As we explore content for the new Lee Kai Hung Gallery of Chinese Culture @McrMuseum #MMChina opening in 2021 we are really interested in reproducing some of Hogarth’s sketches – many of which capture the dignity of Chinese people in everyday scenes – to help stimulate a sense of empathy in our visitors and so build understanding between different peoples and cultures. Last week in my capacity as a recipient of a Headley Trust Fellowship with the Art Fund @artfund I consulted the Paul Hogarth archive at Manchester Metropolitan University. This has some correspondence from the time and cards and publicity material for the exhibition at the Leicester galleries in London. So it was great to see this blog and reproductions of some of Hogarth’s works in China.
Last weekend was the first opportunity to get down to London to see the latest piece of sculpture to occupy the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – Mark Rakowitz’s life size replica of the ancient Assyrian bull god Lamassu, whose original dimensions are said to match those of the fourth plinth. The statue on which this is based protected the entrance to the city of Nineveh from 700 BC until it was sadly destroyed by IS in 2015. These events and their impact on communities, and the wider context of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and other countries that has taken place since the Second World War is the subject of a film shown at Manchester Museum in 2016. The film shows how the destruction of monuments and other material culture is often the first step in the removal of whole communities from countries where they have lived for generations and generations, and so these acts, which constitute a destruction of memory should – must – be resisted from the very outset.
The artist Mark Rakowitz, was so appalled he dedicated himself to making copies of all the objects that were damaged or destroyed. As an artist he makes innovative use of modern materials to capture the feel of the original. In this case over 10,000 date syrup tins from Iraq were used in order to reproduce the polychrome effect of the stone and tiles of Lamassu. The metalwork of the cans is cut open and mounted on an armature. Mark Hudson writing in the Telegraph (29/3/2018) described the differently coloured tins as ‘creating an impression of art deco-cinema tackiness’. Using date syrup tins is also deeply significant in an Iraqi context because the date syrup industry – once second in importance only to oil – was badly damaged during the American invasion of 2003. It was the custom to place a date in the mouth of a new born child in Iraq to provide it with its first taste of sweetness in life.
If Lamassu looks a trifle out of place in Trafalgar Square – and I’d say no more out of place than any of the other sculptures that preceded the Assyrian deity – it may be because we tend to be less familiar with Mesopotamian sculpture than that of Egypt, Greece and Rome. Yet this is a culture that goes back as far as if not further back into the past than Egypt and cuneiform writing even predates hieroglyphs. And the list of ancient peoples and cultures who lived in Mesopotamia includes Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Achaemenid Persians, in addition to which there were ancient Greeks, Parthians and Sassanids before the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Zainab Bahrani’s book Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture (2017) says ancient Mesopotamian art inspired Henry Moore and Giacometti.
The rather unusual title of Mark Rakowitz’s work is shown in cuneiform or wedge-shaped writing in the photograph above and derives from the name given to an ancient processional way, the route of which passed through Babylon’s Ishtar Gate. The original Limassu stood guard for the greater part of 3,000 years before it was destroyed by IS. The future of Mark Rakowitz’s recreation is certain as it will stand guard over Trafalgar Square until the next piece of sculpture takes its turn on the fourth plinth in two years’ time. Other artists who have shown their work on the plinth include Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread.
Manchester Museum’s Mesopotamian collection features an Assyrian bas-relief of the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) from Nimrod (Kalhu). It shows a winged genie with pine cone holding a pine cone or pomegranate and the feet of a second genie in the upper Register. There is a nineteen-line cuneiform inscription, which reads:
“Ashurnasirpal, the great king, the mighty king, king of hosts, king of Assyria, son of Tukulti-Hinurta, the great king, the mighty king, the king of hosts, king of Assyria; the valiant hero who proceeded with the help of Ashur his lord and had no rival among the princes of the four quarters; the king who from beyond Tigris even to Mount Lebanon and the Great Sea, the whole of the land of Laqe and of Sukhi, together with the city of Rapiqu has cast into subjection at his feet, who has conquered from the spring source of the river Subnat to the entrance district which is…. Good heavens someone’s actually reading this! From the entrance district of Kirruri to the land of Gilzan, from beyond the lower Zab to the city Til-bari which is above the land of Zaban, together with the cities Til-sha-abtani and Til-sha-Zabdani, and the cities Khirimu and Kharautu, fortreses of Babylonia, I added to the boundary of my land. And the wide flung lands of Hairi in all their borders I ruled.”
