British Museum blog

Howzat! The 1868 Aboriginal Australian cricket tour of England

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

The first Australian cricket team to tour England was an all-Aboriginal side in 1868. Between May and October 1868, a group of 13 cricketers, mostly from the state of Victoria, played matches at various towns in England. Before or after the cricket game, they displayed their traditional skills in throwing and dodging spears, boomerangs and clubs. While these performances were popular with the public, the members of the Marylebone Cricket Club were initially reluctant to host the players at Lord’s as they deemed such traditional displays, like other novelty displays such as pony races, unfitting to take place on that ground. The cricket tour occurred not long after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species in 1859. William Tegetmeier (1816–1912), a poultry fancier and correspondent of Charles Darwin, went to see them play. He subsequently took their physical measurements, arranged for three of them, including Jungunjinuke, to be photographed as three different physical ‘types’ and displayed their weapons in a small museum in the offices of The Field magazine, a publication dedicated to those who shoot, fish and hunt way beyond the call of duty.

Jungunjinuke, or ‘Dick-a-Dick’ (as he was also known), quickly developed a reputation for his skill and dexterity in dodging cricket balls thrown at him, which he would deflect with his spear and club, only rarely being hit. During his time in England, he was noted not only for his cricketing skills, but also his style of fashionable dress, his Swiss clock and his ability to charm an audience. A club used by Jungunjinuke has remained in the UK since that tour and, from 1947, has been housed at the Marylebone Cricket Club. An old paper label stuck on the club is signed ‘GWG’, suggesting it passed through the hands of George W. Graham (1828–1886), the Sydney solicitor who was the co-promoter of the tour. The style of the club is typical of those from western Victoria, which are often referred to as ‘leangles’, used in fighting at close quarters. All members of the team returned to Australia, save for Bripumyarrumin (‘King Cole’) (d. 1868) who is buried in Meath Gardens in east London.

Jungunjinuke’s club from the 1868 Aboriginal cricket team. Western Victoria, about 1868. Marylebone Cricket Club. (on display until 2 August at the British Museum’s BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation).

Jungunjinuke’s club from the 1868 Aboriginal cricket team. Western Victoria, about 1868. Marylebone Cricket Club. (On display until 2 August at the British Museum’s BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation).

Until 9 July 2015, the club associated with Jungunjinuke was the only known artefact associated with the cricket tour known to have survived. What happened to the other artefacts used in demonstrations of skills? A chance find last week has uncovered many of them. During a visit to inspect the Australian collections at the  Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) last week to assist with redevelopment of their World Cultures Gallery, I came across a name and date associated with Aboriginal artefacts from the state of Victoria: W. R. Hayman 1868. Eureka!

William Reginald Hayman (1842–1899) was the manager of the Aboriginal team that toured England. He was the eldest son of Philip Charles Hayman, a doctor of Axminster, Devon. In 1858, Hayman emigrated to western Victoria, where most of the cricketers came from. As a key person in organising the tour, he came to England early in 1868 ahead of the cricketers to make arrangements for the tour. The team played 47 matches, the last one 15–17 October at The Oval, London. On 18 October, they left for what has been described as a ‘brief holiday’ in Devon. Some of the Aboriginal cricketers staged a display of traditional skills at Plymouth on 19 October. This included ‘native sports’ of throwing the spear and boomerang. The cricketers sailed from Plymouth on 26 October 1868.

Hayman did not sail on the ship with the cricketers. On 29 October, described as living at Oakhayes House, Woodbury (about 7 miles from Exeter, where his father lived), he donated 12 ‘native weapons’. They included 2 spears, 2 spearthrowers, 1 boomerang, 4 clubs and some firesticks. The objects have remained in the museum since then, but only now has their significance been uncovered.

The 1868 cricket tour of England has been included in a list of 100 defining moments in Australian history. To have identified these Aboriginal artefacts is an amazing discovery that adds tangible evidence to this historic event.

The  Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) is delighted to know they are the custodians of this significant collection.

Gaye Sculthorpe, British Museum, & Tony Eccles, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, with artefacts from 1868 tour found at Exeter Museum.

Gaye Sculthorpe, British Museum and Tony Eccles, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, with artefacts from 1868 tour found at Exeter Museum.

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, , , , , , ,

On wrestlers, rodents and rare discoveries

Celeste Farge, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

Bronze statue of an Apoxyomenos. Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture,Croatia. Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak

Bronze statue of an apoxyomenos. Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture, Croatia.
Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak.

