British Museum blog

Introducing the African rock art image project

Roof of a painted rock shelter
Elizabeth Galvin, curator, British Museum

This is the first of a series of posts that we – the Rock Art team – will be writing over the coming 4 years. Through generous support from the Arcadia Fund, the British Museum has been able to work with the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) in Nairobi to document and disseminate 25,000 images of African rock art. We will be spending the next four years cataloguing and integrating these images into the Museum’s collection online database so people throughout the world can explore and learn more about African rock art. This week, we launch the project with the first images visible online – specifically rock art images from Egypt.

Roof of a painted rock shelter with various animals and human figures. Karkur Talh, Egypt. 2013,2034.6 © David Coulson/TARA

Roof of a painted rock shelter with various animals and human figures. Karkur Talh, Egypt. 2013,2034.6 © David Coulson/TARA

The TARA team has spent the last three decades photographing and documenting rock art from across the continent. Rock art is found throughout Africa and spans thousands of years. Mainly paintings and engravings, it is found in a wide range of places, including caves, rock faces, stelae and boulders. While mainly concentrated in North and Southern Africa, well-known sites can also be found in East, Central and West Africa. TARA has recorded over 800 sites in 19 countries across the continent.

As you can imagine, documenting and cataloguing 25,000 images from such a large area means that we will have incredibly diverse types of rock art to work with, dating from thousands of years ago to less than 100 years old. Through this project we expect to learn a lot, not just about African rock art, but how it sits in the wider context of the Museum’s collection and study of Africa.

San rock painting, Zimbabwe.  © David Coulson/ TARA

San rock painting, Zimbabwe. © David Coulson/ TARA


Engraved calabash gourd vessel made by the San People (Af1976,05.2)

Engraved calabash gourd vessel made by the San People (Af1976,05.2)

We can learn a lot about the people that made the depictions. Rock art can be seen as an extension of a group’s material culture, not just through the design aesthetic of a particular group, but also demonstrating the imagery of what is valued and important to that culture. In this case, we can see in the images above a piece of painted rock art from Zimbabwe compared to a decorated calabash gourd vessel from Southern Africa. Both of these were made by the San people, and show similar motifs.

Crocodile rock engraving, Messak, Libya. © David Coulson/TARA

Crocodile rock engraving, Messak, Libya. © David Coulson/TARA

Rock art can give insight into how places used to look thousands of years ago. The image above shows an engraving of a crocodile in the middle of the Sahara desert. We know this rock art is thousands of years old, when the Sahara was green grasslands with lakes and rivers. When this engraving was made – in the Messak in Libya – a crocodile could have been a regular resident of the area.

Painted rock art of a human figure with harp. Ennedi Region, Chad . © David Coulson/TARA

Painted rock art of a human figure with harp. Ennedi Region, Chad. © David Coulson/TARA


Arched harp from the New Kingdom, Egypt (EA 38170)

Arched harp from the New Kingdom, Egypt (EA 38170)


Bow harp with animal gut strings, Sudan (EA 38170)

Bow harp with animal gut strings, Sudan (EA 38170)

Rock art is also a way to learn more about the objects we have in the British Museum’s collection here in London. We can gain insight into how they may have been used, traded, changed and shared. This image of painted rock art from the Ennedi Region in Chad shows a human figure playing a harp. From this, we can see how it is similar to other harps we have in our collection, one from Egypt and the other from Sudan. Although they did not come from the same time period, it does give a sense of how objects and ideas have spread both geographically and through various time periods. Vast trade routes were prevalent throughout Africa, and it is quite possible that instruments, like the ones depicted here, were exchanged or shared.

Spray paint graffiti over rock art. © David Coulson/TARA

Spray paint graffiti over rock art. © David Coulson/TARA

Sadly, rock art is susceptible to destruction by both natural and manmade events. This image shows a c.7,000 year old piece of rock art destroyed by spray paint. This database allows the Museum to study the rock art as well as preserve it for future generations.

