Saturday, December 29, 2018

Thanks for reading! | The Top 10 posts of 2018

It’s that time of the year again … those few days where it’s socially acceptable to lounge about the house in a dressing gown and have sherry and selection box for breakfast. It is, hopefully, also a time for quiet reflection on the past year. From the point of view of this little blog, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been writing and how it has been received. This year I embarked on a series of posts about Irish material in the British Museum. Many of these have been quite popular and well received. My series on ‘things in several London museums that I find interesting’ have not ignited the popular imagination to the same extent, but maybe 2019 will be their year! In the meantime, here’s my list of the top 10 most popular posts, with a small selection of my favourites that didn’t make the list, but that I feel deserved more love than they got. So … take a trip down memory lane and pick up on some posts you liked or some you missed … either way, it’s my intention to keep writing into 2019 & I hope you’ll join me for some of my adventures …

To this list, I'd like to direct your attention to three further posts that (I think) deserved to be more widely read this year, but didn't quite make the top 10:

Friday, December 28, 2018

Co Kerry: Archaeological Objects at The British Museum

The British Museum holds nine items identified as coming from Co Kerry. The majority of these are assigned to the Early Bronze Age and Early Medieval periods (2 each). The most common object type represented are flat axes (2). The most popular material types represented in this assemblage are: Metal (5), Stone (2), Leather (1) and Wood (1).

Neolithic/Bronze Age: Stone item
Small polished stone axe with flat butt.

Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age: Metal item
Mangerton, Engraved writing on the back of the lunula reads "Found at Mangerton July 1842 under eight feet of bog". (near)
Gold lunula. Flat sheet crescent of beaten gold with spatulate terminals rotated relative to the crescent. It is decorated with a complex finely-incised geometric pattern.
2400BC-2000BC (circa)

Neolithic (?)/Bronze Age (?)/Iron Age (?): Wooden items
caltrop (?)
Seven wood caltrops?

Early Bronze Age: Metal items
flat axe
Copper-alloy flat axe; with a straight, angular butt. Sides are almost parallel in upper half, then swing out gently, before curving out and upwards to form a wide, semi-circular cutting-edge.

flat axe
Copper alloy flat axe; with straight, angular butt. The sides are roughly parallel in the upper half, then splay out gently to form a wide, curved cutting-edge, which is slightly damaged.

Early Medieval: Metal item
Tralee (near)
pseudo-penannular brooch
Silver pseudo-penannular brooch; square terminals & pin-head with lozenge-shaped settings and linear borders; circles on back.

Early Medieval: Stone item
Church Island
Whetstone; rectangular section, brown; projecting human head at one end; on base a hatched rectangle enclosing six pointed star-like motif.
7thC-9thC (?)

Medieval: Metal item
Valencia Island (?)
Finger-ring; gold; flat hoop; irregular oval bezel containing sapphire; inscription around hoop.

Unknown: Leather item
Kerry, peat-bog
Portion of shoe; made of one piece of leather; holes for thong fastening.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The St Nicholas Crozier

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I’ve mentioned before that I have a strange fascination for ivory, but I also appear to have something similar for historical croziers. I think that the appeal has much to do with the dichotomy between them once having been potent symbols of enduring power and the fact that they’re now frequently seen in museum cabinets … or, at least, that’s where I usually encounter them, not regularly hanging out amongst those with episcopal leanings. This particular example has some exquisite carving, depicting scenes from the nativity and the annunciation, along with a number of scenes related to the life of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. One of these represents Nicholas’ famous gifts of gold to three daughters of a poor family. The money was necessary to pay for the young women’s dowries, without which they would have no other option than to take to the streets as ‘ladies of negotiable virtue’. Years ago, when I first encountered this myth, I was intrigued that the story had inspired the pawnbroker’s symbol of the three golden balls. Coming back to it now, I’m more suspicious of a worldview (and an organised religion) that can only regard adult women as either marriageable opportunities or prostitutes. The third St Nicholas-related scene relates to the legend that, even as a babe-in-arms, he was so pious that he refused breastmilk on Wednesdays and Fridays until evening prayers had finished. It seems like the type of nonsense that only people who did not have children of their own could either make up or believe.