The Museum acquired the slab from the relatives of a man who claimed to have got it when Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895) and Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) – both pioneers of the study of Middle Eastern archaeology – were working in Mesopotamia during the 19th century. In addition, there is a large collection of cuneiform tablets, one of the larger collections outside the British Museum.
Mark Hudson Review of ‘Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’ in The Daily Telegraph (29/3/2018)
Andrew Robinson Review of Zainab Bahrani’s Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture in The Daily Telegraph (18/2/2018)
Lucy Davies ‘A Plinth Among Men’ in The Daily Telegraph (17/3/2018)
A couple of weeks ago, Manchester Museum held one of its regular Big Saturday public events on the theme of civilisations. Intended to tie-in with the BBC documentary presented by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, we showed objects representing a number of ancient and more recent civilisations from Manchester Museum’s rich collections. These included particular favourites of mine the Etruscans, as well as the Indus Civilisation (presented by Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures) and China. We also wanted to use this as an opportunity to publicise our new temporary exhibition Nature Through Roman Eyes, which opens on 6th April so we showed a selection of Roman exhibits. In this we were most ably assisted by two Classics undergraduate students, Lucy and Amy.
I showed the Etruscan pieces, one of them an example of the somewhat rarer longer inscriptions that have survived from antiquity. Something like 13,000 Etruscan inscriptions are known, of which 4,000 are fragmentary and most of the remaining 13,000 inscriptions are short, often consisting of just a name, such as the father or the mother, his or age, the public office held and formulaic phrases. An Etruscan vocabulary, in so far as we presently understand is only 250 words long (Brian Fagan The 70 Greatest Mysteries of the Ancient World). Added to this is the mystery of where the Etruscans came from, with plausible suggestions that they originated in what is now Turkey. The region of Etruria in northern Italy is named after them. Perhaps the story of Aeneas and the founding of Rome isn’t so legendary after all.
There is some support for this apparently from DNA evidence, similarities with languages such as Hurrian and the relatively equal role that women seem to have enjoyed Etruscan society. The Romans were scandalised that Etruscan women drank wine in public, for instance, and Pliny the Elder writes that women could be fined for drinking wine during the time of the Republic. In antiquity, the Etruscans were once powerful and influential, so much so that the first kings of Rome were Etruscan. They were particularly skilled in haruspicy, the inspection of the entrails of sacrificial animals in order to divine the will of the gods. One of the last people to understand Etruscan was the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) who had an Etruscan wife.
On my table I posed the question: whatever happened to the Etruscans? Of course, they were absorbed into the expanding Roman Republic. They weren’t slaughtered or dispossessed of their lands but became allies of Rome, and gradually Etruscan, as a language, disappeared. It is a salutary reminder of the loss of linguistic diversity in the modern as well as the ancient world. An article by Paul Bignell in The Independent on Sunday (13/12/2009) drew attention to the fact that of 6,500 languages spoken in the world, half are expected to disappear by the end of the century. Ninety-five per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by just five per cent of its population. If you take the example of the Rai tribe in Nepal – discussed in the article -children and young people are educated in Nepalese, and as the elders die off with the passing of time this ancient language will disappear. A linguist and academic at the University of British Columbia, Prof Mark Turin, has been director of the World Oral Literature Project since 2009, which aims to record threatened languages, many of them without a written tradition, before they disappear forever. Were it not for the fact that Etruscans were literate, we would have far less understanding of their language than we now have, and that is not a great deal.
I mention this because the exhibition that will follow Nature Through Roman Eyes, Heritage Futures, will look at the issue of the loss of linguistic diversity, amongst others in the autumn. Why should this matter? It’s important in a more practical way than saving languages simply for the sake of saving disappearing languages. Quoting from the Independent on Sunday article: ‘Experts now agree there is a correlation between areas of cultural, linguistic and biological diversity… Places that are diverse in species are diverse in languages and cultures.’ And to speak another language is not simply a means of communication, it is to immerse oneself in the culture of another people, to experience the world from a different perspective and even for this to influence the speaker’s world view.
