Life and Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum (Exhibition at the British Museum)

Back at the end of July J and I visited the British Museum’s current major exhibition – Life and Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum – which is still on till the end of September. We timed our visit for a morning coz it’s been selling out & we figured the least crowded time would be earlier, it was still pretty busy tho.

(No photos, never any photos from temporary exhibitions.)

The exhibition opened with a handful of objects to give an overview of the sorts of things in the exhibition, including a small table and a cast of a dog. Then on to a film about the destruction of Pompeii & Herculaneum by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 – I really liked the style of this, it was mostly graphics illustrating captions (with a voiceover) and the words in the text moved about like the thing they were describing. For instance the bit about the initial pyroclastic surges that were stopped by Pompeii’s walls had a caption that came rushing in from the side before piling up in a heap next to the wall.

The bulk of the exhibition was about what this cataclysmic destruction of the two towns has told us about how the Romans lived. Because most stuff was still there in the towns when they were destroyed (and indeed many people were still in the towns) the archaeologists have a snapshot of the daily lives of the period. The way the two places were destroyed also helped to preserve things that generally don’t last the millennia – I think it’s from Herculaneum that they’ve found wooden furniture for instance. So to best display this way of looking at it (life instead of death) they’ve laid out the central portion of the exhibition following the floor plan of one of the houses in Pompeii. The objects associated with each area of the house are therefore in the right places & it gives you a definite sense of both how similar & how different they were. For instance, there are obviously beds & makeup/haircare accessories are in the bedroom which feels very familiar, but the other accessories & decor are much more overtly sexual than we’d expect. Like lamp holders in the shape of winged phalluses (a good luck symbol, I think as well as the sexual meaning rather than instead of).

So after the video the route through the exhibition turned a corner past a boundary marker – on one side it was this person’s property & on the other side it was someone else’s, the remnant of some dispute between the house owners. Then we were outside the entrance to the house. This particular house they were following the plan of had shops in the front (as many did) – I think not necessarily run by the house owner or his/her slaves, and perhaps not even owned by them. They had some objects from shops in this section, including a couple of bottles of garum sauce. One of which was the “finest” variety of this particular brand’s selection, the other was kosher certified. Which surprised me, but shouldn’t’ve. After all by 79AD the Jews were thoroughly a part of the empire & so obviously there would be kosher groceries for them.

Next into house proper, entering the atrium – a public-ish space, where a Roman would receive his or her clients or visitors, and also do much of the day to day life of the household. In the exhibition they had a faux-pool in the centre (which would’ve been filled with rainwater in the original house), and a variety of fine pieces of painting or statuary around the room. I particularly like the one-legged table with the leg in the shape of a panther, which would be used to display & show off the silverware of the family. Off the atrium space they had a mock-up of a bedroom – just one, even tho there were several off the atrium. These would’ve had no windows, so been totally dependant on light from oil lamps (hung off phalluses in some cases!). In this as well as part of an adult’s bed they had the cradle which was found in Herculaneum – we’ve seen it in a few programmes about Pompeii & Herculaneum, but I don’t think I’d been told before that the remains of the baby were found inside it which is rather sad. Among the jewellery & toilette items on display here there were also two sets of jewellery to compare – one had belonged to an elite woman, the other was clearly mimicing this high class stuff but in bronze & glass instead of gold & jewels.

After this it was through to the garden. Obviously there wasn’t an actual garden in the exhibition, but they had some statuary & so on which had been found in gardens. Again some of this was familiarish & some not so much. The drunken Hercules pissing on the ground reminded me of the “wee boys weeing” fountains you seem to see all the time in garden centres (or did back when my parents were taking me to garden centres & I was trying to find something entertaining about the trip). And off in a little side room they had some of the more eyebrow raising pieces, including a fairly large statue of Pan making love to a goat – when it was found in the 18th Century it was regarded as so shocking it wasn’t displayed to the general public. And even now it was set off from the side of the exhibition with a note so parents could avoid taking their children in if they so wished. As well as statuary they had some graffiti from gardens, apparently the inhabitants saw no problems with scribbling notes to themselves carved into the walls. They also had some frescos from a garden room – one wall of the room would’ve opened onto the garden and the rest of the walls were painted to look like a garden. A blurring of the boundary between the real & the representation. Obviously this would be a very idealised garden – with a selection of flowers with no attempt to make sure they’d be flowering at the same times. And also as part of the fresco were some disembodied heads, painted as sort of suspended from the tops of the walls – I don’t think the labels explained what was going on there, it was a bit odd.

