British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: the first glimpses of ancient living conditions and health

A burial at Amara West, SudanMichaela Binder, Durham University

After spending four months in the British Museum analysing skeletons from the ancient Egyptian town of Amara West this summer, our picture of health and living conditions there is becoming a little clearer.

I have now analysed 130 complete or almost complete individuals. My analyses indicate 35% of the individuals were sub-adults, which in itself is not surprising and not that high compared to other groups in antiquity. However, it is interesting to see only a very small number of children under the age of five, as very young children are generally more vulnerable to diseases. High percentages of infants in cemeteries are often an indicator of bad living conditions, and at Amara West, their absence is striking but could be explained by different burial rites – young children may have been buried elsewhere.

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

The high percentage of older children is notable, and indicates that people living at Amara West were exposed to unfavourable conditions such as a high degree of infectious diseases.

Diagnosis of infectious diseases in human remains is not easy. The changes in bones are often not specific and the same sign could be caused by a number of different conditions. Moreover, it also takes some time before bones become affected too. Therefore, only chronic diseases will leave an imprint.

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

The most common forms of infectious diseases found in the people from Amara West so far are signs of chronic sinusitis and also infections of the lung. They are visible as new bone formation on the inner side of the ribs and in the maxillary sinuses. The changes could be related to bad air quality, both in- and outdoors, such as smoke inside the houses, dust or sand, but also to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

More unfavourable living conditions are also indicated by the lengths of long bones in adult skeletons from the town. Even though height is generally determined by our genes, whether we fulfil our genetic potential depends on our state of health and nutrition during growth. At Amara West, females reached body heights of 154 cm on average, while men reached 166 cm.

In comparison, mean statures in the UK today are 175 cm for men, and 162 cm for women, according to a study published in 2002.

Another interesting finding in the human remains from Amara West so far is the high degree of fractures, particularly in the upper body. These injuries are usually associated with falls or crashes. But what happened to these people? The distribution of injuries is remarkably similar to what is observed with people involved in agricultural activities even today, especially those who regularly handle animals.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Egypt and Sudan, Research, ,

Murder and mayhem in Predynastic Egypt

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handleRenee Friedman and Daniel Antoine, curators,
British Museum

Using some of the latest imaging technology we now know that about 5500 years ago (about 3500 BC) the natural mummy known as Gebelein Man was stabbed in the back.

The ability to determine the cause of death in ancient remains is rare enough, but because his skin and muscle tissue are so well preserved, further detective work has allowed us to trace the trajectory (from above) and estimate the size (about two centimetres across, maximum) of the implement responsible.

Based on this information, the murder weapon was most probably a dagger.

While a projectile point is also a possibility, it is unlikely that it could have been removed without causing further tissue damage, and the cut on his skin is not lacerated. Only if it were a broad-edged transverse arrowhead, like those carried by the men on the Hunters’ Palette, might this be possible.

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters' Palette

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters’ Palette.

While this type of arrowhead was common in Predynastic Egypt, it was rarely made in a size matching the wound in Gebelein Man’s left shoulder.

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handle

Composite image of a Predynastic silver dagger
blade and ivory handle.

We can probably also rule out flint knives, although they were prevalent throughout the Predynastic period (3800-3100 BC), with various examples displayed in the British Museum’s Room 64: Early Egypt gallery.

From their shape it is clear that they were mainly for cutting and slashing, using their edge rather than their point to inflict wounds. Most are also too wide to fit the forensic evidence from Gebelein Man. Instead, it seems most likely that he was done in by a metal blade.

Tools and weapons of metal (mainly copper but also silver) are rare in Predynastic Egypt mainly because implements of such valuable materials would have been recycled rather than discarded by the living and were among the first things to be robbed from the dead. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that copper was widely used at this time. For example, the central ridge depicted on the lances carried on the Hunters Palette (slightly later in date than Gebelein Man) indicate they were made of metal.

Six dagger blades of copper and silver have been preserved. Some still have their ivory handles, while all have a triangular blade with a mid-rib down the centre, and are 15-16.5 cm long with a maximum width of four-five cm. These blades are so far the best fit for the weapon used against Gebelein Man, and the two cm cut at the rib level suggest such a blade was plunged into his back for most of its length. The composite example shown here gives an idea of the original appearance, and evidence from one Predynastic cemetery suggests they were worn interlaced through armlets on the left upper arm for easy and rapid access.

