British Museum blog

Ancient beauty and modern lives

Richard B. Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford

It’s hard to walk past so many beautiful naked bodies in a dark room without thinking a bit about sex and love; and in an exhibition like Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, there’s always the tendency to play the mental game of trying to decide who you fancy most out of all the represented people. The display of male beauty in Greek art has had a huge impact on European culture, and sometimes on very intimate levels, even though the exact role of same-sex desire in ancient Greek society remains controversial. Ancient Greek art has been one of the ways in which LGBT people have recognised their presence in world history, and this capacity of art to help awareness of sexual identity has produced a wonderful continuing dialogue between ancient and modern works.

This struck me particularly when I was in front of the Belvedere Torso, on loan from the Vatican Museums, because it’s displayed next to some of the Museum’s own Michelangelo drawings. This stunning juxtaposition gives a vivid – almost physical sense – of Michelangelo’s deep engagement with classical art. In a culture where sodomites were consigned to hell, Michelangelo’s own attraction to male beauty found a passionate, if uneasy, resolution with his spirituality through classical philosophy and thought. He expressed this not only in his images of muscular male figures but also in poems such as this one of around 1549, which merges his desire for earthly beauty with his love for God:

My eyes, seeking beauty,
and my soul, seeking salvation,
have no other way to rise to heaven except by looking at beautiful things.
From the highest stars, a splendour come down
which draws desire to them,
and which here is called ‘Love’.
The noble heart has nothing to make it burn or love, or to guide it,
except a face as fair as those stars.

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm, W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Above: The Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm; W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Below: Michelangelo’s study of a reclining male nude inspired by the sculpture. Dark red chalk over some stylus underdrawing. Florentine, around 1511. 19.3 x 25.9 cm. British Museum, London 1926,1009.1

26-06-2015 17.40.07

Later, Michelangelo’s own ‘beautiful things’ became works through which gay identity was expressed, with the very 20th-century Benjamin Britten composing a song-cycle of the Renaissance artist’s sonnets. This was dedicated to his life-partner, the singer Peter Pears, and was first performed publicly by the two of them together in the early 1940s, when ‘homosexuality’ was illegal in Britain.

Among the first audiences for the song-cycle was the novelist E.M. Forster (1879–1970), for whom classical culture had also offered a sense of personal (humanist) salvation. In his novel Maurice, young men try to understand their desires for each other through images of Michelangelo’s works and reading Plato’s dialogues, eventually realising that ‘I have always been like the Greeks and didn’t know’ (chap. 11). The novel was written in 1914 and was dedicated ‘to a happier year’ when same-sex love would be regarded as equal. Significantly, a crucial scene of Maurice is set in the British Museum’s classical galleries and the adjacent Assyrian rooms, as Maurice and the gamekeeper Alec finally realise that they are in love, surrounded by ancient art. The novel was magnificently filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987, on location and (of course) in exactly the right galleries. The film concentrates on the Assyrian rooms, but the Greek sculpture of the Parthenon gallery had already featured in Merchant Ivory’s earlier film of Henry James’ Bostonians, also with a same-sex couple, Olive Chancellor and her beloved Verena Tarrant.

Love in the museum: Maurice and Alec bicker among the Assyrian sculptures and realise they love each other in James Ivory's Maurice (1987). Copyright Merchant Ivory Productions 1987

Love in the museum: Maurice and Alec bicker among the Assyrian sculptures and realise they love each other in James Ivory’s Maurice (1987). Photo: copyright Merchant Ivory Productions 1987

Maurice was filmed in the 1980s, the period of the now infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 that prohibited local authorities in England and Wales from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Attitudes in Britain are thankfully now very different, but I remember the 80s well as a time when it was easy for young people coming out to feel alone: history was almost unremittingly heterosexual, gay stereotypes were often mocking, and there was a general invisibility in culture. Michelangelo and Maurice were hugely reassuring. Memories of these feelings of cultural isolation helped shape a recent British Museum project on LGBT history, which I hoped would help LGBT people find themselves in world history. A long line of very different, interconnected works of art stretches back to those Greek statues, explaining and legitimising the diversity of human desire to modern generations.

Ideas of beauty and desire are culturally constructed in many different ways, but this particularly Greek vision of beauty can still have a personal impact. Standing in front of the hunky Belvedere Torso, I wonder how many people have come to understand their own hearts and identities through looking at these statues carved millennia earlier. The statues don’t even have to be male or naked. Defining beauty also includes one which was much loved by Forster – the (clothed) goddess Demeter from Knidos. The statue features as a symbolic motif in his novel The Longest Journey, and she is in many ways a mythic archetype for his famous mature female characters, such as Mrs Wilcox and Mrs Moore, who embody an instinctive wisdom that sees beyond social conventions and recognises (in the words of the second Mrs Wilcox) ‘that people are far more different than is pretended’ (Howards End, chap. 44).

Marble cult statue of Demeter, goddess of nature. Greek, carved around 360 BC. H. 152 cm. British Museum, London 1859,1226.26

Marble cult statue of Demeter, goddess of nature. Greek, carved around 360 BC. H. 152 cm. British Museum, London 1859,1226.26

Looking at ancient beauty can perhaps encourage our world to adopt a more inclusive attitude towards human diversity – which is still urgently needed now when militant groups are not only overturning ancient statues but also executing gay men by throwing them from buildings. While they are destroying, and more people are dying, Forster’s Demeter sits in the British Museum as a benign and inspiring presence, waiting patiently for that ‘happier year’. It’s now much closer than it was across the world, but not quite with us yet.

Further reading:

B. Parkinson, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World (British Museum Press 2013).

M. Forster, Maurice (Penguin Classics 2005)

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display from 26 March to 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer

Additional support

In memory of Melvin R Seiden

Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

Weapons of resistance: Jandamarra, a hero of the Bunuba people

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

Across Australia, each of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have historical figures that live on in the memory of people today. For the Bunuba people of the east Kimberley region of north-west Australia, Jandamarra (once referred to by Europeans as ‘ Pigeon’, 1873–1897) is considered a hero of the resistance.

