Artifacts of Material History

“Eccentric” British Museum Favorites

British Museum, London on a March 2022 evening (Photo P. Hunt)

By P. F. Sommerfeldt –

I spend a fair amount of time in museums, perhaps too much, but I usually don’t need a deep reason to enter a museum whether I’ve been there often or not to revisit favorite objects or works. Because a museum is literally a “House of the Muse” – generally echoing Clio, the Classical Muse of History in her inspiring memory of the past – human history at best can be at times whimsical or eccentric, and we can certainly wish it were more whimsical and less of the tragic side of history. Museums tend not to emphasize the latter unless a display is martial or symbolic of a great empire. Our daughter is a museum director in Canada so she would approve of a brief foray into some perhaps whimsical objects in a mutually favorite museum, the British Museum of London, where I visit generally at least annually and when in London sometimes just about every day for a week if possible and I keep current on my British Museum Friends annual membership. Regarding museums in general, it doesn’t hurt that my husband is an archaeologist and an academic. So here following are some of my (and his) favorites and maybe a few plausible reasons why so, as there may be little to no intended original whimsy in such pieces imbued by their cultures but perhaps only in my modern projection thereof.

Etruscan Duck Askos from Clusium (Chiusi), Etruscan Gallery

Etruscan Ceramic Red-Figure Duck Askos, 4th c. BCE British Museum (image in public domain)

This richly-decorated red-figure Etruscan “duck” ceramic called as askos (23 cm long) from around the 4th c. BCE is a mixture of realism and the fantastic. The human relief “flying” figures on both sides of the duck parallel to its wings and the single painted female figure on its breast carrying a pitcher are likely Etruscan Lasa spirits associated with lovers and beauty as the contents were usually perfumed oils and unguents. Some scholars suggest waterbirds like ducks have connection to Turan, the Etruscan goddess of love. Perhaps it’s only linguistic coincidence that the Phoenicians who traded with the Etruscan had a goddess named Anat sometimes associated with fertility and sexuality as well as hunting and the Proto-Italic word for duck was *anats. Birds are otherwise vital in an ancient type of Etruscan divination called ornithomancy and watching the flight of birds was a form of aviscopy to foretell the future, just as when words fly north or south to herald seasonal changes. The handle and spout on this duck vessel are clear advantages for its portability and utility. Beauty and functionality go hand in hand here in this perfume vessel even if we might not now consider waterfowl as symbols of beauty like the Etruscans but instead only what hunters might call a sitting duck. Not likely but if anyone ever calls me a sexy duck, this object is what I’ll think of immediately.

Piranesi Vase, Enlightenment Gallery

Piranesi Vase, Roman to 18th c. British Museum (Photo P. Hunt)

Also called the Boyd vase, in Rome the famous antiquarian and restorer Giovanni Battista Piranesi pieced together this colossal marble vase almost nine feet high (around 272 cm) as a clever hodgepodge from many genuine Roman parts and fragments left at Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli from around the 2nd c. CE along with modern pieces carved during 18th c. restoration., Piranesi was already famous for his engravings views of Rome and here in what is known as a calyx krater in form, he mixed the styles of the Borghese Vase in the upper section and the Torlonia Vase in the lower section whose three lion legs were already 16th century additions. Some of Piranesi’s careful reconstruction here is totally imaginary but right for the time: satyrs in viticulture and bull-heads (boukrania) with festoons that actually appear on Roman altars and architectural friezes. Of course, given the Grand Tour of the late 18th century and the demand for antiquities, this Piranesi vase was sold in Rome to wealthy Sir John Boyd as a genuine Roman sculptural work, partly because Piranesi was so good at restoration. You have to get up really close to see the amalgamation joints, and this might bring a guard running up to make sure you have only good intentions. It is in the Enlightenment Gallery because this was a time of encyclopedic curiosity and grand acquisition with museum-building to match. What really makes it stand out to me beyond its certain artistry and technical tour-de-force is its almost jigsaw puzzle of so many parts and fragments glued together for a guaranteed antiquities market. 