This is one version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, beautifully explored in the science fiction movie Arrival (2016). In Arrival Dr Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, will write a book called The Universal Language Translating Heptapod. Although the circular characters – non-linear orthography – look like the stains left by coffee mugs, speaking the Heptapod language affects the cognition of the speakers, allowing them to experience events in the present and in the future. In a review of the film one critic wrote: ‘we (may) live on the same planet, breathe the same air — but our perceptions of those pieces shift and change based on the words and grammar we use to describe them to ourselves and each other.’ And to return to the Heritage Futures theme, a 2010 documentary called Into Eternity dealt with ‘attempts to devise a new universal language to label underground repositories of nuclear waste – labels whose warnings have to be understood by future humans whose language has evolved away from what we know now.’ Remember too the transmission in Ridley Scott’s Alien, which is not a distress call but a warning beacon that is translated too late to stop the horrific course of events.
Vessels from the Hildesheim hoard in ‘Nature Through Roman Eyes’
Whilst I talked to visitors about the Etruscans and how little we understood of their language, Amy and Lucy meanwhile were talking to visitors about the objects from the Pliny exhibition. They showed a replica of a bowl from a large hoard of Roman silver vessels found at Hildesheim in Germany in 1868. Manchester Museum, along with other institutions, has replicas of this important hoard. They must almost qualify as antiquities in their own right because they were made by French manufacturers, Christophe et fils, during the late 19th century. We know from previous experience that sometimes replicas can be almost as important historically as the real thing. If you are wondering what the connection to Pliny the Elder is, well, it’s because he served during the mid-1st century AD in the Germanies – the provinces of Upper and Lower Germany – where he served with a fellow officer who took a luxurious dinner service on campaign:
‘And yet, by Hercules! to my own knowledge, Pompeius Paulinus, son of a Roman of equestrian rank at Arelate, a member, too, of a family, on the paternal side, that was graced with the fur (a mark of privilege), had with him, when serving with the army, and that, too, in a war against the most savage nations, a service of silver plate that weighed twelve thousand pounds!’ (Natural History 33.)
Now I’m not suggesting that the Hildesheim hoard is the silver dinner service that once belonged to Pompeius Paulinus, but it does enable us to illustrate Pliny’s anecdote. It shows the opportunities for self indulgence made possible by the Roman Empire. At the same time significant amounts of money were going overseas to pay for expensive Chinese silk and Indian spices. We might describe this as evidence of Roman globalisation. There is a moralising aspect to Pliny’s writing but it is clear that overall he thinks Roman civilisation is a good thing, even if some Romans have indulged themselves rather too much in the luxuries provided by the empire.
As I think is becoming abundantly clear, the subject of the Nature Through Roman Eyes exhibition is something of a godsend to encyclopaedic collections such as those of Manchester Museum because natural history to the Romans extended far more widely than we would think of it today. In the 37 books of Pliny’s Natural History there are sections on every conceivable subject under the sun, including astronomy, numismatics, mining and the history of art. An exhibition about Roman natural history, therefore, has the potential to show the many different – and sometimes unexpected facets – of Roman civilisation and bring in every discipline and collection in the Museum. For years, museum curators have been urged to do more interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work and if ever there was an exhibition topic to realise this, Pliny’s your man. Added to which, Pliny himself is a marketing officer’s dream because he died during the eruption of Vesuvius in August 79 AD.
So there you go: Civilisations, the Etruscans, Pliny the Elder and Nature Through Roman Eyes, loss of linguistic diversity, science fiction movies, Heritage Futures and nuclear waste. Working at Manchester Museum is never short of variety.
