Bonhams London sale of Modern British & Irish Art coming up on September 16 has so many lovely things (with estimates to match), including several pieces by Alan Reynolds and this outstanding acrylic by Sarah Raphael (1960–2001), A Member of the Family (1990). Michael Glover wrote about this work in the Independent in 2013, comparing Raphael’s vision to those of Samuel Palmer and Stanley Spencer. Some of her gorgeous landscapes undoubtedly have a superficial Spencerian ring about them, but this makes me think more of Paul Nash (the lines of poles, the clump of rounded bushes and the Silbury Hill-like cone – the top of a half-hidden hay rick?), and particularly David Inshaw: all those landscape elements – a little Italianised at the top – with one male and three female figures caught in a critical moment of fraught engagement, to us completely mysterious. And it’s only £6,000–8,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).
I was in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago, checking out the sites. The shore is changing fast, as homes are threatened by cliff falls and the internationally significant archaeology beneath everything is carved out and washed away by the sea. Compare the view then (above) with that from the same place in 2006, with excavation in progress (below). See how the groynes have been exposed and eroded, the concrete pillbox is being broken up and the cliff receding.
Inside the church (where an organist was limbering up for a recital) is an impressive font. The original is said to be 15th century, but it was recarved in the 19th, with a remarkably prescient hairy man with wooden club – a “woodhouse”, surely responsible for the footprints on the beach.
We have John Sell Cotman to thank (as for so much else) for this record of how the older font looked in its last days (with what look like a few bits of the ceiling). The original watercolour, made around 1811, is in the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Centre for British Art.
Here are a few more photos of the church I took in 2006.
Out today is the fourth peer-reviewed article deriving from the search for Richard III’s grave. It focuses on the king’s bones and teeth, specifically what a few of them might tell us about where he lived at different times in his life, and how his diet changed. And once again, the scientific release occurs on the day Channel 4 broadcasts a new film about the dig.
The headline conclusions are:
- Richard III’s diet was impressively aristocratic – high in meat and fish (some of which were from the sea) – though for a period from the age of around five it was heavier on grains; this youthful gruel episode was offset by greater luxuries when he was king, including more freshwater fish and wildfowl, and wine
- The study supports Richard’s known origins in Northamptonshire, but suggests he had moved out of eastern England by age seven, and lived further west, possibly in the Welsh Marches (the borderland area between Wales and England), returning to eastern England as an adolescent or young adult.
There will be sceptics. There will be historians thinking, “Fancy that, Richard III lived in eastern England and had a posh diet, who would’ve guessed?” Google found me a press article on Friday (that its publisher probably believed not to have been online ahead of the Sunday embargo) that opened, “Research conducted on the composition of Richard III of England’s teeth and bones confirm what we already knew”. Such writers miss the point.
First, this is real, new evidence, not stuff that is just assumed. Secondly, and importantly, the science here is quite complex, and though well established, still growing – there is all to prove (or disprove) in an area that offers much in understanding ancient lives. The very rare chance to study an identified historical individual, with a good record, allows the science to be tested against prior information.
By 1995, scientists had been analysing chemical isotopes (comparing the proportions of particular “forms” of different elements) in ancient human bone and teeth for some years. The idea was to identify aspects of diet (high in seafood, for example) or migration (eg a skeleton with radically different values from others in a cemetery might suggest an immigrant). But in that year a key paper took the research into a new area. A South African team proposed that by analysing different parts of a single skeleton, changes in diet and residency patterns might be observed occurring within a person’s lifetime. The principle was that different bones and teeth grow at varied rates or times, creating chemical signatures that relate to events in the individual’s life during those different growth episodes.
We saw this idea being exploited in the BBC TV series, Meet the Ancestors, when teeth analyses regularly indicated a surprising amount of movement around (or even beyond) the UK among people who had previously been assumed to have been pretty static. Judith Sealy and colleagues concluded their 1995 paper by saying, “It is sincerely to [be] hoped that, in the future, work such as this will have access to named individuals whose historically attested dietary histories may be checked against the chemical findings.” As Angela Lamb and Jane Evans (of the British Geological Survey) point out in the new study, examinations of known people remain scarce (off the top of my head, I can’t think of another one).
