British Museum blog

Conserving the pottery, terracotta and tablets from Ur

Duygu Camurcuoglu, conservator, Ur Project, British Museum

My job is to assess the condition of the objects from Ur being studied as part of the Ur digitisation project, conserve them if necessary, and guide the project team on handling and safe storage of the objects before/during photography and further digitisation work. I joined the project in August 2013 to lead the conservation and my first responsibility was to assess and conserve the terracotta objects and the clay tablets with ancient cuneiform inscriptions on study loan from Iraq.

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq.  (ME 127443)

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq. (ME 127443)

There are over a thousand terracotta objects from Ur in the British Museum’s collection, primarily reliefs, figurines and models. Although some are skilfully modelled, the majority are rather crude and mass-produced in moulds. My initial task was to assess each one, selecting those that needed treatment and completing the work before they could be handled and photographed. In the image above, you can see me assessing the condition of one of the important objects from Ur, the fired clay mask of Humbaba, a fearsome monster slain by Gilgamesh in Mesopotamian literature. During the process, colleagues from ceramics and glass conservation joined me to complete the assessment work on the objects, while I undertook the actual conservation treatments.

Following the terracotta objects, I assessed the condition of the pottery from Ur. This large collection comprises over a thousand ceramic vessels in various sizes, shapes, colours and fabrics. This was a huge challenge! Every day, my colleague Gareth Brereton and I went to one of British Museum’s storage areas where the pottery from Ur is housed. We set up a small working area in this room for object assessments, photography and registration. There were a large number of cupboards to go through, so Gareth and I worked almost every morning together, assessing the condition of each pot so that Gareth could handle, photograph and register them. We had plenty of exercise going up and down the ladder each morning as some of the objects were stored very high up in the shelves.

Most terracotta objects and ceramic vessels from Ur are in good condition. They sometimes require conservation work, since they have unstable fragments, flakes or cracks on their surfaces. This is very normal due to the age of the objects, most are which are about 4,000 years old. It is crucial that the necessary treatments are undertaken. When unstable objects are not treated using proper conservation techniques and materials, further problems may occur during storage and handling, such as loss of surfaces and decoration, cracks, breakage of fragments that can make it difficult to study and learn more from the objects.

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

I identify any cracks and/or unstable flakes on the surface of the vessels before stabilising them using conservation grade materials. I often use a fine brush or a micropipette for this work. Once the treatment is completed, I enter all my treatment records onto the British Museum’s curatorial database, Merlin, so that the information is accessible across the Museum and the world via the collection online.

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

I have also been assessing and undertaking conservation on the cuneiform tablets from Ur. It is particularly important to prevent the loss of surfaces from tablets, because that would mean loss of the text.

Apart from undertaking remedial ‘hands on’ work with objects, I am also responsible from supporting the Ur team when they have any questions about handling the objects safely, as some are very fragile. I also monitor the environmental conditions in the Ur project lab and storage cupboards, using digital sensors which we place in different areas. This is important because fluctuating temperature and relative humidity can severely damage archaeological objects. For example, soluble salts in the ceramic and clay fabrics can react very quickly with the fluctuating conditions, resulting in delamination and loss of object surfaces, which can contain elaborate decorations, pigments and reliefs.

When I have completed the conservation work on the pottery and the cuneiform tablets, I will move on to the conservation of other types of objects and materials from Ur, in order to prepare them for digitisation and further study. I am looking forward to the challenge!

Read more about the Ur digitisation project in Birger Helgestad’s post in July.

The Ur Project is supported by the Leon Levy Foundation.

Filed under: Conservation, Ur Project, , , , , ,

Citizen archaeologists wanted to help rediscover the British Bronze Age

Jennifer Wexler, Bronze Age Index Manager, MicroPasts Project, Daniel Pett, ICT Advisor, Portable Antiquities Scheme, and Neil Wilkin, Curator of European Bronze Age collections, British Museum

As any museum researcher will tell you, getting used to a new museum is as much about learning about the collections of objects, as chasing down the paper records that accompany them. These can yield vital clues about how and where important finds were made and how their biography unfolded. Last winter the MicroPasts team (a collaborative, multi-disciplinary AHRC-funded project with University College London‘s Institute of Archaeology) assembled at Franks House, to view the British Museum’s Bronze Age collection. Our visit was the inspiration for an exciting new project to digitise one of the first catalogues to document British and European prehistory: the Bronze Age Index.

