The 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).
It’s a very dull piece of a granite-like stone, and the stuff that’s carved on it isn’t hugely interesting either – it’s to do with Ptolemy V, the new king of Egypt, granting tax exemptions to the priesthood. It’s not even complete – the top bit has been broken off.
So why is this the most visited object in the British Museum, buffeted by crowds sometimes ten deep, its image featuring in the British Museum shop on everything from headscarves to iPhone covers?
Because this uninspiring bit of stone – a ‘stele’ from 196BC – allowed us to decipher hieroglyphs – to understand a form of writing for the first time in over 1400 years and so unlock the secrets of ancient Egypt.
You can keep your hoards of gold and silver, your Egyptian mummies, your blockbuster Viking exhibitions. For me, the most wonderful piece in the whole British Museum is a bit of graffiti, not done by any artist or craftsman, but by a bored squaddie looking for ways to kill time.
Scratched onto a flat part of the base of one of the extraordinary Assyrian winged bulls are a couple of dozen squares. They’re the board for a dice game and were incised around 710BCE (although earlier examples of the game have been found dating back 4500 years). The thing seems to have been a sort of “race” game with counters (think of Ludo).
I love it because they give a human dimension to people we can never know – we can have no idea of what these people experienced, their sensibilities, their world view, but we can still relate to trying to find ways to fill in the time when the job gets boring, or enjoying a spot of ‘playtime’ with colleagues.