The Room of Turquoise and Stone: Highlights of Room 27, British Museum.

One of the best rooms in the British Museum, London, is what I like to call the Room of Turquoise and Stone. A capsule of pre-Columbian Mexican History. Here are some of it’s highlights.

Guardians of the East Stairs.

Cast of Stela H from The Great Plaza, Copan, Honduras. Cast made by Lorenzo Giuntini 1881-1894, copied from an original dating from 730 AD. Author’s Photograph, British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

One of the many mid century fusions of diplomat, explorer and writer was a man by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was among the first to write detailed English descriptions of the Mayan sites during the 1840’s and his companion in adventure, a British artist and architect named Frederick Catherwood was the first to visually record them on paper:

‘It is thirteen feet in height, four feet in front, and three deep, sculpted on all four of its sides from the base to the top, and oe of the richest and most elaborate specimens in the whole extent of the ruins. Originally it was painted, the marks of red colour being still distinctly visible.’

John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. v I.. 1841.
Stela H in situ at Copan, 1844, by Frederick Catherwood.

Despite his detailed descriptions, which inspired later explorations of the sites, Stephens admitted that it was annoyingly difficult to find out any verifiable history regarding them.

The question, who built them?, never by any accident crossed their minds. The great name of Montezuma, which had gone beyond them to the Indians of Honduras, had never reached their ears, and to all our questions we received the same dull answer which first met us at Copan, “Que sabe?”‘

John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. v I. 1843.

Que Sabe would remain the question until modern scholars cracked the Mayan writing system but the lure of ‘lost’ cities proved irresistible and in the decades that followed.

Years later the explorer, and archaeological pioneer, Alfred Maudesley became known in the scientific world because of a five volume treatise called Biologia Cantrali-Americana. Published in 1902 it described many of the most important Mayan ruins, such as Chichen Itza and represents the fruit of his life’s work.

When Stephens and Catherwood made their explorations they relied on detailed drawings and written descriptions but, Maudesley could rely on the use of camera technology to document his findings.

He also made detailed casts of the extraordinary sculptures he surveyed, made by expert plaster modeler, Lorenzo Giuntini. These were carefully packed and crated to be shipped off to museums in Europe and North America.

Two of Giuntini’s grey plaster Stelae from Copan confront you at the foot of the British Museum’s East Stairs. Their labyrinthine intricacy is offset by the simple intensity of the noble faces of the rulers, staring down at visitors with solemn imperturbability from either side of a wide doorway, barred to all except staff.

Cast of Stela A from the Great Plaza, Copan, Honduras, Cast made by Lorenzo Giuntini 1881-1894, copied from an original dating from 730 AD. Author’s Photograph, British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Room 27: The Mayans.

As far as the galleries of the British Museum go, room 27, housing the Mexican exhibits and accessed by a right turn at the bottom of the stairs, (they themselves being decorated with Mayan stelae) is an intimate space.

Geometric ceiling, illuminating the wall displays in room 27. British Museum. Author’s Photograph. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

It’s dark, illuminated by the spotlights that reveal the objects on display. The selection showcases the sophistication of the early civilisations of Mexico, ending with fabulous mosaic items from the Mexica empire.

Yaxchilan lintel 35, c. 500 AD Maya, Late Classic period, Yaxchilán, Mexico, limestone. Author’s Photo. British Museum Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

But first we return to the Maya. The writings of the Mayan civilisation have taken 150 years to read. It is only recently that scholars have been able to decipher the tantalisingly neat pictograms blocked into plaques and wall paintings.

A great aid scholars used in breaking the Maya code was the painfully rare codex’s, a tracing of the ‘Dresden codex’ which document’s the remarkable astronomical sophistication of this civilization.

Codex; tracings of Codex Dresden, also known as Codex Dresdensis, a preconquest pictorial manuscript; ritual-calendrical. Lowland Maya region. Author’s Photo. British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Works of art as well as vital historical documents, the linguistic legacy of the Mayan civilization stands as one of it’s greatest achievements and is as equally inspiring and complex as the most graceful European calligraphy or Egyptian equivalents.

