Sculptures on exterior of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Westminster, London
Great Britain Trip, Part 2: Archaeology of Empire
Two weeks ago I embarked on my first trip to Europe, specifically to Great Britain. This journey had two aspects. First, it is the closest I’ve had to a vacation in at least four years. But honestly, I don’t really do vacation. The primary reason for the trip was to assist several projects I’m working on, including a volume I’m currently writing on why archaeology has the “spooky” image it has in the public imagination.
The following images are not in precise chronological order, though the general narrative does roughly follow the order of places I visited. I spent four days in London at the beginning and another two at the end, and these materials are something of a chronological jumble for thematic purposes. These images are a fraction (specifically, about 7%) of the images I took. Many of these were for research I am not discussing in depth here, or for teaching purposes. The images and text here are instead a rough tour not so much of where I went as why I went, what I learned, and why that might be of interest.
This travelogue is broken into seven sections
Archaeology of Empire
Mysteries of London
Time in Bath
A Green and Magical Land
The Legend of Loch Ness
The Archaeology of Empire
Before I begin, a word on the title of this post. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy visiting the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and others during my stay in the United Kingdom, I was also graciously assisted by the British Museum. I was able to consult some of their artifacts not on display, in support of ongoing research projects (note: these objects are not discussed or represented below). I am quite thankful for this assistance.
Furthermore, as a United States citizen and resident who conducts archaeology primarily in Latin America, I don’t have all that many stones to throw in regards to the relationship between larger geopolitics and the conduct of scientific and scholarly inquiry. While I believe my work aids in public and scholarly understanding of the past in Latin America, I am aware that my work cannot be entirely divorced from the larger role of the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere.
That said the British imperial past and its importance in the formation of archaeology should not be ignored when viewing many of the objects in the collections above, and this connection is not hidden in these exhibits. The brilliant Enlightenment Room at the British Museum very much contends with the role of imperialism in the collecting of curiosity cabinets, and then museums, that were so foundational to the origins of modern science generally, and archaeology specifically.
The artifacts to be found in these collections are truly astounding, and I feel privileged to have been able to see them first-hand, even though they can invoke specters of the role of colonialism in earlier archaeological endeavors.
The British Museum is open to the public and free (though donations are suggested, and there are plenty of ways to spend money within its walls if you so desire). It was quite busy every day I was there, no exhibit was busier than the Egyptian exhibits, and no spot in the Egyptian exhibits got more public attention than the Rosetta Stone, placed right at the front entrance to the exhibit. I couldn’t tell if the stone is famous because it is famous, if it is famous because its significance is so clear, or if it is famous because of its contentious history as war booty of France and then Britain, before more recent Egyptian requests for either a loan or a repatriation. Judging by the materials sold in the various gift shops of the museum, putting the Rosetta stone on almost every imaginable medium, its popularity is well-understood.
The Egyptian sculpture hall is a wonderland of massive and delicate ancient works, many iconic.
The scale can be overwhelming
Many objects are statues of rulers (many of those in the collection are from the New Kingdom, and like the two above, are specifically of Amenhotep III, father of the heretic king Akhenaten), but some are also more religiously oriented, such as this collection of Sekhmet statues
Time and again in the British Museum, I was stunned by seeing the original objects I reference in my Lost Cities and Ancient Civilizations class, such as the important Battlefield Palette from late Predynastic Egypt, depicting some of the political conflict in the immediate years before the first unification of Upper and Lower Egypt and the beginning of the classical Egyptian state. Though notably even this object is not unified in its museum state, as the upper fragment is a replica of a section in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Unsurprisingly, many visitors were particularly excited by the mummy and sarcophagus rooms
Though quite a few gawked around this famous cat statuette. Modern social media netizens can clearly identify with the ancient Egyptian love of cats. Like many museum pieces around the world, it is known better by the name of its donor than by its context or history.
Cats were also on offer at the Petrie Museum. The middle necklace is composed entirely of faience (a form of colored ceramic-glass) cat amulets smaller than the nail on your pinky finger. Above the cats is a necklace composed of wards against magic.
The University College London has one of the world’s great archaeology departments (I met with several members and alumni of the UCL archaeology program while I was in London, who graciously took me out to dinner and drinks), and much of that legacy goes back to Sir William Flinders-Petrie, who was a pioneer in both archaeological method and heritage management.