The last couple of rooms of the living part of the exhibition were the kitchen & dining room. In the dining area they also showed how the homes were decorated, with examples of frescos of the various styles. My favourite of the mosaics was in this room too – one of a skeleton carrying wine jugs, they’d labelled it as a reminder that death comes for everyone (and this time he’s bringing the wine) πŸ™‚ The kitchen area included some carbonised remains of actual food, which means quite a bit is known about the diet of the Romans in the towns (well, the food remains and the remains in the sewers of Herculaneum have provided that information). There were also a selection of pots & so on – including a dormouse fattener. This was a clay pot that made me think of an inside-out version of the sort of pot you grow strawberries in – a tallish cylinder & on the inside there were little ledges for the dormice to scamper up & down to get their food & just to run about. The household toilet would also have been in the kitchen, the section of the exhibition about it had an example of a fresco with protective decoration above the toilet. Which was the goddess Isis watching over the defecator to protect him from whatever they worried they might catch from the toilet (presumably food contamination was a frequent occurence). A bit of a let down for a mighty Egyptian goddess, I think πŸ˜‰

The last part of the exhibition was about the eruption. It included a few of the plaster casts made from the Pompeii dead, as well as some of the associated items from both Pompeii & Herculaneum. There was also one cast that had been made with resin – so the bones of the victim were dimly visible inside (and jewellery had been retrieved from inside the cast, because it could be seen). They’d done a good job with the lighting & layout here to make it a bit more subdued & respectful. Quite a sobering section.

I’d sort of thought we might go back & see the exhibition again, but not sure we’re going to end up having the time – a shame. It’s well worth seeing.

A Short Trip to the V&A

While at the V&A for the Treasures of the Royal Court exhibition (post) I also managed to have a look at a couple of other galleries before & after the exhibition. Sadly train times meant I didn’t get long there overall (otherwise I’d’ve had to pay the peak time fare) but I did get some photos!

The photos are up on flickr (here), with some highlights in this post.

I started out in the Medieval & Renaissance Europe galleries, and the first couple of rooms I went into had a strong religious theme. The first room actually reminded me a bit of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (which I still haven’t written up a post about) because it was dominated by a piece of monumental architecture nicked from another country:

Choir Screen from 's-Hertogenbosch

In this case the Choir Screen from ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. This room was mostly pieces of sculpture, and the next one I went into was full of altarpieces. These were all spectacularly ornate, like one from France (the Troyes Altarpiece) which had not just the main subject in each carved scene but smaller incidental details behind.

The Troyes AltarpieceThe St. Margaret Altarpiece16th Century Italian Altarpiece

Moving on to more secular art (and I think forward in time) one of the pieces that particularly stuck out to me was a tapestry showing scenes from the Trojan War. One of these was the Amazon Queen Penthesilea kneeling before King Priam of Troy – when I went to the museum we’d only just listened to the In Our Time episode about the Amazons (post), so they were particularly in my mind. Also in this section they had one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, which I somehow found unexpected.

Tapestry, Part of a Set Showing the Trojan WarLeonardo da Vinci's Notebook

After I’d been to the exhibition I went and looked at the British galleries – starting from the Tudors and moving on the Stuarts. I didn’t have long before I had to leave (only an hour or thereabouts) so I was quite brisk, just looking at & photographing things that caught my eye rather than everything they had. This included the Great Bed of Ware, mentioned by Shakespeare in one of his plays – and probably constructed to be a talking point for the inn in question to drum up trade. I also took several photos of the clothing they had on display (and tried to get some of the panelled rooms, but sadly those mostly failed to come out right).

Bust of Henry VIIThe Great Bed of WareWoman's Embroidered Jacket16th Century Gentleman's Cloak

Definitely going back for a longer visit sometime, with the big camera too πŸ™‚

Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts & the Russian Tsars (Exhibition at the V&A Museum, London)

Back in July I went on a daytrip to London to visit the V&A and to see their exhibition called “Treasures of the Royal Courts” before it closed on 14th July. I must’ve been to the V&A before, but it’s been a long time – I didn’t have much time on this visit because of train times, but I did manage to have a little look at a couple of galleries as well as the exhibition which I’ll talk about in another post. Sadly no photos for this post because photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibition.