Even with anonymous people, such comprehensive studies with human remains are still quite rare. The authors of the new paper think only two large scale projects of this kind have been conducted in the UK. One concerned an extraordinary find in Dorset, where the bodies of around 50 decapitated men had been slung into a mass grave – stable isotope research by a team that included Jane Evans established they were Vikings, probably slaughtered by local Anglo-Saxons (the dig featured in British Archaeology May/Jun 2014/136).
What makes the new study particularly interesting is that while we can guess the king ate well, we knew little in detail about his diet (even if we have menus, can we be sure what the man actually ate?). And while we knew where he was born, and where he spent most of his life, there was apparently little information about his residency in childhood and early adult years. So we have a mixture of known and unknowns, with stuff to learn and test. The science is tricky (and the paper unfortunately poorly written and edited – try the very first sentence: “The discovery of the mortal remains of King Richard III provide an opportunity to learn more about his lifestyle, including his origins and movements and his dietary history; particularly focussing on the changes that Kingship brought.”). But keep an eye out, this will create much specialist interest, and further related studies and commentaries are likely.
“Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III”, by Angela Lamb, Jane Evans, Richard Buckley & Jo Appleby, Journal of Archaeological Science (August 2014)
“Beyond lifetime averages: tracing life histories through isotopic analysis of different calcified tissues from archaeological human skeletons”, by Judith Sealy, Richard Armstrong & Carmel Schrire, Antiquity (1995)
The previously published peer-reviewed articles from this project are:
“The intestinal parasites of King Richard III”, The Lancet (September 2013)
“The scoliosis of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England: diagnosis and clinical significance”, The Lancet (May 2014)
You might notice a bit of a theme going on here. First Stonehenge opens a visitor centre that is roundly trashed by the press (and subsequently praised by their travel journalists). Then the British Museum’s new extension and Vikings exhibition is labelled boring – and attracts huge numbers of visitors. Now we have a third archaeological museum milestone, in the shape of a visitor centre for Richard III in Leicester. And while the press seem largely to like it, not everyone does.
Perhaps we should have expected that those who want Richard’s remains in York were never going to let it go quietly, though the judicial review found against them. Their online comments are frequently racist, rude and, it seems, universally stupid. We can leave them alone.
But neither are Philippa Langley and her supporters happy, and they deserve an audience. One of them has described aspects of the new centre as “insulting”, “grotesque”, “ghoulish” and “spurious”; says the Looking For Richard Project team feel “belittled” and “sidelined”; and claims their expressed concerns were “overridden by the university’s insatiable desire to position itself as the driving force behind the search for Richard III, rather than – as all Ricardians know [All? Did they hold a poll?] – the interlopers who stepped in and grabbed overall control.”
Let’s start with something positive. I was in Leicester on August 7 to hear the announcement about the reburial ceremony, which we now know will be in March next year. It’s going to be a big event, described by the cathedral as having “the character of a state funeral” (while admitting that it is neither state nor funeral), with the royal household represented (by who knows who). There will be a week of events:
Sunday March 22
Leicester University transfers Richard III’s remains into a lead-lined coffin which travels to Bosworth, accompanied by a cortege. It arrives back in Leicester, at the cathedral, in the early evening where there is a service of reception.
Monday–Wednesday March 23–25
The king lies in repose by the cathedral font, his coffin covered with a pall. The cathedral will be open to visitors, as always, but this will be a unique moment, with people coming from around the world to witness a coffin holding someone who died nearly 530 years ago, before it is buried.
Thursday March 26
Service of reinterment, broadcast on Channel 4, which has exclusive live rights, with an evening programme of highlights (whatever else she receives, Philippa Langley deserves a big gong from this British broadcaster).
Friday–Saturday March 27–28
The sealed tomb is revealed, with a service to mark the completion of reinterment and to think ahead.
While this is going on, there is a programme of events, featuring preparations for the reburial, results of scientific research into the remains, the story of Richard’s reign and the impact of the discovery on Leicester; and, after reinterment, looking to the future. In this as in much else, it will be an unusual occasion: lectures as sideshows.
The Richard III Society has said it is also planning its own events for the week, which will include a special service at the cathedral for members on Monday March 23.
