British Museum blog

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, , , , , , ,

Exploring an Ice Age Island

Beccy Scott, Calleva Project Post Doctoral Researcher, British Museum

As London swelters, I am spending the summer in the Ice Age: it is the final year of Ice Age Island, a three-year excavation project with Jersey Heritage, looking at how hunter-gatherers lived in the landscapes of the English Channel region over the past 240,000 years – from the early Neanderthals, to the last Mesolithic hunter-fishers. During this time, people adapted to massive changes in climate and environment, often within their lifetimes. The project brings together specialists from the British Museum and five UK universities to look at these changes, and how humans responded to them: Matt Pope, Martin Bates, Chantal Conneller, Andrew Shaw, and Ed Blinkhorn.

Over the past half million years, the geography of the English Channel has changed enormously, with massive swings in climate from warm interglacial (like today) to cold, glacial periods – ‘ice ages’. During these cold periods, much of the Earth’s oceans were locked up in expanded polar regions and glaciers. Land that is now the sea floor was exposed: the sea itself was channelled into huge, fast-flowing extensions of the major rivers of Europe, dissecting this now-drowned, offshore landscape. The North Sea landscapes of Doggerland have been known to archaeologists for more than 80 years; animal and human bones, and stone tools, have been dredged from the North Sea in fishermen’s nets. Even Neanderthal fossils and handaxes have been recovered from the seabed, which was once land.

The Channel River Valley 180,000 years ago during a period of cold and low sea level. (Image: Beccy Shaw)

The Channel River Valley 180,000 years ago during a period of cold and low sea level. (Image: Beccy Shaw)

The landscapes of the English Channel are more elusive. Chalk downland once connected Britain and Northern France, but 450,000 years ago, one of the coldest ever glacial periods caused ice to expand as far south as London. A huge lake formed to the east, which eventually overflowed and catastrophically eroded the chalk landbridge, forming a totally new landscape. A massive, new river then flowed through the Straits of Dover, into which drained many of the major rivers of northern Europe: the Thames, Rhine and Scheldt. This was the Channel River Valley: an Ice Age superhighway, linking western and eastern Europe, forming a corridor along which humans and migrating animals – mammoth, woolly rhino and reindeer – would have travelled.

An aerial view of Jersey, facing east, taken by Ice Age Island project imaging specialist Sarah Duffy on a low (spring) tide which exposed much of the rocky, offshore landscape. The early Neanderthal site of La Cotte de St Brelade is the cave cut into the cliffs on the left of the picture. (Photo: Sarah Duffy)

An aerial view of Jersey, facing east, taken by Ice Age Island project imaging specialist Sarah Duffy on a low (spring) tide which exposed much of the rocky, offshore landscape. The early Neanderthal site of La Cotte de St Brelade is the cave cut into the cliffs on the left of the picture. (Photo: Sarah Duffy)

The Channel Island of Jersey is a special place for understanding how humans used these now-submerged landscapes: in effect, this terrestrial island is one of the last remnants of this drowned landscape. Particular places around the island – coastal fissures, caves and inland valleys – preserve sediments that protect traces left behind by people, as well as evidence of how their environment kept changing. For the past three years, the Ice Age Island project has been reinterpreting these places, through new excavations and the analysis of old excavated collections, as well as offshore surveys.

The geology of Jersey is one of the things that makes it so special: the island is made up of volcanic and metamorphic rocks, but the people who came here preferred to use flint to make their tools. Because flint does not naturally occur in the bedrock of Jersey, almost all the tools that we find have been carried here by people. We can compare the techniques that different human groups used to make their tools, as well as where they discarded them, to look at how different human groups moved around these landscapes. For instance, around 14,500 years ago, modern human hunter-gatherers camped at the head of a dry valley looking out into the offshore landscape, just outside what is modern St Helier. Here, at Les Varines, a buried cliffline would have provided shelter, making this somewhere that people came to again and again, carrying a lightweight flint toolkit. Later on, as sea levels rose around 9,000 years ago, Mesolithic hunter-fishers camped up on the north coast of Jersey: we have been excavating campsites on promontories along the coast, at Canal du Squez, Les Marionneux and Le Col de La Rocque.

The jewel in Jersey’s Ice Age crown is the Neanderthal site of La Cotte de St Brelade, and it’s this site that first drew me to Jersey: I’ve worked at the British Museum as an early Neanderthal specialist for the last five years, on the AHOB and Pathways to Ancient Britain projects. La Cotte is the key north-west European site for archaeologists who study this period. I’d been fascinated by La Cotte since I was an undergraduate, but had never felt I’d got to grips with what Neanderthals were actually doing there. It was a chance conversation in a pub with one of the five co-directors, Matt Pope, that galvanised us to start work in Jersey: we both felt that this was a site with much, much more to tell us.

La Cotte de St Brelade is a spectacular T-shaped fissure cut into the cliffs on the south-west corner of Jersey which has been accumulating sediments for at least 240,000 years. Neanderthals began using this site at around this time until 40,000 years ago, and it produced Britain’s latest Neanderthal fossils. Around a quarter of a million stone tools have been excavated from the site since the turn of the 19th century. Not only can we look at these to see what people were doing within the site itself, but also how they travelled through the drowned landscapes of the Channel River Valley, by looking at the tools that they brought with them.

