British Museum blog

How to collect a cave: digital photography and African rock art

digitally manipulated photograph of African rock art from Tadrat Acacus, Libya
Elizabeth Galvin, curator, British Museum

I am currently looking at 25,000 objects from the Museum’s collection on my desk. These fantastic works detail an important part of human history in Africa and range from beautiful bas-relief cattle to stunning painted representations of women dancing. Yet these items are not from the Museum’s storage facilities: they are saved on a hard drive, as part of the African rock art image project. The project team is cataloguing and uploading these 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent, so each one of them is being registered into the Museum’s collection as an object in its own right and made available through the Collection Online.

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad. © TARA/David Coulson

While digital collections are a relatively new area for the museum industry, they are showing new and exciting ways museum visitors can engage with the collections, as well as adding to our scholarship. As part of this project, the digital photographs have allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ in Africa.

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685 © TARA/David Coulson

For example, this digital photograph shows a piece of rock art that has been chipped and faded through natural erosion. With the naked eye, we can see some remnants of a red-brown pigment. Maybe this was the legs of a quadruped or perhaps two abstract human figures. Most of the rock art in this area is thousands of years old, so knowing exactly what it looked like before it was eroded used to be impossible without extensive tests that could have easily destroyed the original work.

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685, showing enhanced elephant image

Digitally manipulated copy of the above photo (2013,2034.685) showing enhanced elephant image

Now, however, using photo manipulation software, we can run the photograph through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye. In this one, we can see that the legs belong to an elephant, complete with large ears, a tail and trunk.

Digitally manipulated copy of 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Run the same image through another enhancement, and we can see many more human figures that were previously invisible. The elephant is still somewhat visible in the background, highlighted in pink. But the fantastic hunters to the top right of the photo would never have been identifiable in the original rock art. Now we can see them with their bows and arrows in an active hunting scene. ‘Swimming’ figures are now highlighted in the centre of the photograph. At the right of the image, we are also able to see a section of a giraffe, depicted with a spotted coat.

By using new technologies with the digital collections, we are not only able to enhance our study of the rock art, but also to build a database to ensure open access to our work. We are regularly using social media, blogs (like this one), and thematic articles on the main Museum website, both to increase access to these amazing works of rock art, and to facilitate discussion with our online visitors across the world. While the Museum’s physical collections will always be at the core of its work, digital collections are letting us see objects in a new light. After all, a 21st-century museum requires 21st-century collecting.

On Monday 6 October 2014 at 1.30pm, Elizabeth Galvin will be giving a free public lecture on African Rock Art and Photography with renowned photographer David Coulson (from the Trust for African Rock Art),  in the BP lecture Theatre at the British Museum in London. Tickets are free, but booking is recommended via the British Museum website to ensure a place.

For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.

The African rock art image project is supported by the Arcadia Fund

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

Traces of the past: rock art and life in ancient North Africa

Painted and engraved rock art and graffiti from Aharar Mellen, Acacus Mountains, Fezzan District, Libya

Victoria Suzman, project cataloguer, African rock art image project, British Museum

Engraved elephant, Acacus Mountains, Libya

Engraved elephant, from Wadi Raharmellen, Acacus Mountains, Fezzan District, Libya (all images below are from this same site). © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1630

Engraved elephant, from Wadi Raharmellen, Acacus Mountains, Fezzan District, Libya. Image digitally modified. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1630

Engraved elephant (image digitally modified). © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1630

In a valley of Libya’s Acacus Mountains, in the middle of the Sahara Desert, an elephant steps out from under an overhang of red rock. Giraffes, cows, camels, people, a horse and a hare are there too. They may seem out of place in such a harsh environment, but they are not lost: they have been there for thousands of years, painted and engraved on the rock shelter wall.

Rock shelter wall with multiple paintings and engravings of humans, cows, camels,  ostriches, giraffes, an elephant, Libyan-Berber script and unidentified quadrupeds. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1563

Rock shelter wall with multiple paintings and engravings of humans, cows, camels, ostriches, giraffes, an elephant, Libyan-Berber script and unidentified quadrupeds. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1563

The African rock art image project team here at the British Museum is currently cataloguing photographs of rock paintings and engravings from Libya, Morocco and Algeria to add to the British Museum’s Collection database. Already, over 4,000 records from these countries, as well as from Egypt and Sudan, can be seen online. You can find out why we’re cataloguing almost 25,000 images from the archives of the Trust for African Rock Art by reading our previous blog post.

