British Museum blog

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

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Heat, steam and Roman cooking

Heat, steam and Roman cookingSally Grainger, chef and author

There are two exhibitions on at the British Museum at the moment which relate to the theme of Roman cooking and dining.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain evokes a late Roman dining room, including a partial reconstruction of a curved dining couch, or stibadium, arranged around the Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure. Many have puzzled as to how these huge silver platters were used: what kinds of food, if any, were placed on them and was it acceptable to cover up the fine carving?

Having spent many years studying and experimenting to understand what Romans ate and how they prepared and made it, my particular interest is not so much with the outward service of the food, but the actual cooking process. It is clear from ancient texts that the preparation of dishes for fine dining was very sophisticated with intricate vessels combining steam and oven heat and also gentle delicate poaching and simmering: techniques one does not normally associate with ancient cultures.

Food also features heavily in Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which has a unique and inspired focus as Dr Paul Roberts, curator, has re-created the shell of a Roman home, each room containing the artefacts associated with the function of that room.

When I visited, I entered the kitchen room with huge anticipation. I was not disappointed: a good selection of bronze cooking pans, and food residues of all kinds including one of those wonderful carbonised loaves of bread and dried fruits, seeds and nuts which are so perfectly recognisable. The cooking equipment is very fine; a compact little portable brazier that appears to be the kind shared around by the tenement dwellers, and most importantly for me a double clibanus or portable oven/ casserole.

Many years ago, Dr Roberts was responsible, along with two other archaeologists, in reporting on these ovens and had alluded to the idea of a double one, but no drawings existed and I had long been impatient to see one (i). He tells me that when he found this oven in the Naples store he just had to have it for the exhibition and I am so grateful that he did as it is a beautiful piece of cooking technology that I am eager to experiment with.

Many years ago now I had one of the more common single bodied clibanus ovens made by potter Andrew Macdonald. Since then these ovens have spread among the Roman historical re-enactment fraternity and I see them wherever Roman cooking is demonstrated. Over the years I have had numerous versions made (as they inevitably fall apart under the thermal shock) and have also developed the skills needed to bake and roast in them and written about these experiences in my own publications on Roman food (ii).

Replica of a double clibanus oven

Replica of a double clibanus oven

On Sunday 19 May I received a replica of a double clibanus made just three weeks after the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition opened, by potter Chris Lydamore whose creations are highly valued as museum replicas as well as by historical re-constructionists.

My first experiments with this new piece will be reported on here soon. But as a preliminary I will start with a look at how the single-bodied oven works.

i. Cubberley et al 1988 AL Cubberly, J.A Lloyd, P.C. Roberts, Testa and clibani: the baking covers of classical Italy. Papers of the British school at Rome 61, pp. 98-119

ii. C. Grocock, and S. Grainger. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with Introduction and English Translation. Totnes: Prospect Books. Grainger, S. 1999 Cato’s roman cheesecakes: the baking techniques, Milk:beyond the dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on food and cookery, Prospect books Totnes, pp.168-178

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

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

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Wine and monks in Christian Egypt

Wine and monks in Christian EgyptJennifer Cromwell, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New discoveries of cave art in the Caribbean

New cave art discoveries in the pre-Columbian CaribbeanJago Cooper, curator, British Museum

At the end of May, I returned to the British Museum from an exploratory research visit to an uninhabited national park on the island of Mona in Puerto Rico. My colleague Dr Alice Samson, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and I had found more than we planned or expected when we flew to the Caribbean two weeks earlier.

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There are hundreds of caves on Isla de Mona many with entrances like this one on cliff faces overlooking the coastline below.

Alerted to the potential presence of archaeological sites dating to the pre-Columbian period (prior to AD 1492 when Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas) by National park manager Tony Nieves, we went to take a look. We discovered extensive pre-Columbian mining and artistic practices deep inside caves, with an astonishing abundance and diversity of new rock art including pictographs and finger-incised designs representing abstract, human and animal images.

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The pre-Columbian iconography found in many of these cave systems extends through galleried chambers covering large portions of the walls and ceilings.

Designs, which cover the walls and ceilings of hundreds of metres of the darkest caverns and tunnels across the island were executed by the application of pigments to cave walls, and by previously undocumented techniques such as incising and dragging fingers through the very soft, plaster-like deposit on the cave walls. This particular technique left white trails of surprising freshness, complexity and elaborateness.

caption goes here

Many of the representations are clearly identifiable. This figure with the swirling arms represents Guabancex, the pre-Columbian deity associated with the destructive force of the hurricane.

