Celts: Art and Identity

Celts: Art and Identity

The other day I received an email advising me of the line-up for the next Celtic Connections in Glasgow. But who were the Celts – these people who now lend their name to a festival that ‘celebrates Celtic music and its connections to cultures across the globe’?

Hoping for an answer to this question, a few weeks back I watched the BBC 2 series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice with Alice Roberts and Neil Oliver. Yes, that was the full title of the series, and, though Roberts and Oliver (as you would expect) presented some serious archaeology, what with all the dramatic reconstructions of blood, iron and sacrifice I was left as confused as I had been at the outset. Were the Celts one people who shared a highly sophisticated culture? Or were they barbarians from the western fringes of Europe as the BBC’s dramatised battle scenes strongly suggested?

Looking for answers to these questions, I visited the British Museum’s current exhibition, Celts: Art and Identity, ‘the first major exhibition to examine the full history of Celtic art and identity’. Not surprisingly this stunning show presented a much clearer account of a story that begins over 2,500 years ago, with the first recorded mention of ‘Celts’.  But, the story the curators give us is one in which Celtic identity has been revived and reinvented over the centuries – across the British Isles, Europe and beyond. The exhibition articulates the currently-accepted view that ‘Celtic’ has had many different meanings over 2000 years, identities that have been reinvented time and again, and are cultural not genetic. Continue reading “Celts: Art and Identity”

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany British Museum

Flag of the German Confederation, 1850

After listening to Neil MacGregor’s outstanding radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, a visit to the linked exhibition at the British Museum was considered essential.  But, you might ask, was it worth it, having heard the radio version?  Yes, absolutely.  In the radio programmes, Neil MacGregor focussed on one particular object, and very few items he discussed are illustrated on the BBC website.  The exhibition, on the other hand, features 200 objects selected to reflect on a number of key themes that offer an impressionistic, but richly detailed, account of 600 years of German history, from the Renaissance to the present day.

Like the radio series, the exhibition sets out to investigate the complexities of German history.  For British visitors it poses two key questions: How much do we really understand Germany, and how do its people understand themselves?

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

When you enter the exhibition you see three things. The first is a quote from the painter Georg Baselitz: ‘What I could never escape was Germany and being German’; then your attention is drawn to a video of the joyous crowds of East Germans pouring through the hastily-opened Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989.  Finally, displayed nearby is a home-made placard made for a demonstration in East Berlin a few weeks later: cut in the shape of the united Germany and with the colours of the German flag it bears the words: ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ –  ‘we are one people’.

The point being made is how recently the Germany of today – the Germany on the placard, and the one unification created in 1990 – came into existence. The boundaries  of today’s Germany are less than a quarter of a century old, the result of the merging of the German Democratic Republic with the German Federal Republic  in 1990.

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

How this new Germany echoes and recalls older forms of Germany is the story told by the exhibition. It is a story of shifting borders and jigsaw pieces of German history, some of which are found in cities which are no longer German. Take, for example, Strasbourg, now a French border city, but for centuries a centre of German culture and industry.  In the cathedral there, Goethe thought he had found the essence of German art and history.  The exhibition illustrates the city’s key place in German history with a model of the cathedral clock, made in 1574. As well as dials to show the time, the clock strikes the hours and the quarters. On the hour, figures emerge on a revolving dais – first Death to strikes the hour, then the figure of Christ appears to banish Death. It’s a remarkable piece of intricate engineering.

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Next, a reminder that Königsberg, once home to Immanuel Kant and later to the German painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, is now Kaliningrad, a Russian city.  Here is one of Kathe Kollwitz’s intense, searching self-portrait, this one from 1904.  Kollwitz was  born in Konigsberg  when it was a Prussian city. By 1945 her home town had been destroyed by Allied bombing and, renamed Kalingrad, was under Soviet control. (For more about Kathe Kollwitz, see ‘Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story‘ on the British Museum blog.)

In this opening section of the exhibition, the theme is ‘Floating Frontiers’; the aim is to show how the geographic home of the German-speaking peoples has fluctuated widely, from an enormous swathe of princely states, loosely united  within the Holy Roman Empire, then smashed apart by Napoleon, and then re-forged under Prussian leadership.

Franz Kafka by Hans Fronius. 1937 Woodcut

Franz Kafka: woodcut by Hans Fronius, 1937 

A superb woodcut of Franz Kafka is here to remind us that the Czech city of Prague was once home to a large German-speaking community, which included Kafka, one of the most acclaimed writers in the German language. Today, however, neither Russian-speaking Kaliningrad nor Czech-speaking Prague are in any sense German.

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Nearby is this portrait of Erasmus, painted by Holbein in 1523 while he was based in the university at Basel. Throughout the medieval period Basel was a thoroughly German city – one of the first centres of the German printing industry.  Its university attracted renowned scholars such as Erasmus. In 1501, however, Basel elected to become part of Switzerland.

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling, 1526

Holbein appears again with this portrait painted during his first visit to England in 1526.  His career – and the painting – both reflect the extent of German-speaking cultural and commercial links across Europe at the time.  The lady is English, her squirrel is German, and she wears Russian-cut furs that would have come to England through a Hanseatic League merchant operating in the Steelyard, the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London, located on the north bank of the Thames roughly where Cannon Street station now stands. As this article from History Today suggests, the Hanseatic League was effectively the first Common Market. Holbein went on to paint portraits of several prominent members of the Steelyard community

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

This painting by Casper David Friedrich illustrates how the German landscape has had a profound impact on German identity. The work of 19th century Romantics like Friedrich, with their focus on wild places, mountain ranges, remote lakes and deep forests, gave new focus to the German landscape as a symbol of German identity (even today, one-third of Germany is covered by forests). The early and continuing influence of the Green Party reflects this aspect of the German identity.

Pen and ink drawing of the rhinoceros, by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

Albrecht Dürer, pen and ink drawing of a rhinoceros, 1515

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Durer’s famous rhinocerous print and a copy of it made from Meissen porcelain two centuries later have been chosen to represent two of Germany’s earliest artistic and technological achievements.  The invention of modern printing in the mid-1400s allowed Durer to become the first leading artist to gain fame for his mass-produced works.  Though he never actually saw a rhinocerous, his print – with its inaccuracies – was copied for centuries. It was such an obvious example of great German art that when porcelain was reinvented by scientists in Dresden in the early 1700s it was transformed into this example of an industry which allowed Europe to equal China’s earlier achievements.

These have been just glimpses of a wide-ranging and complex exhibition.  Inevitably, it’s the objects that represent the devastating and tragic events of the first half of the 20th century that linger in the memory. The exhibition reflects these events through the works of artists and objects of the time. There are Otto Dix prints reflecting on World War I, banknotes issued during the period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, an etching by Käthe Kollwitz created in response to the assassination of Communist leader Karl Liebknecht during the abortive socialist revolution of 1919.

Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain

Otto Dix, Der Krieg: Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain, 1922

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

In 1937 the Nazis mounted a large travelling exhibition of antisemitic propaganda under the title Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The exhibits, which included photographs, documents and charts, repeated mediaeval myths about the Jews, accused the Jews of usury, dishonest business practices, and alleged an international Jewish conspiracy that controlled both capitalism and Communism. The exhibition blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for wars and financial crises in general.  The exhibition drew large crowds. The poster for the exhibition, displayed here, emphasized supposed attempts by Jews to turn Germany into a communist state, portraying an ‘eastern’ Jew holding gold coins in one hand and a whip in the other. Under his arm is a map of the world, with the imprint of the hammer and sickle.  Kristallnacht followed one year later.

poster for 'The Eternal Jew' exhibition, Dresden 1937

Poster for ‘The Eternal Jew’ exhibition, Dresden 1937

sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers 1939

Sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, 1939

A sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, produced for children in 1939, shows how the Nazis attempted to embed the cult of Hitler and symbols of Nazism throughout German society, especially in the minds of the young.

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

On the way into the exhibition, one of the most emblematic icons of German industrial success, a post-war VW Beetle is on display. The Beetle, or KDF-Wagen as it was initially known, could trace its origins back to the late 1930s, when this brochure was printed, offering the chance to own a Volkswagens ( or ‘people’s car’), by collecting saving stamps. A large factory was built in the new town of Wolfsburg. Civilian production was interrupted during World War II with military vehicles being assembled there, mainly by forced workers and POWs. Production of the Beetle resumed shortly after the end of the war, initially thanks to the efforts of the British Army to get production back on track.  By 1955 the one-millionth VW Beetle was being manufactured in Wolfsburg, symbolizing the German ‘economic miracle’.

refugee cart 1945

A refugee cart from East Pomerania (now Poland) c 1945

Alongside a loan from the Buchenwald concentration camp – a replica of the camp’s gate with its inscription in elegant Bauhaus lettering stating ‘to each his own’ – is a simple refugee cart.  The former is testimony to the annihilation by the Nazis of the Jews of central and eastern Europe, while the cart speaks of the largest organised deportation in history – the expulsion of around 12 million Germans, forced to migrate after 1945 from areas of centuries-old German settlement across central and eastern Europe.  Using family farm carts like this to carry what belongings they could, the migrants fled before the advance of the Soviet army or were expelled after the German defeat.

Stage Set model for “Mother Courage” by Bertold Brecht

Stage model for ‘Mother Courage’, made for first German production, Berlin, 1949

Next to the cart is a model prepared for the first German production of Brecht’s play Mother Courage in Berlin in 1949. Brecht had written the play in Sweden in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  Set during the Thirty Years War that began in 1618 (an earlier age of self-inflicted German devastation), a traditional family cart was central to the staging.

The final, searing section of the exhibition is prefaced by these words from the curators:

The Nazis left a dark memory that can neither be avoided nor adequately explained.  After 1945 a once more divided Germany had to engage with this past and create a present that could accommodate it.

Here is one of the most powerful artistic statements made in Germany in the last 25 years.  In 1980 Anselm Kiefer began a series of works inspired by Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, a poem composed in German in late 1944 and 1945. Celan’s parents, along with many other Jews from Czernowitz, Romania, where he had been raised, were killed in the Trisnistria camp in eastern Romania in 1942. Celan himself endured two years of forced labor under the Germans, after which he lived in exile in Paris until his suicide in 1970.

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1980 watercolour

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1981

His poem deals obliquely with the horror of the Holocaust, stating ‘Death is a master from Germany’.  In this watercolour version of the enormous canvas of the same name which is currently on show at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy, Kiefer places the words ‘Dein goldenes Haar, Margarete’, used by Celan to represent the Aryan ideal of blonde beauty, over sheaves of golden corn.  Her blonde hair is contrasted in the poem with the ‘ashen’ hair of Jewish Shulamith, the favourite wife of King Solomon.

model of Jewish synagogue Offenbach

Model of the new Jewish synagogue in Offenbach, 1946

But the exhibition concludes with three exhibits which offer the hope of renewal and are suggestive of the way in which the German people have attempted, in the last thirty years, to come to terms with their past, openly and with honesty.

After concentration camps like Buchenwald and extermination camps like Auschwitz, it seemed that the story of Jews in Germany must come to a full stop at the end of the war. Over 90% of Jews living in Germany died in the Holocaust.  Most survivors in exile decided to remain abroad. Why would any Jew, in 1945 or after, see any part of their future in Germany? But remarkably Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe.

By 1948 there were already nearly 100 Jewish communities in Germany again, and new synagogues were being built.  In 1946 the town of Offenbach offered to build a new synagogue.  On display is the model design by Herman Guttman for a synagogue and community centre that would provide protection and refuge for every member of the community: ‘Nach au Auschwitz’ (After Auschwitz).  The synagogue was built and is now much enlarged to accommodate the large number of Russian Jews who arrived in the 1990s.

Ernst Barlach, The Floating One

Ernst Barlach, The Hovering Angel, 1927 bronze replica from Gustrov Cathedral

The end of the exhibition is dominated by the hovering figure of Ernst Barlach’s Der Schwebende, a mourning figure in solid bronze designed for Güstrow Cathedral, initially as a memorial to those who died in World War I. Its subsequent fate has meant it has become a distillation of Germany’s 20th century history and a powerful symbol of the strength of reconciliation. It has been generously lent to the Museum by the congregation in Güstrow – the first time it has left the cathedral.

Detached from earth and time, with folded arms and closed eyes, the figure expresses an internalised vision of the grief and suffering of war. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s works were among the first to be declared Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) and confiscated and removed from public display. Sadly, Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his masterwork had been taken down to be melted and probably made into war munitions.

However, some courageous friends had managed to hide a second cast, which was then hung in the Antoniter Church in Cologne after the end of the Second World War. This time, the sculpture commemorated two World Wars. During the time of the Cold War in the 1950s, the parish of Cologne made another cast of the Angel and presented it in a gesture of friendship to the parish of Güstrow cathedral. For the next few months this cast is displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition.

In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany, met Erich Honecker in East Germany, and they visited Barlach’s Angel in Güstrow cathedral. On this occasion, Schmidt said to the bishop in Güstrow: ‘I would like to thank you very much for your kind words of welcome. As you said, Barlach is indeed part of our common memory of the past. May I add, that Barlach could also stand as a representative of our shared and common future.’ Schmidt was right. Eight years later, in peaceful demonstrations, East Germans brought the wall between East and West down.

The facial features those of Kathe Kollwitz, kindred spirit of Barlach who shared his pacifist views.

Neil MacGregor recently made this comment on the meaning of Barlach’s Hovering Angel:

In Britain we have monuments to things in our past that we are very proud of.  The Germans put up monuments to their own shame, and that makes them very different from almost any other country.  They do that as a reminder of how they ought to behave in the future.

