British Museum blog

The Haig-Thomas collection: two stories from the Arctic

Jack Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Museum

A collection has recently been donated to the British Museum that throws light on two remarkable stories: how the Kalaallit people of Northwestern Greenland responded to Danish influence on their society during the early decades of the 20th century, and how one Englishman took it upon himself to explore their world.

David Haig-Thomas, 1932 (image source? copyright?)

David Haig-Thomas, 1932

The Englishman was David Haig-Thomas, educated at Eton and Cambridge, who while returning by boxcar from a fourth-placed rowing eight at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics stumbled across an old school friend named Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger had soon persuaded Haig-Thomas to accompany him in a journey across the Ethiopian desert. A week into the expedition the pair had bitterly separated, Haig-Thomas left with serious injuries, a hefty bill and the sincere desire to travel as far as possible from the heat of Africa.

He swiftly enlisted as resident ornithologist on the Oxford University Ellesmere Land Expedition of 1934, organised by Edward Shackleton. The expedition ventured far into the Arctic, Haig-Thomas spending extended periods with the Kalaallit people of West Greenland, learning the Kalaallisut language. On his return to Britain he immediately began organising his own return expedition, raising commercial sponsorship for a party of geographers to map the far northern reaches of the Arctic Archipelago. His own role was to search for the skeleton of a large dinosaur rumoured to be somewhere in the region.

Haig-Thomas never found his skeleton, but he did spend many months exploring the frozen channels and islands of the far north, living off seal, walrus and bear meat and discovering a previously uncharted land which he named Haig-Thomas Island. During this time he was accompanied by his Kalaallit friend and guide, Ootah, who shared the long dog-sled journey with cheerful good-humour, even during the long periods when there was no food to be found. Haig-Thomas also became well acquainted with Ootah’s family and made many friends in the region, most especially among the local children.

Haig-Thomas returned to Britain in the spring of 1939, following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. In his account of the expedition he wryly noted on the impending war that ‘whatever happened I had had a wonderful fifteen months in the Arctic, even if, in a few weeks’ time, I was riddled with machine-gun bullets.’ He joined the army, serving with No.42 Commando, a unit made up of polar specialists for service in Northern Norway. He was never deployed in the Arctic, instead accompanying the airborne assault on Normandy on 6 July 1944, armed with an oosik, an Inuit club made from a walrus’ penis bone. He was killed in action on the morning of D-Day in combat with German forces near the village of Bavent.

Shortly after his return to Britain in 1939, Haig-Thomas donated to the British Museum a small collection of archaeological finds discovered by workmen under an ancient house near Thule, North Greenland. It consists of fragments of bone and ivory tools, including the remains of a pair of bone snow-spectacles, dating to approximately 1200 CE. He left the remainder of the souvenirs from his trip at his family home in Essex, where it remained until this year, when his son Anthony generously donated it to the Museum.

Walrus ivory cribbage board (2014,2004.62)

Walrus ivory cribbage board (2014,2004.62)

This collection not only enables us to tell his father’s remarkable story, it also allows for an examination of the Kalaallit people during a time of great turmoil. There are 70 items in the collection, which can be broadly divided into three groups. The first consists of souvenirs: Danish travellers, missionaries and traders were not uncommon among the Inuit communities of West Greenland, and a thriving trade in souvenirs had sprung up. The collection includes an ivory letter-opener, several ivory snow-knives and a cribbage board carved from a walrus tusk. At the time, items of this kind were decried because, in the words of Danish archaeologist Morton Porsild, they would ‘find their way to museums, just where they ought not to be, as generally, with a few exceptions, they are devoid of all scientific value’, but in truth these souvenirs provide remarkably clear insight into the economic, stylistic and commercial preoccupations of the Kalaallit during this period.

Ulu knife (2014,2004.10)

Ulu knife (2014,2004.10)

Sometimes they demonstrate this directly. Among the collection is an incised walrus tusk featuring scenes of Inuit hunters and fishermen using combinations of traditional and modern equipment. This is the second grouping, consisting of traditional tools often utilising European technology in their manufacture: a wooden awl with an iron nail for a point, brown thread used to stitch bone tools together and ulu knives cut from steel saws. The Kalaallit were and remain an ingenious and adaptable people capable of utilising all available resources in their daily lives and this collection amply demonstrates this important facet of their society.

