British Museum blog

The mystery of the Fetter Lane hoard

Amelia Dowler, Curator of Greek and Roman Provincial Coins, British Museum

In 1908 workmen excavating foundations for a house in Fetter Lane (City of London) found 46 coins in a pot. The Rev’d FD Ringrose purchased the hoard and published an account in 1911 but focussed on describing the coins rather than the circumstances of the find. By the time the coins were bequeathed to the British Museum in 1914, there was no trace of the pot and no description of it either. There is no full account of exactly how the hoard was found and whilst Roman hoards are often uncovered in Britain (for example the Didcot, Hoxne and Beau Street hoards), the Fetter Lane hoard remains something of a mystery.

Map London 1900

Extract from Pocket Atlas and Guide to London 1900 showing the British Museum and Fetter Lane (bottom right)

The Fetter Lane coins were all minted in Alexandria, in Egypt, between AD 58 and AD 284. At this period in the Roman Empire, official coins were produced at centrally controlled mints for use across the empire. However, many other mints also produced civic coins, usually in copper alloys, to be used in the local area. Coins had first been minted in Alexandria under the Ptolemaic dynasty (c.312–30 BC), which continued after Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC. Unlike in most other provinces, Alexandria was a centrally controlled mint and the coins were initially made of debased silver before declining into a mainly copper alloy coinage. They circulated locally in the eastern Mediterranean and did not form part of the official Roman denomination system.

The earliest dated coin in the hoard (Year 5: 58/59 AD), depicting Nero. British Museum 1914,0403.2

The earliest dated coin in the hoard (Year 5: 58/59 AD), depicting Nero. British Museum 1914,0403.2

Coins used in the Roman province of Britannia were from official Roman mints and we know this both from coin finds and from references to coins at the time, such as at Vindolanda. Why then would these Alexandrian coins be brought to Britain where they formed no part of the currency system?

Over the past 200 years or so when unusual coins like these have been found in Britain they have often been dismissed as modern imports, perhaps brought back to the country as souvenirs from the Grand Tour, or by soldiers returning from service. There is a long history of these finds being dismissed, particularly by coin experts in museums and universities. I am compiling a catalogue of this material to look into this question further: are coins from the Mediterranean world (and sometimes further afield) modern losses or did they arrive in Iron Age or Roman times? These are coins – minted between the 5th century BC up to the end of the 3rd century AD – which would not have been part of a currency system in Britain.

The latest dated coin in the hoard (Year 2: 283/4 AD), depicting Carinus. British Museum 1914,0403.46

The latest dated coin in the hoard (Year 2: 283/4 AD), depicting Carinus. British Museum 1914,0403.46

This is a particularly relevant question today when the Portable Antiquities Scheme is regularly listing coins with similar origins to the database. The steadily increasing number of ‘foreign’ coins means that it is important to readdress this question rather than dismissing it out of hand. There are examples both of coins being found in known contexts, such as in the Sacred Spring in Bath, and also where we know that coins were modern imports, such as the Alexandrian coins found on the wreck of the HMS Pomone. For the majority of coins however we have no clear information about their findspots.

Where does this leave the Fetter Lane hoard? The fact that the coins were found together is also unusual: when ‘foreign’ coins like these are found they are usually single finds or are a rare foreign inclusion in a group of imperial Roman coins. The coins look in similar condition so it is quite likely that they were a group for some time despite the date range of the coins from AD 58 (during the reign of Nero) to AD 284 (during the reign of Carinus). It is unfortunate that the pot they were found in has been lost, as that might have supplied more information about what period they were deposited. There are a few plausible options to consider.

The coins could have been brought back as a souvenir group from Egypt by a Grand Tourist or by someone, perhaps a soldier, transiting through the Suez Canal. Souvenirs of this sort were fairly common and would have been reasonably cheap to buy locally in Egypt. After this they may have been put into a pot as a foundation deposit for a house in Fetter Lane at some point in the 1800s and were then found in 1908 during further works.

The coins could have been collected together in antiquity and deposited together during the Roman occupation of London (Londinium) after AD 50. From the dates of the coins themselves, this would have to have been after AD 284 when Londinium was a thriving Roman city. But why would this have happened? It is possible that these coins were collected together by a traveller or trader coming to London at this period. We know that the population of Londinium contained many foreigners who arrived during this time so the city was quite well connected to the rest of the Roman world. Perhaps these were kept as a memento of home or travels, or deposited for safe-keeping or as an offering for a safe journey to London.

Another intriguing proposition is that during the 3rd century AD there was a monetary crisis across the Roman Empire and at the turn of the century Roman coinage was reformed. At this point, local coinages ceased, leaving only the official Roman imperial mints producing coins. In Alexandria minting ceased in AD 297, shortly before the official reforms. It is possible that the coins were gathered together and brought westwards to fill gaps in the available currency, officially or unofficially. Or simply that when these coins became defunct they were gathered together to be used as a source of metal or kept by people thinking that one day they could use them again. However, there is no contemporary, corroborating evidence for these proposals other than the fact that there was a monetary crisis and a coinage reform.

Without any further context for the Fetter Lane hoard it is, for the moment at least, likely to remain an intriguing puzzle. By collecting together further evidence across the country, I hope to build up a picture of what kinds of coins arrived in ancient times and which arrived more recently.

Image of the Fetter Lane hoard at the British Museum. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

Image of the Fetter Lane hoard at the British Museum. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

The Fetter Lane hoard is currently on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Citi Money Gallery is supported by Citi.

Further reading:

FD Ringrose (1911) ‘Finds of Alexandrian Coins in London’ The Numismatic Chronicle (4th series) vol. 11, pp. 357–8

Filed under: British Museum, coins and medals, Collection, Money Gallery, Research, , , , , , ,

The Blackfoot at the British Museum

John Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum

With the generous assistance of art brokers C S Redlick, the British Museum has recently been able to acquire the painting Event II by the Siksika Blackfoot artist Adrian A Stimson. The Blackfoot are a Native American tribe whose home is on the plains of historic Saskatchewan, now Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada, and Montana in the United States. They have a long history of subsistence on the land, and Stimson – also known by the pseudonym ‘Buffalo Boy’ – produces artworks which engage with conceptions of what it means to be Native in the modern world.

Event II, Adrian Stimson, 2015, 121.9 x 61 cm. British Museum 2015,2023.1

Event II, by Adrian Stimson, 2015, 121.9 x 61 cm. British Museum 2015,2023.1

Event II depicts two American bison, commonly known as buffalo, a mother and calf, playing in deep snow. The cow rolls in the snow as the calf leaps excitedly beside her. In the background the featureless while plains stretch for miles underneath a wide expanse of sky studded with dark clouds. It is a timeless natural scene, broken by one small feature: in the far distance, on the horizon, a tiny nodding-donkey pumpjack beats away, draining oil from far below.

