It is quite some time since I was last persuaded to don my Roman arms and armour (for good reason, I’ve still got the chafe marks on my shoulders to prove it) but an opportunity presented itself recently when my office was flash-mobbed by the Curator of Egyptology, Campbell Price, with visiting researcher Regina Degiovanni who proceeded to give me an impromptu demonstration of how to make a pair of Roman gloves using a bronze dodecahedron… I feel I should point out that Manchester Museum has a wonderful knitted Coptic sock in its Egyptology collection, making us a popular port-of-call for experimental archaeologists who seek to puzzle out how people in antiquity rose to the challenges that everyday life threw at them, such as how to knit themselves a pair of socks, or, as in this case, a pair of gloves.
Coptic sock in the Egyptology collection with Regina’s instruction
Except that I suspect the reverse was true: presented with the mystery of what the bronze dodecahedra found in the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire were for, the intrepid experimental archaeologists arrived at the ingenious solution that they were used for knitting gloves. Sadly the wonderful archaeology collection at Manchester Museum is not blessed with an actual example of a dodecahedron but Regina had managed to obtain a 3D scan of one. Generations of Romanists, Classical scholars and archaeology students have long debated the purpose of these enigmatic objects. With ten sides, containing circular openings or apertures of different diameters and surmounted by knobs where the planes intersect, the famous dodecahedra have long defeated academic enquiry. The someone hit on the solution that they were used for knitting and Regina showed how it was done and asked me to model the fingers of the gloves (see photo).
Finger gloves and dodecahedron
Regina had been in contact with living history interpreters who dressed as Roman soldiers and they had talked about the need to cushion or insulate their hands against metal arms and armour, which not only chafes but in cold weather can be very uncomfortable to carry or wear. I happened to have a replica Roman spear lying around the office and so it was, literally within a minute, my calm orderly existence talking to Sam our Conservator before going to meet my 2 o’clock appointment was turned upside down and I found myself posing for a photo, pilum and dodecahedron in hand, wearing knitted finger stalls. I don’t suppose many people can say they’ve done that.
The fingers of the glove
One thing is for sure: the gloves certainly helped to take the chill off the metal spear I was holding. Whether this does indeed solve the mystery of the dodecahedra is another question. What we need is some use wear analysis of the surface of the knobs on the outside of actual archaeological examples of dodecahedra using a stereomicroscope or a metallographic microscope to see if indeed there is any evidence of threads having been looped around the knobs consistent with the process of knitting. If this does indeed prove to be the case then activities for public programmes in the Museum for the foreseeable future can expect to be dominated by the experimental knitting of gloves to go with our Coptic sock. Does a new career modelling experimental archaeological knitwear beckon I wonder? Watch this space.
Roman mouse lamp in Manchester Museum collection (accession number 40647)
Regular readers of this Blog will no doubt recall that mice have sometimes featured in the posts. It is a great pleasure to host a guest contribution by student Greg M. who recently studied a Roman lamp with a depiction of a mouse in Manchester Museum’s collection. He kindly agreed to write this up as a post for the Ancient Worlds Blog:-
I was given the opportunity by my Sixth form College to undertake an Extended Project, or EPQ, on any topic I liked. Naturally I turned to the Manchester Museum for inspiration.
Having contacted the Museum’s Curator of Archaeology, Bryan Sitch, I was pointed towards a small, intriguing object. Nestled within the museum’s vast array of ancient artefacts, lies an ancient oil lamp with a small mouse design appearing on its surface. This lamp entered the Museum in the early 1900s, having been collected by a Victorian architect and antiquarian named William Sharp Ogden (1844-1926). The lamp arrived with little associated information card, offering little precise evidence of its history, provenance or age.
The Curator, Bryan Sitch, suggested I research both the lamp itself, so as to contribute to the Museum’s records, and also the cultural significance of mice in antiquity. While I anticipated the occasional source of mouse-related information, I found myself increasingly confronted by a complex and fascinating cultural assemblage, including Egyptian comics, satirical literature and Roman Republican anti-decadence legislation!
I sought to learn more about the role of oil lamps in the ancient world, when and where the lamp was made and the role of mice in ancient culture.
