British Museum blog

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

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Charles Masson and the relic deposit of Tope Kelan

Coins from the relic deposit of Tope Kelan on display
Mahesh A. Kalra, University of Mumbai and International Training Programme curator, British Museum

During my placement in the Department of Coins and Medals as part of the International Training Programme (ITP), I was given the choice of selecting a coin hoard from the Indian subcontinent for display in the Citi Money Gallery. My initial thoughts focused on the Pudukottai hoard, a unique set of Roman gold coins found in South India. However, a chance conversation with Elizabeth Errington about Charles Masson, an enigmatic nineteenth-century British explorer, turned my attention to his discovery of a hoard of coins from the Buddhist relic deposit of Tope Kelan (also known as Hadda Stupa 10) in modern Afghanistan. I began to research Charles Masson by studying From Persepolis to the Punjab: Exploring the Past in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan written by Elizabeth with Vesta Curtis.

The Masson story is a nineteenth-century saga full of adventure, intrigue and fascinating discoveries. Born James Lewis, Masson deserted the East India Company’s Bengal Army in 1827 to assume a pseudonym of a supposed American from Kentucky, exploring Afghanistan and beyond. In Persia he met British officers who persuaded him to sell his account of the lands through which he had travelled to the East India Company. The British Resident in Tehran, Sir John Campbell, gave him 500 rupees to start exploring the ancient remains of Afghanistan. This was followed up in 1833 by funds from the East India Company to explore and excavate any sites on their behalf, on the understanding that any finds became the property of the Company. However, by 1835, his true identity had come to light, but since his knowledge of local Afghan conditions made him an invaluable asset to the East India Company, he was granted a pardon for desertion (a capital offence) in return for his services in Kabul as a ‘News Writer’, the official term for a spy in the employ of the Honourable East India Company.

Map by Charles Masson showing the position of Tope Kelan (Hadda Stupa 10)

Map by Charles Masson showing the position of Tope Kelan (Hadda Stupa 10) © The British Library

Masson’s excavations in the region of Kabul and Jalalabad included a series of Buddhist ‘Topes’, i.e. stupas (sacred domed structures symbolizing the Buddha). Tope Kelan (Stupa 10) on the outskirts of Hadda, a village south of Jalalabad in south-eastern Afghanistan, was excavated by Charles Masson in 1834. The relic deposit contained more than 200 coins buried along with a variety of over 100 objects including silver rings, gilded bronze, silver and gold reliquaries, glass and semi-precious beads and brass pins including a unique cockerel-headed example. These were buried as part of a Buddhist ritual aimed at earning merit in the afterlife.

Sketch of Tope Kelan by Charles Masson

Sketch of Tope Kelan by Charles Masson © The British Library

Masson returned to England in 1840 disgusted at his treatment by the East India Company, treatment which included wrongful imprisonment on the trumped-up charge of being involved in the revolt against the British in Kalat at the beginning of the First Anglo-Afghan war in 1839. The Tope Kelan coins were sent, together with all Masson’s other finds, to the Company’s India Museum in London. In 1878, when this Museum closed, 100 of the coins were transferred to the British Museum as part of the India Office Collection (IOC). Only those illustrated by Masson in H.H. Wilson’s Ariana Antiqua, can be positively identified. Others were sold at auction in 1887 to Sir Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, and entered the Museum as part of his collection in 1894.

Coins from the relic deposit at Tope Kelan on display in the Citi Money Gallery

Coins from the relic deposit at Tope Kelan on display in the Citi Money Gallery

The Tope Kelan deposit contains five series of coins, Byzantine gold solidi, Sasanian silver coins, Alchon Hun silver coins, Kidarite Hun gold and silver coins, and a gold coin from Kashmir, all minted before AD 480. The hoard is important evidence of the Silk Route trade network that crisscrossed Europe, Central Asia to China and India in the first millennium AD. The Tope Kelan hoard is thus a testimony to the multiculturalism of ancient Afghanistan with its links to the Indian sub-continent, Iran and China.

