From East to West and All the Rest

Tuesday, October 08, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Since we're half way through our time in London, we decided to sleep in and get a little extra rest.  Before we left the apartment, the housekeeping staff came to clean the apartment and helped clear up some confusion we've had regarding the operation of some of the appliances here.  What seemed an obvious matter to them had us more befuddled than Sherlock Holmes on his toughest case.  But that's a matter for another post.

Our primary target for today was the incomparable British Museum (pictured above), an institution audaciously seeking to present the world to the world—and with no admission fee.  Established in 1753, the museum has capitalized on the power and extensive reach of the British Empire and sphere of influence to amass an extraordinary collection of artifacts and treasures from around the globe.  Today the collection has more than 8,000,000 objects, spanning the history of the world's cultures from the stone age to the 21st century.  At any given time, only about 1% of the collection is on exhibit at the museum.  After spending six hours exploring its bounty today, we present some of the more interesting items we saw. 

Etruscan cinerary urn
Designed to hold the ashes of a deceased person, an Etruscan cinerary urn featured the figure of a woman on the lid.  With her long hair carefully arranged and her jewelry in place, the dead woman was shown laid out on an elaborate bed, which formed the chest of the urn.  (Etruscan, 500 BC)

Sarcophagus Supreme
A painted terracotta sarcophagus was inscribed on the base with the name of the dead woman with a sculpture of her figure on top.  Presented as she would have been in life rather than in death, she was apparently a wealthy woman who could afford fine things, including her beautiful sarcophagus.  (Etruscan, 150 BC)

A performing clock
Part of a special exhibit on clocks and watches, an elaborate machine was used not only for telling time but for entertainment at banquets.  Built in the form of a ship, after playing music, the ship would roll itself across a table, stop and fire its cannons.  (Germany, 1585)

Someone was a good saver.
One of the more obviously valuable exhibits was the so-called Fishpool Hoard, the largest cache of medieval gold coins ever discovered in Britain.  Consisting of 1,237 coins and nine pieces of jewelry, it was discovered in 1966 by construction workers in the village of Fishpool where it was buried in the 1400s.

Celtic neck ring from the Iron Age
Dating from about 100 BC, a Celtic neck ring, called a torc, was worn around the neck on special occasions.  Made from an alloy of gold and silver, the decorative neck ring was discovered in 2005 in central England by someone using a metal detector.  (You won't believe what I found mucking about today, Luv!)

To floss or not to floss  (early Bronze Age skeleton)
A set of skeletal remains from the early Bronze Age was discovered by workers in southwest England while quarrying gravel.  One particular fellow is believed to have died around age 40.  Remarkably all his teeth were intact, though a bit worn. 

Nereid Monument
Discovered in southwest Turkey, the Nereid Monument is an example of a tomb from the Lykian culture. Thought to have been built in the early fourth century BC, the tomb had fallen into ruins by the time a British traveler came across it in the 1840s.  After reporting his find in a published journal of his expedition, the traveler was commissioned by the British Museum to return to the area and secure the ruins for the museum.  He was later knighted in recognition of his services in removing these antiquities from their original home and bringing them to Britain.

Lindow Man (100 AD)  
In 1984, workers cutting peat from a bog in northwest England were quite surprised to find remains of a human body.  This was not a recent murder case for Scotland Yard, however.  This man died around the year 100.  Conditions in the peat bog preserved his skin, hair and many of his internal organs for almost 2,000 years.  Through the wonders of science, pathologists were able to determine that he was about 25 years old, died of a vicious attack with an ax, and for his last meal ate "unleavened bread made from wheat and barley cooked over a fire on which heather had been burnt."

The Rosetta Stone, one of the museum's most popular exhibits
Originally created to publish the conditions of a decree issued by priests in 196 BC, the Rosetta Stone was discovered by Napoleon's troops in 1799 as they were excavating for a new fort in Egypt.  Since the decree was written in both hieroglyphics and Greek, scholars were eager to examine the stone for its potential in unlocking the mysteries of the Egyptian hieroglyphic language, which they had previously been unable to decipher.  After defeating the French army, Britain seized the relic and other antiquities found by the French and took them to Britain.  The stone has been on exhibit in the museum since 1801 and attracts the kinds of crowds that the Mona Lisa draws in Paris.

Visitors check out the Parthenon Marbles
Around 1800, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire obtained a controversial permit from government authorities to dismantle marble sculptures from the Parthenon and other ancient structures in Athens.  About half the surviving pieces were taken from the Parthenon as well as architectural members and decorations from other buildings.  All these were packed up and shipped by sea to Britain, where critics accused the ambassador of vandalism and looting.  Following a Parliamentary debate, the marble sculptures were purchased by the British government and put on display in the British Museum.  Debate still rages over whether the sculptures should be returned to Greece, which has been requesting them for many years.

Turquoise mosaic mask (Mexico, 1400)
From 15th century Mexico, this turquoise mosaic mask incorporated a human skull as its base.  The skull was tied around the waist with leather straps and used in ceremonies.

Elaborate fingernail guards
In China's Qing dynasty, which stretched into the early 20th century, wealthy men and women often grew the nails of their little fingers extremely long as a status symbol.  To prevent accidental breakage, they wore fingernail guards such as these.
Jeanne in the museum's Great Court
Walking along Great Russell Street toward the Tube station, we came across a charming old art supply shop opened by L Cornelissen & Son in 1855.  A local favorite with a decidedly Victorian atmosphere, the shop stocks a terrific array of brushes, paints, calligraphy supplies and even quills, a collection that definitely attracted Jeanne's attention.  
Admiring the clever tube displays
Since Leicester Square was only one Tube stop away from the museum, we decided to go by the TKTS booth that serves up West End theatrical productions at discount prices.  With a history dating back more than 400 years, the London theatre district offers productions at the same high level of professionalism as its younger sibling, New York's Broadway.  Arriving at the booth a few minutes after 6:00, we were the happy beneficiaries of some last minute seats that had just been released at a discount for the 7:00 p.m. performance of War Horse at the National Theatre.  

Based on a best-selling book of the same name, War Horse tells the story of Joey, an English farm horse sold to a British army unit and thrust into the heat of battle in World War I.  Meanwhile, on the home front, Albert, a shy teenager who raised Joey from a colt, yearns for his faithful companion's return.

War Horse star Joey
Even the book's author scoffed when producers approached him about creating a stage production from a story with a horse as its central character.  He and many others were proved wrong by the ingenuity of the life-size horse puppets operated by three handlers dressed in period costume.  Their choreography brings the puppets to life so successfully that the audience easily suspends disbelief and forgets this is not a real horse.

Joey learns to plow
The human actors did their part as well.  With excellent casting and production, there wasn't a single weak link on the stage.  And we all left wiping our eyes at the sweetly sentimental ending.  A heart-warming night at the theatre.

Ms. Magnolia's Manners Tip of the Day: 
"If you are visiting a museum and need to sneeze, cover your mouth.  Other visitors do not want to see your mucus and spit on the display cases.  And you know your mama taught you better."

British Museum Stats:
  • Oldest human remains:  1,900 years
  • Visitors in 2012:  5,575,946 (3rd globally)
  • Pieces of gold jewelry:  4,982
  • Oldest item (a chipping tool):  1.8 m yrs
  • Reconstructed clay pottery pieces:  7,910
  • Brass figurines:  2,723
  • Greek urns:  2,517
  • Other stuff:  (we lost count)