British Museum blog

Violence and climate change in prehistoric Egypt and Sudan

excavation at Jebel SahabaRenée Friedman, curator, British Museum

What started off two years ago as a rearrangement of a few cases in the Early Egypt Gallery (Room 64) to highlight new acquisitions has, thanks to the generosity of Raymond and Beverly Sackler, developed into a full-blown refurbishment with new themes and displays throughout. This has also given us the opportunity to integrate some of the recent research into the early, formative periods of Egyptian civilisation and present our better understanding of it.

Ancient Egyptian civilisation is the product of more than 5,000 years of development. The gallery focuses on the earliest, prehistoric, phases of this development from 8600 BC to 3100 BC when Egypt unified to become the world’s first nation state. It also highlights the advances in ideology and technology during the First and Second Dynasty that paved the way for the Pyramid Age of the Old Kingdom. To illustrate these stories we have created new displays of objects long held in the collection as well as a selection of materials only recently acquired.

Excavations at Jebel Sahaba, 1965 (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Excavations at Jebel Sahaba, 1965 (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Map of cemetery 117 at Jebel Sahaba. The red dots indicate those who experienced a violent death.

Map of cemetery 117 at Jebel Sahaba. The red dots indicate those who experienced a violent death. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Among the most exciting of the new acquisitions are the materials from the site of Jebel Sahaba, now in northern Sudan, which were donated to the Museum by Dr Fred Wendorf in 2002. Excavating here in 1965–66, as part of the UNESCO-funded campaign to salvage sites destined to be flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, Dr Wendorf found a cemetery (site 117) containing at least 61 individuals dating back to about 13,000 years ago. This discovery was of great significance for two reasons. First, as a designated graveyard, evidently used over several generations, it is one of the earliest formal cemeteries in the world. Prior to this discovery, only isolated graves, or clusters of up to three bodies had been known within the Nile Valley. But perhaps even more significant, of the 61 men, women and children buried at Jebel Sahaba, at least 45% of them died of inflicted wounds, making this the earliest evidence for inter-communal violence in the archaeological record. Chips and flakes of chert, the remnants of arrows or other weapons, were found mixed with and in some cases still embedded in the bones of 26 individuals, while cut marks were found on the bones of others.

Excavation photo of  the two victims of violence featured in Room 64 (burials 20 and 21). The pencils point to weapon fragments mixed with the bones. (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Excavation photo of the two victims of violence featured in Room 64 (burials 20 and 21). The pencils point to weapon fragments mixed with the bones. (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Scanning electron microscope image of a weapon fragment embedded in the pelvis bone of Burial 21, Jebel Sahaba

Scanning electron microscope image of a weapon fragment embedded in the pelvis bone of Burial 21, Jebel Sahaba

A special case displays two of the unfortunate victims (Burials 20 and 21) and the remains of the actual weapons that killed them, recreating the burials as they were found. This is the first time these skeletons have ever been publicly shown. Both were adult men, buried together in the standard flexed position, on their left side, on their left side, head east, facing south. A total of 19 weapon fragments were found in and among the bones of Burial 21 by the original excavators, including one still lodged in his pelvis. However, modern conservation of the bodies in preparation for the display has now made it possible to see at high magnification many more tiny chips. Ongoing research is also studying the velocity and directionality of the arrows and weapons based on cut marks and other micro-traces on the bones, potentially allowing us to recreate the lethal raid. Clearly, the conflict was brutal and seems to have been fairly constant, as healed injuries have also been observed.

The reasons for all of this violence most likely comes down to climate. The Ice Age glaciers covering much of Europe and North America at this time made the climate in Egypt and Sudan cold and arid. The only place to go was to the Nile, but its regime was erratic: depending on the exact dating, the river was either high and wild, or low and sluggish. Either way, there was little viable land on which to live, and resources must have been scarce. Competition for food may well have been the reason for the conflict as more groups clustered around the best fishing and gathering grounds and were unwilling or unable to move away. Two other cemeteries found by Dr Wendorf in the vicinity suggest that several other social units, or small tribes, also considered this area their home and this may have caused friction. However, the bodies in the other cemeteries show no evidence for the sustained violence seen in Cemetery 117, suggesting that this group was either very unlucky or that the cemetery was allocated specifically for those who died a violent death. As more research is carried out on the unique collection now housed in the Museum, we will certainly learn more about life in those precarious times.

The Battlefield Palette (EA 20791)

The Battlefield Palette (EA 20791)

Of course, the Jebel Sahaba people were not the only victims of violence. The newly refurbished gallery also features the return of the popular virtual autopsy table allowing a deeper look into Gebelein Man and his unfortunate end. For the actual remains of this remarkably well preserved natural mummy, the new display aims to recreate his grave as accurately as the surviving records allow. Sir Wallis Budge, Keeper of the Egyptian Department from 1894 to 1924, claims to have witnessed the excavation of Gebelein Man in 1899 and relates that the grave was covered by stone slabs and the body was surrounded by pots and other objects. Simulating some stone slabs was no problem, but it proved impossible to determine which items came specifically from his grave. Those now accompanying him do at least come from Gebelein and date to about 3500 BC, the time we think that Gebelein Man lived. This was a period when several regional centres were beginning to vie for power and territory, leading ultimately to the unification of Egypt some 400 years later. Violence no doubt played a role in this process (as made clear by the intricately carved Battlefield palette, soon to be reunited with its mending piece on long term loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and the stab wound in Gebelein Man’s back may mark him as an unfortunate victim of his times.