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991 (lithoprint from 1988 painting)

The last object we see before the exit is a painting by another contemporary German artist, Gerhard Richter.  It’s based on a photo of his daughter, taken as she turned to look at one of his paintings.

The young girl may be turning away from the artist – her father – or, perhaps, turning towards something else.  Fraught with ambiguity, the painting suggests conflict between generations, the interplay of past and present, and ideas of acceptance and guilt.

Richter was born Dresden in 1932 and grew up in what later became the GDR.  He escaped to the West two months before the Wall was built in 1961.

See also

The Vikings: Life and Legend

The Vikings: Life and Legend

Lewis Chessmen

A selection of the Lewis Chessmen

Men will quake with terror
Before the seventy sea-oars
Are given deserved respite
From the labours of the ocean
Norwegian arms are driving
This iron-studded dragon
Down the storm-tossed river
Like an eagle with wings

– Pjodolfr Arnorsson, Icelandic poet, 1062

In 1968, for the introduction to his new BBC TV series Civilization, Kenneth Clark was filmed on the banks of the Seine in Paris reflecting on a moment when, in his words, ‘civilization nearly vanished from Europe’.  He encouraged viewers to consider an image that, for him, symbolised the encounter between barbarism and civilization: some time in the 9th century inhabitants of the French settlement would have seen approaching up the river the prow of a Viking ship.  Looked at now, Clark said, we see the Viking ship’s prow as a powerful work of art, but to those at the time it would have appeared as an image of fear and darkness.

Clark’s perception of the Vikings as offering the clearest antithesis to the concept of civilization was soon to be challenged: since the 1970s, the balance of historical interpretations of Viking culture has shifted away from an exclusive preoccupation with with raiding and piracy towards a more nuanced picture of the Vikings as raiders who were also traders – who interacted, coexisted and influenced the societies which they encountered in many different ways.

Last week we saw the new exhibition at the British Museum, The Vikings: Life and Legend, which draws on a half century of archaeological discovery and historical debate since Kenneth Clark’s utterances.  It presents a more nuanced understanding of who the Vikings were, the nature of their culture, and the impact which they had on the areas where they raided, traded and settled.

They journeyed boldly
Went for gold
Fed the eagle
Out in the east
And died in the south
In Saracenland
– Gripsholm rune-stone c 1050

The exhibition presents Vikings as raiders and pirates (the probable original meaning of the word in Old Norse) who were also merchants, travelling as far as Russia and the Byzantine empire in order to trade goods, from whalebone to slaves. Their achievements were extraordinary. Between the 8th and 12th centuries (the period known as ‘the Viking age’), they became the first people to operate simultaneously in four continents and tie much of the known world together through trade and migration. They were the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic and reach North America (which they called ‘Vinland’); they settled in Iceland (permanently), Greenland (for centuries) and Newfoundland (briefly).

The opening section of the exhibition demonstrates how these people voyaged forth from an inhospitable homeland of rock and limited land for farming.  An animated map illuminates the routes they followed across seas and up rivers to found the first Russian state, Rus, based in Kiev; to trade in Constantinople where a body of them made up the personal guard of the Byzantine emperors; to become the paramount power in the British Isles, establishing the first towns in Ireland, including Dublin; to penetrate as far south as the Mediterranean and the coasts of North Africa, and as far west as Greenland and Newfoundland.

Reconstruction of Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada

Reconstruction of the excavated turf buildings of the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland

As you walk around the exhibition a loped tape of readings from the Norse sagas plays in the background – appropriate because the sagas speak so often of the great seafaring voyages undertaken by a maritime society that developed extraordinary shipbuilding skills that were key to their achievements. In the first room we look at a brooch from Denmark in the form of a ship with opposed dragons’ heads, while nearby there are toy boats made for children to play with –  underlining how crucial maritime ascendancy was in Viking expansion. The exhibition will culminate in a breathtaking example of their seagoing skills and technology.

Viking ship brooch

Brooch shaped like a ship, c800-1050, Denmark

From here we are plunged into a dazzling array of objects that illustrate how the Vikings came into contact with – and absorbed elements of – a wide variety of different cultures.  There are cultural artefacts from the encounter with Anglo-Saxon England and Ireland in the same period.

Penrith Brooch c900

The Penrith Brooch, c 900

The Penrith Brooch, for example, is a variant of a style that originated in Roman Britain and then developed in the post-Roman period into highly elaborate and decorative marks of status in Ireland and Scotland, made in precious metals, often decorated with gems, and worn by both men and women. When the Vikings began to raid and settle the British Isles, they took to wearing these brooches, but now in plain silver, but with ornamentation developed out of Celtic styles.

Hunterston brooch

The Hunterston brooch, 700

An undoubted highlight is the stunning Hunterston brooch, which is an appropriation of an older Scottish object that survived a Viking raid intact. The brooch, found in Ayrshire, is a pre-Viking Scottish brooch with Celtic decoration. But on the back, someone has scratched in Norse runes the words: ‘Maelbrigoa owns this brooch’.  The name is Celtic and Christian, indicating a fusion of cultures – and an appreciation of beautiful objects.

Alongside we find this verse, attributed to Magnus ‘Barelegs’ Olaffson, King of Norway, in 1100:

My heart is in Dublin
And the women of Trondheim
Won’t see me this autumn
The girl Has not denied me
Pleasure visits; I’m glad
I love the Irish lady
As well as my young self

Vale of York hoard

The Vale of York Hoard

The Vale of York Hoard demonstrates an entirely different frame of mind, being evidently treasure stolen during Viking raids. It is being shown in its entirety for the first time since it was discovered with metal detectors near Harrogate in 2007 and jointly acquired by the British Museum and York Museums Trust. It’s been described as ‘the whole Viking world in one cup’.

Consisting of a cup in which were placed some 617 coins, 6 arm rings and a quantity of bullion and hack-silver, the hoard is the largest and most important Viking hoard found since the Cuerdale Hoard was found in Lancashire in 1840, part of which is also included in the exhibition. With coins and silver from places as far removed as Ireland and Uzbekistan, these hoards reveal the true extent of the Viking global network. The silver cup in which the Vale of York Hoard was buried predates the burial by a century and was probably made for use in a Frankish church. Inside were objects from as far apart as Afghanistan in the East and Ireland in the West, as well as Russia, Scandinavia and continental Europe. Represented in the hoard are three belief systems (Islam, Christianity and the worship of Thor) and peoples who spoke at least seven languages.

Cuerdale hoard

The Cuerdale Hoard, c 905-910

Found at Cuerdale in Lancashire, the Cuerdale Hoard was buried sometime between 905 and 910, and is the largest Viking silver hoard found in western Europe.  The enormous silver treasure was discovered by workmen repairing the bank of the River Ribble in 1840. The Hoard consists of over 8500 silver objects, weighing some 40kg in total. Most of the pieces are coins, together with ingots (silver bars) and cut-up brooches, chains, rings and other ornaments (hacksilver). It had been buried in a lead container.

Most of the coins were minted in Viking-controlled England, while the hacksilver is mainly Irish or Irish-Viking in form and decoration. Other pieces originated from further afield – Scotland, the Continent, Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea region and the Islamic lands of Central Asia and the Middle East. In this way, the Cuerdale Hoard reflects the Vikings’ extensive international connections across much of the known world.

This was extraordinary wealth – probably of many persons rather than one individual. It is likely to have been collected over time as loot, tribute and through trade. However, the reasons for the hoard’s burial are not known. It may have been hidden for safe-keeping at a time of unrest, or represents a secure method of stock-piling riches over time.  The latest coins in the hoard have been dated to between about 905 and 910. This, together with the Irish origin of most of the hacksilver, has led some historians to suggest that the hoard belonged to Vikings who were expelled from Dublin in 902. The River Ribble, where the hoard was found, lay directly across the Irish Sea from Dublin, offering a convenient place for fleeing Vikings to regroup. It was also on an overland route to York – the powerbase of the Northumbrian Vikings who could be called upon for support.

By way of contrast to all this wealth, we are told that few objects of this kind have been found around the North Atlantic settlements in Greenland, Iceland, or the Faroes.  There, the communities were focussed on the gathering of raw materials – walrus ivory and whalebones – as illustrated by the exhibit of a piece of walrus skull with two tusks from a Greenland excavation.

There are, however, many objects that provide evidence of the extent of Viking contacts with the Slav world – such as a cross pin and chain from Lithuania.  A remarkable survival is a letter written in runes on birch bark, from Smolensk in present-day Russia that is evidence of how settlement might follow raiding or trading. It reads: ‘Visgeiir took this plot of land’. The clear message here is that international trade – and the wealth that followed – was the main motive for the Vikings’ overseas expansion.  In the words of the Arab traveller, Ibn Khurdadhbih in 830:

The Rus from the furthest parts of their land down to the Black Sea bringing beaver skins and black fox fur and swords to sell. Sometimes they transport their merchandise on camel back to Baghdad.

Furs, jet, soapstone, falcons and slaves went one way and weapons, glassware, wine, metals and large quantities of silver went home.  ‘Peaceful trader or violent raider of legend – the distinction is not always clear’, as an exhibition panel puts it. On display here are collar and ankle shackles for slaves, discovered as far apart as Ireland and Germany. In 903, the Arab writer Ibn Rusta commented: ‘They [the Rus] treat their slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade’

silver dirhams minted in Bagdhad

Silver dirhams minted in Baghdad, 693-828

Perhaps the most interesting exhibits in this section are those which reveal the extent of Viking contacts with the Islamic world, pre-eminently the quantities of Islamic dirhams that feature amongst the hoards – and in other contexts, such as jewellery.

Initially, the precious metals of the coins acquired through raiding or trade were regarded by the Vikings almost exclusively in social rather than economic terms. Gold and silver were valued for the display of personal wealth, or as gifts.  There are examples here of Viking jewellery made from recycled silver Islamic dirhams.  Often, though, the coins were melted down as bullion and turned into portable ingots.

silver dirhams minted in Al-Andalus

Silver dirhams minted in Al-Andalus, 693-828

The use of bullion required the measurement of weight, and to illustrate this there is a set of collapsible scales and weights of a kind found across the whole of the Viking world as far west as Ireland.  But in the ninth century, the Vikings began to adopt the use of precious metals as coinage, as a means of exchange to facilitate trade. In part this reflects the importance of trading relations with the Vikings’ neighbours; but the adoption of coinage was also closely linked with the adoption of Christianity and the development of kingly authority.

Viking collapsible weighing scales

Viking collapsible weighing scales

In some cases melted down bullion was formed into neck rings or torques worn as weighty adornments by the wives of the wealthy.  One contemporary observer noted that ‘a man as soon as he has accumulated 10,000 dirhams, has a torque made for his wife’.  It was all about communicating power through the visual display of wealth and status by wearing jewellery or owning expensive ornamental weapons.

Viking exhibition

 Filigree pendants, spacers, brooch and neck ring from the Hiddensee Hoard

A particularly sophisticated example of this are the intricately-worked pieces of gold jewellery from the Hiddensee hoard, found on an island in the Baltic.  The hoard consists of a set of gold pendants and a brooch – more than 600g of gold in total – probably manufactured in Denmark towards the end of the 10th century but evidence of intermarriage between Vikings and Slavs (the 10th-century king, Harald Bluetooth, married a Slavic wife. The delicacy of the work is breathtaking. To look at something like this you have to question Kenneth Clark’s view of Vikings as barbarians, a people that could only damage or destroy, not create.

It was around this time that the skald, or poet, Porbjorn Hornklofi wrote these lines:

By their clothing, their gold armlets,
You see they are the King’s friends
They bear red cloaks, stained shields,
Silver-clad swords, ringed mail coats
Gilded sword-belts, engraved helmets
Rings on their arms, as Harald gave them.

A further section of the exhibition is devoted to the culture of Viking royal courts, with examples of highly-decorated cups and drinking vessals, an oak feasting bucket for ale or mead, made in Denmark at some time in the 10th century, and a decorative wooden platter excavated in Berlin that dates from the same period.

A man shouldn’t clutch at his cup, but moderately drink his mead; he should be sparing of speech or shut up; no man will blame you for bad behaviour if you go to bed early.
– anon, 10th century

Wooden tray or platter with Scandinavian decoration, 10th century. Berlin

Wooden tray or platter with Scandinavian decoration, 10th century, found in Berlin

These objects are fascinating not just for their artistry, but also for the insight into a way of life that they provide. There are decorated swords, jewellery, combs, a silver-inlaid-axehead, and a small scoop for removing earwax – made of gold.

Viking exhibition

Silver inlaid axehead from Denmark, c 900

The curators do not shy away from the violent and bloody aspects of Viking culture; in a section entitled ‘The way of the warrior’ the warrior culture is explored, along with the meaning of the term ‘Viking’.  There are displays of helmets, swords, axes and skulls, and descriptions of raiding and slaughter:

I went with bloody sword
(wound-grouse [raven] following me)
And a resounding spear
To a hard Viking attack.
We had a raging fight,
Fire raced over houses,
I made bloody bodies
Fall within city walls

– Egil Skallagrimsson, Icelandic warrior and poet, 930

And there is this assessment by Ibd Fadlan, an Arab diplomat, written down in 921:

They are the filthiest of God’s creatures; they do not clean themselves after urinating or defecating, nor do they wash after having sex.  They do not wash their hands after meals.  They are like wandering asses.

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery

But then – you turn a final corner into the largest space of the new Sainsbury Wing and see in front of you the colossal installation that forms the centrepiece of this exhibition. At 37 metres Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking warship ever recovered – and it literally takes your breath away.

