British Museum blog

Mummies, mobiles and 3D printing

Katherine Biggs, Education Manager, Digital Learning Programmes, British Museum

As the doors open on the new exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre (SDDC) has launched its own Egyptian season to complement the exhibition’s technological focus. The launch could not have been better timed, with the fantastic news this week that the British Museum and Samsung have been awarded an Arts & Business Award for their long-term partnership through the SDDC.

Talk like an Egyptian – 24 May 2014

The SDDC’s Egyptian season features a series of activities for families and teenagers throughout the exhibition run, and showcases some of the innovative ways in which technology can be used to engage young audiences with the Museum. The first event of the season, Talk like an Egyptian, launched on 24 May, and encouraged children as young as five to put themselves in the shoes of different Egyptian characters from the collection. They then used computer software, microphones and their imagination to bring them to life.

In the Egyptian Galleries. Photo © Benedict Johnson

This week, a completely different activity launches as part of the Marvellous Mummies half term event for families. Families will borrow mobile phones to collect the different objects needed to furnish an Egyptian tomb. Exploring the galleries, children will scan QR codes to understand ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs. Mobile technology continues to be hugely popular with visitors, and for this reason we will also be running our augmented reality trail Passport to the afterlife.

As the summer dawns, so will new activities. In June we will be launching Exploring ancient mummies, a drop-in session for families based in the Samsung Centre where children can use different digital technology to find out more about the Museum’s mummies. Expect digital microscopes, video footage and exciting exploration through our interactive surface table. The activity includes some fascinating case studies from the Conservation and Scientific Research team, which never fail to amaze our young audiences.

3d printer

3D printer at work in the SDDC

Replica amulets and 3D printed copies

Replica amulets and 3D printed copies

The most eagerly anticipated event of the season is our 3D printing weekend. As I write, the printers are in and the filament warming up. Inspired by the exhibition’s beautifully reconstructed 3D amulets, we will be asking children to recreate a choice of three amulets using computer aided design technology: an eye of Horus, a heart scarab or a djed pillar. They will be able to decide on their chosen amulet after handling examples from the collection and discovering the different spells associated with each. The amulets will then be printed in the Great Court, where visitors can also learn about 3D printing and how it is used within different parts of the Museum. To complement this activity, children will then be able to design their own amulet, and ascribe them special powers. These amulets will be brought to life using 3Doodler pens, which create 3D shapes from plastic filament as you draw.

A second day of 3D activities is aimed at our 13-18 audience. Working with a professional 3D artist, participants will animate an Egyptian river scene, using techniques and computer aided design software commonly used by the games industry. They will also have the chance to 3D-print their models. This event was fully booked shortly after it went online, with many adults disappointed that they are too old to join in. 3D printing continues to wow and stimulate thought, and we hope that next weekend will do both.

So that the grown-ups don’t feel left out, we will be opening the SDDC doors as part of the BM/PM Curse of the Mummy event when the Centre will play host to a pop-up Egyptian photo booth using green screen technology, Photoshop and of course props to transport visitors to ancient Egypt. This led us to think that a similar activity for families would be brilliant using a series of five different photo booths with different technology and collection pieces in each one. Hopefully the exhibition will extend its run so that we have even more time to try out new ideas!

The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre is sponsored by Samsung

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner: Samsung

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Eight mummies, eight lives, eight stories

John H Taylor and Daniel Antoine, curators, British Museum

We may think that we know the ancient Egyptians on account of the abundance of carved and painted images and the many texts on stone and papyrus that have survived, but these sources convey a formal, partial and sanitised view; to a large degree they tell us only what the Egyptians wanted posterity to know.

The first mummy entered the Museum’s collection in 1756, and for the past 200 years none of the mummies have been unwrapped. But modern technology, in the form of the CT (computed tomography) scanner, has transformed the way that we can study them, allowing us to see within the wrappings and the mummified bodies, in a non-invasive and non-destructive manner.

We can now look behind the mask of material culture and encounter the actual people of the ancient Nile Valley through a forensic study of their remains – and these often tell a different story to the one we knew before.

The scanning process captures thousands of cross-sectional images of the mummies at a thickness of 0.6 mm for every ‘slice’. These show internal features in startling detail, and by stacking the slices together and using volume rendering software, the mummy can be viewed on screen as a three-dimensional model. ‘Segmentation’ allows continuous surfaces of the same density – whether bone, textile, or artefacts such as amulets of faience or metal placed inside the wrappings – to be visualised and studied separately with precision and clarity.

Padiamenet, a temple doorkeeper. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contained his mummy. 25th Dynasty, c. 700 BC (EA 6682)

Padiamenet, a temple doorkeeper. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contained his mummy. 25th Dynasty, c. 700 BC (EA 6682)

The new exhibition Ancient lives: new discoveries highlights some of the remarkable findings that have been made using this method, bringing together a selection of eight mummies from the Museum’s collection, interactive displays showing visualisations and displays of related objects to shed further light on the life and death of these ancient people.

