Here’s a little thing really worth seeing if you are in central London. The British Museum runs a series of Asahi Shimbun Displays in a small gallery immediately to the right of the main south entrance. They are thoughtful, simple shows of contemporary art and antiquity, and always worth a quick pause (though for now the entrance security tent can take the edge off “quick”). The room is easily missed, and has been quiet whenever I’ve visited. I dropped in today to see the current display, Moving stories: three journeys, which closes on April 30.
It’s a powerful, contemplative experience. On one side you can watch three short extracts from a film in which the late Édouard Glissant, a Martinique poet and philosopher, talks about how migration (in these excerpts, mostly a traumatising experience) drives a creative cultural “multiplicity”. He likes borders, he says, because they separate worlds of distinctive interest, but the concept needs rethinking.
On the opposite wall are photos illustrating all the pages of a book (present in a nearby case) by an Iraqi artist living in the Netherlands, Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. He calls the graphic, melancholy work Ali’s Boat, after an 11-year-old nephew he visited in Iraq in 2014. The young man drew him a boat, and wrote across one corner, “I wish this boat takes me to you.” Alfraji’s response was a series of sketches and writings addressing the illusions and dangers of migratory dreams.
And in between the two is a box of a tunnel. On the floor is projected a full-scale image of footprints in the hardened, million-year-old mud of Happisburgh beach in Norfolk. Sarah M Duffy’s record photos have been animated so that as you stand among the prints, the tide comes in and you can no longer see toes, then retreats leaving little puddles in the prints which look like elongated windows into the past, clouded and rippling.
What connects Berkhamsted, Salford and Edinburgh with remote forests on the Pacific coast? Sixteen totem poles, traditionally carved in cedar.
They are informed by beliefs, values and artistic conventions that evolved on the north-west coast of Canada and America and reach back into the 19th century and earlier. Like all traditional poles, they have nothing to do with totems (an European misnomer), but use a mix of crests and mythical beasts and people, inviting us to consider important issues of culture change and continuity, the history and future of First Nations in north America, and our own ancient past in Britain.
I have written about these great works of narrative art in the new British Archaeology. The six older examples, including two in the British Museum’s Great Court, were probably made between the 1850s and 1870s. They were taken by collectors and dealers from abandoned villages or disintegrating communities in the earlier years of European settlement. The other ten were carved in the second half of the last century: the first was a gift from Canada to the Queen in 1958, and stands in Windsor Great Park.
I went to see one in Hertfordshire when I was writing the feature. It has a wonderful story, which you can read about in the magazine. The pole stands – truly – with its back to a canal in the grounds of a private housing estate in Berkhamsted. I was fortunate to be invited in by a friendly resident, so I was able to take some detailed photos. Here are a few.
The figures on the pole (above, from the top and left to right), are Raven, bringer of first light and people; the sun (or a man wearing a sun mask), who grasps a copper over his front, a shield-like symbol of wealth (he originally had three rays attached to each side of his face, you can just make out the slots on the right); Dzunuk’wa, whose pursed red lips identify her as the woman who leaves the forests to eat children; and Sisiutl, a human-faced serpent whose two additional reptilian heads with extended tongues rise up either side around Dzunuk’wa.
I’ve pasted together a few photos to show the whole of Sisiutl, unwrapped:
• “Where the Thunderbird Lives: cultural resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America” is at the British Museum until August 27. This is, astonishingly – given the strength of its collections, and the extraordinary stories the region has to tell – the museum’s first exhibition on the topic. Many pieces are said to be displayed for the first time in the Museum’s history, and it’s well worth a visit. The display is disappointing, however. It lacks ambition, and it really could do with more information about the objects and the people who made them. For the technicalities of some of the art, if you want to know more, Bill Holm’s classic text has been re-issued and can be found in the museum shop (below left).
The Berkhamsted pole was carved by Henry Hunt: I wrote a short blog a few years ago about a card by him I picked up in an antique market (above right).
The Queen’s great pole, carved by Mungo Martin, is still in Windsor Park. But she is showing a collection of smaller gifts in Buckingham Palace during this year’s summer opening. This carving (left, 78cm high) is among the exhibits. A gift from the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island in 1971, it features the thunderbird of the British Museum show’s title.