Mahesh working on the display in the Citi Money Gallery

Mahesh working on the display

A selection of coins and objects excavated by Charles Masson from Tope Kelan are now on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Facing Enlightenment: a musical conversation with the past

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved, violinist

On Friday 13th December between 18.30 and 20.00, I am performing in a concert in the Enlightenment Gallery, setting up a musical conversation between past and present, one that is reflective of the ideas of renewal and rediscovery summed up in the word ‘Enlightenment’. Music of the 1600s and 1700s, by Giuseppe Torelli, Nicola Matteis, and Johann Jakob Walther will be played alongside brand new works, including one by leading composer David Gorton, responding to the challenge of the past.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery, 2006, photo courtsey of Richard Bram

David Gorton played a central role in my 2006 intervention in the Enlightenment Gallery, when 11 international composers created new work in conversation with my ideas about the space and the collection. Gorton’s new work takes a bold imaginative leap, inspired by the Enlightenment’s ‘discovery of the past’: how might we, in 2013, re-imagine musicians of the Enlightenment reviving, exploring, the music and the works of earlier epochs?

Gorton’s first work for the Enlightenment Gallery was inspired by the copy of the Rosetta Stone made for George III. The resulting Rosetta Caprice has been played hundreds of times worldwide, recorded and filmed, and most recently, I presented it at a TED Conference in Norway. Follow the link to see a short film of its first appearance in the British Museum, in 2006.

Some of the composers working with me were inspired by the layers of history, the ‘false leads’, overlaying some of the most ancient man-made objects in the Enlightenment Gallery. Nashville-based composer Michael Alec Rose was inspired by the Grays Inn Handaxe, at one time thought to have been a Roman weapon. The title, Palimpsest, is a reflection of these layerings.

The Enlightenment was as much a revolution of technology and science as ideas and discovery. One of its most enduring legacies proved to be the instruments of the violin family, pioneered and perfected in the Italian cities of Cremona and Brescia across this period. This concert will be performed on a beautiful early example by the ‘father of the violin’, Andrea Amati, whose grandson Niccolo, would later teach Antonio Stradivari.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved is the dedicatee of over 400 works for violin, and has recorded over 70 critically acclaimed albums of works from the 17th century to the present day. He regularly performs in over 30 countries, and has a unique record of collaboration with museums, working regularly with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Library of Congress, Washington DC and the National Portrait Gallery, where he curated a major exhibition, Only Connect, in 2011-12. To see more of his work, visit www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com

The performance Facing Enlightenment is in the Enlightenment Gallery, Friday 13 December, 18.30–20.00, Free, just drop in.

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Uncategorized, What's on, ,

A hoard from the dawn of Roman Britain

Coin from the hoardEleanor Ghey, curator, British Museum

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

Coins from the hoard on display.

Coins from the hoard on display.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

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

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

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

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

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

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Reading an ancient Egyptian poem

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collectionRichard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

Reading an ancient poem is often a difficult experience, and academic traditions do not always help.

The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, was written in Egypt around 1850 BC and is a darkly passionate work, concerning a peasant’s quest for justice after his goods are stolen. But its elaborate style has made many academics regard it as simply a source of ancient words/vocabulary and grammar and not as a poetic work of art.

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

So once, when teaching a class in Germany, I was struck that when I asked ‘what does this verse of poetry mean?’ a student replied ‘it is a perfective verb-form’. Which is an important fact, of course, but it is not the total meaning of the poetry (and not at all the answer I was looking for!).

Last year I published a new commentary on The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant to try and encourage a deeper engagement with the poetry. As well as notes on its construction and language, I included, among other things, pictures.

In the poem, the peasant hero is beaten with a stick of iser, ‘tamarisk’. It is a minor detail, unless you visualise the shrub as you read, and remember both that it is very whippy and that it grows everywhere on river banks. The poet uses this particular plant to characterise the action as not only highly sadistic but also opportunistic: the villain grabs whatever is to hand to attack the hero. Everywhere in the poem, a concrete visualisation of the imagery allows the reader to realise the vivid interconnectedness of the poet’s thought.

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

The new commentary also placed text, translation and all the notes on a single page to help the process of reading as a single integrated experience: the reader does not have to flick between different sections for comments on the grammar, historical allusions, or possible meanings. Everything the reader needs appears together in one glance, and I look forward to seeing if this has worked for students when I take up a new job teaching Egyptology in Oxford.