So where last time we had a panel announce the result of the judicial review, on this day the cathedral hosted Matt Webster (Fairhurst Ward Abbots Conservation), the Very Reverend David Monteith (Dean of Leicester) and Phil Stone (Richard III Society chairman) – you can watch the video of the presentations here. Monteith began with the date and details of the reburial events, and news that His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester is to be patron of the cathedral’s appeal in support of the reinterment – their target is £2.5m, of which they say they have raised nearly £1m. There will be no admission charges to the cathedral, said Monteith in answer to a question. The memorial stone on the floor, on the site of the future tomb, will be removed and cared for, but where it will end up has yet to be resolved (“We hope it will be somewhere in the environs of this part of the city”).
FWA Conservation have already started work in the cathedral, with alterations to the wooden screens and furnishings, and stone floors.
Outside, the cathedral’s landscaping project is nearly done, and work continues to tidy up and pedestrianise the street. When it’s all finished, there will be a lovely open space with trees, gardens and memorials that reaches from beyond the visitor centre across St Martin’s and the cathedral grounds, and embraces the medieval Guildhall. For now it takes a bit of imagination to see through the muddle.
Dallas Pierce Quintero’s new sculpture looks the corporate confusion the name suggests. I didn’t like the proposal on the screen (as I say in my book, I opted for Michael Sandle’s idea, while recognising it was never going to be selected), but these things can look quite different in reality. If this is different, it’s worse: ugly, clunky and difficult to read (even if you have it explained, which it shouldn’t need). It looks as if it may have to be permanently fenced off for fear of accidents with kids, it doesn’t respond to changes in the light and it evokes no emotions in me at all. But please defend it if you disagree!
In its favour, it gives the old and now refreshed Richard III bronze – which doesn’t do much for me either – added strength in its new site. Sentimental meets flat.
Which leads through to the visitor centre in the converted old school. In the next photo you can see how the site looked in 2013, when the second excavation was in progress in the school playground. The space is now filled with the entrance lobby, which doubles as a small shop (so you exit AND enter via the gift shop – of which of course I approve, if it means you look at my book).
Getting this visitor centre right was a double challenge for Maber Architects and the exhibition creators Imagemakers and StudioMB: it had to be fitted into a historic and complex building with limited space over two floors separated by steep stairs, and, furthermore, incorporate a grave with the appearance of no more than a rough hole in the ground; and the schedule was ridiculously tight, requiring an opening date before research into its subject was completed. My immediate impression is that it has been done remarkably well – there are some very clever moments. Yet I also have misgivings. There are some fundamental points I think it may have got wrong, whether for reasons of policy or practicalities.
It begins with a video wall, with characters in period dress wandering about in a candle-lit stone chamber. When I entered, there was a man in a cap and leather waistcoat measuring up another man’s deformed, naked back. My first thought was, it’s Blackadder (and I’m afraid I heard someone else say the same thing) – then, no, Horrible Histories! But the quality of the thing soon became apparent. It’s very well done, and if you take the seven minutes and concentrate, you can learn a lot.
The display then proceeds with two themes: Richard III’s reign and death on the ground floor, and the story of the dig to find his grave, and the science that followed, above. Down is dark, noisy and theatrical. Up is bright and clean, with different typefaces and a yellow and white colour scheme (for the dig) and silver and various bright colours for the science. There are lots of effective videos, graphics and text boxes (aided by high quality university photography and video clips from Darlow Smithson), with a surprising amount of stuff to get through – the centre suggests you need around 90 minutes for the tour.
When you move from one floor to the next, you get a sense of the problems presented by the site. You leave Richard dead on the battlefield, and enter a stair well with doors off to a café, toilets, a lift and who knows what else. There is a big notice, but you do wonder where you are. The spell is broken.
Difficult decisions must have been made about what to show of the original building, and what not. Is Newton still there somewhere, for example? I missed him if he is.
Upstairs, the dig story is told in two parallel narratives: by the archaeologists on the wall, and by Philippa Langley and the Richard III Society on the table (and both versions are very much in the protagonists’ words). It looked to me like an effective solution to a difficult problem, as the stories really are quite different, yet ran at least partly concurrently. Before this starts, there is a scene setter – equivalent to the video wall downstairs – that asks us to think about how Richard III has been portrayed and understood (a striking exhibit here is a replica of Ian McKellan’s costume for Richard III as dictator).
There are some imaginatively chosen artefacts, including the digger bucket that found Skeleton 1, Philippa Langley’s wellies and Mathew Morris’s hi-vis jacket.