Tamut, a high-ranking priest's daughter. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contains the mummy.

Tamut, a high-ranking priest’s daughter. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contains the mummy.

Scan showing calcified plaque deposits, called atheromas, found in Tamut's left femoral artery, that runs along the thigh bone (femur).

Scan showing calcified plaque deposits, called atheromas, found in Tamut’s left femoral artery that runs along the thigh bone (femur).

Visualisation showing a view of Tamut's feet, with metal covers on her toenails and a large sheet-metal image of the winged scarab beetle Khepri propelling the disc of the sun, placed inside the mummy-wrappings.

Visualisation showing a view of Tamut’s feet, with metal covers on her toenails and a large sheet-metal image of the winged scarab beetle Khepri propelling the disc of the sun, placed inside the mummy-wrappings.

The mummies we have selected originally lived in a span of over 4,000 years, from about 3500 BC to AD 700, and came from a range of sites, from the Faiyum in Upper Egypt to the fourth cataract region of Sudan. Through them we have sought to illustrate the different aspects of the experience of living and dying in settlements along the Nile Valley. We see their faces and discover their ages, and find out from which illnesses they suffered – all things that are usually absent from the written record. We know something about what they did in life, what they ate, and what might have contributed to their death. Some of the evidence uncovered by the scans shows that diseases we often think of as ‘modern’ were prevalent then – for example, we can see very clear images of calcification of the arteries in two of the adults, Tamut, Chantress of Amun, and Padiamenet, the temple doorkeeper. This would have meant that both of them were at risk of developing cardiovascular disease and might have died from a heart attack or stroke.

Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes, around 600 BC. EA 22814

Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes, around 600 BC (EA 22814)

Visualisation showing a virtual section across the head of the man from Thebes, revealing the embalmer's tool (in green) and brain residue (highlighted in blue) found inside his skull.

Visualisation showing a virtual section across the head of the man from Thebes, revealing the embalmer’s tool (in green) and brain residue (highlighted in blue) found inside his skull.

The CT scans also allow us to glimpse some of the secrets of the embalmers who mummified the bodies. In the skull of a man from Thebes, who lived around 600 BC, it has been possible to visualise the small hole made inside the nose, through which most of the brain was removed. Unusually, a portion of his brain was left behind, perhaps because the probe which the embalmer was using broke off, and is clearly visible on the scan, lying in the back of the skull.

We hope that this exhibition will help to change the perception of museum visitors towards mummies. We are privileged to have these people of ancient Egypt and Sudan among us today. Our investigations into some of the fundamentals of human life – such as diet, disease, personal adornment, and childhood – help to remind us that all of the mummies were once living people and should be treated with respect, care and dignity.


Ancient lives: new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

John Taylor and Daniel Antoine are also authors of the exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, edited by Alexandra Fletcher, Daniel Antoine and JD Hill is also published by British Museum Press.

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The sinking of the Lusitania: medals as war propaganda

medalHenry Flynn, Project Curator, British Museum

The Money and Medals Network is an Arts Council England-funded project that exists to build and develop relationships between UK museums that have numismatic collections. As the project curator, I travel to these museums to meet the members of staff who care for such collections. One object that I have seen time and again in museums all over the country is the Lusitania medal by Karl Goetz.

RMS Lusitania coming into port, possibly in New York, 1907-13, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

RMS Lusitania coming into port, possibly in New York, 1907-13, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The sinking of RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915 was a hugely significant event during the First World War. The ship was sunk by a torpedo, a fact indicative of the increased use of submarines in marine warfare, which helped it become even more dangerous than it had been previously. The tragedy of the loss of life that included civilian passengers had global repercussions that contributed to the eventual decision taken by the United States to enter the conflict. It also sparked something of a medallic propaganda war.

Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), obverse

Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), obverse

The German artist Karl Goetz was so incensed by the mere idea that a passenger liner might have been used for military purposes that he decided to produce a medal satirising the subject. He mistakenly stated on the medal that the date of the sinking was 5 May – two days earlier than the actual event. This caused an outcry in Britain and accusations that the sinking had been premeditated by the Germans. This use of the wrong date was in fact a mistake, but copies of the medal were made and distributed in Britain in protest against the Germans’ use of medallic art to effectively celebrate a tragedy. The British copy had its own presentation box that also included a document detailing the reasons behind its production. Many of these medals have since found their way into the collections of museums across the country and will be featuring in commemorative displays this year and in 2015. The British Museum has an example of the German original and the British copy and both will be displayed in the new exhibition The other side of the medal: how Germany saw the First World War. Alongside my work on the Money and Medals Network, I have had some curatorial input into this exhibition curated by my colleague Tom Hockenhull.

Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), reverse

Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), reverse

The medal itself is a fascinating object that is laced with satirical symbolism. On the obverse, the ship is depicted sinking under the waves. Weapons appear on the deck, a direct accusation that the ship had been carrying munitions, thus putting the lives of its passengers at risk, the notion that had so infuriated Goetz. The reverse shows unsuspecting passengers queuing up to buy their tickets from a personification of Death who sits inside the ticket booth. The warnings of a German man stood in the background and the ‘U-Boat Danger’ headline on a newspaper go unnoticed by the crowd. The inscription above the scene means ‘business above all’ and makes the message of the medal doubly clear. The presence of Death playing an active and malevolent role in the events is a theme that pervaded German medallic art during the First World War and this will be explored in the exhibition.

Propeller from RMS Lusitania, National Museums Liverpool, author’s photo.

Propeller from RMS Lusitania, National Museums Liverpool, author’s photo.

In 1982 one of the four propellers from the vessel was salvaged from the wreck and subsequently acquired by National Museums Liverpool. The Lusitania has a strong link with Liverpool and the propeller, now part of the collection of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, is displayed on the quayside at the Albert Dock. Services of remembrance are held next to it every year on the anniversary of the sinking of the ship.

The other side of the medal: how Germany saw the First World War is on display in Room 69a (admission free) from 9 May to 23 November 2014

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Vikings Live: bringing our shared history to the cinema screen

Bettany HughesBettany Hughes, historian, author and broadcaster, presenter of Vikings Live from the British Museum

When you’re about to handle an archaeological artefact, interesting things happen to your body. In anticipation of the pleasure to come, your heart starts to race a little faster, the hair on the back of your neck might begin to rise, palms can become sticky. And of course there is the nagging knowledge that the security of that unique, precious – sometimes priceless – traveller in time is, physically, in your hands.

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

This gives the fact that we will be examining world-class Viking treasures live in front of a nationwide audience later tonight a certain piquancy. The combination of outside broadcast satellite trucks, electricians, cameramen, cables and lighting stands with 1,000-plus-year-old artefacts, is not an obvious one.

But there is form – we have done all this once before. Last year, Paul Roberts, Peter Snow, Mary Beard, Rachel de Thame, Gino Locatelli, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and I risked the world’s first ever live broadcast from a museum exhibition, with Pompeii Live. The British Museum’s notion was that we would develop the blockbuster into a private view for those who couldn’t make it to London; or who wanted a further, in-depth look at the objects. The great thing about these ‘Lives’ is that the camera can get up close and intimately personal to the displays; plus the audience gets the VIP treatment – with world experts gathered together on the night to unravel the significance of the most intriguing pieces. There was a tsunami of support from the public for our first effort. We’ve taken on board feedback (more shots of the objects themselves and less of the presenters’ mugs!).The number of cinemas hosting Vikings Live is up by a third on Pompeii, so hopefully, fingers crossed, we’re doing something right.

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

As an historian this is all truly great news: Memory matters to our species. From before the time of Homer we have chosen to join together in shared space to tell one another stories, to make sense of our world, our past and our shared futures. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the Viking story. My own fascination has always been that here in the UK we tend to think of the Vikings as OUR problem. But of course these men and women (‘Viking’ doesn’t mean a particular ethnic group but refers to an activity, vikingr, or raiding) were raiding and trading across four continents. From Kiev to Constantinople, from Gibraltar to Greenland, the Vikings meant something; they are all our ancestors. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is a necklace found in a woman’s grave in Finland. Semi-precious stones from the Baltic are joined by Islamic coins – dirhams. Face to face with that bit of jewellery you can just imagine the pride of the original owner; knowing that her loved ones’ adventures across the seas in Asia or Al-Andalus connected her to a rich, cosmopolitan world.

Odin, or v&oumlaut;va figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

Odin, or volva figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

I hear that one of Neil MacGregor’s favourite objects in the exhibition is the small silver figurine of Odin, but particularly the representations of Odin’s pet ravens – Huginn and Muninn – representing Thought and Memory. The British Museum – and indeed museums across the globe – are the custodians, caretakers and communicators of our collective memories. Although slightly terrified, I can’t wait to share these with you (and the screen with my long-time hero Michael Wood (who wrote yesterday on this blog). Oh, and incidentally, honey and dried fish were top Viking dishes; maybe have those as refreshment tonight rather than popcorn: Get in that Viking mood!

Bettany Hughes is one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

Follow @Bettany_Hughes and @britishmuseum on Twitter

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Vikings Live on the horizon

Michael WoodMichael Wood, historian and broadcaster, presenter of Vikings Live from the British Museum

Hotfoot back from Shanghai where I am filming The Story of China, and now very excited about tomorrow night at the British Museum! We had a production meeting yesterday going through the script and suddenly the spine-tingling ‘liveness’ of it all felt very immediate. Vikings Live is now really coming together, with a series of very exciting scenes and a team of terrific contributors. Gareth, the exhibition curator, will even be sweltering in full Viking war-gear to explain the ethos of a warrior society. A string of inspiring experts will be your guides through the glitter and violence of the age, led by everybody’s favourite museum director / magician, Neil MacGregor, who has now turned his hand to A History of the Viking World in a Thousand Objects!

