British Museum blog

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: coming apart at the seams

Agnieszka Depta, Conservator, Western Art on Paper, British Museum

After choosing the smallest possible eraser (yes, that’s the skinny one in the middle) to clean the largest print in the Prints and Drawings collection it didn’t seem like we would ever finish with the mammoth task of surface cleaning, but we did it and here is a picture of some of the eraser crumbs to prove it:

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Before embarking onto the next step, to remove the soiled and degraded textile backing from the assembled pages, we supported delicate-looking creases and other weak areas with tissue and wheat starch paste. Then the print was turned over, which was no mean feat for a print this size (357 x 295 cm) and required all hands on deck.

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Supporting weak areas before backing removal

First we carried out some tests to establish which method would be most appropriate to soften the starch-based adhesive so as to allow us to carefully peel the linen off the print in small strips. For this purpose it is best to introduce water very slowly, which allows the adhesive to gradually swell and soften without making the paper too wet. We have a choice of conservation-grade powders that will absorb and hold water in a gel or thick liquid, which we apply as a ‘poultice’. We sometimes use a fabric that holds moisture, such as a Microfibre cloth or capillary matting combined with a barrier material such as Gore-TexR which controls the rate of humidification.

Having settled on using a poultice, we removed the majority of the linen backing using this method. Some areas proved more difficult than others – perhaps where the paper was more deteriorated or thinner, or where the paste had been applied more thickly, or maybe different batches of paste were used. Akin to Goldilocks and her porridge, the poultice had to be left on the linen backing for just the right period of time: too short and some original paper fibres might be accidentally removed, too long and the paper would get soft and be at risk of damage. The goalposts changed as we moved across the print because of the variable topography but, as a reward for our patience, we got to know the print and its little quirks like a best friend. Getting up close and intimate with the print and observing the different styles of chamfering, pasting etc. allowed us to discover what a team effort it must have been to assemble and back it originally.

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Peeling off the linen backing

We too had to work as a team and during this period we were joined by students who observed the treatments and, for a few days of backing removal, by a fellow paper conservator Harry Metcalf, from the City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol.

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Conservators Caroline Barry and Harry Metcalf: hard at work

In order to reach the centre of the print, we started taking the individual sheets apart as soon as enough of the backing was removed to allow us to do so.

Unexpectedly, the joins had been thinned down in the past to the point where only a fragile layer of paper fibres remained, and it proved the greatest challenge of the project thus far to take the printed sheets apart safely. It required all our skill and ingenuity, including sourcing tools used in dentistry and even purchasing antique manicure sets on eBay and treating this like an exercise in micro-surgery. After weeks of painstaking labour the print has been taken apart into its original 38 sheets.

We also experimented with agarose gel strips (agarose is usually extracted from seaweed) to humidify the joins but the poultice applied on top of the linen, along the joints proved to be the most successful method. Most of the linen backing we removed was kept for possible future analysis and experimentation.

So far we have discovered that pieces of old prints were used to infill historical losses; there was also a notation made on the verso in red chalk; and the various watermarks on the different sheets are a lot more visible without the lining in place. Now that every sheet is easily accessible, it is apparent how creased and distorted some of the sheets are and we have an opportunity to note historical repairs of missing areas, other damage as well as record the watermarks in detail. Recording this detailed examination is currently underway.

 

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Upper left: discovery of historical repairs using old print fragments under ambient light. Upper right: discovery of historical repairs using old print fragments under transmitted light. Above: historical notation on verso of print in red chalk

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Watermark visible in transmitted light after the backing has been removed

Some of the infill paper at the edges proved very deteriorated and brittle and the adhesive tested acidic, putting the print at risk of further deterioration and confirming that it was high time to carry out conservation and perhaps something to keep in mind for when we might be secretly grumbling to ourselves ‘whose crazy idea was it to take this thing apart?’ when the time comes to fit all those sheets back together…. But before this happens, and after we have completed the documentation, we shall be carrying out treatments to reduce the old adhesive left on the back of the sheets as well as reduce the acidity, about which we will post an update on this blog in the near future.

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

You can see the removal of the textile backing here.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, , ,

Mind your money: money matters

Heidi Hinder, artist and designer

Money. It doesn’t grow on trees and can’t buy you love or happiness, but apparently it makes the world go round. The subject of so many songs and clichés, money dominates and determines our life experience, even our identity.

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Coin design by New Horizon Youth Centre workshop participant. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

This much is obvious to those who attend the New Horizon Youth Centre, a London-based charity that supports homeless and at risk young people, and aims to help them create a more positive future for themselves. Part of New Horizon’s Social Enterprise Project offers young people the chance to improve on essential life skills, such as communication and confidence, by providing workshops in partnership with organisations like the British Museum, and with artists like myself.

So this was how a group of bright young people from New Horizon and I came to be gathered around a table in the British Museum, talking about money, with the Citi Money Gallery Education Manager, Mieka Harris, and the Curator of the Citi Money Gallery, Ben Alsop as part of the Citi Money Gallery Education Programme.

Our discussions were sparked off by some intriguing handling objects, selected by the curator from the Museum’s extensive collection of coins and currencies. As we lifted the lid on boxes of enigmatic artifacts, money started to appear in all sorts of unexpected guises, unusual materials, shapes and sizes. Large heavy crosses of copper weighed alongside tiny slivers of silver, and exotic shells rolled out next to green knives and pieces of fine silk cloth. The diversity of the designs was remarkable, highlighted by these examples of the different material forms that money has adopted throughout history and across the world. In each of these tokens, we glimpsed something of the time and culture that had originally issued them for commercial exchange.

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Katanga Cross, formerly used as currency in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Made by Kuba in Katanga. H. 19 cm. British Museum Af1993,02.151

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Cowrie shells were historically traded as money. These were produced in West Africa. British Museum SSB,155.5

While no one in our group could imagine carrying shells in their wallet or swapping copper crosses for goods and services around London, the idea of money as a versatile designed object appealed to everyone. We took a closer look at our own contemporary currency, observing the intricate detail that ensures the designs are as secure as they are symbolic, and a powerful representation of our national identity.

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A montage of macro images showing the detailed design of bank notes. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

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Macro image of a five pence coin. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

Security and identity became relevant themes as one of the participants described how she had to scan her fingerprint to pay for food on account at her college canteen. This biometric payment method had been installed for convenience and safety, so that students would no longer need to carry cash. A contentious debate then ensued, as the New Horizon group questioned the control of our personal data, the anonymity of cash and the rise of cryptocurrencies, such as BitCoin. Was technology improving security, or just compromising our privacy?

I shared an example from my own work, which illustrates one instance where biometric transfers could arguably improve on current methods of economic exchange.

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Financial Growth, bacteria on coin, by Heidi Hinder, 2013. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

This image, from a series of petri dish experiments called Financial Growth, reveals the bacteria present on coins and suggests that each time we make a cash transaction, we are exchanging more than just the monetary value and some tangible tokens. Hard currency could become a point of contagion.

