Happy New Year to one and all! I hope the days of January have been pleasant ones for you. I’m recently returned from Christmas visits with my family and had a wonderful time. The tail end of the year rather got away from me in a flurry of festive preparations and traveling and I didn’t blog as much as I had hoped. I had planned to finish blogging about my England trip by the end of the year, but since that didn’t happen, we’ll have a few more days of that to enjoy in January instead!
Today we’re back in London and visiting the British Museum. History was one of my majors in college and in our classes we discussed the British Museum in hushed, reverent tones, as if mentioning the Holy Place. It was the repository of the world, the treasure chest of the historian, and we all dreamt of what lay in those hallowed halls. Our professors had us study collection pieces from their website online and to finally see the beautiful objects in person had me quivering with anticipation to the point I thought I might faint. Now it’s absolutely impossible to see everything in one day and I’m just going to give you some of my favorite highlights today.
In Ancient Middle East we saw what was probably my favorite item in the museum – “Ram in the Thicket”. I had been intrigued by this in the guidebook we procured ahead of time because of its name and association with the biblical account of Abraham. This was found in a grave in Ur, the ancient Sumerian city, and dates to 2500 BC. It took my breath away – overlaid in gold with gems on the base – it was indeed a treasure. there were so many beautiful items in the ancient Ur section of the museum – jewelry, pottery, and cuneiform tablets (I think the British Museum has every one that was ever dug up). It took me back to my days in early elementary school where I fell in love with history studying Sumeria.
This was the other singular find of the Ancient Middle East galleries. It is a portion of the facade of King Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room. I was stunned – I never expected to see something like this with my own eyes. This is the King Nebuchadnezzar from the biblical accounts of his siege of Israel and resulting captivity in Babylon. His story is one of my favorite in the Bible because I think it incredible that the God of the Israelites revealed Himself so personally to Nebuchadnezzar and showed Himself to be the God of all peoples. Nebuchadnezzar’s words of praise to God for His power and authority over kingdoms of the earth is a magnificent example of worship. It was thrilling to see with my own eyes something that he had created and saw. It’s the power of archeology to connect people across thousands of years of history with the objects that have been discovered and restored.
Ancient Egyptian collections are scattered throughout the museum, but the most impressive display is on the ground floor where the large statues are housed, including the famed Rosetta Stone. It was discovered by Napoleon’s army in 1799 and surrendered to the British in 1801. After presentation to King George III it was installed in the museum and scholars unlocked its secrets within 25 years, opening up a new understanding of the ancient world.
Almost everything in the hall is displayed out in the open, to the point where you could touch them. You can stand right up next to them for photos and such. And the statues were immense!
From Ancient Egypt, we moved to Greece and admired the famed collection of Elgin marbles from the Parthenon. Actually, my favorite of the Grecian sculptures were the Nereids.
These are from the Nereid Monument in Xanthos and are sea nymphs that were thought to escort the souls of deceased to their afterlife. The wind-blown drapery and weathered condition made them beautifully ethereal, like they were made more of clouds than marble.
One of the collections I was most excited about was Ancient Britain and the Sutton Hoo burial.
This section of the museum was fascinating, charting the earliest known peoples in Britain, through the Roman occupation and into medieval times. Many of the artifacts were burial hords, like the one pictured above, with vessels, money, and jewelry.
The Sutton Hoo display was fabulous. Ironically, just a few nights before, we had watched a documentary on the discovery of Sutton Hoo on BBC while we were in the Lake District.
The burial dates to ~ 600 AD. The helmet is perhaps the most famous piece of the collection. I was surprised by how little of it actually survived. If you look closely you can see the original fragments of metal have been mounted to a base plate. The ship burial has a fascinating history and discovery. In the late 1930s the landowner (Mrs. Pretty) invited a team of archeologists to excavate the site, in conjunction with Ipswich museum. The process was cut short by declaration of war in 1939 and the grounds were slated to become tank training grounds, so the archeologists heroically managed to finish the excavation in less than 20 days before the site was destroyed. Mrs. Pretty presented the treasure to the people of England as a gift to the British Museum then the artifacts promptly went into hiding in the bunkers and underground storage of London. She did not live to see the end of the war and the installment of the artifacts in the museum, but her generosity is one of the crown jewels of the museum’s collection.
As we moved into medieval history, mom and I were doing an admirable job of not getting too far behind our pace in trying to see as much as possible. But then we hit the clock rooms and things came to a screeching halt while I felt the need to photograph every single piece on display.
But just look at how beautiful they are! And they were gloriously steampunk too! Most of the pieces dated from 1500s-1600s, though some were as early as 1300s. The artistry and technical skill needed to fashion these intricate machines is just incredible.
It would be very difficult to have a favorite in this collection, but this automaton from 1585 might take the cake. The metalwork on this was exquisite. It was created to announce banquets at court. As the first course was served, a miniature organ inside the ship began playing and tiny figurines would move into procession. The ship would travel across the table throughout the meal. When the ship stopped, the front cannon would fire, causing a chain reaction to fire all the other guns on the ship, announcing the end of the feast.
Now the last section of the museum I wanted to show you is the Enlightenment Hall. After all I’d seen, I didn’t think anything else could be more marvelous – but this was my very favorite part of the museum. This magnificent hall, lined with windows and glass bookcases, was filled with dozens and dozens of display cabinets, and was an entire room of Cabinet of Curiosities.
In fact, this room housed the seed collection that formed the British Museum. This was the collection of Hans Sloane – a noted physician, explorer, naturalist, and collector. Also among his attributed accomplishments was the introduction of drinking chocolate. The room was divided into 24 themes that represented the way that artifacts would be organized in the 1700s during the Enlightenment. These included topics such as botany, minerals, pottery/ceramics, writing, exploration, religion, and culture. Here are a few pictures of the collections.
A collection of seashells – from James Cook’s explorations. They even had letters from him!
A collection of bronze brooches and hair pins
An assortment of artifacts housed in floor to ceiling bookcases – these are dealing with culture.
One of the books on display that delighted me was a work by Maria Sibylla Merian. Dr. Sloane collected this coveted album of her watercolours from her 1699 voyage to Surinam to study and paint the flora and fauna. She traveled throughout the world and left behind an exquisitely detailed and beautiful portfolio of the world’s unique plant life.
As you can tell, we had a full day at the museum and it still felt like we’d only scratched the surface. If I could have my way, I’m pretty sure I’d still be there marveling at all the collections and history. As we left, minds whirling with all we’d seen, I took one more photo of the museum at night.
The treasure chest of the world.
Blessings to you,