In the 1890s the Kimberley region was a violent place. Bunuba territory was invaded by Europeans looking for land for cattle. Aboriginal people living there resisted these incursions, occasionally attacking individuals. The European settlers called on the police for greater protection. Jandamarra was a young man who first worked for a cattle station owner and then as an Aboriginal tracker for the police. He helped to capture some of his own Bunuba people, and later turned against the settlers and decided to fight in defence of his people and their lands. After killing his colleague Constable Richardson, Jandamarra led a resistance movement for two and a half years in the rugged gorges around the King Leopold Ranges. Eventually he was found by an Aboriginal tracker and shot and killed near Tunnel Creek in 1897. After his death, his head was removed and sent to England. The location of his skull is unknown today. Bunuba people would like to see it returned to their country, and in recent years have been working with historians and other experts to trace and find it.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation brings together what is believed to be Jandamarra’s boomerang, on loan from Museum Victoria, Melbourne, and a spear collected by Inspector Ord, the policeman who led the hunt for Jandamarra. The boomerang is finely decorated with red and white ochre. The spear has a head made of green glass, showing the innovative use of new materials by Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region in the 1890s. Inspector Ord donated the spear and other materials to the British Museum in 1899. He had collected these from various Aboriginal camps during the course of his work. This is the first time that the spear and boomerang (normally housed in London and Melbourne) have been displayed together.

(2)Boomerang  An inscription attributes the boomerang to resistance leader Jandamarra. It has been suggested that he abandoned it after a battle with police.  Kimberley region, Western Australia, around 1890s. Wood, pigment. L. 52.5 cm Museum Victoria, Melbourne X 49848 Courtesy Museum Victoria

Boomerang, made of wood and decorated with pigment. An inscription attributes the boomerang to resistance leader Jandamarra. It has been suggested that he abandoned it after a battle with police. Kimberley region, Western Australia, c.1890s. L. 52.5 cm
Museum Victoria, Melbourne X 49848. Photo: Courtesy Museum Victoria

Wooden spear with a point of green glass, acquired by Inspector C.H. Ord. Kimberley region, Western Australia, around 1890s. L. 1.52 m. British Museum, London Oc1899,-461 Donated by C.H. Ord.

Wooden spear with a point of green glass. Kimberley region, Western Australia, c.1890s. L. 1.52 m. British Museum, London Oc1899,-461. Donated by C.H. Ord.

I am delighted that a Bunuba leader, June Oscar, has contributed to the multimedia guide for the exhibition and participated in opening events. She visited the Museum in 2014 and viewed the objects collected by Inspector Ord. While she has described the sadness in seeing these objects and thinking how they came to be in the possession of Inspector Ord, she also notes that these objects have the potential to tell a truth that should be told to the world. This is a view shared by many Indigenous Australians who have participated in the research project behind the exhibition and whose views were recorded by colleagues at the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia.

Over the years, the descendants of Inspector Ord and Bunuba people today have discussed these historical events and noted the importance of recognising the difficult past. Bunuba people have commemorated Jandamarra’s story in a number of creative ways, including a new work composed for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

As June Oscar says, Jandamarra’s story lives on in current generations of Bunuba people who continue to visit these places and keep his story alive.

‘As far as we’re concerned, Jandamarra lives on. His spirit lives on, his people still live on. His spirit is carried in this country by people who speak the same language as he did. For as long as we’re alive, the children will know the story of Jandamarra.’

‘Alongside… the tragic history of the Bunuba people is the pride that we take in Jandamarra standing up for country, defending country, and displaying his skills, his talents, his knowledge of organising his warriors, and the way he evaded the police for so long.’

You can read more about June’s views in this transcript of her lecture at the opening of the exhibition. The audio recording of this speech will be available here soon.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , ,

What lies beneath: drapery and the suggested form

As a new painting by Alison Watt goes on display at the British Museum, the acclaimed artist talks about the inspiration behind the painting…

From the moment I first heard Ian Jenkins, curator of Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art talk about the Parthenon sculptures, my understanding of them was enriched. And it was as much about the way he spoke as what he said. As with the sculptures themselves, there was an unmistakable rhythm to his words – I was struck by his use of language, its musicality, as he talked of the sculptures in terms of their flow, their movements. Listening to him, it was as though a pulse ran through the stone itself.

I clearly remember my response to these representations in marble, many years ago when I first saw them. It was visceral. Even now, they remain startling to me but ultimately, elusive. They are so full of drama and atmosphere and one of the things that makes them so compelling is their ability to trigger the senses. It’s no wonder that, since their creation, they have been influencing artists throughout history.

In the show it seemed entirely natural to be drawn to the sculpture of Iris, the messenger goddess as a channel for my ideas. She’s a virtuoso performance by her creator; a simply astonishing portrayal of the human form. But Iris is not only a piece about the contingency of the human body. She’s also a piece about fabric. Within this thinly-veiled form, there is an element which goes beyond nature, something which does not exist in real life, and that is the element of fantasy. What we feel when we look at her is as important as what we see.

Marble figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon. Greek (Athens), about 438–432 BC. H. 135 cm. British Museum 1816,0610.96

Marble figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon. Greek (Athens), about 438–432 BC. H. 135 cm. British Museum 1816,0610.96

Here, visual reality has been subtly improved and intensified, the fabric itself fetishized, and so it transcends its proper function. The sensual is highlighted with an emphasis on tactile sensation. We also become much more aware of the less tangible features of cloth, such as how it might sound as it moves. And that’s why the use of fabric in this piece is so powerful and makes our response to it so complex. It somehow encapsulates a sense of movement which feels perpetual. As in a fold itself, there is a simultaneous display of two positions. It at once hides and discloses; like a fold there is always a promise to reveal.

My fascination with depictions of drapery began with a childhood visit to The National Gallery and its exquisite collection of old master paintings. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to portrayals of fabric: how it falls, how it moves as the body moves and how it often seems to have its own secret interior. Fabric has been a powerful vehicle for my imagination and the memory of it often conjures sensations that are difficult to describe.

Although my paintings may appear to be devoid of a human presence, there is a suggestion of the body – a body which is absent but implied. While I no longer paint directly from the human figure, I’m still fascinated by it. Indeed I once spent an intense period of ten years working every day with a life model in order to immerse myself in the process of looking. Spending time with another human being in such intimate conditions has the effect of heightening consciousness. A small shift in weight in an observed body becomes a monumental act. As the brain edits what the eye is seeing, it begins to abstract what is keenly observed. The geometric balance, the spacial order so important to the success of a painting comes from this study. I have never looked at the human body in the same way since.