Bathymetric survey of the seabed surrounding La Cotte de St Brelade, up to 5 km offshore. The immediate landscape is broken up into valleys and cut-offs – La Cotte itself provides a commanding view over this landscape. (Image: Richard Bates)

Bathymetric survey of the seabed surrounding La Cotte de St Brelade, up to 5 km offshore. The immediate landscape is broken up into valleys and cut-offs – La Cotte itself provides a commanding view over this landscape. (Image: Richard Bates)

Large-scale excavations at La Cotte de St Brelade, led by Professor Charles McBurney in the 1960s–70s, exposed two spectacular heaps of mammoth bone within the fissure: the original excavators interpreted these as resulting from mammoth being driven off the headland and butchered in the fissure below. However, we have some doubts about how the topography of the headland could have functioned as game drive, and when marine geophysicist Richard Bates undertook an offshore survey of the site, we gained a very different perspective on how La Cotte functioned within its local landscape: it overlooks a complicated grid pattern of reefs and valleys, made up of widened joints in the granite – exactly the sort of broken landscape that Neanderthals liked to use for ambush hunting. You can read more about our work at the site here. We are now considering the long term, repeated re-use of this place – and what Neanderthals were doing here – as part of the ‘Crossing the Threshold’ project, led by Professor Clive Gamble, a trustee of the British Museum. What’s so exciting about this site and the landscapes of Jersey is the way that it captures the changing rhythms of Neanderthal movement through this entire region. La Cotte, and Jersey itself, has always been a waymarker and a destination: its spectacular archaeological resources continue to make it so today.

Read more about our work at https://iceageisland.wordpress.com/ and http://www.jerseyheritage.org/ice-age-island

Follow project members on Twitter #IceAgeIsland

Filed under: Archaeology, British Museum, Europe, Research, , , , ,

Instruments of community: lyres, harps and society in ancient north-east Africa

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

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Until 16 August, lovers of African music and history (and all visitors eager to learn a bit about them) have another reason to visit the British Museum.  The Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 presents a wonderful 19th-century lyre from Nubia (northern Sudan), with strong spiritual associations. This type of lyre, known as kissar in the Islamic world, was used at important occasions such as weddings, but also in special ceremonies of a series of cults known generically as Zār, common in the area of Egypt, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa. These ceremonies were intended to heal spiritual possession (thought to be behind some medical conditions, such as epilepsy), the music being a key tool to placate and expel the evil spirits. 

Although the Zār cults seem to have appeared in Ethiopia during the 18th century and spread to other areas of Africa and perhaps the Middle East, the stringed instruments used in these ceremonies have a much older origin. Harps and lyres have been present in Africa for thousands of years, affirmed by their depictions in many Ancient Egyptian reliefs, paintings and papyri dating from as far back as the Old Kingdom (about 2686–2181 BC). Harps have been found and depicted in Egyptian tombs, such as those to be seen in Room 61 at the British Museum. These harps are usually known as bow or arched harps due to their shape, having a vaulted body of wood and a neck perpendicular to the resonant face on which the strings are wound.

 Harp. New Kingdom (mid 2nd millennium BC), Thebes, Egypt. British Museum 1888,0512.48


Harp. New Kingdom (mid 2nd millennium BC), Thebes, Egypt. L. 38 cm. British Museum 1888,0512.48

Harp. New Kingdom (mid-2nd millennium BC), Tomb of Ani, Thebes, Egypt. British Museum 1891,0404.162

Harp. New Kingdom (mid-2nd millennium BC), Tomb of Ani, Thebes, Egypt. L. 97.2 cm. British Museum 1891,0404.162

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Harp, Sudan, possibly 19th century. H. 51 cm. British Museum Af1979,01.5963

The use of bow and arched harps seems to have been transmitted from Egypt to West and East Africa, where slightly different versions can be found from Mauritania to Uganda. Sizes vary but range from small harps that can be held against the body to bigger models that need to be placed on the ground. The shape, however, is almost always the same, and very similar to the Egyptian models made 4,500 years ago. The expansion and distribution of these harps can be traced in a perhaps unexpected way – through their depiction in rock art.

Musician playing the harp for a seated woman. Elikeo, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6861 (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Musician playing the harp for a seated woman. Elikeo, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6861 (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Although not very common, scenes of dancing and figures playing instruments exist in northern African rock art, and while cataloguing the collection of images from Chad as part of the African rock art image project, I came across several depictions of harps almost identical to those known through ethnographic collections and archaeological excavations. The paintings very accurately depict bow harps, either in isolation or being played by a musician. In some cases, the figures seem to be playing for other people in scenes surrounded by huts, cattle, women and children. In all cases, the neck of the harp is held near to the body of the musician.

So far, five examples of these painted harps have been found, all of them in the western side of the Ennedi Plateau in Chad, a sandstone massif near the border with Sudan, carved by erosion in a series of superimposed terraces, alternating plains and ragged cliffs crossed by seasonal rivers (wadis). The numerous cliffs and gorges of the Ennedi house images of many local styles, sometimes contemporary, sometimes corresponding to successive periods. These images and styles reveal an enormous richness of techniques, themes and artistic conventions, with some of the most original depictions in Saharan rock art. The harps are a very good example of this creativity, as they all appear concentrated in a relatively small area while they seem to be absent in the rest of the Sahara desert.

Scene with people and cattle near a hut, with a musician playing the harp to the top right. Gaora Hallagana, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6762. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Scene with people and cattle near a hut, with a musician playing the harp to the top right. Gaora Hallagana, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6762. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

 Harp musician playing near a milking scene. Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6483. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)


Harp musician playing near a milking scene. Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6483. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

It is difficult to know the contexts in which these instruments were played. Some of the paintings present the musicians in rather prosaic scenes (either near the houses or a person milking a cow, for example), but examples like the lyre displayed in Room 3 or those found in Egypt exemplify their use in complex rituals or ceremonies. It is most probable that the same object could have very different uses depending on the context, the audience or the music played. While in Western societies music is commonly associated with leisure or culture, and considered something to be enjoyed, in many cultures music is an integral part of daily life, used to keep and transmit knowledge, to summon protection, to remember ancestors or to regulate social and economic activities. The powerful presence of the Sudanese lyre displayed in Room 3 recalls the idea of music as a powerful tool in north-eastern African societies throughout history, used to heal and to build social narratives which explain and address the spiritual world.

