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!

fig_1

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.

fig_2

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.

fig_3

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.

fig_4

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.

fig_5

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.

fig_6

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.

croc 6

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.

CHAENP0050033

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.

01504830_001

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

01504835_001

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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.44.57

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, , , , , , ,

The mystery of the Fetter Lane hoard

Amelia Dowler, Curator of Greek and Roman Provincial Coins, British Museum

In 1908 workmen excavating foundations for a house in Fetter Lane (City of London) found 46 coins in a pot. The Rev’d FD Ringrose purchased the hoard and published an account in 1911 but focussed on describing the coins rather than the circumstances of the find. By the time the coins were bequeathed to the British Museum in 1914, there was no trace of the pot and no description of it either. There is no full account of exactly how the hoard was found and whilst Roman hoards are often uncovered in Britain (for example the Didcot, Hoxne and Beau Street hoards), the Fetter Lane hoard remains something of a mystery.

Map London 1900

Extract from Pocket Atlas and Guide to London 1900 showing the British Museum and Fetter Lane (bottom right)

The Fetter Lane coins were all minted in Alexandria, in Egypt, between AD 58 and AD 284. At this period in the Roman Empire, official coins were produced at centrally controlled mints for use across the empire. However, many other mints also produced civic coins, usually in copper alloys, to be used in the local area. Coins had first been minted in Alexandria under the Ptolemaic dynasty (c.312–30 BC), which continued after Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC. Unlike in most other provinces, Alexandria was a centrally controlled mint and the coins were initially made of debased silver before declining into a mainly copper alloy coinage. They circulated locally in the eastern Mediterranean and did not form part of the official Roman denomination system.

The earliest dated coin in the hoard (Year 5: 58/59 AD), depicting Nero. British Museum 1914,0403.2

The earliest dated coin in the hoard (Year 5: 58/59 AD), depicting Nero. British Museum 1914,0403.2

Coins used in the Roman province of Britannia were from official Roman mints and we know this both from coin finds and from references to coins at the time, such as at Vindolanda. Why then would these Alexandrian coins be brought to Britain where they formed no part of the currency system?

Over the past 200 years or so when unusual coins like these have been found in Britain they have often been dismissed as modern imports, perhaps brought back to the country as souvenirs from the Grand Tour, or by soldiers returning from service. There is a long history of these finds being dismissed, particularly by coin experts in museums and universities. I am compiling a catalogue of this material to look into this question further: are coins from the Mediterranean world (and sometimes further afield) modern losses or did they arrive in Iron Age or Roman times? These are coins – minted between the 5th century BC up to the end of the 3rd century AD – which would not have been part of a currency system in Britain.

The latest dated coin in the hoard (Year 2: 283/4 AD), depicting Carinus. British Museum 1914,0403.46

The latest dated coin in the hoard (Year 2: 283/4 AD), depicting Carinus. British Museum 1914,0403.46

This is a particularly relevant question today when the Portable Antiquities Scheme is regularly listing coins with similar origins to the database. The steadily increasing number of ‘foreign’ coins means that it is important to readdress this question rather than dismissing it out of hand. There are examples both of coins being found in known contexts, such as in the Sacred Spring in Bath, and also where we know that coins were modern imports, such as the Alexandrian coins found on the wreck of the HMS Pomone. For the majority of coins however we have no clear information about their findspots.

Where does this leave the Fetter Lane hoard? The fact that the coins were found together is also unusual: when ‘foreign’ coins like these are found they are usually single finds or are a rare foreign inclusion in a group of imperial Roman coins. The coins look in similar condition so it is quite likely that they were a group for some time despite the date range of the coins from AD 58 (during the reign of Nero) to AD 284 (during the reign of Carinus). It is unfortunate that the pot they were found in has been lost, as that might have supplied more information about what period they were deposited. There are a few plausible options to consider.