The superb Bronze Age objects in the British Museum collection do not tell the whole story

The superb Bronze Age objects in the British Museum collection do not tell the whole story

The history of the Index is filled with periods of inactivity punctuated by rapid developments. It began as a major archaeological initiative founded by the British Association Committee on Bronze Implements in 1913 and originally housed at the Society of Antiquaries at Burlington House on Piccadilly. It was moved to the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum in 1933, though it was sent on loan to the former British Museum curator Professor C F C Hawkes, as acting Chair of European Archaeology at Oxford University in 1955. It was finally returned to its permanent home at the British Museum in 1966, where it has been kept ever since.

The Bronze Age Index’s home in the British Museum’s stores

The Bronze Age Index’s home in the British Museum’s stores

Known as the ‘principal instrument of research in the British Bronze Age’, the main concept behind the creation of the Index was the idea that by compiling a corpus of all Bronze Age metal objects found in the various museums and collections across the UK, it would be possible for the first time for researchers to study ‘the movements of peoples and trade through the exhaustive study of the distributions of certain types of implements and weapons used in the period’. This corpus took the form of an illustrated card catalogue, with each index card detailing object findspots and types, alongside detailed line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object’s context of discovery, illustrated below. For over 70 years, it represented the highest standards of Bronze Age object studies.

An example of an Index card, a flanged axe found while ‘cutting an equestrian figure of King George III’, from Osmington Hill, Dorset.

An example of an Index card, a flanged axe found while ‘cutting an equestrian figure of King George III’, from Osmington Hill, Dorset

The Bronze Age Index now contains over 30,000 records of Bronze Age tools and weapons largely discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries, and complements our current Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Database of metal object finds. This initiative is interesting not only because it was the first catalogue of its kind documenting prehistory on a wide scale, but also because it was probably the first British archaeology initiative to call on public help with documenting British prehistory way back in the early 20th century.

Investigating a Bronze Age hoard – the Early Bronze Age Arreton Down Hoard from the Isle of Wight

Investigating a Bronze Age hoard, in this case the Early Bronze Age Arreton Down Hoard from the Isle of Wight

Following in the footsteps of creators of the Index, we are once again calling on the public to help us research this extremely important untapped resource. Since late 2013, the digitisation of the entire Index has been undertaken by the MicroPasts project. The MicroPasts project employs a crowd-sourcing platform (built on the open source project Pybossa) in order to solicit help from members of the public or ‘citizen archaeologists’ to assist us transcribing the important information contained on these cards. Additionally, people are helping us with creating 3D models of objects, many of which are recorded by the Index. By undertaking these transcriptions, it will be possible to incorporate the Index’s 30,000 records rapidly into the PAS database, which on its own includes nearly one million objects collected by the public, usually by metal-detectorists.

The result will be the largest national database of prehistoric metal finds anywhere in the world and a near-comprehensive view of what we currently know about such finds in the UK. Metal finds are not only crucial forms of evidence for dating Britain’s prehistoric past, but also tell us a great deal about prehistoric society and economy. The creation of this database will allow for the rethinking of almost everything we currently know about the use of metal in Bronze Age Britain, giving us a more comprehensive view of our prehistoric past. It is also fascinating as it should demonstrate how the interplay between reassessing archaeological archives and the employment of new technologies, such as crowd-sourcing, can open up new avenues of research and public engagement.

If you are interested in helping us research and enrich our knowledge of the Bronze Age, as well as many other museum archives, please join us and help to realise the aspiration of 100 years of Bronze Age study.

The MicroPasts project team is led by Professor Andy Bevan (Institute of Archaeology (IOA), UCL) and co-investigated by Daniel Pett and Rachael Sparks (IOA, UCL). The British Museum Bronze Age Index is managed by Jennifer Wexler in collaboration with Neil Wilkin and Chiara Bonacchi (IOA, UCL) and Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert (IOA, UCL) are the principal researchers.