Jade Plaque of a Maya King, c. 600-800 AD., Maya, Classic period, jadeite, 14 x 14 cm, Teotihuacan, Mexico. British Museum. Author’s Photograph. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Not even the Mexica (anachronistically known as the Aztec) people, who came to rule central Mexico, knew who the builders of Teotihuacan were. The name means simply, ‘place of the gods.’

Sitting in the company of multiple ceramics and precious objects this fragment of a Nebaj style jade plaque must have been made for a very important individual. It draws the eye at once, as if the speech sign emanating from the Lord’s mouth was calling to you directly.

Detail. Yaxchilán lintel 16 (commissioned by Bird Jaguar IV for Structure 21), after 752 AD, Maya, Late Classic period, limestone, 76.2 x 75.7 cm, Mexico. British Museum. Author’s Photograph. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Along the far wall, under the geometric ceiling, which gives the impression of a portico, late Classic Mayan door lintels from a royal structure in Yaxichilan, Chiapas, hang for visitors to observe.

Rated without exaggeration as amongst the finest works of high Mayan art, it is hard not to be moved by the power exuding from the succeeding cut stone images. Among the most understandable is Bird Jaguar IV dominating a prisoner, holding him in thrall as much by his ferocious stare as his spear.

In another lintel (not pictured) Shield Jaguar the Great looks on as his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, threads a thorned rope through the tip of her tongue in a bloodletting ceremony. Try thinking about doing that without flinching.

Although it must be admitted that the British Museum’s Mexican Collection is tiny beside that of Egypt and accumulated by private means and by early archeologists rather than soldiers and tourists, the methods by which some of the items were gathered leaves something to be desired.

Addressing the Royal Geographic Society in 1883, Maudesley displayed one of the lintels now hanging in room 27 and described how he came by it:

’The other difference [to Tikal] is an important one, namely the employment of stone instead of wood for lintels. Many of the these lintels are carved on under the surface and I have succeeded in bringing to England one of the best preserved of these carved stones. I took it from a half-ruined house, where it had fallen from its place, but was luckily resting with the carved side against the wall, and had thus been protected from the weather. The stone, when I first saw it, weighed about half a ton, but by keeping the men constantly at work on it with the point of a pickaxe and some chisels which I had luckily brought with me, at the end of the week we had chipped it down to half it’s original thickness and cut off the two ends. Afterwards … we cut it down to it’s present size with hand-saws.’

Explorations in Guatemala, and Examination of the Newly-Discovered Indian Ruins of Quiriguá, Tikal, and the Usumacinta
A. P. Maudslay. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography
Vol. 5, No. 4 (Apr., 1883), pp. 185-204 (26 pages) JSTOR.

Though all of the cities that formed the classic Mayan civilisation ceased to be a meaningful political entities by the time of the 15th century, a great Nahuatl speaking power grew in their stead in the valley of Mexico.

Room 27: The Mexica.

Mosaic mask representing Xiuhtecuhtli, Mixtec, Aztec, Mexico. 1400-1521. Author’s Photograph. British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.
Mosaic mask representing Xiuhtecuhtli, Mixtec, Aztec, Mexico. 1400-1521. Author’s Photograph. British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

The heart of the British Museum’s Mexica Collection are the Turquoise Mosaics. A selection of nine intriguing and sometimes disturbing works of religious, royal and historical significance, there being only 25 Mexican mosaics in Europe.

Famously the Mexica placed great importance on ceremonial masks. This one, with its studded turquoise face, and frozen grimace stares out from a darkened glass case.

It depicts the ancient fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, and probably something out of your more vivid nightmares. This particular mask might even have played a part in some of the great moments of Mexica history as high quality masks like this would most certainly have been worn by the Tlatoani on the occasion of his investiture.

Shield or disc, with mosaic design depicting the principal divisions of the Aztec universe. 1400-1521. Author’s Photo, British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Safely locked behind glass under watery lights that play softly on their subjects, the turquoise fractals gleam with otherworldly beauty, and in some cases, quiet menace.

Not far away, the tarnished design on a shield-like object, never meant for war but for ceremony, suggests the four quadrants of the Mexica world in almost unimaginable detail.