The painting is part of a series of artworks Stimson has produced which illustrate the effects of mineral exploitation on traditional Native landscapes, each depicting buffalo on snowy plains against a backdrop of pipelines and factories. Mineral extraction has become a major issue for the Blackfoot in recent years, as mining companies have increasingly sought to gain access to mineral deposits on historic tribal lands. Although there is substantial wealth to be made, the potential damage to the environment and upheaval in the traditional way of life are significant concerns, reflected in these paintings in which the buffalo stand for the Blackfoot peoples.

The British Museum is particularly pleased to be able to purchase this artwork as the Museum already contains important historical collections from the Blackfoot peoples, most notably the Deane-Freeman collection. At the turn of the twentieth century Maude Deane-Freeman, wife of ration distributer Frederick, lived among the Kainai Blackfoot, on what was then known as the Blood Reservation of Alberta. At this time, the Kainai were under pressure from the Canadian government to abandon traditional religious and social beliefs. Many people, faced with the threat of starvation, disposed of the regalia used in Blackfoot ceremonial life. Rather than see this beautiful material destroyed by the reservation agents, Maude purchased it from its original owners, building a substantial collection. She wrote that:

They are giving up the old life and customs, and trying to earn their living by toil like the white man, consequently the things that belong to their old life and religion are getting very scarce. As the old people die their belongings are buried with them and the younger generation seem to have lost their desire of making them, particularly as every obstacle is put in the way of their holding their religious dances.

Ceremonial Kainai tomahawk from the Deane-Freeman collection, c.1900, 93 x 37 cm. British Museum Am1903,-.82

Ceremonial Kainai tomahawk from the Deane-Freeman collection, c. 1900, 93 x 37 cm. British Museum Am1903,-.82

When Maude’s collection was discovered by her husband’s superiors, Frederick was summarily dismissed from his post and the couple moved to Toronto, where Frederick died soon afterwards. There, Maude’s collection was recognised by Governor-General of Canada Lord Minto as of great importance, and he arranged for it to be purchased by the government in 1903, dividing the collection between Victoria College in Toronto and the British Museum. A century later, the collection was reunited for an exhibition at Lethbridge, close to the Kainai Reservation, where the visitor interpretation and labels were provided by the families whose ancestors had once owned the material. This information continues to inform the presentation of the collection in the Native North American gallery at the British Museum.

Adrian Stimson’s provocative painting joins a growing body of modern Native American artwork which can be exhibited alongside and in direct dialogue with the existing historic collections of Native American artefacts at the British Museum, illustrating both the continuity of tradition and the modern environmental, political and social concerns of America’s First Peoples.

Filed under: British Museum, Collection, , , ,

Spicy stories: the case of a clove boat model

Charlotte Dixon, Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student, British Museum and University of Southampton

 Model boat made from threaded cloves before conservation, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm. British Museum As1972,Q.1944

Model boat made from threaded cloves before conservation, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm. British Museum As1972,Q.1944

Since closure of the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange, the exhibited objects, including a model boat made from hundreds of dried cloves, have been returned to storage. However, out of sight does not mean out of mind…

The world of clove models is a mysterious one: little is known about these exciting, unique and strongly scented objects. This leaves us with questions such as what are they, where did they come from, when and why? Very little was known about the British Museum’s clove boat model before it was displayed, including its origins. Research was thus carried out to start to piece together information, but many questions are still unanswered. Intrigued by these objects research continues and you are invited to be a part of it!

Through this blog I will highlight what we currently know about these models before moving on to explore what we are yet to learn and, importantly, how you can help.

Clove boat model on display at the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange curated by Dr Sarah Longair, open from November 2014 to May 2015. (Photo: David Agar, British Museum)

Clove boat model on display at the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange curated by Dr Sarah Longair, open from November 2014 to May 2015.

What were they for?

It can be suggested clove models would have been made as souvenirs. Research has shown it was not just model boats that were made from cloves but other items such as a horse and cart, baskets, and even a tea cup were produced in the Molucca Islands in Indonesia.

So what do we know about the British Museum model?

This model can be identified as a kora kora, an Indonesian boat used for trade and warfare, and is thought to broadly date between the 18th and 20th centuries. Further evidence for the origins of the model can be seen in the materials used, as cloves are native to the Moluccas in Indonesia, also known as the Spice Islands.

Using examples of other models in museums, such as Kew Gardens and the Ashmolean in the UK, Tropenmuseum in Holland and the Kunstkamera in Russia for example, we can start to build up a broader picture of the art of clove model making. However, there are still many unanswered questions such as when did this practice start, how many were made, who were they for and how many exist today?

Image of Indonesian boats, including a kora kora being paddled in the centre from Edmond Paris Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens, 1845.

Image of Indonesian boats, including a kora kora being paddled in the centre. From Edmond Paris, Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens, 1845.

Benefits of social media

Despite these unanswered questions, a blog post by Verena Kotonski, Conservator for Organic Artefacts, invited readers to help determine the positioning of clove figures on the model which sparked international interest. The responses have been very insightful and revealed clove boat models in private collections in the UK and Australia, confirmed one of the models had been collected as a souvenir and encouraged the only known collector of clove boat models, Loed van Bussel, to get in touch and share images of his fleet with us. In addition, a current website shows some clove models are still being made today on Ambon Island in the Moluccas.

The British Museum clove boat model was clearly not a one off specimen; there are various models of boats, as well as other objects, in existence in museums and private collections internationally. However, these evidences are still few and far between.

Torsos of drummers positioned on the roof of the model after conservation. This image was used in Verena’s blog post inviting reader’s to share information. (Photo: Verena Kotonski, British Museum)

Torsos of drummers positioned on the roof of the model after conservation. This image was used in Verena’s blog post inviting reader’s to share information. (Photo: Verena Kotonski, British Museum)

Can you help?

Do you own a clove boat model or know someone who does? If so, do you know anything about the model and how it came to be in your possession? Or perhaps you have seen such models in a museum that has not been mentioned or in a shop window or auction house. If you have any information about clove boat models please do get in touch by emailing or With your help we can start to understand how many models like this really are out there which may, in turn, help us understand this particular form of craft and trade.