Ivory gaming piece (EA 64093). Catering for the royal afterlife, board games and playing pieces for Mehen, the snake game, were some of the objects placed in the tombs of the First Dynasty kings.

Ivory gaming piece (EA 64093). Catering for the royal afterlife, board games and playing pieces for Mehen, the snake game, were some of the objects placed in the tombs of the First Dynasty kings.

This period was not all murder and mayhem. Other themes in the gallery include how climate change has preserved for us a glimpse at the very beginnings of ancient Egyptian civilisation in the lives of herders living in what is now the Sahara desert from about 8600 BC until the drying climate forced them to the Nile. There they adopted farming, setting in motion the social and technological developments that led directly to the advent of Dynastic Egyptian civilisation in around 3100 BC. The gallery includes displays illustrating afterlife beliefs, early gods, the first writing and technological innovations, as well as a look at the sumptuous afterlife of the First Dynasty kings.

Ceramic mask recently found at Hierakonpolis, displayed in cast in Room 64, courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition.

Ceramic mask recently found at Hierakonpolis, displayed in cast in Room 64, courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition.

Working on the gallery, through the kindness of Tom and Linda Heagy, I have also been able to integrate some of the recent discoveries (in pictures and casts) from the British Museum-sponsored excavations at the site of Hierakonpolis, a major site of the formative predynastic period. Findings there are helping to chart the development of some of the characteristics that came to typify ancient Egyptian civilisation. Current research at other early sites also feature, thanks to the cooperation of many colleagues, too numerous to name, who so kindly supplied information and photographs, often at short notice. Through the display, I hope visitors will gain a better understanding of Egypt at its origin – a fascinating laboratory of dynamic experimentation – and the debt that the Egyptians of later times owed to their early ancestors.

Correction: The post was edited on 7 August 2014 to correct an error in the description of the position of Burials 20 and 21 in paragraph 4. It now reads ‘head south, facing east’ instead of ‘head east, facing south.’


Room 64, Early Egypt, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery

A recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display.

Further details about human remains at the British Museum.

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World Cup match of the day

Andrew Shore, Marketing Editor, British Museum

Sometime back in March I saw the football World Cup advertised on a pub chalkboard. Later that week, I had the idea that the British Museum was ideally placed to join in this global tournament – few other places can boast objects from all 32 countries taking part.

The plan was to tweet images of a pair of objects for each match, one from each of the countries represented. This way we could showcase the Museum’s collection, but also the art and culture of those countries. I soon realised my own knowledge of the cultures of countries such as Algeria, Honduras and Costa Rica was limited at best. With the help of Steff Maxwell, our Marketing Assistant, we spoke to various curators across the Museum, and began to search the collection database. The scale of what we had taken on soon became clear – it would involve 64 matches and 128 objects, some from countries where the collection is not as well represented as others.

It was a simple notion, but seems to have captured the Twittersphere’s imagination. The response has been almost overwhelming. Many people have tweeted about their enjoyment of the posts, and some of them have been retweeted over 300 times. The Washington Post blog even called it ‘the best World Cup Twitter strategy of all the World Cup Twitter strategies.’

Ultimately, we hope that it has engaged people with the collection – perhaps introducing some to its breadth and depth for the first time. Some of the objects have been iconic, such as Dürer’s Rhinoceros for Germany and Leonardo da Vinci’s bust of a warrior for Italy. Some of the objects have been much less well known – a stone figure from Costa Rica, a beautiful jar from South Korea, or a drinking cup from Argentina. But really the tournament has shown what’s best about the Museum – telling new and surprising stories, sometimes in unexpected places. It’s been fun to do, and hopefully fun to follow.

The British Museum is perhaps unique in being able to tell the human story through objects. In the recent Annual Review, the Chairman of the Trustees set out his vision to make the British Museum ‘the digital museum of the world’. Social media and the availability of the collection online means that we have a fantastic opportunity to engage people with the collection all over the world – people who may never be able to come to London to see things in the flesh. To use a football cliché, at the end of the day, perhaps this is what social media is made for.

You can see all of the British Museum’s World Cup tweets in a Storify.

You can follow the Museum on Twitter, and do also check out our official accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Google+ and Tumblr.

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Museum of the world, for the World Cup

David Francis, Interpretation Officer

With the World Cup Final nearly upon us, I thought it would be interesting to search through the British Museum collection and see what footballing-related treasures could be unearthed. The Museum does not specifically set out to collect football-related objects; that remit falls to the National Football Museum in Manchester. However, the prevalence of objects related to football in the collection reflects the popularity of the sport, both in our current time and as part of our cultural heritage.

Greenstone yoke mould with relief carving in the form of a toad. Used to shape the protective leather belts worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame. From Veracruz, Mexico, AD 300-1200 (AOA Am,St.398)

Greenstone yoke mould with relief carving in the form of a toad. Used to shape the protective leather belts worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame. From Veracruz, Mexico, AD 300-1200 (AOA Am,St.398)

The story begins with objects related to ancient team ball games that had independently evolved in different parts of the world that act as football’s great ancestral forefathers. These include the Chinese game cuju and its Japanese equivalent kemari. However, the world’s earliest known team game, and perhaps most famous, is the Central American ball game, represented in the British Museum by the ceremonial ball game belt.

Like football, using your hands was prohibited in the ball game, but players were also restricted from using their feet or heads. Only the buttocks, forearms and the hips were allowed to touch the ball. To protect their hips from the rubber ball, which was heavy and could weigh as much as 15kg, players would wear padded belts made of cloth or basket work. The Museum’s stone version of the belt is thought to have been worn in ceremonies associated with the ball game. Points were scored through a system of faults such as if the ball left the court, or if it touched a prohibited part of the body. In many ways the ball game resembled keepy uppy rather than the modern game of football.

Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famously said ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death …. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ His quote would have been more appropriate, however, if he’d been talking about the Central American ball game. Whereas in modern football a major penalty miss can result in a hate campaign from the tabloids, mistakes in the ballgame could be even more costly. Reliefs exist depicting the participants of the ball game being sacrificed after a match and some scholars think that playing the game was believed to be linked to the rising and setting of the sun.

Isaac Robert Cruikshank, print, 1825

Isaac Robert Cruikshank, print, 1825

The game at Football, satirical print

The game at Football, satirical print published by Matthew Darly. A sailor (left) has just kicked a Spanish don whom he holds by the hair; he looks towards another sailor and says, ‘Damme Jack lets have a game of football’. The Spaniard wears a cloak, slashed doublet, and spurred boots. His broken sword falls to the ground. The other sailor (right) stands with his arms folded, saying, ‘With all my heart, kick him up Tom’. 17 March [?]1780. (1868,0808.4587.+)

The Museum’s collection of prints and drawings also provides many 19th- and 20th-century depictions of the game. A print by Isaac Robert Cruikshank from about 1825, depicting a melee of jovial soldiers, some trampled beneath the feet of the mob that pursue the ball, captures the wildness of the game before it was formerly codified in London in 1863. Another print from 1780 depicting two English sailors kicking a Spanish lord around as a football, reinforces the link between footballers and violence. This association harks back to English football’s medieval origins when it was a game played en masse as part of Shrovetide celebrations and frequently banned by the authorities as a threat to civil order.

Paul Nash, Football game, illustration to 'Cotswold Characters' by John Drinkwater, Brush drawing in black ink, over graphite (1970,0919.89)

Paul Nash, Football game, illustration to ‘Cotswold Characters’ by John Drinkwater, Brush drawing in black ink, over graphite (1970,0919.89)

In stark contrast are the later modernist depictions of football in the collection, such as a 1921 Paul Nash illustration from John Drinkwater’s ‘Cotswold Characters’. Here, the players are faceless mannequins and the focus is instead on the dynamism of the spherical ball as it moves through a series of geometric rectangles beyond the outstretched arm of the diving goalkeeper. The print freezes the image at the crucial moment that the ball crosses the line, which would nowadays be captured by goal line technology. Although the print depicts a game in the rural Cotswolds, its depiction of the athleticism of the players and the skill and excitement of the game reflects the transition from football being viewed as a violent rabble to a professionalised sport.

Openwork 'football' made of rattan, in six strands. From Burma (As1981,Q.21)

Openwork ‘football’ made of rattan, in six strands. From Burma (As1981,Q.21)

Model group in the form of a skeleton football match (Mexico v Brazil). Inspired by Day of the Dead Festival. Mexico, 1980s. (Am1986,06.271)

Model group in the form of a skeleton football match (Mexico v Brazil). Inspired by Day of the Dead Festival. Mexico, 1980s. (Am1986,06.271)

Finally, within the Museum there is also an eclectic bunch of footballing paraphernalia and related objects that when combined creates a cabinet of curiosities of the beautiful game. These include a football woven from rattan palm stems from Burma, a nickel-chrome referee’s stop watch in the horological collections, and a Mexican model from the 1986 World Cup depicting an imaginary encounter between the Brazilian and Mexican sides as Day of the Dead skeletons. Here are objects that were not intended to last forever now preserved within the Museum for all time, waiting for a scholar of football and material culture to unearth them and unlock their secrets.

British Museum Football Club 1919-20

British Museum Football Club 1919-20

British Museum Football Club 2013 (author centre, back row)

British Museum Football Club 2013 (author centre, back row)

David Francis is a dependable, if unspectacular, right-back for the British Museum football team. The team plays in an annual tournament with others from across London, including the National Gallery, the White Cube and Tate. The current team is only the latest in a rich lineage of footballing talent, as can be seen in the photograph from the Archives of the 1919–20 season.

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What lies beneath: new discoveries about the Jericho skull

Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

It’s always a problem for museum curators to find ways of learning more about the objects in their care without damaging them. For human remains, it’s even more complicated because there are additional questions of care and respect for the dead that have to be carefully considered before any research can be done. However, by studying their remains we can find out an enormous amount about the people of the past; about their health, their diet and about the religious practices they carried out.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The so-called Jericho skull is among the oldest human remains in the British Museum collection. Thought to be between 8,500 and 9,300 years old, it is one of seven Neolithic plastered human skulls found together by Kathleen Kenyon during excavations at Jericho in 1953. The site is now located in the modern State of Palestine.

Plastered skulls are thought to have been an important part of Neolithic rituals involving the removal, decoration and collecting of skulls. There has been a lot of debate about why particular skulls were chosen for this. Some archaeologists link them to the worship of elder males. Others suggest they were selected according to their shape or the status of the person in society. Some argue that they are portraits of revered members of the community. None of these theories are completely convincing, but a general agreement has emerged that the worship of ancestors may be involved.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

This ‘skull’ is actually a cranium because the lower jaw has been removed. There is also a section of bone missing on the left side towards the back where the soil filling inside can be seen. The cranium was decorated with a thick layer of plaster, shaped to look like a human face, which covers all of the upper jaw and finishes at the eye sockets and temples. Plaster has also been used on the base, so the skull sits upright on its own. Frustratingly, the plaster covers the parts of the skull which provide clues about who the person was and what happened to them. Therefore, over 50 years after it had been found, we still knew very little about the person whose skull this was. Physical anthropologists (experts in the human body) Theya Molleson (Scientific Associate, Natural History Museum) and Jessica Pearson, looked at how much the sutures (the joins between the skull’s bones) had closed and were able to suggest that it was a mature adult, but we needed to see beneath the plaster to find out more.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Museum has equipment for taking X-rays (radiographs) and my colleague Janet Ambers was able to X-ray the Jericho skull, but the soil filling the skull made it difficult to see everything inside clearly. We were therefore very lucky to be offered the chance to use a micro-CT scanner and its associated software by the Imaging and Analysis Centre, at the Natural History Museum, and the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College, and to work with two of their experts, Richard Able and Crispin Wiles.