We are cataloguing the images geographically by country, starting in Northern Africa, and will be continuously adding images to the database, which feeds through to the Collection Online. Check the African rock art project page regularly for updates, featured images, and to see how we are using rock art to learn more about Africa, from ancient times through to present day.

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Celebrating Ganesha

Detail of Ganesha statue
Manisha Nene, Assistant Director, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Carved schist figure of Ganesha (1872,0701.59)

Carved schist figure of Ganesha (1872,0701.59)

Today is the Hindu festival of Ganesha Jayanti, Ganesha’s birthday. It has a special significance for the British Museum this year because we are starting to install the next Room 3, Objects in Focus display about Ganesha. It will bring together a stone sculpture of Ganesha from the British Museum collection with aspects of the contemporary worship of the elephant-headed god in Mumbai. The main annual Ganesha festival, Ganeshchaturthi, is celebrated in August-September, but now is another significant time for worshippers of Ganesha.

A contemporary statue of Ganesha for the display has already arrived from Mumbai

A contemporary statue of Ganesha for the display has already arrived from Mumbai

Different traditions celebrate Ganesha Jayanti on different days. It is usually observed in the month of Magha (January-February) on the fourth day of Shukla paksha the bright fortnight or waxing moon in the Hindu caldendar, particularly in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. The celebrations of Ganesha Jayanti in the month of Magha are simple, with devotees observing a fast. Before worship, devotees take bath of water mixed with til (sesame seeds) after smearing a paste of the same substance on their body.

Domestic shrines and temples are decorated for the occasion. Special offerings are made to the permanent Ganesha images which are worshipped daily. In some places Ganesha is symbolically worshipped in the form of a cone made of turmeric or cow dung. Food offerings of ladoos (sweet balls) made of til and jaggery (sugar) are offered with great devotion. In some households and temples small images of Ganesha are placed in cradles and worshipped.

Baby Ganesha in a cradle. © CSMVS

Baby Ganesha in a cradle. © CSMVS

The practical reason for making offerings prepared of til and jaggery or applying sesame paste to the body is that when this festival is celebrated it is mid-winter and the body requires high energy supplements. The devotees consider their beloved Ganesha as human being and offer preparations of sesame and sugar to provide energy and keep the body warm.

Unlike the Ganeshchaturthi festival which we will feature in the display, the Ganesha Jayanti festival (Magha shukla Chaturthi) is publically celebrated in a relatively small number of places, where specially-created clay images of Ganesha are worshipped and immersed in the sea or river after 11 or 21 days.

During this month the devotees go on a pilgrimage to one of the many Ganesha temples across India. In Maharashtra there are eight places which are particularly sacred to Ganesha, known as Ashtavinaykas (Ashta means eight and Vinayaka is one of the many names of Ganesha) and the pilgrimage is known as Ashtavinayaka yatra. These are at Morgaon, Theur, Lenyadri, Ozar, Ranjangaon, Siddhatek, Pali and Mahad.

From temple to home: celebrating Ganesha is on display in Room 3, Objects in Focus from 27 February to 25 May 2014.
The Asahi Shimbun Displays

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The Vikings are coming…

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery
Tom Williams, Project Curator: Vikings, British Museum

Several years ago I worked at the Tower of London. Spending long periods of time within a building of such age, I would often start to wonder about how the area would have looked before the castle was built. Every morning I would pass the remains of Roman walls at Tower Bridge station, walls that were repaired and refortified by King Alfred the Great in response to the very real threat of Viking raids from the river. Blotting out the great hulk of HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the modern office blocks that now crowd the banks, I would try to imagine the awe and the terror that a Londoner would have felt a thousand years ago, standing on the city walls, watching the carved and gilded prows of dragon ships silently gliding up the Thames. Viking fleets and armies raided and besieged the city on numerous occasions, and the river has given up dozens of weapons that might have ended up there as a result of those conflicts.

