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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.