The subtitle for this exhibition had struck me as somewhat strange, in advance – Tudors, Stuarts and Russian Tsars? One of these things is not like the others! However all became clear – the centre piece of the exhibition was a collection of silverware that had been gifted to the Russian Court by the English. Most of the silverware of this period that remained in England was destroyed, either to make more fashionable pieces in a later time or after the Civil War when the Monarchy was abolished. So these pieces from Russia are the best surviving examples of English silverware from this period. With this as the focal point of the exhibition the rest of the items explored what the Tudor & Stuart courts were like (materially speaking) and how & why these gifts were made to Russia.

The first part of the exhibition gave a picture of the splendour & symbolism of the English Court during this time period. It started with arms, armour & heraldry – including some of Henry VIII’s armour. I particularly liked the four Dacre Beasts – painted wooden standard bearers in the shape of four beasts that symbolised Lord Dacre’s ancestry & allegiances. Which included a dolphin, I hadn’t realised that was a heraldic beast back in the 1520s! As well as the pageantry of the military world there were a lot of items from the civilian side of court life. These included minatures, jewellery, clothes and larger portraits of monarchs and members of the court (with a particular emphasis on people who’d been envoys to Russia).

Diplomatic relations between Russia & England had started accidentally in 1553. A small flotilla of English ships was trying to find a route to China via the north, caught in bad weather the surviving ship landed on the coast of Russia and the crew were escorted to Moscow to meet the Tsar. This was an auspicious time for both nations to start direct diplomatic relations. Europe at the time was divided between Protestant & Catholic countries, and this both limited options for trade and disrupted the safe passage of merchants & diplomats by land. Russia was outside this conflict, as the form of Christianity in the country was Orthodox. Russia was also relatively new as a country – the Duchy of Muscovy had only recently “upgraded” itself to being the rulers of Russia. So they were looking for trading partners & diplomatic contacts to set themselves up as part of the “civilised” world.

Symbolism, pageantry & protocol were important in both courts, so despite the cultural differences there were similarities in their styles of diplomacy. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Diplomacy broke down completely during the Commonwealth (between the two Charleses, when Oliver Cromwell was in charge). This was because the Tsars did not approve of the overthrow of a monarchy. There were also problems that arose from the diplomats being as much (or more) merchants as courtiers, which some of the Tsars felt was an insult. England was also little inclined to get involved in the wars Russia fought, in particular Tsar Ivan (the Terrible) had hopes of much more involvement from Elizabeth I’s England in his wars than he ever got.

This info (and more, I’m summarising from memory so I’m sure I’ve missed stuff) was illustrated in the exhibition with not only the silverware but also portraits from the Russian Court, other gifts between the courts, and even paintings of the diplomatic events. I was particularly struck by a portrait of Prince P. I. Potemkin, who as part of his diplomatic career was an ambassador to England in the time of Charles II. (It’s currently used as the picture of him on his wikipedia page.) I think he looks both completely different to the English court of the time, but also part of that same sort of world of showing off your status by what you wear. In terms of the other gifts the standout one was a coach presented to the Tsar. They had a model in the exhibition, and a video about it (which is on the exhibition website. It was taken across to Russia by boat in pieces then reassembled in Moscow before presentation.

As I said, the silverware was the main focus of the exhibition, and was laid out in the centre of one of the rooms so you could see all round it. These weren’t just some dishes to eat your dinner off, they were display pieces to be laid out on a cupboard or buffet at the side of the room. Or perhaps put on the table as a centrepiece. As such they were large and heavily decorated pieces. I particularly liked the ewer in the shape of a leopard – posed much like the standard bearing Dacre Beasts from the start of the exhibition, with a shield rather than a standard. I also liked a water pot with both handle & spout shaped like toothy grinning snakes. The decoration was obviously full of symbolism & meaning and then for the Tsars it had the added meaning of demonstrating international trade & diplomatic connections.

It was a good exhibition, and I’ve got the book to read at some point πŸ™‚

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind (British Museum Exihibition)

The British Museum’s current large exhibition is about Ice Age Art, and we went to see it earlier this month (just before we went away on holiday in fact, which is why the delay in writing about it πŸ™‚ ).