The images created by the CT scans allowed us to look beneath the surface, revealing new details about the person that died so long ago. The scans confirmed that the skull had belonged to a mature adult who was more likely to have been male than female. We were also able to look at his upper jaw, where we found broken teeth, tooth decay and damage done to the bone by abscesses; all of which fitted well with the person being a mature adult. The back teeth (second and third molars) never developed and the second incisor on the right side is also missing. It is difficult to be sure without other examples to look at, but these teeth may have failed to grow because of inherited traits that are relatively rare.

The scans also allowed us see that the shape of the person’s head had been changed during their lifetime. It is possible to alter the shape of a skull by binding or bandaging the head during childhood. When we looked at the outside of the Jericho Skull we could see a slight dip in the surface running over the top of the head from ear to ear which suggested that something like this had been carried out. The X-rays and the CT scans, showed changes in the thickness of the skull bone and, as such alterations can only be made while bone is forming and growing, this must have happened from an early age.

This work has also revealed new details about how the skull was prepared for plastering. The CT scans showed concentric rings of grits within the soil and a ball of finer clay sealing the access hole at the back. This suggests that the soil was deliberately put inside the skull to support the surface as the plaster face was being added. It is possible that the round piece of bone cut away to form the access hole was originally put back after the cranium had been filled. Although it was subsequently lost, its earlier presence may explain why the soft soil filling has survived so well.

The work has significantly changed our knowledge of how this person’s skull was treated both during life and after death, making clear the benefits of the long-term care for human remains offered by museums. This previously enigmatic individual is now known to be a old man who suffered badly from toothache. The deliberate re-shaping of the skull also suggests that for this individual, physical change and social status may have been linked, something seen across the history of humankind. The use of imaging techniques has provided us with new areas of investigation and suggested new ways to view plastered skulls; as a reflection of an individual’s life rather than just a treatment for the dead.

The Jericho skull can be seen in the British Museum in Room 59, Ancient Levant, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery.

Alexandra Fletcher is co-editor of a recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum published by British Museum Press, which discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display. The book also discusses some of the research that has developed our understanding of these individuals’ past lives.

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A second look at a Byzantine icon: The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Robin Cormack, classicist and art historian

And life slips by like a field mouse,
Not shaking the grass.

Working on a new edition of my book Icons – first published by the British Museum in 2007 – I was reminded of these lines by the poet Ezra Pound on the rapid passing of time. I had to think what changes might be necessary to my work after seven years. In writing Icons my hope was to do two things: to celebrate the importance of the collection of Byzantine and Russian icons in the British Museum, and at the same time to give reasons why icons form a significant part of the history of Europe too. To use a favourite phrase of art historians, if art is embedded in society, then how can we understand that society through looking at its art? Icons are a special case because they are a medium that was produced in Europe from the early centuries of Christianity, became an essential element in the lives of the people of the Middle Ages, especially in the Byzantine world with its capital of Constantinople, but continue to be produced today. In other words, if you go into an Orthodox church, you will see in use icons first painted centuries ago side by side with new icons. That makes icons a very special form of art. There is the further complication that you may also see icons, not in a church, but in a ‘secular’ setting like the British Museum. Do they have the same impact in that context?

Icon with the Nativity of Christ. Egg tempera on wood with linen and gesso. Crete, 17th century (2012,8039.1)

Icon with the Nativity of Christ. Egg tempera on wood with linen and gesso. Crete, 17th century (2012,8039.1)

What changes have there been since 2007? The Museum has acquired a dozen more icons since then, which are illustrated at the end of the catalogue. For me the most charismatic new icon is the Nativity of Christ (cat. no. 112), painted on Crete in the 17th century. It came to the British Museum in 2012 as a bequest from the artist and Royal Academician John Craxton who for most of his life worked in a studio at Chania and produced colourful and joyful paintings of life in modern Crete. He wanted this, the best icon in his collection, to be in the British Museum collection, and so the Museum has in its possession a painting previously owned by the artist who encouraged art historians to appreciate the icons of Crete.

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. Icon painted with egg tempera, with gilding, on a wooden panel faced with linen and gesso. Byzantine (late), around 1400, Constantinople (1988,0411.1)

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. Icon painted with egg tempera, with gilding, on a wooden panel faced with linen and gesso. Byzantine (late), around 1400, Constantinople (1988,0411.1)

Possibly the best known icon in the British Museum is the Triumph of Orthodoxy, dating to the 14th century. It celebrates the end of the period of Iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries when icons were banned in Byzantium. From AD 843 onwards, the ban was revoked and icons became a defining feature of the Orthodox Church. The people who fought for icons are represented on the icon. As part of my research for the new edition of the book, I looked closely again at the icon, especially at the fragmentary Greek inscriptions giving the names of these iconophile ‘heroes’. I decided that I – as well as everyone else who had looked – had made some wrong deductions about who some of the figures were. In the new edition I identify the two central saints in the lower register, who jointly hold an image of Christ, as the two most famous iconophiles: St Stephanos, who was reputedly martyred in the 8th century, and St Theodore who was exiled on the 9th century for promoting the veneration of icons. As for the saints on the right, it is now argued that the artist wrote the wrong names beside some of the figures. The most likely explanation is that the icon copies an earlier icon of the same subject and the artist made a few mistakes, probably because the model was larger and had a few more figures.