We will never find the perpetrator responsible for Gebelein Man’s death, or determine his motives (revenge?, a hunting accident?, an act on the battlefield?), but the iconography and artefacts of Predynastic Egypt suggest it was not always a peaceful place.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters' palette.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters’ Palette.

Already 200-300 years before Gebelein Man met his end, scenes on pottery show human prisoners threatened with stone maces. Mace-heads of hard stone are well-known throughout the period. While they were probably used mainly in hunting, that they were also used against humans is clear from excavations in a cemetery at Hierakonpolis, contemporary with Gebelein Man, where several individuals suffered massive and fatal skull fractures inflicted by such an instrument. Further defensive wounds suggest these injuries were attained in battle.

These may have been minor skirmishes, but shortly after Gebelein Man died, scenes depicting pitched battles begin to appear.

While Gebelein Man may simply have been the unfortunate victim of interpersonal violence, he lived in a time when several regional centres in Upper Egypt, Gebelein being one of them, were beginning to vie for power and territory, in a process that ultimately led to the so-called unification of Egypt and the establishment of the Dynastic Egyptian nation state at about 3100 BC. Diplomacy may have been influential in this process, but there is no doubt that violence also played a major role, as the scene on the Battlefield Palette (about 3200 BC) leaves little to the imagination.

Was Gebelein Man a victim of his times? Recent research, suggesting that he was buried in a large well-endowed grave and with a number of lethal weapons of his own, only adds to the mystery that now surrounds him.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
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Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, ,

The Beau Street Hoard: the end of the excavation

Beau Street Hoard excavationJulia Tubman, conservator, British Museum

My last blog post recounted the excavation of bags 5 and 6 of the Beau Street hoard, which were the two smallest bags on the edge of the large hoard. In the months since, the deconstruction of the hoard has advanced considerably: as the excavation progressed I naturally became faster and more confident in removing the coins, and am pleased to announce the end of this stage of the project. The hoard was well organised, with the coins carefully sorted into bags according to denomination and level of debasement; specialists here at the British Museum now have a fascinating mystery to interpret.

The hoard towards the end of the excavation

The hoard towards the end of the excavation

In total eight bags were found in the hoard, which is two more than originally identified in the x-ray. Squeezed between the larger ‘bag 2’ and the centre of the hoard were two tiny bags, the coins of which are very similar to those contained within bag 2 – small radiate coins minted by Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus and Tetricus I.

Luckily, at the end of the excavation I was able to lift the large, central moneybag (known as bag ‘4’), whole, as I had removed all of the bags of coins surrounding it. The excellent preservation of this moneybag, which weighs nearly 11 kilograms, presents us with a very exciting opportunity. Already a laser scan of the bag has been undertaken to produce a rotating three-dimensional image, and a second scan will be taken before the end of the year which will be used to produce a facsimile to go on display in Bath. These scans provide us with a lasting document of the moneybag, which will now be de-constructed and the coins cleaned.

Moneybag 4

Moneybag 4

The block was x-rayed before the excavation of the moneybags, and so the base holding the coins had to be x-rayed after the removal of the last bag, to check that there were no ‘surprise’ bags beneath those already excavated. The x-ray showed only a few coins on the periphery of the base, and so we can move towards giving a final count for the number of coins in the hoard as a whole: at the moment it looks to be around half of the original estimate of 30,000.

Now the excavation is complete, I will be fully focused on getting all of the coins cleaned so that they can be identified by numismatists, who will begin to compile an ‘Emperor count’.

We knew at the beginning of the project that this would be a short excavation, and the perfect opportunity to experiment with time-lapse photography. Before I began the excavation, a camera was positioned on a workbench above the hoard, and programmed to take a photograph of the stationary block every 10 minutes. This short video neatly captures the deconstruction of the hoard, and makes for a fantastic record of the excavation.