The ship, known as Roskilde 6 because it was excavated from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark during the development of a Viking Ship Museum in 1997, would have been powered by 40 pairs of oars (anything over 25 pairs was unusual). Though only 20 per cent of it actually survives – mostly in the form of fragments of hull – the whole boat has been ingeniously suggested through the construction of a stainless-steel framework that suggests the elegance of the boat in its original form.

The surviving timbers have been carefully conserved and analysed by the National Museum of Denmark – and identified as being derived from trees felled in 1025 near Oslo Fjord.  This was when Norway had been conquered by Cnut, who had already conquered England in 1016.  The ship’s construction therefore dates from the high point of the Viking Age when England, Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden were united under the rule of Cnut. The size of the ship and the amount of resources required to build it suggest that it was almost certainly a royal warship, possibly connected with the wars fought by Cnut to assert his authority over this short-lived North Sea Empire.


The only known three-dimensional Viking representation of a Valkyrie

When first encountered by their neighbours the Vikings were pagans – it was this aspect of their culture which most struck contemporary observers in north-western Europe.  The Vikings had no word for religion and do not seem to have had a structured belief system similar to Christianity or Islam. Their spiritual beliefs instead placed a great emphasis on interaction with the natural world, and with supernatural powers – gods, spirits or other creatures.  There was a widespread belief in shape-shifting (the ability of humans to take on animal forms).  Viking beliefs and rituals are explored in a later part of the exhibition.

Schleswig (Hedeby) is a very large town situated at the edge of the world ocean.  The inhabitants worship Sirius, except for a few, who are Christians.  They have a church there.

– Ibrahim ibn Yaqub al-Turtushi, Jewish traveller from Islamic Spain, c961-2

In Norse mythology, a Valkyrie is one of a host of female figures who decide which soldiers die in battle and which live.  Here we can look at a small figurine of a female, possibly a Valkyrie, made of gilded silver and found recently in Denmark.  It is believed to date from around 800.

The Viking understanding of the universe involved a complex system of intersecting worlds that gave a home to humanity and all the other powers, living and dead.  These worlds were held together by Yggdrasil, the great ash or ‘World Tree’, and in other ways too. Travellers could move between worlds along the roots of Yggdrasil, via sacred rivers and lakes, or across the sea.

One of the most familiar aspects of Viking belief derives from the widespread evidence of ship burials which suggests a widespread belief that the dead were destined to voyage across oceans to the afterlife.  Having been cremated, the dead individual would be laid in a boat and interred, along with their worldly possessions, in a burial mound.

Ardnamurchan Viking burial from the west Highlands

One example is presented in the British Museum exhibition.  It is a representation of a burial from the late ninth or early 10th century in a grave in the form of a ship from Ardnamurchan on Scotland’s west coast. It was excavated in the summer of 2011, revealing the only known Viking boat burial to be discovered on the British mainland in modern times.

The vessel survived in the form of more than 200 rivets, many in their original location, and indicated a small clinker boat. It contained a sword, an axe, a spear, a ladle, an Irish bronze ring-pin and the bronze rim of a drinking horn. These items indicate that it was a remarkably rich Viking boat burial of a warrior. This is the first time this  important find has been displayed in public. The Ardnamurchan boat burial represents the final journey of a Viking warrior, sailing into the afterlife.

The most dramatic example of a ritual burial from the Viking Age is that of the Oseberg ship from eastern Norway, dated to 834 and excavated in 1904.  The dig revealed an almost intact and completely equipped Viking ship with elaborate wood carvings on its stem and stern.  I have seen this beautiful ship on TV documentaries, and it would certainly have been an experience to have seen it in London.  But it is now on permanent display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo and is probably impossible to send on overseas expeditions.

A replica of the 'Jelling stone', erected by King Harald Bluetooth in the late 10th century

A replica of the Jelling stone, erected by King Harald Bluetooth in the late 10th century

A profound change in belief occurred during the Viking Age as these traditional spiritual beliefs were eroded by Christianity.  As they travelled across Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries, the Vikings encountered Christians and their beliefs, and their material expression in churches and monasteries.  As these travellers returned home, Christian concepts – and perhaps those of Islam, too – gradually seeped into  Scandinavian culture.  Formal conversion was very often top-down, the most striking example being that of King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark who, in the late tenth century, proclaimed the conversion of Denmark on his monumental rune-stone at Jelling.  A replica of the Jelling rune-stone is displayed here – striking because it is painted, as it would have been originally, in vivid colours.

A hogback tombstone from Govan Old Parish Church, Glasgow

Hogback tombstone from Govan Parish Church, Glasgow, 9th-11th centuries

Another example of Viking burial forms is on display here: a hogback tombstone from Govan Parish Church in Glasgow.  These carved headstones are found exclusively in areas of northern Britain settled by Vikings – southern Scotland, Cumbria and Yorkshire – and the examples from Govan churchyard are by far the largest. The bow-sided shape of the hogbacks is similar to the classic Viking house and the interlace patterns on them are also very Scandinavian in origin.  Although the beasts carved into some of the hogbacks could reflect pagan Viking beliefs, the fact that all these stones were found in a church yard suggests the settlers had adopted Christianity.

Viking mass grave, Weymouth

The Viking mass grave excavation at Weymouth

The Vikings may have been tough and feared warriors, but the grisly evidence of skeletons recently excavated from a mass grave at Weymouth suggest that Viking raids were not always successful.  The remains tell of a brutal encounter between Saxons and Vikings, and illustrate what happened when things went wrong for Viking warriors on British soil. The bones – displayed here – are from between 47 and 52 individual. Wounds on the hands, arms and skulls imply that the men did not die without a struggle. Every one of them was decapitated.

Wounds to necks and shoulders indicate that the process of decapitation – a deliberate act after the battle was over – was chaotic, with several blows of the sword required to remove the heads in many cases. Most of the men were between 18 and 25 years old. Chemical analysis of the teeth suggested that none of the men were from anywhere in Britain, but that they originated in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia. They were not in good health: many of the individuals suffered from infections and physical impairment. This was by no means an elite group of Viking warriors.

The exhibition concludes by briefly tracing the emergence of Viking kingdoms between 950 – 1050, and the Viking legacy in Britain.  In this late stage of the Viking story, Viking raiders and traders were followed by settlers who established kingdoms and earldoms in both western and eastern Europe, such as Rus – ruled by princes of Kiev, Novgorod, and other earldoms along the rivers modern Ukraine and Russia.

Eirik that mighty
maker of men
ruled the land from beneath
his helmet of terror;
In York
the king reigned,
rigid of mind,
over rainy shores

– Egil Skallagrimmson, c900 – 1000

In Britain, the Vikings settled areas of the country so densely and so permanently that their legacy is ever-present in our language and DNA.  Anyone who lives somewhere with a name ending in ‘-by’, or near a headland ending in ‘-ness’, or calls their valley a ‘dale’, or the nearest hillside a ‘fell’ is living in a landscape that Vikings named, while our language is peppered with their words: ‘niggardly’, for example, is derived from the Old Norse for miser.  Here, you can stand and listen to the curator of the Shetland Museum speaking in the island dialect which retains many words from Old Norse.
On the other hand, the Vikings were also the people against whom the British nations initially defined themselves. The early English had developed a sense of themselves as a people, with a language and as followers of Christianity, but they were divided into different kingdoms. It took the prospect of conquest by Viking warlords to forge them into a single kingdom – one of the most intensely governed in the world. King Alfred became ‘the Great’ by organising the national resistance to the Vikings. Though the Vikings returned a century later under Cnut and triumphed, by that time England was too strongly wrought to break: the Danish conquerors took it over intact and handed it, peacefully, back to native rule when Cnut’s dynasty died out.Lewis ChessmenThree of the Lewis Chessmen

The exhibition ends with the most sophisticated works on display: the magnificent set of chess pieces found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, made sometime between 1150 and 1200.  Crafted from walrus ivory, their ornamentation indicates links with Trondheim in Norway.  The reverse of the King and Queen, seated on their thrones, are exquisitely decorated with a delicate foliage design.

Lewis Chessmen reverse

What we call the Viking Age lasted from about 800 to 1050, a span of 250 years that was crucial for a vast area of northern Europe stretching from the north Atlantic in the west to the shores of the Baltic in the east.  The Vikings left a lasting impression on a large number of nations, as this exhibition makes clear.  It was the sea and the rivers that connected people and cultures across a vast area of the globe, and it was all made possible by the Viking ship, perhaps the outstanding achievement of the Viking Age.

See also

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum
School parties in Pompeii

If there was one word that for us signified the month just gone, it was Pompeii.  We visited Herculaneum and Pompeii during our short Naples break, and then last week, while in London for the Charles Lloyd concert, we went to see the British Museum’s blockbuster exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.  And already, before we left for Italy, there had been TV documentaries to mark the exhibition; we watched Pompeii expert Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s film The Other Pompeii: Life and Death In Herculaneum in which he described recent scientific investigations into life in the small Roman town before it was destroyed by  volcanic eruption.

Herculaneum Vesuvius
The modern town of Ercolano above Herculaneum and beneath Vesuvius

Today, Vesuvius broods over a new Herculaneum, Ercolano, a working class town built further inland than its Roman predecessor.  In the eruption of AD 79, Herculaneum was buried  by up to 20 metres of ash which over time hardened into rock. This means that after entering the site, it is necessary to descend many metres by steps and through tunnels in order to reach Roman street level.

Herculaneum general view
Herculaneum: general view of the shoreline area

It wasn’t until 1709 that Herculaneum was rediscovered, buried so deep it could only be explored by tunnelling.  In his TV film, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill began by focussing on 12 arched vaults, once on the town’s shoreline, where the skeletons of 340 people – amounting to 10% of the local population – were found and which are now the subject of a ground-breaking scientific investigation by the Herculaneum Conservation Project. The finds included a toddler clutching his pet dog, a two-year-old girl with silver earrings and a boy staring into the eyes of his mother as they embraced in their last moment.  Those found inside the vaults were nearly all women and children, while outside on the shoreline the bodies were nearly all men.

Herculaneum vaults on old shoreline
Herculaneum: vaults on the old shoreline

One of the main objectives of the Conservation Project in recent years has to be to protect this old shoreline area which lies several metres below present sea level. Before the vaults where the bodies of hundreds of women and children were found there is now a drainage pool that resounded to the croaking of hundreds of frogs basking in the warm spring sunshine.

Herculaneum villa
Herculaneum: the House of the Wooden Partition

What was really fascinating about Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s film was his exploration of the houses of Herculaneum, along with the wooden furniture found in them (including beds and the only surviving baby’s cradle from the Roman world).  On our visit, a highlight was the House of the Wooden Partition, a particularly well-preserved example that features an elegant wooden partition, charred but otherwise intact. The partition is composed of a series of panels of which two were hinged and had bronze handles for ease of opening.

Herculaneum house of the Inn
Herculaneum: the sunken garden of the House of the Inn

The House of the Inn would once have been set in a magnificent waterfront location on the southern end of the town.  It was built sometime in the period 27 BC to 14 AD, and because of its large size and the presence of its own private baths, was originally thought to be an inn, though it is now believed to be a particularly sumptuous private house. The building itself is not in a good state of repair, but it has a central sunken garden where the carbonised trunk of a pear tree was discovered during recent restoration work. As a living reminder of its former use, the garden has now been planted as a pear orchard.

Herculaneum mural guidelines
Herculaneum: mural guidelines in the House of the Deer

Another luxurious waterfront dwelling is the House of the Deer, which has rooms decorated with red panels framed in black separated by geometric motifs, all on a red ground.  What I found interesting were the craftsman’s scored guidelines, revealed where the surface plaster had been damaged or removed.  The house was constructed around a central courtyard, where usually there are displayed marble statues of a deer assailed by dogs and of a wonderfully observed Hercules, a little worse for wear having a piss. They had been removed but we saw them a week later in the British Museum exhibition.

Hercules peeing from Herculaneum
A statue of Hercules, pissed and peeing, from Herculaneum

Recalling our visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as the London exhibition, several aspects struck me.  Walking around the two doomed towns, with their ordered streets, piped water supply, thriving trades and elegant houses of the wealthy elite, I wondered at the strange trajectory of human history: after the decline of the Roman civilization, it would be at least 1500 years before European towns approached the same degree of efficiently-organised and well-appointed order.

The British Museum exhibition, by concentrating on the story of the everyday, and only having done so, concluding with a dramatic presentation of body casts of those who died, also draws attention to the elements of a stable, well-ordered society which seem not that distant from our own.  You can’t help being struck by the exhibits which are presented early in the exhibition: an electoral notice, election slogans posted on the walls of private and public buildings, citizen lists and inscriptions on memorial statues that record the contribution to the public good made by merchants, lawyers and other members of the town elite.

The exhibition draws attention, too, to the position of women and slaves.  Women in Pompeii and Herculaneum, while they had no political rights, appear to have been visible and influential in society and the home. They could not vote of stand for civic office, but they could own businesses, possess personal wealth or land, and have an education.  The most vivid illustration of this is a quite moving fresco depicting the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. The couple are depicted as equals in their business, their home and in Pompeii society. She wears fine clothing and jewellery and has a hairstyle fashionable in the 60s AD. In her left hand she holds a document made of three writing tablets and in her right a stylus. Neo holds a papyrus scroll and wears a pure white toga, identifying him as a candidate for political office. The scrolls and tablets indicate literacy, learning, and ambition.