Petrie initially went to Egypt to test a pseudoscientific notion of the “pyramid inch” held by the Royal Astronomer of Scotland, a friend of Petrie’s father. But once he concluded his surveying measurements of the Pyramids at Giza, Petrie quickly discarded this idea, and soon took up the cause of protecting Egyptian heritage from widespread looting for the commercial market. This didn’t stop Petrie from participating in the “partition” culture of archaeology of his time, agreements brokered with governments that resulted in archaeological materials going to the home countries of foreign excavators, but it would be decades before these organized standards began to change.
The Petrie Museum is far smaller than the British Museum, but is jam-packed full of wonderful things, to quote one of Petrie’s contemporaries. It is a must visit and feels like everything the stereotype of the modern museum isn’t. There are treasures everywhere, more than can be imagined. There are not large blank wall panels supporting printed information (though there is a fair amount of information presented in addition to artifacts), nor repeating banks of electronic displays (though there is material from the 3DPetrie project). Those who know me know that I very much embrace new technologies including for museology, such as 3D data capture and replication/printing, but the sheer density of the material here was comforting. This was clearly a showcase for wonderful things and a key reference for students of archaeology. Indeed, there were a couple of people specifically studying collections in amongst the exhibits when I visited.
Petrie invented one of archaeology’s core methods, sequence dating or seriation, the method used for chronologically ordering archaeological contexts based on the style of artifacts they contain. It is a formal version of your ability to recognize the age of a piece of clothing, or a car, or a building, by minor stylistic changes. I teach this method to my students using some of Petrie’s work in the cemetery lots of Naqada, so imagine my wonder at seeing so many of the ceramic vessels Petrie used not only on display, but in stylistic order.
For those who largely prefer to get their archaeology from the History channel and its never ending parade of ancient aliens, hyperdiffusion, giants, and other pseudoscientific topics, take a look at these two stones. One is a stone used in moving large stones in construction, the other an inventory of supplies delivered during pyramid construction. It doesn’t mention anything about the Watchers or sonic tractor beams.
One of the joys of the extensive collections at London’s museums such as the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert is the ability to trace a theme through time. On my final day in London proper, I spent a goodly amount of time in the East Asia rooms of the Victoria and Albert and British Museums, sections I had not had a chance to visit earlier. In addition to taking a quite a few images of Neolithic pottery and Shang bronzes for my lectures, I decided to continue with the theme of dragons I had been following in European artwork the previous week. The above jade ornament from Neolithic China is a sort of thing labeled a “pig-dragon” an early form of mystical beast that eventually gives rise to the long dragon better known around the world. The form involves from slit-ring ear-pendants like the above, similar in some senses to ear flares for those of a Mesoamerican background who may be reading this.
These two objects from the Shang period, a ritual bronze spear point and a chariot fitting, have much more recognizable dragons.
Monsters like the taotie abound on Shang bronzes, some of the most valuable elite goods of second millennium BCE China.
The beast on the bronze handle of this knife complements the blade made of jade, a material that came to symbolize antiquity in a way that jade did in Mesoamerica, or marble did in Europe.
Appreciation and study of antiquities arguably has deeper formal roots in China than in Europe, as demonstrated by this Qing dynasty ceramic adaptation of a three-millennia older Shang bronze wine cup. Several examples of antiquarian artistry were on display in the China sections of the BM and V&A.
Objects from all over the world can be found in London’s museums, though I noticed that perhaps the least represented part of the world was South America (shades of the competition between Spain and Britain in the Early Modern era). The Easter Island moai named Hoa Hakananai’a was stationed in one of the main entrances to the Great Hall of the British Museum, though it did not attract anywhere near as much attention as the Rosetta Stone. Perhaps its kinship to modern minimalism does it no favors in the postmodern early 21st century.
Another treasure of the Natural History Museum is the Broken Hill skull, the earliest hominin skull recognized from Africa, and an important example of Homo heidelbergensis.
Of all the objects I was most desirous to see in the British Museum, the list was topped by the lintels of Yaxchilan. Pioneering Maya archaeologist Alfred Maudslay brought these back from Yaxchilan, a moderately-sized but beautiful Classic Maya city in the Usumacinta valley that separates modern Mexico and Guatemala. These masterpieces of Maya sculpture and iconography appear in every textbook on Mesoamerica, and I use them every semester in trying to teach my students a little something about Maya hieroglyphs. Indeed, I’ve been using them in that capacity since I was an undergraduate teaching fellow over twenty years ago. Despite all that, the detail, the mixing of high and low relief to give even greater depth, were still stunning.