The ability of the poem to still speak to audiences is nowhere better sensed than in the mesmeric prize-winning film of Shadi Abd el-Salam (1970), recently restored by the World Cinema Foundation, and they have generously allowed us to include an image of the actor Ahmed Marei as the frontispiece.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

This is a gesture towards the humanity of the original — a reminder that the poem was written by an individual for his contemporaries (and not for Egyptologists). This may even be the first time that an Egyptological commentary on a literary text has included a photograph of a living person. And this living and subtle work of art gained new resonance with the Egyptian revolution of 2011. As author Ahdaf Soueif noted then, it represents an Egyptian tradition of non-violent protest against any abuse of authority, and it is, in the words of Shadi Abd el-Salam, ‘a cry for justice, a cry that persists throughout the ages’.’

Find out more about the Reading Ancient Egyptian poems research project

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

Tomb figures from Ancient Egypt

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of HorendjitefAnders Bettum, University of Oslo and postdoctoral fellow, British Museum

For the past three months, I have had the pleasure of working on the British Museum’s collection of a particular kind of funerary statues, known to Egyptologists as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures. The Museum has 117 of these figures, originating from various periods and many sites in Egypt. The assessment, documentation and registration of the collection have been possible due to the new postdoctoral fellowships which were granted by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan for the first time this year (next year’s fellowships are now advertised).

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht

Anders in the Enlightenment Gallery, where the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht (EA9749) is on display.

From the 19th Dynasty (ca. 1295-1186 BC) to the Greco-Roman era, Egyptian elite burials were often equipped with a statue of a deity in the form of a mummy (mummiform). The god in question is identified as Osiris in the earlier sources, and later as the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. The name ‘Osiris’ may be familiar to many readers from the myth in which he defeats death and becomes the king of the dead in the Netherworld. Through the funerary ritual, the dead were assimilated with Osiris, hoping they too could live on happily in the Netherworld among gods and ancestors. The statue may therefore have been regarded not only as an image of the god, but also of the deceased. Ptah is one of the principal creator gods from Ancient Egypt, and the merging of this god with Osiris resulted in a powerful promise that death would be followed by new life. Sokar, the third member of the triad, was also a popular Netherworld deity. Like Ptah, he originates from the ancient capital of Memphis, and the two were often associated with one another. All three deities were depicted mummiform in the iconography, Ptah and Osiris as mummified men, Sokar as a mummified falcon.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy

The magnificent Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy (EA9737)

What I was soon to learn on arrival at the Museum is how complex these statues are. The figure itself, ranging in height from 30 to 60 cm, is carved from one piece of wood, plastered, painted in vivid colours and inscribed on the front and back with hieroglyphic texts. For the richest burials, the face and other details of the figure were gilded. The polychrome decoration is sometimes coated with a black, resinous varnish. Pegged to the head is a composite crown consisting of two elements: a vertical pair of model ostrich feathers emerging from a sun-disc and a horizontal pair of ram horns. The false beard on the chin is sometimes carved as a separate piece. A peg was left also under the feet of the figure, to fit into the mortise in a rectangular base. The base was colourfully painted, in some cases with depictions of water basins, lotus flowers and other symbols of resurrection, power and life. It was also inscribed with hieroglyphic texts. Occasionally, a model sarcophagus was carved as a separate piece and mounted to the front of the base. On top of the sarcophagus, a small mummiform falcon is perched, facing the mummiform figure. A single statue therefore consists of about seven separately carved pieces.

But that is not all. What makes the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures different from all other funerary statues is the peculiar fact that they are not only images of the deceased assimilated to certain gods, but also containers of a certain object. A Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure always has a cavity carved into it, either in the base or in the figure itself. In the 19th to the 22nd Dynasties, the contained object was usually a papyrus inscribed with funerary texts to aid the transformation of the deceased in the afterlife. The famous funerary papyri of Hunefer and Anhai were found inside such statues. In later times, the papyrus was replaced with a part of the mummy of the deceased or alternatively a substitute thereof, a so-called ‘corn-mummy’.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef

Mummy-shaped cavity in the base of the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef (EA9736). The content, which appears to be a mummified lump of grass, is still intact.