Pompeii exhibition portrait of Terentius and his wife Neo
Pompeii: portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife

Neo was a baker, and one thing that was very obvious, especially walking around Pompeii, was the importance of bakeries in urban life: there was one in every neighbourhood.  Each one had its own oven (looking pretty much the same as the ovens in which your pizza is baked in restaurants in the old town of Naples today). Each had several distinctively-shaped millstones of grey volcanic tufa which were turned by slaves or donkeys with the aid of a wooden handle.  The bread would be sold across a counter, directly onto the street.

Pompeii oven
Pompeii: a bakery oven
Pompeii bakery
Pompeii: bakery with lava millstones for grinding the grain

In the exhibition there is a carbonised loaf that survived being buried in the ash of the eruption.  It is is divided into sections, with a stamp on one of the sections that says that it was made by a slave named Celer (who may have worked at the bakery or was a household slave who took the raw loaf to the bakery for baking in the ovens).  There are many other exmples of carbonised food displayed in the exhibition – including chickpeas, figs, beans and pomegranates.

Pompeii exhibition a preserved loaf of bread from Pompeii
Pompeii exhibition: a preserved loaf of bread from Pompeii

Another exhibit is one of several that illustrate the variety of food consumed, at least by the better-off members of Pompeii society. It’s a fresco – a still-life – that depicts two figs and a loaf identical to the one preserved through the millenia.

Pompeii exhibition  Bread and figs fresco
Pompeii exhibition: fresco with bread and figs

Bread was the main food staple, though the rich volcanic soils around Pompeii were excellent for agriculture, producing grains, fruit and vegetables, olives and grapes from which wine and olive oil was manufactured in the town. Chicken and seafood were widely consumed, and another superb mosaic depicts a typical range of seafood, again very similar to what turns up on your plate today if you order Fritto Misto in a Naples eatery.  This mosaic decorated the floor of a dining room and shows a wide variety of sea creatures, all of which might have been cooked and served at dinner parties.

Pompeii exhibition sea food fresco
Pompeii exhibition: sea food fresco

With all this good food around, life expectancy – at least for citizens – was similar to that in modern Europe. It has been estimated that the population of Pompeii was around 20,000, of whom maybe half would have been slaves. The remaining free citizens would have included those who had been born free and those who were previously slaves but had gained their freedom (as many apparently could).

Pompeii had been a major trading centre and port for over 600 years. Goods were traded to and from many regions of the Mediterranean. Imports included wine from Greece, and pottery and glassware from Alexandria. The sea provided an income source, both from the sale of fish, and supplying garum (a fish sauce essential to Roman cookery). Pottery, tiles and garum were exported throughout the Roman Empire.  The area around the Bay of Naples was then, as it is now, a playground for the rich and privileged, who built luxurious villas on its sun drenched shores.

Slaves in both Pompeii and Herculaneum may have made up forty percent of the population. Slaves could be bought and sold and were part of a persons property. Freedom, though, could be bought or granted through the patronage of the slave owner.  In Pompeii, only freeborn male citizens over 25 with good moral character could vote. Women and freed slaves were not allowed to vote, but women did have the right to support political candidates with election slogans. Public notices found in Pompeii – such as those displayed in the exhibition – indicate a thriving interest in politics.

Pompeii street
A Pompeii street corner

The streets of Pompeii were paved with irregular basalt blocks – just like Naples today. The pavements were raised so that rainwater and sewage could flow away along the streets. Stepping-stones allowed pedestrians to cross the road without getting their feet wet, while the ruts left by carts remain etched in the cobblestones. Houses, usually two- or three-storey, generally faced  directly onto the street, often with small shops or food takeaways in front.

Both cities had a sophisticated water supply and sanitation system. Aqueducts brought water from the mountains to be stored in reservoirs, while underground lead pipes were laid to deliver water to private homes, if paid for by the owners. In both Pompeii and Herculaneum, water was used in toilets located next to the kitchen where food was prepared. The toilet fed into a pit or sewer in the street.

Pompeii baths
Pompeii: public baths with corrugated ceiling

A visit to the public baths was a daily routine. Pompeii – just a small town – had four baths, each with hot bath, warm steamroom and cold bath. They were cleverly designed, with spaces in the floor that distributed hot air into the room, and corrugated ceilings which allowed condensed steam to run down the walls into a channel. This avoided the nuisance of water droplets constantly falling onto patrons. There was no class system within the baths, with the rich and poor using the facilities together. The baths had libraries and gardens for reading, and the Stabian baths in Pompeii had a large swimming pool.

Pompeii brothel
Pompeii: brothel with stone bed that would have been topped with a straw mattress

Another meeting place (at least for the men) might have been the brothel. There were probably 25 in Pompeii, each with stone beds with mattresses, each bed set in its own small room. Some were on the ground floor, while larger rooms for wealthier patrons were situated on the first floor, reached by an independent entrance and a wooden staircase.  The brothel owner of the bought the girls as slaves, primarily in the East, so not much change there.

Pompeii brothel 2
Pompeii: one of several brothel frescoes depicting one of the specialities on offer

All the evidence suggests that the people of Pompeii were in no way prudish: not only was prostitution a thriving, legal industry, but the villas of the wealthy were frequently decorated with erotic scenes conveying auspicious messages of fertility and wealth. In this example, displayed in the British Museum exhibition, a couple are shown making love on a bed covered with luxurious bedding and cushions.  It was found in the private garden of a villa, demonstrating the open and straightforward approach Romans had toward sex.  Behind the bed stands a female slave.  Slaves were in attendance at even the most intimate moments and it was not unknown for them to participate (willingly or unwillingly).

Pompeii exhibition fresco couple making love
Pompeii exhibition: fresco of a couple making love from the House of Cecilio Giocondo in Pompeii

These representations don’t carry the smutty overtones of present-day pornography, they just make you chuckle (although I admit I felt a chill looking at the freize in the Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii: there seemed to be something dark, violent and misogynistic there, a disturbing sense that unpleasant things had taken place beneath that freize). But, just as you are amused by the statue of Hercules drunk and urinating, you can’t help but laugh at seeing a wind chime that, as it comes into focus, reveals itself to be  winged phallus doubling as an oil lamp. Phalluses turn up frequently, both attached and unattached, life-like and comically oversized, in all sorts of places – wall paintings, sculptures, kitchenware, even on an oil lamp. The male member was a symbol of good luck, believed to have protective powers, and was therefore found in most typical Roman homes.

Pompeii exhibition phallus wind chime
Pompeii exhibition: winged phallus wind chime

Another example of the reverence for the phallus is to be found in one of the most striking sculptures on display at the British Museum. At first sight it appears to be an exceptionally lifelike representation of a Pompeii banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, that even records the wart on his cheek.  Then you notice that the pedestal on which the bronze head is mounted also features – completely disconnected – a detumescent penis.  Because this a herm, a head on a marble pillar, most likely erected as a monument to the dead man and an invocation of good luck for the household by adoring relatives.

Pompeii exhibition portrait of the banker Lucius with a growth on his cheek
Pompeii exhibition: portrait of the banker Lucius with a growth on his cheek

I did wonder, coming to the British Museum after walking the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, whether the exhibition could add anything to the experience. But the curators have done a great job, telling the story of the lives, and subsequent deaths, of the people who lived there told in a really compelling way. We start in a bustling street of shops and taverns, turn into the house of a wealthy citizen – from atrium to living rooms to garden and to kitchen – and only finally come to the famous casts made from the bodies found in the ruins.

Nevertheless, right at the start, there is a startling moving reminder (especially if you’re a dog-owner) of the horror that engulfed Pompeii and Herculaneum on that fateful day in 79AD.  It’s the cast of a poor dog, twisted and contorted in agony, tied to a post outside a house, abandoned there by its fleeing owners.

Pompeii dog
Pompeii exhibition: cast of a guard dog

Remarkably, we meet the dog again later on in the exhibition in the form of  a mosaic panel that shows a dog tethered on a red lead. The dog wears a red collar ornamented with white or silver beads. Mosaics were commonly found at the entrances of houses and several feature guard dogs, protecting the house. This mosaic was found in the same house once guarded by the sometime dog that became a void and then, when that void was filled with plaster, took the form of the dog that it had once been.

Mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, Pompeii
Pompeii exhibition: mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, Pompeii

However, the bulk of the exhibition is devoted to the life, and not the death, of the people who lived in Herculaneum and Pompeii.  Amongst the most beautiful objects are frescoes that once decorated the garden room of a villa.  The first is a  beautiful and  realistic depictions of lilies, roses, marigolds and poppies in an overgrown garden alive with swallows, blackbirds, magpies, a nightingale and a sparrow, while a second depicts a purple swamp hen.  They exude a palpable sense of gaiety and sensuous enjoyment of life.

Pompeii exhibition garden fresco found in the House of the Golden Bracelet
Pompeii exhibition: garden fresco found in the House of the Golden Bracelet
Pompeii exhibition purple swmp hen from garden fresco found in the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii
Pompeii exhibition: a purple swamp hen from a garden fresco found in the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii

Whether walking the reclaimed streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, or making your way through the British Museum exhibition, the mood induced is that invoked by Charles Dickens in Pictures From Italy (1845):

Stand at the bottom of the great market-place of Pompeii, and look up the silent streets, through the ruined temples of Jupiter and Isis, over the broken houses with their inmost sanctuaries open to the day, away to Mount Vesuvius, bright and snowy in the peaceful distance; and lose all count of time, and heed of other things, in the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun. Then, ramble on, and see, at every turn, the little familiar tokens of human habitation and every-day pursuits; the chafing of the bucket-rope in the stone rim of the exhausted well; the track of carriage-wheels in the pavement of the street; the marks of drinking-vessels on the stone counter of the wine-shop; the amphorae in private cellars, stored away so many hundred years ago, and undisturbed to this hour—all rendering the solitude and deadly lonesomeness of the place, ten thousand times more solemn, than if the volcano, in its fury, had swept the city from the earth, and sunk it in the bottom of the sea.

Pompeii theatre
Pompeii: the large theatre

In the end you can’t avoid death, and the tragedy that engulfed the people of these towns on 24 August AD79.  There’s a famous vivid account of the unfolding disaster  written by Pliny the Younger in letters he wrote a friend, Cornelius Tacitus, a few years later. During the eruption he was staying in the home of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, an official in charge of the fleet in the Bay of Naples:

My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. … My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready…

Pliny the Elder set sail across the bay with a fleet of ships, making their way to Stabiaie. There, even while Vesuvius continued to pour out flames, the untroubled Pliny bathed and dined that evening at a friend’s villa, doing his best to calm the people around him. But when morning came, there was no daylight:

They were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp. My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink.

Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense, fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th – two days after the last day he had been seen – his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.

In another letter, Pliny the Younger described what happened to him and to his mother during the second day of the disaster:

Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.’Let us leave the road while we can still see,’I said,’or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.

Pompeii exhibition charred cradle in which a baby’s bones were discovered in Herculaneum
Pompeii exhibition: a charred cradle from Herculaneum in which a baby’s bones were found

At the end of the exhibition you are confronted, finally, with death: the charred cradle in which a child died, covered in a blanket. The cast of a muleteer, and the form of the Resin Lady, so called because the void of the body left in ash was filled with clear epoxy resin. This woman died in the basement of a villa near Pompeii. Beside her is displayed her jewellery: a plain gold armlet, a gold ring with its gem stone, the silver pin that she would have worn in her hair.

Pompeii exhibition Casts of a family of two adults and two children who died together in an alcove in Pompeii
Pompeii exhibition: casts of a family of two adults and two children who died together in an alcove in Pompeii

Finally, there is the sight of a family – parents and two children – who died together, huddled in an alcove under the stairs of a house. One child is on the mother’s lap. Mother and father appear to be falling backwards, reeling from the blast of tremendous heat that destroyed them. A child lies to one side in the ‘boxer’ pose – tendons contracting in the searing heat.

In the modern town of Ercolano, washing flutters below the slopes of Vesuvius. In AD79 people there knew the mountain, but with no eruption in 700 years they had lost all memory that the mountain could destroy. A little fresco from a garden shrine in Pompeii, displayed in the exhibition, shows Bacchus, god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine in front of  Vesuvius with the steep peak that was blown away in the eruption. Green, beneficent and tranquil, then as now it was well overdue its next eruption.

Pompeii exhibition fresco of Bacchus with Vesuvius
Pompeii exhibition: fresco of Bacchus and the slopes of Vesuvius

The only difference today is that the population density is so much greater, the traffic-choked streets of Naples and its suburbs, and the extension of suburban building developments right up to the foot of the mountain leading international scientists to warn that the lives of 700,000 people could be at risk. The exhibition closes with these words, written in AD 90 by Statius:

In a future generation, when crops spring up again, when this wasteland regains its green, will men believe that cities and people lie beneath?  That in days of old their lands lay nearer the sea? Nor has that fatal summit ceased to threaten.

Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition: Guardian preview

Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition: short tour by Alistair Sooke

The Other Pompeii: Life and Death In Herculaneum: Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s documentary

See also


Ice Age art: like a foal that can walk straight away

Ice Age art: like a foal that can walk straight away

They lived by hunting and gathering nuts, berries and seeds, moving across the tundra south of the fluctuating ice cap for tens of thousands of years, following established seasonal cycles.  Their lives were as closely intertwined with the animals they tracked as ours are with the things we buy.  Animals filled their days, providing them with pelts for clothing, bones for tools – and nourishment.  Animals haunted their consciousness, glimpsed in paintings in the brief, flickering light of a taper in the depths of a cave, or carried as tiny carved objects in a pocket or hung around the neck.

