Gebelein Man – a 5,500 year old murder mystery

One of the oldest pieces in the museum is not stone or porcelain or metal, but an actual human being – someone who walked around and felt the sun on their back nearly 5,500 years ago.

Looking at the desiccated corpse we can see how wonderfully he is preserved;  the skin is like leather, you can see his fingernails, and can even make out the colour of his hair. He’s known as Gebelein man, from the place in Egypt where he was found, but because of his red hair he was nicknamed ‘ginger’. Continue reading “Gebelein Man – a 5,500 year old murder mystery”

Lewis Chessmen

Lewis-chessmen08One of the most famous of the early medieval exhibits from the museum is the Lewis chessmen. 93 separate pieces, in a variety of sizes, were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, hidden, presumably, by someone who was trading the sets. These 93 are now split between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

They’re exquisitely carved, with some wonderful details and are made mainly of walrus ivory – from the tusks of the walrus – with a few that are carved whales’ teeth.

[Here’s an online talk I did recently about the chess pieces\

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Tang Grave Figures

DSC_0056The Tang dynasty – 618AD to 907AD –  was one of the golden ages of China. We’re often a bit unspecific about the dates of exhibits in the museum – placing things in a century or even a millennium, but we know that these figures date to 728AD.

They are tomb figures for a general called Liu Tingxan whose funeral was in that year. This type of tomb figure was widely used among high-status individuals from about 700AD. They’re glazed earthenware in a style known as ‘sancai’, which means three colours: white, green and amber/red (they also did blue and black, but let’s not disappear down that rabbit hole).

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Christchurch Greyfriars and the 1666 Great Fire

In the post on the Firefighters’ Memorial we talked about the destruction caused by the Blitz – and Christchurch Greyfriars gives a hint of that devastation. This was a Wren church built after the 1666 Great Fire and gutted in WW2. Rather than being restored like so many others, it was turned into a garden. Flowerbeds mark where the pews once stood, and wooden frames with climbing plants show where the towers once stood in the nave.

Before Wren’s church it had been one of the largest churches in London. Originally it was part of a Franciscan friary (Franciscans wore grey habits, hence greyfriars). Four queens were buried in the friary grounds, including the wives of Edward I and Edward II , which stretched from King Edward Street (once known as ‘Stinking Lane’ by the way) right down to the City Wall at Newgate.

When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church in 1533 over his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, he also ‘dissolved’ many religious institutions and Greyfriars was one of those. The friary church became Christchurch. Another part of the friary was to become the site of Christ’s Hospital School – which still exists, although it moved out of the City at the start of the 20th century. The pupils still wear a tudor-style uniform of a long blue coat and yellow knee length socks.

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The Firefighters Memorial, St Paul’s

75 years ago George Orwell, the author of 1984 wrote, “as I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me”.

He was talking about the Blitz, the WW2 bombing campaign by the German airforce that attempted to destroy London’s industry and infrastructure and shatter the morale of the population. Between September 1940 and May 1941 over 18,000 tonnes of high explosive was dropped on London, up to a million and a half homes were damaged or destroyed, and nearly 30,000 people killed. It seems almost impossible to us, living here in this cosmopolitan city, that all this horror and destruction took place within a human lifetime.

And this monument commemorates some of the people who helped London survive: the firefighters – professionals and auxiliaries, men and women – the “heroes with grimy faces” as Winston Churchill called them.

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St James Garlickhythe

DSC_0013With the current building works going on around it, the approach to St James’s is now down Garlick Hill, an indication – along with the church’s suffix – of what the area was known for in medieval times. A ‘hythe’ is an old English word for a jetty or landing, so this is the place where garlic was unloaded and brought into the City. It was also where wine was landed, as the church is in the ward of Vintry – home to wine merchants. More on this shortly.

There has been a church on this site since at least the 1100s and the scallop shell motif seen above the door indicates that this was a pilgrim church – it was a stop on the route to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella which was reputed to hold the body of St James the Apostle. It was rebuilt in the 1320s with money from Richard de Rothing, a member of the Vintners’ guild and, although St James’s is the Guild Church for ten Livery Companies, it is with the Vintners that it is most closely associated. Continue reading “St James Garlickhythe”

Cleary Gardens – one of the City’s ‘Pocket Parks’

With so much noise and traffic in the City it’s sometimes nice to take a bit of time out. And that’s what places like Cleary Gardens attempt to provide – a little spot of tranquility among the roar and bustle of the Square Mile.

There are over 200 open spaces within the City, managed by the City Gardens Team, and the Corporation also owns huge areas of open space outside central London – Epping Forest for example, Hampstead Heath, Ashtead, Kenley and Coulsdon commons. The City of London principally funds these spaces through its ‘City Cash’ funds, with other revenue coming from donations, sponsorship and visitors.

And they’re not just for people of course. The City’s open spaces are planted to encourage bio-diversity, insects and birds. Blue tits and sparrows nest in the buddleia of Cleary Gardens, with greenfinches, robins and blackbirds being other frequent visitors.

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The City and the Guilds

Stand on Dowgate with your back to Cannon Street station and you can see the entrances to three of the halls of the City’s oldest guilds – from right to left, the Tallow Chandlers, the Skinners and the Dyers.

These days Guilds are charitable, social and networking institutions, but their origins go back to at least medieval times and quite possibly predate the Norman Conquest. They were ‘trade bodies’ like the fraternities or ‘mysteries’ found throughout England and Europe in the middle ages. You paid to belong: the word comes from the Saxon ‘gildan’ – to pay. Within the City of that time you would find tradesman living and working in the same areas, worshiping in the same churches, drinking in the same alehouses and so forth – so for example, Cannon Street used to be called Candlewick Street as that is where one would find candle makers; an obvious link to Tallow Chandlers – so it must have been a natural step to meet and discuss business. (As an aside, the Tallow Chandlers’ Hall is built where once the Roman Governor’s palace stood, more evidence of the incredible – and literal – depth of history in the City.) Continue reading “The City and the Guilds”

Dick Whittington’s Church

St Michael Paternoster Royal is one of 51 churches rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire. St Michael is the archangel Michael – God’s warrior angel – who had seven churches dedicated to him in the City, and, so to distinguish it from the others it got the suffix ‘Paternoster’ after Paternoster Lane, a local street where rosaries were made and sold. The ‘Royal’ part of the title is a corruption of another street called Le Ryole, which itself was believed to come from a mispronunciation of the town of Le Reole in Burgundy. This connects to the wine merchants from Burgundy who lived in this area – Vintry, from ‘vintners’ (wine merchants). Like many things in the City the layers of history and threads of connection are still visible beneath the glossy surface of the 21st century.

As well as being destroyed in the Great Fire, it was burned again by German bombing in WW2 – though not in the Blitz. It survived everything the Luftwaffe dropped around it in 1940/41, only to be hit by a flying bomb in 1944. Only the walls and the tower survived.

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Postman’s Park – the Memorial to ‘Heroic Self-sacrifice’

A small bit of green space on the site of the churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph’s, Aldersgate, which opened in 1880. Over the next 20 years it also incorporated the burial grounds of Christchurch, Greyfriars and St Leonard’s, Foster Lane. Because it is an old burial field, the ground level is considerably higher than the area around it.

It’s called Postman’s Park because over the road is the old headquarters of the GPO, and the park was very popular with the workers there.

But that’s not why it is famous.

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