Many of the objects in Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art have fascinating histories which, because they don’t form part of the essential narrative of the exhibition, are not mentioned in the labels and catalogue. For me, the most compelling is the story of the discovery of the bronze statue of an athlete, most probably a wrestler, and one of the star pieces of the exhibition generously lent by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia.

This statue is extremely rare, for very few life-size bronzes have in fact survived. Most were destroyed in late antiquity when they were valued more as scrap metal than as artworks and were melted down for other uses, such as in the manufacture of weapons and armour and the minting of coins. Occasionally a chance discovery, usually from the seabed, resurrects such masterpieces. This bronze statue, dating from around 300 BC, was found by a Belgian tourist diving off the coast of Croatia near the island of Lošinj.

The statue lying on the seabed where it was discovered © Mr Danijel Freka

The statue lying on the seabed where it was discovered. © Mr Danijel Freka

The statue being raised from the sea   © Ministry of Culture, Conservation Department Zagreb

The statue being raised from the sea. © Ministry of Culture, Conservation Department Zagreb

In a carefully planned operation, with additional expertise and financial support from the Oxford Maritime Trust, it was raised in 1999 after having been in the sea for more than 2000 years. The surrounding area was then searched for other finds by using a pneumatic suction pipe, metal detectors and a remote operated device complete with camera but, although some amphora fragments and part of an anchor were found, the only significant item recovered was the base of the statue. It seems, therefore, unlikely that this statue was from a shipwreck. It may perhaps have been thrown overboard to lighten the load when the ship carrying it ran into difficulty during a storm.

The statue needed six years of conservation work eradicating soluble salts and harmful chlorides, removing layers of maritime encrustations, consolidating cracks and breaks, and building an internal support, to restore it to the exceptional condition it is in today. Extensive research on the statue was conducted to gather information on matters concerning the production techniques and composition. The statue had been constructed using the indirect lost wax process and cast in seven separate parts – the head, torso, legs, arms and genitals. Various factors indicate that ancient Greek casting techniques had been used, such as the low lead content, and the skill of the craftsmen is demonstrated in the application of hundreds of small patches to repair casting flaws before the final chasing and polishing and in the precision of the joins.

Remnants of a mouse nest, including straw, fig seeds and cherry stones (with bite marks!), were found inside the left forearm of the statue. At some point after its manufacture, the statue must have toppled over (the weight-bearing leg had been weakened when the clay core in the mould shifted causing bubbles and an unequal thickness of the bronze) damaging the figure’s left sole and right calf, and it is through these areas that the mouse would have been able to crawl in and out. The organic material deposited by the mouse has been carbon dated and the oldest material was found to date from around 50 BC.

It was a thrilling moment when the statue arrived at the British Museum accompanied by a team of guards, conservators and art handlers. It travelled inside a purpose-built hexagonal cage, designed to allow the statue to be moved with ease particularly during conservation work, but also during transport and hoisting onto its plinth.

Known as the ‘apoxyomenos’, which literally means ‘the scraper’, the statue would originally have had in its hands a strigil – a metal implement used for scraping the oil, dust and dirt from the body after exercising and before bathing. Bizarrely, in antiquity this mixture was collected and used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. In fact, this gloop from the bodies of victorious athletes was especially prized for its healing properties. Statues, like this one, were erected in honour of prizewinning athletes but also as dedications to the gods, for it was believed that the victorious athletes had been favoured by them. Sanctuaries and gymnasia abounded with such statues ensuring the heroic status and, in a sense, immortality of the victors. Although the name of this athlete is no longer known, the fame of the statue lives on.

For more information, see http://www.h-r-z.hr/en/index.php/djelatnosti/konzerviranje-restauriranje/metal/222-hrvatski-apoksiomen

Last chance! Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display until 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer

Additional support

In memory of Melvin R Seiden

Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: photography and imaging

Ivor Kerslake, Photography and Imaging Manager, British Museum and Joanna Russell, Scientist, British Museum

Before any conservation treatment could commence, and with the Arch now out from behind its screen of glass for the first time in a generation, we were granted the opportunity to create a series of high-resolution images. The British Museum’s newly commissioned photographic studio was cleared for two days and Dürer’s masterpiece was expertly transported down the six flights of stairs and carefully unrolled in the main studio. Because of the fragility of the print we were unable to position the work vertically, which would have made our work considerably easier, so it was delicately unrolled on the floor. The challenge was then how to get high enough over the print to get it all within one shot. This was the first real test of the new facility. We decided to use a mobile extendable work platform (MEWP). Since the studio had been designed to enable access to and photography of large objects, we had sufficient space to manoeuvre.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Senior photographers, Kevin Lovelock and Saul Peckham used their skills to light the print to give an even and colour-balanced appearance, and also employed a raking light technique to highlight areas of special interest to both conservators and curators.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print verso (back) in raking light

