The Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Museum has just opened in Gallery 30. The beautifully designed exhibition takes the visitor from the Skaian Gate at Troy through to the installation of the Shield of Achilles.
The narrative of the Trojan War was supported by a range of objects, underpinned with figure-decorated pottery from the museum’s extensive collection. One of the first pieces on display is the Geometric ‘Nestor’s cup’ from Pithekoussai (‘I am the cup of Nestor, good to drink from’).
There is a section on the excavations at Troy, and another one on the documentary evidence. The final section is on the reception of Troy, and includes a poem written by a British officer at Gallipoli in his copy of The Shropshire Lad.
The exhibition contained two late 15th century Italian panels by Biagio d’Antonio (on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum) showing the Death of Hector and the Wooden Horse entering the city.
Schliemann’s part in the uncovering of Troy was explored a space that displayed some of the finds from the excavations against a backdrop of the great trench.
What were the personal highlights in the exhibition? The Roman silver kantharoi from Hoby in Denmark were stunning pieces of luxury art. The representation of Priam seeking the return of Hektor’s body before Achilles on one of them was moving.
The real surprise was the Roman sarcophagus from Ephesus that now forms part of the collection at Woburn Abbey. This scene shows the weighing of Hektor’s body.
This is one of the best temporary exhibitions to be mounted in Room 30. The design and installation of the exhibition was inspired, especially the graphics explaining the iconography on Attic figure-decorated pottery.
Heading from Beijing to Shanghai the night before last meant an inevitable hike through the giant terminal at Capital Airport. Our small group was delighted however to pause at the photo exhibition of Edinburgh flanking either side of the main walkway heading to the departure gates transit area.
Forming part of a joint photography project between Beijing and Edinburgh airport authorities, the Chinese presentation of Edinburgh’s heritage, culture, streetscape and landscape is done on a typically large scale, with great visual impact. Heritage sells well here, and remains a key motivation and enjoyment factor in Chinese visitation to the UK, and Scotland in particular.
One of the caryatids from the Roman ‘lesser propylaia’ in the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis was obtained by E.D. Clarke and now resides in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It is currently part of an art installation by Hugo Dalton.
Another caryatid from the ‘lesser propylaia’ is now displayed in the Eleusis Museum. Both appeared in the documentary, ‘The Sacred Way‘, by Michael Wood (1991).
The lesser Propylaia was a benefaction of Appius Claudius Pulcher.
I can remember my first visit to Sicily as an undergraduate to see the temples at Agrigento. The experience was overwhelming as I viewed some of the best preserved Greek colonial temples.
The British Museum’s latest temporary exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, captures some of history using items from the permanent collections as well as loan materials. Some of the photograph is stunning, placing the objects back in their Sicilian landscapes. I have been to the exhibition twice in the last few weeks, and on the second time was able to observe fresh details.
There are five main themes:
Peoples of Sicily
The Rise of the Tyrants
Age of Conquest
An Enlightened Kingdom
The lavish catalogue goes well beyond the exhibition.
There is a reconstruction of the so-called ‘Doctor’s Grave’ in the Colchester Museum. The grave itself was excavated at Stanway. One of the features is the presence of a gaming-board with counters laid out as if the game had been interrupted by the funeral. The cremated remains of the individual were found adjacent to the board. Note the presence of the Roman amphora.
There is a new guidebook to Colchester Castle by Tom Hodgson and Philip Wise (Jarrold Publishing and Colchester Castle, 2015). This beautifully designed and colour illustrated book of 72 pp follows the history of Colchester through the collections displayed in the Colchester Museum.
The castle itself is built on the foundations of the Temple of the Divine Claudius destroyed during the Boudican revolt.