Horse paintings in Chauvet cave, France
Horse paintings in Chauvet cave, France

The people who lived in Europe during the last Ice Age – between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago – created the great cave paintings found in places such as Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira.  But those were not the only artworks of those times.  Many small, portable sculptures, drawings, models and ornaments were made outside in the daylight of the cave entrances, or in camp-sites during the seasonal treks.  These objects were largely made from animal materials – bone, antler, ivory – and a great many of them depicted the animals from which they were sourced.

I don’t have any doubt which was the most moving and significant exhibition that we saw when in London recently.  Ice Age art: the arrival of the modern mind at the British Museum is the largest anthology of portable prehistoric European art that has ever been mounted, gathering artefacts from museums in Russia, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic – where the greatest of the archaeological sites that have yielded these objects are located.

This exhibition articulates a thesis underpinned by 21st century scientific understanding.  It is that only humans possessing complex brains physiologically like ours today, able both to observe and conceptualise the world around them, could have created art like this. Possessing a modern brain capable of supporting the proactive, thinking, reasoning, creative mind, Ice Age artists were able to capture the look of living creatures and, by artistic exaggeration and stylisation, create an emotional impact. By demonstrating this fact, this exhibition also decisively indicates how central is art to human life.

As John Berger states – in a quote that greets you at the exhibition’s entrance – ‘Art is like a foal that can walk straight away’.  Almost immediately you are confronted with that vindicates Berger’s statement – in spades. The foot-high Lion Man sculpture from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, carved from a mammoth tusk, is the product of a human mind imaginative enough to conceive a figure with a lion’s head and human body.

Lion Man from Stadel Cave, southwest Germany
The Lion Man from Stadel Cave, south-west Germany

It’s a piece that clearly embodied some powerful symbolic meaning, but what that meaning was we can only guess.  This exhibition poses unanswerable questions with every object: we will never know for certain what these objects meant, or how they were used; we can only speculate.  The Lion Man may have been an avatar of strength and aggression, or – Jill Cook suggests in the superb book that accompanies the exhibition – have represented an ancestor, a god, an actor, a myth or a legend that symbolised the relationship between humans and animals, possibly a shaman who made contact with animal spirits in an ecstatic or trance experience.

Like other pieces in this exhibition, the Lion Man is instructive, too, in revealing the artistic skill that went into making these objects.  The sculptor knew his material well too, splitting the mammoth tusk at its pulp cavity to create the gap between the Lion Man’s legs. A German craftsman found that it took 400 hours to complete a replica using stone tools.  The amount of skilled, laborious work that went into creating artworks in this exhibition suggests that specialist artists may have been given time off other duties to create sculptures that must have been regarded of supreme value and significance to the tribe.

Waterbird in flight from Hohle Fels Cave, south-west Germany
Water bird in flight from Hohle Fels Cave, south-west Germany

Carved from mammoth ivory, the Water Bird in Flight is from Hohle Fels Cave, also in south-west Germany, and is just one of several exquisitely beautiful renditions of animal forms.  It is about 33,000 years old, and like other pieces it is tiny: just 4.7 cm long. Pieces like this demonstrate the truth in John Berger’s assertion in Why Look at Animals that

to suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia.  Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.

Or, as Jill Cook speculates in the British Museum book,

Was this a little thing of beauty made purely for pleasure?  Was it a meal or does its lack of strength and aggression steer us towards a shamanic allusion to the routes between human and supernatural worlds via air and water?

We will never know.  But the same questions arise when looking at the Flying Swan pendants found at Mal’ta in Siberia. Carved from mammoth ivory, the birds are depicted in flight with their wings and necks outstretched.  The pendants are perforated for suspension at the end of the body.

Flying swan pendants found at Mal'ta in Siberia
Flying swan pendants found at Mal’ta in Siberia

Swans like these would have been migrants, returning to the skies and waters of Siberia with the spring melt-waters. For hunter-gatherers who had endured a hard winter, their return would have marked a time of joy and celebration as a season of ready meat and eggs gave rise to feasts and ceremonies.  Interestingly, although the inhabitants of Mal’ta survived mainly on reindeer and fish, the only creature other than birds represented in their art is the mammoth.  Could it be that water birds were imbued with special spiritual significance, able to move through three elements – earth, air and water? We will never know.

Vogelherd horse
The Vogelherd Horse

The Vogelherd Horse was carved from mammoth ivory in the Lone valley, north-west of Vienna, about the same time that horses were being painted in the Chauvet cave in France (top of post).  It is at least 35,000 years old and exudes the same vivacity and simplicity – without being naturalistic – as one of the horses in a painting by Chagall.

Marc Chagall Mounting the Ebony Horse
Marc Chagall: Mounting the Ebony Horse

Horses were a source of food, as well as leather, hair and sinew for making clothing and other products.  Was this horse carved as a means of showing thanks to or even apologising for killing a generous creature?  We will never know.  What’s certain is that this artwork involved insight, skill and effort: an experiment in replicating the piece showed that it took at least 35 hours to make.

A bison sculpted from mammoth ivory
A bison sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Zaraysk, Russia

The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals.

This is John Berger, in one of the best insights into the people who produced this art – and the centrality of animals in their consciousness.   It’s from ‘Past present‘ (Guardian 2002), an article written following a visit to Chauvet cave in France, home of the oldest cave paintings in the world:

During a relatively warm period in the last Ice Age the climate in Chauvet, in south-eastern France was between 3C and 5C colder than it is today. The trees were limited to birches, Scots pine and juniper. The fauna included many species that are now extinct: mammoths, megaceros deer, cave lions without manes, aurochs and bears that were three metres tall, as well as reindeer, ibex, bison, rhinoceros and wild horses. The human population of nomadic hunter-gatherers was sparse and lived in groups of 20-25. Paleontologists name this population Cro-Magnon, a term that distances at first, yet the distance may turn out to be far-fetched. Neither agriculture nor metallurgy existed. Music and jewellery did. The average life expectancy was 25.

The need for companionship while alive was the same. The Cro-Magnon reply, however, to the first and perennial human question, “Where are we?” was different from ours. The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals.

At the same time, they were distinct from animals. They could make fire and therefore had light in the darkness. They could kill at a distance. They fashioned many things with their hands. They made tents for themselves, held up by mammoth bones. They spoke. (So, perhaps, did animals.) They could count. They could carry water. They died differently. Their exemption from animals was possible because they were a minority, and, being a minority, the animals could pardon them for this exemption.

There are brilliant treasures here: the leaping lion from Pavlov in the Czech Republic, the Zaraysk bison, the deer drawing from Le Chaffaud Cave in France, three lions from La Vache in France, the Swimming Reindeer from Montastruc in France, the horse head from Duruthy Cave in the Pyrenees.

The artistic light that emanates from Greece is the light of broad day.  This early light of artistic dawn is less certain …but early morning lighting is the most dazzling of all.
– George Bataille, about Lascaux

Engraved drawing of a reindeer
Engraved drawing of a reindeer found at La Madeleine, Dordogne
Horse head, Duruthy Cave, Pyrenees
Horse head, Duruthy Cave, Pyrenees

Throughout the 30,000 years covered by this exhibition, two concerns recur: women and animals  Kathleen Jamie, writing in The Guardian noted the importance of the human relationship to wild animals, at a time when all animals were wild, and we depended on them:

Paleolithic people must have read animal signs and talked about animals obsessively. They hunted, killed, gralloched, skinned, cleaned, cooked, ate, scraped, cured, and sewed, and fashioned artworks and decorations from animal antlers and bones. But mostly they looked. The little images are of animals seen at close quarters or middle distance, with the right “gizz” and proportions. They have been made by skilful and confident makers who were possibly spared other tasks, because to make them took time and daylight. Some pieces show prey species, others portray animals to be feared and admired.

Jamie noted that, although today we surround ourselves with images of animals and teach children their names and shapes, the daily immediacy of wild animals is lost.  But, she says, ‘In this exhibition one feels again their pungency and company, and our dependency on them’.

Engraved drawing of two deer, Le Chaffaud, France
Engraved drawing of two deer, Le Chaffaud, France
Swimming Reindeer, Montastruc, France
Swimming Reindeer, Montastruc, France

Up to now, when we have thought of Paleolithic art, it has probably been the cave paintings of Lascaux or Chauvet, that have come to mind. After this exhibition these small pieces recovered from graves and cave floors will take their place alongside those great artworks. They came from the same source, the same culture, but unlike the cave paintings, as Kathleen Jamie observed in her review of the exhibition for The Guardian, this was art for everyone: viewing of the cave paintings probably being limited to a social elite during shamanic rituals.

By contrast, the tiny pieces displayed here, though precious, were small enough to be carried as the group travelled.  On show, too, are works that suggest communal activities.  There are flutes made from bird bone and ivory and a ‘magic’ disc of bone etched with a cow on one side and a calf on the other: spun on a string it would have appeared that the baby was growing into an adult. There’s an articulated figure made from mammoth ivory, believed to be the earliest example of a puppet.  Evenutilitarian objects were styled and decorated: there are spear throwers made from reindeer antlers that have been carved with designs, sometimes – as in the case of a spear thrower made from reindeer antler carved to depict a mammoth – representing the hunted animal.

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler representing a mammoth
Spear thrower made from reindeer antler representing a mammoth

There are tiny figures of dancers and celebrants such as ‘The Worshipper’ from a German cave near Ulm.  A mere 1.5 inches high and possibly 42,000 years old, this piece depicts a human figure, arms raised, perhaps in ecstatic adoration, or maybe dancing.

The Worshipper
‘The Worshipper’

This is the period in human history when figurative art appeared for the first time, and the second section of the exhibition is dedicated to some of the oldest figurative paintings and sculptures. One of the most beautiful pieces is a 23,000 year old mammoth ivory sculpture of an abstract figure unearthed in 1922 in a cave at Lespugue in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Picasso was so fascinated with this piece that he kept two copies of it. The exhibition curators suggest that works like this reveals a visual brain capable of abstraction, and foreshadow the abstract art of the 20th century, reinforcing their case by displaying examples of work by Matisse, Moore, Mondrian and Picasso alongside.  For a sceptical response to this approach, see Brian Sewell’s review in the Standard.

Venus of Lespugue

It is remarkable that the figurative art here almost exclusively portrays women.  The oldest known portrait is the head of a woman, carved in ivory some 26,000 years ago. It was discovered in the 1920s in Dolní Věstonice, a valley in present-day Moravia that was teeming with mammoth and reindeer in the last ice age.  It astonishing piece of art, smaller than a thumb, created using stone tools.  Experts consider it to be a portrait because the woman is portrayed with distinctive individual characteristics. She has one beautifully engraved eye; on the other, the lid comes just over and there’s just a slit, suggesting that she may have had a stroke, or a palsy, or was injured in some way. So this may well be an image of a real living woman.

The oldest known portrait: female face from Dolni Vestonice
The oldest known portrait: female face from Dolni Vestonice

Perhaps the most famous female image of Ice Age art is the figure known as the Woman from Willendorf.  It shows an overweight woman with a faceless, bowed head, whose body has probably borne several children.  It was found at a site in Moravia by the fireside of an open campsite.  Most Ice Age representations of women look like this.  So did this represent a male ideal of beauty, motherhood, fertility or kindness?  These depictions of women are the subject of vehement debate.

The Woman from Willendorf
The Woman from Willendorf
Lucian Freud Sleeping by the lion carpet
Lucian Freud: Sleeping by the lion carpet

The Willendorf woman was carved from sandstone; the equally famous and remarkable woman from Dolni Vestonice is the oldest ceramic figure in the world, made from baked clay.  Its black colour is the result of the firing process.

The woman from Dolni Vestonice
The woman from Dolni Vestonice: the oldest ceramic figure in the world
Matisse Grand Nu
Matisse: Grand Nu (1950)

The nude woman from Barma Grande Cave, Balzi Rossi (on the border between France and Italy) was carved from yellow steatite, a soft stone easy to scrape and carve into shape.  It is probably about 20,000 years old and has an oval head, bowed forward and without facial features.  Her hair hangs down behind in a kind of ponytail.  Her barely suggested arms curve in below the breasts – again, the heavy breasts of a woman who has nurtured children.

There are no images of men.  Whoever crafted these objects – male or female – they were, as Brian Sewell observes in his review, ‘intrigued by women, their form, their breasts and buttocks, their genitals, pregnancy and fat’. This exhibition has no penis, no testicles – yet they are inherently sculptural, and might seem an obvious thing for men to carve or engrave (if, indeed objects were made by men), especially if they wished to celebrate sexuality and virility.  Could it be that the connection between the part played by the man in sex and the birth of a child was unknown, and that pregnancy and childbirth therefore came as a mysterious, mystical and magical event to be celebrated or worshipped in these small figurines?

Nude woman from Barma Grande Cave, Balzi Rossi
Nude woman from Barma Grande Cave, Balzi Rossi

In her exhibition review, Kathleen Jamie wrote:

The artworks in Ice Age Art have been exhumed from archaeological sites over the last 150 years. The question arises: why did we have to wait until now for such an exhibition? Avant-garde 20th-century artists embraced the Paleolithic – some of their works are shown here – but perhaps the rest of society wasn’t quite ready. We had to overcome certain 19th- and 20th-century attitudes, to women, to sex, “savages” and “cavemen”, and start reversing out of our monotheistic cul-de-sac, before we could rediscover ourselves, and win this rich reward.

