British Museum blog

Looted, recovered, returned: new research on the Begram ivories

St J Simpson, curator, British Museum

A seated figure in mid-conversation

A seated figure in mid-conversation. © National Museum of Afghanistan

A major new book, illustrated in full colour, has just been published on a group of these famous objects which had been stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan during the 1990s but were recovered, then conserved and exhibited at the British Museum in 2011 before being returned to Kabul in 2012.

Lions and elephant carved in openwork

Lions and elephant carved in openwork. © National Museum of Afghanistan

Carved from bone as well as ivory, but popularly known as the ‘Begram ivories’, they were one of the many memorable highlights of the British Museum’s 2011 exhibition Afghanistan: crossroads of the ancient world. Over a thousand of these exquisite Indian miniature carvings, originally attached to wooden pieces of furniture, long since decomposed, were recovered by French archaeologists excavating the ancient site of Begram in 1937 and 1939. The main pieces were published but the collection was divided almost equally between the National Museum in Kabul and the Musée Guimet, the French national museum of Asian art in Paris. During the 1990s, disaster struck the Kabul collection during the civil war and hundreds were stolen from their galleries and storerooms, and remain scattered in many different collections around the world.

Composite bone plaque showing a bird

Composite bone plaque showing a bird

In 2010 a private philanthropist very generously stepped in and acquired this particular collection on behalf of the National Museum in Kabul. They were in a poor state and required a huge amount of conservation. This work was done within a very short space of time at the British Museum with the support of Bank of America Merrill Lynch through their global Art Conservation Project. The bank also sponsored the Afghanistan exhibition.

A digitally re-coloured version of a plaque covered with different pigments

A digitally re-coloured version of a plaque covered with different pigments. © National Museum of Afghanistan

This was also a golden opportunity to conduct scientific analyses on these pieces in order to understand how they were made, and the nature of previous conservation treatments. This work therefore involved a number of scientists, conservators and curators, who collaborated closely on this new publication. The results reveal important new evidence for the extent of ancient pigments on some of these beautiful objects, including black (lamp black), red (hematite and vermilion), blue (indigo) and possibly other colours using organic pigments. This is the first time any of the ivory and bone furniture ornaments from Begram have been scientifically analysed and the results show the huge potential in this approach.

Composite bone plaque showing a bird

Composite bone plaque showing a bird. © National Museum of Afghanistan

A mythical beast

A mythical beast. © National Museum of Afghanistan

The book also includes many previously unpublished photographs of these objects when they were exhibited in Kabul during the 1960s and 1970s. They show how, in some cases, private photographs taken of museum displays offer useful evidence for the appearance of objects in the event of disaster.

begram book cover_544

J Ambers, C R Cartwright, C Higgitt, D Hook, E Passmore, St J Simpson, G Verri, C Ward and B. Wills, Looted, Recovered, Returned: Antiquities from Afghanistan is published by Archaeopress and available both in printed and e-versions. The publication was supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, , , , , ,

Ming culinary culture: it’s all very beautiful, but what did they eat?

Malcolm McNeill, project researcher and doctoral candidate, SOAS, University of London

In the book accompanying the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, curator Jessica Harrison-Hall’s chapter ‘Courts: palaces, people and objects’ vividly evokes the sumptuous banquets of the Ming elite. A Timurid embassy’s account of a feast held in a meadow on 20 August 1420 treats us to an enticing description of geese, roast fowl, and dried and fresh fruits, all artfully arranged to impress these Central Asian dignitaries. The alfresco fine dining experience was accompanied by courtly pageantry. Beautiful cross-dressed male performers danced for the envoys, while entertainers in papier-mâché animal masks moved like wild beasts. These same Central Asians tell us that the Yongle emperor (reigned 1403–1422), the warrior, dined on a multitude of meats in a single sitting and had a penchant for yellow wine made from grain or rice (huang jiu). This combination of theatrical and culinary delights paints a revealing portrait of early Ming courtly fine dining. The plethora of porcelain and gold vessels in the exhibition show just how lavish the tables of early Ming imperial and princely courts would have been.

Gold ladle and chopsticks, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei, at Zhongxiang, Hubei Province. © Hubei Provincial Museum

Gold ladle and chopsticks, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei, at Zhongxiang, Hubei Province. © Hubei Provincial Museum.

We even have two sets of chopsticks, inscribed with the date they were made, their weight, and the name of the imperial workshop in which they were produced, excavated from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang and his wife Lady Wei. Looking at these in the exhibition, I imagined the delicacies these golden chopsticks might have lifted from plate to palate. This left my mouth watering, but also set my mind wondering. How were these delicacies made? What did they smell and taste like? And what would ordinary people, without the wealth of an emperor, have had for dinner?

