British Museum blog

Death, the great equaliser: Christianity on the Middle Nile

Julie Anderson, Assistant Keeper (curator), British Museum

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

People are often surprised to discover that two of the largest Christian kingdoms in the medieval world were in Sudan in northeast Africa. Ibn Selim Al-Aswani, an Arab traveller, visited Sudan in the 10th century AD and described the region north of Old Dongola, capital of the medieval kingdom of Makuria, situated roughly 750 kilometres upstream of Aswan Egypt, as an area of ‘about thirty villages, with beautiful buildings, churches and monasteries, many palm-trees, vines, gardens, cultivated fields and broad pastures on which one can see camels’.

Further to the south, Soba East, capital of the medieval kingdom of Alwa, located near modern-day Khartoum, was said to have ‘fine buildings and large monasteries, churches rich with gold and gardens’. This conjures up quite a romantic picture of medieval Sudan and provides us with an insight into the world in which the Sudanese female mummy, now in the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, had lived. Was medieval Sudan as idyllic as it sounds?

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © Trustees of the British Museum).

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © The Trustees of the British Museum).

I am captivated by the medieval wall-paintings of saints, apostles, bishops, royalty, biblical stories and archangels, particularly those unearthed by the Polish archaeological mission in the Cathedral at Faras, Sudan, a site situated near the modern Sudan/Egypt border and now beneath the waters of Lake Nubia/Nasser. The paintings were discovered and rescued during the 1960s UNESCO salvage campaign to save the monuments of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia threatened by the creation of the Aswan High Dam reservoir, and it is their singular beauty that inspired me as a student to focus on Sudanese and Nubian archaeology. To this day, I remain entranced by the richness of Nubian culture. The portrait in the Sudan National Museum of a Nubian queen or noblewoman, held within the protective embrace of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, is particularly striking. Splendidly attired, the queen bears a small cross on her forehead demonstrating her Christian faith to the viewer whom she gazes directly at. The age at which she was depicted is perhaps close to that of the Sudanese mummy, who would have been between 20 and 35 years old at time of her death.

The Sudanese mummy was very likely not a queen, but in death rich and poor alike received similar burials. The conversion to Christianity in the 6th century AD by missionaries from the Byzantine Empire brought about one of the most profound changes ever experienced in the Middle Nile Valley. Churches and cathedrals herald the arrival of Christianity as they replaced the earlier temples to pagan gods. The traditional system of rites and beliefs was swept away and, in its place, totally different attitudes towards death and the afterlife were introduced. Unlike earlier burials, those of the Christian period were not provided with sumptuous grave goods or food offerings. They were sparsely endowed, if at all. Death was a great social equaliser.

Christian graves were simple tombs with small, flat-topped rectangular superstructures of brick or stones that covered a narrow grave shaft. The deceased was wrapped in a shroud, and the head was often protected by a brick or stone. Bodies were placed on their backs in an extended rather than crouched or contracted position. More elaborate tomb superstructures were plastered white; they might be cruciform in shape or have rounded tops. Graves were orientated east–west, though in some places this was done according to the orientation of the Nile rather than true north. The west end of the tomb, the end which corresponded to the location of the head of the deceased, was sometimes equipped with a lamp-box, a small niche which provided protection from the wind for a lit lamp.

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

One such lamp (EA51771) was excavated from Faras Cemetery 4 early in the 20th century by the University of Oxford Expedition led by Francis Llewellyn Griffith, and is now in the British Museum’s collection. The disc on the top of the lamp is decorated with a rosette, and a retrograde Greek inscription reading ‘Great is the name of God’ adorns the shoulder.

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Artistic expression was not restricted to wall-paintings or ceramics (though traces of wall-paintings have so far been found in over 50 medieval churches), but also encompassed many minor arts such as basketry, leather and metal-work and textiles. Architectural elements were often embellished with Christian motifs. Such powerful religious symbolism is evident in a 7th-century decorative sandstone frieze (EA 606) from the First Cathedral at Faras. It depicts an eagle or dove surmounted by a cross, standing between columns and altars with its wings spread. This piece, originally part of a sequence of 24 birds, may have adorned the cathedral’s apse. Its yellow background with the relief features highlighted in black would have created an eye-catching, yet pious band of decoration which alluded to the resurrection of Christ, and it may have been something upon which our Sudanese mummy or her contemporaries gazed during their lives while contemplating salvation and paradise.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is on 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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Eight mummies, eight lives, eight stories

John H Taylor and Daniel Antoine, curators, British Museum

We may think that we know the ancient Egyptians on account of the abundance of carved and painted images and the many texts on stone and papyrus that have survived, but these sources convey a formal, partial and sanitised view; to a large degree they tell us only what the Egyptians wanted posterity to know.

