A glass walkway allows you to get inside the temple without touching it. You are then treated to a rather cheesy sound and light show.
London is a massive city with 2,000 years of history behind it. It’s hard to tell these days, but the banking and financial center of it all, with its frantic building, insider wheeling and dealing, and massive cocaine consumption, is actually the oldest neighborhood. This center of commerce is called “the City”, and its area corresponds to the Roman city of Londinium, founded around 43 AD.
Not much has survived the centuries, just a section of the original city wall and a few traces in the cellars of later buildings. In 1954, however, a subterranean temple was found that belongs to one of the ancient empire’s foremost mystery religions — Mithraism. Little is known for certain about this religion since its rites were private and most written accounts are by early Christians seeking to destroy the faith.
The cult centered around worship of the god Mithras, who originated in Persia. One common scene in Mithraic iconography shows Mithras being born out of a rock, and this may be why his temple, called a mithraeum, is generally located underground. It was a secretive religion that only accepted men, and this is one of the reasons it eventually lost out to the more inclusive Christianity.
One of Ponting’s iconic images from the expedition is the Terra Nova stuck in ice. The crew had to cut away the ice immediately around the ship every day so that it wouldn’t crush the ship, a fate suffered by several other Polar expeditions.
When I’m in London I love to catch the shows at the big galleries, but I also like to check out the auction houses. Although I can’t afford to buy anything, places like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams often have free exhibitions of great art that, because it’s in private hands, you’ve never seen before and will probably never see again.
They sometimes have more traditional exhibitions of art that isn’t for sale. One such show this season is Visions of the Great White South at Bonhams. This brings together photography and paintings made on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913. While Scott and his forward team made it to the South Pole, they were narrowly beaten by Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team. As they tried to return to base camp, the men were caught in a blizzard and Scott and the entire forward team perished.
While the expedition could be considered a failure, it accomplished some important scientific research as well as some magnificent artistic achievements. With the expedition were two artists. Dr. Edward Wilson was a physician, naturalist, and painter who sadly died with Scott. Herbert Ponting was a photographer. Both made some gripping images of the Antarctic that form the centerpieces of the show.
The name John Dee conjures up images of a Tudor-era mage plumbing the mysteries of the occult and speaking with angels through his system of Enochian magic. This is how most people know Dr. Dee, and it is all I knew about him until I visited an excellent exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London.
Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee sets the record straight on a misunderstood and often maligned Renaissance man. Far more than a mere occultist, Dee was a geographer, mathematician, astronomer, world traveler, and cryptographer. He was influential in two royal courts and was an early advocate for the colonization of the Americas.
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.”
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.
The Wallace Collection in London is often overlooked by international visitors in favor of the more famous British Museum and National Gallery, but if you’re looking for a world-class collection of medieval European and Asian arms and armor, this is the place to go.
The Wallace Collection is a national museum that displays works of art collected in the 18th and 19th centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess. It was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Richard’s widow, Lady Wallace, in 1897. Located in Hertford House and free to the public, it gives you an insight into a sumptuous home of a leading art collector of that era. The collection is especially strong in paintings, sculpture, ceramics, and antique furniture. The arms and armor section has some 2,500 objects dating from the 10th to the 19th century and is one of the best collections in Europe.
A remarkable exhibition at the British Museum is revealing the secrets hidden inside mummy wrappings.
Ancient Lives, New Discoveries showcases eight mummies from the Nile valley, Africa’s greatest center of ancient civilization. Seven were found in Egypt and an eighth was uncovered in Sudan. They have all been analyzed with the latest model CT scanner at a London hospital to reveal information about the people without their having to go through damaging analysis.
The British have been pretty lucky these past few years. According to the British Museum, numerous treasures have been uncovered by metal detectorists and accidentally by workmen.
One of the most impressive is the Anglo-Saxon coin hoard from Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, found in December of last year, and which the British Museum has just announced it has acquired. Around 5,200 Anglo-Saxon silver pennies, and two cut half pennies, of kings Æthelred II (r.978-1016) and Cnut (r.1016-35), were found wrapped within a lead sheet. The hoard was discovered on a metal-detecting rally, and recovered under the guidance of the local Finds Liaison Officer. The hoard contains coins from more than forty different mints around England, and provides a rare source of information on the circulation of coinage at the time the hoard was buried.
Last weekend in London was LonCon 3, this year’s Worldcon. The convention, which has been held in various cities around the world since 1939, is where the Hugo Awards are given out and where fans from all over the globe meet up.
It was my first Worldcon, and while I’ve been to large conventions before such as World Fantasy and Eastercon, not to mention several local conventions such as Tuscon, I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I got was five fun days of events, conversation, and camaraderie.
The Loncon staff did a fine job making everything run smoothly. A handy pocket guide steered me around the huge convention center without a hitch, and twice-daily newssheets kept me up-to-date on any changes.
There were only a couple of small minuses. First off, the dining options at the ExCel Centre were overpriced and generally substandard. Not that this is unusual for a convention center, so I don’t blame LonCon for this!
Also, the ExCel is huge and has all the ambiance of a shopping mall. But as Robert Silverberg pointed out, “Cons aren’t about venues, they’re about people.”