While researching objects for the Hands On desk outside the exhibition entrance, I found answers to some of these questions. The desk doesn’t just let you touch the wonders of the early Ming, you can smell them too. If you go, do ask for the small box of tea grown at the site of the Ming imperial tea plantations, the Wuyi Mountains in China’s southern Fujian province. These loose leaves of high-grade oolong tea tell a story that can be traced back to the first Ming emperor Hongwu (reigned 1368–1398), the founder. He had a profound impact on the way tea was brewed in 15th-century China. Hailing from lowly stock, he was frequently exasperated by the aristocratic excesses of his courtiers and ministers. This frustration led to an edict issued over the preparation of tea, which forbade brews made from laboriously manufactured bricks of tea powder in favour of infusing tea from dried leaves. While the brick tea popular in the courts of the preceding Song and Yuan dynasties is still drunk in Japan, Hongwu’s loose leaf tea is the brew of choice across China today. Something to bear in mind next time you pop the kettle on for a quick cuppa…

With my mind turned to food and drink, I recently revisited the exhibition in search of more clues about smells and tastes. Looking at the books on display in the section devoted to the arts of peace, my eyes lighted on a collection of bean recipes. These are found in an incredible compendium that aspired to contain all knowledge within the empire, the ‘Great Canon of the Yongle Reign’ (Yongle da dian). Rather than an original piece of writing filled with definitions and explanations, the Yongle da dian was a reference text that pieced together pre-existing knowledge. It was more like a library than an encyclopaedia. The three volumes on show in the exhibition illustrate its breadth of subject matter. On the right you see a selection of feng shui diagrams, on the left a guide to funeral etiquette, and wedged between them is a list of recipes for the humble bean. Reading the text I was staggered by the number of uses for simple pulses: there are recipes for salted beans with minced pork and lamb, beans in oil, beans with salted bamboo shoots, beans from the ‘barbarian’ tribes to the south, and beans of foreign states.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Xie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

For all the detail in this great compendium, and for all the glamour of golden tableware, it was in the corner of one painting that I found the fullest expression of Ming gastronomy. At the far left of the handscroll ‘Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden’, is a scene of elite opulence with servants preparing wine for their master’s guests. We can only imagine the taste and smell. I want to end by sharing with you a translation of a recipe for honey wine from Liu Ji’s (1311–1375) ‘Many Methods for Humble Tasks’. We don’t know exactly what kind of wine was being heated in the Apricot Garden, but Liu Ji’s recipes were in circulation in Ming China when Xie Huan’s painting was made. The painting captures a single moment, but the recipe narrates every stage of a similar process: from the skimming of the bubbling mixture with a chicken feather to the pounding of a pungent paste for fermentation, ending with adjustments of timings to match the rhythms of the seasons in fermenting this sweet, honey wine. I hope that seeing the painting and recipe together gives you a flavour of Ming China.
 

Method for making honey wine
Slowly heat two jin of honey in one dou of water, scraping off what bubbles up with a chicken feather. Continue heating until nothing more bubbles up. Grind cinnamon, pepper, ginger and red bean, and combine these parts together. Place no more than eight qian of this mixture in the vessel, then add no more than four liang of plain flour, and finally add the honey water. Use oiled paper to seal the honey container under seven layers of bamboo. In winter leave it to mature for 27 days, 10 in autumn and spring, and 7 in summer.

 

The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

The exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

To learn more about Ming culinary culture, come to award-winning cook and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s talk Tastes of Ming China on Friday 14 November.

If you prefer something you can literally sink your teeth into, have a look at the special Ming menu in the Museum’s Great Court Restaurant.

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , ,

The long march to Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain city

Family business. © Roger LawRoger Law, artist and satirist

It was a long march from London’s East End to China’s Jingdezhen. The first step was closing the factory gates on the satirical puppet workshop Spitting Image. Moving to Australia, it turned out, was the next great stride. No one can live in Australia for long without becoming very aware of the influence of China, both culturally and economically. As fast as the Australians miners can dig raw materials out of the ground they are shipped to China. And the cultural exchanges between the two countries follow thick and fast. Australia is China’s favoured concubine.

Ah Xian, a Chinese contemporary artist now an Australian citizen, introduced me to Jingdezhen, China’s Porcelain City. First through his work exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in 2001, and then when he was kind enough to meet up with me in Jingdezhen.

Family business. © Roger Law

Family business. © Roger Law

I was surprised to discover that most of the workshops in Jingdezhen are highly specialised, family businesses – skilful pottery sweatshops, not unlike my Spitting Image puppet factory. Porcelain City was as busy making things as the UK in the 1950s, I felt oddly at home in this strange culture.

I travel extensively in Australia drawing surreal and exotic creatures found in the wetlands and seas around that sunburnt country – everything from Weedy Sea Dragons to Cheer-leader Crabs. I was looking for a way to use this Aussie bestiary.

Finding a way to work collaboratively with artisans in Jingdezhen is problematic. I began working in Porcelain City when failure was affordable. And fail I did. My failures gave me a better understanding of the properties of porcelain and carving seemed to be the way to use my Australian drawings.

Dancing cheerleader crabs charger, by Roger Law. Photo by John Lawrence Jones

Dancing cheerleader crabs charger, by Roger Law. Photo by John Lawrence Jones

Finding craftsmen to work with me was also difficult. ‘Why should I learn to do something I shall never need to do again?’ was one very good answer I received. Finally a young carver, Mr Wu Songming, was willing to risk working with me. The Cheer-leader Crabs and Weedy Sea Dragons started to appear on fine porcelain.

Carter – Jingdezhen. © Roger Law

Carter – Jingdezhen. © Roger Law

Jingdezhen calls itself Porcelain City with good reason. Over a million pots a week are made there – a small city by China’s standards with most of its 700,000 residents involved in making ceramics. On my first visit to Jingdezhen the workshops were busy turning out copies of copies of traditional designs. The last decade has seen a creative and economic revitalisation of its workshops. The traditional blue-and-white ware of Jingdezhen, Qing Hua, is still the city’s bread and butter, but new designs reflect demand from the growing Chinese middle class.