The main sections are:
a. Iron Age (including the Sheepen Cauldron dating to 1275-1140 BC; the Mount Bures Firedog; the Augustus Medallion from the Lexden Tumulus)
b. Roman Invasion (including tombstones of veterans from the colony; the Fenwick Treasure perhaps deposited during the Boudican destruction)
c. Roman Heyday (including slave rings; ‘the Colchester Vase’ showing gladiatorial combat, dating to AD 175-200; lead curse tablets; the Colchester Sphinx excavated on the site of the Essex County Hospital in 1821)
d. Roman Decline (including Christianity in Roman Colchester; jet bear)
e. Saxons and Normans (including St Botolph’s Priory; the Town Charter)
f. Medieval (including Medieval painting)
g. Post Medieval (including the Colchester Martyrs; the Siege of Colchester in the Civil War)
h. Modern (including the formation of the museum collection; Colchester Castle in wartime including an exhibition in 1944)
Inside the back cover is a plan of Colchester pointing visitors to key locations around the town.
I have two other guides to the collection: Colchester Castle: a history, description and guide (Colchester Borough council, 4th edition, 1978). This includes plans of the castle and a more detailed history. There is also a section drawing showing how the castle included the Roman temple in its foundations.
The second guide is Roman Colchester by M.R. Hull (Colchester Town Council, 1947). This was prepared ‘in response to a great demand among visitors to Colchester Museum for a Guide to Roman Colchester’. The sections are:
1. Colchester before the Romans
2. The beginnings of Roman Colchester
3. The colonia
5. The visible remains of the Roman town
6. Civic organisation and administration
7. The Middle Empire
8. The legend of King Coel
9. The end of Roman Colchester
There is a particularly useful foldout paper plan inside the back cover.
One of the earliest guides is Dr J. Horace Round’s The History and Antiquities of Colchester Castle (1882).
The ‘Celts’ exhibition is now showing at the British Museum. It contains some outstanding pieces of ‘Celtic’ art ranging from prehistory to the 21st century. Some of the pieces featured in the major Austrian exhibition on the ‘Celts’ of 1980. Perhaps one of the themes behind the exhibition is to express the ‘Celtic’ roots behind the modern ‘Celtic’ nations: Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany, Ireland. Neil MacGregor explains in the Foreword, ‘this is not so much a show about a people as a show about a label, exploring how the name ‘Celts’ has been used and appropriated over the last 2,500 years’.
I have long considered some of the objects in the exhibition to be Iron Age rather than ‘Celtic’. The reference to the ‘Dying Gaul’ perhaps needed to include the discussion of the victory monuments at Pergamon (in north-west Anatolia) and a discussion of why Galatia is so named. It was good to see the Etruscan and Athenian objects from the Kleinaspergle burial [Figs. 45-47]. The catalogue links the Gundestrup Bowl to the area now in Bulgaria or Romania [Figs. 252-260].
The dedication and relief of Dea Brigantia from Birrens in Dumfries and Galloway [Fig. 131] is a particularly striking piece. J.M.C. Toynbee (Art in Roman Britain) linked the imagery to Eboracum (York) and the reign of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. (There was also a clever reference to the orb in the left hand, ‘proudly proclaiming the world-wide rule of the Brigantian region!’)
One of the hanging bowls from the Sutton Hoo ship burial appears [Fig. 28] on the assumption that it was made in ‘Celtic’ lands.
Early Christian cross (or rather casts) from the Hebrides [see Iona] brought the narrative into the post-Roman period.
The final section was on ‘The Celtic Revival in Britain and Ireland’. There were several references to Ossian.
The objects within the exhibition were stunning although the over-arching ‘story’ of the exhibition perhaps failed to connect with me. I still have strong memories of the Austrian ‘Die Kelten‘ exhibition that brought together many of the same objects in a more coherent fashion.
The great replica of St John’s Cross dominates the western end of the Abbey on Iona. It has a span of some 2.2 m. (The original is in the site museum.) It appears to date from the 700s or 800s. The original cross was made from stone brought from Loch Sween in Argyll.
A cast of St John’s Cross features in the newly opened The ‘Celts: Art and Identity’ exhibition that has opened at The British Museum.
How far are these early Christian images ‘Celtic’? I find it interesting that the Historic Scotland guidebooks to Iona Abbey and Nunnery by Anna Ritchie and Ian Fisher (2001, rev. ed. 2011) and by Peter Yeoman and Nicki Scott (2011) appear to avoid the use of the word ‘Celtic’.