Whatever we make of the scenes depicted, the fact remains that this is a simply exquisite piece and justifiably described in the V&A’s online catalogue as ‘one of the most sublime achievements of the medieval ivory carver's art’. It is thought to have been made between 1150 and 1170, either in France or England. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Co Wexford: Archaeological Objects at The British Museum

The British Museum holds 12 items identified as coming from Co Wexford. The majority of these (3 each) are assigned to the Medieval and Neolithic/Bronze Age periods. Only two material types are represented in this assemblage: Metal (9) and Stone (3).

Neolithic/Bronze Age: Stone items
Perforated, polished stone macehead, oval shaped and rounded edges, dark reddish brown in colour.

Fethard Castle
spear-head; mould
Stone mould. Half of mould for side looped, socketed spearhead.

Fethard Castle
mould; axe
Half of a stone mould for casting a double looped, socketed, decorated axe. Sort of boat-shaped in cross-section.

Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age: Metal item
Gold disc. Thin circular foil of beaten gold with embossed decoration.
2500BC-2000BC (circa)

Bronze Age: Metal item
Copper alloy basal-looped, socketed spearhead. Blade: rhomboid, base angled, flat. Midrib section: lozenge with wide ridge. Projecting loops, lozenge plates. Socket splayed.

Early Bronze Age: Metal item
Kileta Hill
Copper alloy halberd with asymmetrical blade. Three rivet holes with all rivets in situ.

Late Bronze Age: Metal item
Dunbrody Abbey
penannular bracelet
Gold penannular bracelet. Flat ribbon of metal with the terminals back coiled.
1150BC-750BC (circa)

Early Medieval: Metal item
Dunbrody Abbey
ringed pin
Copper alloy spiral-ringed pin; pin-head a baluster decorated with punched dots; ring of circular section.

Medieval: Metal items
annular brooch
Annular brooch; gold; hoop in form of sixteen conjoined concave roundels, each set with small cabochon emerald in centre; pin rests on an applied leaf.

Dunbrody Abbey
Pax; bronze fragment; open-work; figure of Crucifixion with St John, Virgin lost.

seal-impression; seal
Pointed oval bronze seal-matrix of Monart (?), Co Wexford. It has a low ridge and loop at the back. Two contiguous niches each with an ecclesiastic, holding up the left and right hands respectively; on the top an architectural gabled superstructure.

Late Medieval: Metal item
Enniscorthy Abbey
ring brooch
Ring brooch; gold; set with two rubies and four emeralds en cabochon.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Veroli Casket

Overview of Casket

I’m not entirely sure what it is about ivory carving that I find so attractive, but put me near a well-made example of the art and I start to drool (I’d like to pretend that the drooling was only intellectual, but there may be a physical component too). I do think that part of the attraction must be a reciprocating force to my abhorrence for modern ivory hunting – the ugliness and repugnance of how the material was gathered creating a counterpoint for the beauty of the finished product … and an appreciation of the degree of cognitive dissonance required to reconcile the two positions.

In any event, this is considered to be the finest surviving example of ivory carving to have come from Constantinople and dates to the period from 950-1000 AD. The underlying box is of wood, overlain with plaques of both ivory and bone. Close examination reveals that it still retains traces of painted and gilded decoration. Although it is not clear how, the piece ended up in the cathedral at Veroli in Italy. It has been suggested that, given the quality of the piece, it was made for someone close to the Imperial Court of Constantinople and may have been used to hold scent bottles or as a jewellery box.

Detail of casket lid, showing Jupiter in the guise of a bull abducting Europa
The exquisitely crafted panels portray scenes from classical mythology. The lid shows the Rape of Europa, while the front panels depict incidents from the stories of Bellerophon and Iphigenia.