On Friday 30 November, Stephen Clews from the Roman Baths, British Museum curators Richard Abdy and Eleanor Ghey, and I will be discussing the story of the Beau Street Hoard so far in a lecture at the British Museum.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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Filed under: Beau Street Hoard, Conservation, Research, , , ,

Virtual autopsy: discover how the ancient Egyptian Gebelein Man died

Scan of Gebelein Man shown on an autopsy tableDaniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology,
British Museum

In recent months the naturally-preserved mummy known as Gebelein Man (on display in Room 64, the Early Egypt gallery at the British Museum) has been revealing some of his long-held secrets.

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

He was buried in about 3500 BC (if not earlier) at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. Direct contact with the hot, dry sand naturally mummified his body, making him one of the best-preserved individuals from ancient Egypt. He has been in the British Museum collection for over 100 years and in 2012 he was taken out of the Museum for the first time to be CT scanned.

On the morning of 1 September this year, Gebelein Man was carefully packed and taken to the Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London. The detailed images and 3D models created from the high resolution X-rays taken there have allowed us to look inside his body and learn more about his life and his death in ways never before possible. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a well-preserved Predynastic mummy has ever been CT scanned.

Not only have we been able to discover that Gebelein Man was young when he died (18-21 years) but, unexpectedly, we have also learned that he died because he was stabbed in the back. The analysis of ancient human remains rarely reveals the cause of death but the cut on his back, as well as the damage to the underlying shoulder blade and rib, are characteristic of a single, fatal, penetrating wound.

With the help of the Interactive Institute, a virtual autopsy table (a new state-of-the-art interactive exhibit based on medical visualisation technology) is on show in Room 64 for a limited time (16 November to 16 December 2012) and will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves, using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture-based interface. Information points at relevant locations guide visitors to the more significant discoveries we have made.

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Come and explore Gebelein Man for yourself using the autopsy table and perhaps you will spot something we’ve missed.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
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Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , , ,

The art (and science) of a colourful, cross-culturally dressing statue

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have lookedJoanne Dyer, scientist, British Museum

Following our post last week about a cross-cultural statue of Horus, British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer explains how we know what he once looked like.

“You’ve got to see this statue in stone conservation!” said Janet. “It’s a Horus!” she continued excitedly. “And?” I answered, thinking that surely there was nothing unusual about a statue of Horus at the British Museum. “It’s dressed as a Roman emperor!” she smiled knowing that she now had my full attention.

The promise of a cross-culturally dressing Horus was irresistible, especially when she added that it also had considerable traces of red, yellow, green and black pigment remains on its surface.

One of my main roles as a scientist in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, is the study of polychromy; the colours once found on ancient objects and what these materials can tell us about the artistic traditions of the ancient cultures in which they were used. So naturally, I was eager to explore whether the collision of the Egyptian and Roman worlds apparent in this very unique statue of Horus, was also reflected in the materials, in particular the pigments, used to create it.

I started by carefully documenting the location of the pigment remains (by taking images using different types of light) and then taking microscopic samples for investigation using Raman and FTIR Spectroscopy.

Detailed images of traces of polychromy on the statue

Detailed images of traces of polychromy on the statue

From these studies it was found that the red used was a hematite-containing red earth – or ochre – the yellow, a yellow ochre, and the black used was amorphous carbon. All of these are pigments which are typical of a palette strictly within well-defined Egyptian traditions. The real cross-cultural nature of the piece came upon analysis of the green pigment used on the cloak and sword blade, which revealed the use of green earth (celadonite), a pigment virtually unknown in dynastic Egypt but one of the most common green pigments found in Roman art. The discovery demonstrates that the object was truly blending traditions not only at the iconographical level but also its very fabric.

But our Horus held still more secrets. Conspicuous by its absence so far in this investigation was a pigment that is inextricably linked with the Egyptian palette – Egyptian blue, virtually the only blue pigment used in ancient Egypt.

Egyptian blue is a calcium copper tetrasilicate (CaCuSi4O10) that has the same composition and structure as the rare natural mineral cuprorivaite, and is one of the earliest-known synthetic pigments. This bright blue inorganic compound was extensively used and highly-prized not only in Egypt, where it was used from the Fourth Dynasty (about 2500 BC), but throughout the Mediterranean until the end of the Roman period in Europe. In addition, this pigment has a very particular property: it is one of a very few materials which luminesce (emit light) in the infrared range when excited by visible light. This emission can be recorded by using a camera with some sensitivity to infrared radiation in the circa 800–1000 nm range.