For thousands of years, oil lamps provided a key source of light for those who wished to extend the hours of daylight. Oil lamps provided a compact, portable and customisable light source that was to be found in homes, tombs and businesses across the ancient world. With the arrival of mould production in 3/4th Century BC Greece, factories around the Mediterranean began to churn out a massive range of lamp designs. The cost of using these lamps, however, limited their use. According to Diocletian’s Edict of 301 AD, an anti-inflationary fixing of prices, a litre of oil was the equivalent of 20 pence, compared to 14 pence for a teacher’s monthly wage. Therefore lamps were a luxurious, but widespread part of Ancient life.
Having ordered the hefty Royal Ontario Catalogue of Ancient Lamps through the public library system, I discovered that the Manchester lamp closely resembles those produced in Northern Africa. The Manchester lamp’s form closely mirrors those produced at ancient Tunisian lamp manufacturing sites. Furthermore, the chronological development of lamp design, with the emergence and development of the ‘fat type’, suggests the Manchester lamp dates from the 3rd Century AD.
Detail of mouse on lamp. The curl behind the mouse is the handle of the lamp.
While many lamps are often designed with standard ancient images, such as a posing Hercules, I found that flexible production created a huge variety of designs. The small mouse, pictured drinking oil, on the Manchester lamp initially seemed a strange choice of image for decoration. However, I found mice to be a key part of ancient culture.
The 2nd Century AD Roman ‘Messy floor mosaic’, now held by the Vatican, contains an extensive scene of gluttony, with scattered food and a mouse nibbling the remains. This image suggests the Manchester lamp may be a similar satirical reflection on Roman voracity, or perhaps it’s just to be regarded as a cute image, or an ironic prediction of might happen to the oil in the lamp.
Messy floor mosaic in the Vatican
In addition to consuming food, mice could be food themselves. While Mary Beard’s ‘dormouse test’ suggests that the longer you wait for edible dormouse to appear in a banquet re-enactment, the greater its accuracy, they were certainly part of the elite diet. Greedy Roman nobles would fatten up prized specimens in a ‘Glirarium’, before serving them glazed with honey. The aristocratic taste for dormice led to Imperial censors banning their consumption in 117 AD.
Vessel for raising doormice
When you think of Ancient Greek epics, Homer’s noble and fearsome warriors spring to mind. In the 3rd Century BC epic, the ‘Batrachomyomachia’, however, the warriors are mice attacking a hoard of frogs. In this parody, ‘Crumb snatcher’ is killed by ‘puff jaw’ and war ensues. This epic, which was apparently painted on tavern walls, strikes at a surprisingly common theme in literature, mice warriors. On an Egyptian papyrus from 1150 BC, an army of mice launch an offensive against a citadel of cats. This suggests that the parodying of generally austere war imagery enabled a cultural exploration of war, and it also suggests that mice were a seen in a sympathetic light. Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egyptology at Manchester Museum, commented that this image was a fairly common ‘inversion’ of the real world that is sometimes shown on playful or Satirical ostraca, on which the powerful cat is made to be subservient to the mouse.
Mice storming the city of the cats on an Egyptian papyrus
In the story of the ‘Town Mouse and Country Mouse’, Horace extends one of Aesop’s fables, exploring the relative merits of rural and urban living. Again mice are used as a harmless and charming tool to make a point, with the traditional rugged values of the countryside triumphing over urban sophistication.
By exploring, at great depth, such a seemingly small but highly specific object, I have gained an enormous amount. In addition to my understanding of the Manchester lamp’s cultural and historical role, my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of ancient history. By scratching the surface of this tiny strand of inquiry, I uncovered a host of possible questions and answers and had a lot of fun in the process.
Thanks to Greg for writing about this charming object in the archaeology collection.
It’s a pleasure to report that Greg has now published an article about his research on Roman mice in an archaeology magazine released in time for New Year 2017.
The latest issue (June 2015) of Arrowhead, the newsletter of the Archer-Antiquaries, features an interesting article by Manchester Museum’s Curator of Archery, Wendy Hodkinson, about a silver salver awarded to a man called Peter Muir in 1878. The occasion of the award was Muir’s retirement from his position as Officer and Bowmaker to the Royal Company, a role he had held for more than fifty years in an exemplary manner. The salver is inscribed with the legend ‘Royal Company of Archers The Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland’ above and ‘His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch Captain General’ below. The General Council and Members of her Majesty’s Bodyguard also presented Peter Muir with 450 sovereigns, which as Wendy points out in her article, is some golden handshake!
