thinking about archaeology


Miss Maurice’s organ case

Great Chalfield Manor

We went to Great Chalfield Manor, Wiltshire, the other day, parts of which stood in for Thomas Cromwell’s home in the BBC Wolf Hall series. The grounds are very pleasant (complete with a kingfisher on the moat). The house is a medieval manor largely rebuilt by Thomas Tropnell (1405–88), not an inappropriate setting for the TV series. But what really stood out was the panelled organ case in the little church of All Saints. It’s quite beautiful, with painted religious scenes, half medieval chapel and half Victorian fairground.

It was apparently made early in the 20th century for an organ installed by the Reverend Edward Kingston (rector 1878–1900). A card says the case was made when the church was restored 1910–14 to a design by Mr Biddulph Pritchard, and was painted by Miss Maurice.

Wikipedia is wonderfully dismissive, saying simply, “The organ case is richly decorated and looks medieval but is modern.” I wanted to know more. Who were Mr Biddulph Pritchard and Miss Maurice?

To give him his full name, Arnold Theophilus Biddulph Pinchard (1859–1934) was secretary of the English Church Union and author of, among other tracts, Judgment unto Truth: A Course of Six Sermons, The Pope & the Conscience of Christendom, and the memorable Belts & Buckles in Birmingham.

Photo National Trust

Photo National Trust

There is a depiction of the case in the manor’s collection, which the National Trust has put online (above). The drawing is described there as one of a box of 169 drawings and plans of Great Chalfield Manor by Sir Harold Brakspear, c 1905–15. Brakspear (1870–1934) was a local architect and antiquarian who substantially but sensitively restored and extended the house for its owner, Robert Fuller.

Biddulph Pinchard restored the church itself. Most of the organ case’s scenes are based on paintings on a tremendous late 15th century rood screen in Ranworth church, Norfolk.

The 12 apostles are on the sides. Miss Maurice has not slavishly copied them and they are not ordered the same, but you can match them all.

Photo Gary Troughton

Ranworth church: Photo Gary Troughton

All Saints church, north top

All Saints church, north top

All Saints church, north base

All Saints church, north base

Ranworth church: Photo Gary Troughton

Ranworth church: Photo Gary Troughton

All Saints church, south top

All Saints church, south top

All Saints church, south base

All Saints church, south base

On the front are the three Magi presenting to Mary, Jesus and Joseph, above St George about to behead his dragon and the Archangel Michael doing the same to a dragonesque Satan. The last two again are based on scenes at Ranworth.


Ranworth church, Photos Simon Knott

Ranworth church, Photos Simon Knott

And on the sides, between each group of apostles, are little vignetted scenes.

Chalfield organ N side

In one of these you can a man, said to be St James, being beheaded in front of the manor house, with the west end of the church at the left. On the front Caspar gives the whole church to Jesus in gold, as seen from the north:

church & manor

It’s all very lovely and moving. But who was the talented Miss Maurice?

Photo Michael Garlick, Wikimedia

Photo Michael Garlick, Wikimedia

Here come the Celts!

The cover of the new British Archaeology features a small part of one of the most extraordinary prehistoric treasures from Europe, still in the ground in Norfolk during excavation in the early 1990s. Inside, we hear about new forensic work conducted on the gold and silver jewellery from Snettisham, Norfolk. The Celtic theme looks forward to a major exhibition featuring Celtic arts opening in London in September and in Edinburgh next year.

The picture above (The Riders of the Sidhe) is by John Duncan (1866–1945), a populist Celtic Revival artist with echoes of Richard Dadd (apparently he could hearing fairy music when he painted). He was born in Dundee; the painting will be loaned to the exhibitions from Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums.

Some archaeologists will no doubt carp about the use of the word “Celt” in the British Museum’s “Celts: art and identity”, which moves to the National Museum of Scotland next March under the simple title of “Celts”. I’m looking forward to seeing the show, and will write about my impressions here (it opens on September 25). In the meantime, the first of three features in the new magazine offers an early insight: four of the people behind the exhibitions introduce their controversial idea of what Celtic arts mean. I think we may be leaving behind the old debates about whether or not there ever were such people as Celts, and taking a wider, more interesting view of the world. A good thing too. Continuing the new Celts theme, a third feature considers fine metal artefacts that were taken home from the British Isles by Norwegian Vikings.