Throughout the more than one thousand years in which these statues were in use, a great variety of mechanisms for closing the cavity are attested. Most impressive are perhaps the figures that were carved like anthropoid coffins, with a case and lid that were closed and sealed before being inserted into the mortise of the base. Another common type is the model sarcophagus that worked as a sliding lid, and can still be ‘clicked’ into place with a simple push to close the cavity.

It is intriguing to think about the time, effort end skill that went into the production of these objects, and how people living thousands of years ago assembled the statue, filled it with its mysterious contents before sealing the cavity and placing the it in the tomb. These activities were undoubtedly ritualized and carried out by mortuary priests as part of the larger funerary ritual.

Model coffin

This colorful statue (EA 9884) was made as a model coffin. The name of the owner has not yet been deciphered.

With their polychromy and glint of gold, the inscriptions, the complexity and mechanical aspect, the hidden ‘treasure’ inside and its connection to grand mythological and ritual narratives, the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure have always been popular collector’s items. The manageable size of the object must also have contributed to their rapid distribution to museums all over the world. Studying the collection of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures in the British Museum, I have come across no less than 290 related objects. In addition to the 117 figures, the collection consist of a number of loose bases, ram horns, ostrich feathers, model sarcophagi and mummiform falcons that parted with their figure decades, centuries or even millennia ago. Only about a dozen are relatively intact assemblages, but this number will hopefully increase as more parts are matched with one another.

Every piece has now been thoroughly documented for the benefit of researchers and curious visitors. The analysis of the materials contained within still remains to be done, and will undoubtedly cast new light on a funerary custom that is still poorly understood.

Find out more about the Ancient Egypt and Sudan postdoctoral fellowships for 2014

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Filed under: Collection, Egypt and Sudan,

Wine and monks in Christian Egypt

Wine and monks in Christian EgyptJennifer Cromwell, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putting a mobile phone behind glass

Pamoja women’s group displaying crafts made for sale in Kenya in 2011. © Ndunge Kiiti.Ellen Feingold, project curator, British Museum

Walking around the British Museum one often sees visitors using their mobile phones to communicate, photograph their favourite objects, and record memories of their visit. Yet some visitors might be surprised to see a mobile phone behind the glass of a display case. While mobile phones are familiar, contemporary and useful things, they are also fascinating artefacts in their own right, and help us tell a story of how they are not only transforming the way we communicate and document our experiences, but also how we spend and save money.

Mobile money services are currently emerging across the globe and gaining popularity, particularly in places with limited banking infrastructure. These services allow users to transfer money to individuals and businesses through their mobile phone networks, avoiding the need for banks and cash. A new display in the British Museum’s Citi Money Gallery explores mobile money services across Africa.

As one of the curators of this display, I was responsible for the section on Kenya, where mobile money was pioneered in 2007. Kenya’s first and leading mobile money service is called M-Pesa; the M stands for mobile and Pesa is a Kiswahili word for money. M-Pesa’s success in gaining customers in Kenya has been the subject both of scholarly research and media attention. So, for the new display, I decided to focus on how this new technology is currently used and is affecting the lives of its users in Kenya.

Pamoja women’s group displaying crafts made for sale in Kenya in 2011. © Ndunge Kiiti.

Pamoja women’s group displaying crafts made for sale in Kenya in 2011. © Ndunge Kiiti.

While developing the new display I found research by two Kenyan academics, Dr. Ndunge Kiiti and Dr. Jane Mutinda, who study how women’s groups in rural Kenya are using mobile money services and the impact these services have on the lives of group members. They have found that mobile money services are central to the efforts of these women’s groups to build small businesses, which they hope will help to reduce poverty as well as gender inequality in their communities.

Group members use mobile money services to make individual and group transactions as well as pay group dues, which serve as capital for investments in new business ventures, such as making crafts for sale.

After learning about their research, I contacted Dr. Kiiti and together we explored what objects would help to share this research with visitors. We agreed that a colourful mobile phone purse made by the Pamoja women’s group in Kenya would make an ideal addition to the display. The purse symbolises how access to mobile money services has facilitated the creation of new businesses, like the one that made and sold the purse. The purse also enables the continued use of mobile money services in Kenya because it makes it easy for women to carry their mobile phones with them wherever they go.