Alternatively, I suggested to the group that technology has the potential to make money more personal, in a sociable and emotional way. Introducing my project called Money No Object, I demonstrated how a series of wearable technology prototypes could use social gestures as a method of making a payment or donating to charity. With technology tags embedded in gloves, rings, badges and shoes, the Money No Object wearables enable value to be transferred at the point of physical contact, by shaking hands, giving a high-five, hugging or even by tap-dancing on a giant coin with a pair of ‘Tap & Pay’ shoes.

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A participant from the New Horizon Youth Centre tries out some of the Money No Object prototypes with the ‘High-Five & Pay’ gloves (Photo: Ben Alsop)

The New Horizon group were keen to donate some fictional pounds by giving me some high-fives and watching their donations quickly add up on the corresponding info graphic – a live screen which records the total amount of donations in real time. The Money No Object project aims to encourage the frequency and level of charitable giving, by making the donation process sociable and entertaining. Judging by the grand total at the end of the high-five demo, the project achieved its purpose with this enthusiastic group!

So as we explored the increasing convergence of money, technology and identity, and recognised that money could incur a very personal exchange, I invited the group to express some of their ideas visually, by designing their own coins. What would they choose to represent if they were creating their own monetary tokens?

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Coin design ideas by workshop participants. (Photo: Mieka Harris)

After sketching out some of their initial thoughts on paper, the group were given the chance to scribe these designs onto wax discs which would later be cast into bronze and displayed at the British Museum.

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Coin designs inscribed into wax, ready for casting into bronze. (Photo: Jonathan Rowley)

From representations of surveillance and state control to symbols of infinity, freedom and love; from expressions of financial lack to being financially on track, the effects of money inscribed by the young people were insightful and revealing. Some coins humorously commented on the cost of living with the words ‘arm’ and ‘leg’ while other designs were abstract, like the very notion of money.

Experimenting with these newly-introduced skills of carving and scribing into casting wax, the New Horizon participants deftly worked the material to produce these highly creative results. You can already see some of these personal coin tokens, now cast into bronze, on show in the Citi Money Gallery, located in Room 68 of the British Museum, alongside a selection of the Money No Object wearable prototypes.

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Bronze tokens on display at the British Museum, designed by New Horizon Youth Centre. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

After such a fantastic day working with these brilliant young people from the New Horizon Youth Centre and inspiring staff from the British Museum, I am really excited to be continuing this collaboration over the coming months, and exploring the far-reaching significance of money.

 

The Citi Money Gallery and the Citi Money Gallery Education Programme are supported by Citi

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, Money Gallery, , , ,

Conservation mounting of Picasso’s 347 Suite

Christina Angelo, Conservation Mounter of Western Art on Paper, British Museum

When the Museum receives new acquisitions to its collection of prints and drawings, either through gifts or purchased through special funds, it is of the upmost importance that they are cared for appropriately for future generations to enjoy. This is why my role as a conservation mounter is so vital. I’m one of three British Museum conservation mounters who specialise in western art on paper. Mounting enables prints and drawings to be handled safely by staff, and visitors to the Prints and Drawings Study Room, without risk of damage to the objects. It also facilitates the option to frame if another institution requests to borrow an object as part of our on-going exhibition programme. All the mounts are made of the highest museum-quality mount board and all the materials we use are tested by our department’s scientists to ensure they won’t damage the artwork over time. In order to maximise space for storing this huge collection of prints and drawings, standard size mounts are used which are then stored in Solander boxes in the Study Room.

Over the years I’ve seen and mounted some of the most interesting and outstanding works of art in our collection, from Leonardo da Vinci to Tracey Emin, and this year is no exception. Over the last few months I’ve been very privileged to have been part of the team involved in the mounting of Picasso’s 347 Suite, aptly named because there are 347 prints. This important collection was funded by generous donor Hamish Parker, and in the autumn 2015 edition of the British Museum Magazine, Stephen Coppel, Curator of the Modern Collection, explained the fascinating story of how they were produced.

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With so many prints requiring mounting, the new studios in the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre (WCEC) have come into their own. It makes my job so much easier using the specially designed space and new equipment we now have. Initially Stephen Coppel and I discussed the mounting of the Picasso prints. Once we agreed on a plan it was full steam ahead for the team. After the prints were measured the mount board was cut to the standard sizes on the board chopper.

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Every print’s platemark was measured carefully as they all varied in size in preparation for cutting the mount’s apertures on our new computerised electronic mount cutter, before the mounts were assembled together.

The prints were now ready to be secured into their mounts using handmade Japanese paper, which we use for its longevity and fibre strength, and a fine layer of water soluble adhesive that can be easily removed by conservators if necessary in the future.

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To give the prints added protection whilst inside their Solander boxes, a sheet of polyester was hinged inside the mount which covers the front of the print.

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Finally to give the mounts their unique British Museum touch, Picasso’s name and the print’s identifying number were stamped on the front of each mount using our handheld typeset tools and etching ink which have been standard practice at the museum since the 19th century.

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After several months the project is now complete. I will miss the prints as they have been a talking point with our numerous visitors and museum professionals who come to the studio to see the work we do. The prints are safely stored in their Solander boxes in the Study Room waiting for researchers to view them, and to mark the completion of this successful team effort, from both curators and conservation staff, we all had a celebratory drink to honour the occasion.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, , ,

Corroded ruin or hidden treasure? An early dynastic copper-alloy cauldron from Ur

Hazel Gardiner, Project Conservator, Ur Project

My work as Project Conservator for the Ur Digitisation Project continues the assessment, investigation and conservation of objects held by the British Museum that were excavated at Ur (located in present-day Iraq) in the 1920s and 1930s by the archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley. Further information on Woolley’s excavation and the Ur Digitisation Project is covered by a previous blog post. One of my current tasks is to work on the metal objects.

One object in this group, an Early Dynastic II or III (2800–2300 BC) copper-alloy cauldron, discovered in the 1928–29 excavation at Ur as part of a grave assemblage, has proved especially interesting…

In the Middle East department in the British Museum, archaeological metal objects are kept in controlled environmental conditions to ensure that corrosion is limited. Ur metal objects are usually stable although many bear the effects of long-term burial in salty, and therefore corrosive, conditions. This cauldron is a prime example!

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Cauldron. The rim is detached. The wooden supports across the interior were probably added at the same time that the rim was repaired.

Initially it was a pitiful sight, as the on-going effects of several thousand years of burial have taken their toll. The rim was detached and in fragments and the visible parts of the metal body appeared entirely mineralised, that is, entirely corroded. Soil still lines the interior in a thick layer and this is clearly visible where corroded sections of the vessel wall have fallen away from the exterior. Over this soil layer, the interior of the cauldron is lined with strips of waxed calico (coarse cotton), as is the underside of the exterior.

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Cauldron interior, showing the waxed calico lining the vessel and the fibrous putty-like material used to repair the rim (now orange-brown in colour).