Iron axe-head found in the Thames at Hammersmith, Viking, 10th-11th century (1909,0626.8)

Iron axe-head found in the Thames at Hammersmith, Viking, 10th-11th century (1909,0626.8)

Exactly 1000 years ago, in January 1014, people living in England would have been looking to the year ahead with a great deal of uncertainty. A Danish Viking, Svein Forkbeard, sat on the English throne. He had taken it by force only a few weeks previously, having forced the submission of the English nobility and towns. He would die, suddenly, on the 3rd of February. But a fleet of Danish ships still lay menacingly off the English coast, and on board one of those ships was Svein’s son, Cnut, later to rule England as part of the greatest north sea empire the world would ever know.

This January, a Danish warship – Roskilde 6 – has returned to England and has taken up residence in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, my current place of work. Happily, the dark days of the eleventh century are behind us, and the team from the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) who accompanied the ship to London have not (so far) demanded any tribute or burned any villages. In fact, getting the ship here has been part of a long period of close collaboration between the BM and the NMD (and Berlin State Museums, where Roskilde 6 will head next on its travels).

© National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

© National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

The Danish team of conservators and technicians, led by Kristiane Straetkvern, have been responsible for the conservation and analysis of the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6 (approx. 20% survives of the original ship), and for constructing the extraordinary stainless steel frame in which the timbers are displayed. This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right. The frame has been precision engineered in dozens of individual pieces which can be loaded into a single container for shipment and reassembled under the expert handling of the NMD’s installation team. The timbers are packed flat in their own climate controlled container.

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery


The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum

The finished installation is a wonderful marriage of modern Scandinavian design and engineering with one of the greatest technological achievements of the Viking Age: at over 37 metres long, Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and would have been massive even by the standards of around AD 1025, its probable date of construction. It would have taken huge amounts of manpower and raw materials to construct the ship, resources only available to the most powerful of northern rulers. It may even have been built by Cnut himself…

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend opens at the British Museum on 6 March 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Easter Island (Rapa Nui): a new narrative

Moai staues on Rapa Nui
Jago Cooper, curator, British Museum

Small island communities represent some of the most vulnerable people on the planet to the impacts of climate variability and environmental change. This is why their voices are so powerful when heard above the clamour at international meetings designed to tackle these issues at the global scale.

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

From an archaeological perspective these island communities are particularly interesting as they have commonly been populated relatively late in the great human colonisation of our planet, often only arriving in these archipelagos in the late Holocene (past 5,000 years). Therefore archaeological studies in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific and elsewhere have revealed some fascinating narratives of how human communities have lived with the impacts of climatic variability and environmental change in these archipelagos. In particular these comparative island studies demonstrate how different decisions that people have taken have directly affected their relative vulnerability through time.

Within this context Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has often been heralded as a warning to the world, an example of a remote island community’s inability to live within their means, chopping down all the trees on the island, over-exploiting the island’s resources and self-inflicting their own demise. However, recent evidence offers a very different picture of what actually happened on Rapa Nui.

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

This new perspective to Rapa Nui’s past is the focus of a documentary that I have worked on for BBC4, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World. It uses the latest scientific and archaeological evidence to reveal a compelling new narrative, one that sees the famous Moai as only part of a complex culture that thrived in isolation. To this end, I argue that there are indeed important lessons to learn from Rapa Nui but they don’t begin by blaming its inhabitants for their own downfall.

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Easter Island, Mysteries of a Lost World is on BBC4 on Thursday 30 January at 9.00 pm. Watch clips from the programme on the BBC website.
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Was the ark round? A Babylonian description discovered

Irving Finkel, curator, British Museum
Detail of a cuneiform tablet

I’ve just come from the press conference launching my new book, The Ark Before Noah. As I told the journalists, it all started with a fairly normal event for a museum curator: a member of the public bringing in an object that had long been in their family to have it identified. As often happens in my case, it was a cuneiform tablet. The visitor, Douglas Simmonds, had been given it by his father for passing his exams. It was part of a modest collection: a few tablets, some cylinder seals, a lamp or two and some pieces from China and Egypt. His father, an inveterate curio hunter, had picked them up after the War in the late 1940s.

