Ritual & Revelry (British Museum Exhibition)

The British Museum currently has an exhibition on the art of drinking in Asia called “Ritual and Revelry” which runs through till 6 January. We visited it on 23 November as we were in London for a concert that evening.

The Exhibition

The bulk of the objects in the exhibition were in a single room in the museum – with just a couple in the room immediately before it. They were laid out in three groups according to their use. On one side were pots, jugs and pictures of these things that were used in ritual & religious contexts. On the the other side were the same types of things but they were used in social contexts. And in the centre were four cases, 3 of which were to do with tea drinking and the last was about bhang drinking. Or you could see it as divided between vessels primarily used for water, vessels used primarily for alcohol and those for tea (listing them in the same order). Each section had objects from right across the sweep of Asia, so you could see the similarities between the areas, and the interconnectedness of the different cultures.

LotaFrog Shaped KendiYay Khwet GyiKundikaKapala (Skull Cup)Jue

The ritual side of the exhibition was mostly concerned with water containing vessels, such as the Indian lota which were originally made from gourds. The various different pots could be used in a variety of ways, and it seemed most started out as everyday water containing pots made out of gourds. Later they were made out of metal (such as bronze) and also gained religious symbolism. They could be used for drinking water or for pouring water as an offering, or over oneself as a ritual cleansing procedure. There were also some more startling objects – including a cup made with part of a human skull, which is used in some Buddhist rituals. Sometimes filled with human blood! I think, tho the label wasn’t clear, that that would be as an offering not as a drink.

Tea SetBrazierTea cupsTea BrickJian Ware Tea Bowl and Cup Stand

I didn’t know that when tea was first drunk it was made from dried & powdered tea leaves, which were whisked into hot water rather than steeped in a tea pot. Tibetan butter tea is still made like this (using yak butter as well as water and tea, frankly it sounds vile to me but it’s probably very nutritious). The tea is imported into Tibet in bricks, just as all tea used to be sold. Steeping tea didn’t really take off until the 15th Century, and then a change in apparatus was needed – the more familiar to us teapots and strainers, rather than whisks.

The middle section also included a case with some paintings of people drinking bhang which is a drink I’d never heard of before. It’s made from the flowers & leaves of the female cannabis plant, and is hallucinogenic. It can be drunk, or smoked in a hookah.

Brush Washer in the Shape of Li BaiArrow VaseElegant Gathering at the Orchard PaviliionSake Bottle in the Shape of A Young Man Holding a Bottle of SakePicnic Set

The third section, on the social side of drinking was about alcohol. I was astonished to find out that “toddy” is an actual drink – it’s Indian, and mildly alcoholic and made from palm sap. The jugs used by the toddy tappers to collect the palm sap look very like the lotas displayed over in the ritual section – and are still made out of gourds.

A large part of this side of the exhibition concentrated on the Chinese – particularly the Tang era poets called the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, who were renowned for producing their greatest work whilst drunk. There were also vases that were used in Chinese tradition drinking games – you aimed arrows at the openings in the pot, and if you failed to hit then you had to have a drink of something alcoholic. Obviously this would be a bit of a vicious circle πŸ˜‰ The Japanese objects here were all to do with sake – I particularly liked the slightly recursive sake bottle in the shape of a young man holding a sake bottle. Sadly you didn’t pour the sake out of the bottle opening, instead you took the chap’s head off to pour.

I’ve got more photos up on flickr, in this set.

Other Things

Retail: As it’s not a major exhibition there wasn’t a dedicated shop immediately after you left, so I’m not even sure if there was particular stuff relating to it. They do normally have tea sets and sake sets in the shop, so perhaps that was it. I should look and see if there’s a book next time I’m at the museum.

Stuff I should know more about: More of the history of the countries that make up Asia – I’m starting to rectify my lack of knowledge of Chinese history soon (I have a book to read, anyway), but I still have not much of a feel for Indian history let alone the rest of the continent.