Miniature ivory sled (2014,2004.12)

Miniature ivory sled (2014,2004.12)

The third group directly reflects Haig-Thomas’ close friendship with the Kalaallit boys he lived alongside. Among the Inuit peoples, once a child could walk and talk they were considered a full member of the community, and children would be expected to participate in family activities. Boys would be given small bows and harpoons, items we might consider toys but which to them were of vital educational value. Mock hunts would teach boys the skills required to procure the food necessary to keep the family alive during the long cold winters, while their sisters would be given utensils for cooking and making clothing, learning alongside their mothers in the home. The Haig-Thomas collection includes numerous such small weapons and equipment, obtained from his friends during his long months of residency with the Kalaallit.

With his generous donation, Anthony Haig-Thomas has enabled the British Museum to tell two intertwined stories of Arctic exploration: that of his father and that of the resourceful, hardy and intelligent friends that he made.

For further reading, see Haig-Thomas’ books, I Leap Before I Look and Tracks in the Snow, available at the British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre.
 
The objects that form the Haig-Thomas collection can be studied through the Collection online
.

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Vikings Live: bringing our shared history to the cinema screen

Bettany HughesBettany Hughes, historian, author and broadcaster, presenter of Vikings Live from the British Museum

When you’re about to handle an archaeological artefact, interesting things happen to your body. In anticipation of the pleasure to come, your heart starts to race a little faster, the hair on the back of your neck might begin to rise, palms can become sticky. And of course there is the nagging knowledge that the security of that unique, precious – sometimes priceless – traveller in time is, physically, in your hands.

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

This gives the fact that we will be examining world-class Viking treasures live in front of a nationwide audience later tonight a certain piquancy. The combination of outside broadcast satellite trucks, electricians, cameramen, cables and lighting stands with 1,000-plus-year-old artefacts, is not an obvious one.

But there is form – we have done all this once before. Last year, Paul Roberts, Peter Snow, Mary Beard, Rachel de Thame, Gino Locatelli, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and I risked the world’s first ever live broadcast from a museum exhibition, with Pompeii Live. The British Museum’s notion was that we would develop the blockbuster into a private view for those who couldn’t make it to London; or who wanted a further, in-depth look at the objects. The great thing about these ‘Lives’ is that the camera can get up close and intimately personal to the displays; plus the audience gets the VIP treatment – with world experts gathered together on the night to unravel the significance of the most intriguing pieces. There was a tsunami of support from the public for our first effort. We’ve taken on board feedback (more shots of the objects themselves and less of the presenters’ mugs!).The number of cinemas hosting Vikings Live is up by a third on Pompeii, so hopefully, fingers crossed, we’re doing something right.

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

As an historian this is all truly great news: Memory matters to our species. From before the time of Homer we have chosen to join together in shared space to tell one another stories, to make sense of our world, our past and our shared futures. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the Viking story. My own fascination has always been that here in the UK we tend to think of the Vikings as OUR problem. But of course these men and women (‘Viking’ doesn’t mean a particular ethnic group but refers to an activity, vikingr, or raiding) were raiding and trading across four continents. From Kiev to Constantinople, from Gibraltar to Greenland, the Vikings meant something; they are all our ancestors. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is a necklace found in a woman’s grave in Finland. Semi-precious stones from the Baltic are joined by Islamic coins – dirhams. Face to face with that bit of jewellery you can just imagine the pride of the original owner; knowing that her loved ones’ adventures across the seas in Asia or Al-Andalus connected her to a rich, cosmopolitan world.

Odin, or v&oumlaut;va figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

Odin, or volva figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

I hear that one of Neil MacGregor’s favourite objects in the exhibition is the small silver figurine of Odin, but particularly the representations of Odin’s pet ravens – Huginn and Muninn – representing Thought and Memory. The British Museum – and indeed museums across the globe – are the custodians, caretakers and communicators of our collective memories. Although slightly terrified, I can’t wait to share these with you (and the screen with my long-time hero Michael Wood (who wrote yesterday on this blog). Oh, and incidentally, honey and dried fish were top Viking dishes; maybe have those as refreshment tonight rather than popcorn: Get in that Viking mood!

