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.
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.
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]
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’).
One 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\