Joe Hendren

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Travels: London

Visit to the British Museum

Sunday December 15, 2002

Visited the British Museum today. The place is massive. Coming in through the back entrance I made a quick circuit in order to decide where to start.

Started with the European section, incorporating artifacts dating prior to the Roman Empire. Its the history of pots, pans and spoons! One of the most impressive displays is the 'Sutton Hoo Ship Burial' dating from the 7th century. The remains of a helmet and a sword belonging to the dead guy are well preserved, and the remains of a large shield have been tastefully reconstructed into something that looks like a shield. There is also a large collection of silverware from the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Anastasius dish (491-519 AD) a large silver salver that dominates the display. Moving forward a couple of centuries, I thought the Carolingian rock-crystals were especially pretty. Apparently the intricately detailed Lothar crystal (866-864 AD) is the 'undisputed masterpiece', however I preferred another one. The 'Saint-Denis' rock-crystal, dating from the third quarter of the 9th century was displayed in such a way that it allowed in more light, giving a better impression of multidimensionality and depth.

The European sector also included a large collection of clocks of all time periods, using all sorts of mechanisms. My favorite was the Concreve Rolling Ball Clock, designed and built by S. French between 1810 and 1840. This has three clock faces. Below the clock faces there is a flat plate that can tilt from side to side. A small rolling ball moves along a winding groove in the plate. When the ball reaches the end of the grove at the far side of the plate it activates a mechanism that registers an additional 30 seconds on the right hand clock face and makes the ball go back down the groove in the opposite direction. Neat.

Next I decided to check out the Egyptian section, on the hunt for the Rosetta Stone. On my way I passed multiple corridors of Assyrian wall panels dating from the 6th to the 9th century. At first it was impressive, but it seemed an embarrassment of riches.

With only 15minutes before the close of the museum for the day I found the Rosetta stone. The stone records a decree made by native Egyptian priests, made on the 17th of March 196BC, in honour of the boy king Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180BC). This recorded the decision of the priests to establish a royal cult in return for his concessions to the Egyptian temples. The decree is written in three languages on the stone, in Greek, in Demonic and in Hieroglyphs. The discovery of the stone in mid July 1799 helped unlock the mystery of the meaning of Hieroglyphics, which until that time only a little was understood. The stone was discovered by Pierre Francious Xavier Bouchard during Napoleon's invasion and occupation of Egypt. The French were forced to surrender the stone under article 16 of the Treaty of Alexandria and in 1802 the stone was donated to the British Museum with the other antiquities surrendered by the French.

The stone was darker and more metallic looking than I imagined, and despite its age it was easy to make out the symbols etched in the rock.

I also took a quick look at the Greek section, specifically the sculptures originating from the Parthenon on the Acropolis (constructed 447-438BC). Somehow 'Lord Elgins' agents were able to remove a nuber of the sculptures to England at the beginning of the 19th century.

I am not sure if it is intended, but I left with the impression that the museum should really be called the 'British Imperial Museum' as it continues as an apt demonstration of the breath of British colonialism over the last 500 years. It made me wonder if you could compile a 'imperialism index' based on the number of important cultural relics 'stolen' by a colonising power and housed in their home museums. It could also be a measure of how a power is declining (such as Britain) based on the declining number of important new artifacts.