Sunday, June 24, 2007

The British Museum

June 23, 2007

If Westminster Abbey was heaven, then today must have been at least the third or fourth heaven--maybe the seventh! While standing in line this morning to ask about getting a train ticket to Oxford for a day visit, I heard someone mention the British Museum, and I thought, "Why should I leave London to go to Oxford when I've got the British Museum to see?" So I got out of line and started walking.

Along the way I stopped in at HMV Music Store and saw several CDs I wouldn't mind having, but CDs are expensive here and--to tell the truth--I can probably get most, if not all, of them from, possibly at a lower price. But who knows? I may yet go in and plunk down some pounds sterling for a CD or two.

I also visited Debenham's, a big department store, to check out the possibilities of a shoulder-bag to replace the backpack I left in Malta (deliberately). I've been feeling that I'm a little too old to be carrying a backpack around like a college student. I found a canvas bag I felt would be pretty useful but didn't buy it until later in the day, after I'd looked at other computer bags and tote-ish bags at a few other places as well. While in Debenham's I also stopped at one of their cafes and had a cup of green tea and a donut. Breakfast (5 half-slices of bread, two bowls of dry Rice Krispies and corn flakes, and 3 cups of tea) had worn off by then.

I kept walking. My map showed a little park called Bedford Square, which looked to be right near the British Museum, so I figured that would be a good place to sit and have my little can of tuna and part of my apple for lunch before going to the museum. After lunch, I headed up the street (the wrong way, as it turns out), but it was serendipitous because I passed a blue (ceramic?) plaque on the front of a building, designating it the house in which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1858. The painters and writers associated with this group created some beautiful work--and maybe I'll see some of it before I leave London!

Directions from helpful pedestrians got me to the British Museum. Wow, what a place to spend some time. It's enormous, and the galleries lead from one to another to another. I'm sure if anything was paying any attention to me, they must have thought, "That poor deluded man," because I kept walking into galleries and just sighing or ohhing at what I saw before me. The museum is full of things I have seen in books decades ago.

I decided to head first--not to Ancient Egypt, not to Ancient Greece--but to Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia). And what should greet me in Mesopotamia but the piece popularly known as the Ram in the Thicket, inspired (I think) by the story of Abraham and the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, though this ram is not caught in the bushes, and is also probably a goat and not a ram. The goat is up on its hind legs with its front hooves in a tree, probably to eat leaves. It's made of gold, lapiz lazuli and shell and is probably a little older than the Great Pyramid. I took a photograph, but it's not terribly wonderful. Much of the material in the Museum is behind thick glass or polyurethane, and it can be a problem to avoid reflections and glare.

But I do have a photo for you of the so-called Battle Standard. One side features battle scenes, though the other has peaceful scenes. This is a misidentification because the early scholars thought it was meant to be carried on a pole, like a military standard. Now it's admitted that no one knows what it is for--it's been suggested it was part of a musical instrument, a sound-box, I suppose. Here's a photo of it:

And then there is the Gudea display! Seeing the Gudea material, right there with the Battle Standard and the Ram in the Thicket, was like seeing old friends. I learned about these objects when I was working on my Master's at UT in 1982 or possibly earlier. Gudea was the ruler of Lagash--I believe he was called ensi, if my memory serves me. He was not, as it were, the king of the city-state, but rather its ruler on behalf of the gods. This photo is of a statue from the city, though it is not identified as Gudea--it's the most perfect and lovely of the statues at the Museum. Another of the statues does have Gudea's name on it, but it's in such bad shape it wouldn't mean much to you.

These statues from what is now southern Iraq, but was then Sumer, feature these large eyes, and robes worn over one shoulder, and folded hands, as if in reverence before the gods. Beautiful work. If the Ram and the Battle Standard are perhaps 4600 years old, these statues are a little younger, maybe 4100 years old. For comparison, by this time, Egypt's Old Kingdom (its pyramid age) had already declined and maybe even splintered into smaller semi-kingdoms before being reorganized by the kings of the 11th Dynasty.

And speaking of Egypt, how about a pre-mummification mummy? This is a natural mummy--a mummy that the dryness of the Egyptian climate created from a "regular" burial. This is pre-dynastic, that is, before Egypt was organized into one nation under the earliest pharaohs. This burial took place something like 5400 years ago:

The earliest two dynasties of the unified Egypt are pretty sketchy. The traditional uniter of the earlier two nations is called Menes, but scholars aren't sure who he is. Maybe he is the same as a pharaoh called Narmer, but it's impossible to establish. Another of these earlier pharaohs is simply known as Scorpion to the Scorpion King, a name which will ring a bell for those of you who are fans of Mummy-related movies. Some of the art which survives from those days takes the form of palettes, more or less flat pieces of stone carved on both sides. This is called the Hunter's Palette. Two of the three pieces of this are real; and the third is a cast of the other piece, which is in the Louvre.

When I first saw this, I thought, "Narmer!" because perhaps the most famous of the palettes is Narmer's battle palette. But Narmer is not here. I don't know which museum has him--maybe the Egyptian Museum.

The pharaoh of the Great Pyramid is sometimes called Cheops, a Greek version of his name. Khufu would be closer. And this stone has his name on it, in the box. Those of you who are fans of King Tut will recall the so-called cartouche, which pharaohs always wrote their names in later. But in this earlier period, royal names are sometimes in these boxes (which may represent a house or a temple, I think). Khufu is 4th Dynasty, almost 4500 years ago. The explanatory plaque said the name as written here would be something like Medjedu.

