British Museum blog

Ur of the Chaldees: a virtual vision of Woolley’s excavations

Birger Helgestad, Project Curator, Ur Project, British Museum

An almost 4,000-year-old fired clay relief depicting a nude hero. One of a pair of reliefs made from the same mould (British Museum 1924.0920,74)

An almost 4,000-year-old fired clay relief depicting a nude hero. One of a pair of reliefs made from the same mould (British Museum 1924.0920,74)

I am responsible for managing the digitisation of objects and archives for the Ur Project, a dynamic new collaboration between the British Museum and Penn Museum made possible with the lead support of the Leon Levy Foundation. The project takes the successful cooperation of the two organisations of the 1920s and 1930s at Ur into the 21st century, digitally reunifying the remarkable finds from that site in a state-of-the-art website. We are photographing and documenting all the finds from Ur in our collections, from small pieces of broken pots to ancient cuneiform texts and exquisite gold jewellery. We are also digitising the original excavation photographs, archives, plans and other documents. Our resource will bring together these varied sources of information for the first time and make them available in an online database that will preserve the complete finds and records in digital formats for posterity.

Leonard Woolley excavating an almost 4,000-year-old votive figurine in the shrine of Hendursag (1930–­31)

Leonard Woolley excavating an almost 4,000-year-old votive figurine in the shrine of Hendursag (1930–­31)

Katharine Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim, the excavation’s foreman, sorting finds (1928­–29 season.

Katharine Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim, the excavation’s foreman, sorting finds (1928­–29 season).

Ur was an important city throughout Mesopotamian history. The excavations, led by Sir Leonard Woolley and jointly sponsored by the British Museum and the Penn Museum, uncovered its famous ziggurat complex, areas of densely packed private houses, and the spectacular Royal Graves with rich inventories of gold and evidence of human sacrifice. These unique finds provide crucial information about third-millennium society, as well as the warfare, music, food, drink, and customs of the period. We can also learn much about the people that lived and died in this city through the study of the cuneiform tablets excavated at the site. There are about 10,000 of these ancient texts from Ur in the partner museums’ collections.

A page from an excavation notebook describing 'Private Grave 91'. We are digitising tens of thousands of pages such as the one depicted here.

A page from an excavation notebook describing ‘Private Grave 91′. We are digitising tens of thousands of pages such as the one depicted here.

By 1922–34 Woolley had developed his methods with an increased emphasis on recording. Thus, the vast scale of the finds he recovered – numbering into the tens of thousands – are contextualised by an abundance of documentation. The British Museum houses the core part of this documentation, such as the original glass-plate negative photographs, and the excavation diaries. We are digitising, indexing, and cross-referencing these indispensable resources.

The most exiting aspect of the project is the rare opportunity it provides to reunify dispersed information. Not only will the collections from the three museums (the British Museum, Penn Museum and the Iraq Museum) be integrated, but also the different categories of object brought together in one virtual space, and, crucially, barriers between object data and archives will be broken down.

A Sumerian schoolboy’s practice tablet with proverbs on one side and rough workings from a maths lesson on the back (multiple views). On study loan to the British Museum from the Iraq Museum.

A Sumerian schoolboy’s practice tablet with proverbs on one side and rough workings from a maths lesson on the back (multiple views). On study loan to the British Museum from the Iraq Museum.

Our website will present for the first time an authoritative set of high resolution images of the entirety of the finds, integrated with all field notes, catalogue records, photos, reports, maps, letters and publications. Importantly, data are recorded in a format that allows them to be fully indexable and extractable, enabling people to create their own datasets and make comparisons with their own research. This approach will also allow us to re-establish lost object identifications and crucial findspot information. We will relate internal references between notes, letters, publications and catalogues, connect artefacts to their findspots on maps, and link wherever possible to other resources with the goal of enabling researchers to analyse the site in exciting new ways. All data are thoroughly cross-referenced, facilitating the study of artefacts all the way from excavation context to current display.

Activity is currently underway at the British Museum and at Penn Museum. We hope soon to be joined by our colleagues at the Iraq Museum. Our work feeds into the shared project website, as well as each museum’s own collection database. Our web resource will eliminate traditional barriers between institutions, enabling people to focus on the material from Ur as a single corpus, disregarding the objects’ current locations. We hope that our approach will inspire the digitisation of other similarly dispersed collections.

The project staff bring expertise in archives, photography, programming, conservation, Assyriology and archaeology. This range of skills reflects the diversity of information being collated, and indicates the great potential for research our resource provides. I look forward to bringing you future updates about the project as it progresses.

Dr Gareth Brereton investigating a terracotta relief from Ur

Dr Gareth Brereton investigating a terracotta relief from Ur

Birger Helgestad is joined on the project team by Jon Taylor, Gareth Brereton, Nadia Linder and Duygu Camurcuoglu. The co-directors at the British Museum are the Keeper of the Department of the Middle East, Jonathan Tubb, and Irving Finkel. The co-directors at Penn Museum are Richard L Zettler and Stephen J Tinney, leading a team comprising William B Hafford, Sasha Renninger, Tessa de Alarcon, Ryan Placchetti, and Shannon Advincula.