Further reading

Rafael Perez Arroyo (2001): Egypt: Music in the age of pyramids, Madrid, Editorial Centro de Estudios Egipcios

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on in Room 3 at the British Museum until 16 August 2015. 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.

Through summer 2015 the British Museum is Celebrating Africa.  Explore and debate a variety of African cultural issues through a series of events and displays.

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

The Painted Horn: visiting a rock art site in Somalia

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

Painted image of long-horned cow with human figure underneath, Laas Geel, Somalia (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painted image of long-horned cow with human figure underneath, Laas Geel, Somalia. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

As I look up at the rock shelter here in Somalia, several thoughts cross my mind about the beautiful pieces of rock art above me. There’s always a strange feeling when you visit for the first time a place you have been studying for a long while: a merging of expectations, recognition and, in some cases, a feeling of its being other than how one had imagined it. The first time I saw the Pyramids in Egypt, for all their greatness and despite the myriad of photos, they appeared somehow different to how I had pictured them. However, this has never been the case for me when faced with the paintings and engravings on natural rock surfaces that I study as an archaeologist with the African rock art image project. Maybe that’s because of their isolation – in most cases – and the long walks you have to take to reach the outcrops or shelters where these sites are positioned. Approaching the site, one becomes aware of the environment, the landscape and the magic of these places, and so when you are finally in front of the engravings and paintings, usually in a tranquil area, you feel the full impact of images created by human beings who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Project cataloguer Jorge de Torres, photographing rock paintings at Laas Geel, Somalia. © Alfredo González-Ruibal

Project cataloguer Jorge de Torres, photographing rock paintings at Laas Geel, Somalia. (Photograph © Alfredo González-Ruibal)

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to experience one of these special moments at the rock art site of Laas Geel, located in the Somaliland region of Somalia. Archaeologically speaking, Somalia is also one of the most interesting places in Africa, situated on a crossroads between Arabia, the East African coast and the Ethiopian Highlands, where trade flourished for millennia. Throughout the country, archaeological sites show the richness and complexity of the societies that inhabited the region, leaving testimonies of their daily life, their beliefs and their interactions with other communities. As a member of a Spanish archaeological project, I’ve spent a week documenting some of these sites, as a preliminary step to the development of an archaeological project which is to be undertaken over the next few years. This trip has allowed me to go to Laas Geel, a rocky ridge placed where two valleys meet, halfway between the cities of Hargeisa and Berbera. Many rock shelters are found throughout this headland, with very variable dimensions, although the largest measure several metres in length and width. About 20 of them have paintings, the most impressive being a huge panel of almost 100m2 covering the ceiling and walls, with 350 very well-preserved painted images. The majority are images of cows depicted in a specific style, unique to Africa. The heads and horns are shown as if seen from above while the bodies are seen in profile, and they have prominent udders and necks decorated with colourful stripes. Not all the cows belong to this style though; others have stylistic features that relate them to engravings located in Ethiopia and Djibouti. Together with the cows are illustrations of human figures. Wearing white shirts and red trousers, these figures are often placed under the udder or the head of the cows. Additionally, some other animals are also represented – dogs, antelopes, monkeys and two giraffes.

Distinctive cattle paintings at Laas Geel (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Distinctive cattle paintings at Laas Geel. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Along with the distinctive style of the most representative depictions, colour is one of the key features of Laas Geel: figures are depicted in shades of orange, red, yellow, white, violet or brown, among other colours. As is often the case, direct dating of the rock paintings has been impossible thus far, but analysis of cattle bones from one of the shelters has provided dates between the mid 4th and mid 3rd millennia BC. Therefore, the Laas Geel site helps us to trace the domestication of cattle in the Horn of Africa. Surprisingly, the impressive paintings of Laas Geel were discovered only in 2002, when a French research team studying the beginning of production economy in the Horn of Africa arrived at the site looking for suitable shelters to excavate. The importance of the site was immediately recognized, and since then it has been thoroughly documented. This site is included in the African rock art image project and the photos will be available online shortly. As recognition of the importance of rock art in Somalia grows, some other challenges appear and need to be confronted: the low but steady increase of tourists, the need for protection of the rock art sites and the importance of raising awareness of the significance of the sites at a local, national and international level. Inadequate infrastructure and political instability threaten many archaeological remains. Rock art, because of its open air location and wide geographical dispersion, is always difficult to protect, and only with the close involvement of the local communities can the preservation of these sites be ensured. In Laas Geel, the creation of a small museum and the presence of guards and guides are an encouraging step towards a better control over this rich Somali heritage. As I lie in my hotel room in Hargeisa, window and door opened to let a warm breeze flow through, I can’t help but think about the great potential of rock art sites to promote the engagement and commitment of people in the protection of their own heritage. Unlike other archaeological remains, which are often buried and sometimes obscure for the untrained eye, rock art allows multiple perceptions and discussions, from aesthetic appreciation based on modern cultural ideals to practical interpretations, that can involve people from very different backgrounds. Perhaps one of the many perceived beauties of the colourful paintings of Laas Geel, made around 5,000 years ago, could be in establishing common interests within a country as complex as is Somalia today. For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart. The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund. Through summer 2015 the British Museum is Celebrating Africa.  Explore and debate a variety of African cultural issues through a series of events and displays, including two free lectures on Southern African rock art by professors Peter Mitchell and Benjamin Smith Further reading: Gutherz, X., Cros, J.-P., and Lesur, J. (2003), ‘The discovery of new rock paintings in the Horn of Africa: The rock shelters of Laas Geel, Republic of Somaliland’, in Journal of African Archaeology, 1(2), 227–236. Gutherz, X. and Jallot, L. (eds.) (2010), The decorated shelters of Laas Geel and the rock art of Somaliland, Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, Paul-Valéry University – Montpellier III, Montpellier. Mire, S. (2015), ‘Mapping the Archaeology of Somaliland: Religion, Art, Script, Time, Urbanism, Trade and Empire’, in African Archaeological Review 32, 111–136