It’s not all Celts, of course. Among other things British Archaeology celebrates the 200th anniversary of a guidebook to one of the country’s best preserved Roman villas – Bignor – and an Anglo-Saxon village – West Stow – that has been brought back to life.

The CITiZAN project (they insisted I write it like that) hopes to save coastal heritage around England with a new form of rescue archaeology. In the south, the former English Heritage funded two projects that showed well preserved mesolithic sites are not as rare as archaeologists had assumed.

We hear about salmon fishing on the Dee – thousand of years ago, when the Cairngorms were covered in permanent snow fields. In Wiltshire archaeologists are back at the Marden henge, and an unusual Roman farmstead seems to have stopped a major commercial development – while Historic England excavates another Roman farmstead elsewhere in the county.

With the usual news, reviews and comment, and reports from the Council for British Archaeology – and an interview with artist Dexter Dalwood, currently showing in Tate Britain’s exhibition about history painting – this is an outstanding issue that reflects the variety of archaeology in modern Britain.

A short blog about axe blades carved onto Stonehenge megaliths

After Hugo Anderson-Whymark commented that the 1969 photo in my last blog showed axe blades picked up in the English Heritage laser study (and not “new”, as I’d suggested), I had a closer look. I was expecting him to be right. Now I’m not so sure.

Here is the result of comparing a few images. At the top, I’ve pasted all the carvings described by Abbott & Anderson Whymark (2012) on stones 5, 4 and 3 onto one of my photos. The colours show axes described before 2003 (red) and additional ones they found in 2012 (green) (the 2003 date stems from an article by Tom Goskar and colleagues in British Archaeology Nov 2003/73, in which they found a few new carvings in a trial laser study). I located the carvings by matching the stones’ edges, which at this scale is quite accurate. It creates an impressive effect – bearing in mind the possibility that the carvings may originally have been painted.

The key to matching the 1969 photo is a fine bit of graffiti on stone 4, carved in 1866 by one H Bridger from Chichester, West Sussex. You can see it on the left of this photo from Atkinson’s book (1956):


Here is the graffiti in one of my photos (lower left of centre):

I’ve marked three changes in angle on the right edge of the stone, which I’ve also marked on the 1969 photo below:

axes-1969 rings

And finally the lower part of stone 4 with all the carvings:

stone 4

You can’t see it in the photo, so I’ve marked the approximate site of Bridger’s graffiti (the lichen patterns help in all this). So are those axes in the 1969 photo also in the 2012 laser plan? They could, and this would make sense, be the two larger ones at the top recorded before 2003. But are they in the right place? The left photo below is looking straight at the stone, the right looking up from below. The clarity of the carvings in the 1969 photo would suggest the laser study would hardly have missed them. I do feel, however, that a higher resolution survey would be useful.

stone 4 R edge

To close, here’s a photo of the three blades on stone 3 showing very clearly in TV floods at night in 2000:

stone 3 axes

Is this a dagger which I see before me?

posctard 1945This rather nice postcard and its message give me an opportunity to return to Stonehenge. It’s curious to think of the stones promoting a homily from Winston Churchill – and not on an official card. Mr (? the Reverend) G Richens (his notification of his dinner needs suggests he’s writing to his wife or mother, but perhaps she was a care lady?) seems to have been enjoying a late war.

carvings 1945

What’s interesting about the image is what you can see on Stone 53, the large sarsen upright second from right. There is an almost mythical story of Richard Atkinson in 1953, taking photos of a heavy inscription carved into the face of this stone. You can see the horizontal line of letters in the postcard, at about eye level, and again in a recent photo (above), to the left of the security guard’s head (facing front left to right are Mike Parker Pearson, Hugo Anderson-Whymark and Marcus Abbott).

The inscription is said to read IOH:LVD:DEFERRE, or John Louis de Ferre, suspiciously like the 16th century artist and writer Lucas de Heere (1534–84) who we know visited – and drew – Stonehenge, but sadly not him. In their report on the recent laser scanning for English Heritage, Anderson-Whymark and Abbott note a London poet called John Louis de Ferre who died in 1884, aged 83. The lettering style (said to be 17th century) and weathering, however, suggest to them the carving pre-dates the 19th century.