The waxed calico was applied during excavation as a means to protect the object and possibly also to preserve its shape during lifting and transport. A layer of melted paraffin wax was applied over all. In more recent years, probably the 1970s, an attempt was made to secure the rim: a light fibrous putty-like material, used in conservation from the late 1960s to 1980s, is found over much of the area where the rim would have joined the body.

The cauldron initially seemed so deteriorated that it could be of value only as an example of how Woolley secured finds. As such it becomes an historical object – a document of Woolley’s excavation methods – as well as an archaeological object.

However, closer observation revealed that a large section of the rounded wall of the cauldron body appears to have survived intact, that is with only superficial corrosion apparent (the interior is hidden by the waxed calico). The detached rims also proved to be less deteriorated than on first view. The two handles and their fixings, including large square-headed rivets, are clearly visible and in some parts well-preserved.

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Cauldron rim section showing the handle fittings and rivets.

Although Woolley’s account of the Ur excavations gives barely a page to metal vessels such as this, he created a detailed typology of metal vessel forms. The surviving elements of the cauldron allowed it to be securely identified as Woolley’s ‘Type 49’, distinguished by its riveted handles, rounded profile and splayed rim.

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Woolley’s vessel Type 49 from Woolley, C. L., Ur Excavations: The Royal Cemetery, 1934.

This information made it possible to identify a series of findspots (burials), eight in total, where this cauldron-type occurred. Of these, one in particular (PG/1422) includes a cauldron of dimensions that correspond very closely to those of the cauldron under discussion.

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A drawing from one of Woolley’s fieldwork notebooks of Grave PG/1422. The large cauldron found in this grave is depicted at the bottom left of the image.

Further information is provided by the illustration of this burial from Woolley’s field notes. This shows a large cauldron on its side at the foot of the burial. The fact that the cauldron has what appear to be woven fibres preserved on one side could support the idea that it is the one from site PG/1422. Most Ur burials had a floor of matting. Usually the only surviving evidence of this is where it has been preserved by association with metal. A feature of this type is known as Mineral Preserved Organic remains (MPOs). This occurs when an organic substance, such as textile, leather, or natural or man-made fibre, is placed in contact with a metal surface over a prolonged period. Metallic compounds from a corroding object inhibit the decay of organic materials and can eventually replace the entire structure . In archaeology, this process has ensured the preservation of the exact form of textile and other materials which otherwise would have been entirely lost.

The woven fibres are obscured by paraffin wax, although still recognisable. Woolley observed that the pattern of the matting lining the burial was unusual and included a drawing of this in his field notes. Identifying how much of the mineral-preserved woven fibre survives, identifying whether it is matting, and whether it shows the pattern of the matting identified by Woolley are all questions to be explored.

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A drawing from one of Woolley’s fieldwork notebooks of the matting that lined Grave PG/1422.

Also of potential interest, is a crust of sooty deposit that is readily visible on the exterior of the cauldron wall and around the rim. Similar dark material is found associated with the inner surface of the cauldron, where a section of soil has broken away from the metal surface. The sooty material is embedded in the soil. It is possible that this material could provide evidence of what the cauldron was used for. For example, traces of lipids (fats) could suggest that the vessel was used as a cooking pot. It would be essential to find a sample untouched by Woolley’s paraffin wax.

My aim is to stabilise the cauldron and secure it, as far as possible, for the future. Close on the heels of this, through investigative conservation, I’d hope to extract information from the object, in the least intrusive manner, that will be of use in future research.

This process requires thought and care. For example, removing the obscuring layer of waxed calico and soil within the cauldron could lead to its complete collapse as it is in such a fragmented state. Further, as the object is also an example of Woolley’s excavation practice, there is an argument for this material to be preserved (providing that it is not now causing damage to the object).

First, the cauldron must be secured, supported and stabilised. Next, it should be x-radiographed to identify how much of the metal of the cauldron body survives and possibly also to help glean information about structure and technology. Further work, including analysis of the sooty deposits, and study of the mineral-preserved woven fibres, would all add to the body of data about the cauldron. Methods of removing wax to reveal the surface of the object and the woven fibres could be explored with the support of Organics conservation colleagues.

How much can be achieved within the bounds of the current project, beyond the essentials, remains to be seen, as there are many more objects to assess and treat, but certainly these observations on this cauldron will be documented and thoughts on future investigations outlined.

So, from what initially appeared an unpromising corroded mass, a range of possible investigations has evolved which could help reveal more about the technology, use and significance of this vessel, not to mention helping establish its identity within a particular assemblage. Although a humble object compared to the known treasures of Ur, it is potentially a small treasure house in itself of culturally significant information.

To conclude, Woolley’s tantalising notes on burial PG/1422:

‘This was the first grave which, on internal evidence, we could confidently assign to a period intermediate between the early cemetery and that of the Sargonid age: Even the Arab workmen recognised that it was in some way unlike any of the 1400 graves previously dug, and were greatly interested in it. Their interpretation of some of its characteristics is perhaps worth putting on record: the unusual richness of his personal ornaments meant that he was young as well as wealthy; the number of weapons in the grave and the great size of the spear-heads meant that he was a fighting man and a warrior of note; but when they saw the cauldron at the foot of the coffin, a cauldron very much larger than the norm, they agreed that he was the leader of a band of robbers or else the sheikh of a clan; for only one holding such a position and having numerous followers to feed would require so huge a cooking-pot’ (Woolley, C. L., Ur Excavations: The Royal Cemetery, 1934, 186-187)

Filed under: Archaeology, British Museum, Conservation, Ur Project, , , ,

Sharp of teeth: crocodiles in the ancient Sahara

Jorge de Torres, Project Cataloguer, African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

For many people crocodiles represent the ultimate predator, a merciless killer which hides in the water to prey on whatever comes to drink water or to cross rivers. Probably the most well-known crocodile habitat is the Nile, where these animals dwell in great numbers and sometimes attack people. In ancient times, however, crocodiles were regarded as more complex than simply vicious carnivores, as the current Asahi Shimbun Display, Scanning Sobek: mummy of the crocodile god, in Room 3 demonstrates. Through the combination of CT scans and archaeological research, the display of this four-metre long crocodile introduces visitors to the beliefs of ancient Egyptians, to whom this mummy was an incarnation of the crocodile god Sobek. Although crocodiles were considered terrifying beings to be placated through offerings and gifts, they were also associated with the fertility of the river Nile and its annual flood, which was fundamental to the wellbeing of the country.

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Mummified crocodile with hatchlings on display, alongside a 3D visualisation of the mummy created from the CT-scan data. © Trustees of the British Museum

It is difficult to imagine crocodiles without an abundance of water, and therefore the Sahara Desert is one of the last places one would think of as a crocodile habitat. Astonishingly, even today there are several areas in the southern Sahara where small groups of crocodiles still endure the harsh conditions of semi-desert zones, and survive in caves, pockets of water and other permanent water sources. Although until the 20th century crocodiles were still found in some areas of Morocco and the Tassili n’Ajjer massif in Algeria, nowadays northern African crocodiles are mostly found in Mauritania and Chad.