The house model with a pole out front (right) can be seen at the BM. This model, made by John Gwaytihl in the 1890s, is based on a real house, Bear House of Kayang on Haida Gwaii. The pole (85cm high) is remarkably similar to the bigger real one in the Great Court. You can see this below, on the right standing in Masset on Graham Island, Haida Gwaii, and on the left as drawn by TA Joyce and interpreted as telling a story of a lazy son-in-law. The pole (12m high) was made around 1850, and acquired by the BM in 1903.
They are small steps compared to crossing part of the Pacific and the whole of the Atlantic, but Hoa Hakananai’a has moved around since it arrived at the British Museum in 1869. I’ve been looking through some old copies of Antiquity, and I came across this photo. It was taken by OGS Crawford for an article by Henri Lavachery, and published in the March 1936 edition.
It’s the best photo I’ve seen of the statue in its original exhibited site, under the front colonnade of the British Museum. On the evidence of these photos, it seems to have been moved there from another outdoor site. It later went out to the ethnographic branch in Burlington Gardens, and was in the Great Court before reaching its present site.
The lantern slide in the British Museum’s Katherine Routledge collection (above) shows the statue with its back to a wall. It’s undated, but was probably taken early in the 20th century; it has pigeon droppings over the head and shoulders, suggesting it had been there for a while.
This photo with what look like Christmas trees and the museum’s totem pole, shows the statue to the right of the front entrance, facing in. The BM’s notes say the print is a copy of an original believed to be in the British Library, and it has a handwritten note saying it was taken in about 1935. The trees, apparently, are “Bay trees introduced by Director Sir George Hill”.
We can see the trees in Crawford’s photo, confirming it was taken around the same time (Hill was director of the museum 1931–36). Taken together, these two show it was standing at the top of the steps, between the two pillars on the east side of the entrance, as below:
Good to see Martin Bailey write about A’a in the Art Newspaper yesterday. We reported this story in British Archaeology in June, when British Museum curator Julie Adams wrote about the new research she led into the wonderful, unsettling carving from Rurutu taken to London by British missionaries in 1821. This and Hoa Hakananai’a (delivered to London in 1869) are arguably the two most spectacular items in the British Museum’s early Pacific collections, which are stronger than the current displays reveal.
Bailey headlines the carbon dating of A’a (actually some time between AD1505–1645, rather than “around 1505”), which like a date obtained some years ago for an Easter Island wooden carving is significantly older than art historians had it. As Adams wrote:
“Even at the younger end of the range, this is still dramatically earlier than had been imagined; it is a major finding that requires a complete reevaluation of our understandings of Pacific art. It makes it clear that A’a was created using stone tools, rather than metal, and that the people who created it were extraordinarily skilled carpenters. It also challenges our perceptions about how long objects may have survived in a tropical environment. The skill and effort required to create A’a, and the extremely significant role he was designed to fulfil – to hold the bones of a deified ancestor – in conjunction with the early date indicated by radiocarbon dating, prove that the figure must have been very carefully treated and preserved.”
Other discoveries of the project include the identification of the wood as sandalwood, not the local pua as had been assumed – causing some controversy on Rurutu, as sandalwood is not native to the island.
The first find, within minutes of Adams seeing the carving in store, was a feather from a Kuhl’s lorikeet. They later found some human hair, scraps of barkcloth and two further feathers. “In Polynesia,” wrote Adams in BA, “these are all items with rich cosmological associations and imbued with the presence of the divine. Red feathers, in particular, functioned as a kind of cosmological currency with which chiefs could assert their status and legitimacy: a chief who could manipulate the appropriate networks to acquire feathers at key moments in the ritual calendar, held political sway on the island. It makes perfect sense for a red feather – a valuable currency – to be discovered within a god image such as A’a.”
Even in storage, museum collections have endless and unexpected stories to tell.
Photo at top British Museum.
Yesterday was a thinking, walking day in London, pleasantly warm and sunny by the end, that began in the British Museum and ended in Spitalfields via Palmyra and Trafalgar Square. As usual, unless otherwise stated, all photos are mine.
