British Museum blog

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.

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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

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The Lycurgus Cup: transformation in glass

detail of Lycurgus cupBelinda Crerar, curator, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

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

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

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Holy hand-bells: the endless histories of Irish relics

hand-bell
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell (1889,0902.22)

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

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

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

Bell-shrine (1889,0902.23)

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

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

The newly re-opened Room 41

The newly re-opened Room 41


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

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

Iron age coin die

Iron Age coin die. 2014,4014.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallo Belgic A stater_544

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

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

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

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

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

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


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

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Sutton Hoo, treasure hunters and a lucky escape

Sutton Hoo helmet
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

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

 

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

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

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

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Seeking Fred and Nellie, France 1916

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

When you think of the relationship between money and war you can be forgiven for immediately thinking about the financial implications of war. The money required to put boots on the ground and aeroplanes in the sky is staggering and yet as the world remembers the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, an object in the Citi Money Gallery reminds us that not all is as it seems. To look at one side of this silver shilling is to see something unremarkable, run of the mill and even (and I say this in hushed tones) boring. The stoic, moustachioed profile of King George V gazes left as an inscription encircles him, there is no emotion to be found here, just a standard royal portrait. The other side of the coin is different; the traditional image of a lion and crown has been carefully removed to create a smooth service on which a message has been engraved. In compact script, it reads, ‘FROM FRED TO NELLIE FRANCE 1916′.

It is not unusual to see money, and especially coins, used in such a way. ‘Love Tokens’, as these re-engraved pieces have come to be known, had their heyday from the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth centuries, when convicted criminals were transported from Britain to Australia. Large copper coins were often engraved with messages of love and devotion, a small object of remembrance left behind by someone who would most likely never see their loved ones again. Short bursts of poetry would accompany images of hearts and doves asking the recipient not to forget their existence on the other side of the world.

A soldier during the First World War was similarly compelled to engrave a simple message of devotion. 1916 witnessed two of the bloodiest battles of the war, at Verdun and the Somme in France, resulting in over two million casualties. Is it possible that Fred fought in the Battle of the Somme and if so did he return home? Who is Nellie, to whom he dedicated this coin? Quite simply we don’t know. The only information we have about the object is that it was donated to the British Museum in 1966 by Mrs Carvell from Hampstead in London. Any hopes of identifying Fred or Nellie ends here, unless someone reading this blog post has information which may help us get a step closer to the two protagonists named on this small yet compelling object.

A minor edit was made to the post on 26 Fenruary 2014 to remove the suggestion that Fred fought at the Battle of Verdun, as it is unlikely that there would have been any British soldiers at Verdun.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Introducing the African rock art image project

Roof of a painted rock shelter
Elizabeth Galvin, curator, British Museum

This is the first of a series of posts that we – the Rock Art team – will be writing over the coming 4 years. Through generous support from the Arcadia Fund, the British Museum has been able to work with the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) in Nairobi to document and disseminate 25,000 images of African rock art. We will be spending the next four years cataloguing and integrating these images into the Museum’s collection online database so people throughout the world can explore and learn more about African rock art. This week, we launch the project with the first images visible online – specifically rock art images from Egypt.

Roof of a painted rock shelter with various animals and human figures. Karkur Talh, Egypt. 2013,2034.6 © David Coulson/TARA

Roof of a painted rock shelter with various animals and human figures. Karkur Talh, Egypt. 2013,2034.6 © David Coulson/TARA

The TARA team has spent the last three decades photographing and documenting rock art from across the continent. Rock art is found throughout Africa and spans thousands of years. Mainly paintings and engravings, it is found in a wide range of places, including caves, rock faces, stelae and boulders. While mainly concentrated in North and Southern Africa, well-known sites can also be found in East, Central and West Africa. TARA has recorded over 800 sites in 19 countries across the continent.

As you can imagine, documenting and cataloguing 25,000 images from such a large area means that we will have incredibly diverse types of rock art to work with, dating from thousands of years ago to less than 100 years old. Through this project we expect to learn a lot, not just about African rock art, but how it sits in the wider context of the Museum’s collection and study of Africa.

San rock painting, Zimbabwe.  © David Coulson/ TARA

San rock painting, Zimbabwe. © David Coulson/ TARA


Engraved calabash gourd vessel made by the San People (Af1976,05.2)

Engraved calabash gourd vessel made by the San People (Af1976,05.2)

We can learn a lot about the people that made the depictions. Rock art can be seen as an extension of a group’s material culture, not just through the design aesthetic of a particular group, but also demonstrating the imagery of what is valued and important to that culture. In this case, we can see in the images above a piece of painted rock art from Zimbabwe compared to a decorated calabash gourd vessel from Southern Africa. Both of these were made by the San people, and show similar motifs.

Crocodile rock engraving, Messak, Libya. © David Coulson/TARA

Crocodile rock engraving, Messak, Libya. © David Coulson/TARA

Rock art can give insight into how places used to look thousands of years ago. The image above shows an engraving of a crocodile in the middle of the Sahara desert. We know this rock art is thousands of years old, when the Sahara was green grasslands with lakes and rivers. When this engraving was made – in the Messak in Libya – a crocodile could have been a regular resident of the area.

