British Museum blog

New evidence of human cancer found at ancient Amara West

scan of human bone

Michaela Binder, Durham University and Neal Spencer, British Museum

Cancer is one of the world’s most common causes of death today, but there is little evidence from before industrialisation: almost nothing is known about the history of the disease in the past. We generally assume cancer is strongly related to modern lifestyle and environment. But the analysis of skeletal and mummified human remains recovered during archaeological excavations can provide insights into such diseases in the distant past.

Until now, only a small number of skeletons with evidence for cancer have been identified. While the oldest primary bone cancer is around 6,000 years old, the earliest example of bone metastases related to a soft tissue cancer dates to around 3000 BC. However, because only the skull is preserved, there are doubts about the accuracy of the diagnosis. Only nine more individuals with – often tentative – evidence of cancer predate the first millennium AD. The majority of these individuals come from Ancient Egypt. This is perhaps mainly because the long history of archaeological research has resulted in a very large amount of skeletal and mummified human remains becoming available for study. They are very well preserved and have received a great deal of attention from medical doctors and physical anthropologists since the 19th century.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

In February 2013, the skeleton of a man who died between the age of 20 and 35 years was excavated in a tomb at Amara West, in northern Sudan. Founded around 1300 BC in the reign of Seti I, the town was designed as a new centre of the Egyptian control of Upper Nubia (Kush). The British Museum has been working at the site since 2008. Excavations in the town allow us glimpses of ancient lives: how houses were refurbished, what people ate, religious and ritual practices, where rubbish was disposed – and how the town changed over two centuries of occupation. Bioarchaeological work in the cemeteries is providing further insights into the ancient inhabitants: their life expectancy, diet and health.

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man's hands.

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man’s hands.

This individual (skeleton 244-8) was buried in a large underground chamber tomb (G244), perhaps used for a family around 1200 BC. The body was placed in a painted wooden coffin, with an Egyptian-style scaraboid placed in the hands. The bones of the torso, upper arms and upper legs have a large number of holes, 5-25mm in diameter. Radiographic examination of the bones revealed the holes are even larger beneath the bone surface. These holes were caused by metastatic carcinoma spreading from a soft tissue cancer: the oldest complete skeleton of a metastatic cancer found, anywhere, to date. The study, jointly conducted by researchers at the British Museum and Durham University is being published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

What caused such a case of cancer? Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease which was and still is a major health problem in the Nile valley, can cause breast cancer in men. Smoke from woodfires within houses continues to be a problem in modern Sudan. At Amara West, most of the small houses were provided with cylindrical bread ovens, often three side-by-side in a small room. Careful excavation has revealed that many of these oven rooms were roofed: these would have quickly filled up with smoke, exposing people to potentially harmful substances.

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Understanding the evolution, history and factors that could have caused cancer prior to the onset of modern living conditions is important not only for archaeology but even more so for medical research. Skeletal human remains, set within a well-documented historical, archaeological and environmental context are a key element for any such attempts. This may in future be crucial to develop new research strategies and therapies in order to tackle what has become the world’s deadliest disease.

The identification of such cases, and other diseases, among the population of towns such as Amara West, provides a more direct sense of ancient experience than those provided by ancient texts, architectural remains or the objects people left behind.

Follow the latest from the British Museum team now excavating at Amara West: http://blog.amarawest.britishmuseum.org/
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The power of gold: communication, identity and transformation


Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

While admiring the stunning works of art in the exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, you might ask yourself who commissioned, owned and used such magnificent gold objects. In most cases, they were mainly in the hands of the powerful elites. However, depending on their final shape, they could have a very different function and meaning. In the exhibition we explore three of the main uses for these gold artefacts.