Modern humans (ie Homo sapiens) migrated out of Africa from around 70,000 years ago, and have inhabited Europe since at least 40,000 years ago. At that time the world was in a warmer phase of the Ice Age (tho still colder than today), and the ice sheets left lots of space in Europe for people to live. By around 20,000 years ago the world had cooled down more, and the ice sheets advanced down into Europe before retreating again (and the Ice Age “ended” about 10,000 years ago). The exhibition is about the art that has been found in Europe from that time period, which is the oldest art known from Europe.

The Exhibition

The exhibition is arranged chronologically – so you start with some of the oldest pieces dating from nearly 40,000 years ago, and move to things that are a mere 10-15,000 years old and date back to only a short time before agriculture & civilisation start. It is also grouped by type in many cases, so you see several small statues of abstract women together or several small animal sculptures together. There’s a strong emphasis on how these things are made by people, just like us – I thought they did a good job of conveying that particularly by putting in some pieces of modern art in the same room. Like a sculpture by Henry Moore that’s got a similar feel & aesthetic to the curves of the 30,000 year old small female nudes.

One thing that’s very striking about the objects in the exhibition is that they are so well made – these are not “cave people banging rocks together”. These are for the most part the works of artists who are skilled at creating the carvings, and as good at representational or abstract art as any artist today. Human figures seem to’ve been mostly represented in an abstract or generalised fashion rather than being portraits, but the animal carvings tended to be representational and look very like the thing they were representing. Which is interesting because art seems to have arrived fully fledged – even the oldest pieces (like the 35,000 year old lion man statue for instance) are well made. Maybe this is sampling bias – obviously very little actually survives from such a long ago time, but do we also discard the “banging rocks together” level of experimentation because we don’t see it as art when we see it? The lion man, or the female figurines, or the horses etc etc are very obviously created and created as art so we know what we’re looking at when it’s found.

Most of the objects in the exhibition are small sculptures or tools – physical & three dimensional objects. Obviously we know of two dimensional art from the era, from cave paintings, but you can’t pick them up and move them to a museum. They did have a room with an audiovisual display of some of the cave art, which was a good addition – although I wasn’t keen on the way it was set up as you walked in from a door under the projection so you ended up facing the people watching it and it felt like to find a seat or place to stand you had to walk across people’s view. There was also some indication of other forms of art – like music. One of the objects on display was a small flute made from the rib of a bird (I think it was a vulture) – again it’s sophisticated, in that the holes have clearly been measured (there are faint orientation marks) and precisely placed. The exhibition suggested that the overall bias to small portable things is also probably a true reflection of the time. People during the Ice Age lived a nomadic lifestyle, so you needed to be able to pack up your belongings and move them with you. So even if some of your art is designed to stay in one place the more personal stuff needs to be small.

One striking thing through the whole exhibition was that the vast majority of the human representations were of women – I can only remember a couple that weren’t. In the earlier Ice Age these are nude figures of older women who’ve had children or who are pregnant, with breasts, stomachs & hips/bottom emphasised. Not in a sexualised way, but fertility is clearly part of it. The more recent ones (ie ~20,000 years ago) are also of younger more obviously “sexy” women. There’s an interesting video clip on the museum’s page about the exhibition where the curator & an artist discuss how these figurines seem to represent more the female gaze than the male gaze we’re more accustomed to think about female nudes via. Less “look at the tits & ass on that” and more about the physical experiences of being pregnant or whatever. Their conclusion is that possibly these figurines were made by women and were something to do with rites of passage (puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood etc) of women. But obviously we’ll never know.

Which last sentence neatly segues into the next thing I wanted to mention – I really liked the way the labelling was so clear about “we think this may’ve been used for that purpose but we don’t know”. Because we don’t, and can’t. The best we can do is to remember that these people were people just like us, and to think about how we’d use such things or what we’d make such things for. Some things must’ve been significant – like the lion man statue which would take ~800 hours to make with the tools of the time. That’s a major investment of time, so maybe it had some religious or spiritual importance. Or maybe this is one person’s life’s work of art that they did an hour at a time because they were an artist and that was what they felt a need to create? Other items looked less well made, some tools had pictures of animals etched into the surface by a less practiced & less artistic hand – was this someone making their spear straightener look more elegant/prettier/more their own by decorating it themself? Or was this important in a magical sense – that you drew your own bison on your own spear straightener because then you‘d catch bison with the spears you made? We don’t know & we can’t know, we can just guess because these were people.