There’s a nice view out over the courtyard and entrance lobby below, where you can see (if you know what you are looking for) the sites of the friary church and Richard III’’s grave (under the furthest copper and brass roof, beyond the wall), and the cathedral spire in the near distance – soon to mark Richard’s second grave.
All of this pretty much follows the same narrative as my book, so I’m not going to complain about it. Finally, if you can find your way there, you get to see the grave, in a private room of its own back down on the ground. You approach through a wide corridor at the back of the shop, which looks across the courtyard and has a pleasant cloister-like effect. The burial chamber is really the only entirely new space (the reception area is bounded by existing walls). The roof rests on a ring of glass, that allows natural light to settle on the stone floor and walls. At the back a long glass panel runs across the floor, through which you can see dirt – the ground level reached by the dig in 2012 that found the grave, and in 2013 that expanded the area around it. If you know what you’re looking for (to coin a phrase), you can see the edge of Trench 1, the first one excavated in 2013.
This could easily have gone very wrong, but it’s calm, respectful and contemplative. There’s plenty of space should large crowds come, and no intrusive branding or information panels – which on the downside can leave you wondering exactly where you are, or even what you are looking at.
So overall, there’s a lot to see and discover. It’s not tacky or cheap. Apart from a wall of hinged shields on the ground floor (you open a shield and read a text), which is starting to come apart, it all looks well designed and well made. I didn’t read everything (which I will on another visit), but what I did contained no obvious errors. A remarkable amount has been achieved on a budget of £4m – and the council didn’t sell anything off to pay for it.
But as I said at the top, I do have reservations. Some of the problems undoubtedly arise from the nature of the site, abetted by the rushed schedule. It’s a shame you have to pass through so much clutter between the history gallery and the dig upstairs (as I emerged into the light with the sound of medieval battle in my ears, I could hear a hand dryer not far off) – though that could be mitigated perhaps by a more ambitious cafe, whose aromas of coffee and fresh baking might pervade the hall (not something that looks about to happen).
That sense of fragmentation continues with the grave, which is physically remote from everything at the centre. Many would argue that is how it should be – it’s a grave, not an exhibit, and should be respected in its own right, not roped into a wider scheme. But should that also apply to the connection between the former grave and the cathedral, soon to be the site of the actual grave of Richard III? Nothing I could see drew the visitor’s attention to the link, either physical or narrative. Perhaps that’s to do with timing – the judicial review into the reburial found for Leicester only in late May. But neither did the grave seem to have much to do with the exhibits upstairs.
A second reservation I have is about things. I’ve mentioned a few exhibits, but there really are very few. In the long term, any display that hopes to convey the impact and story of the dig needs more original artefacts (I didn’t see one thing that had actually been dug up). It’s great to have Morris’s jacket, but its impact is diminished by an adjacent exhibit, described as “This kind of mattock was used in the excavation” – supplied by ULAS, perhaps, and exactly what they would have used on site, but not THE mattock.
Which leads me to my next point: there’s no tarmac. If no one at the time thought to rescue the white R (marking a reserved space) that inspired Philippa Langley, there can have been no shortage of broken tarmac around when the king’s remains had very likely been found. Not only is there none in the display, the whole context of the grave in the car park seems to have got lost.
Perhaps that results from a misconceived idea about respecting the person, but whatever the reason, it’s a serious mistake. That Richard III was found in a municipal parking lot is indelibly written into folk history – it’s arguably one of the key things the world now knows about the Plantagenet king. It’s also an important part of the story, an apt symbol for the Henrician desecration of the friary and tomb, and subsequent events that led to the almost miraculous survival of the grave underground. Yet, notwithstanding references in the exhibition upstairs, nowhere at the centre, even at the grave site, does the sense come across that all this land was once a couple of car parks, now entirely removed or hidden behind a new stone wall. For that you have to nip down New Street and see how the now famous view into the Social Services car park looks (see here for earlier views of this development). From here you also get a view of the former school, looking rather odd with its whited-out windows, and what in the local context seems to be an inappropriate stone wall on the site of the original brick wall. And you are reminded, perhaps, that there was more to this site than a grave: the medieval friary, which for the archaeologists was a significant discovery, has also got rather overlooked.
You might think this leads into others’ complaints about the show, but only in the sense that others do have reservations. The latter are entirely different from mine.