Further research: a world of model boats

Whilst I am fascinated by clove boat models my research as a doctoral student is not wholly concerned with these objects. I am instead using a whole range of model boats from the Indian Ocean, from East Africa through to Western Australia, to see what we can learn from them in terms of boat building, maritime cultures and collecting. Working collaboratively with the British Museum and University of Southampton I get the opportunity to go behind the scenes and explore museum collections and have been fortunate enough to see many weird, wonderful and intricately crafted boat models. Through my research I hope to promote the use of boat models for research and display, including those made from cloves.

Researching other model boats in the stores at the British Museum. (Photo: Imogen Laing, British Museum)

Researching other model boats in the stores at the British Museum. (Photo: Imogen Laing, British Museum)

My thanks go to Dr Sarah Longair, curator of Connecting continents, and Verena Kotonski for their continued help and enthusiasm during and after the exhibition. Thank you also to Imogen Laing, Museum Assistant in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, for access to the model and to my supervisors Dr JD Hill, Dr Lucy Blue and Dr Helen Farr for their continued support.

Charlotte’s research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Research, , ,

House of memories: an app and the material culture of money

Ben Alsop, Project Curator, Coins and Medals collection, British Museum

Objects which trigger memories can be peculiar things. Often it is not the finest, most visually arresting things that spark a particular memory. For me it is a pipe – the kind that has a small bowl and shiny black plastic stem. Whenever I see a pipe like this I immediately think of my grandpa who used to love to dedicate his time to cleaning, refilling and smoking the brown tangled tobacco he used to squash down into the end of it. To be honest most of the time it wasn’t even lit, just an object which he could chew in contemplation, or use to point at something else on the opposite side of the room. When he died I remember the family meeting in the flat where he had lived with my Grandma. When I walked in the pipe was on its own on the side table by the telephone. I sometimes wonder what happened to it.

The British Museum is, in part, renowned for objects that are often viewed as the pinnacle of human artistic expression. These objects are made using the finest materials, for or at the behest of the most influential and powerful in society. And yet the Museum is also full of objects that don’t speak of privilege and wealth. They speak of the lives of ordinary people, what they may have worn, what they believed, what they ate and drank from and most interestingly for me, what they used to pay for things.

A few months ago my colleague Mieka Harris (The Citi Money Gallery Education Manager) and I worked on a project with National Museums Liverpool where we were asked to suggest objects from the Coins and Medals collection at the British Museum which could be used in an app. The app was to be produced as part of the House of Memories project which aims to support the carers of people living with dementia. The app, now in its third incarnation, includes objects from National Museums Liverpool, The Cinema Museum in Elephant and Castle, Brighton Pavilion and Museums, Bexley Museum and Heritage Trust and the British Museum.

Our brief was to suggest objects that would have been used in ordinary life. The Coins and Medals collection is perfect for this. The material culture of money not only touches almost everyone in society but can also be very evocative. This fact, when combined with the great variety of objects in the collection, made the decision-making process rather tricky.

Collection of Co-operative tokens

Co-operative plastic tokens selected for the House of Memories app. British Museum

As an example, one group of objects we suggested were co-operative plastic tokens which people used to leave out to pay for deliveries instead of coins. These small, brightly-coloured plastic discs would be the stuff of everyday life and pass through people’s hands on a daily basis. Other objects included a leaflet from Camden council explaining how to pay the poll tax, a three-pence coin (threepenny bit), a ten-shilling note (ten bob), a collection of cardboard toy-money and a National Savings money box. In total we suggested twenty objects, all with associated images and sounds to give context and encourage discussion between carers and those living with dementia.

Cardboard toy-money. British Museum

Cardboard toy-money included in the House of Memories app. British Museum

National Savings money box selected for the House of Memories app. British Museum

National Savings money box selected for the House of Memories app. British Museum

The user can explore the app thematically or simply browse the objects, saving those which they have an affinity with to a memory tree, memory box or timeline. These objects can then be saved to a personal profile so they can be looked at and chatted about again at any time. It was a really fantastic project to be involved with and demonstrates the power of museum collections to act as a catalyst to memories and conversation.

The House of Memories app is now available to download for free from the iTunes store or Google play.

The British Museum’s involvement in this project has been supported by Citi through the Citi Money Gallery.

Filed under: coins and medals, Collection, Money Gallery, , , , , ,

Letting off steam: communicating through music, cloth and song in eastern Africa

Chris Spring, Curator, African collection, British Museum

When I began to prepare for the Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre, I realised at once that zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia (which were aimed at calming the restless spirits within those possessed and at which lyres of the type featured in the show would have been played), represent one among several different ways for women to communicate a range of ideas and concerns which cannot be spoken out loud in daily society. My fieldwork in eastern Africa over the past 15 years has taught me that kanga cloth and taarab music are two other means of communicating widely used by women in the region.

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Printed cotton manga, with inscription which reads 'You know nothing'. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm. British Museum Af2002,09.4.

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads ‘You know nothing’. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm. British Museum Af2002,09.4.

The very first kanga I acquired for the British Museum on Zanzibar back in 2002 (pictured above) was not printed in Africa at all but in India and it looked more like a Damien Hirst spot painting than anything else. On it was printed the Swahili slogan HUJUI KITU ‘YOU KNOW NOTHING’, and that marked the beginning of a steep learning curve for me. ‘Who would wear such a thing?’, I asked my Tanzanian friend George Ngungulu. ‘Oh, maybe an older woman as a way of putting down her younger rivals’ he replied, ‘“You young people think you know everything, but HUJUI KITU – you know nothing!!” In other words, it’s a way of letting off steam without having to open your mouth or indulge in anything physical’, he explained.

That kanga, together with many other textiles from eastern and southern Africa, is currently in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter as part of the Social Fabric: African Textiles exhibition which I originally curated at the British Museum and which is now one of its ‘Museum in Britain’ touring exhibitions.

The unspoken language of the kanga provides a way of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties which inevitably arise, very much in the way women benefit from zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, though in zār women are permitted – even expected – to let off steam by behaving in outrageous ways which are definitely taboo in wider society. In common with zār, kangas regularly move between the realms of the secular and the sacred. They play a central role in all the major life-cycle ceremonies in a Swahili woman’s life, and yet may be used for the most mundane of functions. It is this ambivalence that makes kanga cloth almost emblematic of multi-faceted Swahili society.

While working in Tanzania and Kenya I also learned that there are interesting parallels between the development of kanga and of the style of musical performance known as taarab, which accompanies important occasions in coastal eastern Africa and on Zanzibar in particular – though the classical style of taarab originated in Egypt. I remember a wonderful performance by a taarab orchestra, fronted by a female singer, in a revered music club in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Listening to the singer, and watching women offering her money, I realised that there is a distinct similarity between the messages contained in kanga inscriptions and the sentiments expressed by the female taarab singers at the request of the women in the audience: both are vehicles which allow Swahili women to become involved in everyday personal or local disputes and rivalry by voicing opinions which cannot be overtly stated. So successful were both kanga and taarab in this role that legislation had to be brought in to regulate the vehemence with which they were being used in Tanzania!