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

No more dog biscuits: a new life for Ashurbanipal’s Library

Jonathan Taylor, Curator of cuneiform collections, British Museum

Visitors to Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC will find a radically transformed display. Often the galleries struggle to match the impact of temporary exhibitions, but over the last year a team of curators, designers, interpretation officers, conservators, assistant collections managers and others have worked hard to breathe fresh life into the permanent displays. In the south-east corner of Room 55 sits case 8, otherwise known as ‘The Ashurbanipal Library Case’. It is a museum’s worst nightmare – a whole case full of small, brown lumps of mud (‘dog biscuits’ as a former Director was once heard to call them). Even worse – they are there because they’re covered with writing that no-one can read. In reality, they are one of the jewels of the British Museum collection, and among the most important archaeological discoveries ever made. These are clay tablets from the cuneiform library of Ashurbanipal, 7th century BC king of Assyria. Here’s how we have tried to do justice to these marvels.

The new display of Ashurbanipal’s Library in Room 55. Photo by Alberto Giannese; © The Trustees of the British Museum

The new display of Ashurbanipal’s Library in Room 55. Photo by Alberto Giannese; © The Trustees of the British Museum

First we need to make sure people stop and look. Gone is the wall of grey beloved of past decades. In comes a rich green that contrasts beautifully with the reds and creams of the Library tablets, and conveys a feeling of opulence. Out go the diffuse overhead fluorescent lights. In come directional LEDs revealing the contours of the tablet surface. Each tablet looks special, and the cuneiform writing leaps from its surface. Here is something that is recognisably a document. The tablets sit on shelves in a ‘pigeonhole’ system, which was one of the methods by which ancient scribes stored their tablets. This allows us to conceal the new lights discreetly. More importantly, it suggests that this is a collection. The row of complete tablets stood on end (top row) shows us that we’re looking at a library.

Family dynamics, 7th- century BC style: ‘Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?!’ (Ashurbanipal’s sister to his wife). British Museum K 1619b.

Family dynamics, 7th- century BC style: ‘Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?!’ (Ashurbanipal’s sister to his wife). British Museum K 1619b

Now powerless to resist the temptation to explore this Library, the visitor can explore sections such as ‘Acquisitions’, ‘Enquiries’ and ‘The Chief Librarian’. Each tablet or group of tablets has its own label. Where possible, this is a quote from the text itself. Experience tells us that people always want to know what the texts actually say. It’s basic human curiosity that deserves to be satisfied. ‘Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?!’ (Ashurbanipal’s sister to his wife) has to be better than ‘This tablet is a letter from the king’s sister to the queen about completing writing practice’. Alongside exquisite copies of the accumulated knowledge of Mesopotamia sit a practice piece by the young boy who would grow up to become ‘King of the World’, detailed contemporary acquisition records and much later texts revealing the lasting fame of the Library in antiquity. Here is the world’s oldest universal library, preserved by the very fires that burnt it down, given new life for today’s readers – we hope you enjoy it. These tablets will never exceed their shelf life.

Want to know more?

A new, friendly introduction to cuneiform is now available:

Cuneiform, by I.L. Finkel and J.J. Taylor (British Museum Press, 2015). It includes examples drawn from the Library.

The Museum’s ‘Ashurbanipal Library Project’ has been preparing a digital version of the Library. A complete set of new photos illustrates a revised electronic catalogue of all 30,000 tablets. This sits on a dedicated website (to appear soon on Oracc) that provides accessible introductions to the Library, how it was found and what is in it. Thousands of English translations are already available and many more will follow. Our work is helped enormously by the active collaboration of colleagues from the small but dedicated international community of cuneiform specialists.

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Room 55 (Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC), , , , , ,

A taste for honey: bees in African rock art

Helen Anderson, Project Cataloguer of African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

In Summer 2014 the green roof of the newly opened World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) at the British Museum became home to a colony of bees. The bees were introduced as part of an initiative by an organisation called Inmidtown – to boost the diminishing population of bees and train Museum staff in the craft of beekeeping. I, along with a number of keen volunteers, have taken up the exciting challenge to look after our bees on the roof on a weekly basis until September.

Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

Above and below: Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building. (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

12-05-2015 16.30.06 My own fascination with bees goes back to my childhood in Norfolk. I vividly remember watching their comings and goings on an oversized lavender bush in our garden; an attraction which didn’t wane despite being stung on more than one occasion. However, my role as project cataloguer on the African Rock Art Image Project has firmly established that the human-bee relationship is one that is very likely to be several thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old. Depictions of bees, their nests and the harvesting of honey can be found at rock art sites across the African continent. Recent genomic studies indicate that the honeybee, Apis mellifera, originated in Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. While European populations contracted during Ice Ages, African populations expanded during these periods, suggesting environmental conditions were more favourable and that, historically, climate change has had a strong impact on honeybee populations.