Tunjo representing a warrior with bow, arrows and a trophy head in his hand. (exh. cat. p. 120). © Museo del Oro O00296

Tunjo representing a warrior with bow, arrows and a trophy head in his hand. (exh. cat. p. 120). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O00296

Some were created as offerings to the gods, placed in rivers, lakes (such as Lake Guatavita), caves and other liminal places in the landscape, to mediate for the community. Votive offerings, which included ceramics, stones, and gold figures and scenes, were probably intended to petition the gods or to thank them for their intervention in favour of an individual, group or the wider community. These figurines, known as tunjos, give us a wonderful window into the life of those ancient people, portraying images that ranged from female figures with children to musicians, warriors and chiefs.

Gold objects were also widely used as body adornments. As such they marked the belonging of an individual to a group through a very specific style and type of ornament. They also indicated the status and rank of the wearer within the group. Gold objects acted as very public displays of power and identity with an incredible range of styles and shapes that included diadems, nose rings, ear spools and earrings, pectorals, necklaces, bracelets and anklets. Each group also mastered specific metalworking techniques that gave the final character and look to their pieces.

Crocodile-shaped pendant, 700 BC - AD 1600, Late Quimbaya, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 147). © Museo del Oro, O05928

Crocodile-shaped pendant, 700 BC – AD 1600, Late Quimbaya, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 147). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O05928

Anthropomorphic bat-man staff finial, AD 900-1600, Tairona, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 157). © Museo del Oro O26176

Anthropomorphic bat-man staff finial, AD 900-1600, Tairona, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 157). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O26176

But perhaps the most complex and intriguing use of gold was in rituals, ranging from musical instruments, paraphernalia used as part of the consumption of powerful plants, such as the chewing of coca leaves, to the rituals of transformation. In ancient Colombia people believed that by changing one’s physical appearance one would undergo a total transformation and take on the characteristics of the creature. But what did ancient Colombian people want to transform themselves into? Spiritual leaders wished to transform themselves into the powerful animals that surrounded them, such as jaguars, birds and even bats, to experience the world from a very different perspective. This transformation was aided by gold objects that helped in the long process that might have taken months or even years to achieve. Wonderful necklaces, impressive masks and body piercings, spectacular pectorals and other body adornments helped leaders take those magical journeys to gain knowledge of the world from a very different point of view and later recount back to the community all they has learned and experienced.

In ancient Colombia, gold was a powerful metal, which not only allowed people to communicate with the supernatural and display one’s identity as a member of a community, but it also allowed you to gain a new one.

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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The Vikings are here…

Gareth Williams, Exhibition Curator, British Museum
Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Lo, it is nearly thirty-five years since the Vikings last came to this Museum, and nobody believed that such an influx of fantastic material from overseas (as well as the UK) could be made…*

To be fair, the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend lacks some of the drama of the original Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793. We haven’t had fiery dragons in the sky (unless you count the Aurora Borealis coming unusually far south), and there hasn’t been much in the way of destruction or slaughter. Nor is it likely that this exhibition will be remembered 1200 years after the event, although in an age of globalised communication, there is no doubt that the exhibition has attracted considerably more notice in the last few days than the attack on Lindisfarne did at the time. Nevertheless, as the largest Viking exhibition in the UK for over 30 years, it has the potential to shape our definition of the Viking Age.

The attack on Lindisfarne is often used as a starting point for a period which extended until around 1050 or 1100. The defeat of the Norwegian Harald Hard-ruler (whose story is so brilliantly told in a new illustrated children’s adventure book by Project Curator Tom Williams) at Stamford Bridge near York in 1066 provides another convenient end date from an English perspective, although it doesn’t have much meaning elsewhere. The idea of a ‘Viking Age’ has formed part of modern historical perceptions since the 19th century, but the interpretation of that period, and of the Vikings themselves, has changed many times since then. One of the most memorable experiences of my own childhood was visiting the great Viking exhibition here at the British Museum in 1980. It brought together an unprecedented collection of Viking material, interpreted in line with what was then current thinking on the Vikings. Recent archaeological discoveries in Viking settlements in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia played an important part in raising public awareness of the less violent aspects of life in the Viking Age. It was an exhibition that helped to define the Vikings for a generation, and the catalogue Viking Artefacts by the guest curator James Graham-Campbell remains an essential reference for any serious study of Viking culture.

