British Museum blog

The Vikings are coming…

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery
Tom Williams, Project Curator: Vikings, British Museum

Several years ago I worked at the Tower of London. Spending long periods of time within a building of such age, I would often start to wonder about how the area would have looked before the castle was built. Every morning I would pass the remains of Roman walls at Tower Bridge station, walls that were repaired and refortified by King Alfred the Great in response to the very real threat of Viking raids from the river. Blotting out the great hulk of HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the modern office blocks that now crowd the banks, I would try to imagine the awe and the terror that a Londoner would have felt a thousand years ago, standing on the city walls, watching the carved and gilded prows of dragon ships silently gliding up the Thames. Viking fleets and armies raided and besieged the city on numerous occasions, and the river has given up dozens of weapons that might have ended up there as a result of those conflicts.

Iron axe-head found in the Thames at Hammersmith, Viking, 10th-11th century (1909,0626.8)

Iron axe-head found in the Thames at Hammersmith, Viking, 10th-11th century (1909,0626.8)

Exactly 1000 years ago, in January 1014, people living in England would have been looking to the year ahead with a great deal of uncertainty. A Danish Viking, Svein Forkbeard, sat on the English throne. He had taken it by force only a few weeks previously, having forced the submission of the English nobility and towns. He would die, suddenly, on the 3rd of February. But a fleet of Danish ships still lay menacingly off the English coast, and on board one of those ships was Svein’s son, Cnut, later to rule England as part of the greatest north sea empire the world would ever know.

This January, a Danish warship – Roskilde 6 – has returned to England and has taken up residence in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, my current place of work. Happily, the dark days of the eleventh century are behind us, and the team from the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) who accompanied the ship to London have not (so far) demanded any tribute or burned any villages. In fact, getting the ship here has been part of a long period of close collaboration between the BM and the NMD (and Berlin State Museums, where Roskilde 6 will head next on its travels).

© National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

© National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

The Danish team of conservators and technicians, led by Kristiane Straetkvern, have been responsible for the conservation and analysis of the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6 (approx. 20% survives of the original ship), and for constructing the extraordinary stainless steel frame in which the timbers are displayed. This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right. The frame has been precision engineered in dozens of individual pieces which can be loaded into a single container for shipment and reassembled under the expert handling of the NMD’s installation team. The timbers are packed flat in their own climate controlled container.

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery


The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum

The finished installation is a wonderful marriage of modern Scandinavian design and engineering with one of the greatest technological achievements of the Viking Age: at over 37 metres long, Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and would have been massive even by the standards of around AD 1025, its probable date of construction. It would have taken huge amounts of manpower and raw materials to construct the ship, resources only available to the most powerful of northern rulers. It may even have been built by Cnut himself…

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend opens at the British Museum on 6 March 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Easter Island (Rapa Nui): a new narrative

Moai staues on Rapa Nui
Jago Cooper, curator, British Museum

Small island communities represent some of the most vulnerable people on the planet to the impacts of climate variability and environmental change. This is why their voices are so powerful when heard above the clamour at international meetings designed to tackle these issues at the global scale.

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

From an archaeological perspective these island communities are particularly interesting as they have commonly been populated relatively late in the great human colonisation of our planet, often only arriving in these archipelagos in the late Holocene (past 5,000 years). Therefore archaeological studies in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific and elsewhere have revealed some fascinating narratives of how human communities have lived with the impacts of climatic variability and environmental change in these archipelagos. In particular these comparative island studies demonstrate how different decisions that people have taken have directly affected their relative vulnerability through time.

Within this context Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has often been heralded as a warning to the world, an example of a remote island community’s inability to live within their means, chopping down all the trees on the island, over-exploiting the island’s resources and self-inflicting their own demise. However, recent evidence offers a very different picture of what actually happened on Rapa Nui.

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

This new perspective to Rapa Nui’s past is the focus of a documentary that I have worked on for BBC4, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World. It uses the latest scientific and archaeological evidence to reveal a compelling new narrative, one that sees the famous Moai as only part of a complex culture that thrived in isolation. To this end, I argue that there are indeed important lessons to learn from Rapa Nui but they don’t begin by blaming its inhabitants for their own downfall.