Other exhibits: We also went and looked at the new information they have up about the 3500BC (naturally) mummified man in the Pre-dynastic Egypt gallery. They CT scanned him, and have (possibly temporarily?) got a touch screen display set up where you can look at the pictures this generated. It has a 3D image of the body, and you can move it around, look at various levels (ie skeletal, or with muscles etc). And look at cross sections. It’s pretty neat to play with (tho we did have to wait a while before we could look properly), and well labelled. They discovered from the CT scan that he was probably killed by a knife thrust through the back of the left shoulder – so quite probably a murder victim. And once you’ve seen it on the scan all labelled up it’s nice to be able to look at the actual mummy and see it there as well.

Other places: That evening we went to a performance by Niyaz, of which more another time.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; Wartime Farm

The fourth episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World was mostly about the European Renaissance – but not about what happened during it. Instead it was about what happened in the rest of the world that made it possible for Europe to go from being a cultural backwater to a vibrant civilisation with pretensions towards becoming one of the dominant cultures of the world. We did open with the Vikings, tho, who were a little shoehorned into the theme (but you can’t really miss them out). In 10 minutes it only had time to skim over the ground covered in Neil Oliver’s 3 part series – the emphasis here was firmly on the founding of Russia when the Vikings took over the area around Kiev (founding Kiev itself) and ruling the native Slavs. I think the relationship to the theme was supposed to be how Russia provided a large (Orthodox) Christian country to the east of Europe, expanding Christendom considerably & insulating northern & western Europe from the various empires to the East.

The programme then moved on to look at the rise of the Mongols – Marr told us some of Temujin’s early life story, before he became Ghengis Khan. Then looked at how after the conquest of China (impressive in its own right) the Mongol army took on Chinese war technology and this combination of the horse nomad warriors & the great siege machines led to them sacking several of the core cities of the eastern Islamic world. Which obviously weakened the Islamic empire – allowing those pesky European crusading knights to have more successes than they otherwise would have. (The Crusades weren’t really touched on much in the programme, the emphasis was on showing more of the stuff we probably didn’t already know about the era.) And also opened up the Silk Road more – ruled over now by a Mongol Empire. The next sequence was about Marco Polo who travelled from Venice to the heart of China during the time it was ruled by Kublai Khan, and acted as an ambassador for the Khan for a while. (If he is to be believed, or indeed even existed …) And this opening up of trade across the whole of Europe & Asia also had the unfortunate side-effect of bringing diseases across the whole land – the Black Death originally broke out in China, and was spread by traders across the whole landmass. Moving on in history he also covered the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

Other subjects covered were the mathematical & scientific golden age of the Islamic world during the period we call in Europe as “the Dark Ages” – concentrating on the work of MuαΈ₯ammad ibn MΕ«sā al-KhwārizmΔ« (I totally copied that spelling from wikipedia, so I hope it’s right! He’s the chap whose work was developed into the modern concept of algorithms, so called from the Europeanisation of his last name.) And the meeting between the Mali Empire & the rest of the world (effectively) when Mansa Musa visited Cairo en route to Mecca when he was performing the Hajj. This both collapsed Cairo’s economy (he and his entourage gave away so much gold that the price of gold plummeted and took 10 years to recover), and introduced the Europeans & the Middle East to someone to buy gold from. I think he said that within a century 20% of the gold in Europe came from mines in Mali.

And we finished with Leonardo da Vinci & the painting of the Last Supper – which (along with lots of Leonardo’s other interests) in many ways draws upon & expands the artistic, mathematical and scientific knowledge gained by the Europeans trading with the Islamic world & beyond.

