British Museum blog

Dotting the ’i’s…


Silke Ackermann, former British Museum curator

It’s been a while since the last post about this project, as much has happened since Josefina wrote about her research trip to Israel. Not least is the fact that I have left the British Museum for a professorship at the University of Applied Sciences at Schwerin (Germany). I will stay involved in the project in various ways, but the British Museum will not.

However, I wanted to write a final post to report on our study of two instruments. One was the famous medieval astrolabe with Hebrew markings in the British Museum, that has already played a role in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects as object no. 62. The other is a later astrolabe in a private collection that had been deposited at the Museum by an owner keen to learn more about his object. This is a service that curatorial departments of the Museum regularly perform.

Josefina Rodríguez Arribas (left) and Silke Ackermann examining an astrolabe

Josefina Rodríguez Arribas (left) and Silke Ackermann examining an astrolabe

We were keen to get a better feel for the instruments; to examine the lettering, and explore the language used to see what it might tell us about the cultural circumstances in which they were made, and to take a close look at a much younger astrolabe, constructed at a time when the instrument had largely gone out of use.

An examination of the markings on both instruments made it quite clear that the language used is Judeo-Arabic in both cases, that is Arabic written in Hebrew letters. This is a phenomenon that can often be observed where Jewish people are living in an Arabic-speaking-community. They may well be speaking Arabic themselves, but will often use Hebrew letters for writing as this is the script they will have learnt. To indicate letters otherwise not used in Hebrew, certain letters will have special signs, normally dots.

Scientific analysis has shown the later piece to be made of rolled metal, a technique that was virtually unknown before the nineteenth century. This means it was made when the use of astrolabes had largely been superseded by other instruments.

When examining this instrument in detail we were struck by the fact that some of the numerals used to indicate values for – amongst other things – latitudes appeared to be full of mistakes. This, together with the late date of the instrument, might on first glance raise suspicion about its authenticity. However, the explanation appears to be a completely different one. One should note that these numerals are not written in ciphers, but in the so-called ‘alphanumerical system’, that is a system used in all Semitic languages (and also in Greek) where each letter of the alphabet also stands for a numerical value. Thus aleph stands for 1, bet for 2 etc. The numbers we had been looking at should have read ‘15’ – jod he in Hebrew. However, this letter combination looks identical to an abbreviation for the name of God – and would thus have been avoided by observant Jews. Other features of this particular instrument seem to indicate that it was carefully copied from an earlier source, probably by a scholar who was reading the medieval texts trying to understand or to teach how such an instrument might have worked.

I know I’m biased, but isn’t it truly amazing what we can learn just by looking at instruments?! Working in a museum one soon begins to realize that it is often objects that give us the cultural and social contexts that we cannot glean from written sources alone – and it is the combination of instruments and texts as the historical basis for our research that makes this project so exciting for me.

For more information about this project, visit the Warburg Institute website

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Looking for a time machine: astrolabes in medieval Jewish society


Josefina Rodríguez Arribas, researcher

Astrolabes are the medieval equivalent of the kind of handheld technology we’re all very accustomed to in the twenty-first century. They were instruments you could use to find your way, tell the time, track the movements of the sun and stars, and were – still are – complex, and incredibly impressive.

As the researcher working on a project with the British Museum and the Warburg Institute to study these fascinating objects, my recent trip to Israel was not the first time I’ve been there in search of medieval astronomy and astrology. However it was the first time I have returned with a database of about 140 Hebrew manuscripts dealing with astrolabes: a treasure trove of texts describing and explaining how to build or use these instruments in their almost two thousand years of history. In other words, texts written mostly in Hebrew and a few in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic with Hebrew script) between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries by Jews from around the world (astrolabes remained in use until the nineteenth century in Islamic countries).

These manuscripts are not all physically in Israel – most of them are in libraries and private collections around the world, as are the few surviving Jewish instruments. However, the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem hosts the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, in which we can look for and read microfilms of practically all the Hebrew manuscripts in the public and private collections of the world.

Comparing manuscripts

Comparing manuscripts

An amazing resource, and very convenient. I can sit in the manuscripts reading room, in the basement of the National Library in Jerusalem, and let my eyes go from a Sephardic script of the thirteenth century to an Askenazi of the fifteenth or a Byzantine of the sixteenth century, all of them explaining how an astrolabe works.

These texts were written and copied by Jews spread over three continents, in countries and cities so close or so distant as Vienna, Istanbul, Egypt, Yemen, Lisbon, Baghdad, Mantua, Benevento, Syracuse, Senegal, and more. Most of them were also copied many times throughout the centuries, some in years as decisive for the history of the world or the history of the Jews as the year 1453 (the fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands) or the year 1492 (edict of expulsion of Jews from Spain), when many codices and manuscripts were destroyed or lost for many reasons.

These handwritten texts are like a time machine encapsulating in their parchment, paper, ink, writing, binding, and list of owners, information about the authors and the readers, the Jewish communities where they were produced and the patrons who paid for them. So the transcription, translation, and study of these texts is going to provide us with decisive information about the degree of scientific knowledge and familiarity with certain scientific instruments of many Jewish communities from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and even later.

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Don’t forget to look up! ☝🏼 The triangular feature above the columns of the Museum’s main entrance is called a pediment. Originally it had a bright blue background and the statues were all painted white. 
The sculptures in the pediment show the development of ‘mankind’ in eight stages – a very old-fashioned idea now, but it was designed and built in the 1850s. The left side shows the creation of man as he emerges from a rock as an ignorant being. He meets the next character, the Angel of Enlightenment who is holding the Lamp of Knowledge. From the lamp, man learns basic skills such as cultivating land and taming animals.

The next step in the progress of civilisation is for man to expand his knowledge and understanding. The following eight figures represent the subjects he must learn to do this – architecture and sculpture, painting and science, geometry and drama, and music and poetry. The final human figure, on the right, represents ‘educated man’. Learn more about the Museum’s architecture and its fascinating history in our new blog – follow the link in our bio! We’d love to hear what you think. 258 years ago we opened our doors to the public for the first time! The British Museum is the world’s oldest national public museum, founded in 1753. It was created to be free to all ‘studious and curious persons’ and it’s still free today, but a few things have changed…

Did you know that the @natural_history_museum used to be part of the British Museum? The Museum’s founder Sir Hans Sloane had collected a vast number of natural history specimens, and these were part of the Museum’s collection for over a hundred years. In the 1880s, with space in Bloomsbury at a premium, it was agreed that these collections should move to a new site in South Kensington.

This photograph by Frederick York shows a mastodon skeleton on display here in Bloomsbury, before it moved to South Kensington in the 1880s.

Explore more of the Museum’s history on our new blog – follow the link in our bio and let us know what you think! The British Museum opened to the public #onthisday in 1759, the first national public museum in the world! 🎉

The Museum was founded on the death of Sir Hans Sloane, who bequeathed his collection of 71,000 objects to the nation. The British Museum Act gained royal assent in June 1753 (which makes us older than the USA!). The original collection featured 1,125 ‘things relating to the customs of ancient times’, 5,447 insects, a herbarium (a collection of dried plants), 23,000 coins and medals and 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts.

This photograph of the front of the Museum was taken in 1857 by Roger Fenton, the Museum’s first official photographer.

To mark this anniversary, the Museum is launching a blog where you can find all kinds of interesting articles – things you didn’t know about the Museum, curators’ insights, behind-the-scenes stories and more. Follow the link in our bio – we’d love to know what you think! In the early 1830s, following the success of ‘Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji’, #Hokusai worked to produce several follow-on print series. These featured waterfalls, bridges, and the flower series depicted in both large and small sizes. Hokusai probably composed this design without seeing the waterfall or referring to an existing image. He was free to use his imagination, and produced a strikingly idiosyncratic print that contrasts the marbled currents at the top with the perpendicular drop of the falls. Three travellers warm saké (rice wine) as they enjoy the view.
Our upcoming exhibition will explore Hokusai’s iconic work, and allow you to learn more about his enigmatic life. The exhibition opens on 25 May 2017 – learn more and buy tickets by following the link in our bio.
The exhibition is supported by Mitsubishi Corporation.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Amida waterfall, deep beyond the Kiso highway. Colour woodblock, 1833. The Tōyō Bunko, Tokyo. On display 7 July – 13 August 2017.
#Hokusai #waterfall #Japan #JapaneseArt #print #nature #landscape Our #Hokusai exhibition will feature stunning works – from dramatic landscapes to exquisite depictions of birds and flowers, like this bullfinch. He worked tirelessly to capture what he called the ‘form of things’ and to show how they relate to one another. Hokusai has depicted a male bullfinch, distinguished by its pink marking from cheek to throat. The bird and flower stand out in relief against the background of deep Prussian blue (a colour that had only recently been invented, used to great effect by Hokusai).
The exhibition ‘Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave’ will open on 25 May 2017. With many of the works coming especially from Japan, it’s a rare opportunity to see the artist’s work on display in the UK. Follow the link in our bio for more information and to book tickets! 
Join us for a #FacebookLive broadcast later today at 17.30 GMT and ask your questions to our Hokusai curator Tim Clark! 
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Weeping cherry and bullfinch. Colour woodblock, 1834. On display 7 July – 13 August 2017.
#Hokusai #Japan #JapaneseArt #print #bird #nature #cherry 🌊 Hokusai’s most famous print, known as ‘The Great Wave’, will be one of the highlight works in our upcoming #Hokusai exhibition (25 May – 13 August) . It was created when the artist was in his early seventies and was one of a series – ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ – which celebrated the sacred mountain with views from different seasons and locations. Hokusai increasingly identified with Mount Fuji as a source of long life, even immortality.

The exhibition ‘Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave’ will feature sublime prints and paintings by one of Japan’s greatest artists. Follow the link in our bio for more information and to book tickets!

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquired with the assistance of the @artfunduk 
#Hokusai #Japan #GreatWave #MountFuji #JapaneseArt #Japaneseprints #seascape #nature #wave #sea #mountain #🌊
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