Here are three mummies, in one display case together, but they aren't human: these are cat mummies, and this photo is especially for my sister Teresa and my alphabetical friends Lou Ann, Sheila and Steve.

The Egyptians weren't the only ones doing fancy burials, of course, though sometimes the others weren't doing it quite as well. These are coffin lids made by the Philistines.

In books about ancient history, the Philistines are considered part of a large movement of various groups of people called "the Sea Peoples" more than 3000 years ago. Egypt had problems with various groups of them at one point, especially during the days of Ramesses III about 3200 years ago. But most people, when they hear the word Philistine, think of the Biblical stories of Samson and of David and Goliath.

Coming forward several centuries here is a wall carving from Assyria (or is it Persia? I'm pretty sure it's Assyria). Assyria figures in the books of the kings in the Bible and had its homeland in what we would call Northern Iraq. This is some kind of spirit-creature or perhaps a minor deity or servant of the gods. If I remember correctly, scholars sometimes refer to these figures as cherubim. You can see the lines of cuneiform text running across the middle of the panel, right across the figure's body and the trees from which it is plucking something.

The Museum has an enormous Greek collection as well: pottery, statues, carved friezes from the Parthenon. I sort of skated through some of the Greek rooms because I wanted not to see too much too carefully today, so that there will be more for a return trip. This is Athena, in one form or another. I was able to take most of my photos in the Museum without flash, because most of the galleries are quite well-lit. This one required flash, but it created a really almost chilling effect with her eyes, which I rather like:

I also went fairly quickly through the Roman rooms, though I took a number of photos of both Greek and Roman materials. This is, I'm pretty sure, Roman, though I don't remember conclusively. It's the rim of a rather large bowl or basin--maybe 3 feet across--and I found it quite lovely. Notice how beautifully life-like the bird's neck and head are.

Well, we've been sort of moving from older to newer art in this little tour, but now let's go way back--Stone Age art. These are very small pieces, a few inches long each, and the plaque points out that they are not "useful". Much early art serves a purpose: the "art" is really a decorated tool. But these two are not tools, meaning that they may have been decorated just for the loveliness of doing it: art in our sense of the term.

What skill the ancients had in depicting animals!

And now you're thinking, "Wait a minute! How long has it been since he talked about food?" And you're right to be suspicious. I broke my visit in half by stopping in the main floor snack area and having a cup of Darjeeling tea and a packet of "potato crisps". Since I hadn't had any with lunch, it seemed appropriate to have some at the Museum.

Fortunately I had bought AA batteries at Superdrug on my walk to the Museum. I took so many photographs that I wore out the first pair of batteries (the camera takes two at a time) before I got out of the Museum! For comparison, most of the pairs I had used up to this point lasted 5 to 7 days!

Visiting the British Museum can certainly make one wish one had gone into archaeology. What an amazing place it is.


While I was at Starbuck's later this afternoon, working on email and the Travel Log, a bobby walked up to me and said something like, "Sir, while I am talking to you on this side, someone could be coming up on your other side and taking your bag from where you've got it hooked on the corner of the chair." And he advised me to put it in front of me and hook it around my leg to discourage attempted theft! I had felt like it was pretty safe because I looked down at it every few minutes, but he was right--two thieves working together could have deprived me of my new Debenham's bag. And when I was having my tea at the British Museum a guard there came up to a Spanish family across the table from me and told the woman, who had set her purse on the chair behind her, that a thief could easily take it without her knowing it--so the British authorities, even at the Museum, are keeping their eyes out for the safety of tourists! Nice, indeed.

And then this evening, while I was showering, I had the window open both to let the room cool down a bit (it faces sort of west-ish) and to let the humid air of the shower out--and of course the first real rain we've had since I got here happened while I was showering, so the inside of the window was wet, the bottoms of the curtains were wet, the window-sill was wet, and the bed was even a bit wet! They only give you one towel at the hotel here, so I had to use the floor-towel (not really a floor-mat) to dry everything off! You can get your tan, you know, from standing in the English rain.


DrTee said...

If you don't go see some places, I'm going to throttle you! You don't have to wait for Susan.

India said...

It's hardly Mesopotamia, but I think you might enjoy Sir John Soane's Museum, Cooper. It's in Covent Garden; it's small; it's free; it's weird.

DrTee said...

India, I love that museum. Very quirky. Love the "Alas, Poor Fanny" monument.

And Renner, if you go there, there are hidden Hogarths you have to ask to see.

Cooper Renner said...

Hey, drtee, what do you mean "If I don't go see some places"? I been seeing places every day! I been walking my legs off. You were telling me to take it easy in Malta!

Cooper Renner said...

Sir John Soane's? I'll see if I can track that down.

jack said...

excellent stuff cooper

should i feel homssick ermmm

umbrella nice very english

i nearly quoted john lennon a week or so back on how to get a tan

warm regards jack

DrTee said...

Well, dang, I meant PLAYS.

As for the Soames, I don't think I'd do that on my first trip to London. There's still so much big stuff to see. It's more an oddity than anything, unless you're really into Hogarth.