Beside the disc is a finely made atlatl, or spear thrower, a small device a hunter or warrior could use to project his weapon great distances towards his target. Such weapons were commonly included in religious and royal iconography and this one appears to be uncommonly well made.

Atlatl, spear-thrower, Aztec. 1400-1521. Author’s Photograph. British Museum. Do Not Reproduce Without Permission.

Highly significant but at the same time quite reluctant to offer any definitive clue as to it’s significance, the painstakingly inlaid double headed serpent represents the pride of the nine Mexica Mosaics in the British Museum.

The skill and craftsmanship involved in making and detailing this object is breathtaking to think about and due to it’s uniqueness it might be considered one of the most important pieces in the museum’s entire collection.

See you again for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.

By harking back to Greece and Rome we are winking at the Spynx.

Common (ish) perceptions of the ancient world.

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What’s Your Civ?

Back in 2012 I offered my small pool of followers the chance to take part in a small experiment I called “What’s Your Civ?”. A kitch hashtag I thought up which tells you as much about my own social media naivety back then as it does anything else. But the idea was to then do a post about the results, highlighting people’s perceptions of past civilisations. Continue reading “By harking back to Greece and Rome we are winking at the Spynx.”

Sketches of Ancient Egypt: The Greatest Warrior.

Had this man been Greek, he’d have been turned into a Demi-god to rival some of the greatest in the heroic pantheon.

The Greatest Warrior.

Ahmose Son of Abana.
Ahmose Son of Abana.

How a man in his eighties could have the strength to engage, let alone capture, a Syrian chariot and its crew was beyond most of the new recruits. But then again Ahmose son of Abana had always defied simple explanation, for what it was worth he never gave any, for he proved his worth in deeds. The ancient old warrior, still lean and driven by an inner force that might have rivalled Pharaoh’s own divine spirit, lead his captives bound in their chariot to the presence of Thutmose I with the confidence of one used to being in the close proximity of royalty.
But he was tired. It was his boast, for he was not a humble man just a simple one, that he was in the front rank in all Pharaoh’s battles, and further that three monarchs, including the present incumbent of the throne of Horus, had witnessed his deeds at first hand. Such stress and hardship were bound to take their toll and as Ahmose watched the victory stele installed on the far bank of the Euphrates, he knew that this would be his final campaign.
He was descended from a military family, though he preferred to call himself the son of his mother, his father, Baba son of Rainet had been a soldier under Sekenra and was a scion of the nomarchs of Nekheb. As a boy Ahmose therefore was destined for a career in arms, and had taken his father’s place as a boy, sleeping in the hammocks of the ship Wild Bull during the reign of Ahmose I.
In those days Egypt was a nation under occupation. The whole of the North, the fertile delta, was under the control of the Hyksos, a mysterious “asiatic” people who had devastated the country. However the Warrior Kings of the 18th dynasty were of a different stamp to those that had come before them, Ahmose I was such a king and he was on the lookout for active young men to help him drive the invader out and liberate Egypt.
In the year Pharaoh besieged the city of Avaris, Ahmose was a chariot runner to the king, and in the initial skirmishes he distinguished himself in hand to hand combat under his master’s eye. Avaris was situated on one of the easternmost tributaries of the Delta, the lush head of papyrus that surmounts the winding stem of the Nile. Ahmose was soon transferred to the Rising in Memphis, and took part in the bitter struggle to seize the canals, as the fleet strove to cut the city off from supplies. In this action he took his first hand, earning him the “gold of valour”, a feat he would repeat 7 times in his career.
Although he would fight the Hyksos again, the majority of his career would be spent fighting Kushites in Nubia and suppressing rebels and invaders from the desert. Under Ahmose I, Amunhotep I and Thutmose I Ahmose found himself in the thick of Egypt’s territorial wars against the powerful Kingdom of Kush, whose formidable bowmen were often incorporated into the Egyptian army, but whose kings rose in perpetual wars against Egypt’s southern border. In suppressing a southern rebellion Ahmose dove into the Nile to pursue a fleeing enemy chief who he then dragged in puddle of dripping defeat before Pharaoh.
By the Nubian campaign of Thutmose I, Ahmose was the greatest warrior in the land, endowed with land, slaves and titles. The new pharaoh made him commander of his war barge. In the main battle of the campaign Ahmose fought courageously in the presence of his king, and presented him with two hands after the pursuit had obliterated the enemy field army. Ahmose was raised to the rank of Crew Commander (which is interpreted to mean admiral). The Kushites then met the Egyptians on the water and were broken. Pharaoh had Amhose steer his ship against the enemy flagship and the old admiral watched from Pharaoh’s side with satisfaction as Thutmose took a javelin, drew back his arm and with a sure eye flung his spear (some translate arrow), which a moment later resolved itself as a quivering shaft in the chest of the enemy chief. After processing to the 3rd cataract, with the Nubian’s corpse dangling by his feet from the prow, Thutmose returned to Karnak and then campaigned in Syria.