The first mummy entered the Museum’s collection in 1756, and for the past 200 years none of the mummies have been unwrapped. But modern technology, in the form of the CT (computed tomography) scanner, has transformed the way that we can study them, allowing us to see within the wrappings and the mummified bodies, in a non-invasive and non-destructive manner.

We can now look behind the mask of material culture and encounter the actual people of the ancient Nile Valley through a forensic study of their remains – and these often tell a different story to the one we knew before.

The scanning process captures thousands of cross-sectional images of the mummies at a thickness of 0.6 mm for every ‘slice’. These show internal features in startling detail, and by stacking the slices together and using volume rendering software, the mummy can be viewed on screen as a three-dimensional model. ‘Segmentation’ allows continuous surfaces of the same density – whether bone, textile, or artefacts such as amulets of faience or metal placed inside the wrappings – to be visualised and studied separately with precision and clarity.

Padiamenet, a temple doorkeeper. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contained his mummy. 25th Dynasty, c. 700 BC (EA 6682)

Padiamenet, a temple doorkeeper. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contained his mummy. 25th Dynasty, c. 700 BC (EA 6682)

The new exhibition Ancient lives: new discoveries highlights some of the remarkable findings that have been made using this method, bringing together a selection of eight mummies from the Museum’s collection, interactive displays showing visualisations and displays of related objects to shed further light on the life and death of these ancient people.

Tamut, a high-ranking priest's daughter. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contains the mummy.

Tamut, a high-ranking priest’s daughter. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contains the mummy.

Scan showing calcified plaque deposits, called atheromas, found in Tamut's left femoral artery, that runs along the thigh bone (femur).

Scan showing calcified plaque deposits, called atheromas, found in Tamut’s left femoral artery that runs along the thigh bone (femur).

Visualisation showing a view of Tamut's feet, with metal covers on her toenails and a large sheet-metal image of the winged scarab beetle Khepri propelling the disc of the sun, placed inside the mummy-wrappings.

Visualisation showing a view of Tamut’s feet, with metal covers on her toenails and a large sheet-metal image of the winged scarab beetle Khepri propelling the disc of the sun, placed inside the mummy-wrappings.

The mummies we have selected originally lived in a span of over 4,000 years, from about 3500 BC to AD 700, and came from a range of sites, from the Faiyum in Upper Egypt to the fourth cataract region of Sudan. Through them we have sought to illustrate the different aspects of the experience of living and dying in settlements along the Nile Valley. We see their faces and discover their ages, and find out from which illnesses they suffered – all things that are usually absent from the written record. We know something about what they did in life, what they ate, and what might have contributed to their death. Some of the evidence uncovered by the scans shows that diseases we often think of as ‘modern’ were prevalent then – for example, we can see very clear images of calcification of the arteries in two of the adults, Tamut, Chantress of Amun, and Padiamenet, the temple doorkeeper. This would have meant that both of them were at risk of developing cardiovascular disease and might have died from a heart attack or stroke.

Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes, around 600 BC. EA 22814

Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes, around 600 BC (EA 22814)

Visualisation showing a virtual section across the head of the man from Thebes, revealing the embalmer's tool (in green) and brain residue (highlighted in blue) found inside his skull.

Visualisation showing a virtual section across the head of the man from Thebes, revealing the embalmer’s tool (in green) and brain residue (highlighted in blue) found inside his skull.

The CT scans also allow us to glimpse some of the secrets of the embalmers who mummified the bodies. In the skull of a man from Thebes, who lived around 600 BC, it has been possible to visualise the small hole made inside the nose, through which most of the brain was removed. Unusually, a portion of his brain was left behind, perhaps because the probe which the embalmer was using broke off, and is clearly visible on the scan, lying in the back of the skull.

We hope that this exhibition will help to change the perception of museum visitors towards mummies. We are privileged to have these people of ancient Egypt and Sudan among us today. Our investigations into some of the fundamentals of human life – such as diet, disease, personal adornment, and childhood – help to remind us that all of the mummies were once living people and should be treated with respect, care and dignity.


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

John Taylor and Daniel Antoine are also authors of the exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, 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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Viking women, warriors, and valkyries


Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham

Odin:
What a dream! I dreamt I woke at dawn
to tidy Valhalla for the fallen ones;
I … made the Valkyries bring wine, as a prince was coming.
I’m expecting some renowned heroes
from the human world; my heart is glad!

Anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend promises to reveal ‘a world of warriors, seafarers and conquerors’ and its iconic image is a sword. As that suggests, much of this world is a male world, and this chimes with popular perceptions of the Vikings as large, aggressive and bearded men. A more nuanced view of the Viking Age would recognise that even large, aggressive and bearded men had mothers, and very likely sisters, wives and daughters, and if you look closely at the exhibition you will find some personal items associated with such women. Nor did these women all stay at home while their menfolk went out into the wide world of raiding and trading. There is evidence for female traders in Russia, for instance, for far-travelling women, for queens and mistresses of large estates, as well as for women as victims and slaves. Also, women were an absolute prerequisite for the lasting establishment of a successful new nation in the uninhabited island of Iceland. Women can boast of many achievements in the Viking Age yet, in a quarter of a century of studying them, I find that the one thing I get asked about most often is the one thing I do not think they ‘achieved’, which was to become warriors.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A very small silver figurine, found in Hårby, in Denmark, in late 2012, may seem to contradict this. It undoubtedly represents a woman: she has the knotted pony-tail and long garment characteristic of many other representations of female figures in Viking art. What is unusual is that she is carrying an upright sword in her right hand and a shield in her left. The function of this figurine is unknown, and what it represents is also mysterious. If it is intended as an image of a woman warrior, then it is not a realistic one. Her garment is elaborate and beautifully decorated, and would be a real hindrance in combat, as would her uncovered head and its pony-tail. Male warriors did not always have helmets, as these were expensive, but would have had some kind of protective headgear like a leather cap. So we are left to conclude that the figure must be symbolic, rather than realistic, and most experts are inclined to label her as a valkyrie.

Valkyries are interesting and significant figures in the warrior cultures of the Viking Age. We know about them mainly from Old Norse literature, the poetry and prose written down in Iceland in the thirteenth century and later. The medieval Icelanders understood the function of valkyries literally from their name (valkyrja means ‘chooser of the slain’), and presented an image of them as handmaidens of the war-god Odin. He would send them to battle to choose those warriors who were worthy of dying and going to Valhalla, the hall of the slain, where they prepared themselves for the final battle of Ragnarok. There, the valkyries acted as hostesses, welcoming the dead warriors and serving them drink, as in the anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe cited above. This literary understanding is confirmed by many Viking Age images of female figures, with long hair and gown, rather like the Hårby figurine, but holding out a drinking horn. When carrying out their duties on the battlefield, however, valkyries needed to be armed and the literary texts suggest that they were usually equipped with helmets, mail-coats and spears. Any association between valkyries and swords, on the other hand, is very rare as a sword, closely associated with masculinity, would be incongruous on a female figure. The sword was the weapon of choice, the prized possession and the status symbol of the better sort of Viking warrior. Many men, not all of them necessarily professional warriors, were buried with their swords, although they would also have an array of other weapons, like the man in the Kaupang burial, or the helmeted warrior depicted on the Middleton cross from North Yorkshire.

The undoubted successes of the Vikings in warfare and conquest were rooted in a well-developed Odinic ideology that sustained and strengthened them through their campaigns. The myth of Valhalla, the idea of death as a reward for the successful warrior, mediated by a female figure, is a powerful part of this ideology. It provided the warrior going into battle with an incentive and the dying warrior with a kind of consolation. Some of the literary texts develop this idea in a romantic way by telling of love affairs between warriors and valkyries though these, too, generally end in death. This martial ideology of which valkyries are a part also seeped into daily life. A typical valkyrie name, like Hild, means ‘battle’, and many ordinary women in the Viking Age also bore names (Iike the very common Gunnhild, or ‘War-battle’) that contained such elements. Yet that did not make them women warriors. Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.


Professor Judith Jesch is the author of Viking Poetry of Love and War and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on 24 April.
Supported by BP

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

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The Viking way of death

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil PriceNeil Price, Professor of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen

Among the most fascinating things in the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend are the numerous objects from burials and graves. The way that a people treat their dead can say a lot about their attitudes to life, and the Vikings were no exception. Although their graves take certain standardised forms – an earthen mound, a wooden chamber, a buried boat, and so on – in the detail of the rituals it’s clear that almost every funeral was different, a personalised send-off. We know that this was an age of individuals, but what can we understand from this infinity of responses to death? Let’s look more closely at just one example, which in all its unique complexity can stand for all the others.

The scene is a small, beachfront trading community, located in the outer reaches of the Oslofjord in Norway. We know this place as Kaupang, it just means ‘market’, but to its inhabitants it was known as Skíringssalr – something like ‘the shining hall’, perhaps named after its lord’s residence on the hill behind. Nearly twenty years of excavations there have revealed rows of small houses and workshops strung out along the water’s edge, with access to wharves where the ships came in from around the whole region. But this is for the living; outside the settlement, on promontories and on the low heights along the edges of the fjord, are the graves of the dead.