Bettany Hughes is one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

Follow @Bettany_Hughes and @britishmuseum on Twitter

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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Vikings Live on the horizon

Michael WoodMichael Wood, historian and broadcaster, presenter of Vikings Live from the British Museum

Hotfoot back from Shanghai where I am filming The Story of China, and now very excited about tomorrow night at the British Museum! We had a production meeting yesterday going through the script and suddenly the spine-tingling ‘liveness’ of it all felt very immediate. Vikings Live is now really coming together, with a series of very exciting scenes and a team of terrific contributors. Gareth, the exhibition curator, will even be sweltering in full Viking war-gear to explain the ethos of a warrior society. A string of inspiring experts will be your guides through the glitter and violence of the age, led by everybody’s favourite museum director / magician, Neil MacGregor, who has now turned his hand to A History of the Viking World in a Thousand Objects!

Vikings Live presenters, from left: Michael Wood, Bettany Hughes and Gareth Williams

Vikings Live presenters, from left: Michael Wood, Bettany Hughes and Gareth Williams

The British Museum has gathered some really amazing things together for this thrilling exhibition about the turbulent and spacious Viking epoch that extended roughly from the 750s to around 1100. Tomorrow night the cinema audience will be getting privileged close-up access to some wonderful artefacts: designer sword blades, fabulous gold torcs (neck-rings), looted treasure and a jaw-dropping display of headless skeletons of Vikings executed near Weymouth during the disastrous reign of Ethelred the Unready (979–1016) when the Danes conquered England.

An intimate detail? The piece that caught my eye (and I’ll be talking to Gareth about it tomorrow night) is a severed skull with filed teeth that were once coloured. An Arab account of Vikings on the Caspian Sea describes them tattooed and even wearing make-up – the men as well as the women. With their bling and braided hair they were definitely making a statement: Pirates of the Caribbean goes Viking?

At the heart of the exhibition is the wreck of the longest Viking ship ever found – sunk in Roskilde in around 1025, it was discovered in 1996. Only the lower part of the original boat survives, but the elegant curving steel frame over 120-feet long is a staggering sight, which will be explored with dramatic crane shots tomorrow night. Clinker-built, slim and very flexible, such ships travelled west to Greenland, south to Morocco and east to the Caspian Sea: there are even Viking graffiti on the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Going further west, there was even a permanent Viking settlement in Newfoundland, and for all we know, some inquisitive summer voyager coasted down the shores of New England. Our own pirate explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher would certainly have seen them as kindred spirits.

And what about the Vikings themselves? As you’ll see tomorrow night they had a very dark sense of humour – but they also had a very down-to-earth view of life which reminds me a lot of the kind of humour you can still hear in the Yorkshire Dales or the Cumbrian Fells: and not all of it in jest… Take these sample Viking ‘thoughts for the day’ from the famous wisdom text, the Havamal:

Don’t trust a blade until you have tested it in battle.
Don’t trust ice until you have walked across it
Don’t trust your wife until you’ve buried her….

No new men there then!

So there you are: courageous practical, realistic, cruel, curious – the Viking spirit took them across the western world between 750s and the late 11th century. That amazing age is our subject tomorrow night – experts and enthusiasts all. Speaking personally, I must say I am looking forward very much to presenting Vikings Live with Bettany Hughes, who I have known for years, but it’s the first time we have done an event together. What a time!


Michael Wood is 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

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This is Room 69, Greek and Roman life. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
Room 69 takes a cross-cultural look at the public and private lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The objects on display have been chosen to illustrate themes such as women, children, household furniture, religion, trade and transport, athletics, war, farming and more. Around the walls, supplementary displays illustrate individual crafts on one side of the room, and Greek mythology on the opposite side. This picture is taken from the mezzanine level, looking down into the gallery. The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 68, the Citi Money Gallery. The history of money can be traced back over 4,000 years. During this time, currency has taken many different forms, from coins to banknotes, shells to mobile phones.
The Citi Money Gallery displays the history of money around the world. From the earliest evidence, to the latest developments in digital technology, money has been an important part of human societies. Looking at the history of money gives us a way to understand the history of the world – from the earliest coins to Bitcoin, and from Chinese paper money to coins from every nation in the world. You can find out more about what's on display at britishmuseum.org/money The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 67: Korea. The Korea Foundation Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen on 16 December 2014. You can find out more about the refurb at koreabritishmuseum.tumblr.com  The unique culture of Korea combines a strong sense of national identity with influences from other parts of the Far East. Korean religion, language, geography and everyday life were directly affected by the country’s geographic position, resulting in a rich mix of art and artefacts.
Objects on display in Room 67 date from prehistory to the present day and include ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, painting, screen-printed books and illuminated manuscripts.
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