Apis mellifera  (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The honeybee, Apis mellifera, with pollen basket. (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Africa has more rock art relating to bees than any other continent where populations of bees are found (Europe, Asia and Oceania), although there are no secure dates for the origin of these images. Only a few engravings and paintings relating to bees exist in northern Africa, and these are at widely dispersed sites. The African honeybee builds a nest in dark cavities, typically trees. Where there are no suitable trees, such as in the Sahara, bees may nest in termite mounds, rock hollows, depressions or crevices, and the honeycombs of such nests are sometimes visible. In Libya, for example, nests are located in rock fractures in the steep sides of wadis (dried up riverbeds), which can be between 100 and 200 metres high. There are significantly more depictions associated with bees in the rock art south of the Sahara; why this should be the case is not entirely clear – it may be due to environmental conditions. I should, at this point, make the distinction between the activity of beekeeping in which I am engaged, and the more apt term of honey-hunters, which most closely explains the activities seen in the rock art representations of southern and eastern Africa. It has been suggested that historically hive beekeeping was never developed in these regions as there were sufficient nest sites that provided plentiful honey for local communities.

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. © TARA/David Coulson.(Image not yet catalogued)

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men (honey-hunters) to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The bees’ nest consists of a number of parallel honeycombs built into the cavity, suspended from an upper surface. Honey-hunters would have observed the nest structure when harvesting the combs, perceiving the different shapes and forms they take depending on the angle of entry. For example, in an upright tree trunk, looking at the combs face on they appear as a suspended curved structure (catenary pattern); seen in a tree cavity or in a cavity from below, the ends of the combs look like oval or elliptical-shaped parallel compartments. These particular composite shapes were termed ‘formlings’ by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius in the 1930s, and comprise a distinct category of feature in African rock art.

Wild bees' nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photo:

Wild bees’ nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photograph: by Erell (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees' nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees’ nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. British Museum 2013,2034.12205. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Fifty-six catenary patterns have been found at thirty-eight rock art sites, only five of which are in northern Africa. Catenary patterns are the easiest bee-related image to depict when engraving and are found at one site in Algeria and four in Morocco. Painted rock art of nested catenary curves, possibly representing bees’ nests, sometimes depicts clusters of small crosses which bear resemblance to a group of flying bees.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. (Photograph: © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

More than 300 depictions of formlings can be found at over 220 sites – over 95% of which come from Zimbabwe alone. Studies of honeybee nests have been compared to artistic representations of catenary patterns and formlings, and suggest that depictions of both were originally based on observations of bees’ nests made by the producers of rock art.

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’ with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses (perhaps bees?). Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched (maybe they are harvesting?). Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’, with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses, perhaps bees. Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched – maybe they are harvesting? Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The harvesting of honey in rock paintings shows honey-hunters in groups, sometimes using ladders to reach the nests. In one painting from Zimbabwe, fire or smoke, which was used to ward off the bees, is depicted.

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

In southern Africa, shamans of the San people describe being stung by bees while in a trance-like state (Lewis-Williams, 2001); and in the Kalahari Desert, the San dance when bees are swarming which they believe strengthens the efficacy of the dance. Examples of such dances are depicted in painted rock art, where bees are painted on people’s bodies and limbs. For the San, bees and honey are highly potent symbols.

Painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

San painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by dancing figures and tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

My own forays into beekeeping are in their initial stages and I am looking forward to learning about these productive insects and helping them to thrive in their increasingly endangered habitats; but it is thought-provoking that our taste for honey reaches back across the millennia.

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

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

Further reading

Crane, Eva, 2001, The Rock Art of the Honey Hunters, Cardiff: International Bee Research Association.

Dixon, Luke, forthcoming, A Time There Was: A Story of Rock Art, Bees and Bushmen.

Kidd, Andrew, B. and Schrimpf, Berthold, 2000, ‘Bees and bee-keeping’, in R. Blench, Kevin C. MacDonald (eds), The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography, London: Routledge.

Lewis-Williams, D., 2001, ‘Brainstorming images: neuropsychology and rock art research’, in David S. Whitley (ed.), Handbook of Rock Art Research, California: Altamira Press, pp. 332–60.

Mguni, Siyakha, 2006, ‘King’s monuments: identifying “formlings” in southern African San rock paintings’, in Antiquity, 80: 583–98.

Wallberg, A., Han, F., Wellhagen, G., Dahle, B., Kawata, M., Haddad, N., Simões, Z.L.P., Allsopp, M.H., Kandemir. I., De La Rúa, P., Pirk, C.W., Webster, M.T., 2014, ‘A worldwide survey of genome sequence variation provides insight into the evolutionary history of the honeybee Apis mellifera’, in Nature Genetics, 46: 1081–88.  

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

Lost and found: toys, tears and the Thames

Janina Parol, Assistant Treasure Registrar, and Dora Thornton, Curator of Renaissance Europe, British Museum

If you walk by the north bank of the Thames when the tide is low you will spot mudlarks searching for finds, even when it is windy, raining and freezing. You might think they are crazy, but you will certainly be curious to know what they have found – if they are prepared to get that muddy and wet there must be a reason. Mudlarks can spend hours waiting to catch the right tide, but for the hundreds of hours that are spent out there in all conditions some of the last things we imagine them being interested in are toys.