This is one of my favourite bits of history, so it wasn’t a surprise I already sort of knew most of it already (still fun to watch, though πŸ™‚ ). But I was amused to note how many of the names of people I knew as leaders in the game Civilization IV πŸ™‚

For the second programme of the evening we watched the first episode of Wartime Farm. We’d been a little dubious about this from the description, so were prepared to bail if we decided we didn’t like it. But actually it was a really interesting programme with less dramatisation than I’d feared. The premise is a group of historians/archaeologists living on a farm for a year working the land the way that it would’ve been done during the Second World War. For this first episode they were mostly concentrating on the first year or so of the war, and on how farms throughout Britain were being reorganised in a massive agricultural revolution to double their food output. Most of Britain’s food was imported pre-war & the threat of a U-boat blockade meant that this couldn’t continue after war was declared. The presenters told us about things from a mix of a modern & an in character perspective, melding the two together during any single section. Which sounds like it should end up a mess & hard to follow, but actually worked really well. So Ruth Goodman told us about the kitchen conveniences she was getting both by showing us how they worked in a way that wouldn’t quite’ve been necessary for people of the time (pointing out how much quicker it is to mop a lino floor than scrub a stone one), but also exclaiming over how modern things were (like the paraffin heated stove rather than a range). The “modernisation” of the farm included using a tractor instead of horses – much quicker to plough once you got it going. Once you got it going … easier said than done, it seemed. And getting an oil driven electricity generator, that let you charge up big batteries and then have lights on after dark!

There were also interviews with people who either remembered the war (an old chap who’d been 7 and a farmer’s son when war broke out, and remembered the switch to using tractors etc) or were experts on parts of the history of it. The bit that was most startling to me was that I had no idea that there were trained guerilla groups made up mostly of farmers (it was a reserved occupation) and farmer’s wives (in the intelligence arm of the organisation). These were top secret at the time, and were effectively a resistance movement in waiting – and people kept it very very secret, they told us that there were couples who were both in the organisation but didn’t tell each other until decades after the end of the war. And the historian who was telling us about that bit said he had done interviews with surviving members who would only discuss people who had already died, not any still living ex-members. It really brought home how much they believed that Britain was going to be invaded, which it’s easy to gloss over from my perspective as someone born about 30 years after the war ended – it’s history to me & I know we won without being invaded, and you hear more about the Blitz and D-Day than you do the rest of the war.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; In Search of Medieval Britain

Started off the evening with the third episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World – this one was about the Word and the Sword, basically the rise and spread of Buddhism, Christianity & Islam with a few side stories. He started off with the story of Ashoka who killed and conquered his way to ruling an empire that covers most of modern India. But then after witnessing the appalling slaughter he himself had caused he converted to Buddhism and spent the rest of his (long) reign promoting peace and tolerance throughout his land and actively spread Buddhism as a religion.

The first of the side stories was about the First Emperor of China – who came to power around the same time as Ashoka and in much the same murderous way. But he had no moment of conversion, instead ruling his newly unified China with an iron fist. His mausoleum is apparently enormous – the only part that has been excavated is the Terracotta Army, but there’s a palace extending back beneath the hill behind where that lies. After his death (of mercury poisoning from an “elixir of immortality” which was anything but) the Han Dynasty ruled over China for about the same time period as the Roman Empire existed – and this was the next topic.

Well, sort of. What he actually covered was the final fall of Egypt, Cleopatra & Caesar’s relationship and then their deaths (skipping quite quickly over the Mark Anthony bit) and Egypt’s assimilation into the Roman Empire. The spin he was putting on this was that Caesar effectively saw that Cleopatra was worshipped as a god in Egypt and thought this was a good idea so went home to Rome to do the same. Leading to the Senate not being happy and murdering him (but actually all his successors were worshipped as gods, so the idea took hold). And then he cast the rise of Christianity as being partly a reaction against this politicised religion in the empire, people going back to a faith in something that was more personal to them. This wasn’t quite the spin I was expecting, so it ended up feeling like he’d kinda skewed things to make it fit his theme for the programme.

Early Christianity through to its establishment as the religion of the Roman Empire was told through the lens of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and his subsequent spreading of the gospel throughout the empire, and Perpetua’s imprisonment and martyrdom for her faith. And ending with the Romans having effectively assimilated the faith into their political & military structures.

