A Sampling of a Colossus

Monday, May 30, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

LONDON, England —Having never visited the stately institution before, we set aside today for a foray to the incomparable British Museum.  Established in 1753, while the American colonies were still a vital part of the empire, this repository of human history and culture houses more than 13 million objects in collections from every corner of the world. 

Living and Dying Exhibit
Like other national museums in the United Kingdom, the British Museum offers free admission.  We chose to document just a few highlights of the fascinating exhibits as a way to remember our visit to this masterpiece of a museum, whose annual attendance is second only to Paris's Louvre.

Ga Coffins

The Living and Dying exhibit explored ways that different peoples maintain health and well-being as well as the customs associated with death.  The Ga people on the southeast coast of Ghana are renowned for their tradition of intricately carved figurative coffins.  Legend has it that two brothers made an airplane-shaped coffin in 1951 for their grandmother, who had always wanted to fly but been unable to.  Word of the decorative coffin spread until this new type of coffin became quite popular.

Ghanan Coffins (photos from British Museum)
Today families order coffins with designs representing the achievements or dreams, or even a personality trait, of their loved one.  Sometimes the deceased will have prepared a design or concept for his or her own coffin.  The coffins are made of wood and then painted.  Two beautiful examples on exhibit in the museum were one designed like an SLR camera and one in the shape of an eagle.

Babylonian Boundary Stones

Boundary stones, or kudurru monuments, were used in Babylonia as permanent records of land ownership and of privileges such as tax exemption.  They described sales or royal grantsor judgments.  Sometimes they confirmed disputed decisions made by previous kings.  The sun, moon and star engraved at the top of boundary stones represented the Mesopotamian sky-gods who were said to guarantee the legality of the stones.

Babylonian Boundary Stones (photos from British Museum)
The cuneiform inscription on the first stone above, for example, recorded the granting by the governor of five tracts of corn land in the district of Edina in south Babylonia to a man called Gula-eresh. The boundaries of the land were described, and the surveyor was named, as were two high officials who approved the transfer.  Nine gods were invoked to protect the monument, along with seventeen divine symbols. The text ended with curses on anyone who removed, ignored or destroyed the boundary stone.

Roman Freedman Portraits

These stone releifs were once part of tombs that lined the roads of the Roman Empire.  Freedmen and freedwomen were former slaves who had purchased their freedom, earned it through service or been freed in an owner's will.

Portraits of Roman Freedmen and Freedwomen
Even after they gained their freedom, freedmen remained linked to their former master and took the same name.  Freedmen were not full citizens and were excluded from high positions in the army and society.  They worked as bankers, merchants, shippers, factory owners and craftsmen, dominating those fields and becoming rich and influential in their own right.

Swedish Coins

From an exhibit on the history of money, we learned about Swedish copper.  Beginning in the 17th century, large mines in Sweden produced massive amounts of copper, much of which was exported to Europe and Asia for the production of copper coins.  Within Sweden, the copper was made into huge rectangular 'coins' as a replacement for multiple coins.

Swedish Plate Money (1/2 daler on left, 8 daler on right)
Plate money, as these large coins were called, first appeared in the 1640s and had the advantage of being both money and a commodity, copper.  The issue of plate money ceased in the 1760s. The inconvenience of handling one-foot by two-feet coins weighing upwards of 20 pounds led to the introduction of paper currency in Sweden, the first in Europe.

We Want More...

The British Museum is an immense archive housing one of the most comprehensive collections of art and artifacts in the world.  On our visit, we were barely able to take in a small sample of the museum's offerings, giving us a compelling reason to return to London to meet more of the faces of history as the British Museum relates their stories.