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

This tablet, however, turned out to be one in a million. The cuneiform was a sixty-line passage from the ancient Babylonian Story of the Flood. This story had been well known since the 1870s, when George Smith, a brilliant decipherer who worked at the British Museum, first identified the story known from the Book of Genesis in a seventh-century cuneiform tablet from Nineveh. The two accounts – Babylonian and biblical – were closely related. The new tablet, however, written in about 1750 BC, has startling new contents.

When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis’s Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn’t a problem – it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s.

Deciphering the tablet was a great adventure, but one development soon led to another: a documentary film in which the Ark is being built according to these 3700-year-old instructions (although not quite full size), and the commissioning of a book.

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Writing it led to some demanding questions: what was the origin of the Flood Story? How did it pass from Babylonian cuneiform to Biblical Hebrew? Then I discovered that a line from the new tablet was quoted on our famous Map of the World tablet, showing where the Babylonian believed that Ark had landed. I also got to address other questions I have been asking myself for years: how does cuneiform writing really work? What were the ancient Babylonians really like?

The Ark Before Noah_544

Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is available from the British Museum Shop online for £20, British Museum Members’ price £18.

The tablet is on display in Room 56 (Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC)

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Facing Enlightenment – reflecting after the event

Facing Enlightenment event
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved wrote a post in November about his then upcoming performance in the Enlightenment Gallery. Here he reflects on the event.

On 13 December, I returned to the British Museum for the next stage of my adventure with the wonderful Enlightenment Gallery. A joy of this unique room is that it is not only an exhibit concerning the histories of ideas, but a place in which to have ideas. As a musician, I well know that until I spend time in a space, I cannot predict what will emerge. Nowhere is this more the case than with ‘Room 1′.

Every time I work here, I am struck how the Enlightenment Gallery quietly shifts its visitors into a salon environment, whether they are expecting it or not! I decided to begin my salon alone. I arrived early, before opening, to sit with my violin, to play, watch and listen, to see what new ideas began to flow. At various points during the day, there were changes of pace: my harpsichordist, Julian Perkins came to hang out and play a little in the morning and it was a fantastic chance to watch him respond to the architecture, the sounds (this is, after all, a room which is about people), and the objects in close proximity. We worked on the 17th-century works by Walther and Matteis, and they began to change, in tangible and intangible ways, finding their way as the room found its way to them.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Photo courtesy Benedict Johnson

Playing in this gallery informally affords me the opportunity to watch my audience: some people will, without doubt, find it a nuisance (they don’t want a violinist in a museum), and that’s their prerogative, which I respect. I watch others relishing a ‘counterpoint’ between objects and music – they’ll often talk to me about it; there was great excitement that the violin that I was holding was older than nearly all the objects in the cases, and even more that this 16th-century violin is a tool which can be used, and can continue to offer new sounds, new ideas, today. Many younger people have never been close to classical instruments played ‘live’. For generations brought up on digital recordings, there is a shock in the physical impact, the sheer quiddity (‘thing-ness’) of an ancient violin, or the excitement of a harpsichord, which clearly, for many people, is almost as weird a sound, and an object, as a UFO.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved talking to the audience in the Enlightenment Gallery

Photo courtesy Benedict Johnson

A few hours into the day, filmmakers from The Economist appeared and talked to me about the excitement of the space, and my project. They filmed me playing Torelli, which became part of the opening sequence of a video, A world of new museums, about a new enlightenment spirit in today’s museums and museum goers.

Late in the afternoon, my string-playing colleagues arrived, and we played composer David Gorton’s new ‘transfigurations’ of Dowland, a few feet from Dr Dee’s ‘shew-stones’, with the box made for them by Horace Walpole. The trajectory of these objects – originally Aztec obsidian mirrors, re-imagined by Queen Elizabeth I’s geomancer, later treasured by the high-priest of the ‘gothick’, the coiner of the word ‘serendipity’ – epitomise the message of this room and the music we choose for it. How can we find our way to the future, through the many discoveries of the past? What tense do we choose to speak, to write in, and does it matter?