Working with Emma Liwewa, vice-principal of the Bagamoyo College of Arts on the Tanzanian mainland, I learned how kangas are also worn in different styles to suit particular occasions or moods. One style known as ushungi is used when walking along the beach with one kanga wrapped tightly around the head; at home this headdress is removed and is draped loosely around the shoulders. When going to the market the style is known as kilemba, a name which derives from the turbans traditionally worn by Arab men, and refers to the way in which women wear the first kanga wound around their heads. You can see a video of the film I shot in the African galleries at the British Museum.

HAMWISHI KUNIZULIA HICHO NI CHENU KILEMA – ‘Your problem is that you can’t stop backbiting’, says the inscription on another wedding kanga. With a traditional design in black, red and white, the kanga would have been worn by the bride and all her friends and relations, and would be aimed at anyone who might be angry or jealous of the marriage. The inscription on another kanga from Tanzania (pictured below) reads MWEMBE TAYARI – ‘the mangos are ready’, an invitation from wife to husband to help himself!

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads 'the mangos are ready'. Tanzania, 2003. 106 x 166 cm. British Museum Af2003,21.4.

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads ‘the mangos are ready’. Tanzania, 2003. 106 x 166 cm. British Museum Af2003,21.4.

Preparing to travel up country from the main bus station in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania and indeed in eastern Africa, I noticed on the backs of buses and daladalas (minibuses) an interesting male response to the female-orientated battleground of kanga. The rear panels of the vehicles, particularly long-distance buses, were decorated with a variety of colourful images, while the bumpers carried inscriptions such as UKIWAONA KAMA WATU: ‘they look like reasonable people but they’re not’, NI HAYO TU: ‘that’s all we have’, or TUTABANANA HAPA HAPA: ‘we’re staying put’ – all three referring, according to my friend George back in 2003, to the government’s attempts to evict groups of migrant workers. These panels and their inscriptions are not only visually similar to the designs of kanga cloth, but they also fulfil one of the primary functions of kanga, of taarab music and of zār ceremonies in delivering messages and allowing behaviour which might otherwise be hard to articulate or perform.

As always, Africa provides food for thought on the way we go about things in the West.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on display in Room 3, at the British Museum from 18 June until 16 August 2015.

Chris Spring’s book African Textiles Today is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Collection, , , ,

Exploring an Ice Age Island

Beccy Scott, Calleva Project Post Doctoral Researcher, British Museum

As London swelters, I am spending the summer in the Ice Age: it is the final year of Ice Age Island, a three-year excavation project with Jersey Heritage, looking at how hunter-gatherers lived in the landscapes of the English Channel region over the past 240,000 years – from the early Neanderthals, to the last Mesolithic hunter-fishers. During this time, people adapted to massive changes in climate and environment, often within their lifetimes. The project brings together specialists from the British Museum and five UK universities to look at these changes, and how humans responded to them: Matt Pope, Martin Bates, Chantal Conneller, Andrew Shaw, and Ed Blinkhorn.

Over the past half million years, the geography of the English Channel has changed enormously, with massive swings in climate from warm interglacial (like today) to cold, glacial periods – ‘ice ages’. During these cold periods, much of the Earth’s oceans were locked up in expanded polar regions and glaciers. Land that is now the sea floor was exposed: the sea itself was channelled into huge, fast-flowing extensions of the major rivers of Europe, dissecting this now-drowned, offshore landscape. The North Sea landscapes of Doggerland have been known to archaeologists for more than 80 years; animal and human bones, and stone tools, have been dredged from the North Sea in fishermen’s nets. Even Neanderthal fossils and handaxes have been recovered from the seabed, which was once land.

The Channel River Valley 180,000 years ago during a period of cold and low sea level. (Image: Beccy Shaw)

The Channel River Valley 180,000 years ago during a period of cold and low sea level. (Image: Beccy Shaw)

The landscapes of the English Channel are more elusive. Chalk downland once connected Britain and Northern France, but 450,000 years ago, one of the coldest ever glacial periods caused ice to expand as far south as London. A huge lake formed to the east, which eventually overflowed and catastrophically eroded the chalk landbridge, forming a totally new landscape. A massive, new river then flowed through the Straits of Dover, into which drained many of the major rivers of northern Europe: the Thames, Rhine and Scheldt. This was the Channel River Valley: an Ice Age superhighway, linking western and eastern Europe, forming a corridor along which humans and migrating animals – mammoth, woolly rhino and reindeer – would have travelled.

An aerial view of Jersey, facing east, taken by Ice Age Island project imaging specialist Sarah Duffy on a low (spring) tide which exposed much of the rocky, offshore landscape. The early Neanderthal site of La Cotte de St Brelade is the cave cut into the cliffs on the left of the picture. (Photo: Sarah Duffy)

An aerial view of Jersey, facing east, taken by Ice Age Island project imaging specialist Sarah Duffy on a low (spring) tide which exposed much of the rocky, offshore landscape. The early Neanderthal site of La Cotte de St Brelade is the cave cut into the cliffs on the left of the picture. (Photo: Sarah Duffy)

The Channel Island of Jersey is a special place for understanding how humans used these now-submerged landscapes: in effect, this terrestrial island is one of the last remnants of this drowned landscape. Particular places around the island – coastal fissures, caves and inland valleys – preserve sediments that protect traces left behind by people, as well as evidence of how their environment kept changing. For the past three years, the Ice Age Island project has been reinterpreting these places, through new excavations and the analysis of old excavated collections, as well as offshore surveys.

The geology of Jersey is one of the things that makes it so special: the island is made up of volcanic and metamorphic rocks, but the people who came here preferred to use flint to make their tools. Because flint does not naturally occur in the bedrock of Jersey, almost all the tools that we find have been carried here by people. We can compare the techniques that different human groups used to make their tools, as well as where they discarded them, to look at how different human groups moved around these landscapes. For instance, around 14,500 years ago, modern human hunter-gatherers camped at the head of a dry valley looking out into the offshore landscape, just outside what is modern St Helier. Here, at Les Varines, a buried cliffline would have provided shelter, making this somewhere that people came to again and again, carrying a lightweight flint toolkit. Later on, as sea levels rose around 9,000 years ago, Mesolithic hunter-fishers camped up on the north coast of Jersey: we have been excavating campsites on promontories along the coast, at Canal du Squez, Les Marionneux and Le Col de La Rocque.