We used such a camera to investigate if any Egyptian blue was present on Horus as often, even when no blue seems to survive, the visible-induced luminescence technique (VIL as it is known) is sensitive enough to detect even single particles of the pigment. And we found considerably more than one particle!

(left) Visible-reflected image and (right) visible-induced luminescence image in the infrared range (800–1000 nm) of the front of Horus. Bright white areas correspond to the presence of Egyptian blue.

(left) Visible-reflected image and (right) visible-induced luminescence image in the infrared range (800–1000 nm) of the front of Horus. Bright white areas correspond to the presence of Egyptian blue.

The pictures above show our results compared with the appearance of the sculpture in visible light. The areas of ‘bright white’ in the monochrome VIL image represent the emission from Egyptian blue while all other materials appear grey or dark. Comparing the images allows the spatial distribution of surviving Egyptian blue pigment to be mapped and it is clear that its presence is very extensive even though hardly anything was discernible with the naked eye. Traces can be seen around the outer rim of the eyes and possibly within the proper left eyeball, as well as in the folds of the cloak worn across the shoulders. Perhaps more dramatically, remnants are also evident on many of the feathers around the lower throat and ears and the feathers or scales which make up the armour.

With this last piece of the puzzle in place it was time to ask ourselves the inevitable question: what might our Horus have looked like? Our imaging and analytical results were used as a basis to create computer-enhanced images suggesting how the sculpture might originally have looked. And here he is: meet the Egyptian god Horus in Roman military costume, both Roman and Egyptian even in how he was made.

A computer enhanced version of Horus re-coloured to suggest its original appearance. Colour has only been applied to those areas where analysis and imaging provided strong evidence for pigments. Areas which have been restored or where there was no analytical evidence for colour are shown as grey.

A computer enhanced version of Horus re-coloured to suggest its original appearance. Colour has only been applied to those areas where analysis and imaging provided strong evidence for pigments. Areas which have been restored or where there was no analytical evidence for colour are shown as grey.

For more on the technical imaging and analytical examination of this object see Analysis of pigment traces on a limestone sculpture of the Egyptian god Horus in Roman military costume (pdf).

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4
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Filed under: Collection, Research

Pigment and power dressing in Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman EgyptElisabeth R. O’Connell, curator, British Museum

‘That’s one weird looking bird,’ grinned an American student on one of my tours of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department study collection for university students last year.

And to Egyptology students he is. And to students of Classical Archaeology too. But that’s rather the point. Roman Egypt (30 BC-AD 642) witnessed some of the most interesting, innovative and transformative combinations of traditions in the ancient world.

The god sits casually on his throne, one sandal-clad foot forward, his knees apart and draped in a garment. From the waist down, he could be any of a number of senior Olympian deities, or Roman emperors masquerading as such. He wears a feathered mail armour shirt that ends just above his elbows. His arms, now broken off, would have held symbols of power, perhaps an orb and sceptre. His cloak, pushed back over his shoulders, is fastened with a circular broach. From the waist up, his costume belongs to military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire. The head, however, places us firmly in an Egyptian context.

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

It’s Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in ancient Egyptian tradition. His head is that of a falcon, rendered in naturalistic style with the bird’s distinctive facial markings articulated by the carving and also traces of paint. His eyes, however, are strangely human; instead of being placed on the sides of the head, like any ‘real’ bird, they are frontal, and his incised pupils tilt his gaze upward. In an imaginative turn, the feathers of the falcon’s neck blend into the scales of the mail shirt. In the top of his head is a hole, into which a (probably metal) crown once fit.

Big Bird, as I think of him, has been off public display since 1996 when the gallery he was formerly displayed in was reconfigured to create the Great Court. Since I arrived at the Museum in 2007, he’s been the culmination of my tours for university students, giving us the opportunity to explore cultural identity through different kinds of objects from Roman Egypt. We look at magical papyri written in Egyptian and Greek, with some of the Egyptian words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written in Greek script. Why the glosses of Egyptian words in Greek script? Because in magical spells it was very important to say the words correctly or else the spell wouldn’t work. And Greek script, unlike Egyptian, represented the vowels ensuring that the words said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in Egyptian scripts was on the wane. We also look at mummy portraits belonging firmly in the Roman tradition of individualised commemorative portraiture, but made for the specific purpose of placing over the face of a mummy, a feature that belongs unmistakably to Egyptian funerary practice. We see the same combination of traditions in this limestone sculpture of Horus and other contemporary depictions.

The opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last year when the Gayer-Anderson cat was scheduled to travel to Paris, then Shetland, for exhibition. Big Bird would get his very own case at the top of a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily identifiable as ‘Egyptian’ in the British Museum Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

While preparing the display, we also had a chance to identify some of the pigments that are apparent to the naked eye: his yellow arms, black pupils and ‘eye-liner,’ garments in two different shades of green, and his red and black throne. Using an innovative imaging technique, we were also able to detect the pigment used for his armour, and it turned out to be one of the most valued pigments of the ancient world, Egyptian blue.

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

Although no longer apparent to the naked eye, it shows up in visible-induced luminescence imaging by British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer. In addition to the strange (to us) combination of Graeco-Roman-Egyptian elements, he would also have been rather garishly painted.

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

Horus – I should really stop thinking of him as Big Bird – will not go back into the study collection when the Gayer-Anderson cat returns, but instead join a touring exhibition on the Roman Empire which will give visitors to the exhibition in locations including Bristol, Norwich and Coventry, that is, in former Roman Britain, an opportunity to see a selection of objects from Antinoupolis and other cities from the former empire’s southern frontier, Roman Egypt.

For their collaboration and enthusiasm, I thank Joanne Dyer, Tracey Sweek, Michelle Hercules, Antony Simpson, Susan Holmes, Paul Goodhead, Robert Frith, Evan York, Emily Taylor and Kathleen Scott from the American Research Center in Egypt.

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4

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Amara West 2012: the life-story of a pot

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8Marie Millet, British Museum

The Amara West team is now beginning to finalise plans for its next excavation season, in January and February 2013. In recent months, we’ve been digitising our field documentation (drawings, plans, maps …), which has allowed us to reconstruct biographies for objects found during our excavations earlier this year. This work is shedding light on life at the town of Amara West, the principal administrative centre of Upper Nubia during the Ramesside Period, at the end of the second millennium BC.

One object in particular caught my attention: a large vessel (C4460) buried in the floor of house E13.8. This single object enables us to tell a chapter in the story of “House of Ramesses-ruler-of-Thebes”, as Amara West was called in ancient times.

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8

House E13.8 was excavated last season by Tom Lyons and Shadia Abdu Rabu, between the enclosure wall and house E13.3. It was built over the remains of a production area with a kiln. Though this house was built over an empty, trapezoid-shaped space, it features all of the key elements of an Amara house: hearths, bread ovens, room with mastaba-bench.

Excavation at Amara West, 2012

Excavation at Amara West, 2012

In the back room, to the left of the door, we came across a large buried pot. Why was it there? Usually in archaeology we go back in time, because we are discovering the most recent part of a site and ‘peeling back’ the layers to find earlier remains. But with this object, we can tell the story from beginning to end.

We know that this very large jar was made on a potter’s wheel, as we can see wheel-marks on the interior surface. The exterior is a white colour. It’s made from Nile clay, which makes it difficult to distinguish whether it was produced in Egypt or in Upper Nubia: was it imported, or made locally at Amara West? Such pots are usually made from more specific Egyptian clay, ‘marl clay’, though in Abydos, examples made from Nile clay have been found with a white slip added to the exterior, to imitate pots made from marl clay.

Storage-jar, found at el-Amarna, Egypt, 1350 BC from the British Museum collection

Storage-jar, found at el-Amarna, Egypt, 1350 BC from the
British Museum collection

Egyptologists call this kind of jar a ‘meat jar’, as ink labels found on them, especially in Amarna, state that meat was stored inside. Some jars from this site in the British Museum collection offer a good comparison with the newly-excavated material.

The Amara West pot bears a hieratic inscription, carefully conserved by Philip Kevin, saying it held cqw- (bread) loaves (thanks to Robert Demarée for the translation). So this jar was used to transport or store a number of loaves. At a later stage, it was then buried in the floor at the back of the house, possibly to keep food cool, a change in function we often see with this type of jar, both at Amara West and at Amarna. The archaeological stratigraphy suggests that it was buried during the 20th dynasty. As to what was stored inside; that’s a question for our archaeobotanists, Caroline Cartwright and Philippa Ryan, who will be studying the jar in due course.