The coins could have been brought back as a souvenir group from Egypt by a Grand Tourist or by someone, perhaps a soldier, transiting through the Suez Canal. Souvenirs of this sort were fairly common and would have been reasonably cheap to buy locally in Egypt. After this they may have been put into a pot as a foundation deposit for a house in Fetter Lane at some point in the 1800s and were then found in 1908 during further works.

The coins could have been collected together in antiquity and deposited together during the Roman occupation of London (Londinium) after AD 50. From the dates of the coins themselves, this would have to have been after AD 284 when Londinium was a thriving Roman city. But why would this have happened? It is possible that these coins were collected together by a traveller or trader coming to London at this period. We know that the population of Londinium contained many foreigners who arrived during this time so the city was quite well connected to the rest of the Roman world. Perhaps these were kept as a memento of home or travels, or deposited for safe-keeping or as an offering for a safe journey to London.

Another intriguing proposition is that during the 3rd century AD there was a monetary crisis across the Roman Empire and at the turn of the century Roman coinage was reformed. At this point, local coinages ceased, leaving only the official Roman imperial mints producing coins. In Alexandria minting ceased in AD 297, shortly before the official reforms. It is possible that the coins were gathered together and brought westwards to fill gaps in the available currency, officially or unofficially. Or simply that when these coins became defunct they were gathered together to be used as a source of metal or kept by people thinking that one day they could use them again. However, there is no contemporary, corroborating evidence for these proposals other than the fact that there was a monetary crisis and a coinage reform.

Without any further context for the Fetter Lane hoard it is, for the moment at least, likely to remain an intriguing puzzle. By collecting together further evidence across the country, I hope to build up a picture of what kinds of coins arrived in ancient times and which arrived more recently.

Image of the Fetter Lane hoard at the British Museum. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

Image of the Fetter Lane hoard at the British Museum. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

The Fetter Lane hoard is currently on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Citi Money Gallery is supported by Citi.

Further reading:

FD Ringrose (1911) ‘Finds of Alexandrian Coins in London’ The Numismatic Chronicle (4th series) vol. 11, pp. 357–8

Filed under: British Museum, coins and medals, Collection, Money Gallery, Research, , , , , , ,

Spicy stories: the case of a clove boat model

Charlotte Dixon, Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student, British Museum and University of Southampton

 Model boat made from threaded cloves before conservation, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm. British Museum As1972,Q.1944


Model boat made from threaded cloves before conservation, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm. British Museum As1972,Q.1944

Since closure of the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange, the exhibited objects, including a model boat made from hundreds of dried cloves, have been returned to storage. However, out of sight does not mean out of mind…

The world of clove models is a mysterious one: little is known about these exciting, unique and strongly scented objects. This leaves us with questions such as what are they, where did they come from, when and why? Very little was known about the British Museum’s clove boat model before it was displayed, including its origins. Research was thus carried out to start to piece together information, but many questions are still unanswered. Intrigued by these objects research continues and you are invited to be a part of it!

Through this blog I will highlight what we currently know about these models before moving on to explore what we are yet to learn and, importantly, how you can help.

Clove boat model on display at the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange curated by Dr Sarah Longair, open from November 2014 to May 2015. (Photo: David Agar, British Museum)

Clove boat model on display at the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange curated by Dr Sarah Longair, open from November 2014 to May 2015.

What were they for?

It can be suggested clove models would have been made as souvenirs. Research has shown it was not just model boats that were made from cloves but other items such as a horse and cart, baskets, and even a tea cup were produced in the Molucca Islands in Indonesia.

So what do we know about the British Museum model?

This model can be identified as a kora kora, an Indonesian boat used for trade and warfare, and is thought to broadly date between the 18th and 20th centuries. Further evidence for the origins of the model can be seen in the materials used, as cloves are native to the Moluccas in Indonesia, also known as the Spice Islands.

Using examples of other models in museums, such as Kew Gardens and the Ashmolean in the UK, Tropenmuseum in Holland and the Kunstkamera in Russia for example, we can start to build up a broader picture of the art of clove model making. However, there are still many unanswered questions such as when did this practice start, how many were made, who were they for and how many exist today?