The Ur Project is supported by the Leon Levy Foundation

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Through time: the history behind your watch

detail of watchDavid Thompson, former Curator of Horology, British Museum

Do you own a watch? What does your watch look like? Is it a traditional mechanical watch made by one of the leading Swiss watch manufacturers or is it perhaps a cheap everyday item which you use just to tell the time? There is no doubt that even today, where smartphones have become a popular way of keeping time; watches are still very personal items. For many they are birthday, Christmas or anniversary presents. For others they have been specifically chosen as suitable for the owner to wear and to show to others. A person’s watch might equally have been chosen to suit a particular fashion, or in time-honoured tradition might be a retirement gift donated by work colleagues. For everyone they are an elegant combination of technology, design and decoration.

MS Gilt-brass tambour cased watch

MS Gilt-brass tambour cased watch. South Germany, around 1560

Anonymous gold and niello cased cylinder watch with digital dial and en-suite chain and key

Anonymous gold and niello cased cylinder watch with digital dial and en-suite chain and key, Geneva, Switzerland, around 1830

Louis Vautier gold and enamel cased verge watch. Blois, France, around 1630–38

Louis Vautier gold and enamel cased verge watch. Blois, France, around 1630–38

How many people, however, have any knowledge of the history behind the watch they wear? Few people probably realise that this innocent machine has a history of more than five hundred years since its first appearance at the beginning of the 16th century in South Germany. At the beginning, and for the first two centuries, watches were inaccurate timekeepers worn as items of fashion or as demonstrations of wealth. Just as today, fashions changed and watches became obsolete unless they were handed down as heirlooms from generation to generation. Then, in about 1660, the pocket in clothing came into existence and the pocket watch became an item of everyday wear. Just a little later, the introduction of the balance spring or hair spring made the watch a far more accurate and reliable machine making it an essential asset for organising the day. That is for those who could afford them, for it was not until the last years of the 19th century that cheap affordable watches became available for those with less money to spend – this thanks to the ingenious efforts in America and Switzerland which enabled watches to be machine manufactured in huge numbers at low cost.

Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro wristwatch. USA, 1915

Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro wristwatch. USA, 1915

Over the centuries, fashions changed and the technology in the watch improved making it ever more accurate and reliable. Towards the end of the 19th century, the wrist watch appeared and following the First World War, became the normal way for the watch to be worn, although to this day, there are still a few stalwarts who insist on wearing a pocket watch. In more recent times, the introduction of quartz technology has made the watch a very precise machine. Today, a radio-controlled watch has, in theory, the same accuracy as the atomic clocks used to determine the international time standard – one second in 300 million years – assuming the batteries last that long.

An interesting reference to opulent watches comes from the inventories of Queen Elizabeth I:

Item. A watch of agate made like an egg garnished with gold. Item. a little watch of crystal slightly garnished with gold with her majesty’s picture in it.
Item. a little watch of gold enamelled with sundry colours on both sides alike.

Sadly no examples of these jewelled watches are known to survive today, but there is no doubt that someone somewhere is wearing a modern watch which might have a similar description.

If you own a watch, make sure you look after it, as it will serve you well, and when you look at it bear in mind the amazing history behind it.

Ingersoll Ltd pin pallet lever watch. Ystradgynlais and London, 1952

Ingersoll Ltd pin pallet lever watch. Ystradgynlais and London, 1952

A new edition of David Thompsons’ Watches is available online from the British Museum shop at £16.99, Members’ price £15.29. The book explores the history of watches, based on the British Museum’s extensive watch collection which spans over 500 years. All the major makers of Europe and America are represented. Examples included range from 16th-century early stackfreed watches to modern 19th- and 20th-century watches made by companies such as Waterbury and Ingersoll.

Clocks and Watches (Room 38–39), The Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Gallery

Animation: How does a mechanical watch work?

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World Cup match of the day

Andrew Shore, Marketing Editor, British Museum

Sometime back in March I saw the football World Cup advertised on a pub chalkboard. Later that week, I had the idea that the British Museum was ideally placed to join in this global tournament – few other places can boast objects from all 32 countries taking part.

The plan was to tweet images of a pair of objects for each match, one from each of the countries represented. This way we could showcase the Museum’s collection, but also the art and culture of those countries. I soon realised my own knowledge of the cultures of countries such as Algeria, Honduras and Costa Rica was limited at best. With the help of Steff Maxwell, our Marketing Assistant, we spoke to various curators across the Museum, and began to search the collection database. The scale of what we had taken on soon became clear – it would involve 64 matches and 128 objects, some from countries where the collection is not as well represented as others.

It was a simple notion, but seems to have captured the Twittersphere’s imagination. The response has been almost overwhelming. Many people have tweeted about their enjoyment of the posts, and some of them have been retweeted over 300 times. The Washington Post blog even called it ‘the best World Cup Twitter strategy of all the World Cup Twitter strategies.’