A specific point has been expressed by Philippa Langley, in what she describes as an advance copy of a letter to the editor of the Ricardian Bulletin, published by the Richard III Society.
Langley was invited by Leicester City Council, she says, to write the Looking For Richard Project’s story for the new visitor centre. She was later “dismayed” to see her text had been changed by Leicester University, who removed her reference to “£800 remaining from the Ricardian International Appeal”, which she believes paid for the excavation of Skeleton 1. In its stead, she says, the text reads, “Richard [Buckley] says he isn’t digging up any burials until he knows for certain about their ‘context’, that is how they relate to the layout of the church.” She sees this as the University “suppress[ing] the role of Ricardians and their funding”. “It was your funding”, she tells them, “that allowed me to give instructions for the remains in Trench One, which proved to be those of the king, to be exhumed despite the scepticism of the archaeologists.” She also complains that John Ashdown-Hill’s genealogical research has been subsumed within a university presentation. Elsewhere she has written, “we are fighting behind the scenes and lawyers letters have been sent”.
If you have read both her book (co-authored with Michael Jones) and mine, you will already have noticed that Langley and the archaeologists have different views of how Skeleton 1 was excavated (as in other matters). Having spoken to many people on the dig, and also from my understanding of how any archaeologist would have acted in the circumstances – and ULAS’s are particularly experienced in just this type of work – I have no doubt the archaeologists’ version is nearer the truth. I have no reason to think that Langley does not believe her version to be correct, but that does not make it so. The display text seems a sensible compromise.
So why the fuss? Why, in Annette Carson’s words, is the Looking For Richard Project “saddened and profoundly disappointed by the exhibition”?
This is getting tedious, and I’m not going to go through it all blow by blow. You can read about it on Carson’s blog. She has edited a little book (Finding Richard III: The Official Account) written by Ashdown-Hill, Langley and David and Wendy Johnson. Absurdly – given that it includes almost no description of the excavation or science, and no references to any archaeological publications about these in the bibliography or footnotes– it is described as “the full story of how Richard III was found”.
That last point is germane. You cannot expect sensible, busy people to take you seriously if you appear deliberately to confuse the record. Some might feel that that is what Finding Richard III: The Official Account does, in a petty way that diminishes everyone, not least the important role of the Richard III Society and its members in the whole project. Let me offer just a couple of examples.
Part of the book is given over to an explanation of how Ashdown-Hill established a genealogical link between Richard III and a living person, enabling potential DNA verification should the king’s remains be found. The emphasis, as often elsewhere, is on exactly when Ashdown-Hill did what, as he is keen to establish primacy in his research – a sign of amateurism that bedevils this debate. It really doesn’t matter. Good research will speak for itself. Evidence suggests that comprehensive documentation of the genealogical link (as well as the important discovery of more than one) was done by the university, in particular Kevin Schürer, and by not recognising that (as the exhibition correctly does), Ashdown-Hill damages his own work.
However, my point is that notwithstanding the space devoted to this issue about genealogy and DNA, elsewhere the book seems to show that for them it had little impact on the discovery of Richard’s remains. As Philippa Langley has often said (and as she told me, as I describe in my book), Ashdown-Hill’s research was critical in giving her the confidence to pursue her quest for the grave. But when it came to it, the Looking For Richard Project put little weight on DNA. They didn’t like the “intrusive” scientific studies. They don’t mention the overwhelming cost of pursuing DNA verification in their excavation budget (page 52, which thus allows them to claim the Richard III Society funded just over half of it, the omitted DNA research being paid for by the university). They had decided before DNA analysis began that Skeleton 1 was Richard III’s. So in their eyes, the DNA doesn’t matter. So why bother with it?
My second point relates to an already public dispute – it came up in court in the judicial review – about a contract between Leicester University and Philippa Langley that supposedly gave her protective rights over the king’s remains, pending reburial. It seemed an odd thing, but neither side had published the “contract”. Finding Richard III: The Official Account, has.
The key passage is in the Written Scheme of Investigation (published here in full for the first time), para 5.7. When the research is complete, it says, any remains identified as those of Richard III are to be “transferred to the custody of the Client [Philippa Langley] … for reburial. At this time, the remains will be placed in a hand-made coffin… [and] transferred to the nearby Abbey of Mount St Bernard… where they will lay in a place of continual prayer and worship before private reburial in Leicester Cathedral.”