The print verso (back) in raking light.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed '1515', the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed ‘1515’, the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

While the print was in the photographic studio, scientists Joanna Russell, Joanne Dyer and Antony Simpson took the opportunity to capture some detail shots using infrared and ultraviolet imaging.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Visible light is only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum – beyond the red end of the visible spectrum is infrared radiation, and beyond the violet end is ultraviolet light. This non-visible radiation can also be recorded in images, by using special lights, cameras and filters. These imaging techniques may tell us more about the materials or construction of an object or artwork, depending on the ways the materials interact with the different wavelengths of light.

The ink used for the print absorbs infrared radiation, so appears clearly in these images, and is likely to be a carbon-based ink. However, an ink inscription becomes invisible in the infrared image, showing it is made using a different type of ink, probably iron gall ink.

TA_Pic_ed2

Left: A visible image of a detail from the Arch. Right: An infrared reflectogram of the same detail. The words ‘The Gate of the Nobility’ do not appear in the infrared image.

Ultraviolet light causes some materials to luminesce, that is to give off visible light. The ultraviolet-induced luminescence from the paper has a yellower appearance in one area of the detail shown below. This reveals that the scene in the bottom left of this detail is printed on a separate piece of paper to the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

The information revealed from these images can tell us more about how the Triumphal Arch was made, and can help to further inform the process of conserving the print.

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson. To find out more, see the earlier blog post here.

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

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

Collecting Indigenous Australian art

Rachael Murphy, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

There should always be controversy in the air surrounding artists and makers, museums and objects and culture… It is this that keeps museums alive and relevant, part of an on-going dialogue and questioning as the past and the present collide and coalesce like a walk in wardrobe of old, deep memories and sparkling new acquisitions.

Judy Watson, artistic fellow

There is no need for me to explain the importance of the contemporary art in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation when Judy Watson, who has two prints on display in the show (2015,2004.3 and 2015,2004.4), does it so eloquently. The exhibition showcases some of the most striking work to come out of Australia in the last five years, as well as the breadth and diversity of art forms, from an installation by Tasmanian artist Julie Gough to a basket by Abe Muriata, a master weaver from rainforest Queensland. These pieces pose a range of opinions, statements or questions, contributing to the dialogues throughout the show. The reasons for collecting, commissioning and displaying these works are as diverse as the art forms themselves. It is only, perhaps, the artists’ ability to engage with the visitor, that provides some common ground.

Judy Watson at the British Museum in 2013. The paddle that she is drawing features in one of the prints she produced after this visit, see below. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judy Watson at the British Museum in 2013. The paddle that she is drawing features in one of the prints she produced after this visit, see below. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Watson, a Waanyi artist, who lives and works in Brisbane, first visited the British Museum and other museum collections in the UK at the end of 1995 and beginning of 1996, beginning a long relationship with UK institutions. She returned to the British Museum in 2013 as an artistic fellow on the research project Engaging Objects, a collaborative research project between the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University. After this trip Watson produced a series of prints, the holes in the land, which layer delicately etched drawings of Indigenous Australian objects in the British Museum collection over historical plans for the Museum’s building and showcases. Behind these silhouettes are bright, swirling colours, suggesting, perhaps, the blues, greens and yellows of the Australian landscape.

Judy Watson, The Holes in the Land 2, 2015.  (Courtesy of Judy Watson and Grahame Galleries + Editions. Photographer: Carl Warner)

Judy Watson, the holes in the land 2, 2015. 
(Courtesy of Judy Watson and Grahame Galleries + Editions. Photographer: Carl Warner)

Other contemporary works in the exhibition, such as Angela’s Torenbeek’s ghost net basket speak of events that take place far beyond the Museum walls. Ghost nets are fishing nets which have been detached from commercial vessels and drift in the ocean. Many wash up on islands in the Torres Strait, including on the beaches of Torenbeek’s home, on the island of Moa. Nets pose a significant hazard to marine life and weaving provides a way to recycle them. The plastic fibres are hard to weave, but resistant to damage and decomposition. There are parallels with Torenbeek’s own gentle persistence in educating people about ghost nets.