The feeling of stretching to fit the theme was not helped by the next side-story which really did seem shoehorned in. We had a brief trip across to the Americas, and the Nazca people. These are the people who made the massive line drawings on their land, and their civilisation collapsed around 600AD due to human exacerbated environmental disaster. Basically they were cutting down trees to create more arable land, but then when they had 30 years of excessive rain the lack of trees meant the soil was washed away. Which made the succeeding 30 years of drought even less survivable than it otherwise would’ve been. This didn’t really fit the theme, but it happened in this time period so they told us about it anyway, with some reference to the religion and the increased numbers of human sacrifices during the end of the civilisation as they frantically tried to appease their gods.

And then it was back to the theme – with the meteoric rise and spread of Islam. They did another good job of juxtaposing the stories told to highlight the similarities between the different topics. In this case we had the almost martyrdom of Bilal to mirror Perpetua’s martyrdom as the entry point for the story of early Islam. Bilal survived, however, to become the first muezzin. And the spread of Islam by conquest was contrasted with the slower spread of Christianity by the travels of the Paul and the Apostles.

We were running late this week, so only had time for a half hour programme for the second one of the evening. We have had a couple of episodes from the middle of a series called In Search of Medieval Britain sitting on the PVR for ages, so we watched one of them. The premise of this series is Alixe Bovey (a lecturer in medieval history at Kent) travelling about the country following the Gough Map (a map dating to 1355-1366 which was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1809). In the episode we watched she visited Melton Mowbray, Lincoln and Sherwood Forest. In Melton Mowbray she helped make an authentic pork pie from the era. In Lincoln she visited the cathedral, which for 200 years held the title of tallest building in the world. Then the spire fell down in the 1500s (probably because the wood frame rotted) and it was no longer taller than the Great Pyramid. It was still the tallest point in Lincolnshire though. And finally in Sherwood Forest she told us about real outlaws (who were a much more murderous and unpleasant bunch than the fictional Robin Hood), and visited the oldest pub in the country. She also talked to some people who were making authentic medieval beer – with hissop instead of hops as the bittering agent. It was amusing to see her not drink any on camera, the “oh it’s delicious” after the camera panned away from her was pretty fake I think πŸ˜‰

I wish we’d managed to record all of these, this one was quite fun πŸ™‚

Vikings; Andrew Marr’s History of the World

We watched the third & last episode of Vikings last night. This one was split into two – firstly Oliver covered the Vikings’ exploration to the West and then in the second half he looked at how the Vikings stopped being Vikings. So the programme started off by looking at Viking ocean-going ships, and a bit of sailing & rowing in a replica, and talked about how you had to be a bit flexible in your destination given their navigational technology. And sometimes when you were heading for Shetland you might end up in Orkney, but that’s OK. And sometimes you might end up somewhere completely different – as happened when a boat blown off-course discovered Iceland. I think he was saying that Iceland was a complete accident, but after they found out there might be new lands out in the ocean they deliberately went looking for them. So they settled Greenland and even made it to the east coast of North America. The further flung colonies died off, but the Icelandic people are descended from those Viking colonisers and even some of their traditions lasted into modern times (like their government was a proto-democracy from as long ago as the Viking era). There was an amusing segment of Oliver having to eat various traditional Viking “delicacies” (in a restuarant in Iceland that has this as its theme), like “rotten shark” and various bits of a sheep one doesn’t normally eat (testicles, brains). Accompanied by descriptions from an Icelandic man who was dressed up like a Viking and very much in “torment the foreigner” mode πŸ˜‰

The second half looked at how and why the Vikings stopped being what we think of as Vikings. Some of this came down to conversion to Christianity – while there’d been Christians in Denmark from fairly early on in the Viking era it wasn’t until the late 900s that Harald Bluetooth (the King of Denmark) converted and made Christianity the official religion of the kingdom. This was apparently largely for political reasons, as it made it less possible for the Holy Roman Emperor to add Denmark to his territories if that meant he was attacking a fellow Christian ruler rather than a godless heathen people. Other rulers in Scandinavia followed suit, and the differences between the old religion and the new changed the focus of the people. No longer was life all about heroic deeds and gaining enough glory so that when you died in battle you went to Valhalla. Now you should focus on living as good (and meek & mild) a life as possible to avoid eternal damnation in the hereafter.

