With the end of my final university semester imminent, it was with little hesitation that I caught the sleeper train 3 days post-dissertation hand in and woke up in Euston station; purposely close to the British Museum. Having joined the the Museums Association and arriving early in the city, the main destination of our journey was to make it to the new Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition, already sold out for entire first month (I’d recommend queuing for on-the-day tickets at 9am), and lauded with numerous 5-star reviews, our high expectations weren’t disappointed.
Arranged around the conceived form of a wealthier villa, each of the items occupy their original space, as you move gradually through the atrium, split off into a cubiculum, and stroll through the hortus, exploring other rooms and their functions in the process. Recently completing a semester’s course in Roman Interior Design, it was certainly satisfying to recognise with fresh interest particular features.
Distinguishing the styles and themes of the wall paintings might have instilled me with a little confidence for the upcoming exam, however I wasn’t quite prepared for the disconcertingly moving objects; a carbonised cradle, personal treasure hoards desperately assembled in the face of certain destruction, and the bleakest and most recognisable relics of the volcano-stricken towns, the casts of the victims. Placed near the end of the exhibition as a sobering reminder of the fate of the various owners of the objects, it was a poignant ending to an exhibition which was appreciative of the invaluable insight Pompeii and Herculaneum offer us, and simultaneously quick to highlight tragic origins.
Set to travel back up north 2 days later, I had a chance to return the museum and revisit my personal highlights. The next time I make the trip down to London, there are full sections of the BM floor plan I’ve yet to explore in detail, but the areas I always aim to see…
Caryatid from the Erechtheion
”Do you know why these ladies look sad? It is because they are crying for their sister, all alone in London.”
As related to me by a gallery assistant at the Akropolis Museum in Athens last year, I was anticipating visiting the ‘lonely sister’ with a new feeling of wistfulness…and now have seen the other five Erechtheion caryatids in their home city, she certainly does strike a rather sad chord. That said, the beautifully carved peplos and braided hair are features that can really only be appreciated on this caryatid thanks to her preservation. Although her companions, who remained up on the Akropolis for years after Lord Elgin removed this singular column, have suffered substantial weathering, an ongoing restoration project (http://optics.org/news/2/3/8) is under way in the Akropolis museum itself, using a customised laser system to remove thick layers of pollution.
Ancient Iran (Room 52)
3000 BC - AD 651 is a vast time span of history to cover for an equally vast geographical area; the Persian Empire alone at it’s height reaching Egypt in the west and India in the east. Encountering Ancient Iran for the past two years in honours classes, the country is high on my list of graduate-life destinations (alongside Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey…) and during a university class visit towards the end of last year, we were fortunate to be guided around this particular room by senior curator for the pre-Islamic collections from Iran and Arabia, Dr St John Simpson. For a relatively small gallery, the scope of objects on display here is incredible, immediately evident as you face the Cyrus Cylinder (above, top right) upon entry.
So commonly misreferred as the ‘first charter of human rights’, this clay foundation cylinder is entirely in-keeping with the traditional practice of the region, of stating reforms and announcing justification for self-declared rule; an excellent early example of the Achaemenid practice of appropriating local traditions for self-promoting purposes. That Cyrus the Great ever primarily intended for his policies to favour those disposed by previous ‘aggressive’ regimes, or whether the claim that he ‘collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements’ (CB 32) refers to good-willed widespread repatriation is questionable. Similarly the claim that he entered Babylon ‘without fighting or battle’ (CB 17) is almost certainly pure propaganda. Rightly stripped of this reputation as a human rights document, the Cyrus Cylinder stands alone as one of the most engrossing objects I have studied across my undergraduate degree. A first hand account of the vices of Persian propaganda employed by Cyrus, continued on the greatest scale by Darius I, and an insight into the Persian ideals of ‘good kingship’, it’s been interesting to study how this legitimising process of Persian kings developed in the following decades as far apart as Egypt and Mount Behistun.
The glazed brick relief panel from Susa (above left) and the gold griffon headed armlet from the Oxus treasure (above, bottom right) are 2 of an abundance of artefacts from this gallery that narrate the diversity of cultures that existed in Ancient Iran, as well as attesting to fine craftsmanship utilised by the Achaemenid kings. Until I make the visit to Persepolis, the stone reliefs from the Apadana on display here, more than suffice.
The Macmillan aryballos
At just under 7cm high, amplified by a thick magnifying glass, had I not been actively seeking this object out I would almost definitely have not paid the attention it deserves. A closely studied piece in most of the Greek Art courses I have taken, this protocorinthian perfume bottle makes up for size with several minutely detailed friezes depicting 17 hoplites, horse racing and a hare-hunt. Dating from around the mid-seventh century, the Macmillan aryballos undoubtedly reflects a typical piece from Corinth during this period, when the coastal city served as a start and exchange point for foreign and local items. The very nature of the lion head serving as an indication of its Near Eastern influence, or perhaps a note of the foreign contents.
I’m not sure whether it’s the modern novelty of the size of this piece, or the intricate painting detail, but there’s something captivating about the playful variation of a mass produced item; one which also marks the beginning of the black-figure pottery technique across the Greek world.
The Lewis Chessmen
“The Lewis chess pieces you have here, do they have anything to do with wizard chess in Harry Potter?”
Having worked at the National Museum of Scotland for around 9 months now, I am often asked unexpected queries from visitors. With Edinburgh serving as the ‘home’ of Harry Potter, I’ve generally taken the stance of dispelling tourists’ needs to pinpoint the exact locations of inspiration for J.K. Rowling (a cynicism that has developed exponentially since volunteering at Greyfriars Kirk where the older volunteers, so keen to share the church’s immense history, as exasperated by the constant directions to ‘Tom Riddle’s grave’). However, sure that I doubted it and deciding to look it up later, I should have been unsurprised to find that the set used in the films are in fact replicas of this very chess set. Is that commonly known already? Maybe just specifically for HP fans only.
Although I am used to our 11 pieces in Edinburgh, seeing the further 82 pieces reinstates the significance of their enigmatic discovery - the largest single surviving group of objects from the period that were made purely for recreational purposes. Whether their origin is Scottish, Irish, Icelandic or English, the strong Norse influence is testament to the connections between British and Scandinavian cultures of the Middle Ages.
Cycladic Marble Figurine
In 3 weeks and 2 exams’ time I’ll be heading to the island of Keros, a small island in the eastern Cyclades, now entirely uninhabited. Excavations have revealed a sanctuary in the form of broken marble vessels and figurines, dated to around 2750 - 2300 BC, although these objects were almost certainly brought from elsewhere in the Cyclades, deliberately broken, and deposited on the island. A recent publication by Colin Renfrew, Michael Boyd and Christopher Ramsey suggests that this Early Bronze Age site is one of the world’s oldest maritime sanctuaries. The recognition and understanding of the precise acts of pilgrimage are still under question, and I’m extremely excited to be involved in the project this summer.
Past Horizons covers the background of Colin Renfrew’s initial findings on Keros: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/06/2011/island-of-broken-figurines-shedding-new-light-on-keros-mystery
The above statue isn’t itself from Keros, but a beautiful example of the stark and abstract figurines that characterise Early Bronze Age Cycladic sculpture. The exact religious and ritual use is as mentioned, yet unknown, but the lasting influence, particularly on modern art, attests to their continuous significance.