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View of the Archei Guelta, one of the places in Chad where crocodiles can still be found. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.6424

The situation was very different ten thousand years ago. At that moment the Sahara, now the largest non-polar desert on earth, was a savannah crossed by networks of rivers. Species such as hippopotamus, elephant and giraffe lived near the shores of mega lakes. Throughout the desert, archaeologists and palaeontologists have documented skeletons of crocodiles in areas as unlikely as Algeria, Libya and northern Mali, proving that crocodiles roamed in a greener Sahara thousands of years ago.

Although most of the information about the presence of crocodiles in the Sahara derives from bones, there is another source of information to record the presence of these animals in the desert: the depictions of crocodiles in the Saharan rock art. The best known example is this striking engraving located in the Messak Setaffet, a stony plateau located in the south of Libya with numerous dry riverbeds running to the east into Murzuq erg. These riverbeds are home to some of the oldest rock art depictions in the Sahara, many of them representing animals long since disappeared from the region. Measuring more than two meters in length the crocodile depicted is accompanied by a hatchling and a cow engraved under one of its forelegs. The meticulous engraving technique, the size of the images and the carefully chosen boulder make this figure one of the most iconic rock art depictions in the Sahara.

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The great crocodile of Tin-Habeter. Wadi Mathendous, Libya. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.3106

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Detail of the hatchling that accompanies the crocodile. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.3111

This is one of my favourite images of the African Rock Art Image Project, so when the project team investigated which rock art sites could be digitally recreated; the Messak crocodiles were the first to come to my mind. The results of this work provide an alternative view of some of the most remarkable features of these figures, and reflect the skill and dedication of the artist who used the boulder to enhance the shape of the animal. A month ago, this 3D model was printed (at a smaller scale) and now we have a small version of a 10,000-year-old engraving, a beautiful example of a world long vanished, but an important didactic tool, too. As a digital-only project, one of the challenges we face is to make people see our images as material expressions of the past, and 3D printing provides a link between the original piece and the contemporary public. Though impressive, the crocodile image isn’t just a piece of art, it’s also a cultural expression of Saharan communities thousands of years ago, and a testimony of the environmental conditions in which they lived.

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Digitally recreated image of the great crocodile of Tin-Habeter on the Sketchfab website

The Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 and the 3D reconstructions carried out by the African Rock Art Image Project are good examples of how new technologies and archaeological research can be combined to improve our understanding of past societies, and present this knowledge to the public. They also bring to light the delicate balance between environment and culture in ancient societies, and the multiples strategies humans used to incorporate the world that surrounded them in their identities and beliefs systems.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Scanning Sobek: mummy of the crocodile god is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 21 February 2016.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

The African Rock Art Image Project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.

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

 

Further reading:

Brito JC, Martínez-Freiría F, Sierra P, Sillero N, Tarroso P (2011) Crocodiles in the Sahara Desert: An Update of Distribution, Habitats and Population Status for Conservation Planning in Mauritania. PLoS ONE 6(2): e14734. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0014734

Filed under: African rock art, Archaeology, British Museum, Exhibitions, Research, , , , , , ,

A medieval alchemical book reveals new secrets

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library 

Marcel Marée, Assistant Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum

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A page from the 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes (British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 50v)

Among the many intriguing objects on display in the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition is an 18th-century copy of the Book of the Seven Climes (Kitāb al-aqālīm al-ṣabah), on loan from the British Library. The book’s 13th-century author, Abū al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī, believed it held ancient secrets coded in hieroglyphic texts. He was right, but not exactly as he imagined!

Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-‘Irāqī, known as al-Sīmāwī (‘the practitioner of natural or white magic’), was an author of books on alchemy and magic. He lived in Egypt during the reign of the Mamluk sultan Baybars I al-Bunduqdārī (r. 1260–1277). His books were popular and survive in many copies, but almost nothing is known about al-‘Irāqī himself.

The Book of the Seven Climes is the earliest known study focused wholly on alchemical illustrations. The ‘climes’ (from which our word ‘climate’ is derived) are the seven latitudinal zones into which the astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy divided the inhabited world in the 2nd century AD. Their mention in al-‘Irāqī’s title expressed an intention for his book to be all-encompassing.

Al-‘Irāqī reproduced illustrations from earlier Arabic alchemical texts and tried to decode their mysterious symbols and allegories, annotating the illustrations with his own interpretations. But how faithful was he in copying the illustrations for his book, and what changes were made as they were copied and re-copied during the five centuries of transmission linking al-‘Irāqī’s lost original to the 18th-century copy held at the British Library?

Luckily, while al-‘Irāqī’s 13th-century autograph manuscript is lost, one source of his illustrations is known to us: the Book of Images (Muṣḥaf al-ṣuwar). It is attributed to the 4th-century Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis and preserved in a copy made in Egypt in 1270, during al-‘Irāqī’s lifetime. The manuscript, now in Istanbul, could even be the one that al-‘Irāqī consulted.

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Matching illustrations in the 13th-century Book of Images (left) and the 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes (right). The later image is much reduced and reinterpreted, and pseudo-hieroglyphs were added. (left: İstanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 196r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18r)

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Another pair of matching illustrations in the same manuscripts, again showing numerous changes. (left: İstanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 205r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18v)

Al-‘Irāqī was usually careful to cite his sources by title and author, but the images in his work, at least in their 18th-century versions, show many changes and omissions. In addition, some of the pages were embellished with pseudo-hieroglyphs, perhaps a code for the Arabic alphabet, not present in the original.

What did al-‘Irāqī make of the hieroglyphs in the illustrations? Were they all completely invented? To begin to understand this, it is worth examining a group of images in the Book of the Seven Climes now on display in the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. Below we illustrate a key explaining the various elements. These have been numbered for ease of reference in the rest of our discussion.

KG stela finalAl-‘Irāqī states that the material on this page comes from a ‘Hidden Book’ attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (1), a legendary sage-king of ancient Egypt who was believed to have mastered the secrets of occult sciences such as alchemy and to have recorded them in hieroglyphs on the walls of temples and tombs. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, last written nine centuries before al-‘Irāqī’s lifetime, were undecipherable to him and his contemporaries. Undeterred, and guided by the legend of Hermes Trismegistus, he gave the illustrated elements an alchemical interpretation. He refers to apparatus such as the distillation furnace (7) and the bain-marie (12), and to processes such as roasting (11) and blackening (2). Alchemical substances are referred to symbolically: the eagle (3, 4, 10) and the ‘intensely black’ raven (9) were widely employed as codes for sal ammoniac and for iron and/or lead, respectively.