The jewel in Jersey’s Ice Age crown is the Neanderthal site of La Cotte de St Brelade, and it’s this site that first drew me to Jersey: I’ve worked at the British Museum as an early Neanderthal specialist for the last five years, on the AHOB and Pathways to Ancient Britain projects. La Cotte is the key north-west European site for archaeologists who study this period. I’d been fascinated by La Cotte since I was an undergraduate, but had never felt I’d got to grips with what Neanderthals were actually doing there. It was a chance conversation in a pub with one of the five co-directors, Matt Pope, that galvanised us to start work in Jersey: we both felt that this was a site with much, much more to tell us.

La Cotte de St Brelade is a spectacular T-shaped fissure cut into the cliffs on the south-west corner of Jersey which has been accumulating sediments for at least 240,000 years. Neanderthals began using this site at around this time until 40,000 years ago, and it produced Britain’s latest Neanderthal fossils. Around a quarter of a million stone tools have been excavated from the site since the turn of the 19th century. Not only can we look at these to see what people were doing within the site itself, but also how they travelled through the drowned landscapes of the Channel River Valley, by looking at the tools that they brought with them.

Bathymetric survey of the seabed surrounding La Cotte de St Brelade, up to 5 km offshore. The immediate landscape is broken up into valleys and cut-offs – La Cotte itself provides a commanding view over this landscape. (Image: Richard Bates)

Bathymetric survey of the seabed surrounding La Cotte de St Brelade, up to 5 km offshore. The immediate landscape is broken up into valleys and cut-offs – La Cotte itself provides a commanding view over this landscape. (Image: Richard Bates)

Large-scale excavations at La Cotte de St Brelade, led by Professor Charles McBurney in the 1960s–70s, exposed two spectacular heaps of mammoth bone within the fissure: the original excavators interpreted these as resulting from mammoth being driven off the headland and butchered in the fissure below. However, we have some doubts about how the topography of the headland could have functioned as game drive, and when marine geophysicist Richard Bates undertook an offshore survey of the site, we gained a very different perspective on how La Cotte functioned within its local landscape: it overlooks a complicated grid pattern of reefs and valleys, made up of widened joints in the granite – exactly the sort of broken landscape that Neanderthals liked to use for ambush hunting. You can read more about our work at the site here. We are now considering the long term, repeated re-use of this place – and what Neanderthals were doing here – as part of the ‘Crossing the Threshold’ project, led by Professor Clive Gamble, a trustee of the British Museum. What’s so exciting about this site and the landscapes of Jersey is the way that it captures the changing rhythms of Neanderthal movement through this entire region. La Cotte, and Jersey itself, has always been a waymarker and a destination: its spectacular archaeological resources continue to make it so today.

Read more about our work at and

Follow project members on Twitter #IceAgeIsland

Filed under: Archaeology, British Museum, Europe, Research, , , , ,

Virtual reality: how the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre created a virtual Bronze Age roundhouse

Lizzie Edwards and Juno Rae co-manage the learning programme for the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, British Museum

It’s the Monday after the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre’s (SDDC) virtual reality weekend and we’re reflecting on the process of developing a virtual reality experience, which puts 3D scans of two British Museum objects from our Bronze Age collection, and one from an item of Treasure that we hope to acquire, into the context of a virtual Bronze Age roundhouse. It’s been a really exciting project to work on, and lots of people have contributed – so we want to share the process behind making it happen.

Samsung virtual reality weekend event, 8 August 2015, British Museum. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

Samsung virtual reality weekend event, 8 August 2015, British Museum. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

The SDDC at the British Museum was created in 2009 in partnership with Samsung to provide a state-of-the-art technological hub for children and young people to learn about and interact with the Museum’s collection through school and family sessions. The Museum’s work with Samsung ensures that it remains at the forefront of digital learning, and when Samsung launched its Gear VR headsets we were eager to explore how virtual reality technologies could be used to engage a new generation with British Museum objects. When you put on a Samsung Gear VR headset you feel like you are in a virtual world. When you look up with the headset on, within the virtual world you also look up. You can also ‘walk’ forward and backwards, using a touch pad on the side of the headset. It is a mesmerising experience.

To explore the potential of virtual reality we decided to develop a bespoke experience of a Bronze Age roundhouse, which could be included across the SDDC’s programme for families and schools. We identified the Bronze Age for our virtual reality experience, because it presented a number of opportunities. Firstly, the Museum already has 3D scans available of some of our Bronze Age collection, and finds reported as Treasure, created by the MicroPasts project. MicroPasts is a groundbreaking project that creates open data sources of scanned objects, and crowd sources ‘photo-masking’ to create 3D versions of them. Second, prehistory is a statutory requirement as part of the National Curriculum for primary schools, but we know that teachers sometimes find this subject difficult to teach. The difficultly experienced by teachers is mirrored by families too. We spoke with Dr Neil Wilkin, Curator of the Bronze Age Collection at the Museum, and together defined the potential values of virtual environments for exploring this period with our schools and families audience.

Interior of virtual reality Bronze Age roundhouse. (© Soluis Group Limited)

Interior of virtual reality Bronze Age roundhouse. (© Soluis Group Limited)

Virtual environments present an opportunity to address misconceptions about prehistory head on, and this period is particularly difficult to grasp for our younger visitors. For example, a virtual Bronze Age experience allows you to convey in a visual way that at this time people had developed complex settlement practices, that they advanced technologies for their purposes, like developing methods to manufacture bronze, and that they had talented craftspeople who created beautiful jewellery. Virtual environments also allow you to present the mysteries and multiple interpretations of objects in a visual way. Questions around the function, purpose and possible ritual practices associated with Bronze Age objects can be presented to the visitor in context, close up and in 3D. Across our SDDC learning programme we try to convey that interpretations of objects are never fixed – they develop and change as new research is undertaken. We often show that multiple interpretations and varied significances for one object can exist at the same time, but 3D virtual environments make conveying this much easier.

To create our virtual reality roundhouse, we recruited Soluis Group Limited, who are experts in creating virtual environments. We chose three fascinating objects from those that had been scanned in the MicroPasts project to be interpreted in our virtual Bronze Age roundhouse – the Woolaston gold bracelet, a Sussex loop bracelet and a large dirk (a short dagger). The three objects are linked by the mystery that they share – there is no certain interpretation of how each was used, or if it had ritual significance.