So a second edition gives a second chance to look and interpret. Perhaps Ezra Pound was unduly pessimistic.

Icons by Robin Cormack, published by British Museum Press, is available online for £14.99, Members’ price £13.49

Robin Cormack is Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and is currently teaching Ancient art and archaeology at the Classics Faculty, University of Cambridge

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Tattoos in ancient Egypt and Sudan

Marie Vandenbeusch, curator, British Museum

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

One of the eight mummies that are the subject of the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, the mummy of a woman from Sudan, was discovered relatively recently, compared to the others. Her body was found in 2005, during rescue excavations taking place in the area of the Fourth Nile Cataract, where the building of a dam threatened to flood archaeological sites. The collection of over a thousand human remains excavated during the mission was donated by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) to the Sudan Archaeological Research Society, which then gave them to the British Museum. Arid climate and hot sand had naturally mummified some of these bodies, including the remains of this woman. Her soft tissues are so well preserved that conservators at the British Museum located a tattoo and other marks on her skin.

Evidence for tattooing in ancient Egypt and in Nubia is scarce, and human remains do not provide any indication of the frequency of the tattoos themselves: because of their location directly on the skin they are usually either not preserved or hidden by bandages. The first tangible examples of Egyptian tattoos date back to the Middle Kingdom (about 2000 BC): several tattooed mummies of women were found at Deir el-Bahari. The markings mainly consist of dots and dashes, often grouped into geometrical patterns, such as lozenges, and are usually placed on the chest, the abdomen, the arms or the legs.

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian Decamps

Although tattoos are rare on human remains, they seem to be more frequent on female representations. The geometrical decorations commonly adorning Middle Kingdom statuettes are very similar to tattoos found on the mummies of women who lived at the same period. However, the debate about their identification as tattoos is still open and recent discoveries regularly bring new insights to these questions.

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. Photo by permission of National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Both human remains and decorated figurines take us to the world of dancers and musicians. One of the mummies from Deir el-Bahari is thought to be a priestess of the goddess Hathor, whose patronage of music and dance is well established. There are also depictions showing a figure of the god Bes on the thigh of young ladies who appear to be dancers and musicians. This is not surprising when we consider that Bes, a god who protected the household and the family, was also associated with music and dance. The implicit eroticism symbolised by Bes in connection with these naked dancers seems to be also conveyed by the presence of tattoos.

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

As is still the case today, the meaning and function of tattoos can vary, some showing affiliation to a social group, others having medical or protective purposes. The naturally mummified woman from Sudan in the exhibition bears a monogram of St Michael tattooed on her inner thigh. It combines in one symbol the letters forming the name Michael (MIXAHΛ) in Greek or Coptic (both languages use a very similar alphabet). The monogram is topped with a cross. The tattoo suggests that the woman was of Christian faith, and may indicate that she hoped to place herself under the protection of the Archangel – one of the patron saints of Nubia.

The monogram of St Michael is already known in other contexts, in particular in Nubia where both the monogram and the representation of the Archangel were drawn on the walls of churches or incised on pottery, but its use as a tattoo was an unexpected discovery. We can interpret the tattoo as an invocation to the saint, but it was also a way of demonstrating one’s faith. Tattoos are still used in this way by Copts who often bear a small cross inside the wrist as a spiritual symbol of their affiliation to a community.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung.

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

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The sands of time: ancient Egypt and early film

Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film, British Film Institute

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

The British Museum’s new exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries uses the latest imaging technology to help us understand the realities of life and death in ancient Egypt. We have all seen computer-generated images of mummies brought to life in film and TV, for example in The Mummy film franchise that produced 6 films between 1998 and 2012. But if we go back to the late 19th and early 20th century, the Museum visitor would have had a similar preparation. When cinema was born in the 1890s, audiences that came to see the latest novelty would already have been thoroughly familiar with images of ancient Egypt after a century of Egyptomania – Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, high profile excavations, public mummy unwrappings and Champollion’s well publicised decipherment of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s.

Illustrations of pyramids and tombs littered the illustrated press, and mummies and other artefacts displayed in museums all meant that the iconography of ancient Egypt was instantly recognisable, just as it is today. Elements such as palm trees, sphinxes, hieroglyphs, lotus flowers, the eye of Horus, feathered fans, camels and papyrus scrolls were endlessly recycled for interior décor and stage and film sets. The imagery is very adaptable and very reducible. A simple backdrop of sand, a pyramid and a palm tree and there you are! In the 1890s, ancient Egypt was a source of fascination across the Western world, but particularly in the United States, which adopted it to represent a continuity between ancient civilisation and the emerging status as a superpower: Egypt was preferable to the iconography of ancient Greece and Rome as it neatly side-stepped the legacy of the later civilisations of Europe; the USA wanted something new and unfamiliar, and so ancient Egypt rather ironically becomes associated with modernism. The Western Electric Company built an Egyptian Temple display, complete with glowing electric lights at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, complete with telephone exchange operated by scantily clad Egyptian maids, and a group of men of the same period laying telegraph lines. Ancient Egyptians seem to have been blessed (or cursed) with the power of time travel for hundreds of years. In England, the connection between ancient Egypt and early film is neatly encapsulated in the fact that the first building in England to be influenced by the Egyptian style – the legendary Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (completed 1812, demolished 1905) – was the site of the public showings of some of the earliest films.