Coin of Vespasian (AD 69-79)
Following Simon Schama’s launch of the BBC’s new Civilisations series last week I am really looking forward to Mary Beard presenting the follow-up because this ought to include some Roman content. It is a great opportunity to talk about Manchester Museum’s new temporary exhibition about Pliny the Elder and Roman Natural History opening on 6th April. Pliny’s work The Natural History is the biggest work of non-fiction to survive from the ancient world. Although it is not a work of art, in summarising information about the world at that time, it has a particular relationship with Roman civilisation and civilisations more widely that is worth exploring, not least because it throws up a challenging conclusion about Manchester Museum and its collection, though I fear that will not find favour with some cultural commentators.
Pliny the Elder was born in Comum in northern Italy in about 23 AD. His wealth qualified him for membership of the equestrian class, the lesser aristocracy of Roman society. After serving in the Roman army in Germany during the 50s AD, Pliny seems to have kept a low profile during the reign of Emperor Nero (AD 54-68). Following the latter’s death, and thanks to his earlier friendship with a fellow Roman officer, Titus, Pliny became a trusted member of the inner circle around the new emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79), who was Titus’ father. Pliny had early morning meetings with Vespasian and held a number of important administrative posts in the provinces. He was procurator of Hispania Tarraconesis in AD 72-4, and was commanding the Roman fleet at Misenum when Vesuvius erupted on 24th August AD 79. Pliny lost his life whilst trying to rescue people caught up in the disaster. Although he is sometimes presented as a martyr to scientific enquiry, his nephew Pliny the Younger’s account makes it clear that Pliny the Elder died heroically trying to save others.
Plaster cast of victim of the eruption of Vesuvius in the Manchester Museum collection
During much of his life Pliny the Elder kept notes about all aspects of the Roman Empire. Some were observations he made himself, some came from other writers. He was offered a very large sum of money for his notebooks at one point, sufficient to have bought himself into the equestrian class had he not already been a member. Pliny the Elder’s working methods are described by his nephew Pliny the Younger: slaves read to his uncle at dinner and whilst he was in the bath. Pliny the Elder told the younger man off for travelling on foot when he could be carried by slaves because it was a wasted opportunity to study. Pliny the Elder’s official duties left him little time for writing during the day so he often stayed up late or got up before dawn to work. He seems to have been permanently sleep-deprived and nodded off easily. Pliny’s hard work compiling his notes created something unique. Pliny succeeded in writing nothing less than a full account, in 37 books, of knowledge as it existed in the Roman Empire during the mid to later 1st century AD. Although it’s called The Natural History, it’s natural history in its broadest sense: it’s a mine of information for a wide range of subjects including agriculture, architecture, astronomy, botany, geography, medicine, numismatics, zoology and the history of art.
A garum factory in North Africa (Nabeul Museum, Tunisia)
Fascinating snippets of information are scattered throughout the Natural History. One of the most memorable is an account of a giant octopus which raided the garum factories of southern Spain at night. This was where fish guts were left to ferment in brine in the sun to produce a relish or sauce that was used as a condiment throughout the Roman world. Something similar to Roman garum is used today in Thai cuisine. The workmen tried to discourage their nocturnal visitor by building a fence but without success. In the end the massive octopus – it’s said to have been the size of 15 amphorae or transport containers – was tracked with dogs and killed using tridents (what else would you use to kill a sea monster in ancient world?). The creature was then pickled and put on display in the governor’s mansion where it became a tourist attraction.
Giant octopus shown on a mosaic in the Lesvos Archaeological Museum
The story about the octopus is just one of a number of marvels that made their way into Pliny’s Natural History. Such stories were very popular at this time and Pliny sourced them from contemporary writers. Pliny claimed to have read 2000 sources by 200 different authors, although research has shown that the actual number is much greater. The Natural History was so big it needed a table of contents. In fact it was the first work of the ancient world to feature one. Pliny intended for it to be consulted as required; he didn’t expect readers to read the whole work. He also criticises those writers who copied the work of others without acknowledging them. As I am currently writing this blog post in a university museum it is perhaps appropriate that I acknowledge Pliny’s condemnation of plagiarism.