This is a stunning exhibition, one of those once in a lifetime experiences, since it is unlikely that such a large collection of these precious and delicate objects will be assembled again for a long time.  Curator Jill Cook concludes the book accompanying the exhibition with these words:

Although we cannot read the thoughts transcribed in these extraordinary works we can at least appreciate them as produced by artists with specialist skills and creative, flexible modern brains.  They allow our imaginations to race and our intellects to wrestle with facts and theories that are part of our own negotiation with our past and our place in the world.

These works stimulate thoughts about many things, not least the sense of the deep history of human beings on this planet.  We are looking at objects created over a time span of twenty to thirty thousand years during which the climate and the physical environment changed back and forth in ways that would have been hugely challenging to the humans who made them. We look back at them across a gulf of unimaginable time.  As John Berger wrote:

The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a dominant culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress that has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today’s culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them.

See also

Jomon pottery: potter and clay endure

Jomon pottery: potter and clay endure

As far as exhibitions go, sometimes small can be beautiful.  Last week at the British Museum to see the Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition, I happened to wander into a side room where an exhibition consisting of just three objects was on display. Flame and water pots: prehistoric ceramic art from Japan is a concise, yet revelatory display of three ‘flame’ and ‘water’ pots from ancient Japan.

The Museum owns one Jōmon pot (above) which was featured in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects. That pot is accompanied by two pots on loan from Nagaoka City in the Niigata prefecture in Japan.  In themselves, these objects are fascinating to look at, but the wider story they tell is one that is both interesting and significant.

The earliest pots found in Japan date from around 16,500 years ago. Pottery was not invented in the Middle East or North Africa until several thousand years later.  The Jōmon people lived in the period between  12,500-1000 BC on the Japanese archipelago.  The term Jōmon means ‘cord-marked’ in Japanese, and is derived from the decorative markings on the pottery. The pots themselves were made for a number of reasons and are both functional and aesthetically beautiful, and open a window to mysterious culture from the distant past.

Jomon pots are the oldest pots in the world. For the first time, pots allowed people to boil foods such as nuts and shellfish to make them edible. As Neil MacGregor put it in A History of the World in 100 Objects:

It was in Japan that the world’s first pottery was born – and with it, possibly the world’s first stew. […]  The world’s pots are so ubiquitous that we take all of them for granted, but human history is told and written in pots perhaps more than in anything else; as Robert Browning put it: ‘Time’s wheel runs back or stops; potter and clay endure’.

The oldest Jomon pot (top) is pretty underwhelming to look at. It’s a cooking pot made about 7000 years ago –  2000 years earlier than the flame and crown pots displayed alongside it. The rim is decorated with marks incised with a stick or finger nail and the cord-markings are clearly visible. It was probably uncovered by a farmer in the 19th century and spotted by a tea master who thought it would make a fine water vessel (mizusashi) for a tea gathering. Gold leaf and lacquer was applied to the interior of the prehistoric vessel and a wooden lid was constructed with a snail decoration, alluding to the pot’s unearthing from the soil.

It’s made of brown-grey clay, a simple round pot about six inches high, six inches across at the top, with straight sides and a flat base, and it was made in Japan.  It was built up with coils of clay and then, into the outside, fibres were pressed, so that it looks and feels like a basket made of clay.

The protrusions on the the rim of the Jomon crown pot (above) may have been inspired by the architecture of Jomon houses. The crown pot appears rigid in comparison to the fluid form of the flame pot displayed alongside. These contrasting styles seem to have been important in Jomon culture and figured also in the arrangement of buildings and burials.

This flame pot is around 5000 years old, the same age as Stonehenge. It takes its name from the elaborate flame-like protrusions around the rim. The rims and mouths of these pottery vessels held special importance for the Jomon, as they would have been the focal point for the family gathered around the hearth.

Jomon pots were used as cooking vessels, often sunk into the hearth to aid heat convection. Cooking was an important activity for the Jomon people and they constructed elaborate fireplaces. The hearth gave warmth and light as well as providing a social focus for the family unit. Analysis of the carbonised remains found in many of these vessels show that the pots were used to make soups and Jomon ‘cookies’ made of nuts, acorns and animal fat. Apart from cooking, Jomon ceramics were also used for pouring, serving, storage, and sometimes for burials and other rituals.

Each family group made its own ceramics. It is thought from academic studies that they were constructed by women,  though the museum’s interpretation suggests there is no concrete evidence for this yet. Jomon potters did not use a wheel but constructed the vessels by hand, coiling the clay and then paddling it to firm up the sides. Various types of cord were made from twisted plant fibres and they were used to impress different patterns on the vessel’s surface. The pots would then have been fired in wood-fed firing pits.

Jomon pottery is unique, not just because it is the oldest yet discovered, but also because they were made in a hunter-gatherer culture.  Pots are usually created by cultures only after they have made the transition from hunter-gathering
to farming, as it is very difficult to carry pottery and live a nomadic lifestyle. However, the Jomon were unique because although they foraged, hunted and fished throughout the year unusually they lived in semi-settled villages. They were able to do this because they lived in a particularly food-rich environment, as explained in this panel.

Pots enabled the Jomon to take advantage of these resources, as many of their key foodstuffs, such as acorns, were toxic unless cooked. Pots were also used to boil shellfish, forcing the shells to open and allowing access to the meat inside.

Finally, the exhibition tells how the rediscovery of the Jomon culture since the 19th century has played an important role in the evolving idea of what constitutes Japan’s cultural heritage.  Prior to the Second World War, the Jomon people were mostly viewed as a primitive aboriginal culture that was completely superseded by the arrival of rice-farming
Yayoi people from the Asian continent in around 300 BC .  This view changed significantly from the late 1940s onwards. Now many see Jomon material culture as a sophisticated artistic tradition in its own right and see  evidence for interaction between the Jomon and Yayoi populations.  More and more is being discovered about Jōmon origins and culture, and  the exhibition examines the imagery and symbolism on the pots, as well as showing how Jōmon pots have been an inspiration to modern Japanese culture – with references in music, manga, modern art.

As an example of this, music inspired by Jomon culture was played by Yamagami Susumu, who performs on a shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute) and a tsugaru shamisen (three-stringed instrument).

See also

Shakespeare: Staging the World

Shakespeare: Staging the World

A nifty toothpick-cum ear scraper, a hornbook of the sort that Shakespeare might have used to learn his ABC, the eye of a Jesuit priest hung for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, the only piece of text in Shakespeare’s own hand, a striking portrait of the Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I: just a few of the objects to see in the British Museum’s marvellous exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World.

Visiting London, I was determined to see this exhibition, having enjoyed Neil MacGregor’s companion radio series, Shakespeare’s Restless World earlier this year.  The exhibition’s co-curators, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, have brought together an array of objects, images and curiosities selected for their Shakespearean associations.  It’s a portrait the world that created Shakespeare, and of the world that he created from his imagination.

It’s a vivid glimpse of what it was like to live in London around 1600: a turbulent world where violence stalked the streets while the Crown feared conspiracy and an uncertain succession. Round the corner from the Globe there was bear-baiting and heretics were hanged, drawn and quartered in public.  But this was also an exciting time when mental and geographical frontiers were expanding, with explorers extending the limits of the known world, and trade bringing Londoners into contact with emissaries from distant lands and exotic cultures. As the Museum puts it in their introduction:

The exhibition provides a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. It also explores the pivotal role of the playhouse as a window to the world outside London, and the playwright’s importance in shaping a new sense of
national identity.

Shakespeare: Staging the World shows how a historical understanding of the places, the objects and the ideas with which Shakespeare was familiar can enhance the experience of watching his plays.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
(Henry V, Act I, Scene 1)

Shakespeare, as Jonathan Bate says, probably never left these shores, but ‘he travelled in his imagination’. This exhibition enters his world – both real and imagined. It takes us from Elizabethan London and finishes on Prospero’s mysterious island. Along the way it passes through the pastoral retreat of the forest of Arden, explores the classical world of Greece and Rome that fuelled Shakespeare’s stories, notes how Britain’s identity as a nation was being defined at the time partly by the new mapmakers (and by Shakespeare himself), before coming ashore in places such as Jamaica and Venice that fired the playwright’s imagination.

Brian Sewell, in a review for the Telegraph that embraced both the exhibition and the catalogue (which, he said, ‘should be in every school library in the land. Indeed, every such library should have 20 copies in armour-plated bindings that will survive a century of careless handling. Indeed, I shall go further and suggest that every student of English literature should have his own copy and that the book should never go out of print), wrote eloquently about the places to which Shakespeare journeyed in his imagination:

To London from Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakespeare’s only significant journey. For him there was no sitting at the feet of philosophers and theologians in the universities of the Low Countries and Paris; nor was there a Grand Tour to inform his imagination (what would he have made of the hostile grandeur of the Alps?), and what he knew of Italy from Venice to Messina, he knew by proxy from others who had travelled there, or from visitors to London, implied by the British Museum to have been an entrepôt that was at least a match for Constantinople, Venice, Seville and the Hanseatic ports of northern Europe.

He was, perhaps, further informed by maps, a not entirely new source of knowledge and mystery, but one greatly expanded in the 16th century and increasingly available, not just to the rich and educated, but to wider reaches of society. The merchants of once parochial London, through trade with the Far East and the new riches pillaged from the Americas, in Shakespeare’s day ringed the globe with their enterprise and began her conversion into a world city.

The untravelled Shakespeare, enchanted by old tales of Troy and ancient Rome, and by new of Bohemia, Sicily, Cyprus and the Caribbean, imagined the faces and places there, became their atlas and geographer, and dubbed the new theatre of which he was a housekeeper (the Elizabethan term for any owning part or all of a theatre), The Globe. “All the world’s a stage,” said the authentic voice of Shakespeare in the role of Jaques, the philosophical idler of As You Like It; he could as readily have said, “A stage is all the world,” for in his hands that is exactly what it was.

There are so many interesting objects here – some of them I mentioned in my review of the radio series – so I can only pick out a few that caught my attention as I explored the exhibits.  The hornbook (above) was not a book, but a small wooden board with a handle. A sheet of vellum inscribed with a lesson – perhaps the alphabet or the Lord’s Prayer – was attached to one side and covered by a thin, transparent layer of horn or mica. They were an important element of  early education in the 16th and 17th centuries in England and on the continent.  Shakespeare mentions a ‘hornebook’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and it’s probable that Shakespeare first learned his letters on a hornbook.

And this is what he learned: the exhibition opens (just as it closes) with an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, in this case the First Folio of 1623.  It included 36 of his plays – and what always staggers me is that 17 of those had never been published before 1623, being prepared from Shakespeare’s ‘foul papers’ or working drafts of a play or the prompt-book used by the prompter during a performance of the play.

Wenceslaus Hollar: View of London with the (mis-labelled) Globe Theatre and the Bear Garden

On the wall  the behind the First Folio is a large reproduction of Wenceslaus Hollar’s panoramic Long View of London that serves as introduction to the objects that bring to life the London of Shakespeare’s time.  It depicts the Thames teeming with rivercraft, the rubric ‘eel boats’ inscribed under one small flotilla,  while in Southwark, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is misidentified by the engraver as ‘the beere-bayting house’ – a reminder of the attractions with which Shakespeare’s plays had to compete. Nearby is displayed the skull of a bear, excavated from the mud of the Thames during the rebuilding of the Globe.

The new playhouses, like the bear pits and other low-life attractions, were were situated well away from the centre of town.  Bankside, where the Globe was established, was an area with a dangerous and notorious reputation. The theatres needed to attract large numbers of playgoers and so performances had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers. There is a rather jolly print on show, entitled ‘Going to Bankside’ (top) which depicts a well-heeled group being rowed across the river by two boatmen.  Objects excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres – such as a beautiful Italian fork for sweetmeats, a set of dice, a pipe, a piece of oak balustrade from the theatre, and a curious implement designed with a toothpick at one end and an ear-scraper at the other – vividly bring to life the Southwark of Shakespeare’s day, when the playhouse rubbed shoulders with bear-baiting arenas, brothels and pubs. A rapier and a dagger found in the Thames nearby – possibly dropped by a young man as he got in or out of one of those  Bankside ferry boats – illustrate the extent of violence in Elizabethan London when gentlemen ‘and others of higher degree and place’ were permitted by law to routinely carry such weapons.

Another section of the exhibition reveals how, at the same time as they explored the new world and laid the foundations of empire, the Elizabethans also focused on defining the national identity at home. One way in which this was accomplished was through the vast and detailed mapping of England that was completed under Elizabeth for the first time in history.

Saxton map, Warwickshire, 1576

Several maps made in this period are displayed, including the Saxton map of of 1576 and the Newell-Burghley Atlas of 1564, commissioned by Elizabeth’s first Minister, Sir William Cecil (underlining the point made the exhibition’s co-curator Jonathan Bate in his BBC Radio 4 series Discovery of England that such mapping was a state enterprise designed both to collect data valuable for military purposes, but also to help strengthen a sense of national identity).

Nearby are exhibits loaned by Westminster Abbey that reflect the same national project, and which would have been on public display in the Abbey in Shakespeare’s day.  The playwright would have seen the  funery relics of Henry V – his helmet and sword – inspiring his portrayal of him as the brave, patriotic soldier-king, and written into the prologue of act five of Henry V, as ‘his bruisèd helmet and his bended sword’.

Just as Shakespeare almost single-handedly built the reputation of Henry V, so, by contrast, did he reduce the standing of Richard III, portraying him as a deformed, incompetent, cruel king. A portrait of Richard III painted by an unknown artist around 1555 illustrates how his reputation was manipulated.  The king is shown with a disfigured hand, evidence of a warped and malign nature, and a broken sword signifying dishonour and the impotence of evil.  Shakespeare’s play reinforced this image of Richard and provided further support for the legitimacy of Richard’s successors, who were also  his patrons.