But this page does not only contain alchemical secrets. The hieroglyphic composition in the lower panel is coherent enough to show that it was ultimately copied from an actual ancient monument. While distortions have crept in, the shapes of the hieroglyphs are not complete fantasy, unlike those of the interpolated pseudo-hieroglyphs mentioned further above. The Egyptologist Okasha El Daly first noted that the inspiration for the present image came from a stela carved in the name of King Amenemhat II, who ruled Egypt around 1922–1878 BC. Two of Amenemhat’s official names can still be recognised (9 and 12).

The ‘Horus name’ identified a pharaoh as an incarnation of Horus, the god of kingship. It was written inside a serekh (9): a frame representing a palace, complete with a panelled façade and with Horus, shown as a falcon, perched on top. In al-ʿIrāqī’s illustration, these elements have undergone an alchemical transmutation: at some point the panels of Amenemhat’s serekh were changed into curious implements, and the falcon into a raven! Despite further distortions, we can just discern the Horus name of Amenemhat II: Heken-em-maat, literally ‘He who rejoices in justice’. On the original monument the preposition ‘in’ was undoubtedly written with an owl. To suit the alchemist’s agenda, it has here become a red eagle (10).

A pharaoh’s throne and birth names were traditionally written inside oval ‘cartouches’, to make them stand out from surrounding text. Unaware of this fact, al-‘Irāqī identifies just such a cartouche as ‘Maria’s bath’, the bain-marie (12) or hot-water bath, which is named after the alchemist Maria the Jewess, and is still used today by the catering industry. The hieroglyphs enclosed by the present cartouche spelled out the throne name of Amenemhat II: Nub-kau-Ra, or ‘The life-forces of Ra (the sun god) are of gold’. In our manuscript a sun-disc (‘Ra’) and a necklace (‘gold’) have been transformed into a human face with neck and arms. Hieroglyphs above the cartouche still recognisably give two well-known royal epithets: ‘the great god, lord of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt)’ (11). Al-‘Irāqī interpreted the whole group as pertaining to ‘roasting’: apparently a hieroglyph representing a basket became a roasting dish, and two stretches of land below it became a grill! The hieroglyphs below the cartouche, in their ancient meaning, claim that the pharaoh is ‘given life forever’ (13).

Monuments of Amenemhat II are rare and his stela is lost, so the exploits of our medieval alchemist hold value to modern Egyptology. Comparing al-‘Irāqī’s drawing with extant stelae of similar date, we can determine more precisely how the stela of Amenemhat would have looked. The stela shown below, displayed in Room 65 of the British Museum, dates from the reign of his grandson, Senwosret III (around 1874–1855 BC). That king’s Horus and throne names again take up two-thirds of the top. The remaining third mentions a deity (‘Horus-son-of-Isis’), of whom the king is said to be ‘beloved’. The texts naming king and god were given opposed orientations, so that the actors involved ‘look’ at each other. The image in the Book of the Seven Climes reveals that Amenemhat, too, was described as ‘beloved’ of a deity (14), whose name must be sought in the hieroglyphs grouped on the left, likewise facing those naming the king. In our 18th-century copy most of these signs have been shuffled about and reshaped beyond recognition, but two of them read probably ‘Wepwa(wet)’, the name of a jackal god (16). Three hieroglyphs crammed in between the god’s and the king’s names, assuming the former’s orientation, cite blessings bestowed on the latter: ‘life, stability, dominion’ (17).

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Stela from the reign of Senwosret III, whose ornamental inscription at the top is laid out very similarly to that on the lost stela of Amenemhat II, as illustrated by al-‘Irāqī. (British Museum, EA 852)

Amenemhat’s ornamental inscription would have been bordered at the bottom by a stroke representing land and at the top by a band representing heaven, supported at the ends by divine sceptres symbolising the full extent of the king’s god-given ‘dominion’. Only the top of the left-hand sceptre (18) has made it into our 18th-century manuscript, but its identity is unmistakable.

The very fact that a hieroglyphic inscription from around 1900 BC can still, in part, be read in an 18th-century copy of a 13th-century Arabic text testifies to the care Arabic scribes took in copying and recopying earlier manuscripts through the centuries. The inclusion of an authentic hieroglyphic text in the Book of the Seven Climes also demonstrates the interest in Egyptian antiquities taken by some medieval Arabic scholars. Al-ʿIrāqī’s alchemical understanding of that text highlights the differences between medieval interpretative frameworks and those employed by the modern science of Egyptology.

More accurate copies of the Amenemhat inscription may still await discovery in unpublished earlier copies of al-‘Irāqī’s Seven Climes in Dublin, Cairo or elsewhere. Furthermore, the identification of more works from which al-ʿIrāqī took his illustrations could bring us closer to the ancient monuments from which some of the illustrations were ultimately copied. We plan to study the other manuscripts of the Book of the Seven Climes and search for the sources of its illustrations. This will throw more light on how al-‘Irāqī adapted his material and may enable a fuller reading of the original inscription of Amenemhat II. It might even reveal further authentic hieroglyphic texts.

The 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

 Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

References:

Abt, Theodor, The Book of Pictures (Muṣḥaf aṣ-ṣuwar by Zosimos of Panopolis) (Zurich: Living Human Heritage Publications, 2007)

Cook, Michael, ‘Pharaonic History in Medieval Egypt’, Studia Islamica 57, 1983, pp. 67–103

El Daly, Okasha, ‘Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic writings’, in The Wisdom of Egypt: Changing Visions through the Ages (London: UCL Press, 2003), pp. 48–49, Fig. 3:2

El Daly, Okasha, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic writings, ed. Peter Ucko and Timothy Champion (London: UCL Press, 2005), p. 72, Fig. 24

Holmyard, Eric J., ‘Abuʾl-Qāsim al-ʿIrāqī’, Isis 8, 1926, pp. 403–26

al-‘Irāqī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad, ‘Uyūn al-ḥaqā’iq (The Sources of Truths), British Library, Add. MS 23390, ff. 50v–87v, available at http://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100023587816.0x000002

al-‘Irāqī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad, Kitāb al-‘ilm al-muktasab fī zirā‘at adh-dhahab (Book of Knowledge Acquired Concerning the Cultivation of Gold), ed. and trans. Eric J. Holmyard (Paris: Librarie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1923)

Saif, Liana, ‘The cows and the bees: The Arabic tradition of magical artificial generation from pseudo-Plato’s Liber vaccae (Kitāb al-Nawāmīs) to al-‘Irāqī’s ‘Uyūn al-ḥaqā’iq’, FORTHCOMING

Siggel, Alfred, Decknamen in der arabischen alchemistischen Literatur (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1951)

Ullmann, Manfred, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1972), pp. 235–37 and 268

Wells, John W., ‘Sesostris III’s first Nubian campaign, in Essays in Egyptology in Honor of Hans Goedicke, ed. Betsy M. Bryan and David Lorton (San Antonio, TX, 1994), pp. 339–47

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , ,

Study, conservation and display of a rare pair of curtains from Late Antique Egypt

Project curator Amandine Mérat gives us an overview of the historical background of the curtains, whilst conservators Anna Harrison and Monique Pullan describe work carried out in order to prepare them for display.

