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

Filed under: Archaeology, Ur Project, , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Hitchcock’s Blackmail and the British Museum: film, technology and magic


Matthew Cock, British Museum

I was intrigued to read in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper (A Hitch in time) about Rescue the Hitchcock 9, a major campaign by the BFI to restore all nine surviving silent films by one of the greatest directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock. It drew my attention because one of these is Blackmail (1929) whose climactic chase sequence was shot at the British Museum.

With three of the films, including Blackmail, the BFI have the original ‘camera negative’ – the very film that passed through Hitchcock’s camera. These, according to the Guardian, will be “fed through a digital scanner, copied using a cold light source, with each of the 100,000 odd frames given a unique number. Once in the digital realm, stored as images of 4096×3112 pixels (about double the current release-print standard), the films are subjected to careful cleaning and minute analysis for colour balance”.

A still from Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

A still from Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

My first reaction was to wonder what the restored film would reveal of the interior of the Museum 82 years ago. I did a few searches online to see if I could find out more about the scenes, and soon discovered that Hitchcock’s filming of the British Museum wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Because the chase sequence wasn’t actually filmed on location at the Museum – it was filmed at Elstree Studios using a process invented by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan and refined while he was working on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, completed only two years earlier.

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

Hitchcock talked about the filming in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich for his book The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock in 1963, and explains the process.
Bogdanovich asked him:

“Was the chase through the British Museum shot there?”

“No, it was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schüfftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn’t looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage. The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They’d go on through and I’d say, “All right, bring back the Schufftan.” I did the whole nine shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.”

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

It’s wonderful to discover that Hitchcock used the latest special effects technology (replaced by matte shots and ultimately CGI and blue screen) to conjure up a virtual image of the vast and solid British Museum in a studio 14 miles away, to trick not only the viewer, but even the studio heads who funded the film.

Today the film conservators at the BFI, while using digital techniques to enhance the original images, in these sequences of Blackmail they are not revealing the real world, but in part the magic alchemical trick that is photography and film – where for a brief moment a virtual world was conjured up before the lens, using the same materials – glass lens, silver (on mirrors and as the basis of photographic film) and the creative vision of the maker.

This post is the result of some recent research I’ve done into films shot at the British Museum, which has resulted in a Wikipedia entry on the subject and a playlist on the British Museum’s YouTube channel. Neither is comprehensive, and I’d welcome any contributions to either of them.

Do support the BFI in the project and make a donation to Rescue the Hitchcock 9.

If you are a broadcaster or film-maker interested in the British Museum as a location, please contact the Museum’s Broadcast Unit.

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Filed under: At the Museum, , , , ,

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