This was a fascinating exhibition which both managed to remind you how old these things were, and how like us these people were. These objects come from a long period – three or four times the length of civilisation itself (not just our civilisation, but everything from the agricultural revolution onwards). And that’s mind-boggling. We think of a couple of hundred years ago as “history”, recent maybe, but history even so – people were different then, the past is a different country etc. We think of the Greeks & Romans as a long time ago, the Ancient Egyptians as longer still. But that’s all the last little bit of humankind – these pieces of Ice Age art are the representatives of the majority of human art in terms of time. And yet for all their age these people and their art are still recognisable – they just grew up in a different time and place.

The exhibition’s on till 26th May, and I’d definitely recommend a visit.

Other Stuff

Retail: Bought the book already (and definitely on my list to read). They had some very cool looking stuff, in particular a mug with a painting of a deer on it that became 3D to make the handle out of its head. We didn’t buy anything though.

Other Exhibits: Only a brief trot through the Egyptian rooms, with Ellen & Ady after we’d met up with them.

Other Things: As mentioned above, met Ellen in the museum by design, Ady by accident (well, we didn’t know for sure he was coming to the gig let alone where he’d meet us) and then Paul after we came out. Then off to a gig (about which more another time) via dinner at a place called Pasta Brown, which was rather nice even if they did take rather a long time to bring the bill when we were done.

Threads of Silk and Gold (Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum)

While we were in Oxford after Christmas we went to the Ashmolean Museum – J looked at the Egyptian stuff and I took the opportunity to visit one of the exhibitions they had on, as well as having a look at the early Chinese gallery to look at the sorts of things mentioned in the book I am reading.

Threads of Silk and Gold

This is an exhibition of embroidery & other textile crafts from Meiji era Japan, which is 1868-1912. During this period there was a lot of European influence on the designs made by Japanese craftspeople, and also a big European market for Japanese textiles. The exhibition had several very fine objects, made with a variety of techniques – embroidery, weaving, appliquΓ©, dying etc. I don’t really have much to say about the exhibition, as it was very much a “look at the pretty stuff” sort of thing. And no photography coz it would damage the items.

I would’ve bought a postcard, but there wasn’t one of my favourite object – this was a four-paneled screen with a golden peacock and peahen embroidered on it (link goes to the museum’s page for the screen). I like it both for the design (which is very striking) and for the quality of the work. From a distance it looks like gold on lacquer, and it’s only when you get up close you can see that it’s embroidered. And if you look closely you can see that each feather in the peacock’s tail has been stitched in full, no short cuts. So a feather in the back had all its frondy bits coming off the main spine, and then a feather in front stitched over it etc.

The exhibition as a whole made me want to take up stitching again, but I think I’ve too many projects going on at the moment, perhaps I’ll come back to that some time though πŸ™‚ And I should learn something about Japanese history, I had never heard the term “the Meiji period” before.

Other Stuff

I had a look around the earlyish Chinese stuff that they have in the museum – the galleries are split into two, Neolithic to 800AD and 800AD to the present. As I’d been reading about Chinese pre-history & the pre-unification dynasties I looked mostly at that stuff but I did also look at the Tang Dynasty pottery because I like that. And took pictures πŸ™‚ They’re up on flickr, as always.

Inscribed OracleBronze Ritual Food VesselCamel

Chicken Headed Ewers

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.

Tower of London

I’ve finally got my photos sorted out from our visit to the Tower of London at the beginning of November and I’ve uploaded them to flickr – highlights in this post, more if you click through to flickr.

J in front of Tower Bridge

We’d been meaning to go & visit it for a while – I’m pretty sure I’ve visited the Tower before, but not since I was a kid and J didn’t think he’d ever been. We decided to start with the Yeoman Warder tour (as recommended by one of J’s colleagues) so spent 15 minutes or so hanging about after we got there photographing some of the buildings on the other side of the Thames while we waited for the tour to start.