With Iris, the parts that have been discreetly draped reappear in the cloth itself, which clings to her thighs and torso like a second skin. There is no bulk in this drapery which only enhances the erotic tension of the piece. Of course the erotic relies on suggestion and this work is all the more alluring because of what it might reveal. The cloth appears almost like a membrane, an intimate barrier between the body and what exists outside of it. In places it melds with the naked form, tantalisingly emphasising its shape. Therefore the properties of both fabric and body are captured simultaneously, drawing our attention to the behaviour of both.

Iris is a sculpture which is both beautiful and disconcerting. In its now fragmentary condition we are left without its extent. It seems to have no end, and indeed goes on in the imagination. The use of drapery all at once reveals her, conceals her and frames her but it cannot contain her.

Over the years, I’ve moved away from painting directly from life. I found myself looking for other means of representing the human form – ways to suggest the body and its movements. So now the memory of a piece of fabric becomes a metaphor for the body. The severing of drapery from its original narrative gives it added potency, while isolating it from its surroundings heightens our awareness of what is missing – the human presence.

Alison Watt, Himation, 2015. Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 71.1 cm.  Alison’s painting will be on display at the British Museum in Room 18a until 5 September 2015.

Alison Watt, Himation, 2015. Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 71.1 cm. Alison’s painting will be on display at the British Museum in Room 18a until 5 September 2015.

One of the reasons my paintings take their current form is because there are certain proportions that are satisfying and which make sense to me, and that has come from years of studying the human figure – whether it be in a piece of art, often a painting or sculpture, the written word, or even the experience of intimacy. For sure, all of these influences affect how I make my paintings. But above all, painting is an emotional experience for me because it’s about what lies inside, what you can only sense, feel or imagine.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
 until 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer

Additional support

In memory of Melvin R Seiden

Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , ,

A Rothschild Renaissance: reimagining the Waddesdon Bequest

Dora Thornton, Curator of the Waddesdon Bequest and Renaissance Europe, British Museum

For the last three years, I have been working on the redisplay of the Waddesdon Bequest, the superb collection of medieval and Renaissance treasures which Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (1839–1898), MP and member of the famous banking family, left to the British Museum on his death. Named after Waddesdon Manor, Ferdinand’s fairy-tale château in Buckinghamshire where he housed the collection, the Bequest is a rare survival, but it’s also an outstanding donation motivated by a strong sense of public purpose. Ferdinand was one of the greatest collectors of the 19th century, but saw himself as an agent in the process by which private collections moved inexorably into the public domain. ‘Collectors may deplore the fact’, he wrote, ‘but it should be a source of gratification to the public that most fine works of art drift slowly but surely into museums and public galleries. In private hands they can afford delight only to a small number of persons.’

Thinking of his words and the intention behind them, we have moved the collection, one of the most important in the British Museum, to one of the grandest rooms on the ground floor. This historic space, previously known as the Middle Room, was part of a suite of neo-classical rooms designed by Robert Smirke in the 1820s, which included the King’s Library (refurbished in 2003 as the Room 1: Enlightenment Gallery) and the Manuscripts Saloon (which since 2014 has been called Room 2: Collecting the world).

Nautilus shell cup on a silver-gilt claw foot and mounts. Made in Nuremberg, Germany, late 16th century. H. 26.1 cm. British Museum  WB.114

Nautilus shell cup on a silver-gilt claw foot and mounts. Made in Nuremberg, Germany, late 16th century. H. 26.1 cm. British Museum WB.114

Both rooms introduce visitors to the riches and breadth of the British Museum’s collection, which will now be perfectly complemented by the remarkable quality, wonder and variety of the Waddesdon Bequest. The new gallery has been designed by renowned architects Stanton Williams, whose design unifies the extraordinarily varied objects by creating a layout in keeping with the proportions and grids of Smirke’s original interior. It expresses the quality and character of a family collection in which objects have been selected not only for their aesthetic appeal, but with a strong sense of their historical importance.

Formed on the fast-growing art markets of Paris, Vienna and London, the Bequest represents a snapshot in the self-fashioning of a new European dynasty of the 19th century. As a collection, the Bequest is a kind of museum in itself: a treasury of intricate, precious objects ranging from virtuoso goldsmiths’ work to cups carved from amber and rock crystal; ‘curiosities’ formed from exotic shells, nuts, ostrich eggs and a ‘griffin claw’; microcarvings in boxwood; and masterpieces of Renaissance glass, ceramic and enamel. It was modelled on the type of art collections formed by princes and nobles in the courts of Renaissance Europe, known as ‘Kunstkammern’. The Rothschilds used such collections – those in Dresden, Munich, Kassel, Prague and Vienna – as blueprints for their own.

Griffin claw cup of buffalo horn and silver-gilt. Made in Mainz, Germany, mid 16th century. H. 38.8 cm. British Museum WB.102

Griffin claw cup of buffalo horn and silver-gilt. Made in Mainz, Germany, mid 16th century.  H. 38.8 cm. British Museum WB.102

The new display contains some of the most impressive works in the British Museum’s European collection. Outstanding objects include the Holy Thorn Reliquary, a work of art shown in its own case, which has been described by Director Neil MacGregor as ‘a single-object museum’, the superbly intricate boxwood prayer nuts, and the fantastic vases that once belonged to the famous English collector Horace Walpole.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary. One of the most important Christian relics, this precious object of gold, enamel and gems is formed around a humble thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. Made in Paris, around 1400. H. 30.5 cm. British Museum WB.67.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary. This precious jewel of gold, enamel and gems is formed around one of the most important of Christian relics, a humble thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. Made in Paris, around 1400. H. 30.5 cm. British Museum WB.67

Boxwood prayer nut with the Adoration of the Magi carved inside the lid and in the lower half, the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ. Made in the Northern Netherlands, around 1510–1525. L. (open) 9.7 cm. British Museum WB.238

Boxwood prayer nut with the Adoration of the Magi carved inside the lid and in the lower half, the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ. Made in the Northern Netherlands, around 1510–1525. L. (open) 9.7 cm. British Museum WB.238

Pair of maiolica vases illustrating the story of Hercules and his wife Deianira (left) and river gods among a lush landscape (right). Made in Urbino, Italy, 1561–1571. The brass-gilt mounts were added later, in Paris before 1765. H. 56 cm. British Museum WB.61a and 61b

Pair of maiolica vases that once belonged to Horace Walpole. The vases illustrate the story of Hercules and his wife Deianira (left) and river gods among a lush landscape (right). Made in Urbino, Italy, 1561–1571. The brass-gilt mounts were added later, in Paris before 1765. H. 56 cm. British Museum WB.61a and 61b

My work on the new gallery – and on the book which informs it – is structured around a series of research questions: what was the status and significance of each piece at the time it was made, and why does it look the way it does? How was it handled, used and displayed by its original owners? What kind of afterlife did it have in moving from one collection or culture to another, and what was to be its role in Baron Ferdinand’s New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor? How might one interpret this collection for the 21st century?