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30.  © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30. © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Of course, things have changed since 1980. There have been many new finds, due in part to the introduction of the Portable Antiquities Scheme which encourages the reporting of metal-detected objects. The Vale of York Hoard, for example, displayed in its entirety for the first time at the British Museum in this exhibition, was found by metal detectorists in 2004. And new material keeps on coming, with dramatic finds excavated even in the course of preparing this exhibition, necessitating rewrites and adaptations as we went along. The mass grave of Vikings found near Weymouth excavated in 2009 and the 2011 Ardnamurchan burial (the first complete example of a Viking boat burial from the British mainland) are prime examples.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. Exh. cat. Chapter 4. fig. 3. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A tiny three-dimensional Valkyrie amulet, found as recently as 2013, demonstrates how up-to-date the finds presented in this exhibition really are. Of course, the star of the show – the remains of Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship ever discovered – is one of the most important and awe-inspiring Viking discoveries of recent times.

Just as important has been the impact of new research, particularly in the areas of ritual and belief and Viking-age economies. Some of this work has been pioneered by those behind the 1980 exhibition, and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to present their work and set out the state of current thinking for a new generation. As Professor Ronald Hutton astutely observed in his review in the New Statesman, the major overarching themes of the exhibition – global communication, cultural interaction and diversity, technological sophistication – are ideas with a profound significance to the modern world.

Looking back through the email trail, Vikings: Life and Legend has been over six years in the making. Apart from the challenge of delivering an engaging and informative exhibition, we have had the added issues of incorporating a 37 metre-long ship, and being the first exhibition in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, on which building had not yet even commenced when we started planning the exhibition six years ago. It has been an enormous team effort to get us here; While curators get the media attention on such occasion, the conservators, designers, loans administrators, object handlers and many other staff have equally important roles behind the scenes. The process has at times been exhilarating, exhausting, and frustrating. As Charles Dickens wrote, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and he only had to deal with two cities. This exhibition has had the added complication of being planned in three. Despite all that, we have finally reached the point where the exhibition is ready to show to the public, and it is enormously rewarding to see the positive response which we have already had from journalists and those who have seen the exhibition. If the response of the public as a whole is as positive, I think that all of us involved in the exhibition will be very satisfied. And if a single visitor is as inspired by this exhibition as the younger me was by its predecessor, then I shall personally be delighted.

*(With apologies to Alcuin of York.)

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend at the British Museum is on from 6 March to 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Vikings in Russia

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow
Tom Williams, Project Curator: Vikings, British Museum

Scandinavians traditionally do rather well at the Winter Olympics – for perhaps obvious reasons – but their Viking ancestors would have been no stranger to some of the delights of Sochi. Skis were used and valued in the North. Earl Rognvald I of Orkney boasted that (among several other skills) he could ‘glide on skis’, and the god Ullr was also associated with skiing. In fact, he has been taken as a sort of unofficial patron of the winter ski community, whose members often wear medallions depicting the god – there would no doubt have been a good number of Ullr talismans among the skiers in Sochi.

And, while the bob-sleigh may have been unknown, sledges of various kinds are certainly known from Viking burials, including a particularly beautiful example that was found in the famous boat burial from Oseberg in Norway.

What is perhaps most surprising of all – at least to those brought up with a Western European education – is that the Vikings (possibly even skiing Vikings) were working their way up and down the river systems of Russia and Ukraine more than a thousand years ago, at the same time that their kinsmen were raiding the coastlines of England, Ireland and France. Objects now on loan to the British Museum for the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend indicate the extent of Scandinavian settlement from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the far-flung contacts established by the eastern trading network, including glittering hoards of silver coins and jewellery from Gnezdovo and Lyuboyezha in Russia.