The new exhibition at the BM, “Sicily: culture and conquest” (from Thursday till August 14) set the tone, portraying the island as a sort of floating cultural hub, facing east, west and south – notably under Norman kings in the 12th century. It’s the first show to open under the directorship of Hartwig Fischer, who greeted us in the gallery (above). There are some lovely sculptures and ceramics; it’s not difficult to see why some of this stuff excites collectors, even to illicit dealings. These two pictures are from the BM:
I also liked this older carving, from the museum in Syracuse, a carved door from a rock-cut bronze age tomb at Castelluccio (said to date from around 2000BC). The caption comes straight from old archaeology. “The designs on this tomb may depict the sexual act… The spirals may symbolise eyes, breasts or ovaries.” Or perhaps not. It reminded me (in parallel guessing mode) of Easter Island statues: open eyes at top, closed at bottom – closing, or perhaps opening, during the passage from life to death.
So on to Trafalgar Square, to see the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) unveil a replica antique arch – the RomanTriumphal Arch from Palmyra, blown up by IS last October. The IDA and its arch have both created quite an interest in the archaeological community, not least because we are regularly being asked by journalists what we think about them.
I’m still not clear exactly what either are for (IDA and the arch), but there’s no denying the arch is fun, and a stunning illustration of digital technologies. It’s made, I think, by creating a 3D image of the arch from 2D photos, and using this to drive a stone drill – the replica is Egyptian marble. It drew quite a crowd, and there was much talk about loss of world heritage, conservation, meanings and rights. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, credited the arch with raising world awareness about these things.
In any event, international solidarity has to be good. It was also good to see the mayor of London (as he does) talk up ancient civilisations and multiculturalism. “Monuments,” said Boris Johnson, “as embodiments of history, religion, art and science, are significant and complex repositories of cultural narratives” (take that Justin Trudeau and your quantum computing!). People in Trafalgar Square cheered when he raised “two digits” to IS (or Daesh as he calls it). Perhaps IS also cheered in their own way; they like publicity. Roger Michel, IDA’s founder and executive director, seemed to have enough confidence and charisma to match Johnson’s, and came across as enthusiastic and sincere. Good luck to them. Heritage needs champions.
In a video Alexy Karenowska (director of technology at the IDA, and a magnetician at Oxford University’s Department of Physics) gives an eloquent presentation of how this technology can help to restore Palmyra and other ancient sites. The new technologies make it easy, if not cheap. Here is where many archaeologists have doubts. Karenowska seems to envisage replacing lost and damaged architecture with replica models. She recognises the need to “respect authenticity”, and not to confuse copies with antiquity – it’s important, she says, that visitors know which bits are real and which bits are new. But how much do we restore, and what do we leave alone? There are no simple answers.
In the same video Brendan Cormier from the V&A talks about the tradition of making casts of ancient art, which I think is a different thing. As we see spectacularly in the V&A’s recently restored cast court, in earlier centuries plaster casts allowed people to see antiquities and buildings up close that they would otherwise not be able to see at all (as they do for us now). Not only could they not visit remote sites, reproduction technologies were primitive in modern terms, and there were no comparable alternatives.
Old casts often preserve details now lost, and we’d expect digital copies now to do the same in future. But you don’t need to print them to examine them: online digital models can be studied in closer detail, and reach even more people than a printed replica. There’s something about making a physical model of the Palmyra arch that is reminiscent of the early days of the web, when we printed out web pages as seen on our screens. We don’t need to do that.
Here is what some archaeologist have said.
John Curtis, former BM curator, agrees to restoration “after overnight destruction… so far and no further… Many of these ruins had been restored over the years… Provided we know exactly what we are doing, I would certainly favour restoring them to what they were a year ago.”
“…many argue that 3D printing fails to capture the authenticity of the original structures, amounting to little more than the Disneyfication of heritage. They also point out that the fighting is still ongoing… stabilisation alone should be the priority for now.
“Rebuilding also fails to redress the loss caused by the extensive looting of [Palmyra], focusing only on the dramatically destroyed monuments. Perhaps most importantly, it’s worth asking whether returning Palmyra exactly to its pre-conflict state denies a major chapter of its history? … As has happened after previous conflicts, there may need to be a memorial as a testimony to those beheaded in the arena, or tied to columns that were detonated, or to the [executed] former site director… These stories, and many more, are a part of Palmyra’s, and Syria’s, history.
“One thing is clear: while Palmyra may hold great significance to the world, the final decision should belong to those who have lived alongside it, cared for it, managed it, fought for it, and protected it for generations: the Syrian people.”
It’s important that reconstruction does not diminish the significance of the original monument, says Bob Bewley, project director at EAMENA – and there are always “questions of value for money”. “But if wealthy philanthropists wish to create these symbols of the cultural heritage, to raise awareness of the destruction of identity and cultural heritage, then that is their right.” “The biggest threat to archaeological sites in the Middle East is not Isil,” he adds in the Telegraph, “it’s ploughing and urban expansion.”