The gallery is a contemporary visual expression of a collaborative exploration of these questions. Much of my research has been practical, and has grown organically from the experience of handling the pieces repeatedly. The aim of the gallery, its digital programme and accompanying book, A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest, is to encourage close looking, and to both reconnect the Bequest with Waddesdon Manor and relocate it within the history of the British Museum – so the collection can be fully appreciated in its proper intellectual and historical context. As Baron Ferdinand understood, this collection was formerly the private province of princes. With the help of The Rothschild Foundation, we have aimed to create a bespoke gallery of quality which will be free to the public and permanent: a treasury for everyone to enjoy.

The new Waddesdon Bequest gallery (Room 2a), funded by The Rothschild Foundation, is now open. You can find out more about the gallery and the Bequest here.

You can also find out about some of the highlight objects in more detail on Tumblr.

This blog post contains excerpts from an article that appears in the British Museum Magazine, and also from the accompanying book A Rothschild Renaissance: The Waddesdon Bequest, available from the British Museum shop online. The Magazine, published three times a year, provides fascinating insights into the work of the Museum and is available as one of the many benefits of Membership. In addition to the Magazine, Members receive free entry to all exhibitions, exclusive events and special Museum offers and discounts. Get closer to the collection by becoming a Member today.

Filed under: Collection, , ,

A taste for honey: bees in African rock art

Helen Anderson, Project Cataloguer of African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

In Summer 2014 the green roof of the newly opened World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) at the British Museum became home to a colony of bees. The bees were introduced as part of an initiative by an organisation called Inmidtown – to boost the diminishing population of bees and train Museum staff in the craft of beekeeping. I, along with a number of keen volunteers, have taken up the exciting challenge to look after our bees on the roof on a weekly basis until September.

Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

Above and below: Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building. (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

12-05-2015 16.30.06 My own fascination with bees goes back to my childhood in Norfolk. I vividly remember watching their comings and goings on an oversized lavender bush in our garden; an attraction which didn’t wane despite being stung on more than one occasion. However, my role as project cataloguer on the African Rock Art Image Project has firmly established that the human-bee relationship is one that is very likely to be several thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old. Depictions of bees, their nests and the harvesting of honey can be found at rock art sites across the African continent. Recent genomic studies indicate that the honeybee, Apis mellifera, originated in Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. While European populations contracted during Ice Ages, African populations expanded during these periods, suggesting environmental conditions were more favourable and that, historically, climate change has had a strong impact on honeybee populations.

Apis mellifera  (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The honeybee, Apis mellifera, with pollen basket. (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Africa has more rock art relating to bees than any other continent where populations of bees are found (Europe, Asia and Oceania), although there are no secure dates for the origin of these images. Only a few engravings and paintings relating to bees exist in northern Africa, and these are at widely dispersed sites. The African honeybee builds a nest in dark cavities, typically trees. Where there are no suitable trees, such as in the Sahara, bees may nest in termite mounds, rock hollows, depressions or crevices, and the honeycombs of such nests are sometimes visible. In Libya, for example, nests are located in rock fractures in the steep sides of wadis (dried up riverbeds), which can be between 100 and 200 metres high. There are significantly more depictions associated with bees in the rock art south of the Sahara; why this should be the case is not entirely clear – it may be due to environmental conditions. I should, at this point, make the distinction between the activity of beekeeping in which I am engaged, and the more apt term of honey-hunters, which most closely explains the activities seen in the rock art representations of southern and eastern Africa. It has been suggested that historically hive beekeeping was never developed in these regions as there were sufficient nest sites that provided plentiful honey for local communities.

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. © TARA/David Coulson.(Image not yet catalogued)

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men (honey-hunters) to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The bees’ nest consists of a number of parallel honeycombs built into the cavity, suspended from an upper surface. Honey-hunters would have observed the nest structure when harvesting the combs, perceiving the different shapes and forms they take depending on the angle of entry. For example, in an upright tree trunk, looking at the combs face on they appear as a suspended curved structure (catenary pattern); seen in a tree cavity or in a cavity from below, the ends of the combs look like oval or elliptical-shaped parallel compartments. These particular composite shapes were termed ‘formlings’ by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius in the 1930s, and comprise a distinct category of feature in African rock art.

Wild bees' nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photo:

Wild bees’ nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photograph: by Erell (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees' nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees’ nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. British Museum 2013,2034.12205. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Fifty-six catenary patterns have been found at thirty-eight rock art sites, only five of which are in northern Africa. Catenary patterns are the easiest bee-related image to depict when engraving and are found at one site in Algeria and four in Morocco. Painted rock art of nested catenary curves, possibly representing bees’ nests, sometimes depicts clusters of small crosses which bear resemblance to a group of flying bees.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. (Photograph: © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

More than 300 depictions of formlings can be found at over 220 sites – over 95% of which come from Zimbabwe alone. Studies of honeybee nests have been compared to artistic representations of catenary patterns and formlings, and suggest that depictions of both were originally based on observations of bees’ nests made by the producers of rock art.

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’ with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses (perhaps bees?). Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched (maybe they are harvesting?). Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’, with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses, perhaps bees. Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched – maybe they are harvesting? Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The harvesting of honey in rock paintings shows honey-hunters in groups, sometimes using ladders to reach the nests. In one painting from Zimbabwe, fire or smoke, which was used to ward off the bees, is depicted.

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

In southern Africa, shamans of the San people describe being stung by bees while in a trance-like state (Lewis-Williams, 2001); and in the Kalahari Desert, the San dance when bees are swarming which they believe strengthens the efficacy of the dance. Examples of such dances are depicted in painted rock art, where bees are painted on people’s bodies and limbs. For the San, bees and honey are highly potent symbols.

Painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

San painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by dancing figures and tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

My own forays into beekeeping are in their initial stages and I am looking forward to learning about these productive insects and helping them to thrive in their increasingly endangered habitats; but it is thought-provoking that our taste for honey reaches back across the millennia.