Not only a decorative scheme, ancient Egypt was packed full of stories with great potential for literature and the screen: Bible stories about pharaohs and Exodus, but particularly queenly power, such as the figure of Cleopatra incorporating the exotic, the erotic, and a certain level of allowable nudity. Other narratives had a horror element: talented architects (such as Imhotep) who end up walled up inside tombs, over-mighty kings, slaves, obsession with death and the afterlife (reserved for the powerful), mummification and reincarnation. A recurring theme is one of magic and transformation – mummies come alive, they turn into other things, scarabs and jewels of Egyptian princesses are cursed and change people or carry people across time. Cinema’s unique property is the ability to show these transformations and visualise stories of past civilisations as if they were really happening.

As ancient Egypt was discovered through its archaeological remains, so the stories we have are very focused on architecture and particularly the architecture of death, which lends itself well to film adaptation. Film’s ability to revivify scenes lost in time, both past and future, can re-people an environment that is generally speaking one of dessiccation. Ancient Egypt is the furthest great civilisation that 19th-century man could get back to in historical terms – the point where history met myth. The bleak romance of those cold sands of time – in which a man’s footprint makes an impression that is instantly obliterated by the wind – lent a gravitas to stories which could be exploited by popular culture including film echoing the pharaohs themselves, who left no linear history of their civilisation, just an endless succession of repeated histories, each king trying to destroy the past of his immediate predecessor. Only with the supreme effort of an over-mighty ruler with thousands of slaves could some permanent impression on the landscape be made.

Statue of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias: ... My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Statue of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias:
… My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

That grandeur and melancholy about Egypt that we find in Shelley’s Ozymandias lends a gravitas to films set in Egypt, as it plays on our long-term preoccupation with our origins, the rise and fall of civilisations, and the fear that everything we hold dear will one day be dust. This epic quality is probably only equalled by stories set in the distant future, in space.

The reason that ancient Egypt is endlessly recycled through film, starting from these earliest examples, is that it plays to the strengths of cinema itself; the bringing closer of the real landscape seen in travelogues and newsreel report and cinema’s greatest magic trick, rendering the familiar stories through the instantly recognisable iconography and visualising the romanticised past.


The British Film Institute (BFI) exists to promote greater understanding and appreciation of, and access to, film and moving image culture in the UK.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

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Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion

carved netsuke in the form of a sleeping ratNoriko Tsuchiya, curator, British Museum

Distant view of Mount Tsukuba, depicting a merchant wearing a dark kimono in a restaurant in Shinagawa (Tokyo).

Distant view of Mount Tsukuba, depicting a merchant wearing a dark kimono in a restaurant in Shinagawa (Tokyo). Kitao Masanobu (Santō Kyōden’s pseudonym, 1761–1816). Colour woodblock print (1931,0513,0.12)

I have been working on a new Asahi Shimbun Display Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion that introduces the visitor to accessories that made men’s fashion a talking point during the Edo period (1615-1868). Although laws of the ruling samurai class strictly dictated garment choices for townsmen in Edo (now known as Tokyo), these plain garments could be offset with decorative additions, providing that they were worn discreetly or were hidden in the folds of their robes.

As there were no pockets in kimono, Japanese men instead used to hang personal belongings from a sash (obi). Netsuke (pronounced net-ské) were essentially a toggle or stopper to prevent these dangling items (sagemono) from falling to the ground. While fundamentally utilitarian in function, Japanese crafstmen turned them into miniature masterpieces of sculpture, made of materials such as wood, ivory and porcelain, intricately carved into human figures, animals, plants or everyday objects.

Japanese pond turtle

Japanese pond turtle. The intricate detail of the animal’s features demonstrates the skill of the artist and his close observation of nature. This netsuke in high quality Japanese silver feels weighty in the wearer’s hand. By Kikugawa, late 1800s, Japan (HG.291)

Goldfish

Goldfish. This ugly, yet adorable, goldfish is known as the lion-head goldfish or ranchū, and is highly regarded in Japan. Keeping goldfish as pets became popular from the 1800s onwards. By Masanao I of Ise (1815–90), Japan. Made of boxwood, inlaid with light and dark horn eyes (F.1074)

Sleeping rat

Sleeping rat. This ivory rat was carved by Masanao, one of the greatest netsuke artists. It may have been worn by a man born in the year of the rat. This netsuke might also have served as a talisman for attracting prosperity, since rats are associated with Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. By Masanao of Kyoto, late 1700s, Japan. Made of ivory. (F.782)

Sleeping rat

Sleeping rat. By Masanao of Kyoto, late 1700s, Japan. Made of ivory. (F.782)

Because of this utilitarian purpose, netsuke were used by all classes of society. However, merchants notably used netsuke and other items to demonstrate their wealth, status and taste — with men often selecting and coordinating their outfits to fit the weather, season, occasion and their mood.

The exhibition also features a bespoke kimono, a sword, smoking implements and beautifully lacquered medicine- and seal-cases to demonstrate how Japanese men of the past dressed to impress.

Chinese couple playing a flute

Chinese couple playing a flute. This is one of the earliest netsuke in the British Museum made around 1700. The Chinese Tang emperor Xuanzong (AD 685–762) and his beautiful consort Yang Guifei (AD 719–756) sit together playing a flute. Unsigned, about 1700. Japan. Made of ivory. (1945,1017.595)

Chinese boy holding a mask for a lion dance.