Crocodile Armour from Egypt, Rome Gallery

Crocodile Armour from Roman Egypt, ca. 3rd c CE British Museum (Image public domain)

The British Museum’s life-size crocodile armor from the 3rd c. CE, mainly cuirass and helmet with neck back-flap, is both macabre and fascinating as a curiosity and also as a statement of possible religious veneration of the Nilotic reptile in Egypt where ancient cults attracted Roman military attention from Nile garrisons as well as earlier priests who originally wore such skins in ritual. On the other hand, any Roman soldier fully outfitted with such protective armor would and a better organic alternative than modern Kevlar, impenetrable to most weapons and even projectiles with a certain amount of elasticity when well-oiled and for sure lighter than a metal breastplate and helmet. An indomitable Mrs. Andrews was the British traveling donor who explored grottoes on the Nile in 1846 and brought it back, in this case perhaps one of the most eccentric of objects in the British Museum collection after long and careful conservation to restore and remold it like Job’s legendary Leviathan whose Job 41 questions – “Can you fill his hide with harpoons or his head with fishing spears?…the sword that reaches him has no effect, nor does the spear or dart or javelin…”- make this the highest status and most unique armor possible. Tolkien accounts and Dungeons and Dragon games could have been inspired by such curios. 

Stone Flower from Tell Brak, Near Eastern Collection

Stone Flower from Tell Brak, Late Uruk, ca. 3300-3000 BCE, British Museum (Photo P. Hunt)

This was an early Mesopotamian temple decoration from Tell Brak, now northeastern Syria about midway between the upper Euphrates and Tiger Rivers – whose flower could easily fit in a hand – in alternating white limestone and grey shale grooved petals and a pink limestone round centre. It dates from before the Bronze Age in the Chalcolithic Late Uruk period ca. 3300-3000 BCE mostly at the end of the Stone Age. At the time, this region was much more fertile and well-watered. This paradoxical artifact of a stone flower makes several possible strong philosophical statements. Since flowers are the very emblems of ephemerality – as Goethe has Zeus relate about the essence of Beauty being short-lived – carving one of stone gets around that living impermanency in an inorganic way. Such rosettes were not uncommon and were most likely associated with “fertility and divine abundance” as the case label description states. These flowers will never fade or decompose, which the gods guarantee by the material and which also guarantees their own longevity and permanence.  

Giant Granodiorite Scarab Beetle, Egypt Gallery

Granodiorite Colossal Scarab, 4th c. BCE, British Museum (Photo P. Hunt)

Can one ever see a colossal Egyptian scarab beetle mockup of this enormity? Given that scarabs were sacred in ancient Egypt as symbols of Khepri and the rising sun – just as original dung beetles rolled up balls of dung like the rising sun from the sand – it’s hard to guess the context of this granodiorite sculpture from the 4th c. BCE, although found in Istanbul, a long way from the Egypt delta, it’s likely origin. It’s also counterintuitive that these insects were actually not preserving the dead but scavenging from them, just like the mysterious jackals who resided in the necropoli of the western desert. They became perceived as sacred Anubic guardians when they were in fact living off human jerky. This giant granitic or dioritic scarab would be a joy to a coleopteran entomologist – a beetle insect biologist – because if you look up beetle anatomy, all its parts can be readily identified: cephalum with eyes, thorax, abdomen and elytra w-ing covers as well as six coxa-jointed legs with spurs and even its front legs partly resemble mandibles. This scarab beetle rests on an elliptical plinth which like the beetle is all carved from a single block of granodiorite. In the accompanying photo, the blonde girl in jeans and white top who just passed by walking away was over 5 feet tall and could barely peek over it, so that provides a great sense of its size at 5 feet long (153 cm) and about a meter high on top of its plinth. I’ll never forget the British boy who walked over amazed and looking up as it towered over him. He exclaimed, “Crikey, that’s a big bug!” We might just be reminded of Kafka’s metamorphosized Gregor Samsa, about the same size trying to fit under the couch, which wasn’t going to be likely even in Kafka’s surreal nightmarish tale. Possibly it’s no surprise this Egyptian colossus was purchased by the British Museum from the famous or infamous but certainly controversial antiquities collector Lord Elgin in 1816.