The Americas rooms of the British Museum were small, but I recognized almost every object in the Mesoamerica room. Time and again I was floored by realizing a key object I know and use for teaching and research was here, in front of me.
This jade plaque, which led to a cloud over Dr. Thomas Gann during the struggle to professionalize archaeology in Mexico, is another masterpiece, and possibly another example of purposeful archaizing and exoticizing using an antique-themed material, jade. It’s also a heck of a lot bigger than I had imagined. I understand Gann’s obsession with the piece a little better now.
Though Egypt is clearly a great archaeological obsession of the Victorians that built the British Museum out to its fullest, the engagement with the Near East in the 19th and 20th centuries was even more astonishing to me.
Another iconic piece I use every semester is this stela to Narbonidus, the last of the Neo-Babylonian kings. Narbonidus collected together many ancient icons and monuments to gods from distant lands, consolidating his spiritual power in one place. For this reason, he’s been called the first archaeologist, and his collection the first museum. He certainly would have approved of London’s museums.
Another wow moment for me was one of the modeled skulls from Jericho (yes, that Jericho, due to its natural spring the oldest continuously occupied human settlement in the world). Near the beginning of agricultural life 12,000 years ago, people at Jericho and other communities in the area created lifelike representations of the dead, rebuilding their faces in clay and replacing their eyes with shell or other materials. While we can’t be certain, the most likely explanation is that these were the beloved dead, ancestors who had traveled into another realm and should be honored.
The treasures of Queen Puabi, and her husband the king, of Ur are here (the Standard of Ur is currently on tour, the object in the background is a replica).
As with other exhibits, a key motivation for Near Eastern archaeology a century ago was to place the present in the past and to control key points of human history, especially Biblical history. This late Babylonian tablet is a map of the world, showing it surrounded by bitter water, and recording the location where the Ark landed after the Deluge. The Victorian public was stunned when archaeologists began uncovering the Babylonian versionof the flood story, caused not by the later Abrahamic God but by the Babylonian gods, and survived not by Noah but by a figure at times called Utnapishtim. Bounties were offered to find additional sections of the story on ancient tablets.
These strange figures are some of the apkallu, the Seven Sages. They are knowledgeable entities cloaked in fish garb (note the fish heads above their own heads) or with wing depending on if they emerged from the sky or the sweet water abzu abyss from within the earth, who bring the knowledge of civilization to Sumer and Babylon. Though the story is too convoluted to entertain here, they are in some sense the forbearers of the Watchers of Judeo-Christian tradition that in turn inspire so much myth and mysticism about the past. This process culminates in the creation of the Ancient Alien myth, and stories of the Seven Sages were for a time considered as possible evidence for alien contact by none other than Carl Sagan. He later rejected the notion, but Sagan somewhat unfortunately added some legitimacy for a brief time to the ancient aliens concept.
Another stunning surprise was a huge collection of the reliefs from the palace at Nimrud. Once again, these are the textbook images used for discussing statecraft and religion in the ancient Near East, and I was unprepared when I passed by the winged bull lamassu I posted above, to find an entire hallway lined with these reliefs. Narbonidus would have been truly proud.
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection of later Islamic artwork is impressive, and one of my favorite sections was an exhibit on compasses such as this one, designed to point the way to various important places in the Islamic world, Mecca above all others.
Another object from the medieval Middle East has a very different backstory. This Syrian glass cup is considered one of the most famous pieces of glass in the world, and is a prime treasure of the V&A. But much of its fame comes from how it was not seen as a trophy brought back by a Crusader. Instead, this came to be known as the Luck of Eden Hall, the heirloom of the Musgrave family. The cup was said to have been stolen from faeries (it was needed to cure the Lady of Eden Hall), and became linked with the fortunes of Eden Hall and the Musgraves, with the famous couplet “If the glass either break or fall, farewell to the luck of Eden Hall. “ Eden Hall was broken up after the Great War, the cup temporarily loaned to the V&A in 1926, the Hall demolished in 1934, and the Luck permanently acquired by the V&A in 1958. We might imagine today an ancient artifact from another part of the world becoming known as a piece of the Roswell UFO debris, and being considered a valuable supernatural object to be carefully guarded as well as celebrated in song. This leads us to the next section of my journey, into the mysteries of London.