Margaret (pling) wrote,

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British Museum Trip

Yesterday was the second Members Open Evening at the British Museum since we joined up. We decided not to stay over afterwards this time as we're away a few times in the next month or so & the cat would be in & out the cattery like a yoyo (and the vet suggested stress might be making the conjunctivitis flare up, so we've even asked someone to come & feed the cat instead of going to the cattery one time to try & not have him in too often).

On the car part of the journey to & from London we listened to podcasts of the Radio 4/British Museum series "A History of the World in 100 Objects", which I thoroughly recommend if you're interested in history at all :) Each one is only 15 minutes long, and tells the story of something important in world history by talking about a specific object. We'd listened to some on our last trip to & from London so started yesterday with the 10th one (about the Jomon pot - pots made by these ancient Japanese people are the earliest known pots). The next 5 were all to do with the rise of cities, and mostly about how power and force were the ways in which the state/city culture were established - but the last of these was a writing tablet from Mesopotamia showing how the needs of a city (or state) for records & bureaucracy were fulfilled. The next two were other examples of how writing changed things - the writing down of stories (illustrated by the flood tablet which has a very similar story to Noah's Ark but written a few hundred years earlier in the Epic of Gilgamesh) and early mathematics (illustrated by a papyrus from Egypt with maths problems for scribes, numeracy being as important as literacy for an Egyptian official). The guy who does most of the speaking (Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum) is very good - you really get a feel for the objects, and he explains things well. And I like his sense of humour (like saying in reference to the Indus people cremating their dead "it is, if you forgive the expression, a dead loss for archaeologists") :)

We started off our museum visit by looking at the Maya Relief of Royal Blood-letting - which is showcased in a room on its own at the moment. I'm never quite sure if the South American art like this (Mayans, Aztecs, Incans) looks brutal because of the style or just because you pretty much know in advance that it's going to be at least faintly gruesome in subject matter. This was no exception - it was a carved stone lintel from a temple dedicated to a Mayan Queen and depicted her starting a ritual to communicate with the gods by drawing a thorned rope through her tongue & allowing the blood to drip onto a sacred book. A later part of the ritual would then involve burning the bloodstained book, and the smoke would carry messages from the gods. These blood-letting rituals both hark back to the gods creating people from their blood, and prove the physical and moral strength of a ruler & his wives, and their fitness to rule. The relief itself was quite striking, very bold and almost cartoon-like figures - the King standing up holding a flaming spear (was the ritual done at night, perhaps) over his kneeling Queen who still looks very regal as she pulls the rope through the hole in her tongue and bleeds onto the book. It would once have been painted - some of the blue and red paint is still visible. Very striking, but still somewhat gruesome.

Next we headed through the Enlightenment gallery - looking primarily at the Egyptian artifacts they have in there (although also some of the other things) - and then up the East staircase (which we only found for the first time on our last visit as I remember). Halfway up the staircase there are two plaster-casts from tombs in the Valley of the Kings, made in the 1800s as a non-destructive way of bringing things home and painted to look like the originals. So obviously we had to stop for a while and admire those :) Further up there is a cast from a doorway in one of the Palaces of the Persian Empire - a very large, powerful piece, with a carving of the King of Kings on a throne which is supported by examples of all his subject peoples (including an Egyptian).

We'd thought we would look at the Mesopotamian galleries as hearing about the Standard of Ur on our journey in had reminded us that last time we intended to do that we'd got side-tracked by the Levant galleries on the way so had never got as far as Mesopotamia. This time we were starting from the other side ... and thus got side-tracked by the Ancient Iran gallery instead! This one room covered a sweep from very early agricultural society in southern Iran up to the Sasanians (who were military rivals to Rome in the early hundreds AD) via the Persian Empire (which stretched from the Indus river in modern Pakistan, to Greece & the Eastern Mediterranean). The gallery was dominated by two enormous plaster-casts from the same Palace complex in Persepolis as the doorway on the staircase, and one of the cases had other monumental carvings - including part of a glazed brick frieze depicting an Immortal (one of the Persian guards) which was particularly fine. They also had a case full of silver & gilt drinking bowls & cups - the Persians were fond of their wine (as Herodotus apparently noted). The "small" drinking bowls held a little over a pint, and one of the larger cups would hold the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine ... As a single room it covered a lot of time & territory, so we only got an overview but nonetheless lots of interesting stuff I didn't know before and some beautiful objects to look at.