The 90 year old legend, Ahmose put down his weapons and lived out the remainder of his life in comfort, perhaps able to see his grandchildren before having “reached old age. Favoured as before, and loved, I rest in the tomb that I myself made”.

Sources: Lives of the Ancient Egyptians: Toby Wilkinson. The Splendour that was Egypt: Margaret Murray. Funerary inscriptions respective to subject found at reshafim.org . The Nile and Egyptian civilisation: A. Moret. Ancient Records of Egypt: James Breasted. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: Toby Wilkinson. Soldier of the Pharaoh: Nic Field.

See you again for another adventure in Historyland.

Josh.

Sketches of Ancient Egypt: Mules to Yam.

Relief of Harkhuf. Wikipedia.
Relief of Harkhuf. Wikipedia.

The sound and aroma of three hundred mules was a shocking assault of noise, dust and smell. The braying line of animals were still arriving behind the arrayed ranks of Egyptians and the Yamites, when the Chiefs of Irthet, Sethu and Wawat submitted. Privy Councillor of Southern affairs, Sole companion to Pharaoh, Harkhuf had many Impressive titles with which to awe the southern Chiefs. Quite apart from the lavish goods his mules were carrying, and the glinting spears of his army, this emissary carried the writ of the King of Egypt. Yet for all that he was probably most proud of his title as Caravan Conductor (Though Wilkinson calls him Chief of Scouts). It was a difficult job, requiring initiative, sound judgment, military capability and diplomatic tact. The Egyptian state joyed in endowing multiple functions to one body, the Old Kingdom especially loved to bestow cart loads of titles on efficient bureaucrats. A conductor’s prime objective was to take caravans of trade goods to foreign nations and return with tribute, to show the flag and assert dominance, and make exchange for tokens of good will, showing Egypt’s vested interest in a country. If the recipient was not inclined to go through this formalised sucking up ritual, the conductor was always given a hefty bodyguard with which to convince him.
Harkhuf’s father had been a conductor, and though it was challenging work, it was a position of great trust, as it was also essentially a security job, and so if a man was good at it he could expect rewards commensurate with the responsibility. Harkhuf could say that in addition to his academic exploits, (he was a Nekhen Judge), he had seen much more of the world, and embarked on more adventures than many Egyptians. At first he had learned on the job, watching his father, then Harkhuf had led his own convoys to explore the desert roads, watched over by the paternal eye until, Pharaoh Merenra deemed him competent enough to make the expedition to the land of Yam without supervision. As a large part of his job was to sniff out trouble and spy out the land, he had got wind of trouble brewing in lower Nubia. This was his third expedition, but in order to avoid the hostile tribes Harkhouf had taken the desert route reaching Yam only to find the chief was off on campaign in Libya. After tracking him down and collecting extra troops he made his way back via the regular route, to overawe the troublemaking, Chiefs, who now, seeing his assembled forces and rich baggage, submitted to him.
The chief of Irthet had his people gather the herds, and from them they cut out some Bulls and young cattle for Harkhuf to take with him, perhaps as exchange for the gifts of ebony, panther skins and Ivory offered by the conductor. After they had rested the chief guided them into the highlands.
Harkhouf was a pious, fair and serious man, who never spoke nonsense but was temperate in nature, subordinates would be unlikely to fear a tongue lashing from the boss. Harkhouf was probably one of those leaders who’s gentle reprove was worse than a dozen beatings, because he treated everyone fairly.
The journey to Yam became something of an annual event to ensure good relations. And a profitable exchange of goods took place between Harkhouf and the Chief. During his fourth expedition he sent a letter back to the 8 year old Pepi II, telling him of the dancing dwarf he had obtained. The young boy was filled with excitement which spilled over the royal reserve of a king god in his return letter, which promised rich rewards if Harkhouf returned with the the diminutive hoofer alive and well.
At his death Harkhouf was interred in his own tomb, upon whose walls he wrote of his life, and promised that passers by who respect its owner would be looked on favourably from the reaches of the other world.