This is indeed an odd arrangement, surely one that ULAS would now wish it had not agreed to. On what basis would we expect the newly found remains of an English monarch to be given into the private custody of an individual with no special qualifications for the purpose, and no guarantees for the safety of the remains, or indeed anything that might happen to them? It seems likely that Langley insisted on the clause, and that ULAS acceded, as we know highly sceptical that the royal remains would be found, or the project would not have gone ahead.
In the event, the exhumation licence, obtained after the WSI was drawn up and issued by the Secretary of Sate for Justice – on both accounts making redundant WSI para 5.7 – explicitly places the responsibility of looking after human remains onto ULAS, who were obliged to keep them “safely, privately and decently… under the control of a competent member of staff.” ULAS was in no position to break that condition.
Even without the exhumation licence, it seems highly unlikely that para 5.7 would have been followed. It was one thing to make such an arrangement before the remains had been found. Events entered another world when they were. Suddenly the dig, and the finds, were of international interest, and the concern of many more than the Richard III Society and ULAS. Para 5.7 would have been forgotten about. Flexibility and common sense would have prevailed.
As indeed they have done with reference to other conditions in the WSI. In both this (paras 4.3.5–7) and a private Reburial Document drawn up by Langley and colleagues (page 63 in the book), are strong restrictions on photography and filming. They are complex, but give close control to Langley over how Richard III’s remains, if found, should be recorded, and who should see the images. Again, you wouldn’t have expected either archaeologists, or a TV company (which Langley had herself brought in), to have agreed to such clauses. One can only imagine that they thought that if the unlikely event of finding Richard III actually occurred, everything would change.
It could hardly have come as a surprise that, when Richard III was found, Darlow Smithson wanted to amend this part of the WSI. So Philippa allowed them to film, on “the strict understanding that [it] would be for the historical record and not for wider dissemination” (page 55). Though not mentioned in the book, there must have been another amendment. Which is fine and sensible. As is amendment of any other unreasonable clause in the WSI.
James Miles has posted links to some interactive models of Hoa Hakananai’a deriving from his digital work on the statue. The images are relatively low resolution, pending further moves for accessing very large files, but the opportunities they give to examine the statue are already stunning and unprecedented (and arguably of higher resolution than any previously published images, not to mention the interactivity that allows you to shine a torch into the shadows). Here not only can you explore (and question) our interpretation of the statue and its carvings, as described in our peer-reviewed articles, but you can search for your own discoveries and insights. This is the principle that lay behind our project from the start. At the click of a mouse, someone on Rapa Nui – for example – can now look at Hoa Hakananai’a in ways that before were impossible for any of us, even standing beside the sculpture in the British Museum.
Our interpretation of one of the birdman’s beaks has caused some discussion, so here is an example of what you can do (these are just screengrabs, the model itself will give you better views).
First, the traditional way of reading the two beaks, as drawn by Cristián Arévalo Pakarati:
This is how that area looked in a photo taken in 1868, a few weeks after the statue had been removed from Easter Island:
And here are three images from James Miles’ blog (Top of back of the Statue).
[Note added August 15 2014. I should expand on the above sentence, which could mislead. The three images that follow are not from James’ blog, but made by me by manipulating the light and texture in a single RTI file created by James. They are cropped 2D frames from a partially 3D model: you will get a fuller idea of what I show by playing around with the original model. This is an important point that has been missed in some of the critique of our work. If you’re interested in this, it’s really worth taking the time to look at the original models.]
First, lit to show how the right beak appears to stop well short of the left, the relief area coming to a rounded tip, and the line extended by a couple of grooves that may or may not be related, but are comparable to marks elsewhere that look like later damage (you can search for them).
Second, lit to show the left beak. Although not (now at any rate) defined by a line or groove, it does look as if there is an area of raised stone indicative of a full bill with a line running down the centre. If you compare this with the 1868 photo, it looks as if whoever painted the white lines followed the beak’s profile correctly up the left side and around the tip, but then swung in to come down the centre line.
Finally, lit to show some curious parallel grooves in the stone between the two necks, not apparently noticed before. Damage or design?