The Natural History could be described as the first encyclopaedia and Pliny was proud that it was something that even the Greek writers, whose works he quoted so frequently, hadn’t attempted. However, it’s not always entirely reliable and in some cases the entries are ludicrous. For example, the root of the autumn nettle is recommended as a cure for tertian fevers but only provided that when the root is pulled up from the ground, care is taken to mention the patient’s name, to say who he or she is and who his or her parents are. Folklore remedies feature large in The Natural History: iron nails from a tomb will prevent nightmares if driven into the door at the entrance to a house; give small children boiled mice with their food to stop bed-wetting; the skin of a hyena is a most effectual precaution against robberies and alarms at night; radish will kill a scorpion; or, if someone has a fish bone stuck in their throat, plunge his or her feet in cold water and it will go away. This obviously comes with the usual caveat not to try any of this at home!
I think it’s in this sense that Pliny’s work is relevant to Civilisations, the BBC’s new ‘reimagining’ of Kenneth Clarke’s 1969 series Civilisation. Pliny reveals a very different world to that which usually appears in accounts of Roman history and archaeology. Eric Dodds undermined the traditional view of Greek culture as a triumph of rationalism in his book The Greeks and the Irrational (1951). Similarly Pliny, albeit not intentionally, shows us that the Romans were just as liable to so-called ‘primitive modes’ of thought as any other society.
Although in print almost continuously, the Natural History fell out of favour during the Enlightenment when the wisdom of the ancient world was replaced by scientific approaches based on observation and experiment. Pliny has been criticised for his credulity but it is clear that he himself was often sceptical about some of the things he recorded: ‘It is hardly possible to preserve one’s seriousness in describing some of these recipes, but as they have been transmitted to us, I must not pass them by in silence.’
Sometimes Pliny has the last laugh, as for instance when he recommends a plant called ‘rodarum’ for tumours and inflammations. On applying the extract as an ointment, the patient must spit on three times on the right side. The remedy is said to be even more effective if three people from three different nations rub the right side of the patient’s body with it! This may appear farcical until you appreciate that rodarum has been tentatively identified as Spiraea ulmaria, the old botanical name for meadowsweet, which has been used to create non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. As Pliny wrote: ‘there is nothing which cannot be affected by the agency of plants but the properties of by far the greater part of them remain unknown.’ (Book 25.5) One wonders what he would make of the felling of the Amazonian rainforest.
Pliny was clearly fascinated by the natural world. He was environmentally aware, and even something of an eco-warrior. Discussing insects in Book 11 of The Natural History he wrote: ‘In no one of her works has Nature more fully displayed her ingenuity… Nature is nowhere to be seen in to greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works’, a sentiment one could easily imagine being expressed by David Attenborough in another BBC documentary. Pliny records the extinction of plants such as the silphium in North Africa, and regrets the disappearance of certain birds not seen since the time of the augur Mucius: ‘in the general heedlessness as to all knowledge which has of late prevailed, no notice has been taken of them’ (Book 10.5). He decries mining for minerals as so much ‘scrabbling about in the entrails of the earth’ and tells us that the Roman Senate banned mining in Italy, whilst elsewhere an important source of copper had dried up, ‘the earth having been quite exhausted’. It brings to mind images of Roman mining sites in Spain, where the whole landscape is still marked by the scars of industrial scale extraction 2,000 years later.
Despite his environmental awareness, Pliny the Elder definitely comes across as an advocate for Roman imperialism with everything that that entails. Given the circumstances of Pliny’s career and close association with the Flavian Dynasty it would be astonishing if he had been anything else. The Natural History is dedicated to his old comrade-in arms, Titus, and on a number of occasions Pliny makes it clear he’s fully signed up to the Roman imperial project. He pays tribute to Vespasian under whom peace had been restored to the Roman Empire, allowing trade, the exchange of information and interactions between the various parts of the Roman world and beyond. Pliny tells us emphatically that the Roman Empire facilitated the movement of commodities and information about the world and this is what, in his opinion, enabled the progress of civilisation. Since the original series of Civilisation we have become far more sceptical of the claims made about the benefits of empire and are far more aware of the negative impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples, their lands, environment, culture and economy. Pliny may be a strong advocate for Roman imperialism but even so, as we read his monumental work, The Natural History, we can see that civilisation as represented by the Roman Empire was not all it was cracked up to be. The Romans faced many of the challenges we face today: sustainability, environmental destruction, extinction and globalisation. And Pliny has no better idea of how to deal with them than we do, other than to condemn over-indulgence and preoccupation with imported luxuries as un-Roman.
