Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Palaeolithic Egypt

When we think of the archaeology of Egypt we – almost invariably, but with good reason – get mental images of the Pharaonic period. King Tut, Abu Simbel, Karnak, maybe even Hatshepsut. It’s totally understandable – there are some amazing treasures and buildings from these periods. However, it is still good to remember that – as this case of hand axes reminds us – Egypt had a Palaeolithic past too! 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Basilewsky Situla

This little carved ivory bucket (or situla) was intended as a holder for holy water and is thought to have been carved around 980 or 981 AD in Milan and associated with the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II's visit to the city. Situlae in ivory were particularly rare and only three are known to survive. This example is particularly fine and is decorated with twelve scenes from the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, in two rows of six. The situla bears three rows of text: at the rim, the centre line, and the basal edge. The upper two rows are lines from Coelius Sedulius' Hexameter version of the New Testament, while the lowest line may be translated as ‘May the Father who added thrice five to the years of Hezekiah, grant many lustres to the august Otto. Reverently, Caesar, the anointing-vessel wishes to be remembered for its art.’

The piece appears to have passed into a private collection in 1856, before being sold and resold several times – including to one Mr Basilewsky in 1874 after whom it is now named. He, in turn sold it to Tsar Alexander III, which is how it ended up in the Hermitage Museum in 1885. By the 1930s the museum found itself in financial difficulties and put it up for sale. With generous support from the Art Fund, the V&A bought it in 1933 for £7,900.

There are so many wonderful things about this piece that I just adore, from the physical object itself, to what it meant at the time of its manufacture, and even the complicated tale of its life in various private collections. But, most of all, I really do just love being able to use the words ‘situla’ and ‘situlae’ in conversation – so much nicer than a plain old ‘bucket’!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Half-armour for the tilt

I’m afraid that I always imagine armour and jousting as being a medieval ‘thing’, rarely realising that even into the early 17th century it was still a popular pastime for the nobility. This rather gorgeous armour was made at the Royal Workshops, Greenwich, when one William Pickering was the Master Workman there, dating it neatly to the period from 1607 to 1618. Rather than being a full suit of armour, this was only intended to cover the upper portion of the rider (thus: ‘Half-armour’). Here the breastplate has an additional mount to allow for the attachment of a lance-rest.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Head of Narmer

This limestone head was thought by Petrie to be a representation of Narmer, a king of the 1st Dynasty, considered by many to be the person who first unified Egypt. It’s a gorgeous piece in its own right, with Narmer in his flat-topped headdress, and (from some angles) a somewhat ‘pouty’ look about him.

I like it for a whole host of reasons, but one thing that stands out for me is that the museum’s information card (and the Petrie’s online database) note that the piece was purchased in Cairo. It is likely that the piece was originally sourced by ‘treasure hunters’ without regard for its provenance, or any other information that a skilled archaeologist could add to its recovery. On one side is the acknowledgement that purchasing a piece such as this ensured that it was well curated and cared for, but with it must come the realisation that (although acceptable at the time), this created a market that only ensured that further sites were robbed and denuded without sufficient record.

I do like that the museum are upfront about the rather dodgy provenance of this (and other) pieces in their collection. This approach allows us to see Petrie himself in a more rounded and nuanced way, not just the great excavator and archaeological innovator, but as a man of his time with some practices that would be considered unethical and repugnant today.