Unfortunately, this jar lost its neck, perhaps while it was in use at the back of the house or when the area was refilled and the pot completely forgotten. The room was filled with rubble, containing doum-palm trees seeds, charcoal, wood, fish bones and ochre. The weight of these deposits caused the pot to collapse in on itself.

So this jar tells us its own life through its breaks, marks, shape, material and location in the archaeological stratigraphy. This provides us with a glimpse into the daily life of the inhabitants of Amara West.

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A closer look at what the Chiseldon cauldrons are made of

High magnification image of one of the cauldrons

Quanyu Wang, scientist, British Museum

I am a scientist specialising in metalworking technology, particularly in relation to non-precious metals such as iron and copper-alloys. The scientific examination and analysis of the Chiseldon Iron-Age cauldrons is a key aspect of the investigative process as a whole and is crucial in supporting our understanding of them.

For the Chiseldon cauldrons I have been examining the microstructure of the metal under very high magnification in order to see its composition, deduce how it was worked and explore manufacturing techniques. Some of the questions I will be trying to answer include: ‘How were the cauldrons made?’, ‘Were different components from an individual vessel made in the same workshop?’, ‘Were the same parts, such as the iron handles for different vessels, made from the same metal stocks’ and, perhaps the most important question of all; ‘Were the cauldrons made especially for burial or collected together for a particular occasion?’

Taking a sample from one of the cauldrons

Taking a sample from one of the cauldrons

Finding appropriate samples to test can be extremely difficult as the metal, particularly the iron, is extremely corroded and very fragile. The sampling process is made additionally complicated by attempting to sample a potential area that is as discrete as possible to make sure that we do not endanger the structural integrity of the artefact but will yield the best results. This is not a decision that is taken lightly and sample positions are chosen in consultation with curators and conservators. In order to reveal the structure of the metal the samples are mounted in resin, their cross-section polished, and then examined using metallographic microscopy up to x1000 magnification and a scanning electron microscope equipped with energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry (SEM-EDX) that allows us to examine them up to 300,000 times its actual size.

We have been able to deduce that the iron handles from both the cauldrons studied so far were probably formed by repeatedly hammering an iron bar while it was rotated. Additionally, iron used for the same parts of different cauldrons showed differences in microstructure and slag (impurity) inclusions, and was therefore from different stocks of metal, suggesting that these cauldrons were probably collected together rather than being made at the same time specifically for burial.

A high magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of a copper alloy sample from one of the cauldrons. Darker horizontal lines were caused by many cycles of working and heating

A high magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of a copper alloy sample from one of the cauldrons. Darker horizontal lines were caused by many cycles of working and heating

The copper-alloy is likely to have been subjected to many cycles of working and annealing (heating) to reduce the sheet metal to its final thickness (and shape). Significantly, there are differences in the content of sulphide within the copper alloy from one of the cauldrons, which suggest that the metal of the bowl and that of the band were probably refined to different levels or were from different sources.

Some of the results we have achieved so far are intriguing and much more revealing than expected given the condition of the material. Further analysis of the remaining cauldrons will not only provide further details of how the metal was processed and how the cauldrons were made but will help us build up a more complete picture of the deposit as a whole.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, Research

Searching the British Museum collection

Badges in the British Museum collection


Matthew Cock, Head of web, British Museum

When the British Museum first opened in 1759, free admission was granted to all ‘studious and curious persons’. In 2007 we took that idea a step further with the launch of our collection online. A gradual process has seen this facility grow since then from about 300,000 objects available to over two million.

Badges in the British Museum collection

Badges in the British Museum collection

We know from looking at visitor statistics that many thousands of people use the collection online, accounting for about a third of our web traffic – around 15.5 million page views a year. As well as building on this amazing resource by releasing a semantic web endpoint and creating online research catalogues that tap into it, we’re working to improve and update the search itself to make it easier to use.

Through surveys and talking to regular users inside and outside the Museum – and of course, using it ourselves – we are very aware that the current search could be improved. So a team of staff from the web, programming and collection documentation teams, together with Museum curators, have been working on improvements to the interface.