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

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

Further reading

Crane, Eva, 2001, The Rock Art of the Honey Hunters, Cardiff: International Bee Research Association.

Dixon, Luke, forthcoming, A Time There Was: A Story of Rock Art, Bees and Bushmen.

Kidd, Andrew, B. and Schrimpf, Berthold, 2000, ‘Bees and bee-keeping’, in R. Blench, Kevin C. MacDonald (eds), The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography, London: Routledge.

Lewis-Williams, D., 2001, ‘Brainstorming images: neuropsychology and rock art research’, in David S. Whitley (ed.), Handbook of Rock Art Research, California: Altamira Press, pp. 332–60.

Mguni, Siyakha, 2006, ‘King’s monuments: identifying “formlings” in southern African San rock paintings’, in Antiquity, 80: 583–98.

Wallberg, A., Han, F., Wellhagen, G., Dahle, B., Kawata, M., Haddad, N., Simões, Z.L.P., Allsopp, M.H., Kandemir. I., De La Rúa, P., Pirk, C.W., Webster, M.T., 2014, ‘A worldwide survey of genome sequence variation provides insight into the evolutionary history of the honeybee Apis mellifera’, in Nature Genetics, 46: 1081–88.  

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

Indigenous Australia: multi-sensory engagement for families

Emilia McKenzie, Education Manager (Digital Content), British Museum

Temporary exhibitions at the British Museum are a wonderful opportunity for the Schools and Young Audiences team to think creatively about new ways to engage our family visitors. The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is no exception and is accompanied by a specially devised range of family-friendly activities and events. To create this programme, the Schools and Young Audiences team worked closely with the exhibition’s curatorial and interpretation teams.

Indigenous Australia family guide

Indigenous Australia family guide

For our Indigenous Australia family guide, we wanted to try something a little different, going beyond the traditional medium of paper-based trails. We felt that the content of this exhibition, with its bold range of practical as well as ceremonial objects, lent itself particularly well to alternative formats. Inspired by the collection on display, we decided to create a multi-sensory, three-dimensional interpretive device, featuring replicas of objects or parts of objects from the exhibition. We worked with 3D designers Topographic who used a range of materials including wood and acrylic along with techniques such as etching, lamination and sculpture to produce 6 unique objects with very different textures. Placed around a hoop, the miniature replicas provide a non-linear trail, allowing visitors to dip in and out as they wish.

Detail from the Indigenous Australia family guide: suckerfish

Detail from the Indigenous Australia family guide: suckerfish

In terms of the content, we worked with the exhibition curators and interpretation officer to select the most appropriate objects across the exhibition – objects that young people would find inspiring and which would give families clear ‘ways in’ to the main themes of the exhibition, including ancestry, ritual and livelihood. The layout of the exhibition itself was also a consideration: thinking from the point of view of a young child and whether or not they would actually be able to see the object in question.

Ask for the guide at the exhibition entrance to try it for yourself.

Detail of a mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish Attributed to Kuduma, Muralag, Torres Strait, Queensland. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell, paint. H 310 mm. British Museum, London Oc,89+.74

Detail of a mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish
Attributed to Kuduma, Muralag, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1888. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell, paint. H 310 mm. British Museum, London Oc,89+.74

Our craft-based family half-term workshops in the Museum this month will enable participants to build their own ‘fish hats’ inspired by objects in the exhibition, such as this dance mask. Fish are a key symbol in the exhibition and are a vital food source and totemic animal for Indigenous Australians. We wanted to create something that people could wear, and hope that the Museum will be filled throughout half term with ‘schools’ of fish as families wearing their fish hats move around during their visits. Participating families can decorate their hats in natural colours drawn from the palette of the exhibition, with plenty of scope for fun and individuality.

Throughout half-term week, artist David Allsop will be facilitating a collaborative artwork around the theme of ‘journeys’. Families are invited to contribute to the artwork using a colour-coded system representing how and why they have come to the Museum. Based on mark-making and the system of colours as symbols, the final outcome will be a large painting shown on the floor in the same way that paintings from Spinifex communities, Western Australia, are displayed.

Drop by the Great Court between 11.00 and 16.00 during half-term week (25–29 May) to take part in these activities. Tell us that you took part by sharing your artwork on Instagram and Twitter using #IndigenousAustralia. We can’t wait to see what you create!

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Event, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , , , , ,

Making histories: Captain Cook and Indigenous Australia

Maria Nugent, Research Fellow, Australian National University

Objects on display in the Indigenous Australia exhibition.

Objects on display in the Indigenous Australia exhibition at the British Museum, London

There is a corner (literally) in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation that features the famous British navigator Captain James Cook. It occurs at a pivotal point, where the exhibition’s narrative moves from the hard-to-fathom timescales of the Dreaming (the complex system of beliefs and stories that explain the meaningful creation of the world, and how humans reproduce that system through ceremony, art, storytelling and other meaningful action, which one anthropologist described as an ‘everywhen’) and the 40,000 plus years of human occupation of the continent, to the much shorter and more immediate timespan of the last 245 years since British encounters with Indigenous people there began. While Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese voyagers had visited since the early 1600s, Cook was the first British navigator to explore the region. And whereas other European expeditions were mainly on the western and northern coasts, Cook and his expedition charted the east coast. Although Cook is often credited with claiming the entire continent for King George III, he was careful to only take possession of its eastern side, acknowledging as he did that the Dutch had already claimed the west.

Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana, c. 2002. H 3120 mm, Diam. 200 mm. British Museum, London Oc2003,01.2

Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana, c. 2002. H 3120 mm, Diam. 200 mm. British Museum, London Oc2003,01.2 Reproduced by permission of the artist © Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre http://www.yirrkala.com

This corner of the exhibition draws together a fascinating assemblage of objects that work together to present diverse representations of Captain Cook and his place within Indigenous Australia’s deep history. There’s a larrakitj, or memorial pole, that was made in 2002 by Gawirrin 1 Gumana. At the top on one side he has painted the ancestor figure Barama and on the other Captain Cook, but he hasn’t specified which is which. The rest of the pole is covered with the artist’s ancestral designs, and so it acknowledges Cook’s historical presence, but shows that it did not displace Barama’s law in Yolngu country (northeastern Arnhem Land).

