Ivory headrest. This is used as a pillow in many African
cultures if you want to preserve your hairdo. How you’re
supposed to actually get any sleep is beyond me
King Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC) was a short-lived 18th dynasty pharaoh who was obscure and little studied by egyptologists until Howard Carter discovered his nearly intact tomb in 1922. Since then his most elaborate burial goods have been photographed countless times, and the whole world is familiar with images of his famous death mask, sarcophagi, and other golden treasures.
But these are only a small fraction of all the finds in the tomb. A total of 5,398 artifacts were retrieved, and on a recent visit to the Egyptian Museum during a writing retreat in Cairo, I had the privilege to see some of the ones not often reproduced in books.
On a recent trip to Bologna in northern Italy, I got to admire the city’s famous medieval towers and beautiful churches. The city’s medieval and Renaissance history is everywhere. What is less apparent is that it was a major center for Etruscan civilization. No Etruscan monuments survive in the city itself, so it’s fortunate that the Museo Civico Archeologico has an excellent Etruscan collection. This is thanks to several pioneering archaeologists in the 19th and early 20th century who excavated numerous Etruscan buildings and tombs and carefully preserved their findings.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time here on Black Gate bemoaning the loss of some of the places I’ve visited. ISIS wrecked Palmyra, Mosul, and Hatra, three of the most stunning archaeological sites I have ever seen. Witnessing historical wonders disappear at the hands of savages has become such a regular thing for me that my first reaction to the terrible destruction of the Nepal earthquake was, “Well, at least people didn’t do it this time.”
Roman amphora with coral, from the Levanzo shipwreck AD 275‒300
Sicily has been the center of Mediterranean history for centuries. Positioned at the halfway point between the western and eastern halves of the sea, and between Europe and Africa, it has been a nexus of trade and warfare ever since humanity started sailing. Now a major exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum looks at the discoveries by underwater archaeologists around Sicily’s shores.
Statue of a Lusitani warrior, 1st century AD.
Note the torc and arm bands, indicating high rank
It’s the start of the summer exhibition season here in Madrid, and the National Archaeological Museum is offering a free exhibition called Lusitania Romana, about the Roman province that took up much of what is now western Spain and Portugal.
The province got its name from the native Lusitani, who were either a Celtiberian people or an older ethnic group culturally influenced by the Celts, depending on which historian you read. The Romans fought these people from from 155 to 139 BC, eventually defeating them. The Lusitani continued a guerrilla war for another century.
When the province was created in 27 BC, the capital was set as Emerita Augusta, now the modern city of Mérida in Spain, which still retains some fascinating Roman ruins including a well-preserved theater, plus an excellent museum. With pacification came acculturation, and soon the region had several sizeable cities with all the usual Roman public works, and the countryside had numerous villas with some fine mosaics that have survived to this day.
The Pointer at Mzoura. Photo courtesy Almudena Alonso-Herrero
Morocco is best known for its medieval medinas and Roman cities, but the region has some interesting prehistoric remains as well. Petroglyphs dating back tens of thousands of years can be found all over the country, and archaeologists are excavating early hunting sites and Neolithic villages to piece together Morocco’s prehistory.
One curious site stands out above all others — Mzoura, Morocco’s only stone circle. It looks strikingly like those of Western Europe, as if it had been transposed from Wiltshire or Brittany.
We visited on the same day we went to visit Asilah. The site makes a good side trip from that old pirate port. A private car is needed because the stone circle stands next to the little village of Sidi-el-Yamani, which is reached only infrequently by public transport over narrow and rough roads.
Ancient Egypt is famous for its elaborate religion with a multitude of deities and an obsession with the afterlife. While there have been many exhibitions on ancient Egyptian religion, it’s rare to see one that traces Egypt’s transformation from a land that was mostly pagan to one that was mostly Christian, then mostly Muslim, with a strong tradition of Judaism running through it.
Now a major exhibition at the British Museum, Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs, uses about 200 objects to explore the history of religion in this fascinating country. The first gallery emphasizes that Egypt still has a sizeable Christian community. While that community has been targeted by extremists in recent years, there is also a large amount of cooperation between the two faiths. Photos from the Arab Spring show Christians making a protective ring around Muslims as they pray, and the Muslims returning the favor around churches on Sunday. The Western media tend to skip these stories of tolerance for more ratings-friendly tales of bloodshed, thus giving a skewed picture of the situation. As one of my old newspaper editors said, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
For many of us, the Celts are an enduring fascination. Their art, their mysterious culture, and the perception that so many of us are descended from them makes the Celts one of the most popular ancient societies. So it’s surprising that the British Museum hasn’t had a major Celtic exhibition for forty years.
That’s changed with Celts: Art and Identity, a huge collection of artifacts from across the Celtic world and many works of art from the modern Celtic Revival. The exhibition is at pains to make clear that the name ‘Celts’ doesn’t refer to a single people who can be traced through time, and it has been appropriated over the last 300 years to reflect modern identities in Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere. “Celtic” is an artistic and cultural term, not a racial one.
The first thing visitors see is a quote by some guy named J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote in 1963, “To many, perhaps most people. . .’Celtic’ of any sort is. . .a magic bag into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come. . .anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight.”
Earlier this summer I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks working on Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. This island chain is owned by Spain and sits just off the coast of Western Sahara. Besides having my first flying lesson, I got to drink lots of wine explore the island’s culture and history. In prehistoric times, the Canary Islands were home to a native people called the Guanche. While they had no writing of their own, some of their language has survived in the local dialect and has similarities to Berber. For thousands of years they kept their culture intact, being visited by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and Arabs but remaining uncolonized until the Spanish landed in 1402.
The Guanches came to the islands by 1000 BC, although some archaeologists claim they arrived much earlier than that. They survived by a mixture of farming and fishing and were divided into several small kingdoms. Each island was fairly isolated from the others and in fact Guanche is only the term for the people of Tenerife. The other islands each had their own distinct term but Guanche has now become the general term.
Sadly, the Guanches suffered a common fate of colonized peoples. Many died off from war and disease, or merged into the Spanish community through marriage. A significant percentage of modern Canary Islanders boast Guanche blood and names. The coolest survival from those times is Silbo, a whistling language that you can see on this video. The sharp whistles used in Silbo carry far across the mountains and valleys of these rough islands and were a common means of communication until very recent times.
London is full of museums. While visitors swarm to the Big Three of the British Museum, the Tate Modern, and the National Gallery, there are dozens more that are worth visiting. One that’s of interest to anyone with a taste for history is the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London.
Most international visitors have never heard of this place and head on over to the British Museum to see its stunning collection of mummies and statues. While that experience is hard to beat, I actually prefer the Petrie Museum. The British Museum is a bit of a victim of its own success, and it’s difficult to stand and enjoy the artwork without being trampled by hordes of visitors.
The two museums also have different purposes. The British Museum focuses on Egypt’s Greatest Hits, with lots of gold, fine artwork and, of course, the ever-popular preserved people. The Petrie Museum is a study museum, where Egyptology students come to compare large numbers of objects packed into the cases and see how they changed over time. Cases have drawers underneath that can be pulled out to view more examples. The collection includes some 80,000 items from both Egypt and Nubia, two of Africa’s greatest ancient civilizations.