Abdulkarim also favours sensitive restoration, using digital imagery, Jonathan Tubb told me, to help rebuild recently damaged parts of Palmyra with original fragments – not to create replicas to erect on site. “We can never have the same image as before Isis,” he told the BBC. “We are trying to be realistic.”
“What I approve of is collecting a record of and documenting vast numbers of sites,” says Tim Schadla-Hall, reader in public archaeology at UCL. He’s less enamoured of the arch, however, which he finds “a bizarre expenditure of money, possibly with worthy but misinformed aims, to promote something which isn’t a real past, in an entirely reproduced form. I don’t get it; I find it very, very odd… [What’s needed is] getting people to change their attitudes to what’s important about the past, and the way you do that, if you’re talking about the preservation of monuments, is you make them worthwhile to the people who live there. It’s the economic benefit they get.”
“The publicity and so on is great,” says Bill Finlayson of the Council for British Research in the Levant.“I have no problem with [IDA’s marble arch]. I think there is a bit more of a problem with the issue of reconstruction on the site itself. The dangerous precedent suggests that if you destroy something, you can rebuild it and it has the same authenticity as the original.”
A Times leader warns that “Archaeological sites ought not to be seen as Disneylands of ruins… The question of exactly what is to be rebuilt and what effect that rebuilding would have on the rest of the site – discovered and undiscovered – should be a matter for archaeologists and historians to think about and then to act on.”
Roger Michel responded to the leader by writing to the Times Letters page, agreeing “wholeheartedly that any plan for the reconstruction of Palmyra must be thoughtfully conceived and carefully executed”, but expressing concern about delaying action, noting the drawn-out arguments over the destroyed Bamiyan statues.
Jesse Norman, chairman of the culture, media & sport select committee, wrote of the problems in pulling off IDA’s project “under ideal conditions, let alone in an active war zone”. He thinks “this is a moment when the British government and leading governments around the world should vigorously support Unesco in taking a lead… Palmyra is already a Unesco world heritage site. It is time for Unesco to demonstrate its leadership once again in this area, with our and other nations’ support.”
Like the Times, Boris Johnson puts archaeologists at the forefront. “We have some of the greatest archaeological experts in the world,” he says in a Telegraph column. “I hope that the Government will fund them to go to Syria and help the work of restoration. It is far cheaper than bombing…”
Ross Burns, adjunct professor in ancient history at Macquarie University, Sydney and author of Monuments of Syria (2009), has perhaps been the most outspokenly critical of printed digital replicas. “It is sad”, he writes in Apollo, “the extent to which… those who have access to copious funding want to prioritise the ‘re-creation’ of Palmyra using ingenious technology well away from Syria. Those efforts are misguided. The regeneration of Palmyra must serve (a) the regeneration of Tadmor and (b) restore Palmyra’s real lesson for humanity: that cities can survive for millennia only by building on the memories of their past.”
In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones sides with the majority archaeological view.
“It is always more moving to see the real stuff of the past, however damaged, than to see a faked-up approximation. The temptation to ‘fix’ Palmyra and make it look like it did at the start of 2015 is understandable. This fascinating place has been subjected to a barbaric onslaught, the thinking goes. Surely it should be as if Isis never did their worst.
“History is not like that. The Isis attack on Palmyra was not a counterfactual fantasy. It really occurred. This 21st-century tragedy is part of Palmyra’s history now. This too, for the sake of truth and as a warning to the future, must be preserved.”
The same paper quoted me in similar vein last year:
“Isis will one day be history. Palmyra will be its permanent lesson, about the darkness into which oppression, ignorance and corruption can sink. To over-restore the ruins would be to create a fiction, denying the tragedy and devaluing what had genuinely survived.”