The Project is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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

Colourful glass adornments from Egypt: an 18th-dynasty enigma

Anna Hodgkinson, Research Fellow, British Museum

The author inspecting the glass objects

The Egyptian 18th Dynasty (around 1545-1290 BC) is renowned for the quality of glass production, particularly vessels such as the famous bottle in the form of a fish from Amarna. I have spent the last three months in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan studying a less well-known group of glass objects from the same period.

These have been widely interpreted as ‘ear-plugs’ or ‘ear-studs’. I was intrigued: how did this interpretation come into existence? The overall form of the – very colourful – glass objects resembles that of mushroom- or papyrus-shaped ear-studs, frequently found in New Kingdom contexts, with a large number coming from Amarna and depicted on tomb scenes and mummy cartonnages. However, what struck me as unusual was that all the examples in the British Museum have a small hole running through the centre of the object. Although scholars refer to these items as ‘ear-studs’ or ‘ear-plugs’, publications from over a century ago, including some by Sir Flinders Petrie and bead specialist Horace C. Beck, call them beads or amulets, because of this piercing.

The glass objects laid out during the documentation process

The objects were produced by wrapping molten glass rods around a metal rod; however, this procedure would not have necessitated a complete piercing. Scholars have suggested that the frontal hole, which would be visible if these items were worn through a pierced ear-lobe, may have accommodated a fresh flower. While this is conceivable, I would rather interpret these items as beads, since most of them have a spiral-decorated shaft. This shaft would be invisible when worn through the ear-lobe. The beads could have been threaded horizontally or vertically, worn in collars or on the ends of wigs.

Unfortunately, there is no pictorial nor three-dimensional evidence for how these objects were worn, nor do the archaeological contexts tell us much about their use. Most have been found individually, rather than in pairs, and those that appear on the art market and in private collections are usually without provenance (i.e. information about the context in which they were originally excavated or found). This shows that we must be cautious with how objects are designated, because they may be based on conjecture rather than evidence.

My time in the British Museum has allowed the updating of nearly 240 records of items of glass jewellery of the New Kingdom with full descriptions and measurements, and full photographic documentation, accessible to all through the Museum’s Collection online.

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

Ur of the Chaldees: a virtual vision of Woolley’s excavations

Birger Helgestad, Project Curator, Ur Project, British Museum

An almost 4,000-year-old fired clay relief depicting a nude hero. One of a pair of reliefs made from the same mould (British Museum 1924.0920,74)

An almost 4,000-year-old fired clay relief depicting a nude hero. One of a pair of reliefs made from the same mould (British Museum 1924.0920,74)

I am responsible for managing the digitisation of objects and archives for the Ur Project, a dynamic new collaboration between the British Museum and Penn Museum made possible with the lead support of the Leon Levy Foundation. The project takes the successful cooperation of the two organisations of the 1920s and 1930s at Ur into the 21st century, digitally reunifying the remarkable finds from that site in a state-of-the-art website. We are photographing and documenting all the finds from Ur in our collections, from small pieces of broken pots to ancient cuneiform texts and exquisite gold jewellery. We are also digitising the original excavation photographs, archives, plans and other documents. Our resource will bring together these varied sources of information for the first time and make them available in an online database that will preserve the complete finds and records in digital formats for posterity.

Leonard Woolley excavating an almost 4,000-year-old votive figurine in the shrine of Hendursag (1930–­31)

Leonard Woolley excavating an almost 4,000-year-old votive figurine in the shrine of Hendursag (1930–­31)

Katharine Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim, the excavation’s foreman, sorting finds (1928­–29 season.

Katharine Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim, the excavation’s foreman, sorting finds (1928­–29 season).