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Easter Island, Mysteries of a Lost World is on BBC4 on Thursday 30 January at 9.00 pm. Watch clips from the programme on the BBC website.
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Was the ark round? A Babylonian description discovered

Irving Finkel, curator, British Museum
Detail of a cuneiform tablet

I’ve just come from the press conference launching my new book, The Ark Before Noah. As I told the journalists, it all started with a fairly normal event for a museum curator: a member of the public bringing in an object that had long been in their family to have it identified. As often happens in my case, it was a cuneiform tablet. The visitor, Douglas Simmonds, had been given it by his father for passing his exams. It was part of a modest collection: a few tablets, some cylinder seals, a lamp or two and some pieces from China and Egypt. His father, an inveterate curio hunter, had picked them up after the War in the late 1940s.

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

This tablet, however, turned out to be one in a million. The cuneiform was a sixty-line passage from the ancient Babylonian Story of the Flood. This story had been well known since the 1870s, when George Smith, a brilliant decipherer who worked at the British Museum, first identified the story known from the Book of Genesis in a seventh-century cuneiform tablet from Nineveh. The two accounts – Babylonian and biblical – were closely related. The new tablet, however, written in about 1750 BC, has startling new contents.

When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis’s Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn’t a problem – it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s.

Deciphering the tablet was a great adventure, but one development soon led to another: a documentary film in which the Ark is being built according to these 3700-year-old instructions (although not quite full size), and the commissioning of a book.

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Writing it led to some demanding questions: what was the origin of the Flood Story? How did it pass from Babylonian cuneiform to Biblical Hebrew? Then I discovered that a line from the new tablet was quoted on our famous Map of the World tablet, showing where the Babylonian believed that Ark had landed. I also got to address other questions I have been asking myself for years: how does cuneiform writing really work? What were the ancient Babylonians really like?

The Ark Before Noah_544

Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is available from the British Museum Shop online for £20, British Museum Members’ price £18.

The tablet is on display in Room 56 (Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC)

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Facing Enlightenment – reflecting after the event

Facing Enlightenment event
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved wrote a post in November about his then upcoming performance in the Enlightenment Gallery. Here he reflects on the event.

On 13 December, I returned to the British Museum for the next stage of my adventure with the wonderful Enlightenment Gallery. A joy of this unique room is that it is not only an exhibit concerning the histories of ideas, but a place in which to have ideas. As a musician, I well know that until I spend time in a space, I cannot predict what will emerge. Nowhere is this more the case than with ‘Room 1’.

Every time I work here, I am struck how the Enlightenment Gallery quietly shifts its visitors into a salon environment, whether they are expecting it or not! I decided to begin my salon alone. I arrived early, before opening, to sit with my violin, to play, watch and listen, to see what new ideas began to flow. At various points during the day, there were changes of pace: my harpsichordist, Julian Perkins came to hang out and play a little in the morning and it was a fantastic chance to watch him respond to the architecture, the sounds (this is, after all, a room which is about people), and the objects in close proximity. We worked on the 17th-century works by Walther and Matteis, and they began to change, in tangible and intangible ways, finding their way as the room found its way to them.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Photo courtesy Benedict Johnson

Playing in this gallery informally affords me the opportunity to watch my audience: some people will, without doubt, find it a nuisance (they don’t want a violinist in a museum), and that’s their prerogative, which I respect. I watch others relishing a ‘counterpoint’ between objects and music – they’ll often talk to me about it; there was great excitement that the violin that I was holding was older than nearly all the objects in the cases, and even more that this 16th-century violin is a tool which can be used, and can continue to offer new sounds, new ideas, today. Many younger people have never been close to classical instruments played ‘live’. For generations brought up on digital recordings, there is a shock in the physical impact, the sheer quiddity (‘thing-ness’) of an ancient violin, or the excitement of a harpsichord, which clearly, for many people, is almost as weird a sound, and an object, as a UFO.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved talking to the audience in the Enlightenment Gallery

Photo courtesy Benedict Johnson

A few hours into the day, filmmakers from The Economist appeared and talked to me about the excitement of the space, and my project. They filmed me playing Torelli, which became part of the opening sequence of a video, A world of new museums, about a new enlightenment spirit in today’s museums and museum goers.