Atkinson 1

Atkinson 2

On July 10 1953, in the late afternoon light, Atkinson was looking at the screen on his reflex camera, when he suddenly saw the outlines of a dagger and an axe blade (lower centre in top above). He looked at the stone, so the story goes, and found more axes. A couple of days later David Booth (a 10-year-old schoolboy – the story does not explain what he was doing there) found an axe on Stone 4 in the sarsen circle, and more discoveries followed on the same stone (above; these two photos are from Atkinson’s Stonehenge, 1956). Later Robert Newall cast the carvings, and found yet more. In the short term the significance of these carvings, which were never fully published, got lost in a red herring about Mycenaean architects, and only now is their proper part in the story of ancient Stonehenge being considered. Yet what of the more recent story?

carvings 1934

Notwithstanding Atkinson’s excitement in 1953, the dagger and the axe are clearly visible in photos taken before then. You can see both of them in this postcard (1945). Tim Daw tells me he has a card postmarked 1934 in which they can also be seen (above). Anthony Johnson has a photo (which he published on page 141 of his Solving Stonehenge, below) apparently taken in the 19th century that shows what appears to be the dagger, at least. Another photo, c 1880, reproduced in Julian Richards’ Stonehenge: A History in Photographs (page 19) may also show the carvings, though less clearly (Julian does not comment).

Anthony Johnson

So not carved in 1952, but why had they not been commented on before? Had they even been noticed? Martyn Barber (co-author of Historic England’s The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, which is reviewed in the new British Archaeology out next week), says when he was waiting out of hours at Stonehenge in July 2006, they could see these carvings from 70m away as they stood outside the henge ditch on the west – but from close up they were almost invisble.

There is a strong suspicion that the dagger, at least, has weathered since 1953, with all the rubbing and touching it received. Old photos could be useful for their record of better preserved carvings. Below, for example, is a photo apparently processed in the US in October 1969 that appeared a few years back on the Stonehenge Collectables website (which currently seems to be inaccessible). It shows at least two clear axe carvings quite high up on what seems to be the outer face of Stone 4 (note the bulge on adjacent Stone 3, which is near its top).

axes 1969slide 1969

As far as I am aware, these two axes have not otherwise been recorded. I’ve put them on Anderson-Whymark and Abbott’s image of all the known carvings on stones 4 and 5 (see British Archaeology Nov/Dec 2012/127, page 19), below – with a lot of guessing about exact site and scale.

Old photos, worth looking out for.


Ai Weiwei: Bringing Human Remains to London

Ai Weiwei Remains 2015Something controversial is going to kick off, and not for the first time it involves the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Ai creates the most beautiful things. He is a highly literate artist, a political artist, a lover of craft and an archaeological artist. His works are at once quiet and modest, and noisily ambitious – there really seems to be nothing that he might not attempt, or imagine. Many people focus on his politics, which are indeed unavoidable. Ai Weiwei’s father, a celebrated poet called Ai Qing, was sent to a labour camp in the late 1950s with his one-year-old son. Ai Weiwei’s passport was confiscated in 2011; he constantly taunts the Chinese authorities, who watch his every move, and he speaks, writes and blogs about the injustices of his country. Yet politics do not define his art, which is complex, varied and rich with meanings and references. Eventually, what remains is the beauty, an embodiment of human spirit.

The Royal Academy is bringing Ai Weiwei to London, with what it calls a landmark exhibition, opening on September 19. There will be familiar and new works, small and very large, and things we have not yet been allowed to know about. Will he come himself? No one knows, but the RA has not rigidly denied the possibility. It’s very exciting.

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds. Photo: Tate

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds (2011). Photo: Tate

There is a particular work which caught my attention at the RA press briefing on June 15, where we were showed some photos (Human Remains/2015, photo at top by Ai Weiwei). Before saying more I’m going to illustrate a few other things to put it into context.