Developing the experience was a collaborative process. The Museum worked closely with the virtual reality developers to ensure that the Bronze Age roundhouse depicted in our virtual reality experience was based on the latest curatorial research in this area. For this process, two students, Lydia Woolway and Emily Glynn-Farrell, assisted Neil in compiling a research document about Bronze Age settlements and roundhouses. This document included the fact that many roundhouses across Britain have been found with doorways facing in the same direction, seemingly in line with the sun’s path through the sky. Archaeologist Mike Parker-Pearson in particular has suggested that light and dark, and the alignment of roundhouses, had ritual significance to Bronze Age Britons. We were keen to incorporate this into our virtual reality roundhouse. The experience also contains audio content, which Neil recorded in the SDDC – turning it into a sound recording studio for an afternoon and using our green screen as a backdrop to get the best sound quality possible. We were delighted with the experience that was created, and the virtual reality weekend was testament to its success.

Dr Neil Wilkin recording audio for the virtual reality experience. (Photo: Lizzie Edwards)

Dr Neil Wilkin recording audio for the virtual reality experience. (Photo: Lizzie Edwards)

Today, we’re looking at visitor feedback from the event and considering how we can integrate their comments into our digital learning programme. But having been in the Great Court all weekend, talking to visitors and seeing their excitement at engaging with this experience, we’re delighted with what we’ve created, and how much our visitors have enjoyed it!

Thanks are due to everyone who has been involved in this project, and our amazing team of SDDC facilitators and volunteers who helped out over the weekend.

The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre is sponsored by Samsung

Filed under: British Museum, Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, ,

Instruments of community: lyres, harps and society in ancient north-east Africa

Jorge de Torres, Project Cataloguer, African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Until 16 August, lovers of African music and history (and all visitors eager to learn a bit about them) have another reason to visit the British Museum.  The Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 presents a wonderful 19th-century lyre from Nubia (northern Sudan), with strong spiritual associations. This type of lyre, known as kissar in the Islamic world, was used at important occasions such as weddings, but also in special ceremonies of a series of cults known generically as Zār, common in the area of Egypt, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa. These ceremonies were intended to heal spiritual possession (thought to be behind some medical conditions, such as epilepsy), the music being a key tool to placate and expel the evil spirits. 

Although the Zār cults seem to have appeared in Ethiopia during the 18th century and spread to other areas of Africa and perhaps the Middle East, the stringed instruments used in these ceremonies have a much older origin. Harps and lyres have been present in Africa for thousands of years, affirmed by their depictions in many Ancient Egyptian reliefs, paintings and papyri dating from as far back as the Old Kingdom (about 2686–2181 BC). Harps have been found and depicted in Egyptian tombs, such as those to be seen in Room 61 at the British Museum. These harps are usually known as bow or arched harps due to their shape, having a vaulted body of wood and a neck perpendicular to the resonant face on which the strings are wound.

 Harp. New Kingdom (mid 2nd millennium BC), Thebes, Egypt. British Museum 1888,0512.48

Harp. New Kingdom (mid 2nd millennium BC), Thebes, Egypt. L. 38 cm. British Museum 1888,0512.48

Harp. New Kingdom (mid-2nd millennium BC), Tomb of Ani, Thebes, Egypt. British Museum 1891,0404.162

Harp. New Kingdom (mid-2nd millennium BC), Tomb of Ani, Thebes, Egypt. L. 97.2 cm. British Museum 1891,0404.162


Harp, Sudan, possibly 19th century. H. 51 cm. British Museum Af1979,01.5963

The use of bow and arched harps seems to have been transmitted from Egypt to West and East Africa, where slightly different versions can be found from Mauritania to Uganda. Sizes vary but range from small harps that can be held against the body to bigger models that need to be placed on the ground. The shape, however, is almost always the same, and very similar to the Egyptian models made 4,500 years ago. The expansion and distribution of these harps can be traced in a perhaps unexpected way – through their depiction in rock art.

Musician playing the harp for a seated woman. Elikeo, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6861 (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Musician playing the harp for a seated woman. Elikeo, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6861 (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Although not very common, scenes of dancing and figures playing instruments exist in northern African rock art, and while cataloguing the collection of images from Chad as part of the African rock art image project, I came across several depictions of harps almost identical to those known through ethnographic collections and archaeological excavations. The paintings very accurately depict bow harps, either in isolation or being played by a musician. In some cases, the figures seem to be playing for other people in scenes surrounded by huts, cattle, women and children. In all cases, the neck of the harp is held near to the body of the musician.

So far, five examples of these painted harps have been found, all of them in the western side of the Ennedi Plateau in Chad, a sandstone massif near the border with Sudan, carved by erosion in a series of superimposed terraces, alternating plains and ragged cliffs crossed by seasonal rivers (wadis). The numerous cliffs and gorges of the Ennedi house images of many local styles, sometimes contemporary, sometimes corresponding to successive periods. These images and styles reveal an enormous richness of techniques, themes and artistic conventions, with some of the most original depictions in Saharan rock art. The harps are a very good example of this creativity, as they all appear concentrated in a relatively small area while they seem to be absent in the rest of the Sahara desert.

Scene with people and cattle near a hut, with a musician playing the harp to the top right. Gaora Hallagana, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6762. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Scene with people and cattle near a hut, with a musician playing the harp to the top right. Gaora Hallagana, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6762. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

 Harp musician playing near a milking scene. Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6483. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Harp musician playing near a milking scene. Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6483. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

It is difficult to know the contexts in which these instruments were played. Some of the paintings present the musicians in rather prosaic scenes (either near the houses or a person milking a cow, for example), but examples like the lyre displayed in Room 3 or those found in Egypt exemplify their use in complex rituals or ceremonies. It is most probable that the same object could have very different uses depending on the context, the audience or the music played. While in Western societies music is commonly associated with leisure or culture, and considered something to be enjoyed, in many cultures music is an integral part of daily life, used to keep and transmit knowledge, to summon protection, to remember ancestors or to regulate social and economic activities. The powerful presence of the Sudanese lyre displayed in Room 3 recalls the idea of music as a powerful tool in north-eastern African societies throughout history, used to heal and to build social narratives which explain and address the spiritual world.

Further reading

Rafael Perez Arroyo (2001): Egypt: Music in the age of pyramids, Madrid, Editorial Centro de Estudios Egipcios

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on in Room 3 at the British Museum until 16 August 2015. The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.

For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website:

Through summer 2015 the British Museum is Celebrating Africa.  Explore and debate a variety of African cultural issues through a series of events and displays.

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

The Sudanese lyre: an object with many voices

By David Francis, Interpretation Officer

Of all the objects I’ve worked with in my eight years as an interpretation officer at the British Museum, the Sudanese lyre is perhaps the most intriguing. Made in northern Sudan, probably in the late19th century, it would have been played by a male musician at weddings and harvest festivals as part of a small band. It may also have been used in zār ceremonies – healing rituals involving spirit possession that are still practised in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia today.