Image of Indonesian boats, including a kora kora being paddled in the centre from Edmond Paris Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens, 1845.

Image of Indonesian boats, including a kora kora being paddled in the centre. From Edmond Paris, Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens, 1845.

Benefits of social media

Despite these unanswered questions, a blog post by Verena Kotonski, Conservator for Organic Artefacts, invited readers to help determine the positioning of clove figures on the model which sparked international interest. The responses have been very insightful and revealed clove boat models in private collections in the UK and Australia, confirmed one of the models had been collected as a souvenir and encouraged the only known collector of clove boat models, Loed van Bussel, to get in touch and share images of his fleet with us. In addition, a current website shows some clove models are still being made today on Ambon Island in the Moluccas.

The British Museum clove boat model was clearly not a one off specimen; there are various models of boats, as well as other objects, in existence in museums and private collections internationally. However, these evidences are still few and far between.

Torsos of drummers positioned on the roof of the model after conservation. This image was used in Verena’s blog post inviting reader’s to share information. (Photo: Verena Kotonski, British Museum)

Torsos of drummers positioned on the roof of the model after conservation. This image was used in Verena’s blog post inviting reader’s to share information. (Photo: Verena Kotonski, British Museum)

Can you help?

Do you own a clove boat model or know someone who does? If so, do you know anything about the model and how it came to be in your possession? Or perhaps you have seen such models in a museum that has not been mentioned or in a shop window or auction house. If you have any information about clove boat models please do get in touch by emailing cd405@soton.ac.uk or cdixon@britishmuseum.org. With your help we can start to understand how many models like this really are out there which may, in turn, help us understand this particular form of craft and trade.

Further research: a world of model boats

Whilst I am fascinated by clove boat models my research as a doctoral student is not wholly concerned with these objects. I am instead using a whole range of model boats from the Indian Ocean, from East Africa through to Western Australia, to see what we can learn from them in terms of boat building, maritime cultures and collecting. Working collaboratively with the British Museum and University of Southampton I get the opportunity to go behind the scenes and explore museum collections and have been fortunate enough to see many weird, wonderful and intricately crafted boat models. Through my research I hope to promote the use of boat models for research and display, including those made from cloves.

Researching other model boats in the stores at the British Museum. (Photo: Imogen Laing, British Museum)

Researching other model boats in the stores at the British Museum. (Photo: Imogen Laing, British Museum)

My thanks go to Dr Sarah Longair, curator of Connecting continents, and Verena Kotonski for their continued help and enthusiasm during and after the exhibition. Thank you also to Imogen Laing, Museum Assistant in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, for access to the model and to my supervisors Dr JD Hill, Dr Lucy Blue and Dr Helen Farr for their continued support.

Charlotte’s research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, 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

Af1979,01.5963

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, , , , , , , , ,

Magna Carta, Bloomsbury and the British Museum

Lloyd de Beer, Curator of Late Medieval Europe, British Museum

Last month we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. It is not often that people collectively stop to remember the creation and sealing of a document from the early 13th century, but this one (or four to be precise) is special, and its specialness has grown exponentially since its creation. It is a document which quickly became a symbol, enduring as a touchstone and inspiring many throughout its history. You can sometimes find it lurking in surprising places.

Each morning on my walk to work I pass through Bloomsbury Square, and most days I think about the people who have lived in and around the area. Usually, and with no specific focus, I let my eyes and mind drift across the buildings to the east and the west, but one morning on this walk I noticed properly for the first time a bronze sculpture at the north end of the square. I wondered why this figure faced away from the small park, staring down Bedford Street, so I moved in closer to inspect.

Reverse of the sculpture, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Lloyd DeBeer)

Reverse of the sculpture, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Lloyd de Beer)

Before looking at his face I could tell from behind that this individual was dressed in a very grand style, seated on an ornate double columned throne with a large cushion. As I moved around him it was clear that he was presented as a Roman, clad in imperial garb, a single foot outstretched and teetering on the end of the stone base. It was only when I looked closer at the large rolled up scroll, held at an angle towards the viewer on the ground, between his hand and knee, that I saw something familiar. Dangling in mid-air was the great seal of King John (r. 1199–1216). This man holds a copy of Magna Carta. But why?