Attributed to Botany Bay (Sydney), New South Wales, c. 1770. L 900 mm. British Museum, London Oc1978,Q.839

Attributed to Botany Bay (Sydney), New South Wales, c. 1770. L 900 mm. British Museum, London Oc1978,Q.839

Next to it, in a large case and lit up against a striking green background, is the shield that is believed to have been used by a Gweagal man in self-defence against the violent incursion of Cook’s landing party into his country in late April 1770. (Although it is tempting to believe otherwise, we know for sure that the hole in the centre of the shield was not made by a bullet.) This is an especially powerful object, because it symbolises that first fateful meeting.

There is though, I think, a risk that by concentrating only on the first landing that other equally significant and revealing interactions that took place over the week that Cook’s ship the Endeavour remained at Botany Bay are overshadowed. Other objects in this corner of the exhibition provide intriguing perspectives on that historical encounter.

People in canoes at Botany Bay by Tupaia, 1770. H 263 mm, W 362 mm. British Library, London

People in canoes at Botany Bay by Tupaia, 1770. H 263 mm, W 362 mm. British Library, London

The drawing made by the Ra’iatean man Tupaia (who had joined the voyage in Tahiti) is especially important here. It shows three Gweagal people fishing with hand lines and spears from two canoes. This was a drawing made from life and is a beautifully detailed and sympathetic scene, which not only shows details of their canoes and fishing spears, but also reveals how the local people continued to go about their business despite the unwelcome presence of the British sailors. Tupaia was an important intermediary in interactions between the British and Indigenous people in Australia (and New Zealand as well). But his role has not been given much attention in histories of Cook in Australia. Later, when the Endeavour was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, he warmed relations there with the local people, so much so that some men went on board the ship and some vocabulary was collected. Below Tupaia’s drawing is a copy of Cook’s original chart of Botany Bay, which indicates water sources and other environmental features. Augmented by James Cook’s and Joseph Banks’s descriptions, the chart reveals evidence of Indigenous people’s management of the landscape.

These two drawings, produced as a result of interactions with Indigenous people and their country in 1770, are flanked by two contemporary artworks. One is Michael Cook’s photograph, Undiscovered #4, which shows an Aboriginal man dressed as Captain Cook (or some other British naval officer) standing on the beach with his ship behind him. The other is Vincent Namatjira’s vibrant painting, James Cook – With Declaration (British Museum, 2014,2007.1), in which the ‘proclamation’ Cook writes to take possession of the territory appears as an extension of his naval uniform. These contemporary pieces belong to a much larger corpus of visual representations by Indigenous artists that provide alternative images and interpretations of Captain Cook and his history. Michael Cook’s photograph, for instance, raises questions about who ‘discovered’ who. Vincent Namatjira’s painting suggests the ways in which Captain Cook wrote the country into British possession and how he is literally the embodiment of Britain’s territorial claims.

This is my favourite part of the exhibition, but I might not be completely impartial in my choice, because I have been interested in the historical relationship between Captain Cook and Indigenous Australians for some time. A few years ago, I published a book called Captain Cook Was Here, which provides a close analysis of the encounters between Indigenous people and Cook’s crew in 1770 and also discusses the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have told stories about Captain Cook over the last two centuries, turning him into a founding figure within their respective interpretations of history. As the historian Chris Healy has written: ‘Captain Cook is a name common to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal histories. … His name can be considered as a term which creates a possibility of dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ways of making histories’.

Later this week, I will be giving a lecture on Indigenous Australian visual and oral storytelling about Captain Cook from the early 1800s to the present. I hope to see you there.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

Let’s talk about sex: men and women in Greek art

Dr Katherine Harloe, Associate Professor of Classics and Intellectual History, University of Reading

Browsing the exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art on a rainy afternoon, an Athenian red-figure mixing-bowl caught my attention. It shows the death of Kaineus, a mythical Thessalian hero who had the misfortune to be present at the wedding feast of Peirithoos, King of the Lapiths, and his bride Hippodameia. The celebrations famously ended in a fracas when the centaurs among the wedding guests became drunken and violent, attempting to rape their hosts’ wives. The ensuing battle, which the Lapiths won, came to stand for the conquest of savagery by civilisation. It features as such on the decoration of important civic and religious buildings, including the Parthenon and the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai. On this vessel, made for mixing wine at a drinking party, it warns of the dangers of overindulgence.

Red-figured mixing-bowl (column-krater). Greek, made in Athens, 480–460 BC, attributed to the Pan Painter. British Museum, London 1846,0925.6

Red-figured mixing-bowl (column-krater). Greek, made in Athens, 480–460 BC, attributed to the Pan Painter. British Museum, London 1846,0925.6

Marble metope (XXXI) from the south side of the Parthenon, showing a Lapith and a centaur fighting. Greek, 447–438 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. British Museum, London 1816,0610.15

Marble metope (XXXI) from the south side of the Parthenon, showing a Lapith and a centaur fighting. Greek, 447–438 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. British Museum, London 1816,0610.15

Section of frieze from the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, 420–400 BC. As Kaineus is hammered into the ground, his muscular, twisting torso aligns him with the heroic Lapith warrior who comes to his aid, and contrasts with the swirling drapery of the female escaping to the side. British Museum, London 1815,1020.4

Section of frieze from the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, 420–400 BC. As Kaineus is hammered into the ground, his muscular, twisting torso aligns him with the heroic Lapith warrior who comes to his aid, and contrasts with the swirling drapery of the female escaping to the side. British Museum, London 1815,1020.4

Kaineus was killed during the fighting, though not (so Ovid, who gives us a poetic account of the battle in his Metamorphoses, says) before he had dispatched six centaurs to their deaths. He was a difficult to kill because his skin could not be pierced by sword or spear. In the end the centaurs could only overcome him by hammering him into the ground with rocks and tree trunks. The vase shows this moment – the helpless Kaineus looks up in dismay at two centaurs bearing down on him with large boulders. But within the myth, the warrior’s invulnerability supersedes and compensates for a previous vulnerability. For, as the hero Nestor recounts, Kaineus had been born a girl, Kainis, who was raped by the god Poseidon and in return granted the fulfilment of one wish. She asked to become male, and in granting her a masculine body Poseidon also made it one that could not be penetrated.

Scholars of ancient gender and sexuality have made much of this myth’s association of impenetrability with the male sex. Its popularity in Athens might also tell us something about that society, where the law protected male citizen bodies from violation while overlooking violence towards others. But Kaineus/Kainis can also help us think through some of the issues around the sculpted male and female forms that provide the highlights of this exhibition. An impenetrable body which can be hammered into the ground sounds like nothing so much as a statue. Ovid also hints at this when he describes the centaur Latreus’s sword bouncing and shattering off Kaineus as if it had struck ‘a body of marble’.