Just as fascinating as the actual instrument are the coins, beads, shells and, as yet, unidentified objects that are attached to the lyre. In a sense, the Sudanese lyre is both a single object and an assemblage of many objects each with their own story to tell. In this blog I talk with some of the curators at the British Museum and the Royal Armouries in Leeds to identify what these objects are, and speculate on why they may have been attached to the lyre.

Sudanese lyre, probably late 19th century. British Museum

Sudanese lyre, probably late 19th century. British Museum

Detail showing the objects attached to the lyre which include coins, beads, shells and some (as yet) unidentified objects.

Detail showing the objects attached to the lyre which include coins, beads, shells and some (as yet) unidentified objects.

Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum

DF: Chris why do we think the lyre player attached these objects to this instrument?

CS: They may have been given to the musician as gifts, or payment for his services. Many of the objects attached to the lyre are currency. Obviously we have the Turkish and British coins, but bead work in Africa was also used as a means of exchange. Millefiori beads – meaning ‘thousand flowers’ in Italian – were first mass produced in Venice and then the rest of Europe for this purpose. Cowrie shells were also cultivated on vast rafts in the Maldives and came to Sudan to be used as currency through Indian Ocean trade.

DF: The objects come from a wide range of places then, what’s the significance of this?

CS: For centuries Sudan has been a hub for the movement of people, goods and ideas. Port Sudan, in particular, is an important link in the Indian Ocean trade network, as well as being located on the pilgrim route to Mecca. For much of the 19th century, Sudan was also under imperial rule. From 1821 to 1885, Sudan was controlled by Ottoman Egypt and then with the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, Britain had an increasing interest in the region. The objects attached to the lyre reflect this history of trade and imperial ambition.

Two millefiori beads attached to the lyre.

Two millefiori beads attached to the lyre.

Ottoman coins

Vesta Curtis, Curator of Middle Eastern coins, British Museum

DF: The vast majority of coins attached to the lyre are from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. I’ve counted over one hundred hanging from the frame. Can you tell me what’s written on them?

VC: The coins are indeed Ottoman and were minted in in Egypt and Constantinople or, as it’s known now, Istanbul. They each have the names of the Sultans minted on them in the form of their tughra – a kind of imperial monogram. The inscription also contains the date indicating the start of their respective reigns. So we have the coins of Sultan Abdul Aziz with the date 1861 (AH 1277) and the coins of Sultan Abdul Hamid II with the date 1876 (AH 1293).

DF: Sudan was under Turkish-Egyptian rule at the time, yes?

VC: It was. It had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire since 1821. However, these were the last two Ottoman rulers of Sudan. In 1885 the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, fell to the forces of Muhammad Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi or ‘guided one’. This effectively ended Turkish-Egyptian rule in Sudan.

DF: The so-called Mahdi minted coins I believe, are there any attached to the lyre?

VC: We’ve found no coins attached to the lyre dating from his reign, or from the Anglo-Egyptian period which followed.

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Misr, AD 1861 (AH 1277)

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Misr, AD 1861 (AH 1277).

Lyre coin 7 (i)_JPG

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II, Misr, AD 1876 (AH 1293).

British coins

Tom Hockenhull, Curator of modern money, British Museum

DF: There are a couple of British coins attached to the lyre, can you tell me about them?

TH: The first one is a British halfpenny, dating to 1861. On one side you can see the image of Queen Victoria (r. 1837‒1901) with her distinctive ‘bun’ hairstyle. This was the new portrait of the queen, which had only been introduced onto coinage in the previous year. The second coin is more unusual. On one side is the British East India Company crest as well as an inscription reading ‘Island of Sumatra’, and the date 1804.

British halfpenny, 1861.

British halfpenny, 1861.

Trade token with British East India Company crest, probably 1830s.

Trade token with British East India Company crest, probably 1830s.

DF: Okay, so it’s a lot earlier than all the other coins attached to the lyre?

TH: The date is likely to be false. Although the coin has got a British East India Company crest, it is unlikely to have actually been issued by the British East India Company.

DF: So it’s a forgery?

TH: It’s not really a forgery as there was no original to forge. It was probably made by a company in Birmingham to meet a demand for trading tokens around Singapore. Stamford Raffles had established the city in 1819 as a trading outlet and merchants in the region would have needed a currency to use for trade. This token fulfilled that function.

DF: Could you hazard a guess at the date for this coin?

TH: I’d say at least 1830s, perhaps later.

The mystery object

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, Royal Armouries

DF: One of the objects – a small metal mechanism – is yet to be identified. There’s been a lot of speculation on social media that it could be the firing mechanism for a firearm. Is this a possibility?

JF: I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it isn’t! I can understand why people might think this was a firearm mechanism; there is a superficial resemblance to a percussion hammer, and maybe, if you squint, a trigger! However, neither are shaped or positioned on the mechanism like a real hammer or trigger, to actually enable the operator to use them for their intended purposes of cocking and firing the gun.

The mystery object.

The mystery object.

DF: What particular features mean that this object couldn’t be used as a firing mechanism?

JF: A real flintlock or percussion gun lock is far simpler than this. The short ribbed cylinder could theoretically be some sort of barrel, but is far too short to be functional. On the outside you have either a hollow pan for priming powder or a simple nipple to which you’d fit a cap, as on a cap gun.

This device has a round hollow feature that could conceivably function as a pan for priming powder, but no other features of a flintlock mechanism – and no nipple that you could fit a percussion cap to. Finally, the mechanism is totally the wrong shape for a gun lock.

DF: Could it perhaps be a toy or imitation gun?

JF: Cap guns had been invented as early as the 1870s and were usually made of cast metal rather than the forged iron typical of real firearms, so I did wonder if this might be a toy. Unfortunately, if anything, cap guns were even simpler than the real thing, and this object has lots of extra bells and whistles that again, would serve no function on a gun – real or otherwise.

The charms and the zār ceremony

Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum

DF: As well reflecting the various networks of trade and empire in 19th-century Sudan, there’s also a possibility that the objects attached to the lyre might have been used in the zār ceremony itself?

CS: Yes, many of the objects attached to the lyre, such as the prayer beads and Islamic amulets, have a religious function. The coins, beads and shells may have also have been attached to the lyre as charms to attract particular spirits. Zār spirits are believed to be invisible – in Sudan they’re referred to as ‘the red wind’. But they also take on specific human forms that have a special significance in Sudanese history. You get zār spirits that are Turkish officials, Ethiopian Christian priests, British engineers and enslaved Africans from the south to name but a few. These objects might have been attached to the lyre to appeal to these spirits.