Ai Weiwei was in London in 2010 to launch his best known project here, the hand-painted porcelain Sunflower Seeds that covered the floor of the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. They were there into 2011, when other works could be seen across the city. Painted pots, marble doors and security cameras, perfectly made wooden boxes and more could be seen at the Lisson Gallery’s two Bell Street sites, and menacing bronze animal heads ringed the courtyard of Somerset House. Last year Blenheim Palace hosted a major display with a more domestic, intimate feel, which was also humorously subversive. Here are some of my photos. doors 2 doors 3 doorsCarving organic objects out of stone is a common Ai trick. This (above) is Monumental Junkyard (2007) in the Lisson courtyard. Also exhibited by Lisson is Moon Chest (2008, below), lovingly made from huanghuali, a precious tropical wood whose value in China has caused antique huali furniture to fetch prices akin to impressionist paintings (well, nearly so). The openings in Moon Chest are said to recreate the phases of a lunar eclipse.boxes boxes 2This is Bubble (2008), on the grass outside Blenheim Palace. Uncannily perfect porcelain domes reflect their surroundings. They were made in workshops which Ai has described as embodying a peak of craft and art, and that used to supply the imperial court. BubbleHere, on the bed where Winton Churchill is said to have been born, is a pair of giant huali-wood Handcuffs (2012). On the wall behind is Hanging Man in Porcelain (2009), a bent coat hanger framed in huali. Ai Weiwei at Blenheim PalaceBehind an ostentatiously laid table in Blenheim Palace (below) stands a row of gold-plated heads, like waiters ready to meet diners’ every last demand. They represent bronzes pillaged from an 18th century imperial palace, in an episode that has Elgin-marble-like resonances in China. The palace was wrecked by British and French troops in 1850, and the garden fountain heads taken away; seven of the original 12 survive. Ai recreated an entire set in 2010, from which six large editions were cast in bronze, and six smaller editions were gold plated. In February one of the latter sold for £2.8m. tableThis is part of the larger version of Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010), at Somerset House. Ai Weiwei at Somerset HouseAi both works with traditional materials and techniques, and appropriates old artefacts, engaging head on with the place of the past in the present like no other artist. To be more specific, he smashes and paints ancient pots, and carves up antique furniture. Below is Coloured Vases (2010, in the Lisson Gallery), pots said to be neolithic that he has smothered in bright industrial paint. potsIn Blenheim Palace, Slanted Table (1997) was a Qing dynasty table – with its legs sawn off. Below is a series of three carefully shot stills in which Ai drops a Han urn.

Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1995

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Photos: Ai Weiwei

This how it looks on Google images: Ai drops a pot We all know that in the west, Ai could not get away with this. Of course it upsets many archaeologists (not least Paul Barford, who wrote that he “would like to see [Ai] arrested if that’s the only way he can be prevented from wantonly damaging ancient artefacts as a means of drawing draw [sic] attention to himself”, a statement we can diplomatically call controversial).

It confuses almost everyone. Ancient pots are already valuable, say curators and collectors. Why damage them? Then again, the Ai brush appears to remove antiquities from the grasps of the UNESCO Convention about illicit trade in cultural property, by turning what might be illegally excavated objects into contemporary art. Confusion is compounded by the possibility that the pots may not always be old, but sometimes (depending on your perspective) fakes or ingenious copies. Ai himself has spoken in general of the need to understand old technologies and crafts to create perfect imitations of traditional appearances. Confusion ate itself when an artist strode into a gallery in Miami and smashed a Han vase (or so it was said) that Ai had dipped in acrylic paint.

It might be easier, perhaps, if Ai explained what he is doing. Is he celebrating old crafts, or modern? Does an appropriated ancient funeral vase represent a historic injustice, a suppressed modern citizen, or misguided state manipulation of history – or even an incompetent state archaeological service? But offering simple explanations is not Ai’s way. The works themselves defy such an approach.

Their impact, however, as I wrote in British Archaeology (Jan/Feb 2015/140) is strong. We are at once shocked and elevated by beauty and desecration. Like a manic museum curator, Ai does things with historic artefacts we have been brought up, with good reason, to think sacrilegious. With the continuing destruction at world heritage sites by IS in Syria and Iraq, Ai’s threatening play with antiquities has a new resonance. “They never really care about culture,” Ai has said, “this is the nature of a communist, to destroy the old world to rebuild a newer one”.

