Monday, 28 July 2014

Tutmania at the Ashmolean

I was very pleased to be able to pay a quick visit this weekend to the new 'Discovering Tutankhamun' exhibition at Oxford's Ashmolean museum, especially since (swanky showoff alert) I'd been invited to the preview event but not been able to go.

The really nice thing about the exhibition is that the focus, as the title suggests, is on the discovery, recording and analysis of the tomb rather than the bling that was recovered.  Admittedly this is slightly risky considering that the average tourist will have a very specific set of expectations when hearing the name 'Tutankhamun' - but this reaction is exactly what the exhibition plays upon so well.  Just how did this discovery lead to the creation of a worldwide phenomenon and a flood of interest in everything Egypt?  Why does the name have such international recognition ahead of Pharaohs such as Rameses II or Thutmose III?

The early rooms of the exhibition focus on Carter and his colleagues, and its nice to see that characters such as the photographer Harry Burton get as much attention as the more famous Carter.  I was particularly pleased as Burton is a native of Stamford, in Lincolnshire.  The photographs and drawings on show beautifully illustrate that posterity hasn't given the team anywhere near enough credit for their attempts to carefully and scientifically record their findings.  In particular, Carter's drawings show his skill as an artist and draughtsman, and the guache paintings of artefacts by Winifred Brunton are genuinely stunning artworks in their own right.

The exhibition moves on to examine the public reaction to the discovery and the emergence of 'Tutmania', through a series of displays focussing on music, fashion and music influenced, and attempting to cash in on, the find of the century.  Its an interesting subject, though perhaps a little too much of the exhibition space was taken up with this material for my taste.

One thing I did find very interesting was the display with letters received by Carter after the discovery.  Some were simply congratulatory, others seeking to buy the artefacts.  Sadly, even today some people seem unable to appreciate history unless they personally own a piece of it, as this letter from an Australian to Carter demonstrates:

"Please could you send me a souvenir from the tomb of King Tutankhamun.  I am intensely interested in history and would like very much like to see and handle a relic of ancient times.  I am enclosing a postal order to cover costs."

I sincerely hope the request was never acted on!

Friday, 11 July 2014

A trip to Coventry - 'Roman Empire: Power and People'

The latest British Museum touring exhibition doing the rounds is currently residing at the Herbert in Coventry, and having failed to make it down to Norwich to see it at its previous venue, I was very pleased to be able to head across this evening to not only look around the exhibition, but also attend a very good lecture on Roman numismatics, of which more later.

I have to start with a tiny grumble, though not one that the Herbert has any control over.  Its something that afflicts every BM touring exhibition - a ban on gallery photography.  I get why some exhibitions have copyright problems, but the archaeology in this show doesn't suffer from this hindrance.  Likewise, some material is susceptible to light damage, but only allowing non-flash photography is now standard in most institutions.  There are no photographic restrictions when the objects are on display in the BM or in their local galleries, so why the change in policy when they are part of a formal exhibition like this?  It feels like such a backward step when we should be encouraging people to share their gallery experiences and promote the subject in the process.

But enough with the grumbles as the exhibition is very good, and strikes a lovely balance between BM material (British and international in nature) and local material.  This is a nice parallel with the study of Roman archaeology in general, which can vary hugely in scale between the truly classical and international and the incredibly local picture encountered in the different parts of Roman Britain.  A particularly nice example of this was the film of the Herbert's archaeology curator, Paul Thompson, teleporting around the Midlands to talk about local sites, which I really enjoyed.

Some of the objects on show are wonderful, and the selection for a touring show is adventurous.  Items like the gilded bronze Hercules from Birdoswald, the stone carving of Horus in armour, the flourite 'Crawford Cup', and the variety of fine marble tomb monuments and altars are objects of the highest quality and benefit from the detailed attention they are given.  Also to be lauded is the decision to place so many of them on open display.  The lack of a pane of glass between viewer and object, as we all know, enhances the experience immensely.

On a more local level, it was an unexpected thrill to see items such as the Mars rider figurine from Norton Disney and a votive plaque with Vulcan from the famous Barkway hoard - both items I only knew from photographs and had not expected to come face to face with during my visit.  I was also very happy to see the coins and pot from the Selby coin hoard, which I have previously blogged about because of the funky science used to examine it.

One area where photography was allowed was a neat section where visitors can step into a Roman coin and become the Imperial portrait of Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine the Great.

The second element of the trip was a very enjoyable evening lecture by Dr Clare Rowan of Warwick University.  Her topic was 'Coinage and Communication in the Roman Empire', which she tackled with palpable enthusiasm, keeping a good balance between the development of Roman coinage and its myriad imagery and social contexts.  Her blog on Roman numismatics can be seen here, and is well worth checking out.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Derbyshire's Corieltavian cave coin cache

There has been a lot of media buzz recently over the discovery of a small hoard of 26 coins at Reynard's Cave at Dovedale in Derbyshire. The excitement has even spread to Lincolnshire (part of the Corieltavian heartlands) and I spent a while on the phone with the Lincolnshire Echo this afternoon discussing the finer points of our understanding of the Iron Age and why this find is significant to us.

Leaving aside the rather unusual find spot for the moment, the first thing that makes the hoard significant is the fact that of the 26 coins, 23 are examples of the later Iron Age inscribed coins of the Corieltavi, but 3 are Roman Republican silver denarii.  One of the holy grails of late Iron Age archaeology is concrete evidence of material and cultural relationships between Britain and the Roman Empire prior to the invasion of AD43.  The presence of pre-invasion coinage included with material of Iron Age date (as was discovered at the incredible shrine site at Hallaton in Leicestershire) always offers this exciting possibility.  The problem lies in the fact that Republican denarii, due to their silver content, circulated for a long time and can still be found in 2nd Century AD contexts.  It will therefore be interesting to see when these coins were minted (denarii began to be produced in 211BC) and how worn they are.  Iron Age coins fell out of production very soon after the Roman invasion, however, so there does seem to be a good chance that the hoard dates at the very least to the time of the invasion.

The second thing of interest is that the coins are Corieltavian, when Derbyshire was part of the tribal area of the neighbouring Brigantes.  This in itself shouldn't surprise us too much, as Corieltavian coins are often found in Yorkshire - indeed, it used to be thought that they were made by the Brigantes, with only 20th Century scholarship proving their East Midlands manufacture.  Nevertheless, the hoard is indicative of the fact that this group of Corieltavian coins had been obtained by a Brigantian, perhaps as part of a trade agreement, as payment for a service or as part of a gift exchange to seal an alliance.

Finally, we turn to the cave itself.  The finder apparently was sheltering from the rain in the cave and happened to have a small metal detector with him, which he used on the floor and found the first few coins.  This then led to an excavation which uncovered the rest.  The excavation is worth noting, as it was carried out using personnel from Operation Nightingale - a wonderful scheme to get wounded servicemen and women into archaeological fieldwork.  Its a great scheme and it seems like the thrill of archaeological discovery will long remain with those involved.  But why were the coins buried in a cave in the first place?  It may simply have been seen as a safe location, but there remains the possibility that the cave was a sanctuary of some sort, and the protection of more spiritual inhabitants of that dark and secluded place may have been sought.  Of course, 'ritual' is a dirty word in archaeology and such theories of sacred caves remain completely baseless without more evidence to support them.

The hoard is currently going through the treasure process, and will hopefully be acquired by Buxton Museum.  I for one can't wait to head across for a look at them in due course, and to see the results of the identification work on them which is only just beginning, and will hopefully begin to answer some of the questions we still have about how and when the hoard was constructed and deposited.