British Museum blog

The unregarded woman: another look at a Ming painting

Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art, University of Oxford and co-curator of the BP Exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China

Of the many paintings included in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, one of the most famous is the ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’, showing a swanky party held in 1437 in the garden of Yang Rong (1371–1440), Grand Secretary and all-round important person of early fifteenth-century China. It’s in all the books on Ming painting, appears on loads of websites, and is generally one of the most reproduced images dating from the period covered by the exhibition. This is partly because of where the painted silk handscroll now is, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and so it has been relatively easy to view and study, as well as to publish in books about Chinese art. I’ve used it myself in the classroom and lectures in all sorts of ways, as it’s a very rich image for talking about patronage of the arts, the relationship between politics and art in the Ming, the role of the artist and lots of other topics. I find it is one of those images that you can always learn more about, and indeed there remain a number of mysteries.

Who is it by? It bears the signature of an artist called Xie Huan; his dates used to be a bit vague, but recent research by Yin Ji’nan, Professor of Art History at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, has established definitively that he was born in 1377 and died in 1452. He was an important person in the early Ming art world, apparently working as an advisor and painter to the Yongle and Xuande emperors, as well as maintaining a presumably lucrative private practice, producing images like this for important people like Yang Rong and his friends.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

The nature of the event – senior officials of the empire demonstrating the calm and peaceful state of affairs by gathering for a day of relaxed gentlemanly pastimes – means that more than one person present might have wanted to have an image of the party. Indeed another version of the same subject exists, in the Zhenjiang Museum in China. Are both paintings by Xie Huan? Did he, like Italian artists at the time, run a workshop where multiple versions of the same subject were turned out with the help of assistants? Is one painting the original, and the other just a copy?

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

All of these views have been put forward by art historians at some point, and indeed I’ve contributed in my time to the scholarship on this painting; I’m particularly intrigued by the painting within the painting (of which we can only see a tiny corner). So it’s a bit humbling to confess that there is a detail of this painting that I’ve never really noticed before, though I’ve looked at it many times, both in reproductions and at the Met in New York. The figures depicted as attending the party are all men, since mixed-sex gatherings would have been vaguely indecent affairs in the Ming, where men and women were strictly segregated in most aspects of elite life. The servants who attend them are all male too, young boys who hold up the painting for viewing, or roll up scrolls no longer wanted, or attend to incense or bringing in the drinks.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Except (and this is what never registered properly with me until I had the chance for extended viewing of the picture in the exhibition), that there is one woman visible. She is right at the very left edge of the scroll, the last section to be unrolled when the painting was viewed in sections. She is peeping out from behind a tree, coming out from (presumably) the kitchens carrying a large handled basin. We can’t see the contents, perhaps it is hot water to warm the wine, or maybe it is meant to represent a serving of snacks to go with the drinks. She is doing something important, but unregarded. As it happens, historical Ming gossip tells us that Yang Rong had a famously dowdy wife, a woman from his home province of Jiangxi in the south; she was once given a makeover by the empress, to the extent that she was unrecognisable beneath the added palace glamour. I don’t think the woman in the painting is meant to be her. Yang Rong’s wife was after all a lady, she did not serve the drinks at parties. But I’ve become aware that my own failure to notice her until recently has compounded the invisibility of women, which skews our understanding of Ming art and Ming culture more generally.

In 1437 the emperor was a young boy, and the gentlemen we see here were in fact governing the empire in coalition with the powerful women of the imperial family, the child ruler’s mother and grandmother. I like to think – in fact it’s entirely reasonable to think – that in the depths of the palace they and their ladies-in-waiting were partying in their own way. But they’re not in the picture.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall are editors of the exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, which is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engraved elephant, Acacus Mountains, Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon HoganPolly Bence, British Museum

This painting is one of almost 6,000 objects from Australia and the Torres Strait Islands in the British Museum. This is a growing collection; the Museum continues to acquire contemporary Indigenous Australian objects, including contemporary art works.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka was painted by Simon Hogan, a senior custodian of Linka, the place where he was born and raised in Western Australia, known as Spinifex country. The Spinifex people or Pila Nguru live in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia, adjoining the border with South Australia.

Hogan’s paintings tell stories from his land, depicting specific places within Spinifex country. As is often characteristic of this genre, the painting collapses time: it shows several successive events on top of each other. The large U-shape in the painting is a rockhole with water in it known as Ilkurlka and the trees are mulga trees (wanarii). When describing this painting Hogan explained: ‘those trees belong to that place’.

The painting tells the story of a man who was camping at this rockhole. He woke up and travelled to another place where there was a very powerful watersnake that he was trying to capture.

In describing the painting the artist explained that in it the man is trying to eat the snake and at the same time he has eaten it – he is both a man and a snake. The oval shape depicts the man lying down, feeling sick having eaten the snake – but the man now has a great deal of power.

During the atomic tests at Maralinga in western South Australia during the mid-1950s, the Spinifex people were driven from their homelands. Many found themselves dispersed and others were forcibly relocated to mission stations hundreds of miles away. In the 1980s people returned to their land to find that specific settlement areas had been designated for them and some areas had been selected for mining.

The 1990s saw an arduous and lengthy period of negotiations over land rights and native title claims, and it was during this period that the Spinifex Arts Project was developed to help the group document and illustrate their Native Title claims. This decade of discussion culminated in 2000 with ground-breaking legislation and a new understanding: Spinifex people were finally recognised as the traditional owners of 55,000 square kilometres of land in Western Australia. Spinifex artists produce work to demonstrate and share their complex history and traditions.

The British Museum is working towards a major Indigenous Australian exhibition which will open in 2015, which will include Spinifex paintings.


This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 7 February 2013.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan is on display in Room 37

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

The Crucifixion of ChristChristopher Spring, British Museum

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

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

The Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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