thinking about archaeology


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.

Dr Mr Cameron

Times Diary

I read in today’s Times that you apparently believe the Guardian is a paper fit only for burning. I’d like to think the columnist got something wrong – after all, you can’t trust everything you read in the press. But this is The Times. Did you really mean that?

I have a soft spot for the Guardian, and I admit that is not just for the quality of its international reporting. Over the years as an occasional journalist, I have been advised by several Guardian editors, and the paper has accepted more of my pieces than any other (I have had my byline in other titles, including the Mail, Express, Telegraph, and yes, the Times, but none has been as helpful to me).

So if you don’t read the Guardian, Mr Cameron, you are missing most of my informative and sometimes opinionated contributions on heritage and archaeology, and that concerns me! Please try the Guardian again!

Of course it has its silly pieces, and none of us would be surprised to know these tend to lean to the left. But every paper has its silliness. If you based your reading criteria on avoiding extremes in any paper, you’d end up reading none.

So I wonder, Mr Cameron, which papers you do read?

climate change denial

The Telegraph? The paper which recently ran a piece headed, “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”? An online questionnaire was appended, asking, “Has global warming been exaggerated by scientists?” I voted No (you’d have to be out of touch with reality to vote Yes), but then found that of 78,850 votes, less than 5,000 had also been Yes.

The Times, perhaps? The paper in which Melanie Phillips defended torture. “There is a difference between what torturers do”, she wrote, “and what is done by democracies to protect themselves against attack. Tyrannies torture their own people and their enemies… But sometimes it is a moral imperative to use limited ill-treatment if the purpose is to save innocent lives.”

The Independent’s independent view on one of your recent electoral promises (not to raise taxes) was that it was “foolish”. Into the box for winter fires.

Or the Sun? It wants people to vote for you, so perhaps this will pass muster. But you would have to tear out the pages featuring Katie Hopkins calling migrants cockroaches, and other sillinesses.

So which is it, Mr Cameron? Or do you not read any of them?

Yours sincerely

Mike Pitts

PS Please let me know if you’d like to read any of my Guardian pieces, and I would be delighted to supply copies.

Never write off heritage

Second century AD Graeco-Roman temple at Hosn Niha, unchanged since first recorded in the early 19th century. Walls stand to a height of 10m. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Second century AD Graeco-Roman temple at Hosn Niha, unchanged since first recorded in the early 19th century. Walls stand to a height of 10m. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Graeco-Roman settlement at Hosn Niha showing extensive damage from bulldozing and other illegal excavation activities. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Graeco-Roman settlement at Hosn Niha showing extensive damage from bulldozing and other illegal excavation activities. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Ancient sites really are being bulldozed in western Asia, as these shocking images show. Yet as archaeologists know, there is always much more to a landscape than what stands up on it or is visible on the surface. In a new Antiquity paper, Paul Newson and Ruth Young have looked at a severely damaged site in Lebanon and concluded there is still much there of value. Below I have simply reproduced their university press release.

Map of Hosn Niha showing settlement size and areas affected by conflict era activities and recent development. University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Map of Hosn Niha showing settlement size and areas affected by conflict era activities and recent development. University of Leicester/American University of Beirut



Researchers say it is possible to obtain a great deal of original and important information from sites that have suffered badly through conflict

  • Archaeologists from American University of Beirut and University of Leicester describe value of researching conflict-ravaged sites
  • They are investigating Graeco-Roman temple in Lebanon
  • They say sites previously considered too badly damaged by conflict to warrant systematic archaeological investigation

An international archaeological team is investigating an historic site devastated by conflict in Lebanon.

They have demonstrated it is possible to obtain original and important information from heritage sites that have been devastated by conflict.

Working at the Graeco-Roman temple and village site of Hosn Niha, high in the central Biqa’ Valley of Lebanon, the team led by Dr Paul Newson (Department of History and Archaeology, American University of Beirut) and Dr Ruth Young (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester) have described the value of exploring conflict damaged sites in the leading archaeological journal Antiquity.