Tower BridgeGlobular BuildingThe ShardThe Shard

Then it was off for the tour – the one that left shortly before we arrived at the Tower had looked like there was a fair amount of “audience participation” so I was a little dubious. But it was actually really good. In part because the guy who was leading it didn’t get a particularly loud response from the group when the first place to cheer came up, so he dialled that down. It was basically a walk through the grounds of the Tower showing us the various buildings (mostly from the outside) and giving us an overview of the history of the place, interspersed with anecdotes & facts about the Yeoman Warders (who are NOT TOUR GUIDES as he told us a couple of times πŸ˜‰ ). We then got to go into the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (no photos unfortunately) – this is only open to people on the Yeoman Warder tours. This is the place where the people executed at the Tower were buried – some have been reburied elsewhere, but Anne Boleyn amongst others is still there. I’d recommend doing the tour if you visit the Tower – it sets everything neatly in context.

Yeoman WarderTudor PalaceInner WallTraitors GateBloody Tower

After the tour we decided we’d have a break for coffee and a snack (so we could delay lunch until after lunchtime to avoid the busy time). Then we went and looked at the Medieval Palace area of the tour. This was built and lived in by Henry III and Edward I and the “Traitors Gate” was actually the entrance to this palace – it’s only later during Tudor times that traitors were brought into the Tower here. My favourite bit of this section was the mock-up of a royal bedchamber that they had. As well as some furniture & wall decorations they also had a chap in there playing recorder (not the King, Edward was in Westminster that day, as he said πŸ˜‰ ), and somehow the atmosphere & everything worked really well. They also had a throne room set up & there was some sort of storyteller thing going on in there, but I was less convinced by that. In one of the towers a bit further along there was also a display of medieval items that they’d excavated from the area of the palace, including a rather fine glass chess piece.

Replica Bedchamber for Edward IChapel off the King's BedchamberRecorder Player in the King's BedchamberStorytellers in the Throne RoomMedieval BowlMedieval Chess Piece Medieval Ivory Carving

Further round the walls there were the towers where people had been imprisoned – one had lots of fine graffiti (all behind glass so nigh on impossible to photograph). Some of it was really very impressive & intricate – including the only one I have a decent photograph of, that’s of an astrological table. There was also an exhibition about the Royal Menagerie that used to be kept in the Tower (it later formed the basis of London Zoo). We were particularly struck by the story of the polar bear of Henry III, which was tied on a long rope to the side of the Thames then allowed to swim in the river & fish. And the snakes which were apparently wrapped in blankets and put on the stove to keep warm during winter. As well as the exhibit in one of the buildings the Menagerie was also “illustrated” with a series of wire sculptures by Kendra Haste that were dotted around the site. And another aspect of the Tower – the guards – were represented with metal sculptures (I don’t know who by) around the walls.

Graffiti in the TowerProper Care of Snakes & Bears?BaboonsHenry III's Polar BearElephantCrossbowmanPikeman

After this we headed off to look at the Crown Jewels – no pictures, they’re pretty strict about not allowing photography in there. The great benefit of visiting in November during term time was that there weren’t any queues for this bit and we could go up and down the little moving walkways round the regalia more than once to get a decent look. As well as the obvious (the crowns) they also had a whole load of ceremonial maces & ceremonial tableware. The dishes weren’t that interesting, but the maces were neat πŸ™‚ Related to this area of the Tower was another exhibit we went to during our walk along the wall from the Medieval Palace – there was a room about the diamonds used in the various crowns, which was more interesting than I expected. It included the neat fact that the diamonds in one of the crowns were hired (one of the George’s crowns, I think, no photos so I have no note).

Then we had a break for lunch (the restaurant place on site was nice but pricey) and after that set off to do the White Tower (what I think of as “the Tower proper”). We didn’t actually manage to finish looking round this – ran out of time and they were shutting it up before we got a proper look at the top floor. The exhibits in the White Tower that we did look at included some history of the building, and a lot of armour. Perhaps a little overwhelmingly much armour (but I did still look at it all, because it’s cool πŸ™‚ ). This ranged from Henry VIII’s various suits of armour (ornate yet still practical) to the armour for the Stuart dynasty (ornate for the sake of ornate, particularly in the case of Charles I), and some modern armour too. They also had a variety of weaponry (including a combination mace and gun belonging to Henry VIII which was a thing I had no idea existed), some of which was gifted to the Crown by territories in the Empire or other diplomatic gifts. And they had the model horses (and some model heads) from an old display from the 17th Century of the “Line of Kings”. Those horses looked disturbingly manic to me! As I said, we didn’t see much of the top floor but notable things that we did see included the block & axe used for the last beheading at the Tower, and a dragon made out of bits of armour(!).