Chinese boy holding a mask for a lion dance. Porcelain netsuke are less common than those made of ivory or wood. The Chinese lion (shishi) mask is used in a dance known as shishi-mai, performed at festivals throughout Japan, particularly around the New Year. Unsigned, early 1800s, Mikawachi kilns (Saga prefecture), Japan. Made of porcelain. (Franks.1462.+)

Netsuke and traditional Japanese accessories are not simply things of the past. Although such outfits and ornamentation fell out of fashion with the adaptation of Western styles of dress at the beginning of the twentieth century, kimono have recently started to make a comeback in Japan. Perhaps netsuke will be a must-have item for the fashion-conscious male not too soon into the future!

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion is in Room 3, from 19 June to 17 August 2014
Supported by The Asahi Shimbun

We will be holding a free public event on Friday 27 June, 17.00-20.00 in Room 3. Experts will be on hand to show how traditional kimono are worn. Feel free to try on some cool kimono and take a #KimonoSelfie to share with the world!

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In respect of the dead: human remains in the British Museum

relevant image alt textAlexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676)

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676)

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676). Shown with coffin lid removed.

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676). Shown with coffin lid removed.

The most frequently asked question in the British Museum is almost certainly ‘Where are the mummies?’

Understandably the collections of mummified human remains are a great source of fascination for visitors and the Egyptian galleries are always busy. The current exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries uses the latest CT-scanning technology to see within the mummy wrappings of eight individuals, providing incredibly detailed images of conditions that affected their lives and their treatment after death. It will surely be popular with visitors but these same visitors may not realise that the Museum cares for more than 6,000 human remains, which cover a much broader range of time periods and places than just ancient Egypt.

Lindow man, Mid-1st century AD, Cheshire, England, (BEP 1984,1002.1)

Lindow man, found at Lindow Moss, Cheshire, England. Iron Age, mid-1st century AD, C (BEP 1984,1002.1)

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, about 8000-7500 BC. (ME 127414)

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, Neolithic Period, about 8000-75000 BC. (ME 127414)

Some individuals are well known, such as Lindow man, the Iron Age bog-body found in Cheshire in north-west England. Others lie in storage facilities both on and off the main Bloomsbury site. They range in date from the truly ancient Jericho skull, a Neolithic skull decorated with plaster around 9,000 years ago, to more recent remains relating to individuals who died in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the remains in storage are skeletons but there are also examples of preserved soft human tissues and human remains that have been modified into new forms or incorporated into other objects. These present different challenges for museum staff in ensuring that these individuals are respectfully stored in the best conditions to ensure their continued preservation. This means any handling, study or treatment of the remains is done within the context that they were once a living human being; a person who in common with people today had thoughts, emotions and life experiences.

So why do we curate and display human remains at all? This is a controversial subject that has been debated for a long time and will continue to be discussed. There is no doubt that there have been, and will continue to be, huge benefits in having human remains available to study. The benefits of research however, must be set against the feelings of communities with strong connections to some of the human remains within museum collections. The British Museum has experienced several repatriation claims (see under related links on our Human Remains page), which are carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. Research using museum collections has been able to advance knowledge of the history of disease, epidemiology and human biology. It has also given valuable insight into different cultural approaches to death, burial and beliefs. This knowledge continues to grow as different techniques and approaches to such studies are developed and the total body of knowledge – within which comparisons can be made – expands.

Inside Room 62, Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. The Roxie Walker Gallery

Inside Room 62, Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. The Roxie Walker Gallery

Display of human remains, both physically within museum galleries and online, is an important part of sharing this information to the widest possible audience. This not only spreads knowledge but may also help to generate enthusiasm for learning about our past; hopefully for the benefit of future generations. Of course, display should be done with careful thought. There is no justification for the voyeuristic display of human remains simply as objects of morbid curiosity. As in storage, displays of human remains must acknowledge that the remains were once a living person and respect this fact. Human remains should not be displayed if they are not central to the information being conveyed and this has led to removal of some skeletal remains from British Museum galleries. Where possible, visitors should be able to avoid seeing human remains should they not wish to and the views of source communities should also be respected if they do not wish ancestral remains to be on public display.

There is no final word on such matters and no doubt the decisions made today will seem as out of step with current thinking in the future, as do decisions made by earlier generations of museum workers 50, 100 and in some cases 200 years ago. Looking after human remains in museums will therefore continue as a respectful balancing act across the boundaries of ethics, learning and access.

If you want to know more, a recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display. The book also discusses some of the research that has developed our understanding of these individuals’ past lives.

Further details about human remains at the British Museum.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, edited by Alexandra Fletcher, Daniel Antoine and JD Hill is also published by British Museum Press.

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A Viking ship on a Chinese note

banknoteHelen Wang, curator, British Museum

‘There are Viking ships on Chinese banknotes’ I said to Gareth Williams, curator of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend, thinking that I could easily research them before the exhibition. After all, these notes were issued in the 1920s by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank, one of the many foreign and joint-venture banks in China at the time. But it has turned out to be more demanding than I expected, thrown up a number of interesting questions along the way, and what follows is by no means the full story.

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18)

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18). View a larger version

The Sino-Scandinavian Bank was given its charter by the Chinese government on 21 July 1921, and began operating on 7 January 1922. It was actually a Chinese-Norwegian joint venture, with the larger part of the funding coming from Chinese sources, and a smaller part from Norwegian investors. The Bank’s first notes are dated 1922, but the majority that have survived (about 30 different types) were probably issued after 1924. The bank appears to have gone bankrupt sometime in 1926 or 1927. Most of the information we know about the Sino-Scandinavian Bank comes from Bjørn R. Rønning’s unpublished master’s thesis ‘Sino-Scandinavian Bank (1921-ca.1927) En norsk bank i Kina?’ (Hovedoppgave i historie ved Universitetet i Oslo, våren 1979). Unfortunately, my Norwegian’s not up to reading it in its entirety in the original, and for the time being I’m indebted to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg’s English summary and images on his website.

Like most of the paper money issued by foreign and joint-venture banks in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this note aims to serve both Chinese and foreign users. At first glance, the Chinese and English sides look bilingual. But a closer look reveals lots of things that don’t quite add up.

Let’s start with the name of the bank. In Chinese this reads Hua Wei yinhang 華威銀行. This translates as the Sino-Norwegian Bank (or Chinese-Norwegian Bank). The first character hua 華 (magnificent) is often used when referring to China. The second character wei 威 (power) is from the Chinese term Nuowei 挪威 (i.e. Norway). The last two characters yinhang 銀行 are the usual term for ‘bank’. It’s interesting that the Chinese and English names aren’t an exact match. I wonder who decided the two names? The Chinese name is a more accurate reflection of the nationality of the investors. On the other hand, wei is much more meaningful (and auspicious) than any of the other characters in Sikandinaweiya 斯堪的納維亞, which is a bit of a mouthful in Chinese. But in English, the Sino-Scandinavian Bank sounds better than the Sino-Norwegian Bank, even if it is more ambitious in meaning.

The images are different too: a scene of Beihai Park in Beijing on the Chinese side, and the Viking ship on the English side. Beihai Park was once an imperial garden, but opened to the public in 1925 (according to the park’s website), three years after the date printed on the notes. The Viking ship was chosen to represent Norway/Scandinavia, an iconic symbol that works very well here (much better than a polar bear, which, according to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg, was one of the motifs originally planned for these notes.

The denomination is also interesting. The Chinese side has ‘five yuan in national currency’ printed in brown below the image, and the English side simply ‘five yuan’. The five black rosettes overstamped just below the denomination obscure the letters PEKING, and the black overstamps on the images inform us that there was a change in use to ‘Yungchi currency’ (in Chinese: ‘for circulation in Yungchi’). Yungchi (pinyin: Yongqi) literally means ‘Yong 7′ and refers to an administrative region encompassing Yongping and six other counties in Hebei province in north China. The name of Changli, one of those counties, is overstamped in black above the image, but only on the Chinese side. Yungchi and ‘Yungchi currency’ are not familiar terms, and it’s interesting to see such local references on a joint-venture banknote.

As we might expect, given the different cultural traditions, the English side has personal signatures in black, and the Chinese side has red seal impressions of authority. However, while it was standard practice to put seal impressions on notes issued by Chinese banks, it was not consistently the practice to do so on notes issued by joint-venture banks.

The signatories were J.W.N. Munthe and Fartsan T. Sung, who were very well connected with the Chinese military and government. Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe (1864-1935) was Norwegian. Born in Bergen in 1864, he moved to China in 1886 and spent the rest of his life there. He worked for the customs service, and eventually became a general in the Chinese army. He participated in the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Siege of Peking (Boxer Rebellion) in 1900. He also collected Chinese art and antiquities, many of which he donated to the Vestlandske Kunstindustriemuseum in Bergen.

Fartsan T. Sung (pinyin: Song Faxiang宋發祥 (1883-?) was Chinese. Born in Fujian, he went to the USA in 1900, and studied science at Ohio Wesleyan College and Chicago. After returning to China in 1907, he held a number of important government positions before the 1920s. He was Technical Expert of the Ministry of Finance, Co-Director of the Ministry’s Assaying Office, Director of the Soochow (pinyin: Suzhou) Mine, Co-Director of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, Inspector General of Mints, Director-General of the Nanking (pinyin: Nanjing) Mint, private English secretary to President Feng Kuo-chang (pinyin: Feng Guozhang 馮國璋, 1859-1919) and political advisor to the President’s Office. He was a ‘councillor-at-large’ of the Ministry of Finance in 1920, and again from 1922-1924, during which time he was elected a Member of the Commission for the Consolidation of Domestic and Foreign Debts (1923). He co-founded the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in the spring of 1921 and became manager of its Peking office in 1924. From 1928 he was serving in Chinese consular offices overseas: in Southeast Asia between 1928 and 1937, and in Vienna between 1938 and 1940. I haven’t been able to trace him beyond this.

There are a lot of interesting things about this banknote that don’t quite add up at the moment, not least why we have the signatures of two extremely well-connected men on notes being used in a very local area. It’s curious that the Sino-Scandinavian Bank does not appear in the beautifully illustrated bilingual catalogue Currencies in Old Shanghai (老上海貨幣, Shanghai, 1998). And even more curious that the great expert on Chinese banking, Eduard Kann (1880-1962) did not include the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in his list of foreign and joint-venture banks in China. Kann started his career in a British bank in China in 1901, moved to the Russo-Asiatic Bank, the French Banque Industrielle de Chine and the Chinese-American Bank of Commerce before becoming an independent bullion-broker in Shanghai in the 1930s (the British Museum acquired his superb collection of almost 200 silver ingots in 1978), so we might expect him to have heard of it.

Perhaps there is more to this Chinese note with a Viking ship than meets the eye?

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 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
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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