Muir was born in the west of Scotland in 1809 and was the only bowyer to win a gold medal for his products at the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was one three bowyers who dominated the trade in the 19th century. Muir competed in archery tournaments. He was champion in England in 1845, 1847 and 1863, and Scottish National Champion in 1859. One of his duties was to teach new members of the Company to use the bow. Yet Peter Muir seems to have to fallen into the position by accident. When the previous Bowmaker to the Company of Archers fell ill, enquiries were made of Peter Muir’s father to see if he knew of anyone who could fill the position, and he recommended his son. Peter Muir’s service lasted fifty years.
In the 21st century it may appear quaint, even a little strange that the Victorians attached so much importance to archery. The Victorians were fascinated with the Middle Ages because it seemed to them to have been a golden age before the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, when it seemed to them social relations had been more harmonious. If there were strict social divisions and people were expected to know their place, at least the great and the good had acted in the interests of the commoners out of a sense of ‘noblesse oblige’. Of course this was all utter nonsense, but it was very influential at the time. It is not for nothing that in the city centre of Leeds, where I live, there is a statue of the Black Prince (not that there is any connection with Leeds), Armley Gaol was built to look like a Medieval Castle, and in Thornton’s Arcade shoppers are treated to a clock that shows characters from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe every hour. The popularity of Neo-Gothic architectural style as exemplified by the Houses of Parliament, Manchester’s Town Hall and our very own Manchester Museum shows how important Medievalism was to the Victorians.
So popular was archery in 19th century Scotland that there was a long list of archery societies with names as eccentric as the sport was archaic: the Kilwinning Papingo (!), the Ardrossan Archers (before 1845), the Dalry Archers (c.1842), the Irvine Toxophilites (1802-1866), the Paisley Archers (1805-1815; 1858-1910; 1968+), the Saltcoat Archers (c.1856) and the Zingari Archers of Kilmarnock (c.1860). I mean you couldn’t make it up could you?
I would read the vogue for archery, including the inauguration of a Royal Bodyguard or Company of Archers as but one rather quaint component of their Medievalism. However, the fact that such a large amount of money and a silver salver were presented to Muir, and the elevated social circle in which he operated show that archery was taken very seriously. As an adjunct to royalty and the highest levels of the Establishment, Victorian archery was akin to another popular Medieval sport, falconry. Muir described himself as a ‘working-man’ and there is nothing unusual in that, in the same way that royalty today happily rub shoulders with jockeys in pursuance of ‘the sport of kings’.
Wendy ends her fascinating article about Peter Muir with an appeal for members of the public to come forward if they know what happened to the silver salver given to Peter Muir. It is known not to be in Archers’ Hall in Edinburgh. It’s not in the Beechin Wood Collection. Nor is it in the Museum of Scotland. So where is it? Over to you dear reader…..
In writing this blog I have drawn heavily on Wendy’s article in Arrowhead, the newsletter of the Archer-Antiquaries, issue 129 for June 2015, pp. 6-10. I am grateful to her for sharing her archery expertise.
Christine and I have just got back from a relaxing holiday in the beautiful resort of Stoupa in the southern Peloponnese in Greece. At the Welcome party to provide holiday makers with information about the resort and its attractions, our host Mary talked about the fresh water springs in Stoupa. When you are on holiday in Greece you are often recommended to buy bottled water because the water in the taps has a higher mineral content and it can upset your tummy if you’re not used to it but you don’t have to buy bottled water for drinking in Stoupa because they have fresh water springs literally ‘on tap’.
Spring water on tap in Stoupa
Water falls on the Taygetos mountains to the north of Stoupa as rain or as snow during the winter and makes its way through the limestone until it rises to the ground…
Manchester Museum’s exhibition about the statues of Easter IslandMaking Monuments on Rapa Nui: the Stone Statues from Easter Island has been receiving some good feedback from the public and is even inspiring some visitors creatively as the image of the hand-decorated envelope above from a Belgian enquirer shows. In this respect the exhibition is stimulating people in a similar way to the Lindow Man temporary exhibition a few years ago. The latter prompted an artistic outflowing of poetry, drawings and even 3D models that showed people’s deep-seated need to respond in very personal ways to topics that either inspire or move them.