Strikingly the technique also appears to have been a way of harvesting the soft deposit on the cave walls as is attested by the vigorous finger scratching across large expanses of cave surfaces in all of the sites we visited. These extractive activities, or evidence for ancient mining, rather than being indiscriminate movements, were systematic and deliberate actions leaving complex designs.

caption goes here

This figure is identical to the famous Puerto Rican Sol de Jayuya rock art image found in central Puerto Rico.

Alongside Dr Samson I’m working in collaboration with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture to develop a project to study the pre-Columbian archaeology of the island and protect this unique Caribbean heritage. Many of the caves we explored have not been visited since guano (essentially bat excrement, a very effective fertilizer) miners working there downed tools 120 years ago, leaving the ruins of railway tracks, wagons and sometimes their initials on the cave walls.

The caves are incredibly well preserved sites, but are at very high risk of future destruction due to the soft texture of the walls and confined spaces for visitors to gain access. A glimpse of this archaeology is shown in our project gallery page.

The evidence we found not only dramatically expands our repertoire of pre-Columbian iconography, but has the potential to change understandings of past cave use in this area at this time, as well as traditional definitions of rock art.

The fieldwork discussed in this blog was consequently reported in detail at the International Association of Caribbean Archaeology in San Juan, Puerto Rico on 17 July 2013 and more information can now be found on the Antiquity Journal website. Samson, A., Cooper, J., Nieves, M. A., Rodriguez Ramos, R., Kambesis, P. N. and Lace, M. J. 2013 (Dec). Antiquity. vol 87. Issue 338 (http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/samson338/).”

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Putting a mobile phone behind glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobile money in Africa display in the Citi Money Gallery

Mobile money in Africa display in the Citi Money Gallery

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

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

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Illustrating the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall Great Dish Ralph Steadman, artist

Who knows when one ploughs a field what may be unearthed? This is what attracted me to the Roald Dahl story of the Mildenhall treasure.

Illustration of the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure. Images and text courtesy of Ralph Steadman

Illustration of the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure.

The ploughman, Gordon Butcher, was the lucky finder of the treasure that was unexpectedly revealed and now resides in the British Museum. When Roald Dahl first read the newspaper account of it, he called on Mr Butcher who at first was reluctant to talk to him as he thought he was just another reporter.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure. Images and text courtesy of Ralph Steadman

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

Dahl assured Butcher that he was a short story writer and promised that he would sell the story to the US magazine The Saturday Evening Post. They would share the fee. Mr Butcher was delighted and wrote to tell him so on receipt of the cheque.

I got to know Liccy Dahl who allowed me to visit Roald’s small shed at the bottom of their garden and his writing chair that had been adapted to support the weakness in his back and which was still in place. I imagined him going there daily to write.

Illustration of the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure. Images and text courtesy of Ralph Steadman

Illustration of the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure.

I visited a local farm museum and sketched different pieces of farm machinery that would have been used at the time. I spent a few days at Mildenhall and its environs, including the museum, to capture how it would have been in the 1940s. It was important to give my drawings the authentic feeling for the flat Suffolk landscape and its inhabitants. Finally I went to see the Mildenhall treasure itself at the British Museum and was stunned by the richness and craftsmanship of the collection.

Images and text courtesy of Ralph Steadman

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

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

STEADman@77, a Ralph Steadman Retrospective, is on display at London’s Cartoon Museum until 21 July.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, ,

The Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall Great Dish Richard Hobbs, exhibition curator, British Museum

This week, the display Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain opened. It features the magnificent Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure, an example of the type of large, silver platter which may have been used to impress the guests of a wealthy family at a dinner party in the late fourth century AD. It’s an exhibition about dining and entertainment – and there’ll be more posts on this in the coming weeks.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The treasure at the centre of the display will be known to many people because of the writer Roald Dahl’s story about its discovery during the Second World War. In a previous blog post, I talked about my first encounter with this treasure, which came about when reading the short story when I was eight years old. It often strikes me as a perfect example of the vicissitudes of life that I could never have imagined, as a child like countless others reading Dahl’s story, that one day I would be in charge of looking after the Mildenhall treasure, the subject of Dahl’s piece! My only regret is that I was unable to talk to Dahl about the story direct – he died in 1990, some time before I became a curator here at the British Museum, and long before I became interested in the circumstances of its discovery.