One of them seems at first to be a relatively simple affair. In the middle of the 9th century a man of indeterminate age was buried on his left side, probably dressed in a cloak because a brooch was found at his shoulder. His chest was pressed up against a large stone, and his body had been covered from the waist down with a cloth of very fine quality, drawn up like a blanket over his legs. With him were a handful of objects: two knives, a fire steel and two flints, a whetstone, some fragments of a soapstone bowl and what the excavators called an ‘egg-shaped stone’. Little in this is particularly exciting, though even this meagre grave has its own character and individualism, everything in it being there for a reason. However, it is what happened next that is remarkable.

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early tenth century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

Several decades later in the early 900s, an 8.5m-long boat was placed exactly on top of the dead man, its keel aligned precisely along the axis of his grave (which tells us that its location was remembered). Inside the boat were the bodies of four people: a man, two women and an infant, together with a number of animals. Around and above the bodies, laid out together with them or deposited above them as the boat was filled with earth, were masses of objects. Let us look a little closer.

In the prow a man and a woman lay apparently on blankets covering the decking. The woman was aged about 45-50 when she died, arranged on her back with her right hand on her breast, ankles crossed and her feet pointing into the prow. Her head was resting on a stone, like a pillow. She was expensively dressed, her clothes held together with silver jewellery. From her belt hung a knife and a key. To her immediate right was a bucket. Balanced across her knees, a weaving sword.

A baby was wrapped in the woman’s dress, bundled at her hip with her left hand resting on its head.

Lying head to head with the woman, arranged symmetrically with his feet pointing to the stern, was a man of unknown age. He had been placed slightly twisted, on his back but with legs flexed and bent to one side at the waist. Laid out around him were weapons: two axes, of which one was an antique; a throwing spear; a sheathed sword, its point precisely at his head, with two knives and a whetstone next to it; a shield (two more lay nearby); a quiver of arrows and therefore probably also a bow. A silver arm-ring lay above him. On his midriff lay an inverted frying pan. On the sword scabbard two spindle whorls had been carefully placed. A pot of German manufacture had been smashed and its pieces scattered over the man’s body along with three glass beads, near a soapstone vessel. Two more of the latter were deposited at the man’s feet. An iron dog chain was draped next to him, with a sickle somewhere nearby.

Amidships, a bridled horse had been killed and laid on the deck. Its throat was probably cut, and it seems to have been decapitated and roughly dismembered, its limbs and body parts then placed back in approximately their anatomical positions. A single spur was placed on the mangled corpse.

In the stern of the boat was a second woman, apparently buried sitting up, either in a chair or hunched up against the rising end of the vessel. From her location and posture it is possible that the steering oar of the boat was resting in her hands. A whetstone and a bridle-bit leant against her feet, which touched the carcass of the horse. She was well-dressed in high fashion. Behind her was a shield. To her right, resting on the deck, another of those enigmatic ‘egg-shaped stones’ and a weaving sword of iron. To her left, an unusual iron staff pinned down under a large rock. Somewhere near her was an axe. In the woman’s lap was an imported bowl of bronze that had been scratched with runes, i muntlauku, ‘in the hand basin’. The bowl contained some unidentified little metal objects, and the severed head of a dog. Its body lay across the woman’s feet. One pair of its legs, perhaps detached, lay a little below the torso; the other legs were missing. Marks on the bones suggest crude carving of the flesh before the ragged skeleton was reassembled. Around the woman were also found fragments of wood and bark, pieces of sheet iron and objects of copper alloy; we do not know what they were.

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

The iron staff might offer a small clue to the nature of the dead steerswoman, as it is of a kind identified as a tool of the sorceresses called a völur, and other female magic-workers, who feature extensively in the Icelandic sagas. Several staffs of this kind can be seen in the exhibition.

The whole burial was then covered with earth and complex stone constructions, building up to a low mound. The excavators also found patches of cremated bone and wood mixed here and there in the deposit, hinting at further rituals about which we know nothing.

In all of this, note the detail, the precision, the deliberate choice and positioning of objects. The treatment of these Viking-Age dead is eloquent in its sheer specificity.

So what were they doing, on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the early tenth century? A burial of four people in a boat, itself placed on top of another grave, a few decades old. Were the man and woman a couple, with their child? Or were they unrelated? Who was the woman sitting in the stern, apparently some kind of witch? Did they all die together, either violently or through illness? Was one or more of them killed to accompany the others in death? Whose were the boat and the animals, or did they belong to none of the dead? What do the objects mean, and would a contemporary understanding of them even approximate to our own? What connection did all of this have with the man under the keel? One thing is certain: it does not resemble any kind of funeral familiar to us.

They died a long time ago and we do not know their names, but these people of the Viking Age faced the same eternal questions of life and its meaning as still puzzle us today. The boat burial at Kaupang was one of their answers.


Neil Price is a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

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

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

Filed under: Vikings: life and legend, , , , ,

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