An exceptionally well preserved pair of curtains is amongst the remarkable objects displayed in the exhibition, Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. They are said to be from Akhmim in Upper Egypt and date from the 6th–7th centuries AD. Acquired for the British Museum by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge in 1897, they are displayed here for only the second time in the Museum’s history. Made of fine linen and colourful wool, the curtains measure more than 2.7m in height by 2.1m in width, and provide a unique example of complete large scale furnishings from Late Antique Egypt.

Because of its dry climate, Egypt preserves a range and abundance of organic material that rarely survive elsewhere. This is particularly true of clothing and furnishing textiles, which provide unparalleled insight into the lives of individuals from Roman, Late Antique and early Islamic times. From the 2nd century AD, Egyptian people progressively gave up mummification, instead burying their dead in the clothes they wore in life, and sometimes wrapping them in furnishing textiles reused as funerary shrouds. This explains why the great majority of the textiles were discovered since the late 19th century in cemeteries and burial contexts. Visible staining from contact with a body suggests that these curtains were used in this way. Although they are now separate, the two textiles were originally sewn together at the top, indicating that they were probably door curtains, before being used as a shroud.

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Colourful classical Graeco-Roman motifs decorate the curtains

The curtains represent a good example of continuity and the re-use of classical themes and imagery throughout Late Antiquity, here in a demonstrably Christian context. The lower part of the curtains is ornamented with birds and vegetal motifs in floral lozenges. At the top is a decorative band containing an inhabited vine scroll, below which erotes (gods of love) holding floral garlands stand between baskets of produce. Below them, two winged nikai (victory figures) hold a wreath containing a jewelled cross with the remains of a Greek inscription. Both erotes and nikai figures come from the Classical, or Graeco-Roman, repertoire, the latter often depicted holding busts of mythological heroes or victorious emperors; later such figures were ‘re-employed’ to present the bust of Christ or other Christian symbols.

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One of the curtains before conservation in 1994

Although at first sight the curtains appear intact, on closer inspection their fragility is obvious. In particular the stained areas which had been in contact with the body are brittle with many holes. The wool motifs retain their vivid colours but sections are missing, possibly eaten by insects during burial.

The curtains were extensively conserved for the 1994 British Museum exhibition Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture. Each curtain was stitched on to new cotton fabric, applied to secure the damaged areas and attach the curtains evenly across their entirety. Working in fine silk threads, this stitching took over 200 hours to complete. The new lining strengthened the ancient textiles and made each curtain appear whole. The missing coloured wools were not replaced; one of the principal ethical guidelines for conservators is to focus on stabilising remaining original material rather than restoration of the original appearance.

In 2013 the curtains were re-assessed for their suitability for the current exhibition. As the largest and most vulnerable textiles to be selected, any conservation issues needed to be raised well in advance with the exhibition planning team. Due to their fragility, it was impossible to gather and drape the curtains as they would have been originally, as this would put too much physical stress on the ancient threads. In order to get as close to their original appearance as possible, a compromise was reached by mounting them on a board angled just off the vertical, which would give them the appearance of being upright and also give some additional support.

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Conservators checking the condition of the curtains in 2015

Examination of the curtains in preparation for the current exhibition showed that the conservation stitching worked 20 years previously was holding the textile securely in position. However, a little more work was required for this near vertical display. Extra lines of stitching were applied in the vertical direction, particularly in the less damaged areas which had not been previously stitched. The curtains were also surface cleaned using a soft sable hair brush and a special vacuum cleaner set to a low setting.

In order to attach the curtains to their fabric-covered display board, Velcro tape was stitched along the top edge of each curtain. Velcro is often used to display textiles because it ensures a continuous, even support along the top of the textile.

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Installing the curtains

During installation, each of the rolled curtains was lifted up to enable the two sides of the Velcro to be connected, also ensuring the top decorative borders were lined up correctly. The curtains were then unrolled as far as the case would allow, with the remaining rolled portion being rolled and placed underneath the support board. Each step of the installation had been planned in advance, using accurate measurements and diagrams to minimise the need for unnecessary handling of these fragile textiles. Finally, the long fringing at the top of each curtain was held in place with strips of semi-transparent net, pinned to stop it flopping forward.

Visitors to the exhibition might be surprised by how much time and effort goes on behind the scenes in order to prepare the displays. A seemingly straight forward task, such as hanging a pair of curtains, in fact required an immense amount of planning and coordination to ensure that these rare and beautiful, yet extremely fragile, textiles could take their place in this show.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Exhibitions, , , ,

Ten years of the Asahi Shimbun Displays: focussing in on objects in focus

Laura Purseglove, Project Assistant and David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

2015 saw the ten-year anniversary of the Asahi Shimbun Displays at the British Museum. Located in Room 3, to the right of the main entrance, these displays have provided the opportunity to focus in depth on individual objects within the Museum’s collection. They were also conceived of as an experimental space, where the Museum could explore new methods of displaying and interpreting objects. Channelling this experimental spirit, members of the project team, Laura Purseglove and David Francis, engage in a critical dialogue in this blog post about the Asahi Shimbun Displays and the relationship to trends within museological and cultural theory.

DF: One of the most innovative things about the Asahi Shimbun Displays has been the opportunity to tell stories about individual objects, which we wouldn’t have the space for in the permanent galleries. In Room 70, the Roman Empire gallery, the Meroë head of Augustus is one of hundreds of objects and there is only scope to present the head as an example of Roman portraiture and tell the story of Augustus’ rise to power.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome (11 December 2014–15 February 2015)

DF: For The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome (2014) display, we were able to go into much more depth. This display explored Rome’s relationship with the African kingdom of Meroë and the story of the object’s discovery in the build-up to the First World War. It even made comparisons between the beheading of Augustus’ statue and the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Iraq in 2003. In many ways this use of a single object to tell a wider historical narrative can be seen as a precursor to the A History of the World in 100 objects series broadcast on Radio 4 in 2010. That in turn has popularised an object-based approach to history – now objects are used to tell the story of lots of things, from baseball to Doctor Who.

