British Museum blog

Mourning rings: portable and poignant souvenirs

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City CouncilCaroline Barton, British Museum

Mourning rings are an emotive form of jewellery; very few objects that we have the privilege of working with in the Treasure process have such potentially traceable histories, and academically they are of great interest. Examples such as the Littleton ring, which features in the ITV series Britain’s Secret Treasures can not only be accurately dated but also name the person whose death they commemorate.

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

But not all mourning rings specifically name the deceased, as this one does. They might feature or incorporate mottos or death-related prose. It was in the seventeenth century that Momento Mori rings developed more fully into what we know now as mourning rings. Momento Mori rings (with their rather stern inscriptions, such as ‘learn to dye’) acted as a reminder that youth and beauty come to an end, reflecting the Biblical reference in Ecclesiastes: ‘beauty ends in decay and putrification’. Memorial/ mourning rings marked the death of individuals rather than portraying urgings to godly living, and messages upon these rings became more personal.

Examples in the British Museum and on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database with messages/prose incorporated include inscriptions such as ‘Hope helpeth greife’, ‘Not dead but sleepeth‘, ‘not lost but gone before’, ‘In death shees blest Since heauens her rest’, ‘my friend is Dead my Joys, are fled’ and one that impacts when reading it, the really rather poignant inscription, ‘REMEMBER YOU ONCE HAD A SON GERALD‘.

Rings such as the Littleton example give a glimpse into what we today consider a very personal matter – family mourning. These rings, to the modern eye, bring imagery of a mourning family, keeping the details of their deceased loved one close by: their name, date of death, age at death forever close, worn around the finger. Mourning ritual at this time, though, was not so much a personal matter but a public one and mourning rings showed societal obligation as well as fashion trends of the time.

Mourning ring, 17th century

Mourning ring, 17th century

The colour black seen on rings such as these signifies memorial and in later production (around the eighteenth century) the ‘rules’ of mourning rings were quite strictly adhered to (black enamel for married, white for unmarried). Indeed the ritual of mourning in general was scrupulously respected. It was more than a demonstration of regret; it was a mark of respect. Widows would wear black for a year, seal impressions were black wax rather than red, mirrors were covered in the household, and indeed mourning garb itself had to avoid having a shine or reflection (with the soul being vulnerable to reflective images, especially when weakened by grief). Black apparel was not the only acceptable colour for mourning; white was appropriate for when the deceased was a young virgin of either sex; a mixture of black and white was also acceptable; red was associated with redemption and the blood of Christ, and purple/mauve was for royal mourning.

At the time of the Littleton ring, the ritual of mourning was very public. The use of mourning rings was widespread from the mid-sixteenth century and peaked in popularity in the eighteenth. Earlier examples tended to be produced by the upper classes, and by the time of the Littleton ring they were mass-produced and supplied by specialist jewellers whose trade cards advertised mourning rings at the shortest notice.

It was common practice to have rings itemised in wills, listing the number to be produced in that person’s name. For example, US president George Washington declared in his will: ‘to my sister-in-law Hannah Washington of Fairford and Mildred Washington Hayford I give each a mourning ring of the value of $1000. These bequests are not made for the intrinsic value but as mementos of my esteem and regard”.

Mourning ring, about 1696-1731

Mourning ring, about 1696-1731

The list of recipients for rings could actually be quite extensive and there are examples of itemised wills showing long (and expensive) lists of recipients. The rings tended to be distributed either at the funeral or within the mourning period, as shown in the contemporary source of Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Pepys describes a business visit to Captain Cooke of Greenwich which happened to coincide with a recent burial of a gentleman unknown to him, James Temple: “Here I had a very good ring which I did give to my wife as soon as I came home”. In fact, Pepys himself arranged for 128 rings costing over £100, to be produced upon his death.

From the 1860s the fashion of mourning jewellery started to change. The style of rings shifted to contain portraiture, and memento lockets, worn from the neck or from a bracelet, began to replace the ring. It’s thought by some that once the tradition became widespread, and not just a ritual of the elite, the upper classes stopped commissioning mourning rings. And with this, the fashion for them eventually declined, with the exception of course of bequests of general rings worn in memory of someone, which continues, but such rings are not easily identified.

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

By the early twentieth century, as mortality rates dropped, death seemed more remote and one may even say less feared, and so with this change in sentiment the individualised mourning ring declined and even the death toll of World War I did not revive the practice.

Though the sometimes cavalier distribution of these rings demonstrates a potential lack of connection or even mourning from some of the recipients this does not detract from the emotive nature of the rings. Mourning rings are fascinating as a datable object type but also as poignant objects in and of themselves.

I will leave you with an example which I feel fully epitomises that. Originally a betrothal/wedding ring, one example in the British Museum collection bears the inscription ‘God hath sent my hearts content’. It was later altered to become a mourning ring, with the addition of the black enamelled skeletal design on the exterior and the addition of R.C 1727 to the inscription, presumably now commemorating the death of one of the originally betrothed.