Charles James Fox, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Bob Speel)

Charles James Fox, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Bob Speel)

The bronze figure was made in 1810 and shows Charles James Fox, post mortem, who was previously the leader of the Whig party. It was commissioned through subscription by his friends and sculpted by Sir Richard Westmacott, famous at the British Museum for making The Progress of Civilisation, the pediment sculptures situated above the main entrance under which several million people pass annually. In 1809, a year before beginning the Fox sculpture, Westmacott had finished and erected at the opposite end of Bedford Street, a sculpture of Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, long standing friend and political ally of Charles James Fox. Two politicians, two friends, cast in bronze and linked eye to eye for eternity.

Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, Russell Square. (Photo: Lloyd DeBeer)

Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, Russell Square. (Photo: Lloyd de Beer)

What I found interesting as I learnt more about this sculpture was how Magna Carta was invoked symbolically through the authentic use of the king’s seal. In some ways this sculpture is an early form of the Gothic Revival rolled up in the presentation of a classical ideal. A document can only tell us so much, but when connected to the enthroned image of the king, hey presto, the figure is transformed and holds in his hand a copy of Magna Carta. He is therefore by proxy invested with the authority of the people. This was not a paltry copy of the seal but an exacting replica of the object both in size and style, which the sculptor must surely have studied with his own eyes. In this instance the medieval image of the king, the classical style of the sculpture and the modern man all sit side by side, collectively telling us about the personality of the individual.

Wenceslas Hollar print of the seal of King John. British Museum 1856,0712.791

Wenceslas Hollar print of the seal of King John, c. 1677 AD, 307 x 194 mm. British Museum 1856,0712.791

Close up of the seal of King John from the Fox sculpture. (Photo: Lloyd DeBeer)

Close up of the seal of King John from the Fox sculpture. (Photo: Lloyd de Beer)

More recently when wandering through the Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art exhibition I came across a small Greek bronze of Zeus which looked so similar to the statue of Charles James Fox that the likeness struck me immediately. The Zeus figure was acquired by the Museum in 1865, long after the completion of the Fox sculpture and I have since learned that Westmacott surely based his design for the body of Fox on classical sculptures of seated philosophers such as Epicurus. However Westmacott had a long standing relationship with the British Museum, going as far back as 1805 with debates on how to show the Townley collection.

Bronze figure of Zeus. British Museum 1865,0103.36

Bronze figure of Zeus, 1st–2nd century AD, height 236 mm. British Museum 1865,0103.36  

There is also an early record for one of his visits in the Museum archives, dated 18th February 1820. Given his involvement and taste for the classical it is impossible that he was not inspired by the collections of the British Museum, even if there was not an exact source of inspiration for the Fox sculpture. But where did Westmacott see the medieval seal?

Archival register with Richard Westmacott record at the very bottom.

Archival register with Richard Westmacott record at the very bottom.

Seal matrices, impressions, casts and facsimiles were part of a long-standing antiquarian interest in the past. Seals were attached to documents and documents were interesting so therefore antiquarians became interested in seals. Testament to this is the fact that some of the earliest medieval acquisitions at the British Museum were seal matrices. Amongst them is the seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter, one of the barons who rebelled against King John and was crucial to the formation of Magna Carta.

Seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter. British Museum 1841,0624.1

Seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter, 1213–1219 AD, diam. 73.5 mm. British Museum 1841,0624.1

Before the library officially separated from the Museum in 1973 to become the British Library, the Bloomsbury site which Westmacott visited held the many thousands of seal impressions now housed at St Pancras, including those of King John. It is tantalising to think that Westmacott, who spent a great deal of time thinking about the importance of classical sculpture, might also have spent just a little bit of time at the British Museum connecting it to a medieval past and a modern future.