Henry VIII's ArmourHenry VIII's ArmourCharles I's ArmourToy Cannon King Henry ye 8ths Walking Staff17th Century Line of Kings17th Century Line of KingsDragon Shaped Horse TailpieceHeadsman's Axe & Block

A very good day out πŸ™‚ Well worth a visit if you’re in London – budget lots of time for it & don’t be put off by the price (we spent 6 hours there and didn’t see everything).

The White Tower

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™‚

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 Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot (Exhibition at the British Museum)

On Monday afternoon we went to look at the free exhibition the British Museum have on till the end of September about horses. To be honest I was much less interested in this in advance than other exhibitions we’ve been to, but it turned out to be more interesting than I’d expected.


This exhibition was part of commemorating the Diamond Jubilee, and as such I think part of the context was “The Queen likes & owns race horses”. And the Saudia Arabian royal family were involved in sponsoring it, so even the broader view than thoroughbred race horses was still fairly focused on Arabian horses.

The Exhibition

It felt very much like an exhibition of two halves, and of the two I much prefered the first which focused more generally on horses in the ancient Middle East. The three rooms devoted to this covered a time period from the earliest references to horses about 5000 years ago to the medieval Islamic Middle East. The ancient era section had a few iconic items – like the Royal Standard of Ur, and some of the Amarna letters – as well as several Assyrian wall fragments (decorated with horses, and lion hunts) and pieces of ancient horse tack. Particularly striking in this section was the model horse head with the pieces of bridle etc put in their proper places, as a non-horsey person I appreciated the chance to see what things actually were rather than relying on my understanding of the technical terms.

It was also interesting to see how some of Egyptian culture clearly permeated through other parts of the Middle East – there were some Phoenician horse cheek guards which had lotus flowers or eyes of Horus on them. And model chariots or horses seemed to frequently have Bes faces (an Egyptian protective deity) on them.

The last room of this half had a model horse & rider in Sassanian style, in metal armour. And also some textile armour for both people & horses in the Islamic medieval period – as J said this looked like a horse-cosy, very like a tea-cosy! There were also some Korans (I’m not entirely sure why), and several paintings of people on horses from Islamic Middle Eastern countries.

And then the next room went back to prehistoric times, but this time in the Arabian peninsula, with a display of rock carvings of horses & neolithic Arabian tools loosely connected with horses. I think it would’ve been more interesting if this part and the bit with the Korans had been replaced with a bit about the horse in British society in general – as the next parts were about racehorses and Arabian purebred horses in the UK.

I didn’t know before this exhibition but pretty much all racehorses these days are thoroughbreds descended from 3 Arabian sires brought to the UK in around the 17th century and bred with native mares. These crosses turned out to be faster than the other horses in the races and came to dominate the racing scene. This part of the exhibition contained several paintings of famous horses, some pedigrees of particular lines and several things loaned by Her Majesty the Queen – like a set of silks (the jockey’s racing gear). I was particularly amused to see the paintings of the horse Pot8os – so named because when the groom was asked to write the name “potatoes” on the horse’s stall he wrote “Pot oooo oooo” and the owner was sufficiently amused to keep it as the actual name. The first ever txtspk! (in Victorian times, iirc.)

I spent a while at the end sitting infront of the small film of “horses in action” that they had, while I was waiting for J to catch up … particularly amusing (second only to the dancing horses of dressage) was the Queen jumping up in delight as her horse won something in 1954 and the gentleman next to her looked like he stood up because you can’t sit while the Queen stands, not for any other reason.

Other Stuff

Retail: We dithered about whether or not to pick up the book of the exhibition, but in the end decided we would. We also got a mug with a picture of Sassanian horses on it, and I looked at (but didn’t buy) lots of other nice but expensive things.

Other exhibits: We had a quick look at the Olympic medals display in the museum – this has the medals for this year plus a short explanation of the design & manufacture of them. And some medals and memorabilia of previous London games. I’ve got a small selection of photos up on flickr, of which this is a taster:

2012 Olympic Medals

Also while J went back to the Shakespeare exhibition and then looked at Egyptian stuff, I went to look at the Japanese galleries more for the purpose of taking photos than looking at the labels. Photos to come at some future date πŸ™‚

Other things: Dinner at Pizza Express, then back to the museum for the Members Open Evening, of which more another time.