Painted rock art of a human figure with harp. Ennedi Region, Chad . © David Coulson/TARA

Painted rock art of a human figure with harp. Ennedi Region, Chad. © David Coulson/TARA


Arched harp from the New Kingdom, Egypt (EA 38170)

Arched harp from the New Kingdom, Egypt (EA 38170)


Bow harp with animal gut strings, Sudan (EA 38170)

Bow harp with animal gut strings, Sudan (EA 38170)

Rock art is also a way to learn more about the objects we have in the British Museum’s collection here in London. We can gain insight into how they may have been used, traded, changed and shared. This image of painted rock art from the Ennedi Region in Chad shows a human figure playing a harp. From this, we can see how it is similar to other harps we have in our collection, one from Egypt and the other from Sudan. Although they did not come from the same time period, it does give a sense of how objects and ideas have spread both geographically and through various time periods. Vast trade routes were prevalent throughout Africa, and it is quite possible that instruments, like the ones depicted here, were exchanged or shared.

Spray paint graffiti over rock art. © David Coulson/TARA

Spray paint graffiti over rock art. © David Coulson/TARA

Sadly, rock art is susceptible to destruction by both natural and manmade events. This image shows a c.7,000 year old piece of rock art destroyed by spray paint. This database allows the Museum to study the rock art as well as preserve it for future generations.

We are cataloguing the images geographically by country, starting in Northern Africa, and will be continuously adding images to the database, which feeds through to the Collection Online. Check the African rock art project page regularly for updates, featured images, and to see how we are using rock art to learn more about Africa, from ancient times through to present day.

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Filed under: African rock art, Research, , , , ,

Was the ark round? A Babylonian description discovered

Irving Finkel, curator, British Museum
Detail of a cuneiform tablet

I’ve just come from the press conference launching my new book, The Ark Before Noah. As I told the journalists, it all started with a fairly normal event for a museum curator: a member of the public bringing in an object that had long been in their family to have it identified. As often happens in my case, it was a cuneiform tablet. The visitor, Douglas Simmonds, had been given it by his father for passing his exams. It was part of a modest collection: a few tablets, some cylinder seals, a lamp or two and some pieces from China and Egypt. His father, an inveterate curio hunter, had picked them up after the War in the late 1940s.

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

This tablet, however, turned out to be one in a million. The cuneiform was a sixty-line passage from the ancient Babylonian Story of the Flood. This story had been well known since the 1870s, when George Smith, a brilliant decipherer who worked at the British Museum, first identified the story known from the Book of Genesis in a seventh-century cuneiform tablet from Nineveh. The two accounts – Babylonian and biblical – were closely related. The new tablet, however, written in about 1750 BC, has startling new contents.

When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis’s Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn’t a problem – it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s.

Deciphering the tablet was a great adventure, but one development soon led to another: a documentary film in which the Ark is being built according to these 3700-year-old instructions (although not quite full size), and the commissioning of a book.

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Writing it led to some demanding questions: what was the origin of the Flood Story? How did it pass from Babylonian cuneiform to Biblical Hebrew? Then I discovered that a line from the new tablet was quoted on our famous Map of the World tablet, showing where the Babylonian believed that Ark had landed. I also got to address other questions I have been asking myself for years: how does cuneiform writing really work? What were the ancient Babylonians really like?

The Ark Before Noah_544

Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is available from the British Museum Shop online for £20, British Museum Members’ price £18.

The tablet is on display in Room 56 (Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC)

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A loan from Berlin: a lion from Babylon

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914
Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

As the weather turns colder and the days shorter the Museum has been loaned a reminder of warmer, sunnier climes, which is helping to beat the mid-winter chill. The Department of the Middle East is preparing to display a panel of glazed bricks that has been generously loaned to us by the Vorderasiatisches Museum, part of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin group.

Complete reconstructed panel from Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room on display at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Pacing lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king. © Vorderasiatisches Museum - SMB, photograph by Olaf M. Teßmer

Complete reconstructed panel from Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room on display at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Pacing lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king.
© Vorderasiatisches Museum – SMB, photograph by Olaf M. Teßmer

The panel shows a pacing, roaring lion and once was part of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s throne room in his palace in the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq. Nebuchadnezzar II reigned from 605-562 BC, and supposedly had the hanging gardens of Babylon built for his queen. Although there is little evidence to confirm his passion for gardening, it is certain that Nebuchadnezzar commissioned other major building projects in Babylon, to glorify the capital of his empire. Inscriptions stamped on bricks reveal the extent of these works. In the city of Babylon, glazed bricks in bright shades of blue, yellow and white were used to create public monuments that emphasised the power of the king and the gods. In Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room the roaring lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king, whose empire stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and from the Caucasus to northern Arabia.

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914
© Vorderasiatisches Museum – SMB

Finds excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914 came to Berlin packed in crates. Staff spent years painstakingly joining fragments of glazed brick together to recreate Nebuchadnezzar’s Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, in Berlin. The panel loaned to the British Museum has been similarly pieced together from bricks the Vorderasiatisches Museum has in store and so is being seen complete for the very first time in London.

The lion panel being installed in Room 55

The lion panel being installed in Room 55

The panel will be displayed in Room 55 (Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC) from 20 December 2013

Filed under: Room 55 (Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC), , ,

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