Bronze statue of an Apoxyomenos, Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture, Croatia. Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak

Bronze statue of an Apoxyomenos, Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture, Croatia. Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak

The exhibition gives us marble bodies aplenty, male and female, as well as several in bronze. But the male and female bodies we encounter in the exhibition are different in several ways. Most obvious to me, and perhaps striking to most visitors, is the contrast of clothed and unclothed. Male figures, from the beautiful bronze Apoxyomenos (‘sweat-scraper’) in the first room to the Belvedere Torso at its end, are all presented nude. The females – unless they happen to be Aphrodite, or to be modelled on her – are clothed.

Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument. Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos, south-western Turkey. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument. Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos, south-western Turkey. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

Not that the drapery on the female statues always conceals much. In the case of the nymphs from the Nereid Monument, belly, breasts, thighs, are all visible through the moistened folds of their clothes. Their eroticism is obvious, even without the colour that would once have created the illusion of living, breathing flesh. But there is a paradox here – it is often said of the Greek male sculptural nude that its eroticism is downplayed. For a statue like the Apoxyomenos, nudity does not equal nakedness but – as Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor puts it in the exhibition catalogue – ‘a suit of morally charged new clothes’. The female body, by contrast, tends to be undressed even when dressed.

Does this tell us something about ancient Greek attitudes to women, or does it have more to do with our own ways of viewing male and female bodies? Michael Squire, the classical art historian whose voice is one of the first you hear on the exhibition’s multimedia guide, has argued that sexualised responses to naked Aphrodites overlook their religious significance, her status as a goddess and the awe in which ancient worshippers would have held her image. Now that mainstream advertising has begun to serve up naked or near-naked male bodies to sell everything from designer underwear to fizzy drinks, can we look at Greek male nudes afresh, with greater sensitivity to their erotic charge? The distinctions between nude and naked, male and female, are not as clear cut as they first seem, but still make me uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s why, of all the beautiful objects in the exhibition, I am most drawn to the figurines from Tanagra – miniature statuettes of heavily draped, yet graceful women, with fashionable hats and hairstyles, dolled up to appear in public yet somehow conveying a womanly world and messages all of their own.

Terracotta figures of a woman. Greek, about 300–200 BC or later. Said to be from Tanagra, Boeotia. British Museum, London 1875,1012.9; 1875,1012.12a; 1874,0305.65

Terracotta figures. Greek, about 300–200 BC or later. Said to be from Tanagra, Boeotia. British Museum, London 1875,1012.9; 1875,1012.12.a; 1874,0305.65

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
until 5 July 2015
.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

One-hit wonders: spear points from the Kimberley

Rachael Murphy, Project Curator, Oceania, British Museum

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation has been open for a few weeks, long enough, it seems, for some favourite objects to emerge. Many visitors have remarked on a 2-metre-long mask in the form of crocodile with an open mouth full of white teeth – it was made of plates of turtle shell on the island of Mabuiag in the Torres Strait, Queensland. Michael Cook’s photograph Undiscovered #4, a reimagining of early colonial encounters, is another favourite. The image positions an Aboriginal man on the shore, dressed in the red-and-white 18th-century uniform of the British military, as a tall ship sits on the horizon.

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010 National Museum of Australia

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010
National Museum of Australia

Perhaps the most talked about exhibit is a group of spear points from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. For anyone who is familiar with Kimberley points the interest is unsurprising. Tear-shaped and double-edged, their uneven, symmetrical surfaces catch and reflect the light. More often than not they are made from exceptional materials – one is of mottled grey stone intersected with quartz veins, others are shaped from translucent green bottle glass. It is difficult to deny their aesthetic appeal, especially when they are displayed as a group.

A group of spear points Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940 © The Trustees of the British Museum

A group of spear points
Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The points are also great ambassadors for much of Indigenous Australian technology – they present an economy of form that is underpinned by deep knowledge and skill. At one time all spear points in the Kimberley region were made from various types of stone. Men made the points using wood and bone tools to shape and sharpen the point. Each stage of the process requires a different technique, the final stage being the precise application of pressure to sharpen the edges by flaking off small pieces of stone. The points are attached to a wooden shaft with gum and cord made out of plant fibre. It is a time-consuming process and they are something of a one-hit wonder – the brittle stone tends to break on impact.

Points made out of bottle glass and ceramic insulators (taken from telegraph poles) are innovations from the late 1800s. Ceramic is particularly good spear point material as it is less brittle than stone, meaning the points can often be reused. John Carty of the Australian National University describes the meanings, making, uses and evolving importance of spear points in the book Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, which accompanies the exhibition.

One of the joys of seeing so much interest in the points lies in the fact that stone tools are not usually regarded as show-stopping objects. Around a third of the British Museum’s 6,000 objects from Australia are stone implements, so it is great that visitors are recognising and celebrating such an important technology. It is especially so since the Kimberley points are displayed with a simple label, describing dates and materials. The points appear to be doing a good job of transmitting their value for themselves.

Some other unsung heroes of the exhibition are the people who care for the collection. In the past few years the staff of the Oceanic section have been assessing, measuring and photographing Australian stone implements and adding this information to the Museum’s database. Shooting, editing and uploading these images falls into an important, but often unnoticed, category of Museum work. By the time I took a turn, the glamorous spear points and axes had already been documented and we were working our way through several hundred tiny scrapers and flakes, often overlooked products of the skilled manufacturing process. Most of this work was done by Curator Ben Burt and Museum Assistant Jill Hassel, assisted by a number of volunteers. It is a point of pride in our department that the records for the Museum’s entire Australian collection are online and soon every object will have a photograph too. The benefits of this are enormous, as not only does it allow audiences around the world to view the collection, but it also permits us to gain from their knowledge and research and feed this back into the collection database.

One of the best examples of the value of this type of collection work is the exhibition itself. The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation was enabled and enriched by the contributions of others, in particular the Indigenous Australian individuals and groups who have been so generous with their time and knowledge.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

The passion of Ajax

Ian Jenkins, Curator, ancient Greece, British Museum
I am often asked what my favourite object is in the exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art. I answer this by marching my interrogator past the great white marble sculptures glowing in the mysterious half-light of the gallery to a showcase containing a primitive and seemingly unprepossessing bronze figure, only seven centimetres high. I am usually greeted with a look of incredulity. But this is my favourite object; partly because I discovered it in 1996 in what we now call the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory, and partly because of what it shows and how it shows it.