Tony Pilson and Ian Smith on the Thames foreshore

Tony Pilson and Ian Smith on the Thames foreshore

But interested they are. One in particular has discovered a huge number from the medieval and post-medieval periods. Tony Pilson, the highly-regarded founder member of the Society of Thames Mudlarks, has generously donated a selection of these toys to the British Museum. This matches his gift of London toy finds to the Museum of London, which forms the basis of the foremost book on medieval and post-medieval toys, Toys, Trifles & Trinkets by Hazel Forsyth and the late Geoff Egan. We have now registered our toy collection from Tony Pilson on our collection database. The range is extraordinary: from miniature muskets, cauldrons and porringers, watch parts, tools, animals and detailed tableware.

The City from Bankside, Thomas Richardson, oil on canvas, c. 1816-25, © Museum of London (95.185)

The City from Bankside, Thomas Richardson, oil on canvas, c. 1816-25, © Museum of London (95.185)

Pewter doll, late 16th century (British Museum 2009,8020.5)

Pewter doll, late 16th century, found at Bull’s Wharf, London (British Museum 2009,8020.5)

Looking through this collection we soon realise that many tears must have been shed by children over their beloved toys, which suddenly fell out of their grasp and over a bridge or wall with no possibility of rescue. Thomas Richardson’s The City from Bankside, painted around 1816–1825, shows a small girl playing on one of the wharves where blocks of stone are being prepared for shipping. Looking at her, it is all too easy to understand how playthings were lost in the Thames. One doll in the Pilson collection in the British Museum, found at Bull Wharf in London, takes us close to her original owner, a small girl in late Tudor London. The doll is a rare find; her closest comparison in the Museum of London was also found on the Thames foreshore and donated by Tony Pilson. The British Museum doll is cast in lead alloy and is almost complete. Her dress is so exactly detailed that she can be dated to the late 1500s. She wears a heart-shaped hood, a fitted bodice which is laced at the back and a full skirt, which opens at the front to reveal a kirtle or underskirt. A sweetmeat bag hangs from her waist.

Mother and child at toy-stall; a woman reaching into her purse and smiling at her daughter, who pulls on her skirts and points to a large doll on the counter of a well-stocked street-stall; engraving after Adriaen van de Venne; illustration of an unspecified edition of Jacob Cats' "Spiegel vanden Ouden ende Nieuwe Tijd" (first edition published in The Hague: 1632) (British Museum 1952,0117.14.13)

Mother and child at toy stall; engraving after Adriaen van de Venne; illustration from an unspecified edition of Jacob Cats’ ‘Spiegel vanden Ouden ende Nieuwe Tijd’ (first edition published in The Hague, 1632) (British Museum 1952,0117.14.13)

We know very little about who made these hollow-cast dolls, but we think they were sold at city fairs such as St Bartholomew’s Fair at Smithfield in London. Elizabeth I’s entertainer, the oddly-named Ippolita the Tartarian, had ‘one baby of pewter’ bought for her in 1562, which might have looked a bit like this one. Could lead alloy dolls have been less expensive versions of the larger dolls made of ceramic and dressed in the latest style, which were imported into England from abroad? A Dutch print of 1632 shows these grander dolls for sale at a toy stall at a city fair. Any parent will recognise the scene of a little girl exercising pester power. Her mother smiles as she opens her purse, the stall-holder looks on indulgently while the family dog sits waiting. The Dutch inscription points a moral with a strongly Protestant commercial ethos: ‘Well set-out is half sold.’

John White, A wife of an Indian 'werowance' or chief of Pomeiooc, and her daughter, who carries a contemporary English doll. Watercolour over graphite, touched with bodycolour, white (altered) and gold (British Museum 1906,0509.1.13)

A wife of an Indian ‘werowance’ or chief of Pomeiooc, and her daughter, who carries a contemporary English doll. John Waite, watercolour over graphite, touched with bodycolour, white (altered) and gold (British Museum 1906,0509.1.13)

That marketing drive perhaps explains why dolls, or ‘babies brought out of England’, were given as presents to Algonquin people by English traders in Virginia in the 1590s as attractive presents ‘which we thought they delighted in’. A doll can be much more than a doll. Toys given to little girls were useful ways of winning over their mothers, as women often acted as intermediaries between Native Americans and the new English settlers. John White’s watercolour of the wife of a chief of Pomeiooc and her daughter shows a doll like the ones on the toy stall in the print. The English were cultivating new markets.

Utagawa Sadahide (歌川貞秀), colour woodblock print. European woman and young daughter standing at a toy stall decked out with a display of toys (dolls, stick horses, a toy axe, horns, and drums); the stall-holder shows a doll to the young girl. Japan, 1860 (British Museum 1998,0218,0.19)

European woman and young daughter standing at a toy stall decked out with a display of toys (dolls, stick horses, a toy axe, horns, and drums); the stall-holder shows a doll to the young girl. Utagawa Sadahide (歌川貞秀), colour woodblock print, Japan, 1860 (British Museum 1998,0218,0.19)

But even in Europe, dolls were not just playthings or useful diplomatic gifts. They might have been display pieces for adults, or curios for collectors with a taste for miniatures. In other cultures, dolls have an independent life. In Japan, for example, dolls were displayed in the households of families with daughters at the annual doll festival held on 3 March every year since the 1600s. With the opening of Yokohama to world trade in 1859, many Japanese people became intensely curious about foreign customs – particularly in relation to children – and the city had a European community. Perhaps that is why the Dutch print seen here appealed so strongly to the artist Utagawa Sadahide (1807-1873) that he copied it as a colour woodblock print. A quick comparison reveals how Sadahide retained the hobby horses stuck into a barrel; the drums on sticks; the toy trumpets; and even the folds of the women’s dresses. But the central doll in Sadahide’s print is no plaything: it has a formal presence relating to Japanese tradition. In translating a European print into an unmistakably Japanese idiom, Sadahide demonstrates how dolls as miniature human figures attract us across continents and centuries.