Ultimately, we hope that it has engaged people with the collection – perhaps introducing some to its breadth and depth for the first time. Some of the objects have been iconic, such as Dürer’s Rhinoceros for Germany and Leonardo da Vinci’s bust of a warrior for Italy. Some of the objects have been much less well known – a stone figure from Costa Rica, a beautiful jar from South Korea, or a drinking cup from Argentina. But really the tournament has shown what’s best about the Museum – telling new and surprising stories, sometimes in unexpected places. It’s been fun to do, and hopefully fun to follow.

The British Museum is perhaps unique in being able to tell the human story through objects. In the recent Annual Review, the Chairman of the Trustees set out his vision to make the British Museum ‘the digital museum of the world’. Social media and the availability of the collection online means that we have a fantastic opportunity to engage people with the collection all over the world – people who may never be able to come to London to see things in the flesh. To use a football cliché, at the end of the day, perhaps this is what social media is made for.

You can see all of the British Museum’s World Cup tweets in a Storify.

You can follow the Museum on Twitter, and do also check out our official accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Google+ and Tumblr.

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Museum of the world, for the World Cup

David Francis, Interpretation Officer

With the World Cup Final nearly upon us, I thought it would be interesting to search through the British Museum collection and see what footballing-related treasures could be unearthed. The Museum does not specifically set out to collect football-related objects; that remit falls to the National Football Museum in Manchester. However, the prevalence of objects related to football in the collection reflects the popularity of the sport, both in our current time and as part of our cultural heritage.

Greenstone yoke mould with relief carving in the form of a toad. Used to shape the protective leather belts worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame. From Veracruz, Mexico, AD 300-1200 (AOA Am,St.398)

Greenstone yoke mould with relief carving in the form of a toad. Used to shape the protective leather belts worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame. From Veracruz, Mexico, AD 300-1200 (AOA Am,St.398)

The story begins with objects related to ancient team ball games that had independently evolved in different parts of the world that act as football’s great ancestral forefathers. These include the Chinese game cuju and its Japanese equivalent kemari. However, the world’s earliest known team game, and perhaps most famous, is the Central American ball game, represented in the British Museum by the ceremonial ball game belt.

Like football, using your hands was prohibited in the ball game, but players were also restricted from using their feet or heads. Only the buttocks, forearms and the hips were allowed to touch the ball. To protect their hips from the rubber ball, which was heavy and could weigh as much as 15kg, players would wear padded belts made of cloth or basket work. The Museum’s stone version of the belt is thought to have been worn in ceremonies associated with the ball game. Points were scored through a system of faults such as if the ball left the court, or if it touched a prohibited part of the body. In many ways the ball game resembled keepy uppy rather than the modern game of football.

Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famously said ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death …. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ His quote would have been more appropriate, however, if he’d been talking about the Central American ball game. Whereas in modern football a major penalty miss can result in a hate campaign from the tabloids, mistakes in the ballgame could be even more costly. Reliefs exist depicting the participants of the ball game being sacrificed after a match and some scholars think that playing the game was believed to be linked to the rising and setting of the sun.

Isaac Robert Cruikshank, print, 1825

Isaac Robert Cruikshank, print, 1825

The game at Football, satirical print

The game at Football, satirical print published by Matthew Darly. A sailor (left) has just kicked a Spanish don whom he holds by the hair; he looks towards another sailor and says, ‘Damme Jack lets have a game of football’. The Spaniard wears a cloak, slashed doublet, and spurred boots. His broken sword falls to the ground. The other sailor (right) stands with his arms folded, saying, ‘With all my heart, kick him up Tom’. 17 March [?]1780. (1868,0808.4587.+)

The Museum’s collection of prints and drawings also provides many 19th- and 20th-century depictions of the game. A print by Isaac Robert Cruikshank from about 1825, depicting a melee of jovial soldiers, some trampled beneath the feet of the mob that pursue the ball, captures the wildness of the game before it was formerly codified in London in 1863. Another print from 1780 depicting two English sailors kicking a Spanish lord around as a football, reinforces the link between footballers and violence. This association harks back to English football’s medieval origins when it was a game played en masse as part of Shrovetide celebrations and frequently banned by the authorities as a threat to civil order.

Paul Nash, Football game, illustration to 'Cotswold Characters' by John Drinkwater, Brush drawing in black ink, over graphite (1970,0919.89)

Paul Nash, Football game, illustration to ‘Cotswold Characters’ by John Drinkwater, Brush drawing in black ink, over graphite (1970,0919.89)

In stark contrast are the later modernist depictions of football in the collection, such as a 1921 Paul Nash illustration from John Drinkwater’s ‘Cotswold Characters’. Here, the players are faceless mannequins and the focus is instead on the dynamism of the spherical ball as it moves through a series of geometric rectangles beyond the outstretched arm of the diving goalkeeper. The print freezes the image at the crucial moment that the ball crosses the line, which would nowadays be captured by goal line technology. Although the print depicts a game in the rural Cotswolds, its depiction of the athleticism of the players and the skill and excitement of the game reflects the transition from football being viewed as a violent rabble to a professionalised sport.