Jingdezhen workshop. © Roger Law

Jingdezhen workshop. © Roger Law

On my first visit everything in Jingdezhen was filthy – except for the people. How the workers achieved it is a small miracle. After a day on the earth floors of the workshops, strewn with slabs of wet clay and porcelain dust, the men and women emerge spotless, the women’s high heels as clean as the day they were bought. The workshop conditions were grim. No doors in the doors, no glass in the windows. Humid in the summer and brass monkeys in the winter.

I have seen the city change unrecognisably. The bicycles have morphed into motorbikes, the motorbikes to cars. The workshops now have concrete floors but the potteries still ensure plenty of carcinogenic intake of copper, lead, zinc and solvents etc.

Joey Zhou and Roger Law. © Roger Law

Joey Zhou and Roger Law. © Roger Law

My translator, Joey Zhou, refrains from translating when a conversation becomes heated. I can become very volatile in 100% humidity. Joey will wait until things calm down. I asked him why Chinese are not more direct when dealing with problems. ‘That is not the Chinese way.’ Joey replied sagely. ‘They will say nothing and hate you secretly.’

Roger Law, co-creator of the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image, is contributing to the Ming Late: courtly pleasures, Friday 14 November, 18.00–21.00 in the Great Court. Free, just drop in.

ROGER LAW is at Sladmore Contemporary from 30 October to 15 November.

The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , ,

Where were you the night the Berlin Wall fell?

Sabrina Ben Aouicha, project curator, Germany: memories of a nation, British Museum

Wach auf, Sabrina! Du musst dir ansehen, wie Geschichte geschrieben wird!

‘Wake up, Sabrina! You have to witness this; history is being written!’ These were the words my father woke me with, on a cold November night 25 years ago today. Although I was 8 years old (nearly 9) at the time, I still remember them today.

I think there are just a few events in recent history that are shared by people all over the world and become part of the human memory. I even dare to say there is one memory shared by every German over the age of 30. This can be summarised in one question: ‘where were you the night of 9 November 1989, when the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) fell?

So, where was I? I would love to say I was on the streets when it happened but I wasn’t. The fact is I was in bed after an exciting and exhausting day in school, probably dreaming of becoming the first German-Tunisian female astronaut (my career aspiration at the time). After my dad woke me with those words, he sat me on the sofa in front of the TV between him and my mother. On the screen we were astonished to see people pouring through the different crossing points along the inner German border. At this moment I hadn’t really realized that the life I knew until then would change forever.

I was born and raised in West Berlin in the early 1980s, as daughter of a German-Silesian mother and a Tunisian father. For the first years of my life it felt normal to live in a city that was like an island. I knew there was an ‘end’ on each side of the city, a massive wall in the east, and border controls to the west.

The author with her mother during one of their walks along the Berlin Wall, 1987/88

The author with her mother during one of their walks along the Berlin Wall, 1987/88

Growing up in West Berlin in the 80s was an adventure with a taste of danger. Although my parents never really spoke to me about this when I was a child, I could sense that our situation was different to the people who lived in West Germany. It was normal for me to go on walks along the Berlin Wall with my parents and be watched by suspicious East German border guards in their watch towers; or to be told how to behave when we needed to cross the Border and drive through the GDR (East Germany) to visit my grandparents in West Germany or Tunisia – a situation that was always very stressful for my parents.

All this changed after that night in November 1989. One of my first impressions of this new situation was how busy ‘our part’ of Berlin became. My father worked near the Kurfürstendamm, the main boulevard of West Berlin, and my mother and I picked him up from work from time to time. I never saw the city so busy and crowded then in these first days after the Berlin Wall fell. Most striking and memorable for me were the crowds of mainly East Berliners in front of the local McDonalds, in a queue that went around the whole building.

The first few weeks felt like a real party. My parents took me to the Wall to join the vast numbers of Mauerspechte (so-called ‘wall woodpeckers’), who hacked at the wall after the border crossings were opened, mostly to take a piece of it as a souvenir. I still have a piece on my desk in Berlin that I hacked out myself.

Life in Berlin started to change more and more in the next few years. There was a spirit and a sense of new beginnings in the air that we could all feel. I grew older and so Berlin did as well; I share most of my unique memories of my early teenage years with the changing city.

British Chieftain tanks during the Farewell Parade on Strasse des 17. Juni, Berlin, 18 June 1994. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense and Imke Paust

British Chieftain tanks during the Farewell Parade on Strasse des 17. Juni, Berlin, 18 June 1994. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense and Imke Paust

The last Military Tattoo in 1992 – a highlight of my early years as I always went with my Dad – was one of them. Another was the day of the Farewell Parade when French, British and American troops were marching the last time on the Strasse des 17. Juni on the Western Side of the Brandenburg Gate on 18 June 1994. Surrounded by over 75,000 other Berliners I waved ‘goodbye’ and ‘au revoir’* to the British, American and French troops who were such an important part of my childhood. Although it was the end of an era, it was also the beginning of a new one, as Berlin was handed back to the German government as capital of a new and reunited country. The city was free from foreign military presence for the first time in 49 years.

While I saw old women crying on the streets and asking: ‘Who will look after us now?’ I just thought, well it’s up to us now to look after ourselves.

Memorial for the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall), following its former course.

Memorial of the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall), following its former course. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Ben Aouicha

Today, the evidence of the division within the city is fading out more and more. Sometimes I remember things and events of my early childhood while walking around the city; especially when I am showing British friends around, trying to explain them the difference of the Berlin of my childhood to the one they see now.

I would like to finish this post with the same question I asked at the beginning: where were you the night of 9 November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell? I look forward to reading your memories in the comments section below.

—————

*I remember (from talking to my older relatives) that they a) didn’t really know the difference between ‘au revoir’ and ‘adieu’ and b) still hoped some of them would return as friends/tourists rather than military personnel.

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , ,

Barlach’s hovering angel travels to London

Clarissa von Spee, curator, British Museum

‘Everything is packed and we are on our way now!’ said a breathless voice on the phone, and it took me several seconds to realize that it was the chairman of the Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Barlach Foundation).

Güstrow Cathedral. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, User:Schiwago. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Güstrow Cathedral. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, User:Schiwago. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Ernst Barlach, Der Schwebende (Güstrow Cathedral) © Archiv Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Foto: Uwe Seemann)

Ernst Barlach, Der Schwebende (Güstrow Cathedral) © Archiv Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Foto: Uwe Seemann)

Barlach's Angel prior to removal for loan to the British Museum exhibition

Barlach’s Angel prior to removal for loan to the British Museum exhibition

On Monday 29 October the parish of Güstrow, in the north German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, removed their famous Angel, a 150kg bronze sculpture suspended in a chapel of their cathedral, and sent it by train and ferry to London to be shown in the exhibition Germany: memories of a nation. The Angel arrived two days later in London. Too large to fit into a lift, the bronze was carried by no less than 8 well-muscled Heavy Object Handlers to the exhibition space.

Güstrow, also known as Barlachstadt (Barlach city), was the hometown of Ernst Barlach, a German expressionist sculptor, whose most important work is his floating, or hovering bronze figure (Der Schwebende) made in 1926 to commemorate the victims of the First World War. Barlach himself fought in this war and returned a pacifist.

Der Schwebende ('The Hovering'), by Ernst Barlach, Güstrow Cathedral.

Der Schwebende (The Hovering), by Ernst Barlach, Güstrow Cathedral.

Barlach’s memorial is unusual and unique. Detached from earth and time, with folded arms and closed eyes, the hovering figure expresses an internalized vision of the grief and sufferings of war. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s works were among the first to be declared Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) and confiscated and removed from public display. Sadly, Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his masterwork had been taken down to be melted and probably made into war munitions.

However, some courageous friends had managed to hide a second cast, which was then hung in the Antoniter Church in Cologne after the end of the Second World War. This time, the sculpture commemorated two World Wars. During the time of the Cold War in the 1950s, the parish of Cologne made another cast of the Angel and presented it in a gesture of friendship to the parish of Güstrow cathedral. For the next few months this cast is displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition.

In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany, met Erich Honecker in East Germany, and they visited Barlach’s Angel in Güstrow cathedral. On this occasion, Schmidt said to the bishop in Güstrow: ‘I would like to thank you very much for your kind words of welcome. As you said, Barlach is indeed part of our common memory of the past. May I add, that Barlach could also stand as a representative of our shared and common future.’ Schmidt was right. Eight years later, in peaceful demonstrations, East Germans brought the wall between East and West down.

The sculpture also holds an additional message for us. The British sculptor Antony Gormley said in a recent talk at the British Museum: ‘If you want to know how it feels to exist beyond space and time, just close your eyes and look inwards.’ Try it, it works! In the exhibition, Barlach’s hovering bronze figure faces us directly, but its eyes are closed with arms folded over its chest. A perfect way to come to peace with the world.

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor.

In the episode Barlach’s Angel, Neil MacGregor focuses on Ernst Barlach’s sculpture Hovering Angel, a unique war memorial, commissioned in 1926 to hang in the cathedral in Güstrow.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, Uncategorized, , , , , , , ,

Things that go bump in the night: the Blackmoor Hoard

Jennifer Wexler, Bronze Age Index Manager, MicroPasts

Part of the Blackmoor Hoard in the British Museum collection

Part of the Blackmoor Hoard in the British Museum collection

As part of our research into British Museum’s Bronze Age collections, the MicroPasts team is asking for the public’s help with researching the wonderful Blackmoor Hoard. Known also as the ‘Blackmoor-Wolmer Forest’ or ‘Selborne’ Hoard, the hoard was found near Blackmore, Hampshire. There are several Bronze Age barrows within the area of Woolmer Forest, and multiple hoards (Woolmer Forest, Woolmer Pond, Hogmoor, Longmoor Camp) from different periods have been found there. The connection between the ritual deposition of bronze weapons and the barrow cemeteries together constitute a particularly well-preserved ritual landscape of the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age periods.

Like many Bronze Age hoards recorded in the Bronze Age Index (such as the Arreton Down hoard), the Selborne Hoard has connections with several famous collectors of archaeological antiquities, including Rev. Greenwell, George Roots, General Pitt Rivers and Lord McAlpine.

Middle Bronze Age hoard from Blackmoor (left to right: 1893,0618,7, 1893,0618.11, 1893,0618.10, 1893,0618.13)

Middle Bronze Age hoard from Blackmoor (left to right: 1893,0618,7, 1893,0618.11, 1893,0618.10, 1893,0618.13)

Bronze Age Index card illustrating objects from the Blackmoor Hoard

Bronze Age Index card illustrating objects from the Blackmoor Hoard

Both Middle Bronze Age (MBA) and Late Bronze Age (LBA) hoards from the area are featured in the Bronze Age Index. The MBA hoard was found in 1840 and contains bronze torcs, rings and a palstave.

The LBA weapon hoard, discovered in the garden of a cottage near Blackmoor in 1870, is better known, and has a complicated history of collection. A large part of the hoard was handed over to Lord Selborne, as it was found on his land. It currently makes up part of the Selborne collection now in Gilbert White’s House and includes sword fragments, over twenty spearheads, three rings, ferrule fragments and one mysterious ‘grooved socket’.

Late Bronze age socketed spearhead. From the Roots Collection (1891,0514.6)

Late Bronze Age socketed spearhead. From the Roots Collection (1891,0514.6)

Somehow two large groups of objects from the hoard were separated from the Selborne Collection. Part of the hoard appears to have been disposed of soon after discovery and sold to two prominent antiquarian collectors, George Roots and Rev. William Greenwell. The Greenwell collection now in the British Museum is composed largely of spearheads donated by John Pierpont Morgan in 1908. The Roots collection is more diverse, containing spearheads, sword fragments and cast rings. Evidence suggests that the Selborne, Greenwell, and Roots assemblages were all part of the same deposit, with spearhead fragments from the various collections fitting together.

Lunette spearhead from the Blackmoor Hoard. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Lunette spearhead from the Blackmoor Hoard. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1998.540.1)

The British Museum purchased the Roots collection at auction in 1891. At this sale, one extraordinary example of a lunette spearhead (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) was bought by General Pitt Rivers and displayed in his museum in Farnham, Dorset. The spearhead’s origins in the Roots collection and similarity to other spearheads from Selborne/Blackmoor suggests that it came from the same hoard.

This spearhead remained in the Pitt Rivers collections until the Farnham Museum closed in 1966, when much of the collection was dispersed to the Salisbury Museum and private collectors. Sometime after, the spearhead became part of Lord McAlpine’s extensive collection. After getting involved in the restoration of the Victorian town of Broome in Western Australia, Lord McAlpine sold off much of his private estate and collections, including the spearhead, to the New York art dealer Peter Sharrer. Sharrer donated the spearhead to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998, along some other Bronze Age objects originally from the Roots Collection, where it is on display in Room 301, one of the few representations of the British Bronze Age in the Met.

While originally interpreted as representing a ‘founder’s hoard’ (i.e. containing a mix of broken metal objects for melting and re-using at a later time), recent research suggests that these objects were being purposely deposited in the ground in a particular, possibly ritualistic, manner. Also, rather than being used in everyday struggles or battles, the weapons found in such hoards may more likely be representative of social status and a ‘warrior aesthetic’ that developed later in the Bronze Age. A recent analysis of MBA-EIA (Early Iron Age) skulls found in the Thames shows that almost all exhibit blunt force injuries, at a time when the archaeological record is dominated by edged weapons, such as swords and spears. Not only does this have implications for the massive record of elaborate bronze weapons found in the Thames and other watery locations, but for all weapon hoards. Perhaps this explains why we get such elaborate and beautiful examples of weapons both from the Thames and from LBA hoards; the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the Selborne spearhead as representing the

…highest tradition of the British Bronze Age. The piece is undeniably beautiful: its shape is elegant and spare to the point of evoking modern art. The raised rib in the middle, which also outlines the half-moon or lunette openings, may have been designed as a blood channel.

Help us find out more about the Selborne-Blackmoor hoard! If you are interested in helping us research and enrich our knowledge of the Bronze Age, please join us at MicroPasts.

The MicroPasts project team is led by Professor Andy Bevan (Institute of Archaeology (IOA), UCL) and co-investigated by Daniel Pett and Rachael Sparks (IOA, UCL). The British Museum Bronze Age Index is managed by Jennifer Wexler in collaboration with Neil Wilkin and Chiara Bonacchi (IOA, UCL) and Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert (IOA, UCL) are the principal researchers.

The Project is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Filed under: Archaeology, , , , ,

Voices of the British Museum

Liam O’Connor, artist

I am creating an archive of audio interviews with the staff of the British Museum, the subject of which is a museum object or space they have developed a significant personal connection with as part of their work.

'WCEC Excavation' 2012 © Liam O'Connor

‘WCEC Excavation’ 2012 © Liam O’Connor

Between 2010 and 2014 I was artist in residence on the construction of the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, a new building at the British Museum. Although my efforts were focused on the building site, I also received a privileged insight into the workings of the place through conversations with a wide variety of people who work at the Museum.

My understanding of particular objects and spaces around the Museum has been greatly enriched by talking to the people who have invested time and emotion in them. I am intrigued by how these objects and spaces that belong to everyone seem to bear a great significance to certain individuals, and believe the stories of how and why are important to capture.

The British Museum, as an idea, is a place where a diverse range of people are brought together for a common purpose, a place and a collection that has endured through many generations of staff and visitors, it is a collection and a building that weaves all those generations together.

The objects and spaces of the Museum are vessels for meaning and memory; they are constantly being adopted into new narratives by staff and visitors. The aim of these interviews is to reveal the small memories, invested in the museum and its collection, that overlap and sustain this fantastic institution through generations reaching back into the past and forward into the future.

Internally, among staff I have discovered a tradition of stories being passed from previous generations to the present – characters and events long since gone are still present within the Museum. It would be amazing if in fifty or a hundred years from now a conservator, curator, security guard could listen to the person give an account of working on that same object or within that same space from today.

Painting on silk showing Buddha (probably Śākyamuni) preaching in a Paradise composition. From the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. Tang Dynasty, c. AD 701-750 (1919,0101,0.6)

Painting on silk showing Buddha (probably Śākyamuni) preaching in a Paradise composition. From the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. Tang Dynasty, 8th century (1919,0101,0.6)

The voice is important in this project; the voice of an individual is much more captivating and engaging than a written text, and somehow more immediate than a video combining sight and sound.

The background sounds also provide another layer; the secret door in the Enlightenment Gallery creaking open in Bryony Shepherd’s interview, and the rolling rack revealing the painting in Clarissa von Spee’s interview. These all start to contribute to a soundscape that is another layer in describing the British Museum. This is something I didn’t think about until I started listening back to the interviews; for me this is an exciting discovery.

As part of the interview, I also want to capture the journey that lead each person to working at the Museum. I want to understand the diversity of paths that all lead to the same place. I arrived here purely by chance, approaching the Museum to ask if I could study their building site, I didn’t have any ideas to investigate the Museum itself, but I have received an invaluable education from the place purely through talking to people who work here, it is their enthusiasm for their subjects and objects that has encouraged and strengthened my own enthusiasm for the place.

Door panels and lintel  from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

Door panels and lintel from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

I like exploring the rituals, patterns and the accumulation of time that bind us to objects and places in physical and imagined ways. This takes the form of revealing meaning or narratives that individuals project onto spaces and objects that otherwise remain hidden to everyone else.

I invest huge amounts of time in single objects or drawings or spaces as part of my work, this repeated attention shown to something creates a deep bond that is hugely important in placing memory and meaning in something physical. I also make drawings and objects that are only the trace or evidence of the actual work, where the work exists in the story of how the object was made or the performance/investment of time in making it.

The Museum’s objects, as beautiful and magnificent as they are, will always rely heavily on the devotion of the people who work with them day to day, the energy they invest in them is infectious, bringing them to life for the rest of us.

I have only recently begun this project, so far I have 10 interviews, but I want to collect many more. I hope this project will provide a rich archive of material for the Museum, which will become more interesting over time, as the Museum changes, but also the interviews are individual pieces of storytelling that could provide an alternative audio guide for museum visitors, that further enrich the mythology of the British Museum.

Room 1: Enlightenment Gallery

Room 1: Enlightenment Gallery

Voices of the British Museum is being hosted on the British Museum’s Soundcloud channel, where you can find recordings of events, Audio Descriptions, and other audio.

Liam O’Connor (@liamoconnor919) is currently artist in residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, making work in response to their Exhibition Road Building Project.

Filed under: At the Museum, , ,

The Kingdom and the Beauty

Chris Berry, Professor of Film Studies, King’s College London

I’m very excited about the screening of The Kingdom and the Beauty this Sunday afternoon at the British Museum. When I was asked to help the Museum put together a small series of screenings as part of the programme supporting the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, this was the film I was most determined that we should get. This Sunday provides a rare opportunity, so I’d like to tell you what makes this screening so special.

The Kingdom and the Beauty © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Kingdom and the Beauty © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Kingdom and the Beauty (‘Jiang shan mei ren’)is a big, lush, gloriously colourful, and unabashedly romantic musical set when the Ming dynasty was at the height of its power. A kind of Cinderella story with a tragic twist, it was made by the legendary Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers in 1959, when they too were at the height of their power. The Kingdom and the Beauty was a huge hit across Southeast Asia, winning awards at film festivals and sparking off a series of similar Mandarin-language musicals.

The story is about the Zhengde emperor, who ruled from 1505 to 1521. He was known as a bit of a playboy, and the film shows him sneaking out of the court in Beijing and traveling south to the rich heartlands around the Yangzi Delta. There he falls in love with a village girl, played by Shaw’s leading star of the time, Linda Lin Dai. Recalled by his duties at court, he forgets about her, but she discovers she is pregnant and hopes to be reunited with him. Her character in the film is a girl with a sunny nature who suffers a tragic fate, as Lin did herself a few years later. The film is remembered for her upbeat renditions of charming and catchy tunes. But Lin killed herself in 1964, and became an icon who has endured through the ages.

Nearly all other films set in the Ming dynasty take place in the 17th century, when the dynasty begins to fade. They feature stories about patriotic outsiders trying to defend the country in the face of dynastic failure (the Ming were replaced by the Manchu Qing in 1644). The Kingdom and the Beauty is unusual in this respect as it is set in the early 16th century, and is more indicative of the splendour of the early Ming courts, as seen in the Museum’s exhibition. No film better communicates the image of the Ming as the largest, richest, and most successful civilisation of its time.

Sir Run Run Shaw, the great Shaw Brothers founder, who was also the producer of The Kingdom and the Beauty, died earlier this year. Our screening of the film, made possible by Celestial Pictures, which owns the 760-film Shaw Brothers library, is our way of honouring Sir Run Run and Shaw Brothers.

It’s a classic musical, a big, old-fashioned and indulgent pleasure for a Sunday afternoon that I think everyone would enjoy. Do join us to sit back and float off into a fantasy world of Ming luxury and romance.

Tickets for The Kingdom and the Beauty are available from the British Museum website.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , ,

Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story

Frances Carey, art historian

Statue of Käthe Kollwitz, Kollwitzplatz, Berlin. Photo by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Statue of Käthe Kollwitz, Kollwitzplatz, Berlin. Photo by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The seated figure of an elderly woman cast in bronze presides over a square in a part of north east Berlin known as Kollwitzkiez, the ‘Kollwitz district’, where Käthe Schmidt (1867-1945) came to live in 1891 on her marriage to Dr Karl Kollwitz. The sculpture by Gustav Seitz, installed in 1960, was commissioned under the DDR (German Democratic Republic) just as the renaming of Wörtherplatz and Weissenburger Strasse had been done in her honour in 1947. The nearest U-Bahn station is Senefelderplatz opened in 1923 and named after another notable figure in the history of printmaking, Alois Senefelder, who is credited with the discovery of lithography in 1796. When I stayed on Kollwitzstraße in the summer of 2009, the formerly bohemian neighbourhood of the 1990s after Die Wende (‘The Change’, i.e. including the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification) was fast shedding its down-at-heel appearance. All the familiar signs of rising property values and gentrification were plain to see, much more so now: handsome, well-buffed apartment buildings, smart shops, cafés such as Anne Blume (called after Kurt Schwitters’s subversive poem of 1919), and nearby parks and playgrounds with brightly coloured equipment for children. TripAdvisor waxes lyrical about the area as a tourist destination.

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis nach links (Self-portrait facing left), 1901 © DACS, 2014

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis nach links (Self-portrait facing left), 1901, lithograph, 269 x 204 mm © DACS, 2014 (1951,0501.81)

It is a far cry from the surroundings where Käthe and Karl (d.1940) were to spend almost the whole of their adult lives. Prenzlauer Berg, the larger district in which Kollwitzkiez is situated, was developed as a working-class neighbourhood to cope with the great surge in population after 1871 when Berlin became the capital of a united Germany; by 1900 the population had grown from around 800,000 to 1.9 million. Street after street of Mietskasernen or tenements (literally ‘rental barracks’) were built where conditions were dire. The Frauenkunstverband (Organisation of Women Artists), co-founded by Käthe Kollwitz in 1913, protested that 600,000 Berliners lived in dwellings with five or more people to a room while 100,000 children had nowhere to play. The title of the polemic by Werner Hegemann published in 1930, Das steinerne Berlin: Geschichte der grössten Mietskasernenstadt der Welt (Stony Berlin: History of the Largest Tenement City in the World) captures the impact of this remorseless urbanization. Prenzlauer Berg was dominated by these tenements and the breweries that were the major employers.

Käthe Kollwitz, Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment) © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3945)

Käthe Kollwitz, Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment) 1909, 6th state, etching and engraving 382 x 530 mm. © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3945)

Kollwitz was rooted in the nineteenth century, drawing much of her inspiration from the narrative realism and emotive power of writers such as Dickens, Ibsen and Zola. She grafted her reading of fiction, whether it dealt with near contemporary circumstances or ostensibly historical ones, onto the direct experience of ‘the lives of others’ who were beset by the uncertainties of casual employment, deprivation, high maternal and child mortality, and often domestic violence. In this challenging environment she found a beauty and a grandeur that became her mainspring as an artist. It was a largely black-and-white world, but with many gradations of tone and texture. For the realization of its expressive potential she turned to drawing and printmaking, above all to the example of Max Klinger (1857-1920) and his championing of graphic art as having an important status of its own. His series of ten etchings and aquatints called Dramen, Opus IX (1883) comprised six tragedies set in Berlin among the different echelons of society. Two dramas – Eine Mutter (A Mother) and Märztage (March Days) – unfold over three plates each, while the other four have just a single sheet apiece. Märztage seemed to refer to the failed liberal revolution of March 1848, but Klinger made it clear that he had in mind the contemporary context of Germany’s Social Democratic movement in 1883.

Max Klinger, Eine Mutter I

Max Klinger, Eine Mutter I (A Mother I), Dramen, Opus IX 1883, etching and aquatint, 453 x 318 mm (1981,1107.23)

Max Klinger, Mârztage I

Max Klinger, Mârztage I (March Days I), Dramen, Opus IX 1883, etching and aquatint, 453 x 358 mm (1981,1107.28)

Käthe Kollwitz was similarly inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s play Die Weber (The Weavers, 1892), which she saw at its first performance in 1893, to create a print series that was more about the conditions of the poor around her, than Silesia in 1844. Her second graphic cycle Der Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War) executed from 1902-7 and published the year after, used the religious and economic conflict of 1524-5 as yet another vehicle through which to express the heroism of the working class. This series along with her later work after the First World War in woodcut and lithography, earned her significant influence on the development of printmaking in Russia and China in the 1920s-40s and beyond.

Within a few years of commencing printmaking in 1890-91 Käthe Kollwitz had demonstrated considerable artistry and technical competence. Ein Weberaufstand (A Weavers’ Revolt) – three etchings and three lithographs completed in 1897 – propelled her to the front rank of artists in Germany. When she went to Paris in 1904 she was given a glowing testimonial for Rodin from Hugo von Tschudi, Director of the Berlin Nationalgalerie. Her greatest champion was Max Lehrs, Director of the Dresden Print Room who both acquired her work for the collection and published the first catalogue of her prints in 1902. He likewise encouraged a curator, later Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, Campbell Dodgson (1867-1948). Dodgson bequeathed to the British Museum (which was not then permitted to buy the work of living artists) a remarkably fine body of impressions from the most innovative phase of Kollwitz’s career: none more so than a sequence of three states of the harrowing subject of Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead Child) of 1903, which shows Kollwitz’s mastery in every aspect of its accomplishment. The artist and her younger son Peter (b.1896) were the models at a time when her elder son Hans (b.1892) had narrowly escaped dying of diphtheria. The sculptural quality of her treatment of the motif anticipates her later interest in working with a three-dimensional medium which was one of her objects of study in Paris.

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead child)

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead child) 1903, 7th state, soft-ground etching and engraving with green and gold wash, 415 x 480 mm. © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3928)

Frau mit totem Kind has none of the resignation of her later sculpture (1937) of a mother and her dead son, ‘something like a Piéta’, of which the artist said ‘There is no longer pain, only reflection.’ In the 1903 print there is only pain, but however much she drew upon personal experience and observation, it is nonetheless a carefully contrived artistic composition.

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait), woodcut, 1924, © DACS, 2014 (1980,0126.85)

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait) 1924, 6th state, woodcut, 209 x 301 mm © DACS, 2014 (1980,0126.85)

Kollwitz’s most unwavering commitment was to being an artist: ‘It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying.’ (New Year’s Day, 1912). Her intensely examined life as expressed in all her work, not just the many self-portraits, her journals and correspondence, is humbling to recall amidst the middle-class comforts of modern Kollwitzkiez. I admire her because she succeeded in doing what a great contemporary artist has advocated: ‘I thought women as artists should focus on how to start, lead, and sustain a creative life. It’s not a question of style or a break with tradition.’ (Bridget Riley, 2004).

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. In the episode Kathe Kollwitz: Suffering Witness, Neil MacGregor focuses on the art of Käthe Kollwitz, who expresses the loss and suffering of war, especially after the death of her younger son Peter at the front in 1914.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , ,

Tears of the Buddha : gem stones in Ming China

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins
Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art, University of Oxford and co-curator of the BP Exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China

Hat-top ornament, from Nanjing, c. 1420-21, gold, decorated with gemstones. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Hat-top ornament, from Nanjing, c. 1420-21, gold, decorated with gemstones. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

In 2009, when I first saw the amazing finds from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang (d.1441) in the Hubei Provincial Museum, it was impossible not to be impressed by the gleam and flash of the gems with which so many of the objects were decorated. Jewelled belts, jewelled buttons for a princely hat, the lavish gold hairpins of princely ladies all set with rubies, sapphires, turquoise and a variety of other precious stones; these conjured up like nothing else the luxurious lifestyle of the early Ming princely palace, and the splendour of its inhabitants. Since then I have done a bit more research on these gems, where they came from and how they were used, and I have become even more fascinated by what they can tell us about Ming courts and their contacts with the wider world.

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

China is not well supplied with precious stones, and almost all of the gems in the objects from Prince Zhuang of Liang’s tomb came from outside the Ming empire, where they were seen as exotic and precious imports. Take rubies for instance, with their impressive deep red hue. One of the world’s richest sources of these, the most rare of the major gem types, is a mine at Mogok, now in Myanmar (northern Burma). It is possible that the early Ming courts obtained rubies from here through overland trade with the Shan States who occupied this part of the world in the 15th century. But a much more likely source of some of the large and truly impressive gems, like the rubies which stud the centre of each carefully-worked filigree plaque of Prince Zhuang of Liang’s gold belt , is the island of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka had long been known as one of the best sources of red rubies and blue sapphires (which are almost exactly the same mineral in chemical terms; tiny differences in impurities account for their very different colours). In 1283, in the Yuan dynasty, one of the island’s rulers had written to a sultan of Egypt with the proud boast that ‘I have a prodigious quantity of pearls and precious stones of every kind’. At least five diplomatic missions from King Parakramabahu VI (r.1412-1468) of Sri Lanka to the Ming took place between 1416 and 1459, and the great Ming eunuch admiral Zheng He stopped off on the island on several of his voyages. One of Zheng He’s crew was the interpreter Ma Huan. In his account of the voyages, An Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores, he tells us how Sri Lanka is rich in gems of many kinds:

Whenever heavy rain occurs, the water rushes out of the earth and flows down amidst the sand; they search for and collect [the stones], and that is how they get them. There is a common saying that the precious stones are in truth the crystallized tears of Buddha the patriarch.

He also calls the gems by foreign and not Chinese names; he calls some of them yagu, which comes from the Arabic word yāqūt, meaning sometimes ‘ruby’. This use of an Arabic name tells us that the trade in gems in the Ming period was a very international one, as indeed it is today. Gems are not only very valuable, but very portable, and Ma Huan tells us that they could be bought at ports all round Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, in Java and Thailand, at ports in modern Kerala in South India, at Hormuz in modern Iran and Aden in the Yemen. Wherever there were ships and traders there were gems. The Chinese city of Zhongxiang, where Prince Zhuang of Liang lived and died, is a long way from the sea. But these glittering fragments of the exotic must have told all who saw them, shining and gleaming on the bodies of himself and his wife, that these were people who, through their connections to the imperial court in Beijing, could command extraordinary resources from across the globe.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall are editors of the exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, which is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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