Vikings Live presenters, from left: Michael Wood, Bettany Hughes and Gareth Williams

Vikings Live presenters, from left: Michael Wood, Bettany Hughes and Gareth Williams

The British Museum has gathered some really amazing things together for this thrilling exhibition about the turbulent and spacious Viking epoch that extended roughly from the 750s to around 1100. Tomorrow night the cinema audience will be getting privileged close-up access to some wonderful artefacts: designer sword blades, fabulous gold torcs (neck-rings), looted treasure and a jaw-dropping display of headless skeletons of Vikings executed near Weymouth during the disastrous reign of Ethelred the Unready (979–1016) when the Danes conquered England.

An intimate detail? The piece that caught my eye (and I’ll be talking to Gareth about it tomorrow night) is a severed skull with filed teeth that were once coloured. An Arab account of Vikings on the Caspian Sea describes them tattooed and even wearing make-up – the men as well as the women. With their bling and braided hair they were definitely making a statement: Pirates of the Caribbean goes Viking?

At the heart of the exhibition is the wreck of the longest Viking ship ever found – sunk in Roskilde in around 1025, it was discovered in 1996. Only the lower part of the original boat survives, but the elegant curving steel frame over 120-feet long is a staggering sight, which will be explored with dramatic crane shots tomorrow night. Clinker-built, slim and very flexible, such ships travelled west to Greenland, south to Morocco and east to the Caspian Sea: there are even Viking graffiti on the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Going further west, there was even a permanent Viking settlement in Newfoundland, and for all we know, some inquisitive summer voyager coasted down the shores of New England. Our own pirate explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher would certainly have seen them as kindred spirits.

And what about the Vikings themselves? As you’ll see tomorrow night they had a very dark sense of humour – but they also had a very down-to-earth view of life which reminds me a lot of the kind of humour you can still hear in the Yorkshire Dales or the Cumbrian Fells: and not all of it in jest… Take these sample Viking ‘thoughts for the day’ from the famous wisdom text, the Havamal:

Don’t trust a blade until you have tested it in battle.
Don’t trust ice until you have walked across it
Don’t trust your wife until you’ve buried her….

No new men there then!

So there you are: courageous practical, realistic, cruel, curious – the Viking spirit took them across the western world between 750s and the late 11th century. That amazing age is our subject tomorrow night – experts and enthusiasts all. Speaking personally, I must say I am looking forward very much to presenting Vikings Live with Bettany Hughes, who I have known for years, but it’s the first time we have done an event together. What a time!


Michael Wood is one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Building a Viking boat today

dragon stem head
Mike Selwood, Assistant Boat Manager, National Maritime Museum Cornwall
In September 2013, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall was approached by the British Museum and asked if we would produce something Viking to be filmed for their Vikings Live cinema broadcast, after seeing the Bronze Age boat replica that we had built and launched in March 2013.

Of course, we said yes. After plenty of chats with Gareth Williams, the curator of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend and Patricia Wheatley, Executive Producer of Vikings Live, our boat restoration team started to build the stem section of a Viking-style boat, to be constructed using traditional methods.

I was to manage the project, with my team of boat crew volunteers and boat-builder Brian Cumby, who had built the Bronze Age boat. The stem section was approximately sixteen feet long, eight feet beam (width) and about 12 feet at its highest, to be surmounted with a Viking dragon’s head. The section is equivalent to about 25% of a boat that we are planning to build next year as a feature of our Viking Voyagers exhibition in 2015.

Having assembled the team, I had to source the materials. There was no time to make nails, so they came off the shelf as galvanised Scandinavian boat nails with square roves made by our local blacksmith. The keel and stem post were to be oak, and we decided to plank in Cornish larch, not always durable for boats, but good for this project. Our friends at Tregothnan Estate, not far from us in Falmouth (also known for its excellent tea plantation) provided all of our needs, including a lot of crooks or timber turns, used for making frames to brace the planking.

Gareth, Will and Martin cutting the keel rabbet (or rebate)

Gareth, Will and Martin cutting the keel rabbet (or rebate)

Gloucester Mike cutting a plank (left). Gareth and Mike riveting a plank , and Brian doing what he does so well (supervising!)

Gloucester Mike cutting a plank (left). Gareth and Mike riveting a plank , and Brian doing what he does so well (supervising!)