But one person who did meet Dahl, specifically to talk about his story ‘the Mildenhall Treasure’, was John Gadd, a journalist and agricultural consultant. The British Museum acquired Gadd’s archive in 2008, with the support of the Friends of the British Museum – Gadd in turn had acquired the material in the 1970s. The archive consists of papers, letters, maps, photographs and memoranda belonging to an archaeologist called Thomas Lethbridge, whose connection with Mildenhall was his excavation of a Roman building in the 1930s, in proximity to the discovery of the treasure many years later. In Lethbridge’s papers, there was a considerable amount of correspondence concerning the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure, and the uncertainties surrounding the exact place of finding. In time, this led to Gadd becoming interested in the wider story of the Mildenhall treasure, which in turn led him to Dahl’s short story.

As I explained in my earlier post, Dahl based his story on an interview with Gordon Butcher, the tractor driver who found the treasure during the Second World War. Gadd wanted to find out if Dahl had any notes or other information beyond the published story, so he wrote to Dahl to find out. Such notes may have been important, because obviously Dahl was unlikely to have included everything in the final published version – maybe Dahl therefore, Gadd reasoned, had additional ‘inside information’. The British Museum possesses a few letters written from Dahl to Gadd in 1977, specifically concerning his story about the Mildenhall treasure; two were written before the first edition of ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and six more’, the first edition of the book in which ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’ was re-published (the original version of the story appeared in an American magazine, ‘The Saturday Evening Post’, in 1947).

The first letter is written by hand, and as can be seen from the transcript, was penned from Dahl’s hospital bed as he was recovering from a hip replacement operation – the hand-writing itself has a decidedly ‘woozy’ appearance, hardly surprising under the circumstances.

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

Transcription:
c.13th March 1977
King Edward VII Hospital
Midhurst, Sussex

Dear Mr. Gadd

Sorry this messy reply. The Brit. Museum have hundreds of excellent photos of the Mildenhall Treasure. I’ve just got a new lot of them myself because I’ve rewritten that little piece for a new book of stories for older children. I have no notes. Nothing. Only the original long-ago article. I fear I would be of little use to you re. Mr. Lethbridge. I’ve just had a beastly hip replacement operation & for good measure pleuritis & an embolism on the leg.

Roald Dahl

The other letter Dahl sent to Gadd when home recuperating is typed and invited Gadd to talk directly to Dahl, which eventually he did.

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

Sadly, Dahl could not find any of his ‘original notes’ – but we’re nonetheless fortunate to have these documents, given the importance to the literary world of the man who wrote them. All this shows how discovering the truth about past events is a challenge – whether it’s researching the 2,000 year old dish at the centre of the exhibition, or looking back 60 years to establish the events surrounding the treasure’s discovery.

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

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

Find out more about Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure
Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre

Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, ,

Researching ‘old’ as well as ‘new’ kinds of money in West Africa

Documents from 1931-33Sophie Mew, Project Curator, Money in Africa

I’ve been working on the Money in Africa research project to understand how coin and note currencies were introduced to the coastal regions of Africa and how their usage had spread widely by the close of the nineteenth century.

With two former British West African colonies, the Gold Coast (what is now known as Ghana) and Sierra Leone (one of the earliest British settlements on the coast), most of my research so far has been carried out at the National Archives in London, in Accra (Ghana) and in Freetown (Sierra Leone). In each place, I’ve consulted documents relating to a wide range of accounts about currencies. These included, for example, colonial despatches written by the governors of Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast and sent to the Secretaries of State in London; records that were created by and filed in the Treasury department in London, as well as diaries from merchants trading to West Africa.

Documents from the 1930s

Documents from 1931-33, PRAAD records

One of my early finds was a series of detailed instructions for traders on an expedition to the west coast of Africa in 1796. The Governor of Freetown at the time requested that the traders gather as much information as possible to understand what it was that locals preferred to trade with, at each stage, and at what value. At the National Archives in Ghana in June 2012, I found a series of similar despatches that were distributed to District Officers in 1944. Questions related to coins and notes and what they were used for, as they sought to gather information on the preferences of “the man on the street”. Responses suggested, for example, that people who could read preferred notes while labourers preferred coins. The 1/10th shilling was used as a counter for gambling in Obuasi, and notes could be inconvenient: the “average cloth wearing African was used to carrying his money tied up in a corner of his cloth with the result that notes became crumpled and torn, got wet and became pulp.”

