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Various Objects in Focus

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

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 Discobolus

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 Meroƫ 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.

Stonehenge

Welcome to my annual flurry of posts about books, where I realise I haven’t posted anything in months, have a few weeks of activity, and then get distracted by work and life again.

Anyway, recently I went to the World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum and, as I do, I bought a book. Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill is about how Stonehenge has been interpreted, treated and used throughout the centuries. From the romantic fiction dressed up as fact of Geoffrey of Monmouth to roughly about ten years ago, Hill traces the history of our efforts to understand the ancient monument.

Particularly interesting is how the druid theory has taken on a life of it’s own. Starting as an idea based on nothing much more than a mention of druids by Tacitus, supposedly an eye witness account, and an idea that Stonehenge dated from the Roman era, it has morphed into a movement that sees druids celebrating the summer solstice amongst the stones. We know nothing about the druids as they left no written records. Everything that is said about them is a modern invention. It might be right, but we don’t know.

Hill covers the ownership of Stonehenge, mostly private and the campaigns to acquire it for the nation. Some of those owners chose not to allow any archeaological digs, which given the damage some of the early ones did is probably a good thing. More recent digs have discovered burial mounds, human remains, and evidence of the age of Stonehenge and that it was built in at least three stages.

Stonehenge has inspired art, literature and poetry for centuries. Hill’s explores how it has been used as a canvas for the spiritual and philosophical ideas of the age. She shows how the more bloody, sacrificial interpretations are comnected to times of civil unrest.

This is a thoughtful and engaging book, well researched and constructed. Definitely worth reading.

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds is the exhibition book from the British Museum‘s Sunken Cities exhibition. I went to the exhibition in 2016 and picked up the book in the sale somewhat later. It has been my breakfast book for the past couple of weeks. The ones with lots of photos take much less time to read.

The cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion were important trading and cultural centres on the Nile delta for hundreds of years. Then a series of disasters between 200BC and 800AD meant they were lost to the sea. A combination of rising sea levels (1.5m over the last 2000 years), earthquakes and liquifaction caused the cities to sink. Liquifaction is what happens when you build massive stone temples and colossal statues on water-logged clay. Eventually, it’s just going to collapse. Over the last twenty years there has been extensive underwater archaeology off the coast of Egypt to recover them and to understand how the inhabitants of the cities lived.

The book is beautifully presented and is full of the most amazing photography of the underwater excavations and the objects in situ. There’s a good chapter on the techniques of underwater archaeology and the challenges of working in this way. The book explores the mentions of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion in historical writings and gives some political context for the time the cities were thriving. Much of the book is photographs of objects and explanations that put them in context. It’s essentially the text that is on the labels when you go to the exhibition. Which for me is good, because I don’t really read the labels when I go to exhibitions. I just wander around and look at things and absorb the visuals. Occasionally I might read about something that particularly catches my eye, but mostly I get bored with shuffling along reading every single label. In book form, it’s much more accessible for me. It was nice too, to read the book with the memories of the lighting and sensory effects of the exhibition.

The Gayer Anderson Cat

The Gayer Anderson Cat by Neal Spencer is part of the British Museum’s Objects in Focus series. So far, I’m enjoying the series immensely. There’s something very satisfying about a short book packed full of stuff I didn’t know before.

The Gayer Anderson Cat is the familiar, well-known cat statue from Ancient Egypt. I was surprised just how much isn’t known about the statue. It was acquired by Gayer Anderson, an art and antiquities collector in the early 20th century, who purchased objects from dealers on a regular basis but no information about where it came from or what it was for came with it. Thousands of cat statues were created in Ancient Egypt: there is evidence of workshops churning these things out and the book covers the excavations of some of these workshops. How they were used and who by is more mysterious. The Gayer Anderson Cat is the finest example of the type in existence so an assumption is made that it was paid for by someone wealthy and dedicated in a temple, but that is still conjecture.

New technology can tell us a lot about how it was made from the casting technique to the effects of the chemical composition of the metal. It can also reveal more detail on the surface of the object than is visible to the naked eye. The book goes into this in some detail. X-rays have revealed that there are repairs around the head and show how they were made.

These books are delightful. I like the intense focus on one small thing and what it tells us (or what we have projected on to it) about the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet

The Sutton Hoo Helmet is the second of the British Museum Objects in Focus series that I’ve read. There’s seven of them in the series so far.

It is an in-depth look at an iconic object in the Museum’s collection, and is another of my favourites. The Sutton Hoo helmet is a finely crafted helmet, both fully functional as armour and exquisitely decorated with gold and garnet.

The book talks about the excavation of Sutton Hoo, which was not straightforward, and the effort involved in discovering the treasure hoard. The helmet was in many tiny pieces and putting it together took years. Indeed the first attempt was later decided to be wrong and it had to be taken apart, carefully, and reconstructed again. Putting the helmet in context with similar finds across Northern Europe, based on the decoration and shape, gave the scientists a better idea of what it would have looked like.

And, of course, the best bit is the model of what it is now thought to have been, made by the Royal Armouries in the 1970s. This is also in the Museum alongside the reconstructed original.

Finally, the book covers the candidates for the occupant of the tomb. It is made difficult because dating the helmet can only give an approximate date within a hundred-year range. These are fascinating little books and I’ll be getting another one as soon as I next get to the Museum.

 

The Queen of the Night

The British Museum has a series of small books focusing on a single object. One of these is on my absolute favourite object in the museum, the Queen of the Night plaque, from Babylonia.

The Queen of the Night by Dominique Collon spends a little time talking about where and when the plaque was found and its history with the museum. Most of the little book (they’re only about 40 pages) discusses what the plaque might represent. Given the location of the find the Queen of the Night is likely to be a goddess and there is some debate whether she is Lillith, Ishtar or Ereshkigal. The symbolism seems to point to the latter, but there’s actually no way we ever know what the plaque really depicted or what it was for.

 

The plaque has microscopic traces of paint on it and so a reconstruction of what it would have originally have looked like has been created. Which is very cool. I imagine it would be quite striking in a dark temple lit only by candles.