Sources: Lives of the Ancient Egyptians: Toby Wilkinson. The Splendour that was Egypt: Margaret Murray. Funerary inscriptions respective to subject found at reshafim.org . The Nile and Egyptian civilisation: A. Moret. Ancient Records of Egypt: James Breasted. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: Toby Wilkinson. Soldier of the Pharaoh: Nic Field

Thanks for reading. See you again for another adventure in Historyland. Josh.

Sketches of Ancient Egypt: The Privileged One.

Ancient Egyptian history is much more than just Pharaoh’s. Tomb discoveries have revealed the professional lives of many of officials, soldiers and nobles, some born into positions, some who worked their way up the ladder, most of whom are not known outside of Egyptological circles. I hope this will turn out to be a semi regular series, which I will add to as I research and discover more.

The Privileged One.

Ruins of Merenre's pyramid at Saqqara. Wikipedia.
Ruins of Merenra’s pyramid at Saqqara. Wikipedia.

Overseers and construction chiefs charged with nurturing the growth of Pharaoh Merenra’s pyramid at Saqqara were assembled and waiting with their labourers at the dockside as the flotilla of boats, rafts and lighters came into view. It was an important delivery. The sarcophagus, it’s carved lid, its attendant substructure and numerous other granite objects vital to the creation of Pharaoh’s last resting place, including the basements of the upper chamber were about to be unloaded.
Tendered by the lighters, and escorted by the boats the rafts were tied up and the hard work began. The reason for so many bosses to be present for the unloading was the man disembarking onto the dock from the principle boat.
Weni, Prince Governor of Upper Egypt was a man who knew how to get things done. He was the first commoner to hold the governorship and he had overseen the entire operation of collecting and shipping the cargo in one great expedition from Ibhat and Elephantine, an unprecedented feat until then unseen during the reign of any King.
This most trusted administrator had earned his lofty title. He had served under 3 Pharaoh’s. Starting as a young storehouse custodian under Teti, he had risen to Overseer of the robing room under Pepi I, who noticed the young Weni as a Natural organiser, with a sharp mind and good judgement. More impressive appointments had followed to the rank of Nekhen Judge, and he was soon indispensable to Pharaoh, who now had him consulting on the matters of the self contained universe of the royal Harem and the six courts of justice. This stood him in good stead when he uncovered a plot in the intrigue ridden harem. Pharoah instantly closed the lid on the investigation and Weni was ordered to investigate the matter quietly. When the Great Royal Wife Amtsi was interviewed Weni was the sole judge in the room to hear the case.
Qualifications for rank in the Old Kingdom Pharaonic system was that a man be sufficiently educated in calligraphy and mathematics. Merit, connections and loyalty was often the passport to high office. In the case of Weni, a commoner by birth, Pharaoh appointed his newest “Sole Companion” to the post of a commander in a punitive expedition against what scholars either call Bedouin, but who were known by the Egyptians as the “Sand Dwellers”. Here he put his skills as an organiser to the test, the army was a conglomeration of Egyptians, conscripts and Nubian mercenaries headed by a confusing array of princes, nobles and scribes. Weni proved a capable commander, he organised the army so that the arguments and rivalries inherent to such a force were negated, and plundering was kept to a minimum. His fleet sailed up the Red Sea while his army fixed the enemy in place, resulting in a crushing vicotry. However glamorous the dust and gore of the battlefield victories, he was unable to ensure a stable peace. Pharaoh sent him five more times, defeating the enemy each time, which raised his name to such a degree that a song was composed about his ability to defeat foes in multitudes of ways and return armies in safety.
There was no better man in Egypt to organise the transport of royal funerary goods, and this would prove the pinnacle of his career. When he came ashore everyone would have felt his searching gaze as he observed their reports. Fortunately for them he was off like the wind to Hetnub to fetch an offering table, which he duly returned with in a purpose built acacia lighter in 17 days, before hitting the road once more to oversee the construction of canals in Upper Egypt.
Soon after his appointment as Judge and Sole Companion to Pepi I, Pharaoh had bestowed on his faithful Weni a white stone tomb from Tura. Upon his death he was interred with honours and goods as befitted such a brilliant administrator. His epitaph reads true “I then, I was beloved of his [Pharaoh] father the object of the great praise of his mother, the charm of his brothers. [I] the Prince, active director of upper Egypt, the privileged one (imakhu) of Osiris, Weni”