Late in the afternoon, my string-playing colleagues arrived, and we played composer David Gorton’s new ‘transfigurations’ of Dowland, a few feet from Dr Dee’s ‘shew-stones’, with the box made for them by Horace Walpole. The trajectory of these objects – originally Aztec obsidian mirrors, re-imagined by Queen Elizabeth I’s geomancer, later treasured by the high-priest of the ‘gothick’, the coiner of the word ‘serendipity’ – epitomise the message of this room and the music we choose for it. How can we find our way to the future, through the many discoveries of the past? What tense do we choose to speak, to write in, and does it matter?

And then the chairs went in; the audience arrived. I looked out and saw, among all the new faces, filmmakers, craftspeople, writers, teachers and artists, a true salon, the essence of this marvellous room, and the kindly spirits who grace it – Merian, Hamilton, Delaney, Sloane, the whole crew – alive and inspiring us to creativity and optimism. After the concert, it dawned on me that I had played the violin, without stopping, for 7 hours. But I was not tired, but buoyed up, invigorated by the chance to practise my craft in such company.

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The British Museum’s 255th anniversary: from the archives

Architectural plans of Montagu House by architect Henry Flitcroft
Stephanie Alder, Archivist, British Museum

As the Museum announces record visitor figures for 2013, I took the opportunity to delve into the basement world of the Central Archive looking for any records relating to the public opening of the Museum 255 years ago today (15th January).

image of the The Central Archive store at the British Museum

The Central Archive store at the British Museum

The Central Archive is a rather mysterious place. When you enter through the port-holed door the first thing you notice is the chill, and the smell of old leather bound volumes. It is very exciting to think that within this strongroom sit many important records – some still untouched – providing crucial evidence of the foundation and development of the British Museum. As the Museum Archivist it is a privilege to be able to spend time surrounded by history.

architectural plans of Montagu House by architect Henry Flitcroft

Plans of Montague House by Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769)

When I initially opened a beautifully bound volume of plans of Montague House drawn by the architect Henry Flitcroft in 1725 I found it hard to believe that this was the first home of the British Museum. Until the Museum acquired the property, this grand mansion was the home of the 2nd Duke of Montagu and where many splendid social events took place during the early years of the eighteenth century. Flitcroft was careful to show every detail, even the slate roof tiles are drawn individually. Both formal and kitchen gardens are shown, as is the orchard to the west where Bedford Square now lies.

When you arrive at the Museum today and walk through the gates looking up at the colonnade in front of you, you would be excused for thinking that the Museum had always looked like this. Yet, on 15 January 1765 visitors would have walked down Great Russell Street and entered through a doorway opening leading to a brick paved courtyard. Once inside the Museum, the printed books were arranged on the ground floor, and manuscripts, natural history and ‘modern curiosities’ on the first. However, it isn’t just the architecture of the building that has dramatically changed over years – but how members of public gained access to the collections.

handwritten minutes of the British Museum Trustees

Minutes of the Trustees’ General Minutes from 7 April 1759, p. 255

When reading through the early minutes of the Trustees’ General Meetings, I came across a great number of discussions relating to public admission. The Trustees eventually decided that visits should be free, but by ticket only, applied for in advance and conducted around the collection in small groups by the staff, the first of whom were appointed in 1756. In a document titled ‘Regulations for Admission to a Sight of the British Museum’ it states that ‘five companies of not more than fifteen persons each, may be admitted in the Course of the Day, viz. One at each of the hours of Ten, Eleven, Twelve, One and Two. At each of those Hours, the directing Officer in waiting shall examine the Entries in the Book, and if none of the Persons inscribed be found exceptionable, he shall deliver to each of them a Ticket for immediate admission’. This rough figure of 75 visitors per day is a far cry from the visitor numbers recorded today.

The original proposed ticket for admission to view the Museum’s collections, located in the Trustees Original Papers of 1757

The original proposed ticket for admission to view the Museum’s collections, located in the Trustees Original Papers of 1757

It was expected that visitors to the Museum ‘be decent and orderly in their Appearance and Behaviour’, and the officers on duty were instructed to refuse admission anyone who disregarded this rule. The regulations went on to explain that ‘past experience has proven the necessity of this injunction’. In addition to this no children ‘apparently under ten years of age’ were permitted entry – both quite different to the Museum today when you can wear what you like and enjoy the collections from any age. By the 1830s, the Museum was operating an open admissions policy. Visitors to the Museum’s world collection have grown enormously since it first opened its doors to the public with in excess of 6.5 million welcomed today.

