us to determine the possible original function of many of the textiles, essentially fragments of garments and home furnishing originating from burial contexts.

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

We began our audit by classifying the textiles by their primary weaving technique – tapestry, brocade, embroidery etc. This process helped us to work out how much storage space was required for each group, taking into account the fragility of the textiles, but also the need for easy access and the possibility of new items joining the collection at a later date. Each primary group was then sub-divided, on the basis of shape or iconography of the textiles.

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Drawer by drawer, the technical and iconographic analyses for each textile were completed by Amandine Merat, the curator responsible for the project. Some pieces had already been studied by Hero Granger-Taylor in the 1990s; in those cases, her detailed notes were checked and annotated where necessary. However, a great majority of the textiles had never been analysed before. For these, the fibres were identified, measurements were taken, techniques carefully analysed and a complete description of the piece and its iconography was made. Original function of the textiles and dating were re-attributed where necessary.

Once the technical information was recorded, the textiles were photographed by Emily Taylor. A general shot of front and back was taken, an arrow included to indicate the direction of the warp of the fabric. Detailed macro shots were then taken to record any small details or highlight interesting elements of design, use or technique. The textiles were then re-housed in acid free tissue, and melinex sleeves where possible, and then placed on Correx boards within their storage drawers to enable ease of handling.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

All relevant information was recorded in a spreadsheet by our volunteer Ruiha Smalley, before being standardised and uploaded into the British Museum’s collection database, through which it will soon be available to the public via the collection online.

The post was updated on 24 June to correct a date in the first sentence. The textiles date to the 1st millennium AD, not BC.


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

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, , , , , , , , , ,

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th and 11th centuries, but puzzles and story-telling remained central. The early art style of the Anglo-Saxon period is known as Style I and was popular in the late 5th and 6th centuries. It is characterised by what seems to be a dizzying jumble of animal limbs and face masks, which has led some scholars to describe the style as an ‘animal salad’. Close scrutiny shows that Style I is not as abstract as first appears, and through carefully following the decoration in stages we can unpick the details and begin to get a sense for what the design might mean.

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century AD

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century AD

Decoding the great square-headed brooch from Chessel Down

Decoding the square-headed brooch. Click on the image for larger version.

One of the most exquisite examples of Style I animal art is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch from a female grave on the Isle of Wight. Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

Turning the brooch upside-down reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple.

Turning the brooch upside-down reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple. Click on the image for larger version.

Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo. Click on the image for larger version.

Style I was superseded by Style II in the late 6th century. This later style has more fluid and graceful animals, but these still writhe and interlace together and require patient untangling. The great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo is decorated in this style. From the thicket of interlace that fills the buckle’s surface 13 different animals emerge. These animals are easier to spot: the ring-and-dot eyes, the birds’ hooked beaks, and the four-toed feet of the animals are good starting points. At the tip of the buckle, two animals grip a small dog-like creature in their jaws and on the circular plate, two snakes intertwine and bite their own bodies. Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

The five senses on the Fuller Brooch. Click on the image for a larger version

The five senses on the Fuller Brooch. Click on the image for a larger version

Animal art continued to be popular on Anglo-Saxon metalwork throughout the later period, when it went through further transformations into the Mercian Style (defined by sinuous animal interlace) in the 8th century and then into the lively Trewhiddle Style in the 9th century. Trewhiddle-style animals feature in the roundels of the Fuller Brooch, but all other aspects of its decoration are unique within Anglo-Saxon art. Again, through a careful unpicking of its complex imagery we can understand its visual messages. At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

This iconography can best be understood in the context of the scholarly writings of King Alfred the Great (died AD 899), which emphasised sight and the ‘mind’s eye’ as the principal way in which wisdom was acquired along with the other senses. Given this connection, perhaps it was made at Alfred the Great’s court workshop and designed to be worn by one of his courtiers?

Throughout the period, the Anglo-Saxons expressed a love of riddles and puzzles in their metalwork. Behind the non-reflective glass in the newly opened Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300-1100, you can do like the Anglo-Saxons and get up close to these and many other objects to decode the messages yourself.

Click on the thumbnails below to view in a full-screen slideshow

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

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

Filed under: Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , , , , , , , ,

Have we found Fred and Nellie?

engraved coinBen Alsop, Curator, British Museum

Silver George V shilling re-engraved as a love token, 1916 (J.3283)

Silver George V shilling re-engraved as a love token, 1916 (J.3283)

In February I wrote a post about a First World War love token which we have in the collection of the Department of Coins and Medals. The token, a silver shilling of King George V, had been engraved to carry the simple message ‘FROM FRED TO NELLIE FRANCE 1916′. In the post I wondered who Fred and Nellie were. Had Fred fought at the Somme and if so, did he return home?