Postscript (added 9 January 2015):

We wrote this blog in Tony Pilson’s honour and to thank him for his generosity to the British Museum and the Museum of London in donating substantial collections of small finds accumulated over many years. We were very sorry to hear of his death, on 24 November 2014, but we hope that this small tribute can serve as our way of remembering him. His legacy is upheld in the work of the Society of Thames Mudlarks, who continue to search the foreshore and record their finds with the Museum of London.

Anyone can walk along the Thames foreshore, but scraping or digging is strictly regulated by The Port of London Authority and there are different levels of searching, from eyes only to scraping and using a metal detector. There are prohibited areas and permission should always be sought.

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Meroë Head of Augustus: statue decapitation as political propaganda

David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

In his Twelve Caesars, the Roman historian Suetonius describes how the emperor Augustus’ eyes ‘shone with a sort of divine radiance’ and that it gave him profound pleasure ‘if anyone at whom he glanced keenly dropped his head as though dazzled by looking into the sun.’

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head, the only bronze portrait of Augustus to have survived with its original inlaid eyes, perfectly captures the enigmatic gaze of the Roman emperor. Depending on how the light falls, the expression of the head can vary from haughty disdain to melancholic introspection. The whites of the eyes are further emphasised by the dark green sheen of the emperor’s skin and hair. This is a result of the oxidation process that has covered the original bronze surface with a deep marine green patina. This otherworldly quality is fitting for a man who was deified as a god upon his death.

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head is one of the great treasures of the British Museum, selected as one of the objects featured in the the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 objects in 2010. However, it was but one of many portraits of Augustus, which were mechanically copied and sent to the far-flung corners of the Roman Empire as a form of imperial propaganda. Today, very few bronze statues from the Roman world survive; most were melted down due to the value of their metal. The story behind how the Meroë Head avoided such a fate is a fascinating one and told in the new display in Room 3, The Meroë Head: Africa defies Rome.

One of the first photographs of the Meroë Head taken in the field, December 1910. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

One of the first photographs of the Meroë Head taken in the field, December 1910. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

The head was first unearthed in December 1910, during an excavation led by Professor John Garstang (1876–1956) of Liverpool University, on the site of the ancient city of Meroë in what is now modern-day Sudan. Meroë was the capital of Kush, a powerful African kingdom that from 1070 BC onwards rivalled Egypt for control of the region. Like their neighbours they built vast pyramid complexes, which can still be visited today. What made this find so unexpected was that Meroë was located close to the sixth cataract of the Nile, hundreds of miles from the Roman border in Egypt. What could the head of a Roman emperor be doing here?

Clues lie in the writings of the Greek historian Strabo who reported that in AD 25, a Meroïte army led by King Teriteqas and the one-eyed queen Amanirenas attacked the Roman garrisons at Syene, Elephantina and Philae, ‘enslaved the inhabitants’ and ‘threw down the statues of Caesar’. Caesar here refers to the Roman title for emperor and it was thought that the Meroë Head may have once belonged to one of the statues plundered during these raids, before it was decapitated.

Remains of the building where the Meroë Head was discovered at the beginning of the 1910 season. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

Remains of the building where the Meroë Head was discovered at the beginning of the 1910 season. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

Lord Kitchener (1850–1916) and other British officials visit the site during the excavation (Kitchener is second from left, Professor John Garstang on the far right). © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool.

Lord Kitchener (1850–1916) and other British officials visit the site during the excavation (Kitchener is second from left, Professor John Garstang on the far right). © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool.

Garstang and his fellow archaeologists found the head buried in the doorway to a building, which was located outside of the main city. The building was decorated with frescoes showing the king and queen enthroned, while a line of bound, kneeling slaves are presented to them. Some of these slaves have the distinctive helmets and tunics of Roman soldiers. It was therefore thought that the building may have been a victory monument, or a temple. In burying the head, the Meroïtes ensured that everyone who entered the building would trample this image of the emperor Augustus beneath their feet, thereby ritually perpetuating the Meroïte victory over the Romans. Ironically, it was this act of desecration that ultimately preserved Augustus’ portrait for future generations to appreciate.

Although we might regard such acts of iconoclasm as the preserve of the ancient world, in fact the decapitation of statues has occurred with surprising regularity over the past 30 years. Targets range from the London Guildhall’s marble Margaret Thatcher, decapitated using a metal rope by protestor Paul Kelleher in 2002, to a statue of Lillestrøm SK football club’s star striker Tom Lund, whose bronze head was stolen by rival fans in 2013. The beheading of statues even features as a plot line in The Simpsons The Telltale Head ((season 1 episode 8, first aired in February 1990), in which Bart chops off the head of the statue of Jebediah Springfield, the eponymous founder of the Simpsons’ home town.

Contemporary acts of statue decapitation have the advantage over the Meroïtes in having mass media to spread their message. In April 2003, the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad became one of the defining symbols of the Iraq War. Initially, a former Iraqi champion power-lifter attacked the huge statue with a sledgehammer, but was only able to break off a few chunks of concrete. American troops then intervened, toppling the statue with the aid of rope and a tank. Once on the ground the head of Saddam was beaten with shoes and eventually wrenched from the statue’s body. The toppling was presented as a spontaneous event symbolising the fall of Saddam’s regime by the newly liberated Iraqis. However, it was in fact carefully planned by the US military and broadcast on news bulletins worldwide.