Ur was an important city throughout Mesopotamian history. The excavations, led by Sir Leonard Woolley and jointly sponsored by the British Museum and the Penn Museum, uncovered its famous ziggurat complex, areas of densely packed private houses, and the spectacular Royal Graves with rich inventories of gold and evidence of human sacrifice. These unique finds provide crucial information about third-millennium society, as well as the warfare, music, food, drink, and customs of the period. We can also learn much about the people that lived and died in this city through the study of the cuneiform tablets excavated at the site. There are about 10,000 of these ancient texts from Ur in the partner museums’ collections.

A page from an excavation notebook describing 'Private Grave 91'. We are digitising tens of thousands of pages such as the one depicted here.

A page from an excavation notebook describing ‘Private Grave 91′. We are digitising tens of thousands of pages such as the one depicted here.

By 1922–34 Woolley had developed his methods with an increased emphasis on recording. Thus, the vast scale of the finds he recovered – numbering into the tens of thousands – are contextualised by an abundance of documentation. The British Museum houses the core part of this documentation, such as the original glass-plate negative photographs, and the excavation diaries. We are digitising, indexing, and cross-referencing these indispensable resources.

The most exiting aspect of the project is the rare opportunity it provides to reunify dispersed information. Not only will the collections from the three museums (the British Museum, Penn Museum and the Iraq Museum) be integrated, but also the different categories of object brought together in one virtual space, and, crucially, barriers between object data and archives will be broken down.

A Sumerian schoolboy’s practice tablet with proverbs on one side and rough workings from a maths lesson on the back (multiple views). On study loan to the British Museum from the Iraq Museum.

A Sumerian schoolboy’s practice tablet with proverbs on one side and rough workings from a maths lesson on the back (multiple views). On study loan to the British Museum from the Iraq Museum.

Our website will present for the first time an authoritative set of high resolution images of the entirety of the finds, integrated with all field notes, catalogue records, photos, reports, maps, letters and publications. Importantly, data are recorded in a format that allows them to be fully indexable and extractable, enabling people to create their own datasets and make comparisons with their own research. This approach will also allow us to re-establish lost object identifications and crucial findspot information. We will relate internal references between notes, letters, publications and catalogues, connect artefacts to their findspots on maps, and link wherever possible to other resources with the goal of enabling researchers to analyse the site in exciting new ways. All data are thoroughly cross-referenced, facilitating the study of artefacts all the way from excavation context to current display.

Activity is currently underway at the British Museum and at Penn Museum. We hope soon to be joined by our colleagues at the Iraq Museum. Our work feeds into the shared project website, as well as each museum’s own collection database. Our web resource will eliminate traditional barriers between institutions, enabling people to focus on the material from Ur as a single corpus, disregarding the objects’ current locations. We hope that our approach will inspire the digitisation of other similarly dispersed collections.

The project staff bring expertise in archives, photography, programming, conservation, Assyriology and archaeology. This range of skills reflects the diversity of information being collated, and indicates the great potential for research our resource provides. I look forward to bringing you future updates about the project as it progresses.

Dr Gareth Brereton investigating a terracotta relief from Ur

Dr Gareth Brereton investigating a terracotta relief from Ur

Birger Helgestad is joined on the project team by Jon Taylor, Gareth Brereton, Nadia Linder and Duygu Camurcuoglu. The co-directors at the British Museum are the Keeper of the Department of the Middle East, Jonathan Tubb, and Irving Finkel. The co-directors at Penn Museum are Richard L Zettler and Stephen J Tinney, leading a team comprising William B Hafford, Sasha Renninger, Tessa de Alarcon, Ryan Placchetti, and Shannon Advincula.

The Ur Project is supported by the Leon Levy Foundation

Filed under: Archaeology, Ur Project, , , , , , , , , , ,

What lies beneath: new discoveries about the Jericho skull

Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

It’s always a problem for museum curators to find ways of learning more about the objects in their care without damaging them. For human remains, it’s even more complicated because there are additional questions of care and respect for the dead that have to be carefully considered before any research can be done. However, by studying their remains we can find out an enormous amount about the people of the past; about their health, their diet and about the religious practices they carried out.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The so-called Jericho skull is among the oldest human remains in the British Museum collection. Thought to be between 8,500 and 9,300 years old, it is one of seven Neolithic plastered human skulls found together by Kathleen Kenyon during excavations at Jericho in 1953. The site is now located in the modern State of Palestine.