Brian set up the keel and the rabbet (the groove or rebate that takes the first planks) was cut. A joint was then cut for joining the stem post to the keel to create the backbone of the boat ready for planking. Brian and his team of volunteers then built up the layers of planking by riveting overlapped planks one on to the other. This method is called clinker in Europe and Scandinavia, and lapstrake in the America and Canada. We planned on seven planks to each side, each about one inch thick and twelve inches wide. The larch planks had to be steamed in a long steam box to make the wood malleable enough to fit to the keel and stem rabbet.

Brian and Mike fitting a plank with a traditional wooden clamp, tightened by driving in a wedge.

Brian and Mike fitting a plank with a traditional wooden clamp, tightened by driving in a wedge.

To get the shape of a Viking boat we built moulds or section shapes that acted as guides. It is thought that the Vikings would have set up an overhead strong back supported by an A-frame, in order to brace the struts or shores to brace the planking. They are also likely to have heated stones to make the planks malleable as an alternative to steaming.

Gloucester Mike preparing a plank (left) and Brian setting a plank clamp (right).

Gloucester Mike preparing a plank (left) and Brian setting a plank clamp (right).

The crooks and turns were shaped and fashioned into frames, floors and knees (boatbuilding terms to describe brackets and braces that were fitted to the planking to add cross-sectional strength). Finally the thwarts or cross-section benches were fitted. All were fastened with nails or trenails (pegs of oak or tree nails that would swell and tighten when wet, sometimes with a small wedge driven down the grain to further expand and tighten).

Viking ship construction developed boats that were light, strong, but flexible so that they worked well with the stresses of the sea. They were also shallow draught, which meant that they could still move through shallower river and estuary waters. Climbing in and out was also easier, as speed and surprise were a feature of many Viking visits!

Detail of dragon's head

Pin with dragon’s head (detail), AD 950–1000. Hedeby, modern Germany. Copper alloy. Archäologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig. © Wikinger Museum Haithabu

Dragons head prow, carved by artist Rob Johnsey, NMMC volunteer.

Dragons head prow, carved by artist Rob Johnsey, NMMC volunteer.

While all of this frantic construction was going on, our woodcarver Rob (a National Maritime Museum Cornwall volunteer) began to work on the stem head. His brief was to make something that would frighten the natives. With help from Patricia from the British Museum, he researched some designs, and decided to use a Viking pin that was being displayed in the exhibition as his inspiration. The head was to be detachable, following the Vikings practice – apparently the raiding boat would remove the stem head on return to its home port so as not to bring bad spirits back with them or scare those on dry land.

The project has enabled our team to get in a ‘Viking’ mind-set , as we will not only be building a replica of a 57-foot Roskilde boat, but likely some very Viking stage sets for the National Maritime Museum Cornwall Viking Voyagers exhibition, supported by the British Museum.


Vikings Live is at cinemas around the UK on 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Viking women, warriors, and valkyries


Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham

Odin:
What a dream! I dreamt I woke at dawn
to tidy Valhalla for the fallen ones;
I … made the Valkyries bring wine, as a prince was coming.
I’m expecting some renowned heroes
from the human world; my heart is glad!

Anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend promises to reveal ‘a world of warriors, seafarers and conquerors’ and its iconic image is a sword. As that suggests, much of this world is a male world, and this chimes with popular perceptions of the Vikings as large, aggressive and bearded men. A more nuanced view of the Viking Age would recognise that even large, aggressive and bearded men had mothers, and very likely sisters, wives and daughters, and if you look closely at the exhibition you will find some personal items associated with such women. Nor did these women all stay at home while their menfolk went out into the wide world of raiding and trading. There is evidence for female traders in Russia, for instance, for far-travelling women, for queens and mistresses of large estates, as well as for women as victims and slaves. Also, women were an absolute prerequisite for the lasting establishment of a successful new nation in the uninhabited island of Iceland. Women can boast of many achievements in the Viking Age yet, in a quarter of a century of studying them, I find that the one thing I get asked about most often is the one thing I do not think they ‘achieved’, which was to become warriors.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A very small silver figurine, found in Hårby, in Denmark, in late 2012, may seem to contradict this. It undoubtedly represents a woman: she has the knotted pony-tail and long garment characteristic of many other representations of female figures in Viking art. What is unusual is that she is carrying an upright sword in her right hand and a shield in her left. The function of this figurine is unknown, and what it represents is also mysterious. If it is intended as an image of a woman warrior, then it is not a realistic one. Her garment is elaborate and beautifully decorated, and would be a real hindrance in combat, as would her uncovered head and its pony-tail. Male warriors did not always have helmets, as these were expensive, but would have had some kind of protective headgear like a leather cap. So we are left to conclude that the figure must be symbolic, rather than realistic, and most experts are inclined to label her as a valkyrie.