The photographs depict rock art from throughout the continent, created over millennia and encompassing diverse subjects and styles, sometimes represented side by side on the same rock surface. This Libyan site, in Wadi Raharmellen, is just such an example, with its variety of depictions and inscriptions made by different hands. So who created these particular images, and how old are they?

The earliest rock art in the Acacus is thought to consist of engravings of wild animals, such as the elephant and the giraffes. Archaeological evidence dates early hunter-gatherers here from around 9000 BC, during the Sahara’s last wet period, when the area was less arid and supported such large animals, which now only live much further south.

Detail from on wall of rock shelter, showing naturalistic figure of cow in red, upright and facing left. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1626

Detail from on wall of rock shelter, showing naturalistic figure of cow in red, upright and facing left. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1626

It is sometimes possible to estimate the earliest date at which rock art could have been made based on the first known introductions of the domestic animals they depict to this part of the world: cattle (from about 7,000 years ago), horses (from about 3,000 years ago) and camels (from about 2,000 years ago).

Engraved Libyan-Berber script, with horse and two giraffes (facing right). © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1578

Engraved Libyan-Berber script, with horse and two giraffes (facing right). © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1578

Engraved Arabic script. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1575

Engraved Arabic script. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1575

In this rock shelter, the bright white figure of a camel is painted over an engraved elephant. To the right of this, the necks of two engraved giraffes have inscriptions all over them: the writing is Libyan-Berber (an ancestor of modern Tifinagh script), which is not fully understood. The presence of Arabic, carved further along the rock face, seems to bring the story of the use of this great communal canvas into recent times.

The dating of rock art is notoriously difficult. Although paintings here appear to be younger than the oldest engravings, the tradition of engraving endured. Step back a few paces from the small elephant, and it is dwarfed by another image to the right: the outline of a cow, not painted like the red one above, but incised deeply into the rock.

Engraved cow and antelope hoofprints. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1572

Engraved cow and antelope hoofprints. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1572

Further along is an ostrich carved with equal conviction. This might be contemporaneous with the cow, as there was a period of overlap when cattle herders and animals such as ostriches and gazelle coexisted. Recent archaeological evidence from this area also seems to indicate that people were corralling, if not domesticating, wild sheep here before cattle arrived. Perhaps nowhere is the intermingling of wild and domestic animals better illustrated than in the centre of the panel, where the engraved hoof-prints of an antelope and a cow are printed into the rock face, side by side.

Engraved human figure with two painted ostriches, Libyan-Berber script and (cut-off at right), painted human and camel figures and engraved rump of elephant

Engraved human figure with two painted ostriches, Libyan-Berber script and (cut off at right, painted human and camel figures and engraved rump of elephant. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1603

Ostriches are the only wild animals painted on this panel: three small, white ostrich figures are shown one behind the other, facing left, below the more recently painted series of camels, with their stylised drivers and raised arms. Both of these processions are dwarfed by the engraved human figure to their right, striding purposefully towards them, whose delicately lifelike engraved outline implies a different time and artistic tradition from the creator of the daubed, faceless camel-drivers.

These human figures, depicted among the animals, serve as a reminder of the different creators of this art, who came from different time periods and cultures, and for whom the images must have had different personal meanings and significances. This, in turn, cautions researchers of the difficulty in ascribing overarching interpretations and motivations to rock art, since it is not a genre with specific traditions, but rather the use of a variety of possible techniques to mark a durable and abundant natural canvas: rock. Some images may have been made for religious purposes, some with the aim of specific communication; still others may be products of experimentation, or even of boredom.

The project covers rock art spanning thousands of years, over an entire continent. Such breadth and variety throws up many challenges and questions, as well as imagery and evidence for various practices and material cultures. As we progress down through Africa, we’ll be updating our project pages with articles and discussions on these themes, as well as updates and features on individual sites and images. We hope you will join us on our digital journey as we explore this rich artistic heritage.

Engraving of a hare facing right. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1630

Engraving of a hare facing right. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1630

Engraving of a hare facing right. Image digitally modified. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1630

Engraving of a hare facing right. Image digitally modified. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1630

The African rock art image project is supported by the Arcadia Fund.

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Introducing the African rock art image project

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

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

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

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

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

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

San rock painting, Zimbabwe.  © David Coulson/ TARA

San rock painting, Zimbabwe. © David Coulson/ TARA


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exploring mobile money in Sierra Leone

Mobile money advert in Sierra LeoneSophie Mew, British Museum

Every six months, one corner of the Citi Money Gallery (Room 68) is changed to help tell the evolving story of money, its many forms and its meaning in the modern world. In December 2012, the opportunity arose to help curate the redisplay of this temporary exhibition panel.