Plastered skulls are thought to have been an important part of Neolithic rituals involving the removal, decoration and collecting of skulls. There has been a lot of debate about why particular skulls were chosen for this. Some archaeologists link them to the worship of elder males. Others suggest they were selected according to their shape or the status of the person in society. Some argue that they are portraits of revered members of the community. None of these theories are completely convincing, but a general agreement has emerged that the worship of ancestors may be involved.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

This ‘skull’ is actually a cranium because the lower jaw has been removed. There is also a section of bone missing on the left side towards the back where the soil filling inside can be seen. The cranium was decorated with a thick layer of plaster, shaped to look like a human face, which covers all of the upper jaw and finishes at the eye sockets and temples. Plaster has also been used on the base, so the skull sits upright on its own. Frustratingly, the plaster covers the parts of the skull which provide clues about who the person was and what happened to them. Therefore, over 50 years after it had been found, we still knew very little about the person whose skull this was. Physical anthropologists (experts in the human body) Theya Molleson (Scientific Associate, Natural History Museum) and Jessica Pearson, looked at how much the sutures (the joins between the skull’s bones) had closed and were able to suggest that it was a mature adult, but we needed to see beneath the plaster to find out more.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Museum has equipment for taking X-rays (radiographs) and my colleague Janet Ambers was able to X-ray the Jericho skull, but the soil filling the skull made it difficult to see everything inside clearly. We were therefore very lucky to be offered the chance to use a micro-CT scanner and its associated software by the Imaging and Analysis Centre, at the Natural History Museum, and the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College, and to work with two of their experts, Richard Able and Crispin Wiles.

The images created by the CT scans allowed us to look beneath the surface, revealing new details about the person that died so long ago. The scans confirmed that the skull had belonged to a mature adult who was more likely to have been male than female. We were also able to look at his upper jaw, where we found broken teeth, tooth decay and damage done to the bone by abscesses; all of which fitted well with the person being a mature adult. The back teeth (second and third molars) never developed and the second incisor on the right side is also missing. It is difficult to be sure without other examples to look at, but these teeth may have failed to grow because of inherited traits that are relatively rare.

The scans also allowed us see that the shape of the person’s head had been changed during their lifetime. It is possible to alter the shape of a skull by binding or bandaging the head during childhood. When we looked at the outside of the Jericho Skull we could see a slight dip in the surface running over the top of the head from ear to ear which suggested that something like this had been carried out. The X-rays and the CT scans, showed changes in the thickness of the skull bone and, as such alterations can only be made while bone is forming and growing, this must have happened from an early age.

This work has also revealed new details about how the skull was prepared for plastering. The CT scans showed concentric rings of grits within the soil and a ball of finer clay sealing the access hole at the back. This suggests that the soil was deliberately put inside the skull to support the surface as the plaster face was being added. It is possible that the round piece of bone cut away to form the access hole was originally put back after the cranium had been filled. Although it was subsequently lost, its earlier presence may explain why the soft soil filling has survived so well.

The work has significantly changed our knowledge of how this person’s skull was treated both during life and after death, making clear the benefits of the long-term care for human remains offered by museums. This previously enigmatic individual is now known to be a old man who suffered badly from toothache. The deliberate re-shaping of the skull also suggests that for this individual, physical change and social status may have been linked, something seen across the history of humankind. The use of imaging techniques has provided us with new areas of investigation and suggested new ways to view plastered skulls; as a reflection of an individual’s life rather than just a treatment for the dead.

The Jericho skull can be seen in the British Museum in Room 59, Ancient Levant, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery.

Alexandra Fletcher is co-editor of a recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum published by British Museum Press, which discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display. The book also discusses some of the research that has developed our understanding of these individuals’ past lives.