There is one sobering point on which to end. It’s possible to view The Natural History as just as much a product and symbol of Roman imperialism as the Colosseum. Manchester Museum’s collections, too, reflect the unparalleled collecting opportunities made possible by the expansion of another empire, the British Empire. With every discipline represented in the Museum from Archery to Zoology, are we not doing with artefacts what Pliny did with textual records? Is Manchester Museum and other encyclopedic museums to the British Empire what Pliny’s Natural History or the Colosseum were to the Roman Empire?
Many of these questions will be discussed in a new temporary exhibition at Manchester Museum that opens to the public on 6th April 2018. Drawing on Manchester Museum’s wide-ranging collections, and with loans from a number of regional museums, the exhibition explores Pliny the Elder’s life and times, and shows the important role that natural history played in Roman life.
Find out more on social media: #MMPliny @McrMuseum
Easter Island or Rapa Nui sprang to mind when Alia Ullah, marketing officer at Manchester Museum, asked the Collections team at Manchester Museums to write blogposts in response to the BBC’s new series Civilisations. This ‘reimagining’ of Kenneth Clark’s inspirational 1969 documentary is fronted by Mary Beard, David Olusoga and Simon Schama and it was the latter who presented the first programme last night. Civilisations ‘examines humans’ relationships with creativity, from the very first representation of beauty, to today’. Of course, that allows for a multitude of artistic work throughout history and prehistory.
Now, it wasn’t mentioned last night but for my money the stunning material culture of the people of Easter Island or Rapa Nui must get a mention somewhere in the series. When several years ago, Manchester Museum put on an exhibition to mark the loan of an Easter Island statue from the British Museum we focused on the island’s iconic statues, how and where they were made, how they were moved around the island and the meaning that they had for the Rapanui. The BBC’s Civilisations series offers an opportunity to revisit the fascinating culture of the island.
When the first Europeans who arrived off the coast of Rapa Nui during the 18th century they were astonished to see the stone statues. A famous print by Gaspard Duche de Vancey (1756–1788) shows the Comte de la Perouse, the leader of the French expedition, and members of his crew investigating a statue whilst having their hats stolen and pockets picked by the people of the island, the Rapanui. In many ways, this image epitomises the European reaction to the inhabitants: astonishment that they could have created the statues given their impoverished way of life; and amusement that they brazenly pilfered visitors’ hats and handkerchiefs. The Rapanui, it was suggested, must have come along at a later date and were living amongst the ruins of an earlier and far more advanced civilisation. Not only did they not understand the works of their predecessors but in their ignorance, they pulled down their statues. This aspect of the interpretation of the works of art was not discussed in the first programme of Civilisations but this tendency to make value judgements of indigenous peoples in order to justify the spoliation by Europeans of works of art and antiquities must surely feature at some point in Civilisations.
Underlying this sniffy attitude to the locals was an inability to accept any monumental sculpture without the usual accompanying Greco-Roman panoply of towns and cities, roads, aqueducts, and civic architecture. The Swiss ethnographer Alfred Metraux (1902-1963), part of a Franco-Belgian expedition to Easter Island during the 1930s, observed that one of his companions expected to see the walls of ancient cities – similar to Mohnejo-daro – emerge beneath his pick. When they wern’t found, it was claimed that Easter Island or Rapa Nui must be the only piece of land surviving from what was once a much larger continent, which like Atlantis, had sunk catastrophically beneath the waves. On this hypothetical submerged continent, it was argued, were the remains of the expected features of civilisation deemed necessary to underpin the stone statues.
Of course, no evidence of the existence of a sunken continent in the mid-Pacific has ever surfaced. The suggestion is reminiscent of the rather desperate explaining away of the stunning bronzes from Ife in Nigeria by the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius (1873-1938) as products of a supposed advanced civilisation that once existed off the coast of West Africa. There was nothing like the Ife bronzes amongst the African art with which Europeans were already familiar. Frobenius suggested they must have been given to Africans on the mainland before the island, like the legendary Atlantis, sank beneath the waves.