The object is a helmeted matchstick man, forged from solid metal tubing, drawn out to represent the subject, sitting on a low stool, with his arms extended in front of him and a dagger turned inwards. At a glance, you can see that this is, by virtue of the action, a suicide caught in the moment before the dagger is forced in.

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum 1865,1118.230

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum, London 1865,1118.230

The short version of the story of Ajax’s suicide as told in Greek myth goes something like this: Ajax was big dumb-dumb Ajax, brave and good-hearted but not a subtle thinker. It was he who carried the body of Achilles, dead from the battlefield, and it was he who should have had the armour Achilles was wearing – armour that was made by the god of smiths himself, Hephaestus. But with weasel words, wily Odysseus manages to deprive Ajax of this prize. In rage and shame a night-long fit of madness fell upon the hero, who thought he could hear an attack by the Trojans on the Greek camp and set about single-handedly defending his companions from the danger. It was not until the cold light of the morning lifted the veil of his madness that the nature of his folly was revealed. For in fact there had been no attack – only the sound of the herd of Greek cattle moving about in their pen, every member of which he had slaughtered. With nothing left by way of honour, now twice humiliated, Ajax killed himself.

The image of the death of Ajax that comes most readily to mind is that in Sophocles’ tragic dramatisation of the story, where the brooding hero prepares to fall on a sword set into the Trojan earth. This, as Ajax bitterly remarks, is a hostile soil and the sword is that of his old enemy Hector. The sad story of Ajax’s suicide is not told by Homer in the Iliad. This centres instead on a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, and its impact on the progress of the Trojan War and the lives of those people caught up in it. In this Achilles does not yet die but his eventual end is related in a number of other contemporary epic poems, including The Aithiopis, which relates the heroic life of Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, sometimes known as ‘The Black Hector’. The little bronze has none of the literary power of either 8th-century BC epic poetry, nor of the 5th-century BC tragedy. But it has an indefinable poetry all of its own that, in spite of its great simplicity, seems to capture something of the bleak and solitary circumstances of Ajax’s death.

Like the great Greek sculptors of a later age, the smith of this bronze has chosen not to represent the act of suicide itself, but the moment just before the dagger is buried in the body of the hero. What really, though, evokes absolutely the mental agony of Ajax is his large erection. This has nothing to do with any ideas of the erotic charge of death. It is instead a metaphor used to mark Ajax as a figure undergoing extreme trauma. In the symbolic use of the phallus, the smith is straining at the very limits of his powers. He has departed from actual representation and makes a metaphysical statement instead. When we compare such art with contemporary literature, we find nothing in the former of the narrative and descriptive power of the latter. Nonetheless, our little stick-man Ajax points at the direction in which Greek artists will go in their quest to tell stories of the kind that Homer had already mastered in the medium of words.

The object dates to around 720–700 BC and as such may be among the earliest representation to survive of a named mythological character in Greek art. Because of its phallic nature, it had been previously misclassified in the Museum’s collection, now dispersed, of erotica. Its appearance in our exhibition seems unpromising on first acquaintance but, on reflection, it turns out to be an object with great poetic presence and one which anticipates the visual power of later Greek art.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
until 5 July 2015
.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

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US artist John Sloan was born #onthisday in 1871. 
John Sloan, painter, printmaker and teacher, first took up etching as a self-taught adolescent.  Moving to New York in 1904, he became part of a group of eight artists, better known as “The Ashcan School”, who focused on creating images of urban realism. Between 1891 and 1940 Sloan produced some 300 etchings. He was also one of the first chroniclers of the American scene and wrote about printmaking and the etching technique.
This etching comes from the series of 10 prints entitled 'New York City Life', recording the lives of the ordinary inhabitants in less affluent areas of Manhattan. The prints had a mixed reception at the time and a number were rejected from an exhibition of the American Watercolor Society as ‘vulgar’ and ‘indecent’. #August is named after the Roman emperor Augustus. Before 8 BC the Romans called it Sextilis! 
This head once formed part of a statue of the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BC – AD 14). In 31 BC he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium and took possession of Egypt, which became a Roman province. The writer Strabo tells us that statues of Augustus were erected in Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and that an invading Kushite army looted many of them in 25 BC.
Although Roman counter-attackers reclaimed many of the statues, they did not reach Meroë, where this head was buried beneath the steps of a native temple dedicated to Victory. It seems likely that the head, having been cut from its statue, was placed there deliberately so as to be permanently below the feet of its Meroitic captors.
The head of Augustus appears larger than life, with perfect proportions based upon Classical Greek notions of ideal human form. His calm distant gaze, emphasised with inset eyes of glass and stone, give him an air of quiet, assured strength. Coins and statues were the main media for propagating the image of the Roman emperor. This statue, like many others throughout the Empire, was made as a continuous reminder of the all-embracing power of Rome and its emperor. English sculptor Henry Moore was born #onthisday in 1898.
Drawing played a major role in Henry Moore's work throughout his career. He used it to generate and develop ideas for sculpture, and to create independent works in their own right.
During the 1930s the range and variety of his drawing expanded considerably, starting with the 'Transformation Drawings' in which he explored the metamorphosis of natural, organic shapes into human forms. At the end of the decade he began to focus on the relationship between internal and external forms, his first sculpture of this nature being 'Helmet' (Tate Collections) of 1939.
This drawing titled ‘Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal’ was based on a pencil study entitled ‘Ideas for Lead Sculpture’. It reflects his awareness of surrealism and psychoanalytical theory as well his abiding interest in ethnographic material and non-European sculpture; the particular reference in this context is to a malangan figure (malangan is a funeral ritual cycle) from New Ireland province in Papua New Guinea, which had attracted his interest in the British Museum. 
Henry Moore, Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal. England, 1939. Here's another fabulous view of the Great Court captured by @whatinasees at our instagramer event #regram #repost
Check out all of the photos at #emptyBM Vincent van Gogh died #onthisday in 1890. Here's a print of his only known etching. It depicts his doctor, Dr Paul Gachet, seated in the garden of his house.
#vanGogh #etching Beatrix Potter was born #onthisday in 1866. Here are some of her flopsy bunnies! 🐰
#BeatrixPotter
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