Expect Coloured Vases (2015) at the Royal Academy. We have also been promised this:

Ai Weiwei C Straight 2008-12

Straight (2008–12). Photo: Ai Weiwei

Straight (2008–12) is a monument to victims of a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. It is made from the mangled reinforcing bars Ai collected from the rubble of poorly built concrete schools. Apparently 90 tons-worth of the complete 150-ton work will be installed in Burlington House. Typically, there is a strong political statement here, where illicitly removed objects have been used to highlight bureaucratic graft and incompetence which the state had attempted to conceal. In the hands of a merely good artist the use of symbolically laden stuff can look lazy and too literal – we expect writers to lecture us, not sculptors. But in Straight, Ai seems to have created a stunningly moving and beautiful memorial that speaks beyond its immediate origins – shaming the RAF Bomber Command memorial recently installed down the road from the RA.

Which brings me, finally, to Remains (2015). I know this only from the RA-supplied photo at the top of this blog. It apparently consists of a loose collection of human bones, replicated at life size in porcelain. It has all the typical Ai ingredients: politics, controversy, fine craftsmanship and beauty. I suspect when it is revealed in September (it is a new work), the most talked about of those will be controversy.

The original remains, says the RA, were brought to Ai by people who thought he might like to use them in his art – I’m told he is regularly given things in this way. To quote the press information, the result “replicates in meticulous detail a group of bones that were recently excavated at a site of a labour camp that operated under Chairman Mao in the 1950s.” “The clandestine archaeological excavation,” continues the statement, uncovered “the remains of an unknown intellectual who perished under similar circumstances [to those in which Ai’s father was ‘re-educated’] in a labour camp.” I was told by Adrian Locke, who has co-curated the show with Tim Marlow, that the diggers found the bones before they were forced to move on from an incomplete exploration.

There’s enough in this work to stimulate a long article on its own. Archaeologists will immediately think of the intense, continuing debates about the complex ethics of variously excavating, storing, studying, reburying and returning ancient and historic human remains. These debates were brought to a public, rather narrow and sometimes comical head here, after the excavation of Richard III’s grave (see for instance Does handling of Richard III’s bones raise serious questions? and Richard III in court). They infuse all of archaeology, however, and concern us all. In Remains, Ai might have created something that both speaks for the debates, and in its beauty achieves a greater embodiment of intimate tragedy and universal humanity.

Archaeologists will also think, what actually are those bones? Unlike most art critics, I suspect, I know someone who could tell me, so I asked. Jackie McKinley (who works for Wessex Archaeology) first examined some bones for me in the late 90s, after I had found a “lost” collection of human skeletons in a basement room of the London Natural History Museum. Among the remains were those of a man excavated at Stonehenge in the 1920s. Jackie ascertained that he had been beheaded with a sword, and radiocarbon dating determined he had been Anglo-Saxon.

The bones in Remains, says Jackie, are indeed human. Or most of them: two of the smaller pieces turned out to be animal. Such is the precision of the porcelain copies, Jackie McKinley was able to identify not just their humanity, but what parts of the body they represent – and in one case, a stab at the age and sex of the individual. I’ve written her identifications onto the image below.

Remains 2015 (c) Ai WeiweiSo overall the collection could have come from a single grave. If it did, that grave seems to have been dug for an adult man. Does that fit the belief of the excavators? I don’t know. I am confident, however, that the work will be one hard to forget once seen. pots 3pots 2

New magazine

Cover with Spine

The new British Archaeology is now online and will be in the shops tomorrow. With Scotland’s year-long celebration Dig It! 2015 and the nationwide 25th Festival of Archaeology in July, there’s a lot happening in archaeology this summer. The festivities launch the features for this edition.

In Scotland we excavate a prehistoric ritual monument and re-invent a school garden, and in another project we return to a hoard of Pictish silver, found nearly two centuries ago, and discover over 100 new pieces. In the south we consider how the excavation of an entire Anglo-Saxon cemetery has brought unique insights into the international contacts of fifth century Britain and the origins of England. Some fine Egyptian antiquities have been found in Wigan, a historic salt works has been saved in Cheshire and a stone circle discovered on Dartmoor. With inside reports on what’s been in the news, TV and book reviews, letters and more, this magazine has all you need to keep up with the exciting world of archaeology in Britain.