Dr Newson said: “Shocking recent footage showing apparent damage to world heritage and archaeological sites at Hatra and Nimrud in Iraq include scenes of the bulldozing of irreplaceable buildings.  Aerial photographs of living ancient cities such as Homs and Aleppo in Syria taken before the war have been compared to images from the last few months, and the extent of damage to houses, mosques, and heritage structures is brutal and widespread.

“Of course the human cost in any conflict is the first and highest priority; however, archaeology and heritage are extremely vulnerable to attack and damage during conflict and conflict continues to inflict damage on numerous sites, both large and small, around the world today.“

Dr Young added: “Rather than simply ignoring sites that have been badly damaged by conflict, we have taken on the challenge of investigating a site previously considered too badly damaged by conflict to warrant systematic archaeological investigation.

“Our research at the Graeco-Roman temple and village site of Hosn Niha in Lebanon has shown that with the right methods and questions, it is possible to obtain a great deal of original and important information from sites that have suffered badly through conflict.

“Using a range of up-to-date surface survey methods we were able to answer some important questions about the site.  The first of these was an accurate assessment of site damage, what had been done and where, and the effects of various actions, be it bulldozing or clandestine looting of the site.  Through this exercise, we learned that bulldozing and other damage actions had effectively erased the heart of the settlement, but significantly sized sections of settlement beyond remained quite well preserved. From recording and collecting surface finds from across the settlement area as a whole we were able to begin to understand both the morphology and development history of the settlement.”

The authors suggest the settlement was firmly established by the 1st century CE with a dense core area and more dispersed courtyard dwellings on the periphery.  By the early Islamic period the settlement appears less robust and permanent occupation may have ended for a time.  Surprisingly, they also recovered some evidence for an early medieval re-occupation of the site, perhaps a fortified farmhouse.  They acknowledge the initial results are preliminary and that more research and analysis of the results is on-going.

Hosn Niha, along with many other sites in Lebanon was severely damaged as a consequence of decades of civil war and the associated unruliness and accelerated looting that went with this.

The authors state: “Sites that have been badly damaged by various causes may be disregarded by professionals who consider that their archaeological or heritage potential has been too badly affected to warrant any investigation.  Instead, as demonstrated by the Hosn Niha project, the opposite should become automatic: archaeologists should view conflict-damaged sites as opportunities to gain information and explore sites and regions with new agendas.

“Conflict is impacting the lives of many millions of people, and the archaeology and heritage of many nations.  All conflict-damaged archaeology and heritage can play a vital role as resources to help re-build damaged communities and offer hope of employment and reintegration to those impacted by war.  Being able to offer ways of thinking of how to deal with damaged sites, gain as much information from them, and consider them a valuable resource rather than an inevitable casualty of war is critical to moving forward, and regaining control over land and identity.”

The Central Biqa’ Archaeological Project is based at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon (AUB).  The project has been supported by the Department of Antiquities, Lebanon and the University of Leicester, and is funded by the American University of Beirut through its University Research Board (URB).

Nepal’s parallel disaster

Northampton Echo

The press have reported the traumatic story of a British-born Nepal earthquake survivor, who happens to be an archaeologist. Hayley Saul was trekking in Kathmandu with Emma Waterton, a fellow member of the University of York-based Himalayan Exploration and Archaeological Research Team (HEART) (Saul on left and Waterton on right, above, from the Northampton Echo). They and their guide and porters had to dodge falling boulders which wiped out their trail, and then find their way through a transformed and moving landscape to a village. They joined others for a cold, wet night (“In all honesty, we didn’t think we would survive”, says Saul). and the next morning climbed to a point where a helicopter took them to safety.

As Simon Jenkins writes today on the Guardian website, damage to “the ancient settlements of the Kathmandu valley and their Hindu and Buddhist shrines” constitutes a “second disaster”, beside that of the appalling human tragedy. Hayley Saul’s project set out to record and to help to restore and save some of the historic structures in Nepal, in particular a Buddhist monastery in Langtang, the village her group had left before the earthquake struck.

She wrote about the project for British Archaeology a couple of years ago. I’ve posted the complete feature here, an insight into the sort of things likely to have been lost in Nepal’s parallel disaster.



“Refusing to return objects that rightly belong to Aboriginal communities”? Catch up at the back!