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow.

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow. This axe, with its backwards projecting knob, is typical of weapons from eastern Baltic lands. It was found in Russia’s Kazan region on the Volga river, but is decorated in a Scandinavian style with gold inlay that depicts a sword piercing a serpent from below – possibly a reference to the legend of Sigurd the dragon-slayer.

The last time the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Vikings was in 1980, and at that time the cold war meant there was little academic contact between east and west. It was simply impossible to secure loans from museums on the other side of the iron curtain, and many new discoveries were never reported in the west. This was compounded by the official Soviet policy on the origins of the Slavic-speaking countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that minimised the role of Germanic-speaking Scandinavians in the development of urban life in those nations.

Times have changed, however, and the role of the Vikings – particularly those from Sweden – is increasingly recognised as an important one in the development of a new culture in Eastern Europe, a people known in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic world as the Rūs. Vast quantities of Islamic silver travelled up the rivers of Russian and Ukraine in exchange for amber, slaves and furs, leaving a trace in Viking-Age silver hoards found far from their eastern origins.

The Vale of York Hoard, acquired jointly by the British Museum and York Museums Trust in 2010, contains Slavic silverwork from Russia and Islamic coins from as far afield as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan

The Vale of York Hoard, acquired jointly by the British Museum and York Museums Trust in 2010, contains Slavic silverwork from Russia and Islamic coins from as far afield as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan

It wasn’t just objects that travelled the river routes. The exhibition will also display objects from the graves of men and women who died in Russia and Ukraine and who chose to identify with a Scandinavian heritage through the style of their clothing and the decoration on their weapons. Discoveries of amulets depicting small figures suggest that some even brought their gods with them to new lands.

Perhaps Sochi 2014 wasn’t the first time that Ullr had travelled to the Black Sea coast.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend opens at the British Museum on 6 March 2014.
Supported by BP

Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The British Museum would like to thank the State Historical Museum, Moscow and the State Novgorod Museum for the generous loan of objects.

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‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience’

Detail of Ein neuer Type ('A New Type'), 1965, Georg Baselitz (b.1938), grey and yellow ochre watercolour, charcoal, graphite and white pastel on paper.
John-Paul Stonard, art historian

On 7 February, the great literary critic James Wood gave a lecture at the British Museum, part of the London Review of Books’ Winter Lecture series, titled ‘On Not Going Home’. He spoke about the condition of exile, of living one’s life away from home, and of the strange unreality of this experience.

His own compelling account is based on the experience of having lived for the last two decades in America (he was born and raised in Durham) – a sort of voluntary ‘homelessness’ that he is at pains to distinguish from the wrenching experience of exile. ‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience’, he cites Edward Said, one of the great thinkers on the subject.

Wood’s brilliant lecture raised many questions that illuminate the works of art included in the book and exhibition Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation. The title might make you think of the Berlin Wall, and the political division that ended in 1989; but the sense of division is of something much deeper, much more personal and psychological.

All of the six artists included in the exhibition were born in eastern Germany, but sooner or later moved to make their lives in the West. Markus Lüpertz and Sigmar Polke were born in the eastern territories, lost to Germany in 1945, and were forced with their families west. Blinky Palermo moved with his foster family at the age of nine. Georg Baselitz transferred from East to West Berlin during his training (before the borders closed in 1961), just as Gerhard Richter completed his training as a Socialist Realist in Dresden, before moving to Düsseldorf and starting over again, working, as he (ironically) termed it, as a ‘Capitalist Realist’.

The most dramatic case was that of A.R. Penck, who crossed the East-West German border on foot in 1980, after years of working underground in opposition to the East German State. He had already made a career in the West, thanks to the dealer Michael Werner, who would smuggle his paintings out (by car), and showed them in his Cologne gallery. It seemed inevitable that one day Penck himself would follow.