Our guiding principles for the display were that we had to focus on new technologies and the changing ways in which people use their money, from online payments, to mobile phone use, and other digital technologies. The second criterion was that the case studies we used had to come from the African continent.

My colleagues and I decided to focus on the uses of mobile money and explore the wide range of experiences of mobile money systems.

I was due to carry out fieldwork in Sierra Leone for the Money in Africa research project, so I decided to investigate the uses of mobile money in the capital city, Freetown. I was conscious of the need to explain the concept of mobile money to visitors to the gallery as clearly and concisely as possible within a limited space, while leaving room for real life case studies. When I was considering which objects to source from Sierra Leone, I also faced the challenge of how to select visually inspiring objects to explain a topic that is, essentially, a virtual one.

Before I left for Sierra Leone, I researched mobile money companies that were operating in the country and contacted Splash and Airtel members of staff for interviews. When I got there, I questioned a wide range of people, including museum curators, shopkeepers, street hawkers and taxi drivers about their experiences with mobile money.

Mobile money advert in Sierra Leone

Mobile money advert in Sierra Leone

Having seen TV adverts, billboards posted around the city or heard about it on the radio, most people I spoke to were curious about the idea of making and receiving payments via their mobile phones but there was a general sense of confusion as to what mobile money actually was or how it could be used. This led to mistrust, which was confirmed during an interview I carried out with a Splash employee, who explained that security concerns were the most frequently asked questions. People wanted to know how safe their money was, whether they could contact the company if things went wrong, what would happen if their phone was stolen and, for some individuals in business, how they could ensure the privacy of their account.

For now, mobile phone companies in Sierra Leone are busy promoting themselves around the country. They put on road shows with PA systems where they distribute leaflets and t-shirts such as the one we decided to display in the gallery. Freelancers are employed by marketing teams to encourage potential agents to join their networks. They carry out media talk shows; visiting schools and offices to explain to people the advantages of using mobile money systems in a country where the infrastructure is limited, literacy levels are low and where banks are not widely used.

Current examples of where mobile money systems can be most useful included being able to transport the equivalent of large wads of notes that no one can physically see, paying school fees and topping up electricity meters without leaving your own home. The marketing of mobile money systems is not yet considered ‘aggressive’ – rather, there is a focus on education, on explaining to people how the transactions work so that they can feel confident enough to use it themselves.

Mobile money on display

Mobile money on display

The objects and images that my colleagues and I selected for the display panel have enabled us to visually explain Sierra Leone’s mobile money systems through, for example, local SIM cards, a mobile phone, coins and banknotes. Promotional material, including a t-shirt and accompanying photographs of Freetown help illustrate the ways in which mobile money companies are trying to introduce the concept to potential customers for the first time.

In a gallery that shows the many different kinds of objects used as currency over more than 4,000 years, mobile phones, digital technology and how they are coming into use make for fascinating additions. In some ways they are the latest in a very long line of technological innovations that mark the constantly evolving story of money.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Researching ‘old’ as well as ‘new’ kinds of money in West Africa

Documents from 1931-33Sophie Mew, Project Curator, Money in Africa

I’ve been working on the Money in Africa research project to understand how coin and note currencies were introduced to the coastal regions of Africa and how their usage had spread widely by the close of the nineteenth century.

With two former British West African colonies, the Gold Coast (what is now known as Ghana) and Sierra Leone (one of the earliest British settlements on the coast), most of my research so far has been carried out at the National Archives in London, in Accra (Ghana) and in Freetown (Sierra Leone). In each place, I’ve consulted documents relating to a wide range of accounts about currencies. These included, for example, colonial despatches written by the governors of Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast and sent to the Secretaries of State in London; records that were created by and filed in the Treasury department in London, as well as diaries from merchants trading to West Africa.

Documents from the 1930s

Documents from 1931-33, PRAAD records

One of my early finds was a series of detailed instructions for traders on an expedition to the west coast of Africa in 1796. The Governor of Freetown at the time requested that the traders gather as much information as possible to understand what it was that locals preferred to trade with, at each stage, and at what value. At the National Archives in Ghana in June 2012, I found a series of similar despatches that were distributed to District Officers in 1944. Questions related to coins and notes and what they were used for, as they sought to gather information on the preferences of “the man on the street”. Responses suggested, for example, that people who could read preferred notes while labourers preferred coins. The 1/10th shilling was used as a counter for gambling in Obuasi, and notes could be inconvenient: the “average cloth wearing African was used to carrying his money tied up in a corner of his cloth with the result that notes became crumpled and torn, got wet and became pulp.”