Read more about the Museum’s 255th anniversary

The Central Archive of the British Museum contains the administrative records of the Museum dating back to its foundation. For more information on the collection and how to make an appointment, please contact the Archivist at centralarchive@britishmuseum.org.

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This is an exquisitely decorated purse lid from the Anglo-Saxon burial at #SuttonHoo, which was brought to the world's attention #onthisday in 1939. In this object the quality of craftsmanship can really be appreciated. The lid is only 19cm in length but it must have been incredibly valuable. The outstanding nature of the finds at Sutton Hoo points to this being the burial of a leading figure in East Anglia, possibly a king. The landowner Mrs Edith Petty donated the discovery to the British Museum in 1939.
#SuttonHoo #Gold #Archaeology #AngloSaxon Today we’re celebrating the unearthing of the beautiful Anglo-Saxon objects from #SuttonHoo, which were found #onthisday in 1939. Arguably the most iconic of all the objects, this helmet was an astonishingly rare find. Meticulous reconstruction has allowed us to see its full shape and some of the complexity of the fine detailing after it was damaged in the burial chamber. The gold areas of the helmet reveal a dragon or bird-like figure – the moustache forms the tail, the nose forms the body and the eyebrows form the wings, with a head just above. Another animal head can be seen facing down towards this.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon #Gold #Helmet #Archaeology #onthisday in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, archaeologists discovered the treasures of #SuttonHoo. It was one of the most important historical discoveries of the 20th century, and contained a wealth of Anglo-Saxon objects which greatly enhanced the understanding of the early medieval period. One of the most significant things to be found was an undisturbed ship-burial, the excavation of which can be seen in this photo. The 27-metre-long impression the ship left in the earth is highly detailed and was painstakingly recorded. The centre of the ship contained a burial chamber housing some spectacular objects – we’ll be sharing some highlights today.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon  #archaeology #archive #blackandwhite This photograph shows a mountainside in #Angola featuring large engravings which may be thousands of years old. This rock art is found at Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume, one of a group of four rock art sites located in the south-west corner of Angola, by the edge of the Namib desert. The area is a semi-arid plain characterised by the presence of several inselbergs (isolated hills rising from the plain). Of the four sites, Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume is the largest, located at the top of an inselberg, 726 metres in height. There are large engravings on the slopes of the outcrop, most of them consisting of simple or concentric circles and solar-like images.

Our #AfricanRockArt image project team have now completed cataloguing 19,000 rock art images from Northern, Eastern and Southern Africa, and will be completing work on sites from Southern African countries in the final phase of the project. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about our African #rockart image project and the incredible images being catalogued.
Photograph © TARA/David Coulson. Our #AfricanRockArt project team is cataloguing and uploading around 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent. Working with digital photographs has allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ.

As part of the cataloguing process, the project team document each photograph, identifying what is depicted. Sometimes images are faded or unclear. Using photo manipulation software, images can be run through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can now see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye.

This painted panel, from Kondoa District in #Tanzania, shows the white outline of an elephant’s head at the right, along with some figures in red that it is possible to highlight with digital enhancement.

Tanzania contains some of the densest concentrations of rock art in East Africa, mainly paintings found in the Kondoa area and adjoining Lake Eyasi basin. The oldest of these paintings are attributed to hunter-gatherers and may be 10,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio to learn more about the project and see stunning #rockart from Africa. This week we’re highlighting the work of our #AfricanRockArt image project. The project team are now in the third year of cataloguing, and have uploaded around 19,000 digital photographs of rock art from all over #Africa to the Museum’s collection online database.

This photograph shows an engraving of a large, almost life-sized elephant, found on the Messak Plateau in #Libya. This region is home to tens of thousands of depictions, and is best known for larger-than-life-size engravings of animals such as elephants, rhino and a now extinct species of buffalo. This work of rock art most likely comes from the Early Hunter Period and could be up to 12,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio and explore 30,000 years of stunning rock art from Africa. © TARA/David Coulson.
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