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Marketing poster for The Asahi Shimbun Display Made in Africa (2005)

LP: Yes, from a fine art perspective, which is my area of expertise, it’s been interesting to see this renewed focus on objects, as opposed to context, in humanities scholarship and in our museums and galleries. You might say that the first display in 2005, Made in Africa, reflected this idea by consciously aestheticising three stone hand axes, encouraging visitors to engage directly with the objects’ physical properties rather than seeing them as illustrative of a wider historical context. The hand axes themselves were presented as things to be experienced rather than ‘read’. This approach is mirrored in cultural theory, for instance in the ideas of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who used the term ‘affect’ to frame the art object as a bundle of ‘sensations’ activated when perceived.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Akan drum: the drummer is calling me (12 August–10 October 2010)

DF: In archaeology and anthropology as well, you have what’s known as ‘the material turn’ – a focus on a thing’s materiality as opposed to treating objects as ‘texts’ to be read. I’m an interpretation officer and so my focus is very much on an object’s relationship to text. This involves creating accessible text for a non-specialist audience, and also using objects to construct narratives about the past that allow us to better understand the present. At the same time, there are some things text alone cannot capture. The display Akan drum: the drummer is calling me (2010) told the story of the oldest African-American object in the Museum. Made in West Africa and collected in Virginia, this leather drum was brought to America as part of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. As well as interrogating the terrible practices of the slave trade the display also looked at the transmission of musical heritage from Africa to America. We created an accompanying soundtrack, tracing early African drumming to the development of call and response and gospel music, and its development into jazz, blues, RnB and hip-hop. If you were to tell that story through text alone so much would be lost.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Xu Bing: Background Story 7 (12 May–10 July 2011)

LP: Right, by not relying solely on text to explain an object we acknowledge that objects can’t necessarily be reduced to their more ‘textual’ properties, they are more than the sum of their parts. For the display Xu Bing: Background Story 7 (2011) we experimented with a white cube display style, which privileges experiencing the object over explanation. The design encouraged viewers to encounter the object directly, with text positioned to the side so as not to interfere. The back of the installation revealed the materials Xu Bing used to create the illusion of a traditional Chinese scroll painting – debris and plant materials. We relied on the power of the object to draw visitors to the back of the screen. Signposting, on that occasion, would have detracted from the experience of encountering the work in an unmediated way.

DF: You mentioned using a white cube approach and I think it’s interesting how different disciplines have their own styles of display. If you think about the one object in a room approach, it can be seen as rooted in the tradition of the modernist art gallery. Although I suppose it has its origins in the treasuries of the medieval church, setting aside a relic or icon to be encountered and venerated. However, such an approach can limit the meanings of an object, especially when it’s entangled within a wider network, or assemblage of objects.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion (19 June–17 August 2014)

DF: Since the publication of Edmund de Waals’ The Hare with the Amber Eyes, netsuke have been popularly conceived as object d’art – tiny, beautiful things to be collected and aestheticised. But this is only one aspect of their story. They’re also part of a network of objects designed to provide a specific function. Japanese kimonos have no pockets and so, in the Edo Period, small personal items – such as tobacco or money – would be carried in a small pouch. Netsuke were used as toggles that allowed these pouches to be hung from the belt of the kimono. It is only by displaying the netsuke alongside a kimono and other accompanying male accessories that you can really understand their purpose, as well as appreciate their aesthetic qualities and idiosyncratic personalities.

LP: Yes, the example of the Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion (2014) display does point to the limits of the single object, unmediated approach. It’s an example which demonstrates that sometimes objects need to be understood through their relation to other objects, but also that sometimes their meaning lies in their relationship with people.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Larrakitj: Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi (12 March–25 May 2015)

LP: The Sikh Fortress Turban (2011) display presented a dastaar boonga turban as an example of a living tradition. It was co-curated by members of the Sikh community in London and placed their voices and experiences at the centre of the story. More recently, the Larrakitj: Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi (2015) display, an installation by the indigenous Australian artist, defined the piece in terms of its relationship to the artist and his cultural heritage. A short film showing the artist talking about the work demonstrated that what makes the piece so special is its connection to the artist’s personal and clan histories, as well as the relationship to the landscape of Arnhem Land.  But, that said, visitors could still enjoy the beauty and craftsmanship inherent in the work without watching the film. So perhaps this leaves us in agreement; the Asahi Shimbun Displays are at their best when they reveal the ways in which our objects connect to the wider world but don’t reduce them to mirrors of their contexts. It’s the beautiful, strange, sometimes baffling nature of ‘things’ that makes us want to visit museums, isn’t it?

The Asahi Shimbun Display Scanning Sobek: mummy of the crocodile god is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 21 February 2016.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

 

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, ,

How do you put on a torc?

Julia Farley, Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum

As curator of the Celts exhibition, I get to spend a lot of time showing people wonderful Iron Age treasures. Some of my favourites are the big metal neck rings called torcs that were worn across much of Europe (and beyond) around 2000 years ago. One of the things I get asked most often is, ‘But how did you put them on?!’ It’s a very good question, seeing as they often look like solid metal rings with nowhere near enough space to squeeze your neck through.

Many British torcs are a bit like this one:

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The Snettisham Great Torc. Found in Snettisham, UK. Electrum, 150 BC–50 BC. Diam. 19.9 cm. British Museum 1951,0402.2. (Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

Although this is one of the most famous examples, the form is typical: open at the front, with a flexible neck-ring made of coiled or twisted wires. This type of torc is put on and taken off by being bent out of shape. You can see that one of the terminals of this torc has been pulled slightly forward compared to the other one. This is the result of it being repeatedly pulled open to be slipped on. A re-enactor friend of mine has told me that he often puts a torc on from the front, and then twists it round to bring the terminals to the front. I’ve tried with replicas, and I tend to slip mine on from the back, so there are different ways of doing it.

This constant flexing caused a lot of stress to the metal neck rings of the torc. When you bend metal in this way, it tends to harden and become brittle. You may have experienced this first hand if you have ever wanted to break off a piece of wire for hanging a picture or working in the garden and did this by bending it back and forth until it broke. The same thing happened to some torcs. We have many examples of truly beautiful neck-rings which were worn to destruction – taken on and off so many times that they broke at the back. They have often been somewhat clumsily repaired, as in this case:

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(Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

The break is covered with a thin sheet of gold foil, but X-radiography of the torc shows that all the wires have snapped! Torcs were quite fragile objects, and they were frequently broken and then repaired in this way. This is curious, because there was an easy way to avoid the problem. If you anneal the metal – heat it up to cherry-red temperature, around 600-700 degrees centigrade – it re-softens. This would have been a simple matter with the technology available. So why were so many torcs allowed to break? And why do the repairs often look like shoddy afterthoughts? I wonder if being the proud owner of a ‘vintage’ torc (old enough to be in need of flamboyant repairs) might have been something to be proud of. Rather than an unfortunate accident, breakage could have been part of the natural lifecycle of a torc. The repaired torc pictured above was buried in a hoard with many other, much newer, ones. By the time it went into the ground, it was probably an heirloom object, perhaps as much as 100 years old. It would have been possible to carry out much more subtle repairs, but perhaps they were supposed to be obvious? Being a member of a family with such a long history of wealth and power was probably a source of great pride, and the repairs might have emphasised the age of the object, and reminded people of the many stories attached to it.

I had a go at making a torc myself, closely based on this one:

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Although the wires are thick, it’s actually much easier to bend open than you’d think. I made my version a couple of years ago, and have used it regularly for teaching and outreach sessions, where it has been much manhandled, bent and stretched. The metal is just getting to the point where it is too stiff to allow this, and so I plan to anneal it soon to soften it up (I don’t fancy breaking my own!). So the process of wear-hardening (especially on softer metals like gold and silver) probably took quite a long time.