Openwork 'football' made of rattan, in six strands. From Burma (As1981,Q.21)

Openwork ‘football’ made of rattan, in six strands. From Burma (As1981,Q.21)

Model group in the form of a skeleton football match (Mexico v Brazil). Inspired by Day of the Dead Festival. Mexico, 1980s. (Am1986,06.271)

Model group in the form of a skeleton football match (Mexico v Brazil). Inspired by Day of the Dead Festival. Mexico, 1980s. (Am1986,06.271)

Finally, within the Museum there is also an eclectic bunch of footballing paraphernalia and related objects that when combined creates a cabinet of curiosities of the beautiful game. These include a football woven from rattan palm stems from Burma, a nickel-chrome referee’s stop watch in the horological collections, and a Mexican model from the 1986 World Cup depicting an imaginary encounter between the Brazilian and Mexican sides as Day of the Dead skeletons. Here are objects that were not intended to last forever now preserved within the Museum for all time, waiting for a scholar of football and material culture to unearth them and unlock their secrets.

British Museum Football Club 1919-20

British Museum Football Club 1919-20

British Museum Football Club 2013 (author centre, back row)

British Museum Football Club 2013 (author centre, back row)

David Francis is a dependable, if unspectacular, right-back for the British Museum football team. The team plays in an annual tournament with others from across London, including the National Gallery, the White Cube and Tate. The current team is only the latest in a rich lineage of footballing talent, as can be seen in the photograph from the Archives of the 1919–20 season.

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What lies beneath: new discoveries about the Jericho skull

Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

It’s always a problem for museum curators to find ways of learning more about the objects in their care without damaging them. For human remains, it’s even more complicated because there are additional questions of care and respect for the dead that have to be carefully considered before any research can be done. However, by studying their remains we can find out an enormous amount about the people of the past; about their health, their diet and about the religious practices they carried out.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The so-called Jericho skull is among the oldest human remains in the British Museum collection. Thought to be between 8,500 and 9,300 years old, it is one of seven Neolithic plastered human skulls found together by Kathleen Kenyon during excavations at Jericho in 1953. The site is now located in the modern State of Palestine.

Plastered skulls are thought to have been an important part of Neolithic rituals involving the removal, decoration and collecting of skulls. There has been a lot of debate about why particular skulls were chosen for this. Some archaeologists link them to the worship of elder males. Others suggest they were selected according to their shape or the status of the person in society. Some argue that they are portraits of revered members of the community. None of these theories are completely convincing, but a general agreement has emerged that the worship of ancestors may be involved.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

This ‘skull’ is actually a cranium because the lower jaw has been removed. There is also a section of bone missing on the left side towards the back where the soil filling inside can be seen. The cranium was decorated with a thick layer of plaster, shaped to look like a human face, which covers all of the upper jaw and finishes at the eye sockets and temples. Plaster has also been used on the base, so the skull sits upright on its own. Frustratingly, the plaster covers the parts of the skull which provide clues about who the person was and what happened to them. Therefore, over 50 years after it had been found, we still knew very little about the person whose skull this was. Physical anthropologists (experts in the human body) Theya Molleson (Scientific Associate, Natural History Museum) and Jessica Pearson, looked at how much the sutures (the joins between the skull’s bones) had closed and were able to suggest that it was a mature adult, but we needed to see beneath the plaster to find out more.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Museum has equipment for taking X-rays (radiographs) and my colleague Janet Ambers was able to X-ray the Jericho skull, but the soil filling the skull made it difficult to see everything inside clearly. We were therefore very lucky to be offered the chance to use a micro-CT scanner and its associated software by the Imaging and Analysis Centre, at the Natural History Museum, and the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College, and to work with two of their experts, Richard Able and Crispin Wiles.

The images created by the CT scans allowed us to look beneath the surface, revealing new details about the person that died so long ago. The scans confirmed that the skull had belonged to a mature adult who was more likely to have been male than female. We were also able to look at his upper jaw, where we found broken teeth, tooth decay and damage done to the bone by abscesses; all of which fitted well with the person being a mature adult. The back teeth (second and third molars) never developed and the second incisor on the right side is also missing. It is difficult to be sure without other examples to look at, but these teeth may have failed to grow because of inherited traits that are relatively rare.

The scans also allowed us see that the shape of the person’s head had been changed during their lifetime. It is possible to alter the shape of a skull by binding or bandaging the head during childhood. When we looked at the outside of the Jericho Skull we could see a slight dip in the surface running over the top of the head from ear to ear which suggested that something like this had been carried out. The X-rays and the CT scans, showed changes in the thickness of the skull bone and, as such alterations can only be made while bone is forming and growing, this must have happened from an early age.

This work has also revealed new details about how the skull was prepared for plastering. The CT scans showed concentric rings of grits within the soil and a ball of finer clay sealing the access hole at the back. This suggests that the soil was deliberately put inside the skull to support the surface as the plaster face was being added. It is possible that the round piece of bone cut away to form the access hole was originally put back after the cranium had been filled. Although it was subsequently lost, its earlier presence may explain why the soft soil filling has survived so well.

The work has significantly changed our knowledge of how this person’s skull was treated both during life and after death, making clear the benefits of the long-term care for human remains offered by museums. This previously enigmatic individual is now known to be a old man who suffered badly from toothache. The deliberate re-shaping of the skull also suggests that for this individual, physical change and social status may have been linked, something seen across the history of humankind. The use of imaging techniques has provided us with new areas of investigation and suggested new ways to view plastered skulls; as a reflection of an individual’s life rather than just a treatment for the dead.