The lives and works of all these artists were inflected in different ways by this experience of migration, and by the political division of Germany. I think of James Wood’s comment on his own experience of living in America, and the ‘light veil of alienation thrown over everything’. I wonder if this ‘veil of alienation’ might explain the way in which those such as Baselitz and Richter saw West Germany, somewhere apart from their ‘heimat’ – that untranslatable German word which suggests the intimate connection with the landscape in which one was born and raised.

For the philosopher and critic György Lúkacs (cited by Wood), the modern novel was an expression of the ‘transcendental homelessness’ of the modern age. Modern life was defined by the experience of exile, and the novel was the most direct expression of this experience. ‘Transcendental homelessness’ seems to float over the images created by Baselitz in his early series of drawings, prints and paintings of ‘heroes’, lonely figures walking through desolate landscapes. It is a feeling of restlessness that I also sense in the way Markus Lüpertz and A.R. Penck made drawings, producing vast quantities, as if constantly searching for something, some form of resolution. Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter’s early works are marked by a cool irony, and a feeling of keeping a distance from ‘art’ itself — Richter used photography, Polke an absurdist humour, as a way of avoiding ‘going home’ to older ideas of making art. And the myths that have gathered around the life and work of Blinky Palermo, whose name is itself a token of not-belonging (he was born Peter Stolle, and went through a number of change of surname, before alighting on the pseudonym as a student at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie), make of him one of the most romantic, and elusive artists of all the ‘Baselitz generation’.

Listen to James Wood’s lecture via the London Review of Books website

Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation is on show at the British Museum until 31 August 2014.

Read more about this period of art and history in the beautifully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, written by John-Paul Stonard.

This post was originally published on the British Museum Press books blog

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Lost Change: mapping coins from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

coin visualisation
Daniel Pett, ICT Advisor, British Museum
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Today sees the launch of Lost Change, an innovative and experimental application that allows coins found within England and Wales and recorded through the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), to be visualised on an interactive, dual-mapping interface. This tool enables people to interrogate a huge dataset (over 300,000 coin records can be manipulated) and discover links between coins’ place of origin (the issuing mint or a more vague attribution if this location is uncertain) and where they were discovered and then subsequently reported to the PAS Finds Liaison Officers.

While much of the the data is made available for re-use on the PAS website under a Creative Commons licence, some details are closely guarded to prevent illicit activity (for example night-hawking or detecting without landowner permission) and so this application has been developed with these restrictions in mind. An object’s coordinates are only mapped to an Ordnance Survey four-figure National Grid Reference (which equates to a point within a 1km square), and only if the landowner or finder has not requested these to be hidden from the public.

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The distribution of coins is biased by a number of factors (a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust is looking at this in greater depth) which could include:

  • Whether metal detecting is permitted by the landowner, or the topography makes detecting difficult
  • Soil type and land use
  • Whether there is an active community of metal detectorists within the vicinity

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The tool is straightforward to use. The left hand pane holds details for the place of discovery; the right hand side holds details for the place of issue, the mint. These panes work in tandem, with data dynamically updating in each, depending on the user’s choice. A simple example to get going is this:

  • Click on “Iron Age” within the list of periods
  • Within the right hand pane, click on one of the three circular representations and this will highlight where the coins from this mint were found in the left hand pane. The larger the circular representation, the more coins from that mint have been recorded.
  • If one clicks on any of the dots within the left hand pane, these are selected and an overlay in the right hand pane allows dynamic searching of the PAS database.

The PAS intends to build on this project at a later stage and will be seeking further funding to enable this to happen, with many more facets of discovery available to query the dataset.

Lost Change was funded through a £5,000 grant from the CreativeWorks London ‘Entrepreneur-in-Residence’ programme.

The PAS is grateful to Gavin Baily and Sarah Bagshaw from Tracemedia who developed the application, and everyone who has contributed to the PAS database.

If you have any feedback on the project, please contact the PAS via info@finds.org.uk.