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

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, , , , , , , , , , ,

Understanding art in religion

Robert Bracey, curator, British Museum

Blog01_544

The term ‘religion’ covers a diverse range of thoughts and beliefs. Some people understand their religion to prohibit all acts of violence, even to the smallest animal, while others believe their religion compels them to go to war. For some people religion is central to their identity and infuses every aspect of their life while for others it is something that relates to a particular place on a certain day. Religion’s diversity makes it hard to define though we all feel we recognise religiosity when we see it.

Over two days in June this year, a group of staff from the British Museum and guests took on the problem of trying to define religion and think about how religion affects, or is affected, by the sort of objects that make up the British Museum’s collection. This seminar took place as part of the Empires of Faith research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project is about comparing religious objects from different cultures in the first millennium AD. This is a hugely important period for the religions we know today. Christianity and Islam both began in the first millennium, and the beliefs and rituals of many other religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Buddhism) took the form we recognise today at this time.

Blog 03_544

It is very easy to let preconceptions get in the way of thinking about big ideas like religion. To help the members of the research team break out of their comfort zone we invited five guests with very different expertise to speak about the topics. Averil Cameron (University of Oxford) is well-known for her work on Byzantine history. Matthew Canepa (University of Minnesota) is an art historian and expert on the Sasanian world (ancient Iran). Simon Coleman (University of Toronto) is an anthropologist and an expert on pilgrimage. Bruce Lincoln (University of Chicago) works on the history of religions. Joan Pau Rubies (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) studies the history of European missionaries. Such a diverse range of expertise helped push everybody to think in new ways.

Blog 02_544

This wasn’t a conventional seminar with formal lectures. Instead, it was a discussion, sometimes a debate, about ideas that could shape the project. So, although the project team will write lots of research over its course, there will be no book of the seminar. The participants agreed instead to let their ideas and discussion be ‘sketched’; a new concept for most of us. The artist Clarice Holt sat quietly in the corner while we talked at, argued and harangued each other. Clarice prepared eighteen sketches of the meeting, encapsulating different points that were raised during the discussion. You can see the full sketches in the slideshow at the end of this post.

Not often is one’s mind stretched so far and in so many captivating directions. I hope very much that the images I created for the Empires of Faith Project will allow a wider range of people access to what is a vibrant and relevant area of historical research, and to gain insights into this weird and wonderful area.

Clarice’s reflections on the seminar.

The first day of the seminar was spent trying to find a way of defining religion. One of the disagreements was about whether a single definition of religion was useful or if what was, or was not, religious had to be defined for each historical period. The single definition makes sense to us because we live in a world where there are sharp divides between the religious and non-religious (or secular). Some people, and some places, and often certain days are ‘for’ religion but in the past religion was part of everyday life. People saw the world as constantly shaped by magical or divine forces beyond their control. Thinking ourselves back into that perspective is very hard and that made these days very useful for the project as a whole.

Blog 04_544

The second day was about objects and what they tell us about religion. One topic that was discussed was the ambiguity of images. The Empires of Faith team is very interested in how the same image can represent different gods in different places. So, for example, an image of the Greek god Hercules found in modern Pakistan would probably represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, or in Iran it could be the divine being Verethragna. What did the people who made the images, or used them, think about the relationships between these different gods?

Blog 05_544

The two days were tiring but enlightening. Everyone came away with plenty to think about and some more questions that the project will try to answer in the future. Can objects shape what you believe? Can they be more important than doctrines and scripture? Does a sacred object possess some intrinsic quality that sets it apart, or does sacredness only exist in our perceptions?
Traditionally the study of religion in the ancient world has focused on what people wrote about regarding their beliefs or practices. The Empires of Faith project is seeking to balance that by looking at how visual culture and religious artefacts relate to religion. It feels appropriate that the thinking from our first seminar was recorded not as a series of written articles but as a set of images.

Click on one of the images below to view as a slideshow

More about the Empires of Faith project on the British Museum website.