Ghost net basket, 2010. Mahnah Angela Torenbeek (Reproduced by permission of the artist on behalf of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery)

Mahnah Angela Torenbeek, Ghost net basket, 2010. 
(Reproduced by permission of the artist on behalf of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery)

The value of Torenbeek’s work does not lie only in the messages it conveys. The basket on display is small and shallow, its modest form made bold by the bright blue, green and red of the coarse synthetic fibres. Frayed white nets, trailing from tight stitches, evoke feathers, a material that has been used in the Torres Strait for (at the very least) hundreds of years. While many other artists in the Torres Strait and along the northern coastline of Australia weave with ghost nets, Torenbeek’s work stands out for this striking use of colour and form and playful use of materials. Her flair for innovation is apparent in every work, from small baskets to large scale sculptures. In 2012 she collaborated on a giant ghost net crocodile which sat at Bondi Beach in Sydney. More recently she has been using animal bone in her work. As Torenbeek modestly puts it: ‘I like to do something different’. It is a quality that makes her work compelling to collectors, both private and institutional.

The Museum considers many factors when acquiring contemporary works, not least that they complement and enrich existing collections. Private collectors may collect artworks for other reasons, which speak to their personal experiences, interests or aesthetic tastes. Despite this, there are often close parallels between public and private collections, suggesting that while there is no single definition for a good artwork, it is still an interesting question.

For an insight into the world of collecting Indigenous Australian art you can listen to some of the most esteemed collectors, advisors and dealers at the upcoming debate Collecting Indigenous Australian art, chaired by the renowned art dealer Rebecca Hossack, on Friday 03 July.

Thank you, as always to all of the artists and other groups and individuals across Australia who have contributed to this exhibition.

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, Event, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

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

Jonathan Taylor, Curator of cuneiform collections, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to know more?

A new, friendly introduction to cuneiform is now available:

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

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

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

Ancient beauty and modern lives

Richard B. Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford

It’s hard to walk past so many beautiful naked bodies in a dark room without thinking a bit about sex and love; and in an exhibition like Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, there’s always the tendency to play the mental game of trying to decide who you fancy most out of all the represented people. The display of male beauty in Greek art has had a huge impact on European culture, and sometimes on very intimate levels, even though the exact role of same-sex desire in ancient Greek society remains controversial. Ancient Greek art has been one of the ways in which LGBT people have recognised their presence in world history, and this capacity of art to help awareness of sexual identity has produced a wonderful continuing dialogue between ancient and modern works.

This struck me particularly when I was in front of the Belvedere Torso, on loan from the Vatican Museums, because it’s displayed next to some of the Museum’s own Michelangelo drawings. This stunning juxtaposition gives a vivid – almost physical sense – of Michelangelo’s deep engagement with classical art. In a culture where sodomites were consigned to hell, Michelangelo’s own attraction to male beauty found a passionate, if uneasy, resolution with his spirituality through classical philosophy and thought. He expressed this not only in his images of muscular male figures but also in poems such as this one of around 1549, which merges his desire for earthly beauty with his love for God:

My eyes, seeking beauty,
and my soul, seeking salvation,
have no other way to rise to heaven except by looking at beautiful things.
From the highest stars, a splendour come down
which draws desire to them,
and which here is called ‘Love’.
The noble heart has nothing to make it burn or love, or to guide it,
except a face as fair as those stars.

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm, W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Above: The Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm; W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Below: Michelangelo’s study of a reclining male nude inspired by the sculpture. Dark red chalk over some stylus underdrawing. Florentine, around 1511. 19.3 x 25.9 cm. British Museum, London 1926,1009.1

26-06-2015 17.40.07

Later, Michelangelo’s own ‘beautiful things’ became works through which gay identity was expressed, with the very 20th-century Benjamin Britten composing a song-cycle of the Renaissance artist’s sonnets. This was dedicated to his life-partner, the singer Peter Pears, and was first performed publicly by the two of them together in the early 1940s, when ‘homosexuality’ was illegal in Britain.

Among the first audiences for the song-cycle was the novelist E.M. Forster (1879–1970), for whom classical culture had also offered a sense of personal (humanist) salvation. In his novel Maurice, young men try to understand their desires for each other through images of Michelangelo’s works and reading Plato’s dialogues, eventually realising that ‘I have always been like the Greeks and didn’t know’ (chap. 11). The novel was written in 1914 and was dedicated ‘to a happier year’ when same-sex love would be regarded as equal. Significantly, a crucial scene of Maurice is set in the British Museum’s classical galleries and the adjacent Assyrian rooms, as Maurice and the gamekeeper Alec finally realise that they are in love, surrounded by ancient art. The novel was magnificently filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987, on location and (of course) in exactly the right galleries. The film concentrates on the Assyrian rooms, but the Greek sculpture of the Parthenon gallery had already featured in Merchant Ivory’s earlier film of Henry James’ Bostonians, also with a same-sex couple, Olive Chancellor and her beloved Verena Tarrant.

Love in the museum: Maurice and Alec bicker among the Assyrian sculptures and realise they love each other in James Ivory's Maurice (1987). Copyright Merchant Ivory Productions 1987

Love in the museum: Maurice and Alec bicker among the Assyrian sculptures and realise they love each other in James Ivory’s Maurice (1987). Photo: copyright Merchant Ivory Productions 1987

Maurice was filmed in the 1980s, the period of the now infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 that prohibited local authorities in England and Wales from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Attitudes in Britain are thankfully now very different, but I remember the 80s well as a time when it was easy for young people coming out to feel alone: history was almost unremittingly heterosexual, gay stereotypes were often mocking, and there was a general invisibility in culture. Michelangelo and Maurice were hugely reassuring. Memories of these feelings of cultural isolation helped shape a recent British Museum project on LGBT history, which I hoped would help LGBT people find themselves in world history. A long line of very different, interconnected works of art stretches back to those Greek statues, explaining and legitimising the diversity of human desire to modern generations.

Ideas of beauty and desire are culturally constructed in many different ways, but this particularly Greek vision of beauty can still have a personal impact. Standing in front of the hunky Belvedere Torso, I wonder how many people have come to understand their own hearts and identities through looking at these statues carved millennia earlier. The statues don’t even have to be male or naked. Defining beauty also includes one which was much loved by Forster – the (clothed) goddess Demeter from Knidos. The statue features as a symbolic motif in his novel The Longest Journey, and she is in many ways a mythic archetype for his famous mature female characters, such as Mrs Wilcox and Mrs Moore, who embody an instinctive wisdom that sees beyond social conventions and recognises (in the words of the second Mrs Wilcox) ‘that people are far more different than is pretended’ (Howards End, chap. 44).

Marble cult statue of Demeter, goddess of nature. Greek, carved around 360 BC. H. 152 cm. British Museum, London 1859,1226.26

Marble cult statue of Demeter, goddess of nature. Greek, carved around 360 BC. H. 152 cm. British Museum, London 1859,1226.26

Looking at ancient beauty can perhaps encourage our world to adopt a more inclusive attitude towards human diversity – which is still urgently needed now when militant groups are not only overturning ancient statues but also executing gay men by throwing them from buildings. While they are destroying, and more people are dying, Forster’s Demeter sits in the British Museum as a benign and inspiring presence, waiting patiently for that ‘happier year’. It’s now much closer than it was across the world, but not quite with us yet.

Further reading:

B. Parkinson, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World (British Museum Press 2013).

M. Forster, Maurice (Penguin Classics 2005)

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display from 26 March to 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer

Additional support

In memory of Melvin R Seiden

Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

Weapons of resistance: Jandamarra, a hero of the Bunuba people

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

Across Australia, each of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have historical figures that live on in the memory of people today. For the Bunuba people of the east Kimberley region of north-west Australia, Jandamarra (once referred to by Europeans as ‘ Pigeon’, 1873–1897) is considered a hero of the resistance.

In the 1890s the Kimberley region was a violent place. Bunuba territory was invaded by Europeans looking for land for cattle. Aboriginal people living there resisted these incursions, occasionally attacking individuals. The European settlers called on the police for greater protection. Jandamarra was a young man who first worked for a cattle station owner and then as an Aboriginal tracker for the police. He helped to capture some of his own Bunuba people, and later turned against the settlers and decided to fight in defence of his people and their lands. After killing his colleague Constable Richardson, Jandamarra led a resistance movement for two and a half years in the rugged gorges around the King Leopold Ranges. Eventually he was found by an Aboriginal tracker and shot and killed near Tunnel Creek in 1897. After his death, his head was removed and sent to England. The location of his skull is unknown today. Bunuba people would like to see it returned to their country, and in recent years have been working with historians and other experts to trace and find it.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation brings together what is believed to be Jandamarra’s boomerang, on loan from Museum Victoria, Melbourne, and a spear collected by Inspector Ord, the policeman who led the hunt for Jandamarra. The boomerang is finely decorated with red and white ochre. The spear has a head made of green glass, showing the innovative use of new materials by Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region in the 1890s. Inspector Ord donated the spear and other materials to the British Museum in 1899. He had collected these from various Aboriginal camps during the course of his work. This is the first time that the spear and boomerang (normally housed in London and Melbourne) have been displayed together.

(2)Boomerang  An inscription attributes the boomerang to resistance leader Jandamarra. It has been suggested that he abandoned it after a battle with police.  Kimberley region, Western Australia, around 1890s. Wood, pigment. L. 52.5 cm Museum Victoria, Melbourne X 49848 Courtesy Museum Victoria

Boomerang, made of wood and decorated with pigment. An inscription attributes the boomerang to resistance leader Jandamarra. It has been suggested that he abandoned it after a battle with police. Kimberley region, Western Australia, c.1890s. L. 52.5 cm
Museum Victoria, Melbourne X 49848. Photo: Courtesy Museum Victoria

Wooden spear with a point of green glass, acquired by Inspector C.H. Ord. Kimberley region, Western Australia, around 1890s. L. 1.52 m. British Museum, London Oc1899,-461 Donated by C.H. Ord.

Wooden spear with a point of green glass. Kimberley region, Western Australia, c.1890s. L. 1.52 m. British Museum, London Oc1899,-461. Donated by C.H. Ord.

I am delighted that a Bunuba leader, June Oscar, has contributed to the multimedia guide for the exhibition and participated in opening events. She visited the Museum in 2014 and viewed the objects collected by Inspector Ord. While she has described the sadness in seeing these objects and thinking how they came to be in the possession of Inspector Ord, she also notes that these objects have the potential to tell a truth that should be told to the world. This is a view shared by many Indigenous Australians who have participated in the research project behind the exhibition and whose views were recorded by colleagues at the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia.

Over the years, the descendants of Inspector Ord and Bunuba people today have discussed these historical events and noted the importance of recognising the difficult past. Bunuba people have commemorated Jandamarra’s story in a number of creative ways, including a new work composed for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

As June Oscar says, Jandamarra’s story lives on in current generations of Bunuba people who continue to visit these places and keep his story alive.

‘As far as we’re concerned, Jandamarra lives on. His spirit lives on, his people still live on. His spirit is carried in this country by people who speak the same language as he did. For as long as we’re alive, the children will know the story of Jandamarra.’

‘Alongside… the tragic history of the Bunuba people is the pride that we take in Jandamarra standing up for country, defending country, and displaying his skills, his talents, his knowledge of organising his warriors, and the way he evaded the police for so long.’

You can read more about June’s views in this transcript of her lecture at the opening of the exhibition. The audio recording of this speech will be available here soon.

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

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

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

What lies beneath: drapery and the suggested form

As a new painting by Alison Watt goes on display at the British Museum, the acclaimed artist talks about the inspiration behind the painting…

From the moment I first heard Ian Jenkins, curator of Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art talk about the Parthenon sculptures, my understanding of them was enriched. And it was as much about the way he spoke as what he said. As with the sculptures themselves, there was an unmistakable rhythm to his words – I was struck by his use of language, its musicality, as he talked of the sculptures in terms of their flow, their movements. Listening to him, it was as though a pulse ran through the stone itself.

I clearly remember my response to these representations in marble, many years ago when I first saw them. It was visceral. Even now, they remain startling to me but ultimately, elusive. They are so full of drama and atmosphere and one of the things that makes them so compelling is their ability to trigger the senses. It’s no wonder that, since their creation, they have been influencing artists throughout history.

In the show it seemed entirely natural to be drawn to the sculpture of Iris, the messenger goddess as a channel for my ideas. She’s a virtuoso performance by her creator; a simply astonishing portrayal of the human form. But Iris is not only a piece about the contingency of the human body. She’s also a piece about fabric. Within this thinly-veiled form, there is an element which goes beyond nature, something which does not exist in real life, and that is the element of fantasy. What we feel when we look at her is as important as what we see.

Marble figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon. Greek (Athens), about 438–432 BC. H. 135 cm. British Museum 1816,0610.96

Marble figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon. Greek (Athens), about 438–432 BC. H. 135 cm. British Museum 1816,0610.96

Here, visual reality has been subtly improved and intensified, the fabric itself fetishized, and so it transcends its proper function. The sensual is highlighted with an emphasis on tactile sensation. We also become much more aware of the less tangible features of cloth, such as how it might sound as it moves. And that’s why the use of fabric in this piece is so powerful and makes our response to it so complex. It somehow encapsulates a sense of movement which feels perpetual. As in a fold itself, there is a simultaneous display of two positions. It at once hides and discloses; like a fold there is always a promise to reveal.

My fascination with depictions of drapery began with a childhood visit to The National Gallery and its exquisite collection of old master paintings. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to portrayals of fabric: how it falls, how it moves as the body moves and how it often seems to have its own secret interior. Fabric has been a powerful vehicle for my imagination and the memory of it often conjures sensations that are difficult to describe.

Although my paintings may appear to be devoid of a human presence, there is a suggestion of the body – a body which is absent but implied. While I no longer paint directly from the human figure, I’m still fascinated by it. Indeed I once spent an intense period of ten years working every day with a life model in order to immerse myself in the process of looking. Spending time with another human being in such intimate conditions has the effect of heightening consciousness. A small shift in weight in an observed body becomes a monumental act. As the brain edits what the eye is seeing, it begins to abstract what is keenly observed. The geometric balance, the spacial order so important to the success of a painting comes from this study. I have never looked at the human body in the same way since.

With Iris, the parts that have been discreetly draped reappear in the cloth itself, which clings to her thighs and torso like a second skin. There is no bulk in this drapery which only enhances the erotic tension of the piece. Of course the erotic relies on suggestion and this work is all the more alluring because of what it might reveal. The cloth appears almost like a membrane, an intimate barrier between the body and what exists outside of it. In places it melds with the naked form, tantalisingly emphasising its shape. Therefore the properties of both fabric and body are captured simultaneously, drawing our attention to the behaviour of both.

Iris is a sculpture which is both beautiful and disconcerting. In its now fragmentary condition we are left without its extent. It seems to have no end, and indeed goes on in the imagination. The use of drapery all at once reveals her, conceals her and frames her but it cannot contain her.

Over the years, I’ve moved away from painting directly from life. I found myself looking for other means of representing the human form – ways to suggest the body and its movements. So now the memory of a piece of fabric becomes a metaphor for the body. The severing of drapery from its original narrative gives it added potency, while isolating it from its surroundings heightens our awareness of what is missing – the human presence.

Alison Watt, Himation, 2015. Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 71.1 cm.  Alison’s painting will be on display at the British Museum in Room 18a until 5 September 2015.

Alison Watt, Himation, 2015. Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 71.1 cm. Alison’s painting will be on display at the British Museum in Room 18a until 5 September 2015.

One of the reasons my paintings take their current form is because there are certain proportions that are satisfying and which make sense to me, and that has come from years of studying the human figure – whether it be in a piece of art, often a painting or sculpture, the written word, or even the experience of intimacy. For sure, all of these influences affect how I make my paintings. But above all, painting is an emotional experience for me because it’s about what lies inside, what you can only sense, feel or imagine.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
 until 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer

Additional support

In memory of Melvin R Seiden

Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

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

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , ,

A Rothschild Renaissance: reimagining the Waddesdon Bequest

Dora Thornton, Curator of the Waddesdon Bequest and Renaissance Europe, British Museum

For the last three years, I have been working on the redisplay of the Waddesdon Bequest, the superb collection of medieval and Renaissance treasures which Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (1839–1898), MP and member of the famous banking family, left to the British Museum on his death. Named after Waddesdon Manor, Ferdinand’s fairy-tale château in Buckinghamshire where he housed the collection, the Bequest is a rare survival, but it’s also an outstanding donation motivated by a strong sense of public purpose. Ferdinand was one of the greatest collectors of the 19th century, but saw himself as an agent in the process by which private collections moved inexorably into the public domain. ‘Collectors may deplore the fact’, he wrote, ‘but it should be a source of gratification to the public that most fine works of art drift slowly but surely into museums and public galleries. In private hands they can afford delight only to a small number of persons.’

Thinking of his words and the intention behind them, we have moved the collection, one of the most important in the British Museum, to one of the grandest rooms on the ground floor. This historic space, previously known as the Middle Room, was part of a suite of neo-classical rooms designed by Robert Smirke in the 1820s, which included the King’s Library (refurbished in 2003 as the Room 1: Enlightenment Gallery) and the Manuscripts Saloon (which since 2014 has been called Room 2: Collecting the world).

Nautilus shell cup on a silver-gilt claw foot and mounts. Made in Nuremberg, Germany, late 16th century. H. 26.1 cm. British Museum  WB.114

Nautilus shell cup on a silver-gilt claw foot and mounts. Made in Nuremberg, Germany, late 16th century. H. 26.1 cm. British Museum WB.114

Both rooms introduce visitors to the riches and breadth of the British Museum’s collection, which will now be perfectly complemented by the remarkable quality, wonder and variety of the Waddesdon Bequest. The new gallery has been designed by renowned architects Stanton Williams, whose design unifies the extraordinarily varied objects by creating a layout in keeping with the proportions and grids of Smirke’s original interior. It expresses the quality and character of a family collection in which objects have been selected not only for their aesthetic appeal, but with a strong sense of their historical importance.

Formed on the fast-growing art markets of Paris, Vienna and London, the Bequest represents a snapshot in the self-fashioning of a new European dynasty of the 19th century. As a collection, the Bequest is a kind of museum in itself: a treasury of intricate, precious objects ranging from virtuoso goldsmiths’ work to cups carved from amber and rock crystal; ‘curiosities’ formed from exotic shells, nuts, ostrich eggs and a ‘griffin claw’; microcarvings in boxwood; and masterpieces of Renaissance glass, ceramic and enamel. It was modelled on the type of art collections formed by princes and nobles in the courts of Renaissance Europe, known as ‘Kunstkammern’. The Rothschilds used such collections – those in Dresden, Munich, Kassel, Prague and Vienna – as blueprints for their own.

Griffin claw cup of buffalo horn and silver-gilt. Made in Mainz, Germany, mid 16th century. H. 38.8 cm. British Museum WB.102

Griffin claw cup of buffalo horn and silver-gilt. Made in Mainz, Germany, mid 16th century.  H. 38.8 cm. British Museum WB.102

The new display contains some of the most impressive works in the British Museum’s European collection. Outstanding objects include the Holy Thorn Reliquary, a work of art shown in its own case, which has been described by Director Neil MacGregor as ‘a single-object museum’, the superbly intricate boxwood prayer nuts, and the fantastic vases that once belonged to the famous English collector Horace Walpole.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary. One of the most important Christian relics, this precious object of gold, enamel and gems is formed around a humble thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. Made in Paris, around 1400. H. 30.5 cm. British Museum WB.67.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary. This precious jewel of gold, enamel and gems is formed around one of the most important of Christian relics, a humble thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. Made in Paris, around 1400. H. 30.5 cm. British Museum WB.67

Boxwood prayer nut with the Adoration of the Magi carved inside the lid and in the lower half, the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ. Made in the Northern Netherlands, around 1510–1525. L. (open) 9.7 cm. British Museum WB.238

Boxwood prayer nut with the Adoration of the Magi carved inside the lid and in the lower half, the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ. Made in the Northern Netherlands, around 1510–1525. L. (open) 9.7 cm. British Museum WB.238

Pair of maiolica vases illustrating the story of Hercules and his wife Deianira (left) and river gods among a lush landscape (right). Made in Urbino, Italy, 1561–1571. The brass-gilt mounts were added later, in Paris before 1765. H. 56 cm. British Museum WB.61a and 61b

Pair of maiolica vases that once belonged to Horace Walpole. The vases illustrate the story of Hercules and his wife Deianira (left) and river gods among a lush landscape (right). Made in Urbino, Italy, 1561–1571. The brass-gilt mounts were added later, in Paris before 1765. H. 56 cm. British Museum WB.61a and 61b

My work on the new gallery – and on the book which informs it – is structured around a series of research questions: what was the status and significance of each piece at the time it was made, and why does it look the way it does? How was it handled, used and displayed by its original owners? What kind of afterlife did it have in moving from one collection or culture to another, and what was to be its role in Baron Ferdinand’s New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor? How might one interpret this collection for the 21st century?

The gallery is a contemporary visual expression of a collaborative exploration of these questions. Much of my research has been practical, and has grown organically from the experience of handling the pieces repeatedly. The aim of the gallery, its digital programme and accompanying book, A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest, is to encourage close looking, and to both reconnect the Bequest with Waddesdon Manor and relocate it within the history of the British Museum – so the collection can be fully appreciated in its proper intellectual and historical context. As Baron Ferdinand understood, this collection was formerly the private province of princes. With the help of The Rothschild Foundation, we have aimed to create a bespoke gallery of quality which will be free to the public and permanent: a treasury for everyone to enjoy.

The new Waddesdon Bequest gallery (Room 2a), funded by The Rothschild Foundation, is now open. You can find out more about the gallery and the Bequest here.

You can also find out about some of the highlight objects in more detail on Tumblr.

This blog post contains excerpts from an article that appears in the British Museum Magazine, and also from the accompanying book A Rothschild Renaissance: The Waddesdon Bequest, available from the British Museum shop online. The Magazine, published three times a year, provides fascinating insights into the work of the Museum and is available as one of the many benefits of Membership. In addition to the Magazine, Members receive free entry to all exhibitions, exclusive events and special Museum offers and discounts. Get closer to the collection by becoming a Member today.

Filed under: Collection, , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , , , , ,

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

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