It’s an important debate, and one that IDA and its marble arch in Trafalgar Square can be proud to have stimulated. Meanwhile there are many other projects using digital imagery, like EAMENA, to record ancient remains and landscapes. In the long term, surely the most exciting ones are those that involve or originate from citizens of the countries whose heritage is being traduced. Such schemes include:
- the New Palmyra Project, “using digital tools to preserve the heritage sites being actively deleted by ISIS… hosting live workshops and building a network of artists, technologists, archaeologists, architects, and others to research, construct models, and create artistic works”
- the Palmyra 3D Model, “using people’s unaltered digital holiday photos from Palmyra, before its deliberate destruction by extremists. Using these I am building a 3D model of the ruins to share with the world on open access” (he’s currently seeking funds through crowdfunding to buy a bigger computer)
- Project Mosul, which “strives to preserve the memory of lost cultural heritage through the means of digital restoration”
- Project Anqa, a joint CyArk/ICOMOS “emergency recording and archiving” scheme.
The British Museum’s Emergency Heritage Management programme deserves an honourable mention here. With significant funding from the Department of Culture, Media & Sport and led by Jonathan Tubb, this will bring 24 Iraqi scholars to the UK for intensive archaeological and conservation training, to be followed by further training in Iraq; the first group is due to start soon. “The effect of this rolling programme”, says the BM, “will be to create a large and well-trained team of professionals that can cope with the full range of archaeological heritage needs. A team which will be ready when it once again becomes possible to access [sites such as Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra]. The scheme cannot stop further acts of cultural destruction but it can equip colleagues with the skills required to conserve and restore where possible and is an attempt to enable colleagues to preserve sites and objects of global significance.”
And so to Spitalfields. There’s another debate running here about heritage conservation and change. Of course the situation is far removed from the world of the Middle East: but some of the issues are similar, and views are strongly held – not least by Boris Johnson.
There’s a patch of land up for development that has so far escaped the City’s relentless renewal and growth. In February a distinguished list of names wrote to the Times asking for “the communities and local government secretary, to call in – and hold a planning inquiry into – the planning applications threatening Norton Folgate in Spitalfields. This historic conservation area on the fringes of the City is imperilled by plans by British Land to demolish a swathe of buildings for a banal office-led scheme. The plans were rejected by the local council but this decision has been shamefully overruled by the mayor of London, one of a string of permissions he has handed to developers against the will of local people.”
After hearing the mayor of London speak so winningly in support of world heritage, I thought I’d have a look at this imperilled “historic conservation area on the fringes of the City”. British Land’s original scheme was revised and re-presented to Tower Hamlets council in 2015, and in this form gained Historic England’s support. “In our view,” it writes, “the scheme will bring back into use historic buildings that have lain empty and decaying for decades and make a positive contribution to the area… There are no listed buildings, only the cobbles on Blossom Street are listed and they will be kept… It is our view that change is necessary to bring these long-derelict buildings back into use. The diversity of new uses proposed has the potential to revive the area and reflect its residential and industrial past.”
The air photo below, from an exhibition by British Land in 2014, shows the area affected:
As British Land sees it, what the Spitalfields Trust (the most vocal objector) describes as “glass and steel offices”, “corporate plazas” and “big corporate occupiers”, are proposals for “space for small businesses, contextual architecture, intimate courtyards, independent operators and the carefully considered restoration and retention of historic streets and buildings”.“British Land”, says the Save Norton Folgate Facebook page,“want to obliterate Norton Folgate under a hideous corporate plaza and we want to stop them.”
There are other objectors – among them Tower Hamlets council (over-ruled by the mayor acting as the local planning authority), who rejected the scheme “by reason of its bulk, scale and height [which] would fail to either preserve or enhance the character and appearance of the Elder Street Conservation Area”. Save Britain’s Heritage thinks the proposal “would devastate Spitalfields which is itself an urban success story”. The Huguenot Society objects “on the grounds that the site is one of the few remaining places where Huguenot ancestry and culture is preserved”. The Georgian Group says “the scheme does not respect the scale or materials of the conservation area and fails to demonstrate appropriate enhancement”. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings wants “a full review… in order to deliver a fully heritage-led scheme that protects the special character of the Norton Folgate area”.
There are supporters too, including (with qualifications) the Spitalfields Society, the Ministry of Start-ups (affordable start-ups workspace) which is “acutely aware of the lack of business space in the area which leads to rising rent levels”, and the Metropolitan Police, who welcome the extra footfall.
In February campaigners were granted a judicial review hearing to contest the mayor’s calling in of the council’s decision on the site. Their argument is that Johnson’s office could not have read all the required documents in the time in which it took to respond to the application – apparently the 13th it has called in, over-riding council objections in the other 12 – and as a result “erred in law” by failing to take into account a number of relevant matters. It will be the first challenge to the mayor of its kind, to be held in the High Court before May 5. The debate will be interesting.
