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
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