Mobile phone purse made for sale by Pamoja women’s group, Kenya, 2011, donated by Ndunge Kiiti.

Mobile phone purse made for sale by Pamoja women’s group, Kenya, 2011, donated by Ndunge Kiiti.

In addition to working with Dr. Kiiti, I sought the assistance of a researcher living in Nairobi, Dr. Gregory Deacon. He searched through shops and kiosks for objects that illustrate how mobile money services are accessed and advertised in everyday life.

Mobile money in Africa display in the Citi Money Gallery

Mobile money in Africa display in the Citi Money Gallery

One of the objects he sent me was a bottle-opener advertising a brand new mobile money product called M-Shwari. This product represents a new frontier in mobile money because it moves beyond basic transactions by giving users the ability to save and borrow money via their mobile phones. The M-Shwari bottle opener is included in the display because it signifies how rapidly mobile money services are evolving. Dr. Deacon also collected the objects that are essential for accessing mobile money services, namely SIM cards and a used mobile phone.

By putting the mobile phone Dr. Deacon collected behind glass, I hope that this display will help visitors to see mobile phones as objects that are not only useful for communicating and storing memories, but are also agents of economic and social change in Kenya and increasingly around the world.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Collecting postcards from the Middle East

Postcard with a view of a camel train, AdenSt John Simpson, curator, British Museum

Just send us a postcard! This short catchphrase is poised to enter history across the world; today, mobile phones, text messages, emails, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the media used to help connect people and share images and experiences.

The postcard is not quite dead but it is certainly endangered and it’s for that reason that we have decided to formally add them to the list of objects that we collect, register, acknowledge donor details, scan and upload onto the British Museum collection online.

Postcard with a view of a camel train, Aden.

Postcard with a view of a camel train, Aden. This vignette of a caravan connecting Aden with its Yemeni hinterland illustrates how valuable postcards are as illustrations of everyday events as well as places. This card dates from the period when Aden was a British colony.

Moreover, postcards are very evocative objects. The images are loaded with significance and capture moments in time, and this applies equally to cards showing places, landscapes and people. Indeed, the more postcards one has of a particular place, the more powerful they become in charting its history and exploring the practical issues of how the view was arrived at and what subliminal messages may have been intended by the choice of view or subject-matter.

Postcards enter into two quite different patterns of circulation. One is from sender to recipient, and the message is often either banal or stereotyped (“wish you were here … the weather’s great”), or deeply personalised, but in both cases the postcard is often treasured by the recipient.

Summer holiday in Turkey postcard

Summer holiday in Turkey. Postcard messages are often banal and stereotyped and holiday cards are a particularly good example of this. This particular card refers to “It’s very hot but I like that” but hints at the richness of Turkey’s culture by stating that “This is our third visit to Turkey and we are still completely fascinated”. Used cards like this are sometimes more poignant than unused ones as they capture personal messages as well as styles of handwriting and snapshots of postal history.

In the second case, the postcard is collected as a tangible memento of a visit and is never intended to be sent. Whereas the first category eventually enter into secondary circulation as people move house, relationships end or they pass away – often for the stamps to be soaked off – the second, almost mint, category of cards become collectibles. Used cards are postmarked and therefore offer absolute dates on a timeline but unused cards can, with patience, be dated through their internal content and series number. They are therefore just like many other objects we have in the museum, and subject to classification, typology and anthropological analysis.

Postcard showing the Bayader mosque, Aleppo.

Postcard showing the Bayader mosque, Aleppo. This postcard is a rather attractive early twentieth century visual record of the old minaret of the Bayader mosque in Aleppo. It was later replaced by another which was demolished during heavy fighting on 17 April 2012.

However, it is fundamentally the top-level information they provide on the changing Middle East that led us to start collecting them. Places, people and cultural heritage are fragile commodities and easily affected by periods of conflict, social change and economic development. It is therefore crucial we start archiving these memories before it really is too late.

Explore the British Museum postcard collection in the collection online

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