Valkyries are interesting and significant figures in the warrior cultures of the Viking Age. We know about them mainly from Old Norse literature, the poetry and prose written down in Iceland in the thirteenth century and later. The medieval Icelanders understood the function of valkyries literally from their name (valkyrja means ‘chooser of the slain’), and presented an image of them as handmaidens of the war-god Odin. He would send them to battle to choose those warriors who were worthy of dying and going to Valhalla, the hall of the slain, where they prepared themselves for the final battle of Ragnarok. There, the valkyries acted as hostesses, welcoming the dead warriors and serving them drink, as in the anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe cited above. This literary understanding is confirmed by many Viking Age images of female figures, with long hair and gown, rather like the Hårby figurine, but holding out a drinking horn. When carrying out their duties on the battlefield, however, valkyries needed to be armed and the literary texts suggest that they were usually equipped with helmets, mail-coats and spears. Any association between valkyries and swords, on the other hand, is very rare as a sword, closely associated with masculinity, would be incongruous on a female figure. The sword was the weapon of choice, the prized possession and the status symbol of the better sort of Viking warrior. Many men, not all of them necessarily professional warriors, were buried with their swords, although they would also have an array of other weapons, like the man in the Kaupang burial, or the helmeted warrior depicted on the Middleton cross from North Yorkshire.

The undoubted successes of the Vikings in warfare and conquest were rooted in a well-developed Odinic ideology that sustained and strengthened them through their campaigns. The myth of Valhalla, the idea of death as a reward for the successful warrior, mediated by a female figure, is a powerful part of this ideology. It provided the warrior going into battle with an incentive and the dying warrior with a kind of consolation. Some of the literary texts develop this idea in a romantic way by telling of love affairs between warriors and valkyries though these, too, generally end in death. This martial ideology of which valkyries are a part also seeped into daily life. A typical valkyrie name, like Hild, means ‘battle’, and many ordinary women in the Viking Age also bore names (Iike the very common Gunnhild, or ‘War-battle’) that contained such elements. Yet that did not make them women warriors. Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.


Professor Judith Jesch is the author of Viking Poetry of Love and War and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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The Viking way of death

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil PriceNeil Price, Professor of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen

Among the most fascinating things in the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend are the numerous objects from burials and graves. The way that a people treat their dead can say a lot about their attitudes to life, and the Vikings were no exception. Although their graves take certain standardised forms – an earthen mound, a wooden chamber, a buried boat, and so on – in the detail of the rituals it’s clear that almost every funeral was different, a personalised send-off. We know that this was an age of individuals, but what can we understand from this infinity of responses to death? Let’s look more closely at just one example, which in all its unique complexity can stand for all the others.

The scene is a small, beachfront trading community, located in the outer reaches of the Oslofjord in Norway. We know this place as Kaupang, it just means ‘market’, but to its inhabitants it was known as Skíringssalr – something like ‘the shining hall’, perhaps named after its lord’s residence on the hill behind. Nearly twenty years of excavations there have revealed rows of small houses and workshops strung out along the water’s edge, with access to wharves where the ships came in from around the whole region. But this is for the living; outside the settlement, on promontories and on the low heights along the edges of the fjord, are the graves of the dead.

One of them seems at first to be a relatively simple affair. In the middle of the 9th century a man of indeterminate age was buried on his left side, probably dressed in a cloak because a brooch was found at his shoulder. His chest was pressed up against a large stone, and his body had been covered from the waist down with a cloth of very fine quality, drawn up like a blanket over his legs. With him were a handful of objects: two knives, a fire steel and two flints, a whetstone, some fragments of a soapstone bowl and what the excavators called an ‘egg-shaped stone’. Little in this is particularly exciting, though even this meagre grave has its own character and individualism, everything in it being there for a reason. However, it is what happened next that is remarkable.

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early tenth century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

Several decades later in the early 900s, an 8.5m-long boat was placed exactly on top of the dead man, its keel aligned precisely along the axis of his grave (which tells us that its location was remembered). Inside the boat were the bodies of four people: a man, two women and an infant, together with a number of animals. Around and above the bodies, laid out together with them or deposited above them as the boat was filled with earth, were masses of objects. Let us look a little closer.

In the prow a man and a woman lay apparently on blankets covering the decking. The woman was aged about 45-50 when she died, arranged on her back with her right hand on her breast, ankles crossed and her feet pointing into the prow. Her head was resting on a stone, like a pillow. She was expensively dressed, her clothes held together with silver jewellery. From her belt hung a knife and a key. To her immediate right was a bucket. Balanced across her knees, a weaving sword.

A baby was wrapped in the woman’s dress, bundled at her hip with her left hand resting on its head.

Lying head to head with the woman, arranged symmetrically with his feet pointing to the stern, was a man of unknown age. He had been placed slightly twisted, on his back but with legs flexed and bent to one side at the waist. Laid out around him were weapons: two axes, of which one was an antique; a throwing spear; a sheathed sword, its point precisely at his head, with two knives and a whetstone next to it; a shield (two more lay nearby); a quiver of arrows and therefore probably also a bow. A silver arm-ring lay above him. On his midriff lay an inverted frying pan. On the sword scabbard two spindle whorls had been carefully placed. A pot of German manufacture had been smashed and its pieces scattered over the man’s body along with three glass beads, near a soapstone vessel. Two more of the latter were deposited at the man’s feet. An iron dog chain was draped next to him, with a sickle somewhere nearby.