And it finished up by looking at the re-conquest of England by Canute (grandson of Harald Bluetooth), and how his empire of most of Scandinavia and England gave him social status within Europe to a degree where the son of the Holy Roman Emperor married Canute’s daughter. I was vaguely entertained by them spelling Canute like that, as I thought we spelt it “Cnut” these days … perhaps that’s easily mis-read? πŸ˜‰

A good series overall πŸ™‚ I think it’s a shame it was done in three episodes, it made some of it feel quite shallow. In particular I think this episode could have been split into two and filled out an hour for each very easily. I’d’ve liked to hear more about the Greenland and Newfoundland colonies in the first half, and seen some of the evidence for them. And I’d’ve liked a bit more about the legacy of the Vikings in the second half – a particular thing I felt was missing was that the Normans are descended from Vikings (if I remember correctly) and this wasn’t even mentioned.

The second episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World covered “the Age of Empires”, starting with the Assyrians and stopping just short of the Romans … which seemed an odd choice of stopping point given the title, but I guess we cover the Romans next time. As well as the Assyrians it covered the Persians, Alexander the Great, Athens & their democracy, and a very well juxtaposed series of segments on the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates. The primary theme was how this era was defined largely by war and brutal conflicts between peoples, and how this wasn’t unmitigatedly bad for society. Teachings & innovations that are still followed today grew out of people dealing with this violence.

So he looked at how both the Persians and later Alexander the Great tried to integrate their empires of disparate peoples, which could be viewed as the first attempts at a multicultural society (after the violence & slaughter that lead to the empires). Obviously the democracy of Athens was held up as the birth of the government type most in use throughout the West – but he didn’t shy away from pointing out how it wasn’t quite what we think of as democracy, and in many ways only worked because those who could vote had free time to do so because their slaves were doing the work. And Marr also highlighted the accidental nature of history here – if the Persians had conquered Athens like they tried to do then perhaps we’d have a different form of government now, at the very least it wouldn’t be called democracy. Another accident of this sort is that the Persian King Cyrus freed the Jews from their exile in Babylon, and this had a large impact on the development of Judaism. Were Cyrus not to have conquered Babylon, or not to’ve sent the Jews home, then again the world might be very different today.

The pieces about the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates looked at how these men had such different impacts on their societies but started in many ways from similar places. All were a reaction of sorts to the violent world around them. The Buddha went out from his privileged life, and sought answers to what the meaning of life was and how one should best live. He reached Enlightenment and taught and promoted a peaceful inward looking religion with no hierarchy or restrictions on who could follow it. Confucious also went out from a privileged life to walk and teach among the people, but his message was about creating a peaceful well-ordered society by conforming to the rules for appropriate behaviour. Heavy on respect and outward appearances, focused on the good of the whole people rather than the salvation of a single person. Socrates wasn’t leaving a life of privilege but he was reacting to the violent and uncertain world around him – Athens and in particular its democratic form of government felt under threat. But he didn’t react by conforming, or by retreating from the world to seek inner peace, he reacted by questioning and pushing at the boundaries of what was proper or traditional. Trying to shape a better world by never being satisfied with the easy answers. And then this lead to his death, executed as a traitor in a situation which no society since has had answers to either – if you allow free speech, at what point do the needs of the society outweigh this? What should society do when someone’s right to question runs into the society as a whole’s needs?

While I enjoyed most of the episode, and also found it thought provoking in places, there was one bit that made me roll my eyes a bit. There was a segment on the development of the alphabet, which managed to make it seem like the Phoenicians were the first (and only) people ever to connect what was written down with the sounds that were made. So it ignored completely the evidence of syllabic writing systems (like Linear B where every sign is a particular consonant+vowel combination), which can also be read back by sounding out the symbols. The difference with the alphabet as we use it is the flexibility it gives, where you can phonetically write down languages not constructed in the same way as the language the alphabet was originally designed for (this is harder to do with syllabic systems if the syllables are not the same across the languages – think about Linear B and then think of how English isn’t always consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel). I guess that segment was just very simplified, but it was almost to the point of being wrong.