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Seeking Fred and Nellie, France 1916

Silver George V shilling re-engraved as a love token, 1916 (J.3283)
Benjamin Alsop, curator, British Museum

Silver George V shilling re-engraved as a love token, 1916 (J.3283)

Silver George V shilling re-engraved as a love token, 1916 (J.3283)

When you think of the relationship between money and war you can be forgiven for immediately thinking about the financial implications of war. The money required to put boots on the ground and aeroplanes in the sky is staggering and yet as the world remembers the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, an object in the Citi Money Gallery reminds us that not all is as it seems. To look at one side of this silver shilling is to see something unremarkable, run of the mill and even (and I say this in hushed tones) boring. The stoic, moustachioed profile of King George V gazes left as an inscription encircles him, there is no emotion to be found here, just a standard royal portrait. The other side of the coin is different; the traditional image of a lion and crown has been carefully removed to create a smooth service on which a message has been engraved. In compact script, it reads, ‘FROM FRED TO NELLIE FRANCE 1916′.

It is not unusual to see money, and especially coins, used in such a way. ‘Love Tokens’, as these re-engraved pieces have come to be known, had their heyday from the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth centuries, when convicted criminals were transported from Britain to Australia. Large copper coins were often engraved with messages of love and devotion, a small object of remembrance left behind by someone who would most likely never see their loved ones again. Short bursts of poetry would accompany images of hearts and doves asking the recipient not to forget their existence on the other side of the world.

A soldier during the First World War was similarly compelled to engrave a simple message of devotion. 1916 witnessed two of the bloodiest battles of the war, at Verdun and the Somme in France, resulting in over two million casualties. Is it possible that Fred fought in the Battle of the Somme and if so did he return home? Who is Nellie, to whom he dedicated this coin? Quite simply we don’t know. The only information we have about the object is that it was donated to the British Museum in 1966 by Mrs Carvell from Hampstead in London. Any hopes of identifying Fred or Nellie ends here, unless someone reading this blog post has information which may help us get a step closer to the two protagonists named on this small yet compelling object.

A minor edit was made to the post on 26 Fenruary 2014 to remove the suggestion that Fred fought at the Battle of Verdun, as it is unlikely that there would have been any British soldiers at Verdun.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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More than just gold

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Gold glitters in our exhibition, Beyond El Dorado, power and gold in ancient Colombia. To our modern eye those pieces convey ideas of richness, wealth and a fascinating world that disappeared a long time ago. Exquisitely crafted, they are testimonies of the complexity and sophistication achieved by those pre-Hispanic people. Objects that seem at first glance made of gold are much more complex and are in fact made of metal alloys. In most instances they combine, in different degrees, gold, some natural occurring silver, and copper, a combination known as tumbaga. These metals were symbolically charged in pre-Hispanic times, being associated with the sun and the moon respectively. Their combination produced a microcosm, a balance between opposites in the rendering of each object.

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

The creation of alloys also allowed for differences in colour, ranging from reddish to golden tones. Each object had its own particular colour, shine and finish thanks to the mastery and skills of the artists that produced them. Some even show contrasting colours in the same object, producing beautiful patterns and details.

Small ingots of tumbaga, in the shape of round buttons, were crafted in unique objects either by hammering or casting them (or by a combination of both techniques). Ancient Colombian artists mastered both techniques to an unprecedented degree, creating exceptional works of art.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC – AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Hammering metal was a delicate process. Metal becomes easily brittle when hammered and they have to be repeatedly cooled and dipped in water before the final form is achieved. The thin sheets of gold were then cut, decorated (for example by repoussé) or joined by clipping or folding several sheets together. Exceptional three dimensional pieces were created, as for example the wonderful jaguar seen in the exhibition (above). Claws, tail and jaws are articulated and even the nose ring is made of a rare alloy of platinum and gold.