This process has coincided with a re-design of the whole website that incorporates several strands – wider pages, larger images and bigger text for example. We’re currently half way through the process of updating the collection search, and have made available a Beta release to give you the opportunity to try it out alongside the old version, and let us know what you think.

You can let us know whether you approve of the changes (or not!) and if there are any bugs in what we have done. We’d like your feedback so we can make adjustments to improve it before we finalise it.

But, it’s important to note that the release at this stage only shows about half of the overall work we’re undertaking. So far we’ve updated the search results page, with larger thumbnails and a revised design; the object record page, with a revised design and – again – larger images, and we’ve added an image gallery for when an object has more than one image.

These pages are currently only available from a straightforward keyword (“free text”) search, and there are no sorting options for the results at the moment. Work is currently ongoing to develop the interface on the “advanced search” facility and to add the sorting options that users can currently apply to their results.

We’d like your feedback as comments to this post, so that you can see what others have commented already – and we can feed back if useful on comments and questions for the whole user community to see.

The beta release of the new Collection online is available here: britishmuseum.org/system_pages/beta_collection_introduction.aspx

The current version that it will replace is available here: britishmuseum.org/collection

If you’d like to email any comments, you can send them to web@britishmuseum.org with COL BETA in your subject line.

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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Research

Dotting the ’i’s…


Silke Ackermann, former British Museum curator

It’s been a while since the last post about this project, as much has happened since Josefina wrote about her research trip to Israel. Not least is the fact that I have left the British Museum for a professorship at the University of Applied Sciences at Schwerin (Germany). I will stay involved in the project in various ways, but the British Museum will not.

However, I wanted to write a final post to report on our study of two instruments. One was the famous medieval astrolabe with Hebrew markings in the British Museum, that has already played a role in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects as object no. 62. The other is a later astrolabe in a private collection that had been deposited at the Museum by an owner keen to learn more about his object. This is a service that curatorial departments of the Museum regularly perform.

Josefina Rodríguez Arribas (left) and Silke Ackermann examining an astrolabe

Josefina Rodríguez Arribas (left) and Silke Ackermann examining an astrolabe

We were keen to get a better feel for the instruments; to examine the lettering, and explore the language used to see what it might tell us about the cultural circumstances in which they were made, and to take a close look at a much younger astrolabe, constructed at a time when the instrument had largely gone out of use.

An examination of the markings on both instruments made it quite clear that the language used is Judeo-Arabic in both cases, that is Arabic written in Hebrew letters. This is a phenomenon that can often be observed where Jewish people are living in an Arabic-speaking-community. They may well be speaking Arabic themselves, but will often use Hebrew letters for writing as this is the script they will have learnt. To indicate letters otherwise not used in Hebrew, certain letters will have special signs, normally dots.

Scientific analysis has shown the later piece to be made of rolled metal, a technique that was virtually unknown before the nineteenth century. This means it was made when the use of astrolabes had largely been superseded by other instruments.

When examining this instrument in detail we were struck by the fact that some of the numerals used to indicate values for – amongst other things – latitudes appeared to be full of mistakes. This, together with the late date of the instrument, might on first glance raise suspicion about its authenticity. However, the explanation appears to be a completely different one. One should note that these numerals are not written in ciphers, but in the so-called ‘alphanumerical system’, that is a system used in all Semitic languages (and also in Greek) where each letter of the alphabet also stands for a numerical value. Thus aleph stands for 1, bet for 2 etc. The numbers we had been looking at should have read ‘15’ – jod he in Hebrew. However, this letter combination looks identical to an abbreviation for the name of God – and would thus have been avoided by observant Jews. Other features of this particular instrument seem to indicate that it was carefully copied from an earlier source, probably by a scholar who was reading the medieval texts trying to understand or to teach how such an instrument might have worked.

I know I’m biased, but isn’t it truly amazing what we can learn just by looking at instruments?! Working in a museum one soon begins to realize that it is often objects that give us the cultural and social contexts that we cannot glean from written sources alone – and it is the combination of instruments and texts as the historical basis for our research that makes this project so exciting for me.

For more information about this project, visit the Warburg Institute website

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Filed under: Collection, Research,

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