The dramatic reconstructions continue to amuse me with their irreverence and melodrama. Croesus about to be burnt to death was particularly amusingly done. I’m really not normally a fan of playacting bits in history programmes, so I feel the need to mention again how entertaining they are πŸ™‚

Chinese Galleries at the British Museum

While J looked at Egyptian stuff in the British Museum on our most recent trip to London I took the camera & went and looked at the Chinese Galleries again. The right hand side of the room is laid out chronologically so I started here with the Neolithic period. Even that early jade was still an important and symbolic material for the Chinese.

Jade Hair OrnamentJade DragonCeremonial Jade Axe

The Shang Dynasty is the next period in Chinese history, moving into the Bronze Age – it was during this time that writing was invented in China, and the tradition of using bronze ritual vessels to offer food and drink to the ancestors was started. These vessels were based on the shapes of Neolithic pottery vessels.

Jade Spearhead with Turquoise Inlaid Bronze FittingsCarved Antler & IvoryBronze Ritual Food VesselBronze Ritual Food VesselBronze Chariot FittingsBronze Chariot FittingsBronze Chariot FittingsBronze Ritual Wine VesselBronze Ritual Vessel

The Zhou conquered the lands ruled by the Shang – they kept many of the same traditions, including the bronze vessels and the writing system. During this period it was fashionable to inscribe your bronze vessels with a historical note about when the vessel was made or entered the family, which is invaluable to later historians. It was intended at the time to be a historical document, these vessels weren’t buried with the dead they were kept by the living. The latter part of this period was known as the Warring States period, and is immediately before the unification of China under the First Emperor. Confucious lived during this time and his ideal of harmony and service to the state was developed with the backdrop of war between the various Chinese states.

Bronze Ritual Water BasinBronze Ritual Vessel Inscription Inside a Bronze Ritual VesselDragon Handle to a Ritual VesselBronze Bell Sword Blade, With InscriptionChariot Fitting in the Shape of a Bulls HeadBronze Fittings from a Crossbow

As well as items from China proper the museum has things from the area around China as well. These two plaques are from nomadic tribes from the region that’s now Mongolia, and show evidence of Middle Eastern influences in their designs:

A Horse Being Attacked By a TigerTwo Winged Horses

The First Emperor’s Dynasty consisted solely of himself, and after his death there was a brief period of civil war before the Han Dynasty took over and ruled for about 400 years. These are the rulers who were featured in the exhibition we went to at the Fitzwilliam Museum earlier this month. Their court was very opulent and rich – lots of fine gilt objects.

Gilt Bronze Dragon Shaped Furniture StandsGilt Bronze Rearing BeastGilt Bronze FinialChariot Parasol FittingBelt HooksBelt Hook

And I think next time I go to the museum I need to start over again with this next section and make a bit more sense of it! I have photos of a couple of things from the sort of time when Buddhism spread into China, displacing Confucianism as the primary religion, but that’s all between the end of the Han & the start of the Tang Dynasty and I think that means I’ve missed some stuff as that’s quite a long period of time (4 centuries or so). I am rather fond of the Tang pottery, with its distinctive bright colours and stylish designs.

Yue Ware Water VesselMoulded Plaque of the BuddhaPottery Tomb GuardianPottery Tomb GuardianTang Dynasty PotteryTang Dynasty PotteryTang Dynasty PotteryTang Dynasty PotteryTang Dynasty PotteryLiao Dynasty PotteryLion Supporting a Tray

And after that we get into the time when the Chinese developed porcelain. And also some gorgeous purple and green dishes, called Jun Ware.

Early PorcelainEarly PorcelainJun WareJun WareJun Ware

Pictures are, as always, on flickr – click through to see larger versions πŸ™‚

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 1

Back in January there was a five part series on the Written Word as part of the In Our Time series, which is what we’ve chosen to listen to next. This is a slightly different format in that instead of 3 guests in the studio Bragg is going to museums etc & talking to the curators & experts there.