These questions I raised far more in hope than in the expectation of anyone suggesting possible answers. The rather limited information that we had about the object, that it had been donated to the Museum in 1966 by Miss Carvell from Hampstead in London, was not a particularly promising place from which to start any investigation.

Fred and Nellie Sharp, 5 August 1916. Photo with kind permission of Joy

Fred and Nellie Sharp, 5 August 1916. Photo with kind permission of Joy

Imagine my surprise when a few days after the post was published, the Museum received an email from a lady who had seen an image of the token on the Museum’s Facebook page and felt compelled to write. In subsequent emails Joy explained that her grandfather Frederick Sharp, known as Fred, had married a lady called Ellen Alden (who everyone knew as Nellie) on 5 August 1916 at the John Street Baptist Church in Holborn. Frederick Sharp had been called up in 1916 and married Nellie just before he left for France with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. In a photograph taken on their wedding day you can see the newly married couple, Fred in his army uniform and Nellie seated by his side.

Fred and Nellie with their three children, date unknown. Photo with kind permission of Joy

Fred and Nellie with their three children, date unknown. Photo with kind permission of Joy

The King’s Royal Rifle Corps had a total of fourteen battalions engaged at the Battle of the Somme from July 1916 until its end in November that year. So it is possible that Fred did indeed see action in the battle. Thankfully he returned home to be reunited with Nellie and the couple had three children, eventually ending up living in Friern Barnet in North London. Nellie died in 1966, the year the token entered the Museum’s collection as a donation from Miss Margaret Mary Carvell, who lived at 30 Daleham Gardens, Hampstead. Margaret Carvell was evidently interested in coins as she had joined the British Numismatic Society in November 1966 but died just two years later.

So far we haven’t been able to make the link between Margaret Carvell and Fred and Nellie, and maybe we never will. While it’s unlikely we can ever be completely certain that this love token was a gift from Frederick Sharp to his wife Ellen, the evidence kindly put forward by Joy is compelling. I for one hope that the couple shown in the photograph is the one we are seeking and that it was Fred, whom Joy described as ‘a lovely kind man’, who gave the simple token of affection to Nellie before he left to go to war.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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

Filed under: Money Gallery, , , , , , ,

The Vandals: victims of a bad press?

mosaicBarry Ager, curator, British Museum

Copper 42 nummi coin showing a Vandal warrior. Although it does not carry a king’s name, it is possible that this coin was made during the time of Gelimer (AD 530-3), and thus he may be the intended identity of the cloaked figure with a spear. The reverse shows the mark of value in Roman numerals (including the long-tailed L (=50) typical of Latin inscriptions in Vandal Africa, and also seen on Gelimer’s silver coinage). Above is the fine image of a horse’s head, the traditional emblem of Carthage since Punic times. TC,p241.2.Car

Copper 42 nummi coin showing a Vandal warrior. Although it does not carry a king’s name, it is possible that this coin was made during the time of Gelimer (AD 530-3), and thus he may be the intended identity of the cloaked figure with a spear. The reverse shows the mark of value in Roman numerals (including the long-tailed L (=50) typical of Latin inscriptions in Vandal Africa, and also seen on Gelimer’s silver coinage). Above is the fine image of a horse’s head, the traditional emblem of Carthage since Punic times. TC,p241.2.Car

The name of the Vandals is synonymous today with wanton violence and destruction. But it seems to me that, just like the Vikings, the Vandals have suffered from a bad press. The surviving accounts of their sack of Rome in AD 455, of their further piratical raids around the Mediterranean, and of their persecution of the Catholic inhabitants of North Africa are all presented through the eyes of their enemies and opponents: the Roman and Byzantine Empires and the established Church. Clearly, the Vandals were regarded as the ‘bad guys’ of the day and we, too have been led into thinking of them as wild barbarians, intent on the destruction of Rome and its civilisation.

But how balanced a picture do we get from the contemporary accounts? We do not, after all, have the Vandal side of the story, although we should probably discount the suggestion that they were invited into North Africa, their final home, in support of the Roman governor. He may have been made a scapegoat later for the Vandal conquest of the region.

Ivory diptych of Stilicho (right) with his wife Serena and son Eucherius, aroud AD 395, Monza Cathedral, Italy. photo © Iberfoto / SuperStock

Ivory diptych of Stilicho (right) with his wife Serena and son Eucherius, aroud AD 395, Monza Cathedral, Italy. photo © Iberfoto / SuperStock

One Vandal by the name of Stilicho served in the West Roman army and even rose through the ranks to become its commanding general and the power behind the Imperial throne. He married Serena, a Roman citizen from a prominent family, and did his best to defend Italy and Rome from attack in this turbulent period. But, he was murdered in 408 on the orders of an emperor who was mistrustful of his ambition. There followed a brutal massacre of ‘barbarian’ women and children at the hands of Roman troops. Now, we might well wonder who the real barbarians were in these events.

