British Museum blog

Understanding art in religion

Robert Bracey, curator, British Museum

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The term ‘religion’ covers a diverse range of thoughts and beliefs. Some people understand their religion to prohibit all acts of violence, even to the smallest animal, while others believe their religion compels them to go to war. For some people religion is central to their identity and infuses every aspect of their life while for others it is something that relates to a particular place on a certain day. Religion’s diversity makes it hard to define though we all feel we recognise religiosity when we see it.

Over two days in June this year, a group of staff from the British Museum and guests took on the problem of trying to define religion and think about how religion affects, or is affected, by the sort of objects that make up the British Museum’s collection. This seminar took place as part of the Empires of Faith research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project is about comparing religious objects from different cultures in the first millennium AD. This is a hugely important period for the religions we know today. Christianity and Islam both began in the first millennium, and the beliefs and rituals of many other religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Buddhism) took the form we recognise today at this time.

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It is very easy to let preconceptions get in the way of thinking about big ideas like religion. To help the members of the research team break out of their comfort zone we invited five guests with very different expertise to speak about the topics. Averil Cameron (University of Oxford) is well-known for her work on Byzantine history. Matthew Canepa (University of Minnesota) is an art historian and expert on the Sasanian world (ancient Iran). Simon Coleman (University of Toronto) is an anthropologist and an expert on pilgrimage. Bruce Lincoln (University of Chicago) works on the history of religions. Joan Pau Rubies (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) studies the history of European missionaries. Such a diverse range of expertise helped push everybody to think in new ways.

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This wasn’t a conventional seminar with formal lectures. Instead, it was a discussion, sometimes a debate, about ideas that could shape the project. So, although the project team will write lots of research over its course, there will be no book of the seminar. The participants agreed instead to let their ideas and discussion be ‘sketched'; a new concept for most of us. The artist Clarice Holt sat quietly in the corner while we talked at, argued and harangued each other. Clarice prepared eighteen sketches of the meeting, encapsulating different points that were raised during the discussion. You can see the full sketches in the slideshow at the end of this post.

Not often is one’s mind stretched so far and in so many captivating directions. I hope very much that the images I created for the Empires of Faith Project will allow a wider range of people access to what is a vibrant and relevant area of historical research, and to gain insights into this weird and wonderful area.

Clarice’s reflections on the seminar.

The first day of the seminar was spent trying to find a way of defining religion. One of the disagreements was about whether a single definition of religion was useful or if what was, or was not, religious had to be defined for each historical period. The single definition makes sense to us because we live in a world where there are sharp divides between the religious and non-religious (or secular). Some people, and some places, and often certain days are ‘for’ religion but in the past religion was part of everyday life. People saw the world as constantly shaped by magical or divine forces beyond their control. Thinking ourselves back into that perspective is very hard and that made these days very useful for the project as a whole.

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The second day was about objects and what they tell us about religion. One topic that was discussed was the ambiguity of images. The Empires of Faith team is very interested in how the same image can represent different gods in different places. So, for example, an image of the Greek god Hercules found in modern Pakistan would probably represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, or in Iran it could be the divine being Verethragna. What did the people who made the images, or used them, think about the relationships between these different gods?

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The two days were tiring but enlightening. Everyone came away with plenty to think about and some more questions that the project will try to answer in the future. Can objects shape what you believe? Can they be more important than doctrines and scripture? Does a sacred object possess some intrinsic quality that sets it apart, or does sacredness only exist in our perceptions?
Traditionally the study of religion in the ancient world has focused on what people wrote about regarding their beliefs or practices. The Empires of Faith project is seeking to balance that by looking at how visual culture and religious artefacts relate to religion. It feels appropriate that the thinking from our first seminar was recorded not as a series of written articles but as a set of images.

Click on one of the images below to view as a slideshow

More about the Empires of Faith project on the British Museum website.

Filed under: Empires of Faith, , , , , , , , , , ,

How to collect a cave: digital photography and African rock art

digitally manipulated photograph of African rock art from Tadrat Acacus, Libya
Elizabeth Galvin, curator, British Museum

I am currently looking at 25,000 objects from the Museum’s collection on my desk. These fantastic works detail an important part of human history in Africa and range from beautiful bas-relief cattle to stunning painted representations of women dancing. Yet these items are not from the Museum’s storage facilities: they are saved on a hard drive, as part of the African rock art image project. The project team is cataloguing and uploading these 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent, so each one of them is being registered into the Museum’s collection as an object in its own right and made available through the Collection Online.