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

I took my first trip to Sierra Leone in January 2013 where I researched the holdings of the branch of the National Archives, located on the University Campus (Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, is the oldest university in West Africa). At the top of a treacherously steep hill overlooking the city, I consulted lists of annual stipends that the British colonial government paid to local chiefs in exchange for leasing their land, and trawled through records of fines and fees paid to the colonial police to find out what currencies people were using and when.

In conjunction with my archival research for the Money in Africa project, I was also seeking information about the use of mobile money in Sierra Leone as part of a redisplay of an exhibition panel in the Citi Money Gallery. This display panel addresses the future of money and new technologies, and is updated every six months to showcase new studies.

As I questioned members of the public in Freetown, friends I had made, and staff members of mobile money companies, I understood the wariness that people have in trusting new kinds of money and the difficulties with trying out alternative systems. What I found fascinating here was that similar justifications for the practicality of using new coins and banknotes in the nineteenth century were being repeated to me within the contexts of mobile money in Sierra Leone today.

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Find out more about the Money in Africa project

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Amara West 2013: a kaleidoscope of life and death in Egyptian Kush

Aerial view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to rightNeal Spencer, British Museum

Fifty-six days after flying out to Khartoum, I landed this morning at a grey, icy, Heathrow. The temperature gradient – perhaps a difference of 35°C – is but one reminder that our sixth season of fieldwork at Amara West is now complete. Many of the team are still in the dig house today, completing documentation and closing up our house ahead of the next season. I spent yesterday finishing paperwork in Khartoum, while also working with curators Shadia Abdu Rabo and Ikhlas Abdel-Latif to accession our newly-discovered objects into the collection of the Sudan National Museum.

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Yet as with all archaeological projects, the end of the season really marks the beginning of the next, and most time-consuming, phase: digitisation, post-excavation work and, trying to make sense of it all. It’s a little overwhelming to consider the kaleidoscope of work undertaken by a team of 20 specialists from nine countries (from Australia to Sudan) over the last weeks. Many thanks to everyone, and also all those in Abri, Ernetta island and Khartoum who made the season possible – amidst sandstorms, plagues of biting flies, chilly mornings, electrical blackouts, dawn boat journeys on the Nile, crocodile sightings and fantastic breakfasts with the workmen….

The town

Within the walls of the ancient town, we continued work in neighbourhood E13. Sarah Doherty and Shadia Abdu Rabo revealed the full plan of E13.5, a medium-sized dwelling at the east end of the block. The inhabitants had fitted out each room with sandstone doorways, many built using re-used blocks from an earlier building, one naming an ‘overseer of the granaries, Horhotep’, presumably one of the high-ranking officials who lived at Amara West. Unlike other houses in the block, the bread ovens, charcoal pits and cereal grinding emplacements were housed in an annex outside the house itself, excavated by Shadia. Despite plans to investigate the phase beneath, we were instead tempted north of the house, where Sarah revealed parts of another house (?) and an area with large ovens or kilns – with tantalising evidence hinting at faience production.

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Mat Dalton completed the excavation of the communal area E13.13, which provided food processing, and charcoal making, facilities, for the inhabitants of houses E13.3-N and E13.3-S. Returning to the ‘white house’ E13.7, Mat revealed the striking schist and sandstone floor of one of the large storage rooms that characterised the area before it became a block of houses. Mat also spent time taking block samples of floor layers and occupation deposits from the excavated houses: these will be studied as thin sections under high-magnification, revealing ancient activities invisible to the naked eye.

Right in the heart of the neighbourhood – a room rather difficult to find! – Anna Stevens grappled with a small space that provides important evidence for many building phases, how the magazines with vaulted roofs were converted for use as houses. The ancient inhabitants were clearly unhappy with the idea of living in long corridor-like spaces, and went to considerable lengths to change the proportions created by the existing architecture.

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

We managed to empty all previously excavated rooms in the neighbourhood so that Susie Green could capture untold gigabytes of digital images. These will be used to create a 3D model using the concept of ‘Structure from Motion’ – all with the challenge of photographing everything before the sun’s rays created shadows. The stunning kite photographs will not only embellish this visualisation, but also provided us with a new perspective of the site and its landscape.