The Vandals were originally a farming and cattle-herding people who had migrated from Central Europe to escape from outside pressure on their homeland, caused by the inroads of the nomadic Huns in the early 5th century. They eventually went on to conquer and settle in the Roman provinces of Africa, in what are parts of Tunisia and Algeria today, making their capital at Carthage in 439. But, we should not forget that they had been left with little choice – when military conflicts in the province of Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal) made the situation too dangerous to stay, it became a fight for survival. They had already spent around 30 years within the Roman Empire and must certainly have been impressed by its wealth and cultural achievements. They would have wanted to participate in its prosperity, not kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

We tend to forget that, whatever their origins, the Vandals had been previously converted to Christianity, adopting the Arian creed, which held sway at the time. It was only later that Arianism, which regarded Christ as secondary to God, was declared heretical by the Roman Catholic Church, with the unfortunate result of setting the Vandals in religious opposition to their subjects. This was not the first time, however, that there had been bitter religious strife in the region, as witnessed by the earlier disputes between Catholics and Donatists. Indeed, the latter, who made up a sizeable proportion of the population, may have welcomed a change of rule, according to one eminent historian.

The sack of Rome certainly did the Vandals no favours. Although their main aim was to seize treasures, they also took thousands of Romans captive. But, in spite of the political upheaval caused by the establishment of their kingdom, the region of North Africa that had fallen under their control remained prosperous and economically stable, even if at a reduced level. The Vandal kings minted coins of silver and bronze for trade, although this suffered to some extent following the decline of the market of Rome after 455. Nevertheless, fine ceramic tableware and amphorae for wine and olive oil continued to be manufactured in Roman tradition and were still exported as far as Rome itself and western Britain. There is only limited evidence of destruction at towns or villas, such as Carthage, Koudiat Zateur and Thuburbo Maius, although there was some ruralisation and a number of forums fell into disuse and some streets were built over. Also, there does not appear to have been any decline in identifiable rural sites until after the Byzantine reconquest. Agriculture, grain and olive oil production continued.

Mosaic from Bord-Djedid near the site of Carthage. Late 5th – early 6th century, (1967,0405.18)

Mosaic from Bord-Djedid near the site of Carthage. Late 5th – early 6th century, (1967,0405.18)

Except at court, the Vandals adopted Roman fashions and the way of life of the province in which they had settled. Vandal kings and nobles patronised the arts and the historian Procopius tells us they loved fine clothes, music, hot baths, the theatre and the Roman aristocratic pursuits of hunting and horse-riding. However, they seem to have made little effort to integrate themselves and formed a ruling elite. Former Roman administrators served in the government and still sealed documents in the Roman manner. Vandal building projects include Hilderic’s palace at Anclae and the poet Luxorius mentions the splendid, well-watered pleasure garden belonging to one Fridamal. If you get the chance to visit the Museum’s new gallery Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100, look up on the wall at the mosaic from near Carthage, which may show a Vandal landowner riding out in front of his villa. The Vandals continued to maintain the aqueduct at Carthage and the churches that had been taken over for Arian worship. The discovery of a hoard of garnets from Carthage, including cut stones, suggests that there was a workshop producing cloisonné jewellery locally in contemporary style. The Albertini tablets from southern Numidia, a group of inscribed wooden tablets recording mainly land sales of around AD 490, show that literacy survived and that there was legal and administrative continuity during the Vandal period. The tablets are now in the Musée National des Antiquités, Algiers.

Although we might find it hard to exonerate the Vandals, particularly for the sack of Rome and the persecution of the Catholics of North Africa, new archaeological discoveries help us to see them from a more balanced perspective. Indeed, even Victor of Vita, who recorded the persecution, acknowledged that not everyone shared his views. Furthermore, after the final defeat of the Vandals by the Byzantine army in 534, it is said that many provincials hoped for their return, because they had reduced the high level of taxation under the Roman Empire. In other words, had the Vandals been as much sinned against as sinners?

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

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

Filed under: Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , ,

Bitcoin: how do we display the intangible?

bitcoin minerBenjamin Alsop, curator, British Museum

The Citi Money Gallery charts over four millennia’s worth of monetary history. The Department of Coins and Medals cares for over one million objects in the Museum’s collection and like any museum with a growing collection, the most pressing questions are what should we collect and where should we put it all? Yet a recent concern for me as the curator of the Citi Money Gallery is not which objects should I select from our vast collection for a new display, but whether we had any suitable objects at all. This may sound like the murmurings of an eccentric curator, but let me explain myself.