Northampton Borough Council sold its Egyptian statue for huge profit. It’s been criticised, but it really doesn’t seem to care. What next? If I lived in Northampton, I’d be worried that my museums might sell off more stuff that I didn’t know they had. And who’s to say this will stop at Northampton? Which council will be next?
Part of the case for raising money this way is said to be that if the public don’t ask to see something, they don’t want it. David Mackintosh, leader of Northampton Borough Council, told the BBC that the Sekhemka statue had “not been on display in Northampton for over four years. Nobody’s really come to us and asked for it to be on display or to see it.” (I like that “really”. Really?) Commentators on news stories sometimes repeat the point. “Before all this kicked off,” goes one, “Can anyone tell me the last time they wanted to look at this statue? Last time they enquired about it?” (That got 13 votes against, 7 for.)
So here’s what we do. Tell people about the hidden gems in our museums.
At any one time, the bulk of any reputable museum or gallery’s collections is not on display. Most of what’s in store is known about only to a handful of specialists. If a museum has no qualms, it could slip things out onto eBay hoping no one would notice (over the years, it’s not unknown to hear of things that have disappeared behind the scenes for one mysterious reason or another). Many museums publish catalogues, of course, detailing all they have, a professional responsibility. But not all do, or have catalogued their entire collections. And, like the stuff itself, these publications are typically seen only by specialists.
So if you are such a specialist, and you know of something that is particularly interesting or important to you, but which is probably known to few others, tell the world! Let’s hear about those things that nobody really asks to see because they don’t know they’re there. Let them know. See off the vandals.
Here’s my bit. Stone bracers.
These are really interesting little things, usually found in male graves and often by the wrist, from which they are generally assumed to be archer’s bow-string guards (such graves often have little flint arrowheads too). They were in use around 2500–2000BC. A very fine one lay by the arm of a man buried at Stonehenge.
Ann Woodward and John Hunter recently published a detailed monograph, cataloguing all the known specimens – they found 161 in Britain and Ireland. They concluded their discussion with an entertaining, if not totally convincing idea that the objects may have had nothing at all to do with archery, but instead were associated with falconry. Robert Wallis has just looked at that from the viewpoint of a falconer, and dismissed it. So it’s back to archery – though we’re still not clear exactly how they worked. More research needed.
And what do you know? My colleague Rob Ixer happened to tell me that Northampton Museum & Art Gallery has a couple of these bracers (he worked on the petrology for the cataloguing project). We wouldn’t wish those to slip out to the best bidder, so here are their entries.
There’s another one, excavated at Raunds in Northamptonshire. It’s currently, so the entry says, in an English Heritage store in Hampshire, but in due course we would expect to see it find its way to its local museum. English Heritage would have a good reason now to think about that, but you never know. So here’s that entry too.
An Examination of Prehistoric Stone Bracers from Britain, by A Woodward & J Hunter (Oxbow 2011) (reduced to £9.95)
“Re-examining stone ‘wrist-guards’ as evidence for falconry in later prehistoric Britain”, by Robert J Wallis, Antiquity 88 (2014), 411–24
Arts Council England’s judgment that Northampton Borough Council contravened museum accreditation standards when it sold the Sekhemka statue, is the first of similar statements we expect to hear, from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Museums Association among others.
David Mackintosh, leader of the council, apparently called the news “disappointing” and “puzzling”. More puzzling is that he should say that, if he really believes it, as it seems everyone was telling him before the sale that exactly this would happen. As the Save Sekhemka Action Group says today, “During our 2 year campaign to halt the sale of the Egyptian funerary statue, Sekhemka, we have time and again warned that the unethical sale would result in loss of this status.” It goes on to warn that without such accreditation, the council might feel it no longer has anything to lose, so might as well sell whatever it feels like. “Nothing in the collections will be safe unless it is shoe related”, says the action group.
You could be forgiven for thinking there’s some truth in this if you look at Northampton Museum & Art Gallery’s blog. The staff are not wasting their time with superfluous chatter. There have been only two entries between June 1 and today (August 1), one about “a pair of cycling shoes worn by the legendary English racing cyclist, Beryl Burton” (July 7) and the other a short piece about “cowboy boots” (today). I guess they just didn’t notice the sale of one of the borough’s objects on July 10.
Perhaps that was Sekhemka’s downfall. He had the temerity to sit there, hidden away in some secreted case, in bare feet.