All Hail the Sacred Dung Beetle!

When Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, sold his collection of antiquities to the British Museum in 1816, the museum acquired not only his once eponymous marbles, but many other Greek and Roman artefacts, including statues, pottery, jewellery and more.

There was also a piece that was originally from Egypt, a monumental scarab from, it is thought, the 4th century BCE, bought by Elgin in Constantinople when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

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Contemplating the Infinite in the British Museum

star carr red dear headdress in the british museum

In Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, the Total Perspective Vortex gives “one momentary glimpse of the size of the entire infinity of creation along with a tiny little marker saying ‘you are here’”.

I occasionally get a similar feeling – being hit with the complete and utter inconsequentiality of our individual existences – when I visit the British Museum.

On one of their ‘show and tell’ desks where visitors can handle artefacts from the collection I was allowed to pick up a flint hand axe that was made over a quarter of a million years ago, the smooth base of it fitting as comfortably into my palm as it must have done for my impossibly distant ancestor. 

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The Sutton Hoo treasure

In 1938 a Suffolk woman called Edith Pretty asked a local archaeologist Basil Brown (no relation unfortunately) to excavate a series of mounds that were on her land. In the spring of the following year, in the prosaically named ‘Mound No. 1’, Brown unearthed the remains of an early anglo-saxon ship burial from around 600-650CE.

No body was found – it, along with all the other organic material, including the actual wood of the ship, is thought to have been eaten away by the acidic soil over the intervening 1300 years. The balance of scholarly opinion believes that this was the grave of Raedwald who was king of East Anglia in the first quarter of the 7th century.

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The Holy Thorn Reliquary in the British Museum

the holy thorn reliquary detail

A bit more medieval from the British Museum (read all about a 700 year old citole here), but this time we’re not in my favourite Room 40, but Room 2a, the home of the Waddesdon Bequest.

We’re going to look at the Holy Thorn Reliquary, a late 14th century gold, enamel and rock crystal devotional object, decorated with sapphires, rubies, pearls and other precious gems.

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The 4500 year old Standard of Ur

Back in the British Museum for the first time since lockdown and prepping for a real life tour with a real life guest.

The Standard of Ur is an object I’ve walked past on numerous occasions, but until yesterday hadn’t ever really spent any time looking at. Its history and what it tells us about early city civilisations is remarkable.

It was discovered in the late 1920s during the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley’s excavation of the city of Ur. One of the most famous and earliest of the cities of ancient Mesopotamia (“between the rivers” of the Tigris and Euphrates; modern-day Iraq), Ur was a city-state of the Sumerians, founded about 3800 BCE.

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Even with the recently announced lockdown relaxation it seems unlikely that there will be many guided tours, or indeed visitors, over the next few months.

That’s why a few friends and I have got together to offer virtual tours and talks, so that we can show you the best of London and the UK through the magic of the interweb. (See our trailer below)

You’ll find a complete list of what we have scheduled here. Some of our regular tours include the British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, the National Gallery, Bath and Roman London, and we’ll be adding more over the coming weeks.

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Lindow Man – the body in the bog

In the British Museum is a remarkable Iron Age corpse, a wonderfully preserved ‘bog body’ from the 1st century CE discovered in a place called Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Chesire in 1984.

Lindow Moss is a peat bog and while workmen were harvesting this peat they discovered a leg. The previous year the head of a woman (dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE) had been found, so the archeologists were called in.

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The Royal Gold Cup

Walk into Room 40 in the British Museum via the staircase in the entrance lobby and the first thing that hits you is this wonderful piece of medieval metalwork – The Royal Gold Cup, created around 1380 in France by John, Duc de Berry for his brother Charles V (or, some sources say, for his nephew Charles VI).

It’s a lidded cup that weighs just under 2kg (so just over 4lb) is around 23cm (9 inches) tall and is made from gold with ‘basse-taille’ (low relief) enamelling that tells the story of the martyrdom of St Agnes (Charles V birthday was St Agnes’ Day – 21 January).

[Here’s me doing an online talk about the Cup and explaining more about the story of St Agnes]

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A Medieval Citole in the British Museum

Up in Room 40 of the British Museum you will find one of the most stunning bits of medieval carving to survive – a citole (an early type of guitar) that dates from around 1300.

It’s carved from box (a slow-growing shrub that produces dense, hard wood). When it was nearly 300 years old, someone decided that citoles were so last year and converted it into a violin, but the neck and main structure were retained (the finger board and top of the sound box are ‘new’).

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