First, affected buildings:
And buildings immediately adjacent but otherwise unaffected (please correct me if I’ve got anything wrong):
“Celts: art & identity” opens at the British Museum tomorrow. After a quick press tour today, I can only say, wow. Wow! I will go again and look more closely when I can, but my immediate reaction was sheer joy. This is really worth going out of the way to see.
First, there’s a lot of nice stuff to look at – really nice stuff, with many iconic artefacts of their kind. The BM has a good collection of its own that is used to good effect. They’ve borrowed many things as well – from 17 UK institutions and 10 international museums, says Neil MacGregor in his foreword to the catalogue – in a way that the combined forces of National Museum Scotland and the BM would be hard to beat for material of this subject matter.
Second, the show takes a tired, familiar but enduringly popular concept – Celts – and makes it feel new. Remarkably, the idea was born as long ago as 2003, in a discussion led by JD Hill and Sam Moorhead. Even more remarkably, somehow during the extended development of the idea it took a radical direction.
For two generations archaeologists have been steadily arguing themselves out of the box that held Celts, to leave them, from an academic’s perspective, out of the story altogether. You can see how and why that happened, but from a wider perspective it never really made sense. For most people “Celts” is a very loose term, used as the classical authors who coined it did – as a vague reference to other people in the north and west of Europe at a particular time some 2,000 years ago. Which is what we get here – the art and craft of western Europe in the last five centuries BC.
But that’s just the start (or the first large part). We move on through Roman times, early Christianity and into the Celtic revival of the last few centuries. This would have confused, even alienated some leading archaeologists over 40 years ago (the famous over 40 years ago when it is said the last British exhibition devoted to Celtic art was held, of which more below). People like Stuart Piggott and Glyn Daniel were as fascinated by recent cultural interests in the ancient past as they were by the prehistoric past itself. But there was always a lingering sense – in Daniel’s case, often overt – that modern manifestations of Celts, Druids and the rest were a bit of a joke; it was wrong. Thanks to the BM showcasing it all in one long gallery, here we can just enjoy everything for its own sake. The juxtapositions add interest to each of the parts. Ancient Celticity positively glows in the presence of modern.
Finally, the designers have learnt well how to use the space of this still new gallery. With hindsight, we can see that the main problem with the opening show, “Vikings: Life and Legend” (which the lamented Brian Sewell called “a disaster”), was the ship. The BM had borrowed a fantastic recreation of an entire Viking longship. It was fabulous. And it took up half the gallery, so that everything else had to be crammed into little cases packed close together, around which large crowds ground to a halt.
There are some grand things on show here, not least JH Foley’s triumphant marble statue of Caractacus, borrowed from the City of London, and an impressive show of Celtic crosses (all right, they’re not all real, but they look great). But there is a also much space, room for a very large number of people to wander and look around. For the objects to shine.
The floor plan, and drapes over the earlier part of the exhibition, have a kind of Celtic swirl to them. I love these evanescent fabrics – whatever they are – hanging from above, lit like aurora borealis. When you are in the Celtic revival section, you can see them in the background, rising from the invisible ancient Celtic artefacts like ghosts in the dark.
This theatricality by Real Studios reminded me of a very different display of Celtic art, but one that was equally dramatic: Early Celtic Art, held like the new show in London and Edinburgh – but the other way round. It began during the Edinburgh Festival in 1970, and came down to the Hayward Gallery in London. I was at school at the time. Already enamoured by Celtic art, I hitched from the south coast to Scotland to see it. The university had put on a small conference, where I met Stuart Piggott. Could he sign my catalogue? Of course, what’s the date? I said I didn’t know. Piggott saw I had a newspaper under my arm. “Always”, he said, “use the evidence you have around you.”
The relatively small show had some lovely things. It was dark (like the BM), and spooky. A tape played the sound of cawing crows. There were festoons of what looked like black wool. You felt only one step away from falling into a bog. I thought it was great.
It had the Gundestrup cauldron, featured on the cover of the catalogue (a lovely thing on textured paper with black and white plate inserts). Actually, that was a bit of a swizz, as the cauldron was a replica.
Now, in the British Museum, like Julian Cope, I can see the real thing, surrounded by all its children.
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.
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.
Like 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.
Or 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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.
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).
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”.
This 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.