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

Inside the Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College,

I took my first trip to Sierra Leone in January 2013 where I researched the holdings of the branch of the National Archives, located on the University Campus (Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, is the oldest university in West Africa). At the top of a treacherously steep hill overlooking the city, I consulted lists of annual stipends that the British colonial government paid to local chiefs in exchange for leasing their land, and trawled through records of fines and fees paid to the colonial police to find out what currencies people were using and when.

In conjunction with my archival research for the Money in Africa project, I was also seeking information about the use of mobile money in Sierra Leone as part of a redisplay of an exhibition panel in the Citi Money Gallery. This display panel addresses the future of money and new technologies, and is updated every six months to showcase new studies.

As I questioned members of the public in Freetown, friends I had made, and staff members of mobile money companies, I understood the wariness that people have in trusting new kinds of money and the difficulties with trying out alternative systems. What I found fascinating here was that similar justifications for the practicality of using new coins and banknotes in the nineteenth century were being repeated to me within the contexts of mobile money in Sierra Leone today.

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Find out more about the Money in Africa project

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kangaChristopher Spring, British Museum

Tremendous celebrations greeted the news in Kenya, his father’s homeland, of Barack Obama’s election, on November 4 2008, as 44th President of the United States – and of his re-election for a second term in November 2012. Thousands of kangas bearing his image were proudly worn throughout the land. The inscription in Kiswahili reads: ‘Congratulations Barack Obama. God has granted us Love and Peace’. This kanga is on display as part of a special temporary exhibition at the British Museum looking at the textile traditions of southern and eastern Africa.

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Kangas are rectangular printed cloths, each with their own inscription written in the same place in every design; they are sold and worn in matching pairs and are principally a woman’s garment in eastern Africa, though often worn singly by men at home and by Maasai men in public.

A combination of inscription, overall design, and the ways in which a kanga may be worn make it a remarkable medium of communication. Kangas may be used to demonstrate a woman’s stance on global issues, her political allegiance and even her alignment with a collective vision for the future.

Kangas reflect changing times, fashions and tastes. They provide a detailed chronology of the social, political, religious, emotional and sexual concerns of those who wear them. Their patterns and inscriptions also vary according to the age of the wearer and the context in which the cloth is worn. Kangas provide ways of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties. They move between the realms of the secular and the sacred, playing a central role in all the major rite-of-passage ceremonies in a woman’s life, yet also are used for the most mundane of functions.

The rectangular form of today’s kanga, with a continuous border, a central image or pattern, and an inscription in Kiswahili, has changed considerably from early prototypes. The first kangas were created in the late nineteenth century by sewing together six printed handkerchiefs, lenço, which the Portuguese had traded to eastern Africa for centuries. Soon hand-stamped versions on a single piece of cloth replaced the sewn lenço, and these in turn were superseded by factory-printed textiles, while all the time the form and patterning of kanga were evolving. The most successful designs and inscriptions are those which will appeal most to women, so manufacturers depend heavily on the advice of their female African customers. There was little doubt that the Obama kanga would be a best-seller.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 14 February 2013.

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga is on display in the exhibition Social fabric: African textiles today until 21 April 2013.

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London, a world city in 20 objects: the Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of ChristChristopher Spring, British Museum

The modern state of Ethiopia was created from an ancient kingdom founded over two millennia ago. Originally extending across the Red Sea into what is now Yemen, the Aksumite Empire of Ethiopia became Christian in the fourth century. It is associated with the biblical mythologies of Solomon and of Sheba, and in the medieval west with the Christian Patriarch Prester John. Ethiopia is mentioned several times in the Bible, and its church is one of the oldest in the world. Although Ethiopia, then as now, is a country of many faiths and cultures, including Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Ethiopian Christian churches thrive among diaspora communities, with many congregations based in London. This remarkable painting tells multiple stories, with layered meanings, about Christianity and empire.

The Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of Christ

It was created in the mid-nineteenth century for the Church of the Saviour of the World at Adwa in northern Ethiopia. Its central image of the Crucifixion of Christ was painted to inspire devotion among Ethiopian Christians. There is a convention in Ethiopian religious painting for the unbelievers or evil-doers to be painted in profile and for the righteous to be painted full face – therefore the two thieves with whom Christ was crucified are depicted only in profile. At the foot of the cross Christ’s blood flows into the mouth of the skull of Adam signifying humanity’s redemption through the blood of the redeemer.