DF: Can you tell me a little bit more about the zār ceremony itself?

CS: The zār ceremony is a healing ceremony closely associated with Islamic mysticism. Although it’s currently illegal in Sudan, it still occurs throughout the region today. Within the zār belief system, it’s thought that certain people, particularly married women, can become possessed by spirits. These spirits cause the possessed mental and physical discomfort, which conventional medicine can’t cure. Zār ceremonies are held to appease and in some sense celebrate these spirits. During a specific type of zār ceremony known as a zār tambura, lyres like this one are played to calm restless spirits and also put the patient into a rhythmic trance.

DF: Is the spirit exorcised during the ceremony?

CS: No, once a patient has been possessed the spirit will remain with them for the rest of their life. The ceremony is instead a means of allowing the sufferer to learn to cope with the spirit that has possessed them. During the trance phase of the ceremony the spirit manifests itself, becoming embodied in the movement and dance of the patient. The female leader of the ceremonies, known as a shayka, tries to identify the spirit and find out what it wants. She might give the patient clothing, or incense, or even alcohol if it was a Christian spirit, in order to appease it. The objects attached to the lyre come from many regions and could potentially appeal to a wide variety of spirits. They therefore might play a part in this process of spirit appeasement.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 16 August 2015.

Filed under: Collection, , , , , ,

Magna Carta, Bloomsbury and the British Museum

Lloyd de Beer, Curator of Late Medieval Europe, British Museum

Last month we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. It is not often that people collectively stop to remember the creation and sealing of a document from the early 13th century, but this one (or four to be precise) is special, and its specialness has grown exponentially since its creation. It is a document which quickly became a symbol, enduring as a touchstone and inspiring many throughout its history. You can sometimes find it lurking in surprising places.

Each morning on my walk to work I pass through Bloomsbury Square, and most days I think about the people who have lived in and around the area. Usually, and with no specific focus, I let my eyes and mind drift across the buildings to the east and the west, but one morning on this walk I noticed properly for the first time a bronze sculpture at the north end of the square. I wondered why this figure faced away from the small park, staring down Bedford Street, so I moved in closer to inspect.

Reverse of the sculpture, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Lloyd DeBeer)

Reverse of the sculpture, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Lloyd de Beer)

Before looking at his face I could tell from behind that this individual was dressed in a very grand style, seated on an ornate double columned throne with a large cushion. As I moved around him it was clear that he was presented as a Roman, clad in imperial garb, a single foot outstretched and teetering on the end of the stone base. It was only when I looked closer at the large rolled up scroll, held at an angle towards the viewer on the ground, between his hand and knee, that I saw something familiar. Dangling in mid-air was the great seal of King John (r. 1199–1216). This man holds a copy of Magna Carta. But why?

Charles James Fox, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Bob Speel)

Charles James Fox, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Bob Speel)

The bronze figure was made in 1810 and shows Charles James Fox, post mortem, who was previously the leader of the Whig party. It was commissioned through subscription by his friends and sculpted by Sir Richard Westmacott, famous at the British Museum for making The Progress of Civilisation, the pediment sculptures situated above the main entrance under which several million people pass annually. In 1809, a year before beginning the Fox sculpture, Westmacott had finished and erected at the opposite end of Bedford Street, a sculpture of Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, long standing friend and political ally of Charles James Fox. Two politicians, two friends, cast in bronze and linked eye to eye for eternity.

Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, Russell Square. (Photo: Lloyd DeBeer)

Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, Russell Square. (Photo: Lloyd de Beer)

What I found interesting as I learnt more about this sculpture was how Magna Carta was invoked symbolically through the authentic use of the king’s seal. In some ways this sculpture is an early form of the Gothic Revival rolled up in the presentation of a classical ideal. A document can only tell us so much, but when connected to the enthroned image of the king, hey presto, the figure is transformed and holds in his hand a copy of Magna Carta. He is therefore by proxy invested with the authority of the people. This was not a paltry copy of the seal but an exacting replica of the object both in size and style, which the sculptor must surely have studied with his own eyes. In this instance the medieval image of the king, the classical style of the sculpture and the modern man all sit side by side, collectively telling us about the personality of the individual.

Wenceslas Hollar print of the seal of King John. British Museum 1856,0712.791

Wenceslas Hollar print of the seal of King John, c. 1677 AD, 307 x 194 mm. British Museum 1856,0712.791

Close up of the seal of King John from the Fox sculpture. (Photo: Lloyd DeBeer)

Close up of the seal of King John from the Fox sculpture. (Photo: Lloyd de Beer)

More recently when wandering through the Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art exhibition I came across a small Greek bronze of Zeus which looked so similar to the statue of Charles James Fox that the likeness struck me immediately. The Zeus figure was acquired by the Museum in 1865, long after the completion of the Fox sculpture and I have since learned that Westmacott surely based his design for the body of Fox on classical sculptures of seated philosophers such as Epicurus. However Westmacott had a long standing relationship with the British Museum, going as far back as 1805 with debates on how to show the Townley collection.

Bronze figure of Zeus. British Museum 1865,0103.36

Bronze figure of Zeus, 1st–2nd century AD, height 236 mm. British Museum 1865,0103.36  

There is also an early record for one of his visits in the Museum archives, dated 18th February 1820. Given his involvement and taste for the classical it is impossible that he was not inspired by the collections of the British Museum, even if there was not an exact source of inspiration for the Fox sculpture. But where did Westmacott see the medieval seal?

Archival register with Richard Westmacott record at the very bottom.

Archival register with Richard Westmacott record at the very bottom.

Seal matrices, impressions, casts and facsimiles were part of a long-standing antiquarian interest in the past. Seals were attached to documents and documents were interesting so therefore antiquarians became interested in seals. Testament to this is the fact that some of the earliest medieval acquisitions at the British Museum were seal matrices. Amongst them is the seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter, one of the barons who rebelled against King John and was crucial to the formation of Magna Carta.

Seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter. British Museum 1841,0624.1

Seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter, 1213–1219 AD, diam. 73.5 mm. British Museum 1841,0624.1

Before the library officially separated from the Museum in 1973 to become the British Library, the Bloomsbury site which Westmacott visited held the many thousands of seal impressions now housed at St Pancras, including those of King John. It is tantalising to think that Westmacott, who spent a great deal of time thinking about the importance of classical sculpture, might also have spent just a little bit of time at the British Museum connecting it to a medieval past and a modern future.

Filed under: Collection, Research, , , , ,

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