Here are the opening spreads of three features, starting with Adrian Wood’s spectacular shot of Eggardon Camp in Dorset, the best argument I’ve seen for using drones for simple archaeological photography (see more at But as you’ll see in the feature, drones have more than this to offer.



ARTICLEAnd here are the news headlines:


Can Chuka Umunna save the Palace of Westminster? Somebody has to

Tidy cartoon CBA

Chuka Umunna, says Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, is “the man Tories fear most”. He’s bright, “an alpha-male politician”, and perhaps “a future candidate for the leadership of the Labour party” (Guardian) – “a potential future leader” (Telegraph). In other words, in five years’ time he could be pulling off what Ed Miliband failed to do, and leading a new UK government in Westminster.

But hang on, apparently he wants Parliament to vacate the palace.

“We should be saying”, he writes in today’s Observer, “it is time for parliament to move out of the relic that is the Palace of Westminster and into a new, modern, accessible site fit for purpose”.

Now, you can read that as a disdain for great architecture and heritage, as Jonathan Jones does. But I like to think it’s the opposite. That what Umunna is really saying, is what Spoilheap sets out in the current edition of British Archaeology.

Today, continues Umunna, is time “for a serious debate about the electoral system, for an elected Senate in place of the outdated House of Lords.” That suggests his dismissal of the Palace of Westminster may have more to do with its traditions, than its crumbling stonework. Elsewhere in the Observer piece he writes, “We must stop looking to the past, and focus on ensuring everyone has a stake in the future.” That is clearly about policies, not heritage.

In his own life, he has said, “I have a really strong sense of my history, my heritage and my different cultures” (his father was Nigerian, his mother is Anglo-Irish). We might reasonably expect him to extend that understanding to the world around him – and not least to the extraordinary thing that is the Palace of Westminster, a world heritage site.

Spoilheap reviews the case for moving the Lords and the Commons out of the palace – and comes down firmly in favour of doing so. This is not driven by politics, but by heritage. To quote Spoilheap:

“In March, Commons speaker John Bercow did the brave thing… If parliament wished to remain in the palace, he said, refurbishment at a cost of at least £3bn was inevitable.”

A report had concluded that the state of the palace was so bad, the only way forward, if it wasn’t to be demolished or left to fall down, was to set up a management body like the Olympic Delivery Authority, and move everyone out. Then the builders could have unrestricted access, and do what was necessary. In the meantime, the Commons could be put into a new temporary building nearby, and the Lords could be accommodated in existing premises.

“The outcome”, says Spoilheap, “would be a seat of government that was cheaper to run, more suited to use, safe, accessible and with a reduced carbon footprint. During the work there would be tremendous heritage opportunities, for research, exhibitions and education. The history and purpose of parliament would be debated. The project would enthuse other historic building schemes, and be an example for sustainable conservation; many craftspeople would gain unique experiences. And the Palace of Westminster would be assured a future.”

“It’s up to parliament. Will it act on a report it commissioned, and honour its electorate? Or will it continue to walk backwards in funny dress, provide snuff for members, endorse bills in Norman French, shout obscure phrases like “Who goes home?”, and generally preserve traditions that do little to encourage efficient democracy or public engagement, while a world heritage site falls down around its ears?”

The palace has got into the state it is, a profound national scandal, because of appalling management, and because its incumbents cared more for traditional fripperies than the buildings in which they have been privileged to serve.

“Considering the age of the Palace of Westminster,” noted a 2012 study, “the 60+ years that have passed since the partial post-war refurbishment, the long-term under-investment in the fabric and the intensive use to which the Palace is put, it is remarkable that it continues to function.”

You can read the whole Spoilheap column in the May/June edition of British Archaeology. If your name is Chuka Umunna, and you can’t find a copy, let me know, and I’ll see you get one. A functioning parliament is, after all, what you rightly want.