The exhibition shows how Shakespeare delved into the stories of classical Greece and Rome in order to create plays, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, that addressed political questions that could not otherwise be safely debated in public: questions of power and authority, legitimacy and succession were explored, but in the context of ancient Rome or Athens.  The relevance of the classical world is powerfully contained in one tiny coin, minted by Brutus to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar. On the reverse are the daggers with which Caesar was killed and a cap of liberty to symbolise the liberation of Rome from his rule. In one of several video installations featuring actors, Paterson Joseph (Brutus in the RSC’s African production of the play) is seen brandishing the same coin.

Shakespeare was fairly adept at making acute political points about the questions of the day without bringing the wrath of the authorities down upon his head, or losing a play to censorship. In a TV series a few years back, the historian Michael Wood explored the question of whether Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic, given that his father left a ‘spiritual testament’ professing his adherence to Catholicism (only found in the rafters of the Shakespeare home on Henley Street in 1757) and had associations with Catholics, both in Warwickshire and Lancashire.  His conclusion was that ‘as one would expect, he was a Christian, but his mind was wide and his scepticism of any system of power was pronounced. … If he retained in his heart a sympathy for the Old Faith of his parents, he kept his cards close to his chest’.

An object which signifies the religious divisions and fears of the time is a silver reliquary said to contain the right eye of the Jesuit priest Edward Oldcorne, who was executed for allegedly having played a part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which was collected at his execution at Worcester in 1606.  Is this the counterpart of Gloucester’s eye, ruthlessly gouged from his face – ‘Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?’ – by Cornwall in King Lear?

Other objects help us understand contemporary references made in the plays.  For example, Jonathan Bate was fascinated by the fact that Othello, just before killing himself, refers to a ‘sword of Spain’ he keeps in his chamber. What would one have looked like?  On show is a rapier with a long Toledo blade and an exquisitely worked French hilt. And when Caliban in The Tempest tells Stephano he will teach him ‘how to snare the nimble marmoset’, how did that reference jump into Shakespeare’s head? Marmosets were exotic primates recently being brought back from the New World to Europe as pets for princes, and we are presented with a drawing of one.

Could Ariel from The Tempest, be inspired by artefacts of spirits from the pre-colonial religion of Jamaica?  Possibly: the curators have displayed a 15th century wooden figure from the island. Meanwhile (as in the radio series), Prospero’s wizardry is illustrated by magical objects that belonged to the Elizabethan occultist John Dee, including ‘Dr Dee’s magick mirror’, an artefact originating in Mexico some time in the 14th or 15th centuries.

I was much taken with the only surviving example of a manuscript in Shakespeare’s handwriting – an extract from Sir Thomas More, a play to which he contributed only one scene that takes place during the ‘Evil May’ race riots of 1517, in which he has Thomas More, as undersheriff of London, quell riots directed at immigrants living in London with this speech:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another. […]

You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.

ALL: Faith, a says true: let’s do as we may be done to.

Ian McKellen performs Shakespeare’s monologue from Sir Thomas More

A later section of the exhibition is concerned with Shakespeare’s representations of ‘strangers’ and reflects  encounters he might have had with those from other lands and other cultures.   The striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I (above), depicts the leader of a delegation from Morocco that came to London in 1600 on a state visit to negotiate an alliance against Spain. The presence of these men had a great impact on London at the time. They were a source of both fascination and fear. El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and would certainly have been known to Shakespeare as one of  Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Abd el-Ouahed may well have informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.

Alongside this portrait are other representations of black Africans: a beautiful bust of a black African by Nicolas Cordier (a French artist working in Rome) and ‘Portrait of an African Man’ (below) by the Dutch painter Jan Jansz Mostaert. Painted around 1525, it is the earliest portrait of a black African to have survived from the Renaissance.

This part of the exhibition shows how Shakespeare utilised Venice, the dazzling entrepot of his day that drew in and accommodated ‘strangers’ from the Mediterranean lands and beyond, not only in Othello but also The Merchant of Venice. A Sabbath lamp, predating the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, is presented as a reminder that, following Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews, it is possible that no Englishman, including Shakespeare, had encountered a professing Jew. However, in London Shakespeare would have encountered Spanish or Portuguese marranos, forcibly converted Jewish immigrants (or their children), people regarded with deep suspicion by the English.

So to develop the character of Shylock, Shakespeare drew on his knowledge of London’s Jews: small, illegal communities of Jewish conversos or marranos who made London a vibrant place for trade and cultural exchange. Out of these scraps of impressions, Shakespeare created Shylock – not as a stranger in a foreign land, but at home in the Venetian ghetto, surrounded by his daughter, servants, friends. In this way, he transformed a stereotypical villain into a believable human being and makes him the focus of  a debate about the nature of justice. Without minimising Shylock’s vengeful  nature, Shakespeare requires us to decide what is fair and what is not, and whether the greater guilt belongs to the one who does wrong or the one who takes revenge on a wrong.

Jewish Venice is represented by a scroll of the Book of Esther in Hebrew, dated 1573, and a balance and coin weights with a collection of gold ducats, of which there just happen to be 30 pieces.  Nearby, on a video screen,  Antony Sher recites Shylock’s poignant appeal for common humanity across the ethnic divide: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ This is one of several superb videos made by the Royal Shakespeare Company that embellish the exhibition, including Ian McKellan performing Prospero’s soliloquy.

The final exhibit is an edition of Shakespeare, covered in Hindu iconography as a disguise.  It is the Robben Island Bible, smuggled into the jail by one of the imprisoned ANC leaders Sonny Venkatrathnam as his ‘bible’ since inmates weren’t allowed any books apart from religious texts. He circulated it amongst his fellow prisoners, inviting them to select a favourite passage and autograph it.  Several marked their favourite passages, and the book is open at a speech from Julius Caesar with the following lines marked:

Cowards die many times before their deaths; 
The valiant never taste of death but once. 
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, 
It seems to me most strange that men should fear; 
Seeing that death, a necessary end, 
Will come when it will come.

A date and a signature is added.  The date is 16.12.77. The signature ‘NRD Mandela’.

In this video, the exhibition’s curators speaking to a slideshow of the objects on display:

See also

Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?

Two ostensibly dissimilar broadcasts this week – Jeanette Winterson reading extracts from her new memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? on Radio 4’s Book of the Week and Alan Yentob’s Imagine film on Grayson Perry’s new show at the British Museum – seemed to me to share the same joyous sense of triumphant nonconformity and human spirit.

Both artists experienced lonely, unhappy and often violent childhoods. When Perry was five, his parents divorced. His father had discovered his mother having an affair with the milkman. Perry has said that his father’s departure from the family home was the defining moment in his life. To escape from a difficult family situation and his stepfather’s violence, he retreated to his bedroom or the garden shed where he became absorbed in a fantasy life, sometimes involving his teddy bear, Alan Measles, who became a ‘surrogate father figure’ and is the only thing he still possesses from his childhood days. In these lonely hours Perry developed an interest in drawing and building model aeroplanes, both of which were to become themes in his artistic work.

Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester and adopted by Pentecostal parents from Accrington. Her mother raged at her, beat her, locked her out of the house at night, and did not approve of reading, unless it was the Bible. Much of this was fictionalised in Winterson’s best-known book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and recounted powerfully in her own reading – with her expressive Lancashire intonation – of the new memoir.

But the young Jeanette developed a love of books, first in the local library, then, as a teenager, buying paperbacks and hiding them under her mattress, only for her mother to discover them, throw them into the backyard, and then set fire to them.  At 16, Jeanette left home, having happily fallen in love with a girl. Her mother’s parting words give the new book its title: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

Although I didn’t grow up in family circumstances quite as distressed as Perry’s or Winterson’s, I did experience something like it as my mother, suffering from agoraphobia, steadily withdrew herself from the world.  As her confidence crumbled and I scrabbled a course through grammar school, she would sneer and rage at my books and the time I spent studying.  So I understand when Jeanette Winterson writes, ‘I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence’. She explains the need and the purpose behind excavating the past in her memoir thus:  ‘There are markings here, raised like welts. Read then. Read the hurt. Rewrite them. Rewrite the hurt’.

There are marvellous passages inWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  For example, on the importance of books in enabling her to survive her cruel childhood:

There were six books in our house. One was the Bible and two were commentaries on the Bible. My mother was a pamphleteer by temperament, and she knew that sedition and controversy are fired by printed matter. Ours was not a secular house, and my mother was determined that I should have no secular influences.

I asked my mother why we couldn’t have books, and she said, “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.” I thought to myself, “Too late for what?” […]

And then there’s the story of those paperbacks hidden  under her mattress:

I used to work on the market on Saturdays, and after school on Thursdays and Fridays, packing up. I used the money to buy books. I smuggled them inside and hid them under the mattress. Anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that 72 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. By degrees my bed began to rise visibly, like the Princess and the Pea, so that soon I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor. My mother was suspicious-minded, but even if she had not been, it was clear that her daughter was going up in the world.

One night she came in and saw the corner of a paperback sticking out from under the mattress. She pulled it out and examined it with her flashlight. It was an unlucky choice; DH Lawrence, Women in Love. Mrs Winterson knew that Lawrence was a satanist and a pornographer, and, hurling it out of the window, she rummaged and rifled and I came tumbling off the bed while she threw book after book out of the window and into the backyard. I was grabbing books and trying to hide them, the dog was running off with them, my dad was standing helpless in his pyjamas.

When she had done, she picked up the little paraffin stove we used to heat the bathroom, went into the yard, poured paraffin over the books and set them on fire. I watched them blaze and blaze and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night. I had bound them all in plastic because they were precious. Now they were gone.

In the morning there were stray bits of texts all over the yard and in the alley. Burnt jigsaws of books. I collected some of the scraps. What does Eliot say? These fragments I have shored against my ruins …

I realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. I began to memorise texts. We had always memorised long chunks of the Bible, and it seems that people in oral traditions have better memories than those who rely on printed text. The rhythm and image of poetry make it easier to recall than prose, easier to chant. But I needed prose too, and so I made my own concise versions of 19th century novels – going for the talismanic, not worrying much about the plot. I had lines inside me – a string of guiding lights. I had language.

The books had gone, but they were objects; what they held could not be so easily destroyed. What they held was already inside me, and together we would get away. And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do. “Fuck it,” I thought, “I can write my own.”

Curiously, both Perry and Winterson subsequently found happiness with psychotherapists – in the new book  Winterson tells how she recently met and fell in love with the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, while Grayson Perry is married to another psychotherapist, Philippa Fairclough.

The Imagine film showed how Grayson Perry has been working behind the scenes at the British Museum to stage his most ambitious show: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. From the Museum’s vast collection, Perry selected objects mostly created by anonymous craftsmen which inspired, amused or intrigued him — from religious artifacts to cheap souvenir pin badges. He has complemented them with new works of his own inspired by the Museum objects, from his trademark ceramics to an outrageously decorated working motorbike.  Imagine followed as he rode the bike from his home town Chelmsford to its twin town, Backnang in southern Germany, in full make-up and clad in a purple cape and knickerbockers and bright yellow boots. ‘I like delighting people’, he says. ‘One fact that every transvestite has to come to terms with is that a person dressed up in the clothes of the opposite sex is somehow inherently funny. I regard humour as an important and necessary aspect of art’.

His theme is pilgrimage, and how many of us now make pilgrimages to art galleries and the like, where in the past a pilgrim’s destination would be a place of religious significance.  The British Museum has been a place of pilgrimage for Perry since he was a child – though he admitted to a sense of disappointment on his first visit, because the model boats in the Egyptian collection were not as shiny and new as the ones he played with at home. ‘People come here and they stand outside and take photographs of themselves as proof – ‘I was here, I made the pilgrimage”, he says.

Perry places traditional pilgrimage sites such as Mecca, Bethlehem and Amritsar alongside modern secular ones: Disneyland, Ground Zero, Graceland. (www.privategalleriestour.com)

At the heart of the exhibition is Perry’s eponymous Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a ship like the one from Sutton Hoo, sailing into the afterlife, bedecked with casts of Museum artifacts – mummies, sculptures, busts, plaques – and with as its centrepiece a 250,000-year-old flint axe, the first human tool.  ‘The tool that begat all tools’ as Perry says. ‘This is a memorial to all the anonymous craftsmen that over the centuries have fashioned the manmade wonders of the world. I find the craftsman’s anonymity especially resonant in an age of the celebrity artist’.

The centrepiece of the exhibition – the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (www.privategalleriestour.com)

Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, calls it ‘one of the great imaginative storehouses of the world’, and points out that Perry is not the first to find inspiration in the museum’s historic galleries. ‘Throughout the museum’s history, artists have used the collection to inspire them, to make their own art, but until now, none of them has used it to make his own museum, his own civilization’.  By doing this, MacGregor says, Perry has made everyone – even those who work at the museum – look at the objects differently.  This is Perry’s aim. He wants to inspire in his turn, just as he has been inspired: ‘I hope that when people leave, they want to make something, they want to look at the world afresh’.

For me, the work of these two artists, working in their different fields, are testament to the power of hope and intelligence, love and imagination, to shatter social convention and the restrictions of conformity. Better, for all its faults, the society we have in Britain today with its greater degree of inclusiveness and tolerance, than a return to the restrictions and cruelties of the recent past.  ‘Love. Love’s lack. The possibility of love’: for Winterson, this is mystery at the heart of her story.