Filed under: Empires of Faith, , , , , , , , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16,382 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

French artist Edgar Degas died #onthisday in 1917. Today we’ll feature works that showcase his radical approach to framing subjects, and his subtle handling of form and tone. This vivid oil sketch from 1876–1877 depicts a repeated motif in Degas’ work – the Parisian ballet. He captured both performances and behind-the-scenes moments in his paintings and sketches, often using vantage points that give a fly-on-the-wall impression to his work. Degas worked rapidly but precisely – mirroring the movements of the dancers he portrayed – and this work is completed in thinned-down oil paint so that his quick brushstrokes could dry quickly.
#Degas #sketch #oilpainting #Paris #ballet Our #SunkenCities exhibition is the first at the British Museum on underwater archaeology. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. 
At the mouth of the Nile, the city of Thonis-Heracleion flourished as the main entry point into Egypt. Underwater excavations have found a large harbour, numerous ships and anchors, proving this was an international port. This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through Thonis and Naukratis. A copy was found in the main Egyptian temple in each port. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis. 
Learn more about the connections between the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition - until 30 November. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about it. 
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. On loan from National Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were thriving cities long before the foundation of the great port of Alexandria in 331 BC. Finds suggest that they were still inhabited into the AD 700s. The cities’ disappearance was caused by gradual subsidence into the sea – much like Venice today – coupled with earthquakes and tidal waves. This triggered a phenomenon known as land ‘liquefaction’, when the ground turns into liquid. 
This reconstruction shows what the port of Thonis-Heracleion could have looked like, dominated by the Temple of Amun-Gereb. Follow the link in our bio to book your tickets to our #SunkenCities exhibition. © Yann Bernard. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. Recent underwater excavations at the mouth of the Nile in Abukir Bay, Egypt, have revealed two ancient cities, perfectly preserved beneath the sea. Our #SunkenCities exhibition tells of the extraordinary rediscovery of the international port Thonis-Heracleion, and the city of Canopus, famed for their temples which attracted religious devotees from Egypt and beyond. 
Since 1996, underwater investigation using state-of-the-art technology has uncovered spectacular objects, including colossal statues, religious offerings and ancient ships. The finds shed new light on the interaction between ancient Egypt and the Greek world at a crucial period in their history, from the arrival of Greeks in Egypt around 650 BC, to the reign of the Greco-Macedonian Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt (51–30 BC). With only a fraction of these sites explored so far, annual excavations are continuing to uncover the cities’ long-hidden secrets. 
This 2,000-year-old bust depicts Neilos, the Nile river god. Neilos appealed to Egyptians and Greeks alike – he was the Greek version of Hapy, the Egyptian personification of the annual Nile flood that brought prosperity and fertility to the land. This bust was once mounted into a large decorative shield and adorned a temple in the ancient Egyptian city of Canopus. It was discovered by underwater archaeologists at the base of the wall on which it once hung. 
Follow the link in our bio to find out more about our unmissable exhibition. 
Bust of Neilos. Canopus, AD 100–200. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. This astonishingly detailed miniature altarpiece has been photographed by @micahfoundaquarter. Made in 1511 in the Netherlands, it’s only 25cm tall but contains incredibly intricate carvings that show Christian religious scenes in triptych form (in three parts). Aside from the masterful craftsmanship, this object is notable for its use of both Gothic and Renaissance stylings. It offers an insight into the spread of ideas and styles into northern Europe from the birthplace of the Renaissance, Italy.
Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum
#carving #Gothic #Renaissance #Netherlands #detail This photo by @ozemile captures the pensive expression of Marsyas, a figure from Roman and Greek mythology. Marsyas was a satyr, male companions of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (Roman: Bacchus). Among other things they were associated with playing the aulos, an ancient type of wind instrument. In this Roman statue, Marsyas is portrayed making the fateful decision to pick up the pipes that had been invented and discarded by the goddess Athena. Later, he accepted a musical challenge against Apollo’s lyre (a small harp-like instrument). Unfortunately for Marsyas, he lost, and suffered a grisly demise for daring to challenge a god!
Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum
#Roman #statue #Greek #sculpture #mythology
%d bloggers like this: