British Museum blog

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, , , , ,

Virtual reality: how the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre created a virtual Bronze Age roundhouse

Lizzie Edwards and Juno Rae co-manage the learning programme for the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, British Museum

It’s the Monday after the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre’s (SDDC) virtual reality weekend and we’re reflecting on the process of developing a virtual reality experience, which puts 3D scans of two British Museum objects from our Bronze Age collection, and one from an item of Treasure that we hope to acquire, into the context of a virtual Bronze Age roundhouse. It’s been a really exciting project to work on, and lots of people have contributed – so we want to share the process behind making it happen.

Samsung virtual reality weekend event, 8 August 2015, British Museum. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

Samsung virtual reality weekend event, 8 August 2015, British Museum. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

The SDDC at the British Museum was created in 2009 in partnership with Samsung to provide a state-of-the-art technological hub for children and young people to learn about and interact with the Museum’s collection through school and family sessions. The Museum’s work with Samsung ensures that it remains at the forefront of digital learning, and when Samsung launched its Gear VR headsets we were eager to explore how virtual reality technologies could be used to engage a new generation with British Museum objects. When you put on a Samsung Gear VR headset you feel like you are in a virtual world. When you look up with the headset on, within the virtual world you also look up. You can also ‘walk’ forward and backwards, using a touch pad on the side of the headset. It is a mesmerising experience.

To explore the potential of virtual reality we decided to develop a bespoke experience of a Bronze Age roundhouse, which could be included across the SDDC’s programme for families and schools. We identified the Bronze Age for our virtual reality experience, because it presented a number of opportunities. Firstly, the Museum already has 3D scans available of some of our Bronze Age collection, and finds reported as Treasure, created by the MicroPasts project. MicroPasts is a groundbreaking project that creates open data sources of scanned objects, and crowd sources ‘photo-masking’ to create 3D versions of them. Second, prehistory is a statutory requirement as part of the National Curriculum for primary schools, but we know that teachers sometimes find this subject difficult to teach. The difficultly experienced by teachers is mirrored by families too. We spoke with Dr Neil Wilkin, Curator of the Bronze Age Collection at the Museum, and together defined the potential values of virtual environments for exploring this period with our schools and families audience.

Interior of virtual reality Bronze Age roundhouse. (© Soluis Group Limited)

Interior of virtual reality Bronze Age roundhouse. (© Soluis Group Limited)

Virtual environments present an opportunity to address misconceptions about prehistory head on, and this period is particularly difficult to grasp for our younger visitors. For example, a virtual Bronze Age experience allows you to convey in a visual way that at this time people had developed complex settlement practices, that they advanced technologies for their purposes, like developing methods to manufacture bronze, and that they had talented craftspeople who created beautiful jewellery. Virtual environments also allow you to present the mysteries and multiple interpretations of objects in a visual way. Questions around the function, purpose and possible ritual practices associated with Bronze Age objects can be presented to the visitor in context, close up and in 3D. Across our SDDC learning programme we try to convey that interpretations of objects are never fixed – they develop and change as new research is undertaken. We often show that multiple interpretations and varied significances for one object can exist at the same time, but 3D virtual environments make conveying this much easier.

To create our virtual reality roundhouse, we recruited Soluis Group Limited, who are experts in creating virtual environments. We chose three fascinating objects from those that had been scanned in the MicroPasts project to be interpreted in our virtual Bronze Age roundhouse – the Woolaston gold bracelet, a Sussex loop bracelet and a large dirk (a short dagger). The three objects are linked by the mystery that they share – there is no certain interpretation of how each was used, or if it had ritual significance.

Developing the experience was a collaborative process. The Museum worked closely with the virtual reality developers to ensure that the Bronze Age roundhouse depicted in our virtual reality experience was based on the latest curatorial research in this area. For this process, two students, Lydia Woolway and Emily Glynn-Farrell, assisted Neil in compiling a research document about Bronze Age settlements and roundhouses. This document included the fact that many roundhouses across Britain have been found with doorways facing in the same direction, seemingly in line with the sun’s path through the sky. Archaeologist Mike Parker-Pearson in particular has suggested that light and dark, and the alignment of roundhouses, had ritual significance to Bronze Age Britons. We were keen to incorporate this into our virtual reality roundhouse. The experience also contains audio content, which Neil recorded in the SDDC – turning it into a sound recording studio for an afternoon and using our green screen as a backdrop to get the best sound quality possible. We were delighted with the experience that was created, and the virtual reality weekend was testament to its success.

Dr Neil Wilkin recording audio for the virtual reality experience. (Photo: Lizzie Edwards)

Dr Neil Wilkin recording audio for the virtual reality experience. (Photo: Lizzie Edwards)

Today, we’re looking at visitor feedback from the event and considering how we can integrate their comments into our digital learning programme. But having been in the Great Court all weekend, talking to visitors and seeing their excitement at engaging with this experience, we’re delighted with what we’ve created, and how much our visitors have enjoyed it!

Thanks are due to everyone who has been involved in this project, and our amazing team of SDDC facilitators and volunteers who helped out over the weekend.

The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre is sponsored by Samsung

Filed under: British Museum, Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, ,

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, , , , , , , , ,

The Sudanese lyre: an object with many voices

By David Francis, Interpretation Officer

Of all the objects I’ve worked with in my eight years as an interpretation officer at the British Museum, the Sudanese lyre is perhaps the most intriguing. Made in northern Sudan, probably in the late19th century, it would have been played by a male musician at weddings and harvest festivals as part of a small band. It may also have been used in zār ceremonies – healing rituals involving spirit possession that are still practised in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia today.

Just as fascinating as the actual instrument are the coins, beads, shells and, as yet, unidentified objects that are attached to the lyre. In a sense, the Sudanese lyre is both a single object and an assemblage of many objects each with their own story to tell. In this blog I talk with some of the curators at the British Museum and the Royal Armouries in Leeds to identify what these objects are, and speculate on why they may have been attached to the lyre.

Sudanese lyre, probably late 19th century. British Museum

Sudanese lyre, probably late 19th century. British Museum

Detail showing the objects attached to the lyre which include coins, beads, shells and some (as yet) unidentified objects.

Detail showing the objects attached to the lyre which include coins, beads, shells and some (as yet) unidentified objects.

Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum

DF: Chris why do we think the lyre player attached these objects to this instrument?

CS: They may have been given to the musician as gifts, or payment for his services. Many of the objects attached to the lyre are currency. Obviously we have the Turkish and British coins, but bead work in Africa was also used as a means of exchange. Millefiori beads – meaning ‘thousand flowers’ in Italian – were first mass produced in Venice and then the rest of Europe for this purpose. Cowrie shells were also cultivated on vast rafts in the Maldives and came to Sudan to be used as currency through Indian Ocean trade.

DF: The objects come from a wide range of places then, what’s the significance of this?

CS: For centuries Sudan has been a hub for the movement of people, goods and ideas. Port Sudan, in particular, is an important link in the Indian Ocean trade network, as well as being located on the pilgrim route to Mecca. For much of the 19th century, Sudan was also under imperial rule. From 1821 to 1885, Sudan was controlled by Ottoman Egypt and then with the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, Britain had an increasing interest in the region. The objects attached to the lyre reflect this history of trade and imperial ambition.

Two millefiori beads attached to the lyre.

Two millefiori beads attached to the lyre.

Ottoman coins

Vesta Curtis, Curator of Middle Eastern coins, British Museum

DF: The vast majority of coins attached to the lyre are from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. I’ve counted over one hundred hanging from the frame. Can you tell me what’s written on them?

VC: The coins are indeed Ottoman and were minted in in Egypt and Constantinople or, as it’s known now, Istanbul. They each have the names of the Sultans minted on them in the form of their tughra – a kind of imperial monogram. The inscription also contains the date indicating the start of their respective reigns. So we have the coins of Sultan Abdul Aziz with the date 1861 (AH 1277) and the coins of Sultan Abdul Hamid II with the date 1876 (AH 1293).

DF: Sudan was under Turkish-Egyptian rule at the time, yes?

VC: It was. It had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire since 1821. However, these were the last two Ottoman rulers of Sudan. In 1885 the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, fell to the forces of Muhammad Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi or ‘guided one’. This effectively ended Turkish-Egyptian rule in Sudan.

DF: The so-called Mahdi minted coins I believe, are there any attached to the lyre?

VC: We’ve found no coins attached to the lyre dating from his reign, or from the Anglo-Egyptian period which followed.

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Misr, AD 1861 (AH 1277)

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Misr, AD 1861 (AH 1277).

Lyre coin 7 (i)_JPG

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II, Misr, AD 1876 (AH 1293).

British coins

Tom Hockenhull, Curator of modern money, British Museum

DF: There are a couple of British coins attached to the lyre, can you tell me about them?

TH: The first one is a British halfpenny, dating to 1861. On one side you can see the image of Queen Victoria (r. 1837‒1901) with her distinctive ‘bun’ hairstyle. This was the new portrait of the queen, which had only been introduced onto coinage in the previous year. The second coin is more unusual. On one side is the British East India Company crest as well as an inscription reading ‘Island of Sumatra’, and the date 1804.

British halfpenny, 1861.

British halfpenny, 1861.

Trade token with British East India Company crest, probably 1830s.

Trade token with British East India Company crest, probably 1830s.

DF: Okay, so it’s a lot earlier than all the other coins attached to the lyre?

TH: The date is likely to be false. Although the coin has got a British East India Company crest, it is unlikely to have actually been issued by the British East India Company.

DF: So it’s a forgery?

TH: It’s not really a forgery as there was no original to forge. It was probably made by a company in Birmingham to meet a demand for trading tokens around Singapore. Stamford Raffles had established the city in 1819 as a trading outlet and merchants in the region would have needed a currency to use for trade. This token fulfilled that function.

DF: Could you hazard a guess at the date for this coin?

TH: I’d say at least 1830s, perhaps later.

The mystery object

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, Royal Armouries

DF: One of the objects – a small metal mechanism – is yet to be identified. There’s been a lot of speculation on social media that it could be the firing mechanism for a firearm. Is this a possibility?

JF: I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it isn’t! I can understand why people might think this was a firearm mechanism; there is a superficial resemblance to a percussion hammer, and maybe, if you squint, a trigger! However, neither are shaped or positioned on the mechanism like a real hammer or trigger, to actually enable the operator to use them for their intended purposes of cocking and firing the gun.

The mystery object.

The mystery object.

DF: What particular features mean that this object couldn’t be used as a firing mechanism?

JF: A real flintlock or percussion gun lock is far simpler than this. The short ribbed cylinder could theoretically be some sort of barrel, but is far too short to be functional. On the outside you have either a hollow pan for priming powder or a simple nipple to which you’d fit a cap, as on a cap gun.

This device has a round hollow feature that could conceivably function as a pan for priming powder, but no other features of a flintlock mechanism – and no nipple that you could fit a percussion cap to. Finally, the mechanism is totally the wrong shape for a gun lock.

DF: Could it perhaps be a toy or imitation gun?

JF: Cap guns had been invented as early as the 1870s and were usually made of cast metal rather than the forged iron typical of real firearms, so I did wonder if this might be a toy. Unfortunately, if anything, cap guns were even simpler than the real thing, and this object has lots of extra bells and whistles that again, would serve no function on a gun – real or otherwise.

The charms and the zār ceremony

Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum

DF: As well reflecting the various networks of trade and empire in 19th-century Sudan, there’s also a possibility that the objects attached to the lyre might have been used in the zār ceremony itself?

CS: Yes, many of the objects attached to the lyre, such as the prayer beads and Islamic amulets, have a religious function. The coins, beads and shells may have also have been attached to the lyre as charms to attract particular spirits. Zār spirits are believed to be invisible – in Sudan they’re referred to as ‘the red wind’. But they also take on specific human forms that have a special significance in Sudanese history. You get zār spirits that are Turkish officials, Ethiopian Christian priests, British engineers and enslaved Africans from the south to name but a few. These objects might have been attached to the lyre to appeal to these spirits.

DF: Can you tell me a little bit more about the zār ceremony itself?

CS: The zār ceremony is a healing ceremony closely associated with Islamic mysticism. Although it’s currently illegal in Sudan, it still occurs throughout the region today. Within the zār belief system, it’s thought that certain people, particularly married women, can become possessed by spirits. These spirits cause the possessed mental and physical discomfort, which conventional medicine can’t cure. Zār ceremonies are held to appease and in some sense celebrate these spirits. During a specific type of zār ceremony known as a zār tambura, lyres like this one are played to calm restless spirits and also put the patient into a rhythmic trance.

DF: Is the spirit exorcised during the ceremony?

CS: No, once a patient has been possessed the spirit will remain with them for the rest of their life. The ceremony is instead a means of allowing the sufferer to learn to cope with the spirit that has possessed them. During the trance phase of the ceremony the spirit manifests itself, becoming embodied in the movement and dance of the patient. The female leader of the ceremonies, known as a shayka, tries to identify the spirit and find out what it wants. She might give the patient clothing, or incense, or even alcohol if it was a Christian spirit, in order to appease it. The objects attached to the lyre come from many regions and could potentially appeal to a wide variety of spirits. They therefore might play a part in this process of spirit appeasement.

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

Filed under: Collection, , , , , ,

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, , , , ,

Spring cleaning with Dürer: conserving the Triumphal Arch

Lauren Buttle, candidate for a Masters of Art Conservation, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada

As a student placement in the Western Art on Paper Conservation Studio at the British Museum this summer, I was expecting a few objects to be placed on my workbench that would present some new and interesting challenges. I was not, however, expecting a 3.5 m x 3 m, 16th-century print collage.

As readers of Joanna Kosek’s previous article on this project will know, the task of unframing Albrect Dürer’s Triumphal Arch and transporting the work to the conservation studio was a major undertaking on its own. Now that the work is in the studio, the even trickier question arises: how do you clean the centre of such a large print? Unfortunately, as high-tech as the brand new studios here at the British Museum are, the option of having conservators suspended from the ceiling like ninjas, was not part of the design brief. A more practical option was designed by heads of department, Joanna Kosek and Caroline Barry, along with the conservation mounters.

To transport the print to the studio, a large tube was designed and created to gently roll up the Triumphal Arch. A secondary, smaller tube was then created to catch the print as it was partially unrolled onto the table. The surface of the print could then be cleaned in horizontal bands across the edge of the table and then rolled beneath the table surface onto the second roll in stages.

Diagram of surface cleaning set-up for Dürer’s Triumphal Arch

Diagram of the surface cleaning set-up for Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

 

Although the print has been behind glass for at least 30 years there is still some surface dirt. If dust and dirt were not removed at this early stage then any subsequent wet treatments would fix the dirt in the paper fibres. While the surface cleaning of the print continues, the team carefully documents all aspects of condition and structure of each sheet of paper: everything from tiny pinholes to large watermarks and embossings. This information helps to inform us of the history of the print and will come in very useful during the next stages of treatment. To do this, thin sheets of transparent polyester are placed over each of the 42 individual pages that make up the image, and all characteristics of the page are mapped using permanent markers and a key of symbols created specially for this project by conservator, Megumi Mizumura.

Conservators, Emma Webb (left) and Megumi Mizumura (right) mapping out damage to individual pages of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

Conservators Emma Webb (left) and Megumi Mizumura (right) mapping out damage to individual pages of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

Once the mapping is complete, the fun begins! The conservation team has been hard at work for several weeks now using a variety of different dry sponges, erasers and brushes to lift the surface dirt from the print, taking care to avoid all printed media. This means using magnification and a steady hand to carefully clean in between each printed letter… for 10 square-metres. Luckily for us summer students, the conservation team have been happy to let us step in and get involved.

Conservation student placements, Tom Bower (left), Carina Rosas (centre) and Lauren Buttle (right) surface-cleaning Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

Conservation student placements, Tom Bower (left), Carina Rosas (centre) and Lauren Buttle (right) surface-cleaning Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

The cleaning continues in the studio for now. Once this is complete, the next step will be to remove the soiled and degraded textile backing from the assembled pages. No doubt, there will be more exciting challenges to come!

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

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

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , ,

Indigenous Australia: an artist’s story

Abe Muriata, Girramay man and master basket weaver from North Queensland, writes on visiting the British Museum for the opening of the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation.

Muriata is renowned for making bicornual baskets, an elegant and structurally complex form that is unique to the region. His most recent basket, commissioned by the British Museum, is on display in the exhibition.

Abe Muriata, Bicornual basket, 2015. Abe Muriata is represented by the Girringun Aboriginal Arts Centre.

Abe Muriata, Bicornual basket, 2015. Abe Muriata is represented by the Girringun Aboriginal Arts Centre.

To start with, London, it’s a historical place. To be in a historical place like London would make any artist stop and wonder about how a place like this could possibly connect to me, my art or my culture. But it was in London that the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation was held.

An invitation and visit to this event became the highlight of my more than 15 years of basket weaving, of practising my culture and as an artist. Seeing my own work on display at the British Museum made me as proud as the day my first basket was displayed at the Queensland Art Gallery. It was not only an achievement for me but it was there for everyone to see. I’ve taken my work out of my cultural home, the home of my ancestors, and given it to the world.

Abe Muriata studying bicornual baskets in the British Museum store, 2015.

Abe Muriata studying bicornual baskets in the British Museum store, 2015.

In the back of my mind I had to keep telling myself this is London. The city of London itself was so spectacular that I marvelled at the sights, the history, the people and felt the energy. The ever-visible presence of an enduring monarchy fascinated me enough to forget its past dealing with our people and culture and to take in its grandeur. The purpose of my visit coincided with meeting the patron of the exhibition, none other than the royal man himself, HRH Prince Charles.

Abe Muriata and HRH Prince Charles during the opening reception of the exhibition. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

Abe Muriata and HRH Prince Charles during the opening reception of the exhibition. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

To have my work included in an exhibition of this calibre, I experienced recognition and respect for me and my culture. When I returned to Australia, wherever I went and whoever I met, people recognised me. I don’t have a Facebook account but people said to me, ‘you are all over Facebook’. I have also had acknowledgement at a Native Title Conference and at other meetings. My involvement in the exhibition has put more spotlight on our rainforest culture and my efforts and those of others to preserve it. This is important, because if you lose a single element of your weaving or of your artefact making or whatever part of your culture you engage with, it is an erosion that gradually washes away at the core of culture. So this spotlight on culture is a way of reminding you and me to help it endure in its fullest and purest form.

In the British Museum I saw my heritage surrounded by long-lost cultures and civilisations from all over the world. To think that my culture has endured so much longer than most can only make me more determined to pass on my culture to the generations following me. My dedication to my culture and the art I create is driven by the loss in the last 20 years or so of tribal elders and leaders whose knowledge may otherwise be lost if it is not celebrated, learned and enjoyed by our next generation.

Abe Muriata watches as British Museum Director Neil MacGregor accepts a gift from Peter Yu, Chair of the National Museum of Australia Indigenous Reference Group.

Abe Muriata watches as British Museum Director Neil MacGregor accepts a gift from Peter Yu, Chair of the National Museum of Australia Indigenous Reference Group.

I am an artist working with the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre and they have taken me from obscurity to the length and breadth of Australia’s galleries and museums, all the while showcasing this unique culture. All I had to do was to practise my culture and create my art as a traditional Girramay person. So being an artist at Girringun along with the Girramay Elders will ensure that a strong continuation is maintained.

Having seen the old objects of 150 years ago in the exhibition and archival collection at the British Museum, and then looking at my works, it really pleases me to see that there is little or no change in traditional object making, although in some areas modernisation brings our culture new ideas and contemporary forms. So, for me, another world has emerged alongside my ancient culture where traditional materials are complemented with contemporary methods and materials.

I am really looking ahead and striving to maintain and improve the status quo in all aspects of my art-making, cultural activities and responsibilities as a Traditional Owner and growing into an Elder role.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , ,

Indigenous Australian rock art: Injalak Hill, Gunbalanya

The artists from Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre, Gunbalanya, worked closely with the British Museum on the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. Here they write on the importance of rock art and its relevance to today’s visitors of West Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.

Injalak Arts is a unique centre based in the town of Gunbalanya. One of only two fully Indigenous-governed and continuously operating organisations in the town, it plays an important role within the community, functioning as a social hub, a charity and an enterprise that generates livelihoods for local people. The sale of arts and crafts to tourists is an important source of self-generated income for many people, and the Injalak Rock Art Tour developed by the Centre has enabled a fruitful cultural exchange with the Aboriginal people.

Gunbalanya lies at the limits of the Arnhem Plateau, the sandstone escarpment country at the heart of West Arnhem Land. This escarpment, and its outliers such as Injalak Hill in Gunbalanya, is one of the most important rock art areas in the world. It is from this rock art – as well as ceremonial body and object designs, and paintings on the walls of wet season bark shelters – that the art of the Injalak artists finds its origin.

Gabriel Maralngurra and Isaiah Nagurrgurrba are co-managers and founding members of Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre, as well as being widely exhibited artists.

Gabriel Maralngurra and Isaiah Nagurrgurrba are co-managers and founding members of Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre, as well as being widely exhibited artists.

Injalak Hill boasts extensive galleries, literally thousands of paintings scattered amongst the boulders and breathtaking views of floodplains and the famed Arnhem Land escarpment. Injalak Hill was a significant occupation site for the inhabitants of the region.

The paintings in the rock art galleries show continuous habitation over millennia, with images layered over and over one another. Carbon dating shows some are more than 15,000 years old.

Since the beginning of time the traditional owners of West Arnhem Land have used rock art as an important form of visual communication. Together with dance, music and oral stories, rock art has been used to express and pass down ancestral beliefs, traditions and laws regulating the life of the Kunwinjku people of the Northern Territory.

As well as being a form of visual communication, rock art was also made to document daily life. Hunting and harvesting of bush foods still plays an important part in the life of Aboriginal people (bininj), and revolves around the traditional calendar of six distinct seasons. For example, in bangkerreng (the late wet season) the dragonflies over the water tell people that the fish are fat and plentiful. Game and bush tucker are some of the most important subjects in rock art and this continues in the art of today.

X-ray style rock art depiction of a cooked barramundi, Injalak Hill.

X-ray style rock art depiction of a cooked barramundi, Injalak Hill.

Namarnkol, the barramundi, is a very important fish for bininj. Barramundi are found in the ocean, in floodwaters, and in freshwater billabongs, rivers and creeks. In the old days, people used to spear them with djalakirradj (three-pronged fish spears) and walabi (traditional triangular nets). Nowadays, they are caught with fishing lines and modern nets. You can see a bark painting of a barramundi in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation.

Bark painting of a barramundi, Gunbalanya, about 1961. British Museum Oc1961,02.1

Bark painting of a barramundi, Gunbalanya, about 1961. British Museum Oc1961,02.1

According to the Kunwinjku, Mimihs were the original spirit beings and taught Aboriginal people many of the skills they needed to survive in the bush along with ceremonies, dance and song. These spirits continue to live in rocks, trees and caves but are rarely seen by humans. They are frequently seen in the rock art of Arnhem Land as small, dynamic figures.

Mimih spirits hunting, Injalak Hill.

Mimih spirits hunting, Injalak Hill.

The Kunwinjku of West Arnhem Land, one of the longest continuing Indigenous cultures today, leave a lasting impact on all those who come into contact with them, whether it be through working with them, by visiting Injalak Hill or through the walls of an exhibition. From Gunbalanya to the British Museum in London, one can only hope that we are contributing towards keeping culture strong and sustainable for the generations to come.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

 Logistics partner IAG Cargo

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , ,

Stories of the past and present: Indigenous Australia

Tynan Waring, Indigenous Visitor Services Host at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, spent three weeks at the British Museum during the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation.

He writes on professional development, educating audiences on Indigenous Australia and holding stone tools used by his ancestors.

Tynan Waring, holding the family guide during a talk to primary school children in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, 2015.

Tynan Waring, holding the family guide during a talk to primary school children in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, 2015.

My name is Tynan Waring, and I am an Indigenous Visitor Services Host working for the National Museum of Australia (NMA), in Canberra, Australia’s capital city. I was lucky enough to be selected for a professional development opportunity at the British Museum and was flown to London to work for three weeks around the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. The exhibition resulted from a joint research project between the institutions and a version of the exhibition called Encounters, focusing on contact between Indigenous Australians and European visitors to our shores, is due to open at the NMA at the end of the year.

I had the honour and privilege to work in many different areas of the British Museum – visitor services, learning services, the Anthropology Library and adult programming. It really was remarkable, despite the vast differences in not only distance and location, but also the themes of the two institutions’ collections, just how similar Museums are. The problems faced by museums and collecting institutions seem universal and even the people working at them almost have doppelgangers, or at least foreign versions of themselves working at other museums.

I was working with the brilliant curatorial staff of the Oceanic collection and I was very fortunate to take a trip to the stores and see and hold some objects that will be displayed in the Encounters exhibition. Even more exciting than that, was the opportunity to connect with my past and my heritage. The British Museum has a vast collection of Indigenous material, even if not permanently displayed and I was able to find stone tools and ochre that my Awabakal ancestors had used on the beaches of the place I was born and raised.

In the Anthropology Library, with more than a little help from the supremely knowledgeable Jim Hamill (Curator, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas), I was able to find images of Awabakal men with ritual scarring I had never seen and a photograph of a man labelled Weymera ‘king’ of the Hunter River, at one point recognised by the European settlers as leader of my people. For a person whose heritage was only realised at the age of 14 after extensive research into family history, this provided a connection to my past and where my family has come from. Touching objects used by people I may be descended from, or who knew the people I am descended from, and seeing images of them was a very moving experience.

The Zugubal Dancers performing in the Museum’s Great Court, 2015. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

The Zugubal Dancers performing in the Museum’s Great Court, 2015. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

I had a very touching and educational visit, I learnt so much not just about the British Museum’s collection and storied history, but about museums in general, about collecting, about sense of self. I was there during the biannual Origins – Festival of First Nations. I helped to organise the Museum’s Indigenous Australia Friday night late event featuring Alick Tipoti’s Zugubal Dancers and it was wonderful to see Indigenous Australian culture so eagerly enjoyed and accepted.

This makes me very hopeful for the continuation of the partnership between the museums and I hope our exhibition at the NMA continues the illuminating look at the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their cultural items and how collections play a part in that story.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , , ,

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Here’s a #regram from @mrapachekat. Doesn’t this lion look majestic? The Museum’s Montague Place entrance is just as grand as the more-visited Main entrance on Great Russell Street. This part of the Museum contains the King Edward VII galleries, and the foundation stone was laid by the King in 1907. This side of the building was designed in the Roman style rather than the Greek Revival of Great Russell Street. It features numerous imperial references, including the coat of arms above the door, and sculptures of lions’ heads and crowns. The architect Sir John James Burnet was knighted for his work designing these galleries, and the building was opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1914 (Edward VII had died in 1910). #regram #repost #architecture #BritishMuseum #lion Another brilliant photo of the Museum’s Main entrance on Great Russell Street – this time by @violenceor. The perspective gives a good sense of the huge scale of the columns. The Museum has two rows of columns at the main entrance, with each being around 14 metres tall and 1.5 metres wide. Designer Sir Robert Smirke used 44 columns along the front elevation. This design of putting columns in front of an entrance is called a ‘portico’, and was used extensively in ancient Greek and Roman buildings. #regram #repost #architecture #neoclassical #BritishMuseum The Museum looks spectacular with a blue sky overhead – especially in this great shot by @whatrajwants. You can see the beautiful gold flashes shining in the sun. This triangular area above the columns is called a ‘pediment’, and was a common feature in ancient Greek architecture. The copying of classical designs was fashionable during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and was known as the Greek Revival. The sculptures in the pediment were designed in 1847 by Sir Richard Westmacott and installed in 1851. The pediment originally had a bright blue background, with the statues painted white. #regram #repost #architecture #neoclassical #sculpture #gold #BritishMuseum Concluding our short series of gold objects from the Museum’s collection is this group of items found in the Fishpool hoard. The hoard was buried in Nottinghamshire sometime during the War of the Roses (1455–1485), and contains some outstanding pieces of jewellery. 1,237 objects were found in this hoard in total. At the time it was deposited, its value would have been around £400, which is around £300,000 in today’s money! The variety of this collection of objects includes brilliant examples of fine craftsmanship. The turquoise ring in the centre was highly valued as it was believed that turquoise would protect the wearer from poisoning, drowning or falling off a horse.
#hoard #gold #jewellery #turquoise #treasure Continuing our exploration of the golden objects in the Museum, this amazing inlaid plaque is from 15th-century China. Lined with semi-precious stones, this piece would have formed part of a pair sewn into a robe. We can tell this belonged to an emperor of the Ming dynasty because only he would have been allowed to use items decorated with five-clawed dragons.
#Ming #gold #jewellery #China #BritishMuseum Our next trio of objects shows off some of the shimmering gold in the Museum’s collection. This stunning piece of jewellery comes from Egypt and was made around 600 BC. It was worn across the chest – this type of accessory is known as a ‘pectoral’. Popular throughout ancient Egypt, pectorals have been found from as early as 2600 BC. This example is made from gold and is inlaid with glass, showcasing the incredible level of craftsmanship in Egypt at the time, and asserting the status of the wearer. Falcons were important symbols in ancient Egypt – the god Horus took the form of a falcon.
#AncientEgypt #gold #jewellery #BritishMuseum
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