Category: sean-williams - Part 23

Elgin’s Marbles Were Blue?

The air around the Elgin Marbles has turned blue many a time – but few would’ve pictured any of the magnificent sculptures the same colour. Yet this is exactly what a physicist at the British Museum claims to have discovered today. Giovanni Verri claims that by using red light he has found traces of an ancient hue, known as Egyptian Blue, painted on many of the priceless pieces. In fact, Verri says that 17 of the 56 marbles have revealed traces of the pigment, which was first used in Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as 2,500 BC.

The colour certainly adds a bit more depth to some of the scenes depicted on the famous friezes. For example, Verri found the colour on the sea from which Helios, the sun god, rises in his chariot on the eastern pediment. On the same pediment Verri also found blue on the robe of the goddess Dione. His work proves what many historians and archaeologists have long argued – that famous landmarks such as the Parthenon were not puritanically whitewashed, but instead decorated in a wild range of colours. “This study provides the first scientific evidence of painted color on the sculptures from the Parthenon,” a jubilant Verri told Discovery News.

Image by Jacqueline Poggi.

Lark Around in the Thames this Summer

Ever heard of mudlarking? No marks off if not, it’s the hobby of sifting through the muddy banks of a river in the search for lost treasure. Sound a bit messy? You betcha, and it used to be a lot worse. The past-time sprang up in the industrial revolution of 19th century Britain, as struggling workers and down-and-outs would resort to scrambling through the rubbish, rocks and excrement of the Thames in the vain hope they’d find something vaguely of value. The pressures of a cramped city overcome by desperate urbanisation meant that the Thames was invariably chock-a-block with all manner of disgusting things, and mudlarking became one of the most denigrated jobs in the country.

The Thames at afternoon low tide

Fast forward a hundred years or so, and thanks to several massive clean-up operations, the Thames is a different beast – so different, in fact, that salmon have been reintroduced after 200 years of keeping away from the filth. So, like all fashion, mudlarking has enjoyed a triumphant return to vogue, with throngs of eager beavers sorting their way through acres of silt and stones to get a glimpse of London’s potted past.

The hobby has proved so popular in the past few decades, in fact, that the Society of Thames Mudlarks, founded in 1980, allows its members permits to scour the river and turn over any treasures to the Museum of London. And now, 29 years later, the museum is inviting visitors to a summer of celebration recognising the efforts of mudlarks, and the myriad wonders they’ve unearthed from London’s pulsing pulmonary artery.

The events, part of this year’s Festival of British Archaeology, kick off on 28 July with a guided tour of the river which aims to show visitors the archaeological secrets of the Thames. Subsequent days and nights explore the treasures of the Thames, from prehistoric tools, to Roman pots; from medieval mementos to Tudor ships – and everything in between. All events are scott free, and will be a great way to see the archaeology of one of the world’s greatest cities hands-on. Well worth getting your hands dirty for.

Image by William

London’s Hottest Museums

When it comes to museums, there’s no doubting London’s credentials as one of the world’s finest launchpads for the intrepid antiquarian. Huge, sprawling caverns of colonial collections and stunning curios line the magnificent colonnaded hallways of giants like the British Museum or the V&A, and no-one can deny that both have fully earned their status as truly wonderful exhibitors. Yet scratch below the surface and there’s a whole mini-museum microcosm just waiting to be explored – and you won’t have to shimmy past shoals of dough-eyed snappers to get a glimpse of some of the city’s most intriguing artefacts. Here’s just three of London’s unsung heroes:

1. ThePetrie Museum

Located just a canopic jar’s throw from the BM, the Petrie Museum holds some of London’s greatest Egyptian artefacts. Founded in 1892 by University College London, the museum contains some amazing antiques from the Egyptian adventures of William Flinders Petrie, one of the true greats of modern archaeology. It may not be laid out in the most user-friendly manner – many describe it as being the epitome of a stuffy, old-world cabinet case – but within its modest walls you’ll find such treasures as a fragment of the first kings list or calendar of Egypt (2900 BC), its first linen (5000 BC) and the oldest known example of Egyptian metalwork (3500 BC). For those fascinated by archaeology itself, the museum also houses records the digs which revolutionised Petrie’s profession.

2. Sir John Soane’s Museum

The esteemed architect John Soane established this small museum in his own home, after the death of his wife in 1815. His burgeoning collection of antiquities is laid out in ornate fashion, and includes some fascinating Greek and Roman artwork, as well as Egyptian objects taken from Napoleon’s resident Egyptologist Dominique-Vivant Denon. All this aside, the Soane is worth a visit for one of its prized possessions alone. The huge sarcophagus of Seti I was rejected by the British Museum when they baulked at its 2,000 price tag. Soane swooped in and made it the centrepiece at his museum – and the giant decorated vessel is an incredible example of Egyptian workmanship. You can even get a guided audio tour from Stephen Fry, a nice touch.

3. Horniman Museum

Established in 1901 by intrepid tea merchant Frederick Horniman, this beautifully designed museum is a jewel in the crown of south London style. Renowned for its array of animalia and natural curios, the Horniman also boasts a 16-acre garden, resplendent with historical sculpture, and hosts a variety of human-based exhibitions such as Chinese textiles and the art of ancient India. Well worth a trip south of the river.

Image by Ellen Kabellen.

New Acropolis Museum’s Opening Night: Elgin Argument Intensifies

After much heartache, and a building project which ran five years behind scedule, Saturday saw the doors of Athens’ New Acropolis Museum finally throw open its doors to the public in a triumphant blaze of pomp and ceremony. But Greek officials took the chance to highlight the country’s claim for the ‘stolen’ Elgin Marbles’ – 75 of the original 160 pieces of the magnificent marble friezes which once adorned the city’s famous Parthenon.

London - British Museum - Frieze of the Parthenon (Elgin Marbles)

The night itself was a glittering success, with hundreds of foreign dignitaries and celebrities flooding the museum’s floors to get a first glimpse at its myriad masterpieces from Greece’s golden era. Yet for all the pageantry and glamour, no-one could hide the fact that many of the country’s most prized assets were conspicuous by their absence. A large room in the NAMreplicates exactly the measurements of the Parthenon, with sufficient room to house The Elgin Marbles. The marbles have long been the subject of heated debate between Greece and Britain, whose diplomat Lord Elgin took the treasures in 1811 amid confusion over an Ottoman firman (excavation permit). Ever since its 1821 independence from the Ottomans, Greece has demanded the marbles be returned to Athens – a plea which has so far fallen on deaf British ears. The British Museum, which currently displays the prized pieces in their own grand hall, has long argued the validity of Elgin’s removal. And the NAM’s opening has only resulted in the BM’s offering a loan deal – something the Greeks flatly refuse, as it would effectively legitimise Elgin’s actions. Greek President Karolos Papoulias reignited the debate on Saturday, by claiming: “It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.” However his Culture Minister Antonis Samaras was less subtle in his assertions, calling the marbles’ plight an ‘enforced exile.

There’s no doubting the New Acropolis Museum’s credentials as one of the world’s most spectacular museums. Yet can this awesome building provide the pressure the Greeks need to get their marbles back? Only time – and plenty of wrangling, no doubt – will tell.

Image by WVJazzman. All rights reserved.

New Acropolis Museum Finally Opens

This Saturday Athens’ stunning New Acropolis Museum throws open its doors in a $4.1million opening ceremony, following years of heady anticipation. Thousands of foreign dignitaries and heads of state are scheduled to arrive from all over the world – all except Britain. The opening of Greece’s most lavish museum has already thrown open the debate surrounding the 160m-long Parthenon marble friezes, taken by the British Lord Elgin in 1811. Britain has long since argued that Greece does not have a sufficient space in which to display the magnificent marbles – a claim Greek officials argue the New Acropolis Museum shatters. “On this momentous day, at this historic site, we appeal to everyone around the world who believes in the values and ideas that emerged on the slopes of the Acropolis, to join our quest to bring the missing Parthenon marbles home,” said Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaras. Samaras calls the marbles’ plight an ‘enforced exile’.

The British Museum, where the friezes are currently held in a huge hall, have moved the goalposts somewhat by stamping their legal right to display the artefacts. They were taken by Elgin following a firman issued by the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over an unwitting Greece for almost 500 years until 1821. “I think they belong to all of us. We are all global citizens these days,” said British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton. Still, the NAM’s 150,000sq m of exhibition space, with over 4,000 ancient items on display, is sure to put pressure on the British to return the prized marbles.

Image by Christos Vittoratos.

Doing Summer Solstice Stonehenge Style


Thanks to being fenced off by English Heritage to much druidic chagrin, Stonehenge is now largely the preserve of sedate tourist visits. Yet four times a year – during both equinoxes and solstices – the great stones are opened to the public in order to celebrate the ties between Britain’s most famous prehistoric monument and the heavens.

This Sunday on June 21, the summer solstice welcomes a whole host of druids, hippies and revellers to marvel at the giant megaliths – which many claim to have been an ancient temple to the sun. Last year some 30,000 foolhardy fun-lovers braved some damp conditions to see it through ’til sunrise, around 5am. Police have always maintained a visible presence – last year 15 slightly over-zealous Stonehenge fans made their way to a West Country cell for the night – yet generally the atmosphere is sure to be electric, with worshippers standing hand-in-hand with hippies and the plain curious to pay homage to what they feel is their spiritual home.

Though no amplified music is allowed at the site, many people bring drums, horns and other instruments. And thanks to the site being expected to be open to revellers by around 8.30pm, spirits are sure to be high come the sun’s sparkling arrival. Travellers to the site will be pleased to hear that the British weather should smile on them this year – with the skies above Amesbury said to be crystal clear come dawn. Access is free, as well it should be, and the event will surely again raise the question of whether English Heritage should tear down their controversial fence and open Stonehenge to all comers. Look out for King Arthur Pendragon, the outspoken druid leader – Somehow one doubts he’ll be keeping a low profile this weekend…

Image by Cat Shatwell.

Neanderthal Found Swimming in North Sea

Scientists in the Netherlands have discovered a fragment of a Neanderthal man’s skull in the North Sea, dating back around 60,000 years. The Leiden-based boffins believe the find to be the first human remains ever dredged from the sea bed. Chemical isotope readings have shown the man to have been carniverous – and the area would certainly been rife with potential dinners in his day. For most of the past 500,000 years, the North Sea’s level has been sustantially lower, with many parts forming a sort of archipelago stretching from the British Isles to the European mainland.

‘Only a Matter of Time’

Thousands of mammal remains have been found in the region before, many of which date to the Cromerian period of between 866,000 and 478,000 years ago. Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, believes that, due to the large number of animals in the area, it was ‘only a matter of time’ until human equivalents were discovered.

“It would be great if we could get the technology one day to go down and search (in the sea floor) where we can obtain the dating, associated materials and other information we would get if we were excavating on land,” he added.

Neanderthal man is our ancestoral cousin, appearing on the European continent as long as 400,000 years ago – from Iberia to Siberia. Our own species, homo sapiens, evolved first in Africa. Scientists believe that the study of the North Sea bed is key to understanding the migratory systems of prehistoric Britain and Europe.”We have Neanderthals at Lynford (in Norfolk) 60,000 years ago, though we only have stone tools. This specimen might indeed be the kind of Neanderthal that was crossing into Norfolk around that time. It will help us understand our British sequence when we can much more precisely map what’s under the North Sea,” Professor Stringer argued.

Image by Erich Ferdinand.

A Lion, a Turkey And a load of Marbles

Lord Elgin isn’t the only Brit taking the blame for removing some of ancient Greece’s greatest marble treasures – and the Parthenon is far from the only place raided by a zealous Brit in a bid to bring the ancient world to the smoggy streets of London. During an extensive dig carried out between 1857-59, Newton and his merry band of hacks travelled to the Ottoman – now Turkish – peninsula of Datca, where they began excavating the famous merchant city of Knidos – a picturesque Monte Carlo of the ancient Greek world, famous for its wealth, opulence and magnificent treasures. Not content to take a few snaps and enjoy the landscape, Newton and his men hauled many of the marbles aboard their ship and set sail for Blighty, a move which would have had far graver consequences a couple of thousand years back.

Still, this was the age of fierce colonialism and the boundless British empire – surely no-one would stand in Newton’s way as he lumped all the Greek masterpieces in the British Museum (where it now takes pride of place in the vast complex’s Great Court)? Well, no. But now, one of the fabled city’s most fearsome objects – the giant Lion of Knidos – is the crux of a repatriation battle between the Republic of Turkey and the United Kingdom.

And just as Greece has persevered in its chasing of Elgin’s pilfered Parthenonprizes, so the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism looks like taking a hard stance with the Brits. Datca’s mayor, Erol Karakullukcu, says: “In order to keep the public aware that these sculptures were made in Data thousands of years ago, and that they were taken to be exhibited in Britain, we made marble replicas of the original sculptures and exhibit them at the city park. These sculptures are part of this area,” he adds, “and they are the products of the regions inhabitants of thousands of years ago. They should be brought back to where they belong.” Judging by the museum’s belligerent response to the Elgin saga, few will be holding their breath for Mr Karakullukcu.

Image by Jon Himoff.

Utah saint? The Redneck Stonehenge

Stonehenge‘s cult status as a centre for pagan worship could be in doubt, thanks to a bloody minded Utah farmer and three old bangers. Rhett Davis, of Hooper, engineered the mechanical megalith to keep prying eyes away from his property – and to show his nosey neighbours he wasn’t afraid to make a mess of the landscape in the small, conservative community.

Rhett’s eureka moment came after neighbours refused to pay half the cost of a fence around his land, which would have shielded their eyes from the ‘horrors’ of flies and dust he kicked up at harvest time. So instead of backing down, Rhett dug three holes, cut three demolition derby-ruined cars in half and stuck them around his farm like smoke-filled sarsen stones. Rhett, who has been a farmer since childhood, insists the henge was built more out of humour than spite, but says it’s important to be able to take the rough with the smooth of being in a peaceful farming town.

He says, “This is just a fun way for me to say, ‘Hey boys, I’m still here,’ this is my redneck Stonehenge. I respect that they’re here and spent a lot on their homes, but on the other hand, give me a little bit, too. I’ve been here since I was 7 years old.” However Rhett doesn’t plan on leaving his henge for quite as long as Avebury’s famous monument: “I’ve talked to my neighbours and worked things out. I really just thought this would be a funny thing to do. These can come out just as easy as they went in.” Utah officials say they’re not expecting millions of new-age worshippers to pilgrimage to Hooper. Not until the summer solstice, at least.

Image by Lawrence Stevens.

From Cairo to Clapton: Hawksmoor’s London

There may be well-known pyramids in Egypt, Mexico and even Bosnia – and ancient wonders across the globe – but not many know about the ancient architecture located right on their doorstep in London. Step forward Nicholas Hawksmoor: architect, freemason and all-round ancient religion nut. Born to a poor family in the British Midlands, Hawksmoor became one of the most revered architects of his time. And his London churches are some of the capital’s strangest landmarks, stepping wildly away from the Baroque time in which they were conceived.

Hawksmoor had already built, and helped build with his mentor Sir Christopher Wren, several prominent buildings by the time the 1711 Parliamentary Act demanded he construct six churches in London. Fascinated by the occult and the ancient world, Hawksmoor set about defying the design world with his strange, awkward concepts which bear no resemblance to their contemporaries. The two most intriguing of these are St. Anne’s, Limehouse, and St. George’s. Bloomsbury. St. Anne’s may seem clunky and masonic, but look in the graveyard and you’ll find a large Egyptian-styled pyramid, reportedly meant for the corners of the church but never allowed, which shows Hawksmoor’s dedication to the ancient Egyptians he so adored.

St. George’s in Bloomsbury, the other hand, takes its lines from Pliny the Elder’s depiction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus; the ancient temple built by the Persian king Mausolus‘ family to protect his posterity. However Hawksmoor put George I on the top of his monument – strange for a religious place of worship. Other churches nod to Egyptian architecture and the fabled Temple of Solomon – and, as told in fictional form by Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor, the churches appear to co-ordinate on a London map to form the Eye of Horus: an ancient Egyptian symbol for protection from deities. Next time you take a look around London, see if you can find a Hawksmoor masterpiece: you could be stepping thousands of years back in time.

Images by Matt Brown and Barbara Rich.