This programme covered the initial development both of writing itself, and of the alphabetic system we use today. He went and looked at (and described to us) examples of early cuneiform writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese oracle bones, which are three of the four independent inventions of writing. It’s interesting that something so fundamental to modern civilisation was invented so few times – as well as the three I listed there’s also an independent development on the American continent, but all other writing systems were developed from other systems or directly inspired by other systems.

(It’s actually a little controversial to say that Egyptian writing was developed independently like I did in the preceding paragraph – it may’ve been inspired by cuneiform, however the earliest known Egyptian writing is getting to be early enough that it’s more likely to be independent. Also J’s been reading a book about the development of writing, and it also makes the point that the Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing systems developed for different reasons – Mesopotamian writing was proto-book keeping, Egyptian writing had religious significance. So probably independent origin.)

I actually found the Chinese stuff the most interesting as it was completely new to me – in ancient China (in the Shang Dynasty) the rulers read oracles in the pattern of cracks that you get by using a hot poker on ox shoulder bones. These oracles were then recorded on the bones by scribes in the earliest known forms of modern Chinese characters, which makes the Chinese system the longest consecutively used modern writing system.

The programme also name checked Linear A (undeciphered) and Linear B (a syllabic system that was an early way to write Greek), and then moved on to the development of our more familiar alphabet. It made the point that the Greek alphabet was the first to write down vowels – previous alphabetic systems were for Semitic languages and due to the way those languages are structured the consonant sequences are less ambiguous (as I understand it). So to a native speaker it’s a lot more obvious in context what a word is than it would be in English (or presumably Greek).

British Museum Members Open Evening (3/9/12)

Monday evening was the September British Museum Members Open Evening & this was really why we’d come into London that day. We’d booked on the gallery talk about Chinese horses, given by Carol Michaelson, a (partially?) retired curator at the museum. She gave us a 45 minute overview of a vast swathe of Chinese history from prehistoric times through to the Tang dynasty (~9th Century AD), focusing on horses. Apparently because the Chinese have very little pasture land they never actually managed to successfully maintain a breeding population of fast horses (the Arabian type of horse that the Horse exhibition had been about) despite needing them for cavalry soldiers to defend against the northern & western nomadic tribes that frequently attacked the Chinese Empire. So one of the reasons for the Silk Route being an important part of Chinese trade was that the Chinese were frequently needing to buy more horses from the area in the Middle East that was breeding them.

The museum doesn’t actually have many models of horses from China, so instead she mostly showed us pieces of chariots & horse tack, and pictures of things from other collections. And recommended the Han exhibition that we’d just been to on Friday.

Tang dynasty model horses

This was an interesting talk – these gallery talks are always pretty fascinating, because it’s not formal at all it’s just an expert in some field talking about something they’re enthusiastic about (and generally only sticking fairly loosely to the advertised theme). And she was a good speaker too.

After the talk we decided to take a look at the new Members Room that was opening for the first time that evening, and to relax with a nice glass of wine (we’d got the train so J could have one too). And a small spot of retail therapy – J got a fluffy Ankh that he’s threatening to hang from the car rearview mirror, and we picked up books for the exhibitions we’d been to.

The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China (Exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum)

Yesterday we went to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see their current exhibition of items from the tombs of Han Chinese royalty, which runs until November sometime.


In China: The Han dynasty ruled China from approximately 200BC through to approximately 200AD. Most of the items in the exhibition were from the Western Han period, which was the first 200 years of the Han dynasty. China had been unified about 20 or so years before the Han came to power, under the Qin emperor who ruled for 10 years. After he died there was a period of civil war, followed by the first of the Han emperors taking power. Prior to the Qin emperor was a time called the Warring States Period.

Around the rest of the world: In Egypt we’re in the Ptolemaic period, so into the decline of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. In Europe the Romans are doing their thing – the Han era covers the time from around about the end of the wars with Carthage through to the end of the Republic (approximately the same time as the end of the Western Han period). Then the Eastern Han period is across the same time as the Roman Empire proper, until approximately the time of the reign of the Emperor Septimus Severus (about 50-100 years before the Roman Empire splits into Western & Eastern parts). Cribbing heavily from Wikipedia here for the Roman bit.