The Jericho skull can be seen in the British Museum in Room 59, Ancient Levant, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery.

Alexandra Fletcher is co-editor of a recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum published by British Museum Press, which discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display. The book also discusses some of the research that has developed our understanding of these individuals’ past lives.

Filed under: Archaeology, Research, , , , , , , , ,

A second look at a Byzantine icon: The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Robin Cormack, classicist and art historian

And life slips by like a field mouse,
Not shaking the grass.

Working on a new edition of my book Icons – first published by the British Museum in 2007 – I was reminded of these lines by the poet Ezra Pound on the rapid passing of time. I had to think what changes might be necessary to my work after seven years. In writing Icons my hope was to do two things: to celebrate the importance of the collection of Byzantine and Russian icons in the British Museum, and at the same time to give reasons why icons form a significant part of the history of Europe too. To use a favourite phrase of art historians, if art is embedded in society, then how can we understand that society through looking at its art? Icons are a special case because they are a medium that was produced in Europe from the early centuries of Christianity, became an essential element in the lives of the people of the Middle Ages, especially in the Byzantine world with its capital of Constantinople, but continue to be produced today. In other words, if you go into an Orthodox church, you will see in use icons first painted centuries ago side by side with new icons. That makes icons a very special form of art. There is the further complication that you may also see icons, not in a church, but in a ‘secular’ setting like the British Museum. Do they have the same impact in that context?

Icon with the Nativity of Christ. Egg tempera on wood with linen and gesso. Crete, 17th century (2012,8039.1)

Icon with the Nativity of Christ. Egg tempera on wood with linen and gesso. Crete, 17th century (2012,8039.1)

What changes have there been since 2007? The Museum has acquired a dozen more icons since then, which are illustrated at the end of the catalogue. For me the most charismatic new icon is the Nativity of Christ (cat. no. 112), painted on Crete in the 17th century. It came to the British Museum in 2012 as a bequest from the artist and Royal Academician John Craxton who for most of his life worked in a studio at Chania and produced colourful and joyful paintings of life in modern Crete. He wanted this, the best icon in his collection, to be in the British Museum collection, and so the Museum has in its possession a painting previously owned by the artist who encouraged art historians to appreciate the icons of Crete.

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. Icon painted with egg tempera, with gilding, on a wooden panel faced with linen and gesso. Byzantine (late), around 1400, Constantinople (1988,0411.1)

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. Icon painted with egg tempera, with gilding, on a wooden panel faced with linen and gesso. Byzantine (late), around 1400, Constantinople (1988,0411.1)

Possibly the best known icon in the British Museum is the Triumph of Orthodoxy, dating to the 14th century. It celebrates the end of the period of Iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries when icons were banned in Byzantium. From AD 843 onwards, the ban was revoked and icons became a defining feature of the Orthodox Church. The people who fought for icons are represented on the icon. As part of my research for the new edition of the book, I looked closely again at the icon, especially at the fragmentary Greek inscriptions giving the names of these iconophile ‘heroes’. I decided that I – as well as everyone else who had looked – had made some wrong deductions about who some of the figures were. In the new edition I identify the two central saints in the lower register, who jointly hold an image of Christ, as the two most famous iconophiles: St Stephanos, who was reputedly martyred in the 8th century, and St Theodore who was exiled on the 9th century for promoting the veneration of icons. As for the saints on the right, it is now argued that the artist wrote the wrong names beside some of the figures. The most likely explanation is that the icon copies an earlier icon of the same subject and the artist made a few mistakes, probably because the model was larger and had a few more figures.

So a second edition gives a second chance to look and interpret. Perhaps Ezra Pound was unduly pessimistic.

Icons by Robin Cormack, published by British Museum Press, is available online for £14.99, Members’ price £13.49

Robin Cormack is Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and is currently teaching Ancient art and archaeology at the Classics Faculty, University of Cambridge

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Tattoos in ancient Egypt and Sudan

Marie Vandenbeusch, curator, British Museum

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

One of the eight mummies that are the subject of the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, the mummy of a woman from Sudan, was discovered relatively recently, compared to the others. Her body was found in 2005, during rescue excavations taking place in the area of the Fourth Nile Cataract, where the building of a dam threatened to flood archaeological sites. The collection of over a thousand human remains excavated during the mission was donated by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) to the Sudan Archaeological Research Society, which then gave them to the British Museum. Arid climate and hot sand had naturally mummified some of these bodies, including the remains of this woman. Her soft tissues are so well preserved that conservators at the British Museum located a tattoo and other marks on her skin.

Evidence for tattooing in ancient Egypt and in Nubia is scarce, and human remains do not provide any indication of the frequency of the tattoos themselves: because of their location directly on the skin they are usually either not preserved or hidden by bandages. The first tangible examples of Egyptian tattoos date back to the Middle Kingdom (about 2000 BC): several tattooed mummies of women were found at Deir el-Bahari. The markings mainly consist of dots and dashes, often grouped into geometrical patterns, such as lozenges, and are usually placed on the chest, the abdomen, the arms or the legs.

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian Decamps

Although tattoos are rare on human remains, they seem to be more frequent on female representations. The geometrical decorations commonly adorning Middle Kingdom statuettes are very similar to tattoos found on the mummies of women who lived at the same period. However, the debate about their identification as tattoos is still open and recent discoveries regularly bring new insights to these questions.

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. Photo by permission of National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Both human remains and decorated figurines take us to the world of dancers and musicians. One of the mummies from Deir el-Bahari is thought to be a priestess of the goddess Hathor, whose patronage of music and dance is well established. There are also depictions showing a figure of the god Bes on the thigh of young ladies who appear to be dancers and musicians. This is not surprising when we consider that Bes, a god who protected the household and the family, was also associated with music and dance. The implicit eroticism symbolised by Bes in connection with these naked dancers seems to be also conveyed by the presence of tattoos.

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

As is still the case today, the meaning and function of tattoos can vary, some showing affiliation to a social group, others having medical or protective purposes. The naturally mummified woman from Sudan in the exhibition bears a monogram of St Michael tattooed on her inner thigh. It combines in one symbol the letters forming the name Michael (MIXAHΛ) in Greek or Coptic (both languages use a very similar alphabet). The monogram is topped with a cross. The tattoo suggests that the woman was of Christian faith, and may indicate that she hoped to place herself under the protection of the Archangel – one of the patron saints of Nubia.

The monogram of St Michael is already known in other contexts, in particular in Nubia where both the monogram and the representation of the Archangel were drawn on the walls of churches or incised on pottery, but its use as a tattoo was an unexpected discovery. We can interpret the tattoo as an invocation to the saint, but it was also a way of demonstrating one’s faith. Tattoos are still used in this way by Copts who often bear a small cross inside the wrist as a spiritual symbol of their affiliation to a community.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung.

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

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In respect of the dead: human remains in the British Museum

relevant image alt textAlexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676)

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676)

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676). Shown with coffin lid removed.

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676). Shown with coffin lid removed.

The most frequently asked question in the British Museum is almost certainly ‘Where are the mummies?’

Understandably the collections of mummified human remains are a great source of fascination for visitors and the Egyptian galleries are always busy. The current exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries uses the latest CT-scanning technology to see within the mummy wrappings of eight individuals, providing incredibly detailed images of conditions that affected their lives and their treatment after death. It will surely be popular with visitors but these same visitors may not realise that the Museum cares for more than 6,000 human remains, which cover a much broader range of time periods and places than just ancient Egypt.

Lindow man, Mid-1st century AD, Cheshire, England, (BEP 1984,1002.1)

Lindow man, found at Lindow Moss, Cheshire, England. Iron Age, mid-1st century AD, C (BEP 1984,1002.1)

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, about 8000-7500 BC. (ME 127414)

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, Neolithic Period, about 8000-75000 BC. (ME 127414)

Some individuals are well known, such as Lindow man, the Iron Age bog-body found in Cheshire in north-west England. Others lie in storage facilities both on and off the main Bloomsbury site. They range in date from the truly ancient Jericho skull, a Neolithic skull decorated with plaster around 9,000 years ago, to more recent remains relating to individuals who died in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the remains in storage are skeletons but there are also examples of preserved soft human tissues and human remains that have been modified into new forms or incorporated into other objects. These present different challenges for museum staff in ensuring that these individuals are respectfully stored in the best conditions to ensure their continued preservation. This means any handling, study or treatment of the remains is done within the context that they were once a living human being; a person who in common with people today had thoughts, emotions and life experiences.

So why do we curate and display human remains at all? This is a controversial subject that has been debated for a long time and will continue to be discussed. There is no doubt that there have been, and will continue to be, huge benefits in having human remains available to study. The benefits of research however, must be set against the feelings of communities with strong connections to some of the human remains within museum collections. The British Museum has experienced several repatriation claims (see under related links on our Human Remains page), which are carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. Research using museum collections has been able to advance knowledge of the history of disease, epidemiology and human biology. It has also given valuable insight into different cultural approaches to death, burial and beliefs. This knowledge continues to grow as different techniques and approaches to such studies are developed and the total body of knowledge – within which comparisons can be made – expands.

Inside Room 62, Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. The Roxie Walker Gallery

Inside Room 62, Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. The Roxie Walker Gallery

Display of human remains, both physically within museum galleries and online, is an important part of sharing this information to the widest possible audience. This not only spreads knowledge but may also help to generate enthusiasm for learning about our past; hopefully for the benefit of future generations. Of course, display should be done with careful thought. There is no justification for the voyeuristic display of human remains simply as objects of morbid curiosity. As in storage, displays of human remains must acknowledge that the remains were once a living person and respect this fact. Human remains should not be displayed if they are not central to the information being conveyed and this has led to removal of some skeletal remains from British Museum galleries. Where possible, visitors should be able to avoid seeing human remains should they not wish to and the views of source communities should also be respected if they do not wish ancestral remains to be on public display.

There is no final word on such matters and no doubt the decisions made today will seem as out of step with current thinking in the future, as do decisions made by earlier generations of museum workers 50, 100 and in some cases 200 years ago. Looking after human remains in museums will therefore continue as a respectful balancing act across the boundaries of ethics, learning and access.

If you want to know more, a recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display. The book also discusses some of the research that has developed our understanding of these individuals’ past lives.

Further details about human remains at the British Museum.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, edited by Alexandra Fletcher, Daniel Antoine and JD Hill is also published by British Museum Press.

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A Viking ship on a Chinese note

banknoteHelen Wang, curator, British Museum

‘There are Viking ships on Chinese banknotes’ I said to Gareth Williams, curator of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend, thinking that I could easily research them before the exhibition. After all, these notes were issued in the 1920s by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank, one of the many foreign and joint-venture banks in China at the time. But it has turned out to be more demanding than I expected, thrown up a number of interesting questions along the way, and what follows is by no means the full story.

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18)

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18). View a larger version

The Sino-Scandinavian Bank was given its charter by the Chinese government on 21 July 1921, and began operating on 7 January 1922. It was actually a Chinese-Norwegian joint venture, with the larger part of the funding coming from Chinese sources, and a smaller part from Norwegian investors. The Bank’s first notes are dated 1922, but the majority that have survived (about 30 different types) were probably issued after 1924. The bank appears to have gone bankrupt sometime in 1926 or 1927. Most of the information we know about the Sino-Scandinavian Bank comes from Bjørn R. Rønning’s unpublished master’s thesis ‘Sino-Scandinavian Bank (1921-ca.1927) En norsk bank i Kina?’ (Hovedoppgave i historie ved Universitetet i Oslo, våren 1979). Unfortunately, my Norwegian’s not up to reading it in its entirety in the original, and for the time being I’m indebted to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg’s English summary and images on his website.

Like most of the paper money issued by foreign and joint-venture banks in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this note aims to serve both Chinese and foreign users. At first glance, the Chinese and English sides look bilingual. But a closer look reveals lots of things that don’t quite add up.

Let’s start with the name of the bank. In Chinese this reads Hua Wei yinhang 華威銀行. This translates as the Sino-Norwegian Bank (or Chinese-Norwegian Bank). The first character hua 華 (magnificent) is often used when referring to China. The second character wei 威 (power) is from the Chinese term Nuowei 挪威 (i.e. Norway). The last two characters yinhang 銀行 are the usual term for ‘bank’. It’s interesting that the Chinese and English names aren’t an exact match. I wonder who decided the two names? The Chinese name is a more accurate reflection of the nationality of the investors. On the other hand, wei is much more meaningful (and auspicious) than any of the other characters in Sikandinaweiya 斯堪的納維亞, which is a bit of a mouthful in Chinese. But in English, the Sino-Scandinavian Bank sounds better than the Sino-Norwegian Bank, even if it is more ambitious in meaning.

The images are different too: a scene of Beihai Park in Beijing on the Chinese side, and the Viking ship on the English side. Beihai Park was once an imperial garden, but opened to the public in 1925 (according to the park’s website), three years after the date printed on the notes. The Viking ship was chosen to represent Norway/Scandinavia, an iconic symbol that works very well here (much better than a polar bear, which, according to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg, was one of the motifs originally planned for these notes.

The denomination is also interesting. The Chinese side has ‘five yuan in national currency’ printed in brown below the image, and the English side simply ‘five yuan’. The five black rosettes overstamped just below the denomination obscure the letters PEKING, and the black overstamps on the images inform us that there was a change in use to ‘Yungchi currency’ (in Chinese: ‘for circulation in Yungchi’). Yungchi (pinyin: Yongqi) literally means ‘Yong 7′ and refers to an administrative region encompassing Yongping and six other counties in Hebei province in north China. The name of Changli, one of those counties, is overstamped in black above the image, but only on the Chinese side. Yungchi and ‘Yungchi currency’ are not familiar terms, and it’s interesting to see such local references on a joint-venture banknote.

As we might expect, given the different cultural traditions, the English side has personal signatures in black, and the Chinese side has red seal impressions of authority. However, while it was standard practice to put seal impressions on notes issued by Chinese banks, it was not consistently the practice to do so on notes issued by joint-venture banks.

The signatories were J.W.N. Munthe and Fartsan T. Sung, who were very well connected with the Chinese military and government. Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe (1864-1935) was Norwegian. Born in Bergen in 1864, he moved to China in 1886 and spent the rest of his life there. He worked for the customs service, and eventually became a general in the Chinese army. He participated in the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Siege of Peking (Boxer Rebellion) in 1900. He also collected Chinese art and antiquities, many of which he donated to the Vestlandske Kunstindustriemuseum in Bergen.