A ring that was once a romantic expression, refashioned to commemorate the loss of that same loved one. It clearly serves the intended purpose of a mourning ring; an affecting example that had much personal meaning to its owner, a sentiment that still resonates today.

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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, ,

A significant discovery…

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust LtdAndrew Richardson, Canterbury Archaeological Trust

One evening in October last year I’d just got home from work when I received a call from Trevor Rogers, a metal detectorist I knew from my time as Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for Kent. Trevor said he had made a ‘significant discovery’.

In my line of work getting such a call is not that unusual. But Trevor went on to say that he had found what he believed to be a ‘Celtic bronze helmet’. That got my attention.

I knew of no such helmets from Kent; the ‘Deal warrior’ had a bronze head-dress, but that was not a helmet as such. Even for Britain as a whole, I knew such a find would be incredibly rare. But Trevor was very specific; he said it appeared to be a ‘Mannheim’ type helmet. I knew that Trevor was an experienced detectorist and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so I arranged to visit him first thing next morning to have a look for myself.

As I drove to Trevor’s place the next day, I really didn’t know what to expect. There was either going to be disappointment for both of us, with me having to break it to Trevor that he was mistaken and had found something actually rather pedestrian; or, it was going to be one of those rare days that you know you’ll always remember. And then I was standing in Trevor’s kitchen as he produced a cardboard box and opened it up to reveal his finds.

The helmet. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

The helmet. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

I was astonished to see that he had indeed found a Late Iron Age helmet, made of copper alloy, along with a brooch in very good condition and a small spike made out of rolled copper alloy sheet. There was also a fragment of burnt bone which had been found together with the helmet and brooch; more bone had been observed but had not been removed. So it seemed probable the finds were derived from a cremation burial.

The helmet and brooch. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

The helmet and brooch. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

We agreed that it would be best to carry out a small excavation of the find spot as soon as possible to learn as much as we could about the context of this find.

A year later, what more do we know about it? It’s reasonable to set it in the context of the turbulent middle decades of the first century BC when the Romans, under Julius Caesar, were at war in what is now France. But it is very tempting to want to go further than this and see it as much sought after evidence of Caesar’s expeditions to Britain, and the county of Kent, in around 54 BC. The helmet seems of the correct design and the find spot lies along the probable route taken by Caesar’s army of about 20,000 men.

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

But even if this was the helmet of one of Caesar’s soldiers, there are many ways by which it could have arrived at its final resting place. The person (or persons?) whose remains are buried in it need not be its original owner. Perhaps it was brought by a warrior of the Cantiaci (Iron Age tribe), returned from fighting in Gaul with a trophy? Maybe it was a Gallic refugee? Or was the helmet handed down and buried years later (although the brooch suggests burial is unlikely to date much later than 50 BC)?

The finds are now undergoing specialist study at the British Museum, as part of the Treasure process, and this analysis will yield further information, as will investigation of the wider landscape around the find spot. We will certainly learn more about this find, but we may also have to face up to never knowing one way or the other exactly how and why it ended up where it did.

But what is certain, is that Trevor was right when he described this as a ‘significant discovery’.

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

Filed under: Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , ,

Finding, studying and sharing the ‘treasure’ beneath our feet

Finding, studying and sharing the ‘treasure’ beneath our feetIan Richardson, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,
British Museum

Last year, the ITV television series Britain’s Secret Treasures was a welcome hit, averaging 3.5 million viewers every evening for six programmes over the course of a week. It featured stories about 50 archaeological finds made by members of the public throughout Britain.

The majority of the finds had either been recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) or reported as ‘Treasure’ under the Treasure Act 1996 (or both!). The series culminated with the story of the Happisburgh Handaxe, a discovery which eventually led to the understanding that humans have inhabited Britain for hundreds of thousands of years longer than previously thought.

Filming at the British Museum

Filming at the British Museum

The popularity of Britain’s Secret Treasures meant that it was re-commissioned for a second series, with Michael Buerk and Bettany Hughes returning to present the show. It begins on Thursday 17 October 2013 at 20.30 on ITV1. Once again, the British Museum and the PAS were delighted to take part, and were the ideal partners to do so.

Since 1997, Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) of the PAS, based throughout England and Wales, have recorded over 900,000 finds on a freely accessible database. Most of these have been returned to the people who found them. Additionally, over 8,000 finds from England have been reported as Treasure, and these have all been seen by specialist curators at the British Museum.

Finds of Treasure – generally speaking, gold and silver objects, groups of coins more than 300 years old, and prehistoric base-metal assemblages – must be reported to the coroner in the area where they are found, and are legally the property of the Crown. Accredited museums are able to acquire these items for the benefit of all. Most Treasure finds, if acquired, end up in local museums, and Britain’s Secret Treasures visits many of these places.

The Ringlemere Gold Cup

The Ringlemere Gold Cup

The British Museum itself has also acquired finds of Treasure, including the Ringlemere Gold Cup and the Hockley Pendant, which featured in the first series of Britain’s Secret Treasures. For the second series, the British Museum’s Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, which coordinates the PAS and administers the Treasure Act, assisted ITV in the selection of more ‘Secret Treasures’ to feature on the show. Some of the items will be here in London, some with local museums, and others with the people who found them.

Through the stories it tells, Britain’s Secret Treasures highlights the benefits of responsibly searching for and reporting archaeological finds. Objects can be nice to look at in isolation, and we can guess at how they might have been made or used, but it is their context (where the objects were found) which provides the most exciting information. The accumulation of this contextual information for hundreds of thousands of finds allows us to build an improved picture of the lives of people in the past. That’s why it is so important that finders of archaeological material report them to a museum or their local FLO – for the record, Britain’s Secret Treasures uses the terms ‘treasure’ to refer to all archaeological finds, both those which are legally ‘Treasure’ in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and those that are not.

Fragments from a Roman statue found in Lincolnshire

Fragments from a Roman statue found in Lincolnshire

It’s always an interesting experience to work with media and this time was no exception. An institution like the British Museum tends to prefer that most of its activities are planned well in advance and that nothing is left to ‘spur of the moment’ or chance – a style which contrasts to the creative spontaneity of a film crew working to a tight deadline, trying to capture just the right shot. Thankfully everyone involved, from the presenters and camera crews to the experts here at the Museum who were interviewed, were all so skilled that they produced some fine footage in a minimal amount of time.

Britain’s Secret Treasures was filmed in locations all over the British Museum, from public galleries to private offices and study areas, and although it involved some complicated logistics, the chance to convey this aspect of the Museum’s function was worthwhile. ITV provides a fantastic platform on which to broadcast, reaching a wide and diverse audience from all over the country and we hope viewers will agree that the finished product is an informative and entertaining programme, and that it ignites an interest in archaeology among them. The PAS is a great starting point for more information about getting involved in archaeology – visit finds.org.uk for more information.

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

Filed under: At the Museum, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , ,

A hoard from the dawn of Roman Britain

Coin from the hoardEleanor Ghey, curator, British Museum

Sometimes as curators we are lucky enough to be brought the most amazing new finds that through careful study can offer a tantalising glimpse into the ancient past. One such discovery that sheds light on the earliest years of Roman Britain is now on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

Coins from the hoard on display.

Coins from the hoard on display.

In 2010 metal-detector user Jason Hemmings found – in a field in Dorset, southern England – what at first glance seemed to be just a handful of Roman and Iron Age coins. When he reported them to the Portable Antiquities Scheme it soon became apparent he had a hoard that can be closely linked to the years following the Roman conquest of AD 43.

It is a mixed sample of the different coins in use in Britain during these turbulent years. It contains worn silver Roman republican coins that had been in circulation in the Roman Empire for around 150 years and were also valued by local people as a source of silver. There were a few Iron Age staters, base silver coins issued by the native inhabitants of Dorset before the Roman conquest. Finally, and most significantly, there were copper alloy coins of the emperor Claudius issued between AD 41 and 50.

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Official issues of the emperor Claudius are rare in Britain, although they were later copied in large numbers, probably to meet a shortage of supply. Two of the coins from this hoard are stamped with an official mark of approval found only in Rome and Britain. It is thought that these coins were produced in Rome in order to supply the invading army with useful currency whilst on campaign in Britain and may have even arrived with them. So they are likely to be close in date to the conquest of Britain in AD 43.

If this hoard belonged to a soldier, we can assume he was of lower rank, probably a legionary. At this time a legionary would have received an annual salary of 225 denarii. The hoard represents 4.25 denarii. A hoard of 34 Roman gold coins buried at Bredgar in Kent during the Claudian invasion – a vast amount of money more likely to have belonged to a high-ranking officer – is on display in Room 49. It is easier to imagine these coins from Dorset as the sort of sum carried by an individual: one of the lowest value Roman coins in the hoard would have bought two small sausages in ancient Pompeii!

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

So how did these coins get into the ground in Dorset? It could be that we are seeing the contents of a purse lost by a Roman soldier as the famous Legio II Augusta advanced through the county in the years immediately following the conquest (under the command of the future emperor Vespasian). Alternatively, the coins could have found their way into local hands, which might explain the presence of local issues alongside Roman ones.

The question of how and why coin hoards were buried in the Roman period is currently being investigated in a new AHRC-funded research project by the British Museum and Leicester University. It will study the large number of hoards now known from Roman Britain (about 2,700) with a view to understanding the circumstances of their burial and what changing patterns of hoarding behaviour tell us about the economy and society of the time.

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

For now, we can only speculate as to why these coins ended up where they did; while being grateful, of course, that some 2,000 years later we have the opportunity to try and tell their story.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Money Gallery, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , , ,

Reading an ancient Egyptian poem

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collectionRichard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

Reading an ancient poem is often a difficult experience, and academic traditions do not always help.

The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, was written in Egypt around 1850 BC and is a darkly passionate work, concerning a peasant’s quest for justice after his goods are stolen. But its elaborate style has made many academics regard it as simply a source of ancient words/vocabulary and grammar and not as a poetic work of art.

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

So once, when teaching a class in Germany, I was struck that when I asked ‘what does this verse of poetry mean?’ a student replied ‘it is a perfective verb-form’. Which is an important fact, of course, but it is not the total meaning of the poetry (and not at all the answer I was looking for!).

Last year I published a new commentary on The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant to try and encourage a deeper engagement with the poetry. As well as notes on its construction and language, I included, among other things, pictures.

In the poem, the peasant hero is beaten with a stick of iser, ‘tamarisk’. It is a minor detail, unless you visualise the shrub as you read, and remember both that it is very whippy and that it grows everywhere on river banks. The poet uses this particular plant to characterise the action as not only highly sadistic but also opportunistic: the villain grabs whatever is to hand to attack the hero. Everywhere in the poem, a concrete visualisation of the imagery allows the reader to realise the vivid interconnectedness of the poet’s thought.

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

The new commentary also placed text, translation and all the notes on a single page to help the process of reading as a single integrated experience: the reader does not have to flick between different sections for comments on the grammar, historical allusions, or possible meanings. Everything the reader needs appears together in one glance, and I look forward to seeing if this has worked for students when I take up a new job teaching Egyptology in Oxford.

The ability of the poem to still speak to audiences is nowhere better sensed than in the mesmeric prize-winning film of Shadi Abd el-Salam (1970), recently restored by the World Cinema Foundation, and they have generously allowed us to include an image of the actor Ahmed Marei as the frontispiece.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

This is a gesture towards the humanity of the original — a reminder that the poem was written by an individual for his contemporaries (and not for Egyptologists). This may even be the first time that an Egyptological commentary on a literary text has included a photograph of a living person. And this living and subtle work of art gained new resonance with the Egyptian revolution of 2011. As author Ahdaf Soueif noted then, it represents an Egyptian tradition of non-violent protest against any abuse of authority, and it is, in the words of Shadi Abd el-Salam, ‘a cry for justice, a cry that persists throughout the ages’.’

Find out more about the Reading Ancient Egyptian poems research project

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Filed under: Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , ,

Tomb figures from Ancient Egypt

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of HorendjitefAnders Bettum, University of Oslo and postdoctoral fellow, British Museum

For the past three months, I have had the pleasure of working on the British Museum’s collection of a particular kind of funerary statues, known to Egyptologists as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures. The Museum has 117 of these figures, originating from various periods and many sites in Egypt. The assessment, documentation and registration of the collection have been possible due to the new postdoctoral fellowships which were granted by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan for the first time this year (next year’s fellowships are now advertised).

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht

Anders in the Enlightenment Gallery, where the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht (EA9749) is on display.

From the 19th Dynasty (ca. 1295-1186 BC) to the Greco-Roman era, Egyptian elite burials were often equipped with a statue of a deity in the form of a mummy (mummiform). The god in question is identified as Osiris in the earlier sources, and later as the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. The name ‘Osiris’ may be familiar to many readers from the myth in which he defeats death and becomes the king of the dead in the Netherworld. Through the funerary ritual, the dead were assimilated with Osiris, hoping they too could live on happily in the Netherworld among gods and ancestors. The statue may therefore have been regarded not only as an image of the god, but also of the deceased. Ptah is one of the principal creator gods from Ancient Egypt, and the merging of this god with Osiris resulted in a powerful promise that death would be followed by new life. Sokar, the third member of the triad, was also a popular Netherworld deity. Like Ptah, he originates from the ancient capital of Memphis, and the two were often associated with one another. All three deities were depicted mummiform in the iconography, Ptah and Osiris as mummified men, Sokar as a mummified falcon.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy

The magnificent Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy (EA9737)

What I was soon to learn on arrival at the Museum is how complex these statues are. The figure itself, ranging in height from 30 to 60 cm, is carved from one piece of wood, plastered, painted in vivid colours and inscribed on the front and back with hieroglyphic texts. For the richest burials, the face and other details of the figure were gilded. The polychrome decoration is sometimes coated with a black, resinous varnish. Pegged to the head is a composite crown consisting of two elements: a vertical pair of model ostrich feathers emerging from a sun-disc and a horizontal pair of ram horns. The false beard on the chin is sometimes carved as a separate piece. A peg was left also under the feet of the figure, to fit into the mortise in a rectangular base. The base was colourfully painted, in some cases with depictions of water basins, lotus flowers and other symbols of resurrection, power and life. It was also inscribed with hieroglyphic texts. Occasionally, a model sarcophagus was carved as a separate piece and mounted to the front of the base. On top of the sarcophagus, a small mummiform falcon is perched, facing the mummiform figure. A single statue therefore consists of about seven separately carved pieces.

But that is not all. What makes the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures different from all other funerary statues is the peculiar fact that they are not only images of the deceased assimilated to certain gods, but also containers of a certain object. A Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure always has a cavity carved into it, either in the base or in the figure itself. In the 19th to the 22nd Dynasties, the contained object was usually a papyrus inscribed with funerary texts to aid the transformation of the deceased in the afterlife. The famous funerary papyri of Hunefer and Anhai were found inside such statues. In later times, the papyrus was replaced with a part of the mummy of the deceased or alternatively a substitute thereof, a so-called ‘corn-mummy’.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef

Mummy-shaped cavity in the base of the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef (EA9736). The content, which appears to be a mummified lump of grass, is still intact.

Throughout the more than one thousand years in which these statues were in use, a great variety of mechanisms for closing the cavity are attested. Most impressive are perhaps the figures that were carved like anthropoid coffins, with a case and lid that were closed and sealed before being inserted into the mortise of the base. Another common type is the model sarcophagus that worked as a sliding lid, and can still be ‘clicked’ into place with a simple push to close the cavity.

It is intriguing to think about the time, effort end skill that went into the production of these objects, and how people living thousands of years ago assembled the statue, filled it with its mysterious contents before sealing the cavity and placing the it in the tomb. These activities were undoubtedly ritualized and carried out by mortuary priests as part of the larger funerary ritual.

Model coffin

This colorful statue (EA 9884) was made as a model coffin. The name of the owner has not yet been deciphered.

With their polychromy and glint of gold, the inscriptions, the complexity and mechanical aspect, the hidden ‘treasure’ inside and its connection to grand mythological and ritual narratives, the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure have always been popular collector’s items. The manageable size of the object must also have contributed to their rapid distribution to museums all over the world. Studying the collection of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures in the British Museum, I have come across no less than 290 related objects. In addition to the 117 figures, the collection consist of a number of loose bases, ram horns, ostrich feathers, model sarcophagi and mummiform falcons that parted with their figure decades, centuries or even millennia ago. Only about a dozen are relatively intact assemblages, but this number will hopefully increase as more parts are matched with one another.

Every piece has now been thoroughly documented for the benefit of researchers and curious visitors. The analysis of the materials contained within still remains to be done, and will undoubtedly cast new light on a funerary custom that is still poorly understood.

Find out more about the Ancient Egypt and Sudan postdoctoral fellowships for 2014

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Filed under: Collection, Egypt and Sudan,

From Parthian chicken to flat breads: experimenting with a Roman oven

Heat, steam and Roman cookingSally Grainger, chef and author

In previous posts I introduced the different types of ancient portable ovens which are generally called either clibanus or testum. The former term is the more fashionable Latinised Greek word while testum represents the Italian tradition for these ovens.

Currently on display in the Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum, there is a unique double casserole/oven with a base and domed top. In this post I will discuss the results of preliminary experiments I’ve been undertaking with a replica of this so-called clibanus oven.

A clibanus oven over charcoal

This oven appears to be designed to allow fire to be above and below the food being cooked. This concept is found in recipes in the Roman cookery book known as Apicius for a dish called a patina which is a thick frittata cooked in a vessel of the same name. The instructions are as follows: ‘grease a clean dish and put it in the hot embers, pour the mixture in, allow the embers to be above and below (the dish).’

Readers of Apicius are not told precisely how this may happen but we can imagine the dish must have had a lid for the fire to be on top of the food. There are many North African-ware lidded casseroles that would suit this technique, with a small base that sat in the embers on the hearth and curved walls to allow embers to be pushed beneath the vessel, from the Roman period. The lids had a slightly curved outer rim which would have kept the embers away from the food when the lid was removed: a design feature similar to the flanged single oven I described in my second post. I have experimented with this technique too using a vessel created by Chris Lydamore and found it very successful.

Line drawing

Line illustrations taken from my edition of the Latin text of Apicius shown here demonstrate just how versatile this kind of equipment can be. The single testum/clibanus can function with a completely separate smaller dish inside and what seems to have happened with this new vessel is that the roasting dish becomes integrated as a double unit.

Line drawing

In Apicius the foods described as being cooked in a clibanus like this one are generally rather small and defined as roasting or pot roasting. Recipes include a dry roasted, stuffed dormouse (Ap. 8.9); stuffed kidneys roasted in oil and fish sauce (Ap. 7.8); a neck joint also cooked in a layer of sauce (Ap. 7.5.5) and a boned stuffed kid (Ap. 8.6.6).

Line drawing

Initially I tried a favourite dish known as ‘Parthian chicken’; technically a ‘pot roast’ (Apicius 6.8.3). Chicken pieces are cooked in a ceramic dish in a mixture of wine and fish sauce with caraway, lovage, asafoetida and pepper. We are simply told to cook it without any indication as to whether it’s on a heat source or in one. I found straight away that I had to provide twice the space and twice the fire size to heat both pieces of this new vessel in the same way as I would for the single oven.

This implies a more sophisticated kitchen with a greater volume of fire at the disposal of the cook. The recipe does not suggest you fry the meat first but I tried by adding oil and heating the bottom dish and found that this was very possible. When the vessel was put together, despite the flat base which prevents the embers going right underneath it, the fire is still able to be placed under and on top of the wide flange and as the fire must also be placed on the lid, we can assume that it’s possible to have three levels of fire around the dish with the potential to create an intense level of heat.

Oven with charcoal beneath and on top of it

As the cooking progressed I was able to check inside and found that the sauce was simmering consistently all around the meat and generating plenty of steam which, in a similar way to a traditional tagine, gathers in the dome and falls back into the dish, preventing the meat from drying out. The chicken legs cooked in 45 minutes to a degree whereby the leg bone came out of the meat when pulled which was quite impressive!

Chicken cooking in the oven

In order to test the vessel for its dry baking efficiency I heated both pieces as before but left the base vessel for longer. It was clear from other cooking experiments I had conducted with Roman ceramic vessels over charcoal that when the fabric stays dry over intense radiant heat it is much more fragile and susceptible to cracking. Which, sadly, happened. The base vessel cracked quite quickly but only from one side and the subsequent bake was completed. I did not get that wonderful perky ‘lift’ one expects of a bake stone but as the dome is quite shallow it does not seem to me likely that the vessel was used to bake risen loaves of bread.

Flatter bread is generally baked with a drop scone technique on an open bake stone and the lid is unnecessary. In my experiments the colour and crust came out quite good and the crumb light and airy. I need to bake more bread in the vessel and also attempt to bake other cakes such as the libum ‘Roman cheese cake’ in order to determine whether baking was truly possible in these vessels.

Bread in the oven

First thoughts after cooking with the vessel three times now? It is super-efficient as a general purpose casserole for what we would call ‘pot roasting’: roasting in small amounts of liquid. It has proved less effective as a dry oven whether it be for meat or bread and cakes.

The naming of things and in fact the concept of defining the purpose of an artefact from the past is very problematic as we almost always use modern concepts to define ancient things and this can interfere with our interpretation. So for instance today we bake in an oven, but stew or braise in a casserole. A casserole generally functions today with wet food or sauces and either inside an oven with a radiant heat source or above a heat source on a hob. Rarely does it function as an oven in itself as the ancient casseroles seem to do when the fire is in direct contact with the vessel.

I think we can be fairly certain that the vessel in the exhibition is a form of clibanus but that term seems to be rather more complex than simply a ‘portable oven’. It might be better to define this ancient clibanus not as an oven at all but as a ‘tagine’.

Drawings by Dan Shadrake

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, Research,

A very versatile Roman oven

A very versatile Roman ovenSally Grainger, chef and author

In my previous post about Roman cooking I described a type of oven used to bake and roast food about 2,000 years ago. Known as a clibanus it was a sophisticated piece of cooking technology most likely used by the wealthy, and one with which I have spent many years experimenting.

These ovens were made with very course gritted clay and ranged in size from 15-50 cm in diameter, with walls of up to 10 cm high. A central hole seems to have been for regulating the temperature and could also allow cooks to keep an eye on the food baking inside. A flange allowed the fire to be placed on the top of the oven.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

The sites in Italy where these ovens have been identified tend to be rather elite villa complexes where one could imagine the baking of delicate cakes and also warm bread for dinner. It is not necessarily apparent that these ovens were used by the less well off as a means of cooking simpler fair, and it is often assumed that they took their bread to be baked at large bakery complexes in towns, while we do not know what the rural poor did about baking at home. There was an assumption that they didn’t eat bread but made puls wheat porridge in a cooking pot over a wood fire.

The poem attributed to Virgil called moretum suggests that a relatively lowly market gardener baked his bread sub testu: under one of these ovens, though the status of this man is quite difficult to determine. He is considered a peasant, but he sells his produce in town and comes home with a heavy purse on occasion. Identifying these ovens is also not easy as they often come to pieces after prolonged use and recognising the shards (broken pieces) as testa (ovens) is problematic.

There is quite a detailed description of this oven in use in an agricultural manual written by Cato the Elder, in 150 BC. The recipe is for a special sacrificial cake called rather unfortunately placenta: the reason for which is another story altogether. It is a complex layered construction with sweet pasta sheets and cheese and honey bound in an outer pastry shell which might best be described as a round cheese strudel. While being constructed, the cook is advised to ‘heat the hearth and the testum where you are to cook’. Then ‘make the hearth ready beforehand and place the placenta on it, cover with a heated testum and place hot coals on top and around it’ (i).

From original drawings and reconstructed ovens the instructions on how to use it seemed quite logical, although my initial experiments were rather haphazard. I used a wood fire at first and rapidly broke the first oven I owned – we find evidence of metal versions of these ovens in Greece which could be used with a wood fire but ceramic, even very coarse material as these were, could not tolerate an open flame for long. Subsequently I used charcoal with much greater success.

Now I bake so often it has become second nature. The oven needs to be raised above the fire in order to be heated, so a trivet is used. Leaving the vessel directly on the fire caused rapid heat differential which caused cracking and sometimes put the fire that was inside the dome out.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

I left the oven to heat over a charcoal fire and found that the hole acted as a chimney to draw the fire quite well. After a time it seemed better to close the hole and keep the heat in. The hearth I used was a raised platform and its position was crucial as a strong draft also helped the fire to heat. After about an hour or sometimes longer when the heat from the surface caused our spit to sizzle – a past visit to a wood-fired bakery had already told me that when the roof of these ovens is white hot that is when the baker knows it is ready to use.

At this point the hearth needs to be prepared which meant cleaning away the fire so that the cake or bread could go directly onto a tile or ceramic hearth. The fire was brushed aside to make space as big as the oven, and my freshly proved loaf or a Roman cake called a libum was placed on this hot surface with a bay leaf beneath for flavour.

The oven is put back over the cake and then the fire is piled around the sides and on top. A good bake requires good quality ‘restaurant charcoal’ (heavier and therefore long lasting) to retain plenty of latent energy. It is then possible to place fresh charcoal close to the already alight coals so that a continuous fire can be maintained. The remaining embers and smaller pieces of charcoal are pushed around the sides of the oven evenly spaced so that no area is left unheated. Doing this I was able to reach 410F (210C) on a regular basis when baking bread, so could then bake and roast very efficiently.

I can only indicate the quality of the bake by offering the following:

The crust on my sour dough was beautifully thick and crisp even when cooled; meat on the legs of a small chicken roasted for 45 minutes in a dish rather than directly on the hearth, fell to pieces; a lamb shank cooked for one and a quarter hours was similarly tender, and belly pork fell apart and had super crackling after the same amount of time.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the relatively small space inside the oven is such that any potential moisture both from bread and also meat is retained around the food being cooked so that a steam/roast/bake process is going on. Bakers know of course that you need steam to create a good crust and now it has become common to find modern catering ovens with added steam.

All manner of complicated techniques are used to achieve the desired moist atmosphere yet 2,000 years ago the Romans had invented the technique already.

i. C. Grocock and S Grainger, 2002 Moretum: a peasant lunch revisited. The meal: proceedings of the oxford symposium on food and cookery 2001, Prospect books Totnes, pp.95-104.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Chiseldon cauldrons, Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, , , ,

Heat, steam and Roman cooking

Heat, steam and Roman cookingSally Grainger, chef and author

There are two exhibitions on at the British Museum at the moment which relate to the theme of Roman cooking and dining.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain evokes a late Roman dining room, including a partial reconstruction of a curved dining couch, or stibadium, arranged around the Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure. Many have puzzled as to how these huge silver platters were used: what kinds of food, if any, were placed on them and was it acceptable to cover up the fine carving?

Having spent many years studying and experimenting to understand what Romans ate and how they prepared and made it, my particular interest is not so much with the outward service of the food, but the actual cooking process. It is clear from ancient texts that the preparation of dishes for fine dining was very sophisticated with intricate vessels combining steam and oven heat and also gentle delicate poaching and simmering: techniques one does not normally associate with ancient cultures.

Food also features heavily in Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which has a unique and inspired focus as Dr Paul Roberts, curator, has re-created the shell of a Roman home, each room containing the artefacts associated with the function of that room.

When I visited, I entered the kitchen room with huge anticipation. I was not disappointed: a good selection of bronze cooking pans, and food residues of all kinds including one of those wonderful carbonised loaves of bread and dried fruits, seeds and nuts which are so perfectly recognisable. The cooking equipment is very fine; a compact little portable brazier that appears to be the kind shared around by the tenement dwellers, and most importantly for me a double clibanus or portable oven/ casserole.

Many years ago, Dr Roberts was responsible, along with two other archaeologists, in reporting on these ovens and had alluded to the idea of a double one, but no drawings existed and I had long been impatient to see one (i). He tells me that when he found this oven in the Naples store he just had to have it for the exhibition and I am so grateful that he did as it is a beautiful piece of cooking technology that I am eager to experiment with.

Many years ago now I had one of the more common single bodied clibanus ovens made by potter Andrew Macdonald. Since then these ovens have spread among the Roman historical re-enactment fraternity and I see them wherever Roman cooking is demonstrated. Over the years I have had numerous versions made (as they inevitably fall apart under the thermal shock) and have also developed the skills needed to bake and roast in them and written about these experiences in my own publications on Roman food (ii).

Replica of a double clibanus oven

Replica of a double clibanus oven

On Sunday 19 May I received a replica of a double clibanus made just three weeks after the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition opened, by potter Chris Lydamore whose creations are highly valued as museum replicas as well as by historical re-constructionists.