Bitcoin token, designed by Mike Caldwell (CM 2012,4040.4)

Bitcoin token, designed by Mike Caldwell (CM 2012,4040.4)

If the gallery is to be a record of the changing nature and form of money through the ages, then it is just as important to reflect the modern world as it is ancient Greece or Rome. Modern technologies, and in particular their application, are having huge effects on the world of finance but also on society in general. As a result it would be remiss of the gallery not to discuss a particular current monetary phenomenon. I speak of course about ‘cryptocurrencies’, digital de-centralised currencies which began with the invention of Bitcoin in 2009. Since its opening in summer 2012, the Citi Money Galley has always had a bitcoin token on display, made by the software developer Mike Caldwell.

However this is really just a token for the collectors’ market, a physical manifestation of something which was never intended to exist in a tangible way. So the display at first did seem rather tricky, tricky but not impossible. Objects are at the very heart of everything we do at the Museum and while we couldn’t display a real ‘bitcoin’, there was a wealth of other material culture which could help tell the story.

The paper ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System‘ published in 2009 seemed to be the sensible place to start. Written by the unknown (although not so unknown if you are to believe an article in Newsweek magazine) Satoshi Nakamoto, it brought to the world’s attention a possible new form of currency and so is included in the display.

Bitcoin miner USB stick

Bitcoin miner USB stick

Record of the first bitcoin block mined

Record of the first bitcoin block mined

While Bitcoin is the most well known of the cryptocurrencies it has spawned over one hundred other purely electronic cash systems since its creation. The major thing that these currencies have in common is that they are created using complex computing. To this end a bitcoin mining machine (pictured above) is displayed in the gallery with a record of the first Bitcoin block mined on 3 January 2009.

Dogecoin logo, designed by Christine Ricks

Dogecoin logo, designed by Christine Ricks

Bitcoin Magazine Issue 16: To the Moon (November)

Bitcoin Magazine Issue 16: To the Moon (November)

One of the most interesting aspects of cryptocurrencies is that at the moment their use is as much a lifestyle choice as an economic one. You only need to look at the logo of ‘Dogecoin‘ to see that while Bitcoin and its descendants are a serious attempt to offer alternatives to traditional currencies, there is playfulness at work. Attempts to popularise and promote Bitcoin use similarly arresting graphic designs and so the inclusion of Bitcoin Magazine into the display adds colour and imagery.

For all the evident ingenuity at play, much of the negative press surrounding Bitcoin is as a result of its unpredictability. A look at its price from a height of over US$1000 in December 2012 to its current price hovering around US$450, is evidence of this fluctuation. The final object on display is at first glance rather straight forward. It is a Smile Bank account document recording the transfer of pounds sterling from a British bank account to a Bitcoin exchange in Japan. The exchange was called Mt. Gox, the largest exchange in existence in 2013, handling around 70% of all bitcoin transactions. However, in February 2014 Mt Gox filed for bankruptcy after declaring the loss of over 650,000 bitcoins. How this vast amount was lost, an amount worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the time, is still being investigated. The plainness of the document hides a cautionary tale about the volatility of all financial investments.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

If you have any thoughts on what other objects would help tell the story of Bitcoin or cryptocurrencies generally, please tell us about them in the comments. To leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Money Gallery, , , , , ,

The Lycurgus Cup: transformation in glass

detail of Lycurgus cupBelinda Crerar, curator, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

AN01066991_544x725

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

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

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

Filed under: Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , , , ,

Holy hand-bells: the endless histories of Irish relics

hand-bell
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell (1889,0902.22)

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

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

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

Bell-shrine (1889,0902.23)

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

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

The newly re-opened Room 41

The newly re-opened Room 41


The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 is now open in Room 41. Admission is free.
If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , ,

The die that struck Britain’s first coins?

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

Iron age coin die

Iron Age coin die. 2014,4014.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallo Belgic A stater_544

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

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

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

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

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

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


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

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

Filed under: Money Gallery, , , , ,

Sutton Hoo, treasure hunters and a lucky escape

Sutton Hoo helmet
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Filed under: Archaeology, Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 8,866 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

This toy horse may look remarkably modern, but it dates from the Roman period in Egypt (after 30 BC). You can find out more about childhood in ancient #Egypt in our #8mummies exhibition #MummyMonday Don't miss Neil MacGregor's new BBC Radio 4 series: #MemoriesOfANation starts this morning at 09.45 #germany #art #history #radio #series Edgar Degas died #onthisday in 1917. Here’s a study of a figure for a later painting #art #degas #history #drawing Théodore Géricault was born #onthisday in 1791. This #watercolour is from his time in London #art #history #artist The Ryder Cup is now on! 'Golf' was also popular with the Chinese emperor 600 years ago #Ming50Years The Great Court roof from Room 6 #architecture #building #glass #pattern #museum #window #light #dark
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,866 other followers

%d bloggers like this: