Over the last year I’ve read several books from the British Museum’s Objects in Focus series. These are lovely little books that provide a bitesize history of significant objects in the Museum’s collection, often with interesting contextual information from when the object was created and when it was discovered. There’s also often information about conservation techniques and how new technologies are increasing our understanding of archaeological and historical objects. They are also the perfect length for a once a week commute. I can read a whole one in one day.
As I’ve been somewhat lax in blogging, rather than do a post for each book, I’ve collected them here.
Lindow Man is the preserved remains of a man found in a bog in Cheshire. Over 2000 years old, these remains are the best preserved from Iron Age Britain. The book covers the discovery and excavation of the remains and gives insight into what has been learnt from them. The man died a violent death but it is not know if it was murder, sacrifice or execution and speculation abounds.
The Standard of Ur
Unearthed in excavations in the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq) the ‘Standard’ is a beautifully decorated hollow box. It’s called a Standard because of it’s positioning in the tomb. This is potentially misleading as it’s function is not known, if indeed it had a function beyond being art. One of the things that these Objects in Focus books allow is photos of the detail of the art that wouldn’t be possible seeing it on display in the Museum.
The Warren Cup
This is a luxury silver cup from the Roman Empire, dating to the first century AD. It depicts scenes of male lovers and, as well as being an astonishing piece of both art and artisanship, illustrates some of the social mores of Roman civilization. However, because of the nature of the scenes it languished unstudied and unappreciated. Even in 1999, when the Museum acquired the cup, there was a stir in the media.
Model of a Summer Camp
The Model of a Summer Camp is an intricate and detailed model carved from mammoth-ivory depicting a festival of the people of Sakha (north-east Russia). The model was created in the mid-19th century for the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867 where it was bought for the Museum. Although the model itself is not that old, the festival it depicts goes back centuries.
The discus thrower is probably one of the most recognisable classical statues and will be familiar to many people. The book talks about the impact of the eighteenth century vogue for restoring classical sculptures – by filling bits in, adding new pieces or by inadvertently combining parts from different statues. Apparently quite a lot of statues, including the Discobolus, have the wrong heads.
The Meroë Head of Augustus
This is a bronze portrait of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The book looks in detail at the metal casting techniques used and the skill with which such a life-like image could be produced. It also looks at how the production and distribution of these types of statue were used a means of demonstrating power amongst far-flung imperial territories.
The Portland Vase
A beautiful Roman glassware vase which was smashed by a drunken visitor to the Museum in 1845. It’s re-construction and subsequent re-reconstruction has enabled the understanding of how the vase was created using techniques in glass that had been lost for centuries.
A’a: a deity from Polynesia
A’a is a carved wooden deity with many other smaller figures attached to it. Like many ethnographic objects collected by missionaries in the British Empire, not much is known about what it really represents. However, study of the materials, artisanship and working with local people who still retain the skills and knowledge can illuminate some aspects of the society that created it.
Bronze Head from Ife
Thought to represent a King, the bronze head is from Nigeria. The book has an interesting look about the attitudes of European artists towards non-European art as primitive and how objects such as the Bronze Head challenged those regressive theories.