My first experiments with this new piece will be reported on here soon. But as a preliminary I will start with a look at how the single-bodied oven works.

i. Cubberley et al 1988 AL Cubberly, J.A Lloyd, P.C. Roberts, Testa and clibani: the baking covers of classical Italy. Papers of the British school at Rome 61, pp. 98-119

ii. C. Grocock, and S. Grainger. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with Introduction and English Translation. Totnes: Prospect Books. Grainger, S. 1999 Cato’s roman cheesecakes: the baking techniques, Milk:beyond the dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on food and cookery, Prospect books Totnes, pp.168-178

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , , ,

Wine and monks in Christian Egypt

Wine and monks in Christian EgyptJennifer Cromwell, British Museum

For the better part of three months, I’ve been obsessed with wine and monks.

The monks in question were residents of an Egyptian (Coptic) monastery dedicated to Apa Thomas and located in Wadi Sarga, a valley in central Egypt, dating from the sixth to late eighth centuries AD (from the fourth century, Egypt was one of the most important centres of monasticism in the early Christian world). The site was excavated in a single season before the First World War and the British Museum was the principal recipient of objects found at that time: almost 2,800 objects made from pottery, glass, metals, wood, stone, bone, and textiles. The Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan also holds the original excavation notes and photographs of the excavator Reginald Campbell Thompson. Despite this wealth of material, the monastery is often overlooked in studies on Egyptian monasticism.

Archival photograph showing remains of the monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga (AES Ar 1260)

Archival photograph showing remains of the monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga (AES Ar 1260)

One of the reasons for this is that less than 15% of this material has been published. My three-month postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan has been part of the process to rectify this, as part of Wadi Sarga at the British Museum, a larger project under the direction of curator Elisabeth O’Connell. This project brings together specialists from across the UK and overseas, focussing on different aspects of the collection. My focus is on the written evidence from the site.

A selection of texts from Wadi Sarga (clockwise from top left): EA 56631 (fragment of a liturgy); EA 55778 (an order to pay wine to a nun called Irene); EA 69889 (a broken inscribed bowl, preserving ‘Jesus Christ, Brother …’); EA 55876 (a wine receipt, dated 8 September)

A selection of texts from Wadi Sarga (clockwise from top left): EA 56631 (fragment of a liturgy); EA 55778 (an order to pay wine to a nun called Irene); EA 69889 (a broken inscribed bowl, preserving ‘Jesus Christ, Brother …’); EA 55876 (a wine receipt, dated 8 September)

Some 385 texts written on pieces of pottery, or potsherds (the standard writing medium at the site, known as ostraca), limestone stelae, papyrus (now in the British Library), and wall graffiti were published in 1922. Over 1,000 additional items bear text of some type, from letters to lists to labels. My first task was to photograph all this material. A search for “Wadi Sarga ostracon” in the Museum’s collection online now returns 1,441 objects with images. This resource is available for everybody interested in this topic, and means that I can continue my own work on the monastery upon my return to Australia (Macquarie University, Sydney).

My main interest is how these monks lived and how the monastery functioned: how they spent their time, what they ate and drank, and who they communicated with in the outside world and why. In everything, wine looms large.

Jennifer Cromwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, photographing ostraca from Wadi Sarga

Jennifer Cromwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, photographing ostraca from Wadi Sarga

The monastery owned vineyards throughout Egypt, as far north as the Fayum, almost 400 km away along the Nile. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of wine entered the monastery each year. A proportion of this wine was used to pay labour wages for camel herders, craftsmen, and goods suppliers and was sent out to other communities. But the monks also consumed a fair share themselves. Wine was the main drink in this period of Egyptian history and the monks were no exception; remains of glass goblets (currently being studied by my colleague Jane Faiers) attest to its consumption on site. In addition to standard wine, which didn’t have the same alcoholic content as that which we consume today, we find “new” wine, “old” wine (probably not “vintage” — there was no Château-Lafite Rothschild being supped over dinner), and “unmixed” (pure) wine. After consuming the wine, many amphorae, easily identifiable by their thick pitch internal coating, were broken and used to write other texts, often themselves mentioning wine.

The names of many monks are known, but it’s difficult to build biographies of most of them and to understand who they were. We know even less about what they looked like, but every now and again we are treated with a more personal glimpse. Two unpublished ostraca preserve broken visages. The first, EA 70766, has a doodle of a shaggy-haired monk with a thick mono-brow above two heavy eyelids. This (self?-) portrait was drawn in a moment of boredom from practicing writing exercises and is one of a couple of doodles on this school text. The second, EA 69879, is part of a bowl with the name Phib scratched into the surface. On the broken base of this bowl are the scratched-in eyes, nose, hair, and hands of Phib, his hands waving at us from over 1,300 years ago.

EA 70766 (left) and EA 69879 (right) showing broken images of monks from Wadi Sarga

EA 70766 (left) and EA 69879 (right) showing broken images of monks from Wadi Sarga

The texts, as part of a large body of material from Wadi Sarga, provide an excellent source for understanding life in these centuries, and are the next best thing to actually sitting down with Phib over a glass of wine and picking his brain.

A select number of items from Wadi Sarga is on display in Room 66: Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt.

Find out more about the Wadi Sarga at the British Museum research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , , , , ,

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