A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Posts tagged “british museum

Gold Warrior Pendant, British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant,  © British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant, © British Museum

This intricate warrior figurine recaptures the image of a fierce Mixtec warrior. The warrior wears a lip plug, from which hangs a severed head, which maybe a war trophy. From the head dangle three intricate bells. You can almost imagine the warrior fiercely tinkling into battle.  Mixtec goldsmiths fashioned gold into prestigious objects to show off their wealth and prowess in battle. This warrior has a decorated crown, curved earrings, a nose piece, and pendant pectorals across his chest. On his left arm he carries a circular shield, and his right arm he carries a spear thrower. His elaborate regalia indicates that he is a high ranking warrior ruler.

Warfare was central to Aztec society. Its purpose was to take live captors for sacrifice to the Gods. Military accomplishment was highly prized by the Aztec warriors.  Aztec warriors improved their rank by capturing an ever increasing number of victims. The most distinguished warriors were the eagle and jaguar warriors whose dress represented these animals. The Aztecs were cosmopolitan in their tastes and they bought in high prestige goods such as gold from Mixtec artists in Oxaca. Mixtec artists would have visited Tenochitlan, the capital of the Aztec world, and they would have been encouraged to settle in Tenochtitlan.


Sir Hans Sloane, British Museum

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

The British Museum collection began with the intellectual curiosity of an Irish doctor called Sir Hans Sloane. He began collecting when he was working in Jamaica, as a physician to the governor. He returned to London in 1689 and continued collecting. He was a very wealthy and successful doctor. His patients included the diarist Samuel Pepys and Queen Anne. Soon his house in Bloomsbury place was overflowing with ‘plants, fossils, minerals, zoological, anatomical and pathological specimens, antiquities …prints, drawings and coins, books and manuscripts.’ His collecting got so out of control that he had to buy the house next door. When that house was full he moved to a new house in Chelsea!

He collected strange and wonderful objects, such as a landscape painted in a spider’s web, and monstrous stones removed from the bladder of a horse. In spite of all of this there was some order to his collecting. You can see in the Enlightenment gallery the types of classification that were used in the intellectual flowering that was the Enlightenment period; such as natural history, religion etc. When Hans Sloane died his collection of 80,000 objects was acquired by the British government for the sum of £20,000.

Horace Walpole, one of the trustees of the British Museum said, ‘You will scarce guess how I employ my time. Chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir Hans Sloane is dead and has made me one of the trustees of the museum…He valued it at four score thousand and so would anybody who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear and spiders as big as geese!’ The British Museum at Montagu House opened its doors to the public in 1759.


Double Headed Serpent, British Museum

Double Headed Serpent,  © British Museum

Double Headed Serpent, © British Museum

This striking Aztec double headed serpent would have been worn to ceremonial occasions as an ornament across the chest. It is carved out of a single piece of Spanish cedar wood, and decorated with beautiful turquoise mosaics, which come in a variety of colours. The open jaws have menacing fangs, which are made of conch shell. The red gums and details are made from thorny oyster shell.

Snakes were sacred to the Aztecs. They thought that snakes were powerful creatures that could travel between the different layers of cosmos; between the underworld, water and the sky. Serpents were also associated with fertility, and with water. Snakes shed their skin every year, which may have been linked with the idea of renewal and transformation. The Aztecs worshipped many different serpent Gods, including Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, Mixcoatl, the cloud serpent and Coatlicue, she of the serpent skirt.

The Aztec Empire came to an end when Hernando Cortez and his Spanish troops arrived in 1519. The Spanish expedition was welcomed by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma who gave them gifts. This double headed serpent may have been one of the gifts given to Cortez and his men. The Aztecs had a tradition that the god – king of their ancestors, a pale skinned bearded god would return one day to claim their land. The Spanish became greedy after receiving the gifts and were not so friendly. After bitter fighting the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish in 1521.


Lindow Man

Lindow Man, © British Museum

Lindow Man, © British Museum

Lindow man died a brutal and horrific death. His body was discovered in 1984, when workmen were cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in north west England. Lindow man is preserved complete with his skin, hair, and many of his internal organs. This is because of the extraordinary conditions in a peat bog. There is no oxygen in peat bogs, which means that the bacteria that causes decay, cannot thrive.

Lindow man died aged about 25 years old between 2BC and AD119. He was hit twice on the head with a heavy object, possibly an axe. Then he was kicked in the back, which broke one of his ribs. Then a thin cord was tied around his neck to strangle him and break his neck. Even after he died, his throat was cut. He was then thrown face down into a pool in the bog. It was almost certainly a ritual killing.

Perhaps he was a fierce criminal, or it could have been a human sacrifice. This Iron Age man was not a manual labourer, as his hands are well manicured. His stomach contents were analysed to reveal that his last meal was bread made from wheat and barley, and he also suffered from parasitic worms.  During the Iron Age people sacrificed objects such as weapons and cauldrons by throwing them into rivers, lakes or bogs. Perhaps water was an important doorway to the spirit world. Was Lindow man also a sacrifice to the Gods?


Statue from Easter Island, British Museum

Moai Figure, ©  British Museum, London

Moai Figure, © British Museum, London

The people of Easter Island, Polynesia built many giant statues called moai. This one is called Hoa Hakanai’a, which means ‘hidden friend’. It would have originally been painted red and white. The moai ranged in height from four to 33 feet, and in weight up to 80 tons. The statues were first discovered by Captain Cook when he visited Easter Island in 1774. The statue was built around 1000AD by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.  The Rapa Nui people believe that the Moai statues represent the deifed spirits of their ancestors. They made these colossal statues in a quarry with stone tools and transported them up to 11 miles across rough terrain without the use of wheels, cranes or large animals. How did they do it? If you ask the Rapa Nui Islanders, they will tell you that the statues walked by themselves. According to Suri Tuki, a local islander, ‘The experts can say what they want, but we know the truth. The statues walked.’

In 1987, Charles Love lead a team of US archaeologists, who built a wooden sledge to move a 13 foot moai on wooden rollers. They managed to move a nine ton model of a moai 148 feet on the sledge in two minutes. However, recent research by the National Geographic society shows that it was indeed possible to make the statues walk, with a little help from some rope and some strong men. The fat bellies of the statues cause them to tilt forward, and the D shaped base allowed the handlers to rock the moai from side to side and gently edge them forward. A team of 18 people managed to move a 10 foot, 5 ton Moai replica a few hundred yards using strong rope. So it seems like the people of Rapa Nui may have been right, all along!


Merman, British Museum

Merman, © British Museum, London

Merman, © British Museum, London

Many museums across the UK have mysterious creatures, called mermen in their collections. This merman was thought to have been ‘caught’ in Japan in the 18th century. The Japanese word for merman is ‘ningyo’, which literally means, ‘man fish’. Mermen have long held an important place in Japanese culture. One Shinto temple in Fujinomiya, Japan has a mermaid mummy that is thought to be 1,400 years old. According to one ancient Japanese legend, a fisherman caught a merman in his fishing net. The merman with its dying breath predicted a time of great prosperity, and a fatal epidemic. The fatal epidemic could only be prevented by owning a merman.

Another tale is of a young girl called Yao Bikuni. She eats the flesh of a merman and becomes immortal. She outlives several husbands, and then decides to become a travelling nun. After many centuries have passed, she becomes so miserable that she chooses to take her own life. After hearing these stories, suddenly everyone wanted a merman of their own! They were bought to display as curiosities in the 18th and 19th century. Ofcourse, these mermen were all fakes. Most of them are made of part monkey, and part fish moulded together.

This merman is made of the dried up parts of a monkey, with a fish tail. It is probably mounted together on a wooden support. It was donated to the British Museum by Prince Arthur of Connaught in the early 20th century.


Rock Crystal Skull, British Museum

Crystal Skull, 19th century, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

Crystal Skull, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

This crystal skull was carved from a single block of rock crystal. The British Museum records show that it was bought in 1867 from Mr Frederick Kunz. Mr Kunz was an obsessive collector of gemstones, amassing around 4,000 precious stones, by the time he reached the age of 20. The jeweller describes his fascination with the sparkling gems:

‘Every boy has his passion – his collection of stamps or coins, or marbles or what not, and the only difference between another boy’s and mine was that I never outgrew it. Given a fresh excavation today, I am just as apt to go down on my knees and begin grubbing about as I was at the age of ten.’

He claimed that he acquired this skull from a Spanish officer who brought it back from Mexico. Aztec art is characterised by skulls, death and the beautiful blue turquoise stone. Frederick Kunz sold the skull to an antiquities dealer, and it was later bought by the British Museum. But scientists have discovered that it was actually all a big fraud! In 1996 an international team of scientists had a closer look at the skull with an electron microscope, and found machine cut marks. These cut marks show that the skull was made with a rotary cutting wheel. Rotary cutting wheels were introduced to Mexico after the Spanish Conquest in 1521. This sparkling crystal skull was actually made in the 19th century.