Filed under: Archaeology, Research, , , , , , , , ,

The earliest human footprints outside Africa

Nicholas Ashton, curator, British Museum

Happisburgh has hit the news again. Last time the coverage even reached the People’s Daily in China, but I’ve yet to find out which parts of the globe the latest story has reached. Whereas three years ago the news was the oldest human site in northern Europe at over 800,000 years ago, now we have the oldest footprints outside Africa. Happisburgh just keeps giving up surprises.

Caption text?

We found them by pure chance in May last year. We were about to start a geophysics survey on the foreshore, when an old-time friend and colleague, Martin Bates from Trinity St David’s University, pointed out the unusual surface. The site lies beneath the beach sand in sediments that actually underlie the cliffs. The cliffs are made up of soft sands and clays, which have been eroding at an alarming rate over the last ten years, and even more so during the latest winter storms. As the cliffs erode they reveal these even earlier sediments at their base, which are there for a short time before the sea washes them away.

Caption text?

Back in May, high seas had removed most of the beach sand to reveal ancient estuary mud. We’d seen these many times before and had been digging them for years. Normally they consist of flat laminated silts, but in a small area of about 12 square metres there was a jumble of elongated hollows. Martin pointed them out and said that they looked like footprints. He’d been studying similar prints on the Welsh coast near Aberystwyth, but they were just a few thousand years old; we knew the sediments at Happisburgh were over 800,000 years old.

I imagine that there will be plenty of sceptics out there, as were we initially, but the more we eliminated the other possibilities, the more convinced we became. The sediments are hard and compacted – you can jump on them today and leave little impression. And there are no erosional processes that leave those sort of hollows.

The moment of truth came after we’d recorded them. We returned a few days later with Sarah Duffy from York University to photograph them using photogrammetry, a technique that uses multiple digital photographs and stitches them together with some clever software. The method is great, but the weather wasn’t – lashing rain, an incoming tide and fast-fading light. By the end we were cold, soaked, demoralised and still not necessarily convinced.

The results though were amazing. For the first time we had proper overhead images and could identify heels, arches and in one case toes. Isabelle de Groote from Liverpool John Moores University did much of the analysis. It seems that there were perhaps five individuals, both adults and children. The tallest was probably about 5 foot 9 inches tall. So who were they? Although we have no human bones, the most likely species was Homo antecessor or ‘Pioneer Man’, who lived in southern Europe at this time. They were smaller-brained than ourselves, but walked upright and fully bipedal.

We actually know very little else about the people who left these prints, but from the plant and animal remains at Happisburgh we know that they were able to survive winters colder than today. We’re still asking questions of whether they had clothing and shelter or controlled the use of fire. Some of this evidence will be on display in a major exhibition, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story opening at the Natural History Museum on Thursday 13 February 2014.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Research, , , , , , ,

Introducing the African rock art image project

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

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

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

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

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

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

San rock painting, Zimbabwe.  © David Coulson/ TARA

San rock painting, Zimbabwe. © David Coulson/ TARA


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, , ,

From Parthian chicken to flat breads: experimenting with a Roman oven

Heat, steam and Roman cookingSally Grainger, chef and author

In previous posts I introduced the different types of ancient portable ovens which are generally called either clibanus or testum. The former term is the more fashionable Latinised Greek word while testum represents the Italian tradition for these ovens.

Currently on display in the Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum, there is a unique double casserole/oven with a base and domed top. In this post I will discuss the results of preliminary experiments I’ve been undertaking with a replica of this so-called clibanus oven.

A clibanus oven over charcoal

This oven appears to be designed to allow fire to be above and below the food being cooked. This concept is found in recipes in the Roman cookery book known as Apicius for a dish called a patina which is a thick frittata cooked in a vessel of the same name. The instructions are as follows: ‘grease a clean dish and put it in the hot embers, pour the mixture in, allow the embers to be above and below (the dish).’

Readers of Apicius are not told precisely how this may happen but we can imagine the dish must have had a lid for the fire to be on top of the food. There are many North African-ware lidded casseroles that would suit this technique, with a small base that sat in the embers on the hearth and curved walls to allow embers to be pushed beneath the vessel, from the Roman period. The lids had a slightly curved outer rim which would have kept the embers away from the food when the lid was removed: a design feature similar to the flanged single oven I described in my second post. I have experimented with this technique too using a vessel created by Chris Lydamore and found it very successful.