The demolition of the Firdos statue by American troops may itself be a symbolic act of revenge, for the regime’s placement of a portrait of US President George W. Bush on the floor of the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad. All visitors to the hotel, particularly Western politicians and businessmen who used to stay there, were forced ritually to trample the face of the leader of the biggest power in the West – just as the Meroïtes did with the face of Augustus outside their victory shrine 2,000 years earlier. Unlike the Meroë Head or the head of Jebediah Springfield, however, the Firdos Head of Saddam has not yet resurfaced. But who knows, perhaps it lies hidden somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered and become a museum piece in the future.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome is in Room 3 from 11 December 2014 to 15 February 2015, admission free.
 

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Changing faces: revealing ancient alterations in Saharan rock art

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Jorge De Torres, Cataloguer, African rock art image project

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs, Chad

Fifteen years ago, I started my training as an archaeologist participating in a rock art survey in Extremadura, Spain. For a month I climbed cliffs and endured summer temperatures of 45ºC, looking for the flat rock faces where the schematic rock art we were looking for might be. One of those exhausting days, I crawled under a shelter during a break to escape the scorching sun. It was so small that you could only lie down and it had no space to turn sideways or sit. I rested for a while enjoying the shade, and then I saw them: four vertical, red lines painted on the inner part of the roof, clearly the imprints of four human fingers, made by someone who was once in my exact position, in a place where nobody but he (or she) – and thousands of years later, me – could contemplate them.

I’ve seen quite a lot of rock art since that summer morning, but I’ve always recalled that painting as one of the most important archaeological remains I’ve ever come across. Not because of its complexity, of course, but because of the exceptional possibility of recording and understanding the concrete action of an individual who existed thousands of years ago. Archaeologists like me are used to focussing on tendencies (chronologies, styles, geographical distributions) rather than individual human actions, which are usually very difficult to detect. However, while cataloguing the incredible collection of the African rock art image project, I found two such cases – both attempts to amend a picture once it was painted.

Figure 2 Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa

Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa, Chad

The depictions are found in the Ennedi Plateau in the north-eastern corner of Chad, a mountainous region on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, full of huge outcrops and boulders, many of them covered with engravings and paintings dated from 5000 BC onwards. Although rock art in the Ennedi Plateau has a great variety of styles and depictions, probably the best known images in the area are the Niola Doa engravings: several groups of large figures (probably women), richly decorated, with one arm stretched downwards and the other bent upwards, usually resting sticks on their shoulders.

While describing these images, one caught my attention: an elegant, richly decorated woman, painted in red and white. There are several white lines around the neck, representing necklaces, and several more around the waist and hips, including series of white dots – possibly objects sewn onto a belt or directly to the skirt, reminiscent of the coin and shell belts often worn by dancers in the Middle East.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

Detail of the corrected arm from the painted woman

Detail of the arm from the painted woman, after colour enhancement.

There was something strange about the figure’s left arm: a red band under the left elbow, undoubtedly something painted, but a bit out of place. Using colour enhancement tools, such as those described by Elizabeth Galvin in a previous post, the result was astonishing. The enhanced photograph shows how the lower stain is in fact an arm that was painted stretching downwards, later corrected and repainted to bend upwards. The earlier arm is faint, but the enhanced colour shows how the tonality of both paintings is the same, implying that the same painter corrected the figure. Why was the image changed? We can only guess, but the final outline of the woman resembles the engraved figures of previous periods, so perhaps the painter was trying to emulate the impressive engravings that still give the place its name today (Niola Doa means ‘the dancing maidens’ in the local language).

The Archei Geulta (water pocket), Chad

The Archei Geulta, Chad

The second example comes from a very special place known as the Archei Guelta. A ‘guelta’ is a pocket of water in the desert (sometimes an oasis, but not always) that provides vital water to both people and animals. The Archei Guelta is one of the most important places in the region, with water available all year round, and home to one of the last remaining colonies of crocodiles in the desert. Like many other areas of the Ennedi Plateau, the whole area is full of paintings and engravings of many different periods and styles.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. The horse at the top is superimposed on an earlier painting of a man. See a larger version of the original image.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

One of these paintings is an extremely faint group of riders on horses, depicted in a very specific style of the Ennedi Plateau known as the ‘flying gallop’. Being so faint, the images were difficult to describe, and therefore I again had to use colour enhancement to identify them. By inverting the colours, I was able to see the riders and some previously undetected cows , but it also led me to an unexpected discovery: one of the riders was in fact a man on foot, with a horse superimposed. The paint of the man was much more degraded than that of the horse, implying that he was painted in an earlier period, perhaps prior to the introduction of horses to the desert. As in the first case, we can only speculate as to why the painters of the horses decided to amend the figure, but perhaps it was a way of incorporating older figures into the new scenes, adding as prestigious an animal as a horse. Perhaps they simply felt sorry for the lonely man walking among fast, powerful riders.

Detail of walking man superimposed by horse

Detail of the enhanced image showing a galloping horse painted over a standing man.

These two examples remind us that behind the broad categories into which we organize rock art were individuals who used these wonderful paintings and engravings as a way of sharing their own perspectives and interpretations of reality. The reinterpretation of older images raises interesting questions about how these populations interacted with their own past, integrating it within their narratives. And although the ultimate meaning of these changes can be difficult to comprehend, they nonetheless help us feel nearer to the people who made these images so many thousands of years ago.

This post is part of the African rock art image project at the British Museum, generously supported by the Arcadia Fund.

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