‘In spite of all … I was and am in love with life’, writes Jeanette Winterson towards the end of her book.  It’s a marvellous book and a generous one which concludes with Winterson tracking down and meeting her natural mother. She writes of forgiveness and the complicated peace that has come from excavating her past: ‘The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is it prompts reflection.’  In the end, she concludes, she couldn’t be the daughter either of her mothers wanted.  She could only be herself.

‘I have,’ she concludes, ‘no idea what happens next.’


The Throne of Weapons

Recently I wrote on how this year marks 50 years of African independence.   The artwork above – The Throne of Weapons, made by the Mozambican artist Cristovao Canhavato (Kester) from decommissioned weapons collected since the end of the civil war in 1992 – adds a further commentary on that period.  It was featured today as the 98th object in the BBC History of the World in 100 Objects, also reminding me that in 2005, on a visit to the British Museum,  I saw a companion piece by Kester, The Tree of Life.

This is how Neil MacGregor described The Throne of Weapons:

Although it’s entirely made out of chopped-up guns, in its shape the Throne of Weapons looks like a conventional wooden armchair – the sort you might find in a kitchen or at a dinner table. But that’s the only conventional thing about it. The guns that make up this chair in fact track the twentieth-century history of Mozambique. The oldest, forming the back, are two antiquated Portuguese G3 rifles – appropriately so, as Portugal was the country’s colonial master for nearly five hundred years, until independence in 1975. That independence was won by a left-wing resistance movement, FRELIMO, which was supported by the Soviet Union and its allies. Which explains why all the other elements of this chair are dismembered guns manufactured in the Communist bloc. The arms of the chair are made out of Soviet AK47s. The seat is formed from Polish and Czechoslovakian rifles, and one of the front legs is the barrel of a North Korean AKM. This is the Cold War as furniture, the Eastern Bloc in action, fighting for Communism in Africa and across the world.

MacGregor described the disastrous years of economic collapse and bloody conflict that followed independence in Mozambique – the consequence of a bloody civil war that flared when the Rhodesian and South African regimes created and backed an opposition group to fight the new government.

The guns in the Throne are the guns with which this civil war was fought, and it left a million dead, millions of refugees, and 300,000 war orphans in need of care. Peace came only after 15 years when, in 1992, a settlement was brokered, and the country’s leaders began to rebuild their state.

The key challenge in Mozambique was to decommission the hundreds of thousands of surviving guns, and to equip the former soldiers and their families to rebuild their lives. The Throne of Weapons played an inspiring role in this recovery process. It was made as part of a peace project called Transforming Arms into Tools, which is still going today. Weapons once used by combatants on both sides were voluntarily surrendered under amnesty and, in exchange, the people who gave them up received practical tools – hoes, sewing machines, bicycles, roofing materials. The guns themselves were to be turned into works of art.

The Throne was made by the Mozambican artist Kester. He chose to make a chair and call it a throne, which immediately makes a particularly African statement. Chairs, rather than stools, are rare in traditional African societies, reserved usually for tribal heads, princes and kings. They are “thrones” in the truest sense of the word. But this is a throne on which no-one is meant to sit. It’s not for an individual ruler, but it’s intended rather as an expression of the governing spirit of the new Mozambique – peaceful reconciliation.

Since the beginning of the project, more than 600,000 weapons have been relinquished and handed over to artists like Kester, to be disabled and turned into sculpture. The sculptures take many forms, but this piece seems to me to have a very particular pathos, precisely because it has been made in the shape of a chair. When we talk about chairs, we always speak of them as though they were human beings – we say they have arms, legs, backs and feet. So there is something particularly disturbing, I think, about a chair made out of weapons that were designed specifically to maim backs and arms, legs and feet.

The Tree of Life, which I photographed at the British Museum in 2005 (above) was made a year earlier by Kester and three other Mozambican artists: Hilario Nhatugueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Serafim Maté. It is also product of the Transforming Arms into Tools project and it, too, is made from decommissioned weapons.  TAE was set up by Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane in 1995 and supported by Christian Aid.

The British Museum guide describes the sculpture as follows:

The tree stands 3.5 metres tall. Its trunk is a filigree of rusted metal rising from four thick roots at the base and sprouting overhead into a canopy of branches. Two-thirds of the way up, a small monkey springs up the trunk, its tail curved, its eyes trained on a bird’s nest on a branch above its head. A mother bird, wings splayed, feeds her chicks in the nest that is partly hidden by leaves. On the opposite side of the tree a butterfly hangs from a branch.  All are the same tarnished brown colour. Like the tree, the creatures are made of gun parts: chopped-up AK-47 rifles, pistols and even rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Around the base of the trunk are more creatures – birds with abundant plumage, a lizard, a tortoise and a giant butterfly.

The rough texture of the bark is formed by different sized gun barrels, butts, and magazines welded together to make a cylindrical framework. Here you can make out a trigger and trigger guard, there a complete pistol. At the top of the trunk gun barrels create the beginnings of the stiff, angular branches. Barrels with increasingly narrower bores – often with their sights still in place – have been welded together, end to end, so the branches taper. For the leaves, sections of metal from gun barrels or magazines have been opened out and flattened. Groups of leaves fan out on either side of the gun-barrel branches.

Bishop Dinis Sengulane, founder of Transforming Arms Into Tools, said the sculpture was relevant to UK gun crime. “We would like you to adapt this to your own reality. People involved in the armament industry, even in making toy guns, should realise that guns are instruments for destroying human life.”

The concept of the tree of life has a long pedigree, and has been depicted for millenia in the art, literature and religion of many cultures. It is often seen in ritual paintings, which are created to ensure a good harvest or keep away evil spirits.
In Egyptian mythology Isis and Osiris, the first couple, were said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Saosis, which
the Egyptians considered to be ‘the tree in which life and death are enclosed’. In Jewish folklore, the tree of life was planted by God in the Garden of Eden, its fruit giving everlasting life. For the Vikings, Yggdrasil was the world tree, a great ash tree located at the centre of the Universe, joining the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. It connected the realm of gods with the world of mortals and the land of giants. In many parts of the world, especially in Indian rural areas, trees continue to be venerated and people continue to create art forms depicting the tree of life.

In this example of Kalamkari, the temple art of Andhra Pradesh, the artisan uses a pen-like brush called kalam, giving the technique its name.  The tree is considered to be one of the most potent of symbols. Its roots delve into the underworld its trunk links the earth to the heavens – it transcends all three spheres. It symbolizes birth, maturity, death and rebirth embodied in leaf, bud and fruit.

Here, the tree of life is transposed as a vase containing flowers and a variety of leaves. The flowers are those associated with fertility. Generally, a tree of life is flanked by worshippers, birds or animals, which could vary locally. Here the tree is flanked by a couple of peacocks. It is relevant to note that in Indian mythology, peacocks occupy a prominent place. They symbolize immortality, love, courtship, fertility, regal pomp and protection. When the auspicious tree of life and the important motif of a peacock come together, this painting’s worth is doubly elevated.

The tree stands 3.5 metres tall. Its trunk is a filigree of rusted metal rising from four thick roots at the base and sprouting overhead into a canopy of branches. Two-thirds of the way up, a small monkey springs up the trunk, its tail curved, its eyes trained on a bird’s nest on a branch above its head. A mother bird, wings splayed, feeds her chicks in the nest that is partly hidden by leaves. On the opposite side of the tree a butterfly hangs from a branch.All are the same tarnished brown colour. Like the tree, the creatures are made of gun parts: chopped-up AK-47 rifles, pistols and even rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Around the base of the trunk are more creatures – birds with abundant plumage, a lizard, a tortoise and a giant butterfly. 

The rough texture of the bark is formed by different sized gun barrels, butts, and magazines welded together to make a cylindrical framework. Here you can make out a trigger and trigger guard, there a complete pistol. At the top of the trunk gun barrels create the beginnings of the stiff, angular branches. Barrels with increasingly narrower bores – often with their sights still in place – have been welded together, end to end, so the branches taper. For the leaves, sections of metal from gun barrels or magazines have been opened out and flattened. Groups of leaves fan out on either side of the gun-barrel branches.

50 years of African independence

The incomparable History of the World in 100 Objects on BBC Radio 4 is now approaching the finishing line. Has this been the best radio documentary series ever?  Each episode, presented by Neil MacGregor of the British Museum, where all the objects are located, has managed to compress into less than 15 minutes a description of the object and its historical context, as well as assessing its contemporary and present-day significance.

A recent episode focussed on the Benin plaques, made in what is now modern Nigeria, in the sixteenth century. Made of brass, they show figures in high relief that celebrate the battles won by the army of the Benin ruler, the oba, and the rituals of the oba’s court. They’re not only great works of art and triumphs of metal-casting, they’re also documents of two quite distinct moments of Euro-African contact – the first, peaceful and commercial, the second bloody.

This was really our first notable encounter with the European world. People came in looking for trading partners, looking for expansion of their own knowledge of the world – and being astonished to encounter this society.
– Wole Soyinka

The discussion of the significance of the Benin plaques reminded me that this year African nations have been marking 50 years of independence.  Before 1960, only seven African countries gained their independence, most notably Ghana in 1957.  But 1960 itself saw independence sweep across large swathes of Africa. Fourteen countries ceased to be French colonies, while the Belgian Congo became Zaire and Somalia and Nigeria, source of the Benin treasures, broke from British control.

Those were heady days of optimism, reflected in the political aspirations of the new African leaders and in the music that emerged from confident new states such as Guinea, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria – to take just four examples.  Often the music was subsidised by the state as a means of establishing national identity and restoring respect for ethnic cultural traditions.  Guinea was the first sub-Saharan country in Francophone Africa to celebrate its independence, in 1958. The president, Sékou Touré, promoted a number of government-sponsored bands, such as Bembeya Jazz, whose music has transcended their era. Mali followed suit, with several state-sponsored bands, including the Super Rail Band de Bamako which blended Latin rhythms with traditional instruments with the Mande griot praise singer tradition, and initiated the careers of Salif Keita, Kante Manfila and Mory Kante. The aim was to give ethnic traditions a modern context and to promote the ideology of national revolution. From Ghana and Nigeria the new urban sounds of  highlife, afrobeat and juju music swept across West Africa, developing the cultural identity of the newly independent countries.

Listening to this music now is a bitter-sweet experience. For most African countries, the euphoria and hopes of early independence reflected in this music soon turned to domination by dictators or military juntas as post-colonial Africa became a Cold War conflict zone in which the the west faced off the Soviet Union. In Angola, Zaire and Mozambique, western support for unsavoury leaders was justified as necessary to stop the spread of communism. This consequences for the continent were devastating. The legacy of colonial rule was not to develop Africa, but to plunder its wealth for the benefit of its rulers and foreign interests. By the late 1980s most Africans were as poor or poorer than they had been at the time of independence.  Today, the World Bank estimates that 40% of Africa’s private wealth is held offshore.

Returning to the Benin bronzes.  The Europeans depicted are Portuguese, who, in the 16th century, were sailing down the west coast of Africa in their ocean-going galleons on their way to the Indies. They were were the first Europeans to arrive by sea in West Africa, and soon developed a trade in West African pepper, ivory and gold.

The oba is with his officials who manage and control the European trade. The three Africans are in the foreground and they’re on a far bigger scale than the diminutive Europeans, both of whom are shown with long hair and elaborate feathered hats – in fact they look rather ridiculous. One of the Europeans is holding a manilla, the ‘bracelet’ currency of West Africa,  and this, MacGregor argued, is the key to the whole scene.  It makes it clear that the brass brought from Europe is merely the raw material from which the Benin craftsmen would create great works of art like this plaque. What we’re looking at, he argued, is a document that demonstrates that the whole process of the trade in brass was controlled by the Africans. And part of that control was a total prohibition on the export of the finished brass plaques.  The Benin plaques are a reminder that, at this point in the sixteenth century, Europe and Africa were dealing with each other on equal terms.

So how did the Benin plaque end up in the British Museum? In 1897 the British, in revenge for the killing of members of a British delegation, mounted a punitive raid on Benin City, exiled the oba and created the British protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The booty from the attack on Benin included carved ivory tusks, coral jewellery and hundreds of bronze statues – and the plaques. Many of these objects were auctioned off to cover the costs of the expedition, and they were bought by museums across the world.

The arrival of these completely unknown sculptures caused a sensation in Europe, changing European understanding of African history.The British Museum curator Charles Hercules Read at the time was perplexed:

It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous.

The plaques must have come from Ancient Egypt, or perhaps the people of Benin were one of the lost tribes of Israel.  But in fact, research quickly established that the Benin plaques were entirely West African creations, made without European influence. Most of Europe had simply forgotten that they had at once admired the court of the oba of Benin. Why this amnesia? Neil MacGregor again:

I think it’s probably because the later relationship was so dominated by the transatlantic slave trade, with all its dehumanising implications. Later still, there would be the great European scramble for Africa, in which the punitive expedition of 1897 was merely one bloody incident.

Wole Soyinka, Nigerian poet and playwright, sums up the significance of the plaques for Nigerians today:

When I see a Benin Bronze, I immediately think of the mastery of technology and art – the welding of the two. I think immediately of a cohesive ancient civilisation. It increases a sense of self-esteem, because it makes you understand that African society actually produced some great civilisations, established some great cultures. And today it contributes to one’s sense of the degradation that has overtaken many African societies, to the extent that we forget that we were once a functioning people before the negative incursion of foreign powers. The looted objects are still today politically loaded. The Benin Bronze, like other artefacts, is still very much a part of the politics of contemporary Africa and, of course, Nigeria in particular.