The smaller scenes around the edge of the painting celebrate Bishop Selama, the Abune (Patriarch) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from 1841-1867. One scene shows the arrival of the Abune in Gandabta in 1841; Bishop Selama is shown riding on a donkey being greeted by jubilant crowds.

Church paintings at this time were an important means of communication and observers would have been able to identify the recent events depicted. For example, the third scene to the left shows Bishop Selama, wearing a red, hooded cape, anointing Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia at his coronation in 1855. Tewodros had an ambitious plan to unite and modernise the country, and is still regarded as a hero by many Ethiopians.

These illustrations of Bishop Selama’s life provide an insight into the complex relationship between Church and state in Ethiopia at the time, depicting a struggle for power. The coronation of Emperor Tewodros by Abune Selama reflects on their initial alliance and the Emperor’s need for the church’s support in unifying Ethiopia politically. However, it was an alliance which eventually collapsed largely because of Emperor Tewodros’ almost unstoppable desire for modernisation and the control of ecclesiastical power.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard in January 2013.

The Crucifixion of Christ is on display in Room 25: Africa

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London, a world city in 20 objects: shield (gaschan)

ShieldChristopher Spring, British Museum

The Somali community has grown in London in recent years and its impact can be witnessed in one of the newest acquisitions to the British Museum’s collection, a button badge with the slogan ‘I love Mo Farah’, the Somali born runner who was such an inspiration throughout the 2012 Olympic Games. But the Museum’s collection contains many fascinating objects of Somali origin, such as this Hippopotamus hide shield on display in the Sainsbury African Galleries.

Shield (Gaschan)

Shield (gaschan)

Somali shields were very much smaller than those from neighbouring Ethiopia, being not much larger than a dinner plate, though their perfect circular shape was created in a similar way. The first stage was to cut out a piece of untreated hippopotamus hide, then to place it over a shaped wooden mould sunk firmly in the ground. Any hair would be scraped off at this stage, and the hide would be allowed to dry. Then several coats of oil would be applied over a period of days, causing the hide to swell, while at the same time being beaten with a mallet to achieve a tough and virtually impenetrable surface.

The shield maker would then use a number of special hammers to apply embossed markings to the supple surface before allowing the hide to dry out completely. Despite their small size, Somali shields are extremely strong – and may be looked upon almost as offensive rather than defensive weapons. They had a very large hand grip which would allow the owner to push the shield up his arm when not in combat.

Undoubtedly the significance of shields extended far beyond their purely functional capabilities. Possessing a fine, perfectly round and bleached white shield was an indication of a man’s standing in society. Some shields also have intricate designs, painted in henna, beneath the grip on the reverse side. These were known as ‘marriage shields’ and formed part of the dowry given by the bride’s father to his son-in-law. Similar shields were used in the Arabian Peninsula, and there is evidence to suggest they were made in Somalia for export, particularly to Oman.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 17 January 2013.

The shield is on display in Room 25: Africa

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi, 2001

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El SalahiChristopher Spring, British Museum

The Khartoum School, under the leadership of Ibrahim El Salahi, began to be recognised in the 1960s as an emergent modernist movement producing a distinctive means of expression known as Sudanawiyya – a synthesis of Western styles of art with other traditions, reflecting the remarkable ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of Sudan. Salahi explains part of the rationale behind the movement:

“Originality, human originality, does not mean creating something out of nothing as such a claim is well beyond the capability of mankind. Originality in my opinion means to be able to create the new out of what is already there in existence. One simply makes a new addition, a sort of a new idea, a fresh leaf atop that same old tree of creation”.

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi

Among the traditions which inspire and inform Salahi’s work is that of the patched tunic, jibba, which was the distinctive uniform of the followers of Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi or ‘rightly guided one’ who in 1884 led a jihad or Holy War to establish the Mahdist State in Sudan. The jibba was inspired by the ragged muraqqa’a which for centuries had been the dress of the Sufi religious orders, signifying their contempt for worldly goods.