See you again for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.

Sources: The Splendour that was Egypt: Margaret Murray. Funerary inscriptions respective to subject found at reshafim.org . The Nile and Egyptian civilisation: A. Moret. Ancient Records of Egypt: James Breasted. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: Toby Wilkinson. Soldier of the Pharaoh: Nic Fields.

Ancient Sardinia: The Mediterranean Wild West.

Nuraghi of Barumini. Timeless in a timeless landscape.
Nuraghi of Barumini. Timeless in a timeless landscape. Wikipedia.

Part 1 : Land of the Nuraghe.

Introduction.
From about 2,000 BC onwards buildings called Nuraghe’s dotted the Sardinian landscape. Their robust archaic forms arose from hilltops and bluffs, dominating fertile plains and guarding river crossings, trade routes, ports and sacred sites across the island. Wherever there was importance connected to the land these structures castled the ancient countryside. They stood as single towers or as groups connected by ramparts, standing like mounds of perfectly manicured rubble from which protruded anything from 3 to 5 towers up to 3 stories high surrounding a larger central one. Around the Nuraghe grew hut villages with thatched conical roofs, expanding outwards in bewildering wheels of concentric roundhouses, cramped together, connected by winding lanes that snaked between the labyrinth of homes. These were sometimes protected by a town wall, but even then they tended to spill past boundaries.
The appearance of a Nuraghe, seemingly rising out of the rugged landscape, gives the impression of deep antiquity, of an organic, rough hewn civilisation, and of the land being slowly tamed. Sardinia was the beginning of the Mediterranean Wild West, & this is it’s story. Continue reading “Ancient Sardinia: The Mediterranean Wild West.”

Farthest South part 3.

Into the unknown.

Nero’s Nile expedition of 62 AD was a small affair, part geographic philanthropy part Reconnaissance for conquest. Lead by two Praetorian Centurions it had travelled down the Nile through Egypt into modern Sudan, which was as war torn then as it is now, and reached the prosperous capitol of the Kingdom of Kush, Meroe. It was a time of stabilising relations between Rome and Meroe. After sporadic conflicts, it is known that trade was already beginning to flourish again between the province of Egypt and Kush. The Romans were well treated by Kandake Amanikhatashan, who had only recently ascended the throne and wished friendly relations with her powerful Roman neighbour in Egypt. This was fortuitous for Nero had sent the mission not just to find the source of the Nile but to suss out Kush for conquest. The centurions gathered supplies and information and were once more on their way into the unknown. Continue reading “Farthest South part 3.”

The Celtic Orations

Barbarian is an ugly term. At its most polite it could be said to mean foreigner or “different”, but what it really means is uncivilised, or savage. The Greeks and Romans had precise ideas about what made someone civilised, and indeed human. Not even the Persians, who by most standards were a very advanced race, were called Barbarians. If these people couldn’t escape the stigma, then what hope did the clannish celts of the North stand? Continue reading “The Celtic Orations”