I arrived at the press view of the British Museum’s new show to meet a small group of friendly protestors. We were on the stairs on the west side of the Reading Room. As I looked at the banners I could see the gateway behind them into the passage that leads to the Parthenon Galleries, and for a moment I thought they must be demanding repatriation of the marbles. Doh. I was about to see Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. The protesters wanted artefacts returned to Australia. And – this being The BP Exhibition, Indigenous Australia – the BM to drop BP sponsorship.

stolen climate

It was all a bit confusing, I thought, clutching my rival press releases as I went into the gallery. But very soon I was overtaken by the glorious show.

Bark painting of a barramundi, Western Arnhem Land, c 1961. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Bark painting of a barramundi, Western Arnhem Land, c 1961. © The Trustees of the British Museum

I first learnt about Aboriginal culture when I came to London as an undergraduate in the early 70s, and discovered UCL’s anthropology library. The stories! The art! The landscapes! The tragedies! And the politics. Gough Whitlam had just become prime minister, and the prospect became real that Aboriginal peoples would gain exactly the same rights as all other Australians. Nonetheless, it took until 1992 for the High Court to dismiss the colonial deceit that Australia was terra nullius – nobody’s land, an empty unloved continent waiting for the British to do something useful with it.

Here at last is a show that opens up those stories, “the first major UK exhibition”, we are told, “on Indigenous Australia”. The last time I remember seeing some of the exhibits was in the BM’s own then outpost in Burlington Gardens, the Ethnography Department in the Museum of Man, in the 1970s.

BM booklet 1973

Now we can see some fabulous, rare things, including artefacts that specialist archaeologists will enjoy such as a lot of bifacial flaked stone and glass spear points. There are baskets and paintings, shields and spears. I was spellbound by an extraordinary crocodile mask, a hairy, toothy monster over 2m long made by Mabuiag people in the Torres Strait out of turtle shell, wood, metal and fabric.

The croc was given to the British Museum by Wollaston Franks, and was made before 1885. The BM clearly has a strong Australian collection, joined here by things from elsewhere in the UK and from the National Museum of Australia, Canberra and other collections in Australia and Europe. Exhibits range from the 18th century (a shield collected during Cook’s visit in 1770) to the 21st.

These objects tell stories. The first half of the gallery is about Aboriginal cultures and country. The second half is about their fate in the hands of the British, and the peoples’ fight for rights and identities.


The script is honest and open. It likes Aboriginal culture and artefacts. It thinks the objects are worth studying and conserving, and that they can be interesting and beautiful. And it thinks they can be interrogated so we can learn about the people who made them.

“Objects are our texts”, says Aboriginal artist Jonathan Jones on the audio guide, as I look at a case of decorated shields. “Learning to read these objects is becoming increasingly important.” The shields, says the display, tell you who you are, and others where you come from. “A lot of information has been lost”, says Jones.


The second half of the show is about the struggle for rights, the need to preserve things and traditions, and the success of building new ones. Powerful messages in a small space. Several people describe how they have learnt about their own histories and culture from museum collections and displays. I used to watch my old grandmother make baskets from lawyer cane, says Abe Muriata. “But I wasn’t actually taught by her. I taught myself by going to the museum… I’ve been taught by master craftsmen.” One of his baskets is the last thing you see in the show.


The exhibition does not “perpetuate… the British legacy of taking Aboriginal land, objects and resources without permission”, as the BP-or-not-BP release has it. That is simplistic, and wrong. The protestors’ arguments are developed at greater length elsewhere (eg Zoe Pilger in the Independent, or Paul Daley in the Guardian), but the exhibition shows that they are wrong too. By contrast, Alastair Smart in the Telegraph feels that “Far from celebrating indigenous Australian culture, this show does little more than slam British colonial rule.” That is also wrong. When British settlers arrived, he tells us, “There was, instead of ‘civilisation’, just a boundless landscape.” But Aboriginal Australia shows that “civilisation” does not have to mean “grand buildings, monuments or sculptures”. People can create vast, complex worlds in their imaginations and express these, materially, through small, portable artefacts and marks in the landscape. Humans do not need to be settled, farming and urbanised to be civilised – an important lesson for how we think about most of human history, spent as hunter-gatherers, not growers.