 Humbaba Ceramic Mask, Near Eastern Collection

Humbaba Clay Mask from Sippar, ca. 1800-1600 BCE, British Museum (Photo P. Hunt)

You wouldn’t want to encounter anyone with this visage even in a dream, but it mostly remains a conundrum as to why it is so unusual. It is often thought to be a small (3.3 inches high and about as wide) fired clay mask of the semi-divine oracular Old Babylonian (ca. 1800-1600 BCE) “demon” being named Humbaba who resided in literature in the Enchanted Forest of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, encountered there by Gilgamesh seeking answers possibly in a narration that happens in the forests of the cedars of Lebanon.  The face is not so much wrinkled as intestinal, which is why it is sometimes nicknamed as “Gut Face”. A face of coiled intestines is perfectly logical given that divination in ancient Mesopotamia was quite often interpreted from entrails, which is what these twists on the mask face are often ostensibly interpreted as being. The find spot was from the ancient site of Sippar (Abu Habba in Southern Iraq) by the 19th century archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam from Mosul, originally an assistant of famous Austen Henry Layard, finder of Nineveh. There is also a five line cuneiform inscription on the back of the mask. Even the mask’s teeth are depicted as mini-entrailed loops, possibly in the very act of prophesying.

Lindow Man,    Celtic Britain Collection

Lindow Man from Peat Bog, ca. 2 BCE – 100 CE, British Museum (Photo P. Hunt)

The most macabre of these objects is a fairly well-preserved partial flattened and acid-tanned corpse found by a peat-cutter in what was originally a British bog in Lindow Moss near Wilmslow (Manchester area of Cheshire) in summer 1984. Since the man – about 25 years old at death – lived about two thousand years ago (ca. 2 BCE to around 100 CE) in the Romano-Celtic period and we don’t know his name, he is sometimes jokingly named “Pete Marsh” or “Pete Bogg”. His corpse was dismembered by a peat-cutting machine but the reason much of his body was preserved like a bag of bones is because of the bog’s anerobic conditions where decomposition and oxidation is limited. Human bog bodies exist in the hundreds across Northern Europe (especially Scandinavia where the much earlier Grauballe Man, Elling Woman and Tollund Man were found in Denmark) from the Late Celtic Iron Age, some better preserved than Lindow Man and some less. As bogs dried out over the millennia, it is the commercial harvesting of remaining peat as fuel that led to such grisly discoveries. His debated cause of death seems to be by a ritual garroting or laceration of the neck or by blunt force wounds to his head and body. His last meal was toasted cereal but with mistletoe pollen in his remnant innards as scientists have determined. This suggests the possibly aristocratic young man may have been sacrificed or punished for a crime – in any case a “triple death” as some claim: throat cut, strangled and repeatedly hit on the head with a fractured skull, suggesting ritual overkill. Mistletoe was often part of a Celtic last meal before entering the Underworld and Sir James Frazer’s controversial 1890 study of comparative The Golden Bough, now mostly considered overblown,  researched this mistletoe commonality, even connecting it to Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid Book 6. Some historians still hint that the young man known as Lindow Man was a high-ranking Druid whose sacrificial death was needed to strop the Roman conquest of Britain at the time of Boudicca’s Rebellion in 60 CE. At least 106 bog bodies are known from England and another 36 from Scotland, compared to 500 in Denmark alone and more across Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. A British documentary about Lindow Man shown by the BBC in 1985 had 10 million viewers, which could either show their fascination with the macabre or they had nothing better to do, but it was well-advertised and the remains of Lindow Man in the British Museum are almost never unattended. I can only hope I’m never on such a display for future millennia, but confess that all the monster and horror movies my older brother made me watch with him now make the long-dead Lindow Man more of a grisly curiosity than a source of dread.

These seven eccentric or somehow unusual British Museum objects with possibly intended hyperbole do underline how fittingly imaginative it is to be human in what we curiously value or keep around. Perhaps they also make permanent reminders of both our mortality and our hope for something transcendent even when whimsical, whether we take ourselves too seriously or not.