Fartsan T. Sung (pinyin: Song Faxiang宋發祥 (1883-?) was Chinese. Born in Fujian, he went to the USA in 1900, and studied science at Ohio Wesleyan College and Chicago. After returning to China in 1907, he held a number of important government positions before the 1920s. He was Technical Expert of the Ministry of Finance, Co-Director of the Ministry’s Assaying Office, Director of the Soochow (pinyin: Suzhou) Mine, Co-Director of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, Inspector General of Mints, Director-General of the Nanking (pinyin: Nanjing) Mint, private English secretary to President Feng Kuo-chang (pinyin: Feng Guozhang 馮國璋, 1859-1919) and political advisor to the President’s Office. He was a ‘councillor-at-large’ of the Ministry of Finance in 1920, and again from 1922-1924, during which time he was elected a Member of the Commission for the Consolidation of Domestic and Foreign Debts (1923). He co-founded the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in the spring of 1921 and became manager of its Peking office in 1924. From 1928 he was serving in Chinese consular offices overseas: in Southeast Asia between 1928 and 1937, and in Vienna between 1938 and 1940. I haven’t been able to trace him beyond this.

There are a lot of interesting things about this banknote that don’t quite add up at the moment, not least why we have the signatures of two extremely well-connected men on notes being used in a very local area. It’s curious that the Sino-Scandinavian Bank does not appear in the beautifully illustrated bilingual catalogue Currencies in Old Shanghai (老上海貨幣, Shanghai, 1998). And even more curious that the great expert on Chinese banking, Eduard Kann (1880-1962) did not include the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in his list of foreign and joint-venture banks in China. Kann started his career in a British bank in China in 1901, moved to the Russo-Asiatic Bank, the French Banque Industrielle de Chine and the Chinese-American Bank of Commerce before becoming an independent bullion-broker in Shanghai in the 1930s (the British Museum acquired his superb collection of almost 200 silver ingots in 1978), so we might expect him to have heard of it.

Perhaps there is more to this Chinese note with a Viking ship than meets the eye?

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Documenting the Museum’s changing landscape

Liam O’Connor, artist

'WCEC Excavation' 2012 © Liam O'Connor

‘WCEC Excavation’ 2012 © Liam O’Connor

The World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, view from Senate House

The World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, view from Senate House

Over the past four years I have been making work in response to a building site at the British Museum that has now become the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

I see the building site as an island within the city, a territory relinquished in one form waiting to be claimed in/by another.

I have been privileged to explore this transforming landscape and have attempted to describe it, or allow it to describe itself, through the objects and drawings I have made. The work explores the process of imposing order on the landscape and its objects, the end point of which is the completed structure of the building.

Over the course of three and a half years I worked on a single drawing of the site. From a fixed vantage point above the site, I observed the entire transformation of the space from demolition through to excavation and construction. In a weekly ritual I returned to this same view and added to the drawing as new forms emerged on site. Over time this developed into a memoir to the building process. The Museum documented the stages of this drawing through a series of photographs.

For me the most compelling part of the building process was the excavation, which saw the entire site cleared to four stories below street level. I have always been drawn to these huge spaces which temporarily open up in London, into which new buildings are to be placed. They are architectural events in themselves, for a brief moment a huge expanse appears within the densely packed London streets. In response to the epic excavation I made two pieces of work, the first of which was this large, three meter wide drawing, in an attempt to capture the cinematic quality of the spectacle.

Click on any of the thumbnails to view as a full screen slideshow.
All images © Liam O’Connor

The second piece came out of a body of work I had been making on site, for which I collected marks left on surfaces through rubbings, prints and photograms; collecting moments I saw as drawings. The site is continually producing images of itself; dirt, mud, clay and rust are dragged across its surfaces or are themselves surfaces onto which marks can be made. After watching thousands of lorries leave the site filled with clay, I wanted to join the clay on its journey, so I asked if I could sit in one of the lorries to see where it went. I also asked if I could place some boards in the back of the lorry, on which clay could be placed on top to create a drawing which could be reclaimed at the end of the journey, at the rubbish tip. The builders were happy to facilitate my experiments with, as they always were throughout the project. I had been exploring ways of using the materials, processes and tools on site to make drawings, and I saw this piece as a successful outcome of that process as it was made by a telescopic digger, a lorry and a bulldozer.

Click on any of the thumbnails to view as a full screen slideshow.
All images © Liam O’Connor

The final piece of work I made was a modern medal. Philip Attwood, Keeper of the Department of Coins & Medals, introduced me to the Museum’s modern medal collection, and, impressed by these objects, I wanted to make something in response. I was interested in the repetitious activities on the site, such as the picking up and putting down of clay or the construction of steel cages to reinforce the concrete, as the same process seemed to result in a slightly different outcome each time, a unique result. I had also been working a lot with objects taken from the site rather than making my own. With these two ideas in mind, Willie Shaw of Mace, the main contractor, donated a crane lifting chain, and PAD contractors separated the chain into its 800 individual links and stamped each one with a commemorative mark I had designed.

Once the building is complete all these medals will be displayed temporarily and each of the people who have worked on the project will choose a medal from this display, so the piece of work will disperse among everyone who has contributed to the building project.

Every Saturday in June a display of the work I have made will be open to the public. The works have all been tailor-made for the museum cabinets in this secret gallery usually closed off from public view. This room has always been important to me; on one side is the building site and on the other the Museum, for me it became a studio space where the influence of both cultures began to emerge within the work that I made.


See a selection of Liam’s work on display in the WCEC Model room, located off Room 66 on Level 3 of the Museum.
To find out more about Liam O’Connor’s work, visit liamoconnor.co.uk

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