Perhaps this is the point when I should say you really should go to see this show, it’s great. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones gets it, and awards it a full 5 stars.

dance ornament

memories and museums

The exhibition dignifies Aboriginal culture by asking us to respect it, learn from it and wonder at it. It sets out the horror of two centuries of colonial history, and what has been achieved in overthrowing prejudices and restrictions. And it allows contemporary Indigenous people a voice, an identity. You would expect no less from an exhibition created on Neil MacGregor’s watch, by Gaye Sculthorpe, a leading Australian researcher with Aboriginal peoples and herself an Indigenous Australian from Tasmania, and BM colleagues including Lissant Bolton. We are both Australian, said Lissant in her introductory speech. “This exhibition is close to our hearts”.

flagT shirtInspired by this – how far things have come since the 1970s! – I wandered off into the Assyrian galleries.

Winged lion from the north-west Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, Room 7

Winged lions from the north-west Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, Room 7

Assyria was an ancient Mesopotamian kingdom centred on modern Iraq and Syria. The British Museum has an outstanding collection of Assyrian stone carvings and reliefs, mostly from Nimrud and Nineveh, dating from around 900–600BC and excavated by Henry Layard between 1845 and 1851. One of the BM’s most significant recent acquisitions was a group of Assyrian ivories excavated from Nimrud by Max Mallowan (with his wife Agatha Christie) for what is now the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI) in 1949–63. A third of the complete collection remains with BISI; “It is hoped that in the future these can be returned to Iraq.”


Clip from This World: World’s Richest Terror Army, BBC

In recent weeks artefacts from Nineveh and Nimrud – both are world heritage sites – have been among antiquities targets that Islamic State claims to have damaged; Nimrud itself is said to have been bulldozed. There is debate about how much the attacks have been directed at replicas and how much at original artefacts, but there seems no doubt that real losses have occurred. The attacks are politically motivated, and have been described as war crimes. Some argue that they should be seen as genocidal, “part of a blatant attempt to erase an entire people’s history and identity”. IS apparently regulates and taxes antiquities looters who operate on a vastly destructive scale. It is difficult to know how to describe dealers and collectors who buy up the debris, funding destruction and murder.

BM plan

This floor plan gives an idea of the scale of the BM’s Assyrian galleries (the rows of dots along the bottom represent the colonnade at the front of the building).

Ashurnasirpal II's winged lions from Nimrud, Room 6

Ashurnasirpal II’s winged lions from Nimrud, Room 6

Some of the carvings are absolutely huge. They are breathtaking, among the most extraordinary things to be seen in the museum. Kings wrestle with lions, artful depictions of Putinesque games. People are slaughtered and tortured. Cities are destroyed. Huge, brutal-looking half-animal half-human gods follow you with piercing eyes. These are galleries of terror, a boast of extreme power and control, preserved safe in London from the bitter destruction of the “world’s richest terror army”.

chariot horses dying lions released lionThis is what the British Museum is for. To curate and nurture memories and to tell stories, without political flight or favour, about peoples whose only voice is now in material remains, or whose histories can be illuminated with things they made.

Ironically (it actually made me laugh out loud at one point), these galleries are also a visit into a more recent past. I was reminded of travelling on the London underground in the 1970s.


no label

Little background information is given about the geographical and cultural contexts of where these things came from. Some of the labels are missing. Light is a mix of natural and artificial, neither of them adequate. The carvings – thankfully uncased – are dusty.


Sorrell Lachish

This entertaining play on the style of the friezes by Alan Sorrell (1957) hangs on a wall in a frame. It shows, in 1950s-speak, a “tentative reconstruction of the assault and surrender of the city of Lachish”­­.

board game

The label describes the scratched grid under the Perspex as “A newly discovered board for a game”. One suspects that doesn’t mean it was found earlier this year.


Woops, not this way.

no entry

Nor that.

Yet of course it’s still all worth seeing.

The BM is a huge place, with many rooms and memories of its own. Neil MacGregor has transformed it, and steered it through a golden age. His successor faces an enormous challenge, just to keep it going well. Yet they will be able to make their mark, to be creative and surprising as well as welcoming and supportive, without necessarily taking apart or re-inventing things recently done. There is plenty of scope for important new work.


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