On the Continent, there are other types of torc, which sometimes have clever hidden clasps, hinges, or removable sections such as these ones:

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(Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

When worn they would have given the impression of a solid ring of metal, but in fact they were relatively easy to put on and take off.

The idea of a hinge was taken up in later British neck-rings found in south-western Britain. They have a discreet hinge at the back, and a clasp at the front that was hidden when the terminals were closed.

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(Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

From these kinds of evidence, I strongly suspect that torcs were put on and taken off quite regularly, rather than being intended to be worn for very long periods of time. The most decorative were probably worn for special occasions, and some of the simpler designs may have been for everyday wear. But we have so little evidence for what constituted ‘day-to-day wear’ in the Iron Age that it’s hard to be sure.

But there are some torcs which I don’t think could be opened up, such as this one from Trichtingen in Germany, also in the Celts exhibition:

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Torc. Silver, iron, 200–50 BC. Trichtingen, Germany. Diam. 29.5 cm. (Photo: P. Frankenstein/H. Zweitasch; (c) Landesmuseum Wurttemberg, Stuttgart 2015)

The gap isn’t wide enough to squeeze your head in, and there is a solid iron core under the silver, so it couldn’t have been bent. It also weighs nearly seven kilos! And if you did wear it, which way up would it go? It seems designed to be viewed upright, like in the picture. But with the terminals at the back the bulls would have been hidden, and with the terminals at the front their heads would be upside down, not to mention how uncomfortable those horns would be, sticking into your collar bone…

I think it’s most likely that torcs such as the one above weren’t worn at all. They might have been symbols of status to be brandished aloft, rather than worn around the neck, just like the way that the antlered god on this plaque from the Gundestrup cauldron hefts a torc into the air, terminals upright.

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Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

However it was used, the torc was obviously a powerful symbol.

LAST CHANCE: Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, Uncategorized, , , ,

Copts of the Nile: the Coptic community in Egypt today through the lens of photographer Nabil Boutros

Sarah Johnson, Curator of Islamic Collections, British Museum

The exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, examines religious identity in the first millennium AD, when Egypt became first a majority Christian population and later, Muslim. Today, Egyptian Christians, or Copts, are a significant minority. The extraordinary collections of the British Museum allow us to explore religious identities in Egypt up to the present, here through contemporary photography.

In 1986, the artist, Nabil Boutros, decided to return to Egypt after living in France for ten years to explore what it meant to be Egyptian. He had trained as a painter but he decided to take up photography because he found it more useful in studying his identity as an Egyptian.

“The camera was and remains for me an instrument that allows me to go to places where I would not go otherwise. Of course, the point is to collect images; that is the compensation. Without photography, I would not have made the exploration, and I would have not had those contacts…”

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Salam, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of three photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.5-7

Boutros grew up in a Coptic Christian family and decided to document the community in Egypt in order to better understand his own roots and to highlight the modern aspects of Coptic religious practice. Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. According to tradition, the church was founded by Saint Mark in Alexandria during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (r. AD 54–68). Today, Copts make up about ten percent of the Egyptian population with a large diaspora living elsewhere.

Boutros spent seven years, from 1997 to 2004, photographing the Coptic community around Egypt. He visited major historic sites such as the Monastery of Saint Paul (founded 5th century AD) and Deir El-Maymoun (founded AD 361–363), and attended ceremonies that have continued for thousands of years. As a Copt himself, he wanted to highlight the contemporary individuals who visit and worship at these locations, or as he says, “to get as close as possible to the quotidian.”

He always includes people in his photographs, noting that Western photographers often depict these monuments without figures, as if they are no longer in use. His photographs often only show one or two people, even in the midst of large ceremonies. For example, he portrays a single woman in front of a small statue of the Virgin Mary at the pilgrimage to Deir Dronka, near Assiut, which draws thousands of people in August each year. In this way, he draws attention to individual worship and personal stories.

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Vendredi Saint, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of four photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.1-4

“I knew it was a part of me, from my upbringing and my culture, but to be able to make the connection between things from the distant past with more contemporary things strengthened me. To know the history of things that I experienced personally, to understand the historical links allows me to find the foundation; that comforts me a lot, fulfils me.”

Boutros arranges his photographs in the same way as they are found in the screens of Coptic churches where Biblical stories are depicted (polyptychs). However, unlike church paintings, his compositions do not form a clear narrative. Instead each photograph in a composition is taken from a different time and place. Boutros explains that his photographs are not meant to be documentary but instead resist the viewer’s preconceptions about the Coptic community. In his early photography exhibitions, he presented his photographs individually and allowed researchers to add text. However, he found in this case that the researcher’s words took over the images and did not convey his original intentions.

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Prière, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of three photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.8-11

“This experience was a good lesson for me: I understood that if I did not engage in a discourse with the images, the written discourse would take the place of my intent. After that, I started to reclaim my photographs – on Copts, the city, etc. – and to create new compositions working with polyptychs. I also started adding titles, to indicate what I was talking about, but I could no longer content myself with the image alone…I started to complicate things, first by combining groups of black and white images, and then by introducing strips of colour photography in-between the black and white photographs.”

In response to an attack on a Coptic church in December 2010, Boutros and the artist Moataz Nasr, created a poster using another series by Boutros called Egyptians, in which he portrayed himself with different identities throughout the year. The poster included the slogan “We are all Egyptians” (كلنا مصريون), and was popular in Tahrir Square during the revolution.

AllEgyptiansPoster

Nabil Boutros and Moataz Nasr, All Egyptians, 2010 (© Nabil Boutros)

Nabil Boutros was born in Cairo in 1954. He studied decorative arts in Cairo and then painting at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1973). He worked as a painter and lighting designer for theatre before committing himself to photography in 1986.

 

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

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This is a great shot of a sarcophagus by @ss.shri – it shows how well preserved the 2,600-year-old craftsmanship is. It was made for Sasobek, who was the vizier (prime minister) of the northern part of Egypt during the reign of Psamtek I (664–610 BC). His face is naturalistic and shows the use of makeup, but it’s probably not an accurate likeness. Many human-shaped sarcophagi had exaggerated facial features during this period. 
Don’t forget you can share your photos with us by using #mybritishmuseum
#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum Our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) spans over 3,000 years of history! The gallery contains iconic objects such as the Rosetta Stone – the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs – and the colossal 7.25 ton statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II. What’s your favourite object in this gallery?
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#Aztec #Mixtec #knife #eagle #turquoise #Mexico #🇲🇽 This mask represents the Aztec god of rain, Tlaloc, who is characterised by large eyes and a twisted nose. The mask is formed from two snakes which intertwine to create the face, their tails forming the eyebrows (originally gold). This object has also been associated with Quetzalcoatl, the feather serpent, because of the feathers which hang down from the eyebrows. Made in Mexico about 500 years ago, the mask may have been worn by a priest during rituals.

#Aztec #Mixtec #turquoise #mask #Mexico #🇲🇽
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