The artist Ibrahim El Salahi, himself a member of a Sufi brotherhood, sees the jibba as a metaphor for the remarkably diverse nature of Sudanese society, the patches symbolising different cultures and beliefs in various parts of the country. In his Tree series El Salahi makes reference to the form of the jibba as well as to the human form, suggesting a Tree of Life in Sudan. Created in 2001 using coloured inks on paper, Tree was produced in the artist’s UK studio. Although the Mahdist State ceased to exist following the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, Mahdism, through the mouthpiece of the Umma party, remains a vital political force in Sudan today.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 6 December 2012.

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi is on display in Room 25: Africa

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The spirit of Sierra Leone in London

Sowei mask naming ceremonyPaul Basu, University College London

The latest Asahi Shimbun Display Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone opened to the public this week. The display is the most recent outcome of collaborations between the British Museum’s Africa Programme and various partners including the Sierra Leone National Museum, the Reanimating Cultural Heritage project based at University College London, and members of the Sierra Leone diaspora community in the UK.

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

The particular object in focus in the exhibition is a wooden helmet mask associated with the female Sande society. It was collected in the 1880s by Thomas J. Alldridge (1847-1916), whose entire career was spent in Sierra Leone, first as a trading agent and subsequently as a British colonial administrator. Alldridge, who travelled widely throughout the region, wrote two significant books about Sierra Leone, The Sherbro and its Hinterland (1901) and A Transformed Colony: Sierra Leone as it was and as it is (1910). Alldridge had a particular interest in native customs, cultural practices and masquerade traditions, and especially those associated with what were then described as ‘secret societies’ – chiefly the male Poro society, and its female counterpart, the Sande society. He wrote about these extensively in his books, assembled a large collection of local artefacts, and took some of the earliest photographs we have of traditional Sierra Leonean life. In 1886, Alldridge collected a number of objects from the Sherbro district of Sierra Leone specifically for display in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London that year. The mask on display in the British Museum was one of them, and to the best of our knowledge this is the first time it has been on public display for over 120 years.

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Typical of collectors of his day, Alldridge recorded very little information about the mask. It was described in the lurid language of the time as ‘one of the most prominent Fetishes worshipped in [the region]’. In fact, as visitors to the exhibition will discover, such masks were – and continue to be – regarded as manifestations of particular spirits who act as guardians and teachers of the Sande society. They are mediators between the human world and the world of the spirits. Like people, every mask/spirit has a name and an individual personality.

In preparation for this display we worked closely with members of the Sierra Leonean diaspora community in London. On 16 February 2013 visitors to the British Museum were treated to a rare opportunity to see a special performance of the ndoli jowei, the Sande masquerade, to celebrate the opening of Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone.

During initial meetings with the Sierra Leonean community, the women were concerned that the mask to be displayed had lost its name. They proposed holding a special ceremony to give the mask a new name and, 127 years after originally entering the Museum’s collections, to formally present the mask to the British Museum on behalf of the Sande society.

The ceremony took place in a private room at the British Museum on 23 January 2013. The women were dressed in white and had white clay daubed on their skin as is customary in the Sande society. Accompanied by the shegbureh, a shaker made from a gourd surrounded by a network of beads, the women sang traditional Sande songs and danced around the as yet nameless mask. The participants then surrounded the mask in silence as the head woman addressed the spirit of the mask directly. After pouring a libation, the naming itself took place. Four cowrie shells were thrown to determine the name. If all four land the same way up, this is a sign that the spirit has accepted its name. After numerous attempts, the mask accepted the name Gbavo (meaning ‘to attract people’s attention’, ‘crowd-puller’ in Mende). A celebratory song was then sung in praise of the mask.

The mask is received by the British Museum

The mask is received by the British Museum

The next part of the ceremony involved the newly-named mask being presented to the British Museum. Accompanied by more singing, the mask was wrapped in white cloth, lifted onto the head of one of the participants and carried to a female representative of the Museum’s Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, also dressed in white. The mask is presented three times. Only on the third presentation is the mask received. Having accepted the mask, the Museum representative then stood at the centre of the women, while they danced around her, singing a farewell to the spirit: Oh Gbavo, Ggavo ma kɔlɛ ma sina fɔndei ta ngaye ta yi ma ju nga li nya ye [roughly translated as Oh Gbavo, when we separate tomorrow, tears and sweat will mingle and run down my face].

It was a privilege to be able to witness something of the spirit of Sierra Leone in the singing, dancing and traditional customs of the women gathered in this room in London. The ceremony was also an important moment in the ‘biography’ of this mask – another story to add to the others that we explore in the exhibition itself.

Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone is on display at the British Museum
until 28 April 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

To find out more about Sierra Leone, please visit www.sierraleoneheritage.org

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