The Exhibition

No illustrations, coz the Fitzwilliam Museum don’t let you take pictures in the museum πŸ™

The items on display were nearly all excavated either from tombs of members of the Han royalty or from the tombs of the royalty of the nearby kingdom of Nanyue. Nanyue was semi-automomous in this time period (but assimilated into China later), and their stuff was very clearly modelled on the Han items, but generally not quite as good quality.

The exhibition was laid out roughly following the layout of a tomb – so first was an antechamber with model warriors to protect the occupant. I was particularly struck by these – they even had some that were still painted & each was apparently made as an individual, because they believed that they would come to life in the afterlife so needed to be “people”. This area also showed how the tombs were intended to be protected from looting (including door locks & tales of killing all the workers on the tomb to protect the secret).

Next were a couple of rooms that contained items from the “palace rooms” part of the tomb – each tomb contained kitchens & entertainment rooms and even toilets with proper lifesize toilets in. Which I think was the most mindboggling part of the whole thing – their life in the afterlife clearly wasn’t going to be idealised, they were still going to need to do the less pleasant parts of real life like excretion! This area of the exhibition also included a lot of kitchenware, including ginger graters as well as several differents sorts of pots. Some of the pots were clearly heirlooms, as they were of older styles than the Han era, which was kinda cool πŸ™‚ Also in this part of the exibition were models of entertainers – dancers & musicians – and models and/or real musical instruments and games. Also in this area of a tomb would be buried servants of the king, like his Food Inspector (and they had their own toilets in the tomb).

The next two rooms were “burial chambers” – one contained some of the funerary goods of a king of Nanyue (including his seals, some of which claimed he was Emperor, which probably didn’t go down that well with the Han Emperor who thought Nanyue was a vassal kingdom). The main item was a jade suit, which had contained the body of the king. Jade was both precious & symbolically important. It was thought to interact magically with the spirit world, and to protect the corpse from corruption. As well as this jade suit there were various jade ornaments around the body (and out in the first room there had been jade weapons for the tomb occupant to protect himself against the spirit world, as well as bronze & iron weapons for more mundane threats).

And the final room had the jade suit & jade coffin of a Han Emperor – good to see them in this order, as it immediately became clear that the Han items were much better quality. I admit I was a little underwhelmed by the jade coffin – I think for the Chinese of the time it would be more impressive because it was both magically and extremely expensive, but to me it looked like a tiled box. There were also more funerary goods – like jade ornaments, jade covered “pillows”.

I’ll criticise a bit here about the labelling – I thought the labels were often not obvious to find & weren’t always particularly informative. This is partly my fault, as I’m sure the audio guide had more info but I really dislike audio guides so I don’t use them. (Pacing is the problem, mostly, and often it seems to be only extra info on the stuff I wasn’t intrigued by.)

Overall a very interesting exhibition, I learnt a lot about that era of Chinese history that I didn’t know before & there were some very impressive items. I think my favourites were the painted terracotta warriors & some of the beautifully carved jades.

Other Stuff

Retail: I picked up the book of the exhibition (only available in hardcover, a shame), and some postcards. There were also quite a lot of classy souvenirs too, tho mostly out of my price range for a whim πŸ™‚

Stuff I should know more about: Chinese history in general – I need to get a book covering the whole sweep of it, I know very little & it’s pretty patchy.

Other exhibits: I also went to look at their small exhibition of pottery from medieval Cyprus. Which generally wasn’t to my taste, but I thought the display of how the patterns were made and what the glazing techniques were was interesting.

We also looked at the Egyptian stuff (surprise surprise) – in particular the lid of Rameses III’s sarcophagus (the base is in the Louvre), and a coffin set from the 21st Dynasty.

Other places: A trip to Cambridge isn’t complete with some nostalgia side-trips … so lunch in Tatties (not the same as it was when we were there), a drink in The Mitre & dinner at Browns πŸ™‚