Amidships, a bridled horse had been killed and laid on the deck. Its throat was probably cut, and it seems to have been decapitated and roughly dismembered, its limbs and body parts then placed back in approximately their anatomical positions. A single spur was placed on the mangled corpse.

In the stern of the boat was a second woman, apparently buried sitting up, either in a chair or hunched up against the rising end of the vessel. From her location and posture it is possible that the steering oar of the boat was resting in her hands. A whetstone and a bridle-bit leant against her feet, which touched the carcass of the horse. She was well-dressed in high fashion. Behind her was a shield. To her right, resting on the deck, another of those enigmatic ‘egg-shaped stones’ and a weaving sword of iron. To her left, an unusual iron staff pinned down under a large rock. Somewhere near her was an axe. In the woman’s lap was an imported bowl of bronze that had been scratched with runes, i muntlauku, ‘in the hand basin’. The bowl contained some unidentified little metal objects, and the severed head of a dog. Its body lay across the woman’s feet. One pair of its legs, perhaps detached, lay a little below the torso; the other legs were missing. Marks on the bones suggest crude carving of the flesh before the ragged skeleton was reassembled. Around the woman were also found fragments of wood and bark, pieces of sheet iron and objects of copper alloy; we do not know what they were.

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

The iron staff might offer a small clue to the nature of the dead steerswoman, as it is of a kind identified as a tool of the sorceresses called a völur, and other female magic-workers, who feature extensively in the Icelandic sagas. Several staffs of this kind can be seen in the exhibition.

The whole burial was then covered with earth and complex stone constructions, building up to a low mound. The excavators also found patches of cremated bone and wood mixed here and there in the deposit, hinting at further rituals about which we know nothing.

In all of this, note the detail, the precision, the deliberate choice and positioning of objects. The treatment of these Viking-Age dead is eloquent in its sheer specificity.

So what were they doing, on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the early tenth century? A burial of four people in a boat, itself placed on top of another grave, a few decades old. Were the man and woman a couple, with their child? Or were they unrelated? Who was the woman sitting in the stern, apparently some kind of witch? Did they all die together, either violently or through illness? Was one or more of them killed to accompany the others in death? Whose were the boat and the animals, or did they belong to none of the dead? What do the objects mean, and would a contemporary understanding of them even approximate to our own? What connection did all of this have with the man under the keel? One thing is certain: it does not resemble any kind of funeral familiar to us.

They died a long time ago and we do not know their names, but these people of the Viking Age faced the same eternal questions of life and its meaning as still puzzle us today. The boat burial at Kaupang was one of their answers.


Neil Price is a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Vikings: hearts of darkness?

iron slave shackle, © National Museum of IrelandTom Williams, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

The tidal current runs to and fro […] crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Here, surely, we have a passionate and evocative description of the Vikings: bold adventurers stepping forward onto the world stage, ready to set a blaze on four continents and pave the way for the nations that would rise in their wake.

In fact, this passage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describes the explorers, buccaneers, settlers and merchants – ‘the dark ‘interlopers’ of the eastern trade, and the commissioned ‘generals’ of the East India fleets” – who had set out from the Thames from the 16th to the 19th century, laying the foundations of the British Empire and changing the world forever.

But striking similarities between the Vikings and the British of the early modern and modern age underlie this coincidence of images: societies alienated in politics and religion from their closest neighbours and rivals, possession of a technological edge at sea, bravery, curiosity, a lust for gold and a willingness to use violence and brutality to whatever end. It was a comparison that the Victorians were not slow to identify, though they saw the comparison in a generally positive light.

…much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!

R M Ballantyne, Erling the Bold: A Tale of Norse Sea-Kings (1869)

But just as the legacy of Empire is constantly being re-evaluated, so too is the impact of the Vikings on the people with whom they came into contact, and the darker side of both has frequently been at the foreground of contemporary thought. The Vikings were happy to acquire goods by plunder and extortion when it was expedient, and to open up new markets for trade by the sword. Evidence from Viking military camps in Britain suggests that trade and manufacturing could go hand in hand with raiding and conquest: perhaps an early equivalent of ‘gun-boat diplomacy’. And just as the early wealth of the British Empire was founded on the horrors of the slave trade, so too were slaves a major trading commodity for Vikings. Written sources give a sense of some of the misery experienced by people subjected to early medieval human trafficking:

Stumbling the survivors
Scattered from the carnage,
Sorrowing they fled to safety,
Leaving the women captured.
Maidens were dragged in shackles
To your triumphant longships;
Women wept as bright chains
Cruelly bit their soft flesh.