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad. © TARA/David Coulson

While digital collections are a relatively new area for the museum industry, they are showing new and exciting ways museum visitors can engage with the collections, as well as adding to our scholarship. As part of this project, the digital photographs have allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ in Africa.

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685 © TARA/David Coulson

For example, this digital photograph shows a piece of rock art that has been chipped and faded through natural erosion. With the naked eye, we can see some remnants of a red-brown pigment. Maybe this was the legs of a quadruped or perhaps two abstract human figures. Most of the rock art in this area is thousands of years old, so knowing exactly what it looked like before it was eroded used to be impossible without extensive tests that could have easily destroyed the original work.

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685, showing enhanced elephant image

Digitally manipulated copy of the above photo (2013,2034.685) showing enhanced elephant image

Now, however, using photo manipulation software, we can run the photograph through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye. In this one, we can see that the legs belong to an elephant, complete with large ears, a tail and trunk.

Digitally manipulated copy of 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Run the same image through another enhancement, and we can see many more human figures that were previously invisible. The elephant is still somewhat visible in the background, highlighted in pink. But the fantastic hunters to the top right of the photo would never have been identifiable in the original rock art. Now we can see them with their bows and arrows in an active hunting scene. ‘Swimming’ figures are now highlighted in the centre of the photograph. At the right of the image, we are also able to see a section of a giraffe, depicted with a spotted coat.

By using new technologies with the digital collections, we are not only able to enhance our study of the rock art, but also to build a database to ensure open access to our work. We are regularly using social media, blogs (like this one), and thematic articles on the main Museum website, both to increase access to these amazing works of rock art, and to facilitate discussion with our online visitors across the world. While the Museum’s physical collections will always be at the core of its work, digital collections are letting us see objects in a new light. After all, a 21st-century museum requires 21st-century collecting.

On Monday 6 October 2014 at 1.30pm, Elizabeth Galvin will be giving a free public lecture on African Rock Art and Photography with renowned photographer David Coulson (from the Trust for African Rock Art),  in the BP lecture Theatre at the British Museum in London. Tickets are free, but booking is recommended via the British Museum website to ensure a place.

For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.

The African rock art image project is supported by the Arcadia Fund

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

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, , ,

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Horatio Nelson died #onthisday in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. This commemorative medal was intended for presentation to the men who fought under Nelson at Trafalgar, with 19,000 struck in copper, of which 14001 were distributed.
#history #medal #trafalgar #nelson Dutch artist Aelbert Cuyp was born #onthisday in 1620. He seemed to be very fond of cows! The Sydney Opera House opened #onthisday in 1973.

Designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House provoked fierce public controversy in the 1960s as much over the escalating cost of its construction as the innovative brilliance of its domed sail-like halls. Now recognised the world over as a magnificent architectural icon jutting into Sydney Harbour, the Sydney Opera House finally opened in 1973. 
In this Christmas card for 1972 Eric Thake (1904–1982) cheekily anticipates the long awaited opening with his domestic version of the grand architectural statement. Crockery stacked in a drying rack forms the shape of the Sydney Opera House, with water from the kitchen sink adjacent. The small housefly resting on one of the stacked plates adds an unmistakably Australian touch.

Text from Stephen Coppel’s 'Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas'
#art #architecture #sydneyoperahouse #sydney #print Born #onthisday in 1632: architect Sir Christopher Wren. Here’s a freehand drawing showing the relationship of the domes of the new St Paul’s Cathedral
#history #architecture #stpauls #London #art Room 4, Egyptian sculpture, is the next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. The objects in this gallery range in date from 2600 BC to the 2nd century AD. Large-scale sculpture was an important feature of the great temples and tombs of ancient Egypt and was believed to be imbued with powerful spiritual qualities. Sculptures on display in Room 4 include stylised depictions of kings, deities and symbolic objects ranging from the time of the Old Kingdom to the middle of the Roman Period. There are also architectural pieces from temples and tombs.
An imposing stone bust of the great pharaoh Ramesses II presides over the room, while the world-famous Rosetta Stone (in the foreground of this pic), with its inscribed scripts, demonstrates how Egypt’s ancient form of pictographic writing was deciphered for the first time.
#museum #art #sculpture #history #ancientegypt #egypt #hieroglyphs Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series looking at all the galleries in the British Museum, it's Room 3. Since 2005 this room has housed a series of temporary displays – The Asahi Shimbun Displays. Usually focused on one object (although sometimes featuring several), it provides a space in which to experiment with display and interpretation. Displays have featured everything from ancient African hand tools to contemporary art, from Old Masters to manga. The current display (pictured) features an enormous print by Albrecht Dürer.
#museum #art #history
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