It is now accepted that the skilled craftsmen and artists of Medieval kingdom of Ife made the bronzes just as the ancestors of the Rapanui made the statues or moai. And what prolific artisans the Rapanui were: about one thousand moai are known from the island and most of them were carved in a quarry in the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. The rock is known as volcanic tuff and is relatively soft when freshly exposed. The significance of the volcanic sites to the Rapanui as entrances to the Underworld would have made rock obtained there symbolically important. This may explain why the Rapanui went to such lengths to make their statues out of this material.
About half the moai of Rapa Nui still remain in the quarry in various stages of completion and some are so jumbled together it would have been impossible to remove them without damaging others. Perhaps they were not meant to be removed and erected, and that they are really large rock art or petroglyphs, in which the island excels. The massive statue known as El Gigante, which is still in the quarry at Rano Raraku, is 65 feet (20 metres) tall and is estimated to have weighed up to 270 tons. Paro, the largest statue erected, is almost over 30 feet (10 metres) tall and weighed 82 tons.
If we are to answer some of the many questions that still remain about the island we have to look to archaeology or to experimental archaeology to answer them. In the first programme of Civilisations Simon Schama showed how archaeological excavation had revealed the antiquities of Mesopotamia, bronzes at Sanxingdui in China and Mycenaean sealstones at Pylos in Greece. In 2015 Manchester Museum worked closely with Prof Colin Richards and a team of archaeologists from University College London, Bournemouth University and University of Highlands and Islands on an AHRC-funded programme of fieldwork on Rapa Nui. One of the sites they excavated was the quarry in the small, extinct volcano at Puna Pau where the distinctive hats or pukao for the moai were carved. In the course of their work it has been estimated that the Rapanui removed some 1000 cubic metres of rock from the quarry inside the volcano. Head wear was very important in this culture but the colour made the pukao or headdresses of the moai even more significant because red represents power, vitality and authority (or mana) in Polynesian culture.
The Rapanui belief system and way of life changed irrevocably when Europeans came to the island during the 18th century. The Rapanui were eager to exchange goods and favours for European and New World commodities such as close-woven textiles, metal objects and trinkets and this seems to have undermined the traditional rites and invocations of the ancestors through the moai. Visiting ships in later years reported that fewer and fewer statues were standing. The last statue, Paro, fell in 1862-4. The toppling of the statues, the discovery of large numbers of obsidian weapons and stories about fighting in oral tradition all point to the violent collapse of traditional Rapanui culture. During the 1860s about one thousand Rapanui were forcibly removed or “blackbirded” to serve as indentured labour in South America. Many died and the small number who eventually returned to Rapa Nui brought with them diseases, which killed many of those who had remained. Some Rapanui fled the island, which was increasingly given over to sheep grazing. After the island was acquired by Chile, in 1888, the population slowly began to recover. The construction of an airport, the start of regular flights from the mainland and tourism have brought much needed income for the inhabitants and helped to restore their sense of identity and dignity.
Simon Schama said last night that human beings are art-making animals and that the urge to create has been intrinsic to us from the year dot. The hundreds of stone statues erected by the Rapanui must surely rank alongside the many stunning artistic works we saw last night, qualifying them too as monuments to human creativity. I don’t know at the time of writing whether the trio of presenters will talk about Rapa Nui but it seems to me that the island, its resourceful people and their fascinating material culture deserve to be taken seriously. Thankfully the BBC’s Civilisations series takes a much more international and multicultural approach than Kenneth Clark’s original.
Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: the Statues from Easter Island was shown at Manchester Museum in 2015. The content of this blog reflects the content of the exhibition, which was developed with Prof Colin Richards, formerly of the University of Manchester’s Department of Archaeology. It draws upon information from the AHRC-funded fieldwork undertaken by the British team and their Papanui and Chilean colleagues. However, readers should not infer that Prof Richards and others would necessarily agree with everything written here.
I’ve just got back from a visit to Lyons, in south eastern France where I saw the Musee des Confluences, which a number of colleagues have been recommending recently. It’s on the southern edge of the city of Lyons where the rivers Saone and Rhone meet. From afar it looks like an alien spacecraft. As you get closer you realise it’s lifted up on a huge plinth to protect against flooding.