However, it was the casting of metals that was developed most in ancient Colombia. Using the lost wax technique, artist modelled the final piece they wanted to achieve in beeswax (from stingless bees). Once the wax figure was finished it was covered in fine clay and charcoal, leaving pouring channels. The whole mould was fired and the melted wax poured out. Its place would be taken by molten metal, which cooled slowly as it solidified inside the mould. The mould was then broken and the final metal piece polished and finished.

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC - AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC – AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Ancient Colombian artist even created hollow objects following this technique, for example flasks and containers. Great skill was needed to produce them. The figure was modelled in clay and charcoal, and a thin layer of wax was applied to cover the final result. Over this another layer of clay would be added, and wooden pegs were inserted to fix the inner mould to the outer one to keep them in place when the wax melted. Controlling the flow of the metal to every single detail of the piece, its slow solidification, and then freeing the figure without damaging it was challenge that could only be achieved by the most experienced hands. Exquisite works of art, seen in this exhibition, were the result of incredible knowledge, care and time invested in their making.

Videos showing goldmaking techniques created for the exhibition

  1. Depletion gilding (dorado por oxidación)
  2. From wax to metal (de la cera al metal)
  3. By hammer and fire (a martillo y fuego)

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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The earliest human footprints outside Africa

Nicholas Ashton, curator, British Museum

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

Caption text?

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

Caption text?

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

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

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

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

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

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El Dorado: a title and a myth

View of Lake Guatavita
Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Curators usually think very carefully about the title of an exhibition. In a few words we have to convey a key message to catch people’s attention and to draw in the crowds. Our current exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, was no exception. At the British Museum we felt we had to include the words ‘El Dorado’ in the title. This Spanish term, which means the ‘golden one’ or ‘the gilded one’, is familiar to many, but very few know what or who El Dorado was. Perhaps this is part of its mystical aura; the inevitable attraction of the unknown?

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

Throughout the centuries, El Dorado was described by some as a man fully dressed in gold regalia. Other people believed he was a ruler or even a city covered in this precious metal. Some believed it was a golden kingdom. In fact, El Dorado was none of these. It was a myth that grew over the centuries that seems to have originated from the gold-thirsty Europeans in their exploration of the New Continent, soon to be called America. From 1499 the Spanish explorers and conquistadores reached the Caribbean coasts known today as Colombia and were especially dazzled by the quantity of gold being used by indigenous people. The King of Spain even named these lands ‘Castilla del Oro’ (Castile of Gold). But this Dorado was always elusive, always further south, or further north, or more towards the east; never being reached by the many expeditions and men that invested their live in this futile search.

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Some chroniclers placed El Dorado in the Colombian landscape, and few even ventured to link it to Lake Guatavita. This wonderful lagoon, nested in the green Andean highlands about 35 miles north of modern day Bogota, became the focus of attention for explorers and treasure hunters for many centuries. Accounts by Juan Rodriguez Freyle (1636) picture a vivid image of one of the rituals that took place in this lake. When a Muisca ruler came to power, and after much ceremony and fasting, he was taken to the lagoon where he was stripped of all his clothing. His body was covered in gold powder and placed at the center of a raft with attendants adorned with colorful feathers and gold ornaments. As the raft sailed towards the center of the lake, the crowds sang and danced and aromatic resins were burned. When the boat reached the center, a banner was raised, everyone fell silent and offerings of gold and emeralds were thrown to the waters of the lake. But there was much more than just gold offered; the truth behind the myth was far more fascinating. Excavations in the early 20th century have shown that wonderful ceramics, stone necklaces and other materials were also deposited in the lake.

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

This lavish ceremony was probably only one of many that took place in Guatavita. And this lagoon was only one of the sacred locations throughout the Andean landscape where Muisca rituals took place (including rivers, caves, rocks). There is much more than just a myth to be explored; there are rich cultures, unique objects and exceptional belief systems, which all go beyond the power granted to gold in modern times.

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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