Line drawing

Line illustrations taken from my edition of the Latin text of Apicius shown here demonstrate just how versatile this kind of equipment can be. The single testum/clibanus can function with a completely separate smaller dish inside and what seems to have happened with this new vessel is that the roasting dish becomes integrated as a double unit.

Line drawing

In Apicius the foods described as being cooked in a clibanus like this one are generally rather small and defined as roasting or pot roasting. Recipes include a dry roasted, stuffed dormouse (Ap. 8.9); stuffed kidneys roasted in oil and fish sauce (Ap. 7.8); a neck joint also cooked in a layer of sauce (Ap. 7.5.5) and a boned stuffed kid (Ap. 8.6.6).

Line drawing

Initially I tried a favourite dish known as ‘Parthian chicken’; technically a ‘pot roast’ (Apicius 6.8.3). Chicken pieces are cooked in a ceramic dish in a mixture of wine and fish sauce with caraway, lovage, asafoetida and pepper. We are simply told to cook it without any indication as to whether it’s on a heat source or in one. I found straight away that I had to provide twice the space and twice the fire size to heat both pieces of this new vessel in the same way as I would for the single oven.

This implies a more sophisticated kitchen with a greater volume of fire at the disposal of the cook. The recipe does not suggest you fry the meat first but I tried by adding oil and heating the bottom dish and found that this was very possible. When the vessel was put together, despite the flat base which prevents the embers going right underneath it, the fire is still able to be placed under and on top of the wide flange and as the fire must also be placed on the lid, we can assume that it’s possible to have three levels of fire around the dish with the potential to create an intense level of heat.

Oven with charcoal beneath and on top of it

As the cooking progressed I was able to check inside and found that the sauce was simmering consistently all around the meat and generating plenty of steam which, in a similar way to a traditional tagine, gathers in the dome and falls back into the dish, preventing the meat from drying out. The chicken legs cooked in 45 minutes to a degree whereby the leg bone came out of the meat when pulled which was quite impressive!

Chicken cooking in the oven

In order to test the vessel for its dry baking efficiency I heated both pieces as before but left the base vessel for longer. It was clear from other cooking experiments I had conducted with Roman ceramic vessels over charcoal that when the fabric stays dry over intense radiant heat it is much more fragile and susceptible to cracking. Which, sadly, happened. The base vessel cracked quite quickly but only from one side and the subsequent bake was completed. I did not get that wonderful perky ‘lift’ one expects of a bake stone but as the dome is quite shallow it does not seem to me likely that the vessel was used to bake risen loaves of bread.

Flatter bread is generally baked with a drop scone technique on an open bake stone and the lid is unnecessary. In my experiments the colour and crust came out quite good and the crumb light and airy. I need to bake more bread in the vessel and also attempt to bake other cakes such as the libum ‘Roman cheese cake’ in order to determine whether baking was truly possible in these vessels.

Bread in the oven

First thoughts after cooking with the vessel three times now? It is super-efficient as a general purpose casserole for what we would call ‘pot roasting’: roasting in small amounts of liquid. It has proved less effective as a dry oven whether it be for meat or bread and cakes.

The naming of things and in fact the concept of defining the purpose of an artefact from the past is very problematic as we almost always use modern concepts to define ancient things and this can interfere with our interpretation. So for instance today we bake in an oven, but stew or braise in a casserole. A casserole generally functions today with wet food or sauces and either inside an oven with a radiant heat source or above a heat source on a hob. Rarely does it function as an oven in itself as the ancient casseroles seem to do when the fire is in direct contact with the vessel.

I think we can be fairly certain that the vessel in the exhibition is a form of clibanus but that term seems to be rather more complex than simply a ‘portable oven’. It might be better to define this ancient clibanus not as an oven at all but as a ‘tagine’.

Drawings by Dan Shadrake

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

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

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

Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, Research,

A very versatile Roman oven

A very versatile Roman ovenSally Grainger, chef and author

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

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

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

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

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

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

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

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

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

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

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

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