Valgard of Voll, c. AD 1000–1100, quoted in ‘King Harald’s Saga’, Heimskringla (c.1230) by Snorri Sturlusson, 1179–1241; translation by M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson in King Harald’s Saga (Penguin Books, London, 1966, 2nd ed. 2005).

Slave collar. © National Museum of Ireland

Slave collar, St. John’s Lane, Dublin, E173:X119. © National Museum of Ireland

Viking slave shackles excavated in Dublin and Germany bear a startling similarity to those used in the transportation of Africans to the Americas and West Indies in the 18th and early 19th centuries by British slave-traders, such as these in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.

But at the same time, the rapacity and technological edge that made the Vikings so feared were also to effect lasting change on a continental scale. Settlements in Ireland, Russia and Ukraine played a pivotal role in the development of urban civilisation in those regions, and the influx of trade goods and silver from the east contributed in no small way to the economic development of European markets. New settlements and cultures grew out of Viking exploration, sometimes where none had existed before. The birth of an Icelandic nation was to give Europe its oldest living parliamentary system and lead to an extraordinary flowering of medieval literature in the shape of the Icelandic sagas.

The legacy of the British Empire remains highly controversial. But it is even more problematic trying to judge the Vikings by the standards of 21st-century morality. As with all stereotypes applied to large groups of people, labelling the Vikings as heroes or villains, raiders or traders, distorts history and oversimplifies complex phenomena. The Vikings were many things in equal measure, and their diversity of expression, activity and ethnicity is a defining aspect of what Vikings: life and legend seeks to explore.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Made in China: an imperial Ming vase

detail of Ming vase
Yu-Ping Luk, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

Early last year, when the idea of a Spotlight tour to complement the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China was raised, we had to consider which single object from the British Museum collection could possibly represent early Ming dynasty (1368–1644) China. The answer seemed obvious – it had to be a spectacular blue-and-white porcelain vase.

Press launch in Room 33 of the Spotlight tour and Ming exhibition

Press launch in Room 33 of the Spotlight tour and Ming exhibition

Without knowing much about the Ming dynasty, most people will probably have heard of the ‘Ming vase’. The phrase ‘as precious as a Ming vase’ is often used to describe an antique object of great value. The plot device of a priceless Ming vase being smashed to pieces or stolen has been used in films and on television for comic or dramatic effect. The spotlight tour, together with the exhibition at the British Museum, are opportunities for audiences to rediscover this seemingly familiar object and to find out more about the Ming dynasty when it was made.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435. Gift of Sir John Addis.

The vase that has been chosen for the Spotlight tour is a stunning porcelain flask that was donated to the British Museum in 1975 by Sir John Addis, a former British Museum Trustee and British Ambassador to China. Painted with lotus scroll decoration in cobalt blue, it is inscribed with the reign mark of the Xuande emperor (reigned 1426–35), well known for his love of the arts. Together with his grandfather the charismatic Yongle emperor (reigned 1403–24), the Xuande emperor established a golden age in China during which the imperial and regional courts were centres of culture, military power and contacts with the wider world. The vase is typical of the skill and quality of imperial production in China during the early 1400s.

Apart from its beauty and size, this vase was also chosen as it highlights one of the major themes of the exhibition, the interaction between China and the wider world. While considerable attention has been paid to the contacts between China and Europe from the 1500s onwards, China was already engaged in a network of trade and diplomacy by land and by sea that extended between Japan to the west coast of Africa a century earlier. The imperial court took an interest in and appropriated elements from other cultures, such as by commissioning porcelain with shapes modelled on earlier Middle Eastern objects in metal or glass. This porcelain flask is an example of this distinctive trend.

By displaying this stunning piece from the British Museum’s collection, we hope to inspire people to find out more about Ming dynasty China. It is also an opportunity to rediscover objects related to China in partner museums that may be shown alongside the vase. Each venue will also bring a different perspective to this Ming porcelain vase by commissioning a new artwork in response to it. At the first stop, the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Scottish composer Eddie McGuire has composed a new piece of music set to poetry by Tom Furniss. All of us on the project are looking forward to the première of this work on 11 April and we are excited to see what will come next.

Read more about the Spotlight tour: Made in China: an imperial Ming vase
Supported by BP

The Spotlight tour will be at:
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow Museums, 12 April – 6 July 2014
Weston Park Museum, Museums Sheffield, 12 July – 5 October 2014
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 11 October 2014 – 4 January 2015
The Willis Museum, Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service, 10 January – 4 April 2015.


The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP
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#mummy #curse Our free exhibition #WitchesAndWickedBodies is a #Halloween delight, examining the portrayal of #witches and #witchcraft from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Explore the exhibition in Room 90, until 11 Jan 2015. Happy #Halloween! Today we're sharing all things spooky and scary! Check out some Halloween #Pinspiration at 
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