Next up was the Egyptian rooms, obviously. Can't go to a museum without looking at the Egyptian stuff! The contrast with the Ancient Iran room was incredible - about ten times the number of people in the Egyptian rooms, all taking their photos with stuff rather than actually looking at the stuff. Mind you, I was there on a mission to take photos of shabtis (for something you may see in a week or two when I've written it) so I was probably getting in other people's way. But at least I was looking at the exhibits! So I mostly looked at shabti while J looked various other things in those rooms, but I did have time to admire some of the coffins as well.

We had a very brisk dinner in Wagamamas after that - we had only 45 minutes from when the museum shut to when it re-opened for the Members Evening - and got back just as they were starting to let people back in. We'd thought to go to the bookshop first, but rather surprisingly it wasn't open till later on. So instead we just looked in the Egyptian sculpture gallery for a few minutes before going to the first of the talks we were signed up for. The theme of this evening seemed to be things from the department of Greek & Roman Antiquities and we'd not had really strong preferences for the talks, so had signed up pretty late & ended up with two we possibly wouldn't've picked out in advance, but they turned out to be really interesting.

First up was "The Other Terracotta Army: Monumental Clay Figures from Iron Age Cyprus". We'd expected to be taken off to the Cyprus gallery in the museum, but instead we were whisked away up a set of back stairs into the "working" part of the museum, behind the scenes so's to speak. There we had a half hour or so presentation from Thomas Kiely who was the curator for these figures, and then a chance to handle some of them. The custom in Iron Age Cyprus was to install a statue of oneself in the temple, so that you were always there in perpetual adoration of the god (or goddess), like lighting a candle in front of a saint's statue in a church. So the temples filled up with these statues - some terracotta, some metal (tho these tend not to have survived, being valuable material), some stone. They were of various sizes & quality - smaller low quality ones for the lower social levels, much much larger (up to 4 metres tall even) and more high-quality & complex statues for the wealthy elite. He said that it made going to the temple not just an exercise in worship, but also re-enforced the social rankings and structure of the society. Some of these statues were found in caches near temples - because after a while it would fill up, so you'd retire some of the older ones to be out of sight but still within the sanctuary. And some temples were found intact - like one that had been flooded in the Iron Age and then discovered in the early 20th Century by a Swedish expedition (the talk covered both the artifacts and a brisk trot through the history of the archaeology of Cyprus). Most of the ones we saw were fragmentary - a couple of heads, some parts of clothing, some feet, a nose - but there was one that was pretty much intact. I didn't really handle them much, that was a bit nerve-wracking ;) They were cool to look at up close though. And I learnt a lot from the talk, as I didn't really know anything about it in advance. Neat to get into the non-public bit of the museum, too!

And that didn't leave us much time before the next talk we were signed up for - "Those Amazons Can't Stop Fighting: An Introduction to the Bassai Frieze". This is a pretty close to intact frieze from the inside of a temple dedicated to Apollo in Bassai, and it's installed in a small room up a staircase in the Greek part of the museum, that I had no idea was there at all. Apparently it's not open very much, because the room is small & poorly ventilated, and there is no disabled access. So they're working on solving these problems, but, as Peter Higgs (who was giving the talk) said, it would be a shame to move it from the room as it fits the frieze close to perfectly, and because it's reached by this stairway then there's no need for a gap in the frieze even with it displayed at eye level. His talk took us round the frieze pointing out some of the interesting features, but mostly giving an overview of it as a piece of art - with the obligatory discussion of how it would have been painted in antiquity and this would have changed the way one perceived it. There are two themes in the scenes in the frieze - Greeks fighting Amazons and Greeks fighting Centaurs - and these are both a lot more dynamic than the stately procession of the Parthenon frieze. The carving may not always be of the best quality, but he was keen to point out how the artists were keen to try new things - there was the first female nude that is known in Greek sculpture, at this time it was mostly male nudes that were shown. There were also new poses, not just repeats of previously seen ways of showing fighters. He also particularly drew our attention to all the different ways the clothing was carved - billowing out behind people, stretched as they lunged forwards, clinging to the bodies of the fighters, draped formally over some people helping others from the battlefield. And he pointed out how the very frenetic battle scenes were interspersed with more calm and tender scenes of dying foes or Greeks. One thing he said that I'd never thought of before was that the Greeks showed their enemies as equals, which was a departure from other cultures (like the Egyptians) before them showing their enemies as downtrodden smaller people. A different sort of propaganda - "look, we can even defeat these people who are equals".

And then there was just time for a visit to the bookshop (where we picked up "Red Land, Black Land" by Barbara Mertz) before heading home again :)
Tags: british museum, cyprus, egypt, greece, history, iran, mesopotamia, museums, radio, talks

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