And then the chairs went in; the audience arrived. I looked out and saw, among all the new faces, filmmakers, craftspeople, writers, teachers and artists, a true salon, the essence of this marvellous room, and the kindly spirits who grace it – Merian, Hamilton, Delaney, Sloane, the whole crew – alive and inspiring us to creativity and optimism. After the concert, it dawned on me that I had played the violin, without stopping, for 7 hours. But I was not tired, but buoyed up, invigorated by the chance to practise my craft in such company.

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The British Museum’s 255th anniversary: from the archives

Architectural plans of Montagu House by architect Henry Flitcroft
Stephanie Alder, Archivist, British Museum

As the Museum announces record visitor figures for 2013, I took the opportunity to delve into the basement world of the Central Archive looking for any records relating to the public opening of the Museum 255 years ago today (15th January).

image of the The Central Archive store at the British Museum

The Central Archive store at the British Museum

The Central Archive is a rather mysterious place. When you enter through the port-holed door the first thing you notice is the chill, and the smell of old leather bound volumes. It is very exciting to think that within this strongroom sit many important records – some still untouched – providing crucial evidence of the foundation and development of the British Museum. As the Museum Archivist it is a privilege to be able to spend time surrounded by history.

architectural plans of Montagu House by architect Henry Flitcroft

Plans of Montague House by Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769)

When I initially opened a beautifully bound volume of plans of Montague House drawn by the architect Henry Flitcroft in 1725 I found it hard to believe that this was the first home of the British Museum. Until the Museum acquired the property, this grand mansion was the home of the 2nd Duke of Montagu and where many splendid social events took place during the early years of the eighteenth century. Flitcroft was careful to show every detail, even the slate roof tiles are drawn individually. Both formal and kitchen gardens are shown, as is the orchard to the west where Bedford Square now lies.

When you arrive at the Museum today and walk through the gates looking up at the colonnade in front of you, you would be excused for thinking that the Museum had always looked like this. Yet, on 15 January 1765 visitors would have walked down Great Russell Street and entered through a doorway opening leading to a brick paved courtyard. Once inside the Museum, the printed books were arranged on the ground floor, and manuscripts, natural history and ‘modern curiosities’ on the first. However, it isn’t just the architecture of the building that has dramatically changed over years – but how members of public gained access to the collections.

handwritten minutes of the British Museum Trustees

Minutes of the Trustees’ General Minutes from 7 April 1759, p. 255

When reading through the early minutes of the Trustees’ General Meetings, I came across a great number of discussions relating to public admission. The Trustees eventually decided that visits should be free, but by ticket only, applied for in advance and conducted around the collection in small groups by the staff, the first of whom were appointed in 1756. In a document titled ‘Regulations for Admission to a Sight of the British Museum’ it states that ‘five companies of not more than fifteen persons each, may be admitted in the Course of the Day, viz. One at each of the hours of Ten, Eleven, Twelve, One and Two. At each of those Hours, the directing Officer in waiting shall examine the Entries in the Book, and if none of the Persons inscribed be found exceptionable, he shall deliver to each of them a Ticket for immediate admission’. This rough figure of 75 visitors per day is a far cry from the visitor numbers recorded today.

The original proposed ticket for admission to view the Museum’s collections, located in the Trustees Original Papers of 1757

The original proposed ticket for admission to view the Museum’s collections, located in the Trustees Original Papers of 1757

It was expected that visitors to the Museum ‘be decent and orderly in their Appearance and Behaviour’, and the officers on duty were instructed to refuse admission anyone who disregarded this rule. The regulations went on to explain that ‘past experience has proven the necessity of this injunction’. In addition to this no children ‘apparently under ten years of age’ were permitted entry – both quite different to the Museum today when you can wear what you like and enjoy the collections from any age. By the 1830s, the Museum was operating an open admissions policy. Visitors to the Museum’s world collection have grown enormously since it first opened its doors to the public with in excess of 6.5 million welcomed today.

Read more about the Museum’s 255th anniversary

The Central Archive of the British Museum contains the administrative records of the Museum dating back to its foundation. For more information on the collection and how to make an appointment, please contact the Archivist at centralarchive@britishmuseum.org.

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A loan from Berlin: a lion from Babylon

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914
Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

As the weather turns colder and the days shorter the Museum has been loaned a reminder of warmer, sunnier climes, which is helping to beat the mid-winter chill. The Department of the Middle East is preparing to display a panel of glazed bricks that has been generously loaned to us by the Vorderasiatisches Museum, part of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin group.

Complete reconstructed panel from Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room on display at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Pacing lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king. © Vorderasiatisches Museum - SMB, photograph by Olaf M. Teßmer

Complete reconstructed panel from Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room on display at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Pacing lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king.
© Vorderasiatisches Museum – SMB, photograph by Olaf M. Teßmer

The panel shows a pacing, roaring lion and once was part of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s throne room in his palace in the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq. Nebuchadnezzar II reigned from 605-562 BC, and supposedly had the hanging gardens of Babylon built for his queen. Although there is little evidence to confirm his passion for gardening, it is certain that Nebuchadnezzar commissioned other major building projects in Babylon, to glorify the capital of his empire. Inscriptions stamped on bricks reveal the extent of these works. In the city of Babylon, glazed bricks in bright shades of blue, yellow and white were used to create public monuments that emphasised the power of the king and the gods. In Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room the roaring lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king, whose empire stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and from the Caucasus to northern Arabia.

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914
© Vorderasiatisches Museum – SMB

Finds excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914 came to Berlin packed in crates. Staff spent years painstakingly joining fragments of glazed brick together to recreate Nebuchadnezzar’s Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, in Berlin. The panel loaned to the British Museum has been similarly pieced together from bricks the Vorderasiatisches Museum has in store and so is being seen complete for the very first time in London.

The lion panel being installed in Room 55

The lion panel being installed in Room 55

The panel will be displayed in Room 55 (Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC) from 20 December 2013

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Sir William Hamilton and the wreck of the HMS Colossus

Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BCIan Jenkins, curator, British Museum

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), if remembered at all, is primarily known as the person who shared his second wife Emma with Admiral Lord Nelson in the late eighteenth century. Their ménage a trois was a notorious target for British satirists of the time. It ended with the death of Sir William in 1803, and two years later in 1805 the tragic death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Jasper ware portrait plaque of Sir William Hamilton, by Josiah Wedgwood I and Thomas Bentley, Etruria factory, Staffordshire, England, AD 1779

Jasper ware portrait plaque of Sir William Hamilton, by Josiah Wedgwood I and Thomas Bentley, Etruria factory, Staffordshire, England, AD 1779

Hamilton is celebrated in the British Museum for his collection of Greek and Roman artefacts, which acquired by the Museum in 1772, changed its course from its origins as a rather old-fashioned cabinet of curiosities to starting it on the way to becoming the great collection of world cultures it is today. The founding collection of Sir Hans Sloane had very few ancient objects of merit, but Sir William’s vision for the Museum would change that and for this reason he has his own showcase in the Enlightenment Gallery.

The story of the wreck of the HMS Colossus and the loss of its cargo occurred in the dramatic last years of Sir William’s life. He had been British Ambassador to the court of the king of Naples and Sicily for 34 years. However, when Napoleon’s army occupied Rome in 1796, Sir William was forced to evacuate Naples and return home with Emma to Britain.

One of his last acts was to oversee the packing of his vase collection. But back in England, Sir William not only had to suffer the wrench of his sudden departure from his beloved Italy, but also had the appalling news that his vase collection was lost at sea. It had been packed in an unfit vessel, which grounded off the Scilly Isles where it broke up, and the packing cases washed overboard.

Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BC

Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BC

But fortune smiled on the old knight as by accident his finest vases were not on the HMS Colossus. When another vessel arrived laden with Sir William’s property, he discovered the collection he thought he’d lost, and he delighted in preparing them for sale.

Sir William died in 1803 with Emma and Nelson at his bedside.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure

Charles Masson and the relic deposit of Tope Kelan

Coins from the relic deposit of Tope Kelan on display
Mahesh A. Kalra, University of Mumbai and International Training Programme curator, British Museum

During my placement in the Department of Coins and Medals as part of the International Training Programme (ITP), I was given the choice of selecting a coin hoard from the Indian subcontinent for display in the Citi Money Gallery. My initial thoughts focused on the Pudukottai hoard, a unique set of Roman gold coins found in South India. However, a chance conversation with Elizabeth Errington about Charles Masson, an enigmatic nineteenth-century British explorer, turned my attention to his discovery of a hoard of coins from the Buddhist relic deposit of Tope Kelan (also known as Hadda Stupa 10) in modern Afghanistan. I began to research Charles Masson by studying From Persepolis to the Punjab: Exploring the Past in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan written by Elizabeth with Vesta Curtis.

The Masson story is a nineteenth-century saga full of adventure, intrigue and fascinating discoveries. Born James Lewis, Masson deserted the East India Company’s Bengal Army in 1827 to assume a pseudonym of a supposed American from Kentucky, exploring Afghanistan and beyond. In Persia he met British officers who persuaded him to sell his account of the lands through which he had travelled to the East India Company. The British Resident in Tehran, Sir John Campbell, gave him 500 rupees to start exploring the ancient remains of Afghanistan. This was followed up in 1833 by funds from the East India Company to explore and excavate any sites on their behalf, on the understanding that any finds became the property of the Company. However, by 1835, his true identity had come to light, but since his knowledge of local Afghan conditions made him an invaluable asset to the East India Company, he was granted a pardon for desertion (a capital offence) in return for his services in Kabul as a ‘News Writer’, the official term for a spy in the employ of the Honourable East India Company.

Map by Charles Masson showing the position of Tope Kelan (Hadda Stupa 10)

Map by Charles Masson showing the position of Tope Kelan (Hadda Stupa 10) © The British Library

Masson’s excavations in the region of Kabul and Jalalabad included a series of Buddhist ‘Topes’, i.e. stupas (sacred domed structures symbolizing the Buddha). Tope Kelan (Stupa 10) on the outskirts of Hadda, a village south of Jalalabad in south-eastern Afghanistan, was excavated by Charles Masson in 1834. The relic deposit contained more than 200 coins buried along with a variety of over 100 objects including silver rings, gilded bronze, silver and gold reliquaries, glass and semi-precious beads and brass pins including a unique cockerel-headed example. These were buried as part of a Buddhist ritual aimed at earning merit in the afterlife.

Sketch of Tope Kelan by Charles Masson

Sketch of Tope Kelan by Charles Masson © The British Library

Masson returned to England in 1840 disgusted at his treatment by the East India Company, treatment which included wrongful imprisonment on the trumped-up charge of being involved in the revolt against the British in Kalat at the beginning of the First Anglo-Afghan war in 1839. The Tope Kelan coins were sent, together with all Masson’s other finds, to the Company’s India Museum in London. In 1878, when this Museum closed, 100 of the coins were transferred to the British Museum as part of the India Office Collection (IOC). Only those illustrated by Masson in H.H. Wilson’s Ariana Antiqua, can be positively identified. Others were sold at auction in 1887 to Sir Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, and entered the Museum as part of his collection in 1894.

Coins from the relic deposit at Tope Kelan on display in the Citi Money Gallery

Coins from the relic deposit at Tope Kelan on display in the Citi Money Gallery

The Tope Kelan deposit contains five series of coins, Byzantine gold solidi, Sasanian silver coins, Alchon Hun silver coins, Kidarite Hun gold and silver coins, and a gold coin from Kashmir, all minted before AD 480. The hoard is important evidence of the Silk Route trade network that crisscrossed Europe, Central Asia to China and India in the first millennium AD. The Tope Kelan hoard is thus a testimony to the multiculturalism of ancient Afghanistan with its links to the Indian sub-continent, Iran and China.

Mahesh working on the display in the Citi Money Gallery

Mahesh working on the display

A selection of coins and objects excavated by Charles Masson from Tope Kelan are now on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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