Outside of the town walls, Rizwan Safir and Vera Michel persevered through layers of wall collapse and roofing remains – further hampered by deep sandpits left behind when the ancient brick walls were mined out. As the season ended, we had gained further insights into the different type of house sought by those who moved beyond the town walls; there may have been more space, but the new households had to cope with more exposure to the elements.

A flying visit from Alexandra Winkels, conservation scientist, allowed her to collect wall plaster samples which will be compared to sites from across Egypt, including Tell el-Amarna.

Cemetery C

The highlight of our third season in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, was the discovery of the largest tomb yet found at Amara West: G244. Beneath a low mound (tumulus), the vertical shaft led to two burial chambers, one to the east, one to the west. What was not expected were the three other chambers.

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Patience was needed as the first chamber was meticulously excavated, with remains of painted coffins and a fine ceramic assemblage, being studied by Loretta Kilroe. More work is needed here, but the tomb seems to be late Ramesside in date.

Just to the north, Barbara Chauvet spent most of her season in the eastern chamber of a post-New Kingdom niche grave (G243), where another complicated array of superimposed bodies needed disentangling. Mohamed Saad, archaeologist at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, and participant in the Institute of Bioarchaeology Amara West Field School, excavated the smaller western chamber, as well as a number of niche burials in the southeast of the cemetery.

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan National Museum SNM 34615).

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan
National Museum SNM 34615).

Back in the house …

Our expedition house was home to all the necessary tasks of excavation paperwork, processing archaeological samples and of course organising and storing the finds and masses of ceramics. Marie Vandenbeusch documented all the finds from town and tombs, from epigraphic recording of the inscribed blocks in E13.5, matching scarabs with ancient clay impressions, to wondering what to make of enigmatic pieces of worked clay. Alongside rediscovering wonderful wooden objects from our 2009 excavations, with Michaela, Marie also found time to continue work on the roofing fragments from houses – with Vera providing a particularly steady supply from villa D12.5.

The masses of sherds from the town were processed on site by Alice Springuel and Anna Garnett. After an early season handover from Marie Millet (now directing the Louvre excavations at el-Muweis), Anna is studying our town ceramics, particularly the dating and whether certain types of vessel are associated with particular rooms or spaces. Amidst many pottery drawings, Alice managed archaeological illustrations of key artefacts – from scarabs to fertility figurines.

The first weekend saw us host a small workshop on ceramics in New Kingdom Nubia, though discussions ranged well beyond pottery, with colleagues from Kerma, Sai, Sesebi and Tombos.

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Philip Kevin, British Museum conservator, joined us for the last three weeks, and proved invaluable in recovering remains of headrests and painted coffins from the cemetery, coaxing out hidden inscriptions in the town, and revealing the exquisite decoration on copper alloy cobras (perhaps statue fittings) found by Shadia in the 2012 season.

Last, but not least…

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin returned for a third season to investigate the river systems in and around Amara West. Easily outpacing all other team-members in terms of logistical demands, we nonetheless managed two deep trenches which provide fantastic slices through the history of the Nile river in this region. One trench ran across the edge of the ancient island and into the channel bed, north of the temple, the other in the ‘Neolithic Nile’ 2km into the desert. We have the C14 dates already, and await the OSL dates, but a very exciting story is emerging … watch this space.

Returning to the Museum

Unlike nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations conducted by many museums, excavations in Egypt and Sudan no longer lead to the acquisition of objects for collections in other countries. So why does the British Museum still undertake archaeological projects? New techniques – including those outlined above – mean we gain insights into the ancient past, and its people, that were not possible in previous excavations. None of the objects in the British Museum, or indeed any collection, can be fully interpreted without understanding the particular time, place, culture and indeed natural environment experienced and created by those who made the objects. Amara West provides an opportunity to better understand life in Nubia during the late second millennium BC, in a region where the climate was deteriorating. It was an area under the control of the mighty Ramesside state, ruled from the royal residence city of Per-Ramses, far away near the Mediterranean.

An important pharaonic town in a long-occupied land, the inhabitants of Amara West lived in an age of international diplomacy, cosmopolitan taste and competing superpowers. We are building up a picture of how people lived, and treated their dead, at this town, but also the nature of the Egyptian entanglement with local, Nubian, cultures, and the responses to considerable ecological changes. A story very relevant to the present.

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
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