My visit was limited to the permanent galleries numbered 21, 22, 23 and 24. The first thing to say is that there are some stunning set-pieces, including a mammoth skeleton, a huge dinosaur, and a Giant Elk. As you go round you see whole walls taken up with beautifully-lit fossils, skeletons, minerals, and mounted specimens. There is a sabre-toothed tiger skeleton on armatures arranged in a life-like dynamic pose. The galleries are visually stunning, beautifully lit and very spacious.
You can touch some of the objects, such as a large piece of metal – a meteorite – that came from the centre of a star. The AVs were superb too. There was wonderful AV showing continental drift with a clock that takes you back in time to the super continent of Pangaea and then forward millions of years into the future to a time when North Africa will collide with southern Spain. Unless that is, as the rather disturbing commentary on the AV observes, we aren’t hit by a large asteroid or meteorite. Another highly effective AV shows the creation of the earth and the moon and I had to all but tear Christine away to continue our visit of the museum.
My colleagues had told me I had to visit the museum because it integrated natural sciences with human cultures. The sections on how the earth came into being are juxtaposed with objects from world cultures in the museum’s anthropology collection that illustrate creation myths.
The museum if full of attractive displays: a case full of birds arranged by family I noticed in passing had brigaded the bee eaters next to kingfishers so that visitors could see the similarities. Other breathtakingly beautiful displays show shells and large numbers of butterflies, giving a sense of the sheer range and variety of the natural world. However, this is a broad brush approach and I got the impression that finer detail isn’t covered. The big stories, such as the creation of the earth and evolution are represented and one of the first things you see in gallery 21 are some of Elisabeth Daynes’ wonderful models of a Neanderthal woman and other early humans. However, I didn’t see any reference to extracting purple dye from murex shells in the shells display, which would have been a quick and easy way of integrating the different disciplines.
The question is what level of detail is appropriate in a museum of this size? Text is kept to a minimum so the visitor isn’t exhausted by reading during the visit. A text panel for a section might have no more than fifty words, for instance. A label about 25 words. There is nothing to be gained by writing ‘a book on the wall’ as we found when we visited the Musee des Tissus in central Lyons later that afternoon. Detailed treatment of topics at Musee des Confluences is probably reserved for the temporary exhibitions. It was Lumiere or Light when we visited though there wasn’t time to see this as well.
Any large museum or gallery has to strike a balance between what there is to see and the information about the exhibits. It is very nicely done: in a gallery that explores what happens to us when we die visitors can see a flexed skeleton accompanied by bronze grave goods and there is a mirror above to make it easier for visitors to see. Again this is beautifully lit and well designed, a real treat for the eyes and with provision for the comfort of visitors. In the same section visitors can listen to philosophers talking about death and each recording is played back in front of comfortable chairs each with their own sound zone.
Visually this is absolutely stunning museum but I wondered what visitors take away with them from this experience. For instance, although the museum shows the thylacene or Tasmanian tiger and other extinct creatures and talks about plastic in the oceans (this display was created well before David Attenborough’s documentary), does the museum engage the visitor in a conversation about what human beings could do individually and collectively to change this state of affairs? Could it have prompted a discussion about whether it would be right to bring back the mammoth or the dodo or the thylacene? Do they attempt to influence visitors’ behaviour so that the impact of plastics on the environment is reduced? Are they seeking to change opinion and behaviour in a way that benefits the environment? Or is it sufficient that they provide this kind of experience and leave the visitor to go away and reflect on it and do what they think best?
Musee des Confluences is well worth a visit in our opinion and we’d certainly go back again but it is a particular kind of visiting experience, one that’s based on a visual aesthetic.It’s well worth seeing but I asked myself afterwards what do I actually know about the creatures in those impressive displays? When I think about it not that much. And maybe I don’t need to. The displays do what they do but I couldn’t help thinking that just showing stuff, however beautiful it may be and however beautifully it’s done, without engaging visitors, without them taking something more than a passive experience away with them is somehow missing a trick.
via Let it snow!