Festival of Archaeology 2015

Salisbury west front

I’m busy with the next edition of British Archaeology, which again will have an extraordinary range of interesting stories, thanks to the curious things archaeologists get up to. One topic we will naturally be covering is the UK-wide Festival of Archaeology, now in its 25th year, which runs from July 11 to July 26. I’ll be at Salisbury Museum’s festival to chair archaeologists talking about their discoveries, so if you’re nearby, you’ll find us in a marquee on the lawn outside the cathedral!

object life

Democracy, or brute force? Guess who wins in the end

I thought again of the British Museum’s Assyrian carvings as I voted on Thursday morning, explaining to my daughter as we walked back home why I had folded the paper. A ballot is secret, I said. Can you vote lots of times, she asked, like the X-Factor? No, only once. (Our discussion backfired a bit when she got to school, and her classmates confused her by telling her how their parents were voting. Who will yours vote for?)

My constituency unhesitatingly returned its sitting candidate, and my personal vote was less of a force and more of a thrilling affirmation of the democratic process. Later in the day, when I’m looking at an Assyrian frieze in the BM, I think, it’s no wonder powerful minorities in parts of Western Asia are uncomfortable with democracy. They have so much to lose.

Islamic State can destroy impressive stuff like big stone carvings, but they can’t erase the record. What they smash on their videos will all have been well documented. And as long as we have a free democracy here in Britain, the BM’s collection will continue to tell its stories.

reed boatLike this one. Helmeted soldiers terrorise Iraq’s southern river marshes, in panels from a palace in Nineveh, around 630BC. Men flee a reed boat, trying to escape on to a floating village where men and women hide while a headless body drifts by. The soldiers parade in front of date palms with booty and captives.

floating bodyvictorsOr this. Archers attack a town around 700BC, the angle of their fire rising with proximity to the walls, evoking the distances involved. Victorious, they lead manacled captives to execution, while women and children watch. The slabs themselves are blackened by fire, the boastful destroyed.




In March, Jane Moon, excavating in Iraq, posted a message on the London Society of Antiquaries website (accessible only to fellows of the society). “Tragic as it all is,” she says, “on the bottom line we have the records of the things that were broken, so there is no question of ‘history being erased’, whatever Da’esh claim.”

She asked her Iraqi colleagues what they needed most from overseas scholars. They replied, “More fieldwork, more participation, more international engagement – get some others to come and dig here too!”

“There are so many more things to find to fill up the museums and be proud of,” says Moon, “and huge areas safe to work in and rich in sites. We can do more than just express outrage.”

Nimrud: Battle ignorance and brutality with education and sharing

IS Nimrud 1

Before I wrote about the British Museum’s Assyrian galleries, Islamic State released shocking footage of ultimate vandalism at Nimrud (the images here are screen grabs). It shows men using power tools and large amounts of dynamite to destroy classic and important examples of the type of works in the BM, and other museums, that had remained in situ at the world heritage site. Martin Bailey in the Art Newspaper calls it “the worst case of deliberate destruction of an archaeological site in living memory”.

The actions, and the way they are filmed and edited (including carefully selected slow-motion segments) are clearly designed to upset the likes of us who care about these things. International reaction to earlier destruction had shown the world cares. So IS knows it’s onto a winner, and lays on fresh destruction – apparently with the help of former media students.

IS Nimrud 2

The obvious and necessary way to stop this is to stop IS. But there is another process that needs to occur, with more long term significance. We must share our enthusiasm and understanding of ancient cultures with everyone, and perhaps especially with those people who geographically and historically “own” them. Collections like the British Museum’s should be part of that process – indeed, the opportunities for learning and engagement are of course one of the things that make good museum collections precious, and more than just tourist draws . Restitution campaigns, however well meaning, can sometimes seriously disrupt such engagement, by creating divisions that foster ignorance.

Jonathan Tubb, keeper of the BM’s Department of the Middle East, has it exactly right as the Art Newspaper reported him saying a few days ago about the situation in Iraq.

“We need to get over the threshold of despair,” he said. “We can do something positive and constructive by preparing for the time when effective government control is restored.”

The BM hopes to work with Iraqi colleagues to train professionals in rescue archaeology and emergency heritage management, and then join them back in Iraq to address the problems on the ground. This is visionary stuff.


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