Since opening in early April visitors have left a lot of complimentary and constructive comments about the exhibition and many of them, especially but by no means always children, have added drawings and doodles showing the moai. The drawings perfectly capture the enigmatic quality of Easter Island statues and I am now kicking myself for having used lined paper in the visitors’ book. We only touched briefly upon the inspiration that Rapa Nui’s statues gave to a generation of modern sculptors, including Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Henri Gaudier Brzeska (1891-1915) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). One visitor to the exhibition commented “The heads remind me of Anthony Gormley’s statues on Crosby Beach in Liverpool – very interesting. Fab exhibition. Keep up the good work.”
Perhaps the strong appeal they make to our artistic taste is because we have already been influenced by seeing European works-of-art inspired by them. They reflect back onto the statues the aspects of modern art that grew out of exposure to the so-called ‘primitive’. This would explain why some visitors embellish their drawings of the statues by adding a surrealist moustache with curled over tip or show the statue smoking a joint.
It is perhaps not so surprising that there are so many sketches of the heads: lots of simple line-drawing profiles express the visitor’s appreciation of the Museum’s work.
Moai by Josh
Some children who have been to the exhibition on a school trip have since come back with their families. Take the Davies family who left the comment: ” McKenzie visited with school on Friday. He loved it and so he’s brought us back to teach us what he has learnt” (25/05/15).
Birdman Race competitor?
It’s not just about the statues, however. The exhibition explores the deeper meanings the different kinds of stone had for the islanders and we show samples of volcanic rock. This clearly struck a chord with one visitor, as the photo below shows.
Young Archaeologists’ models of the statues from Rapa Nui or Easter Island
The subject of April’s meeting of the Young Archaeologists Club at Manchester Museum was the latest temporary exhibition Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: the Stone Statues from Easter Island. After showing the children around the exhibition we set up a creative session. The children made models of the moai or Easter Island statues using grey self-drying clay for the volcanic tuff of the heads and bodies and red for the scoria of the pukao or hats. The line-up in the photograph above shows how engaged the children were, and, for adults, it provided a then topical satyrical side-swipe at the line-up of candidates involved in the debates leading up to the General Election…
Forming the heads and bodies out of the grey self-drying clay was challenging but the pukao were easier because they could be rolled out and then cut to size. They always remind me of the coconut sweet in the Liquorice All-Sorts packets (the cylindrical one with liquorice down the centre). The children used pieces of plastic drinking straw to attach the heads to the bodies to hold them in position until they dried (otherwise the heads sag). The children captured the long ears and noses of the statues and some even made separate eyes to insert in their statues, using the red clay for the irises.
As leaders we always find that the best sessions are those that have a practical activity of some sort. The children are more interested and engaged than if we spoke to them as part of a presentation. At the end we lined up the various models to copy the moai that can be seen on the ahu or ceremonial platforms on Rapa Nui or Easter Island.
Making moai at Manchester Museum
The Young Archaeologists Club meets at Manchester Museum on the second Saturday of the month but children have to registered with us in advance before they can attend for insurance reasons and each session has to be booked separately beforehand because we have more members than we can accommodate all at once.
Oliver East’s commemoration of Maharajah the Indian Elephant’s historic journey from Edinburgh to Manchester in 1872 has stimulated a lot of interest in elephants amongst tweeters and blog contributors. Yesterday I looked at some examples of elephants in the ancient world undertaking even longer journeys than the one that Oliver is re-enacting. The time taken by elephants to cover the distance was longer in the ancient world because they did not have the benefit of walking over surfaced roads like the ones that Maharajah followed with his keeper, Lorenzo Lawrence, and it is to be hoped that Oliver doesn’t face the sort of opposition that Hannibal and his army faced from the locals when he was crossing the Alps. In this respect the elephants in Hannibal’s army proved to be a great asset because the mountain tribesmen had never seen elephants before and were intimidated by their unfamiliar appearance, their size, the noise they made and their smell.
Terracotta figurine of Galatian in Manchester Museum collection.
More often than not they were as much a problem for their own side as the enemy, but in some circumstances elephants proved to be an extremely dangerous weapon of war but One of the best examples of the debilitating psychological impact elephants had on the enemy on the battlefield in the ancient world is the ‘Elephant Victory’. The Seleucids deployed sixteen elephants against an army of Galatians in Asia Minor in 275 BC. The Galatian warriors and their horses were terrified by the elephants. Their chariots and cavalry were reduced to chaos when their horses bolted. The Galatian infantry were trampled. The Seleucid king Antiochus I took the title Soter or Saviour because of this victory. He alone had proved equal to the challenge of defeating the Galatians. Tellingly, the victory monument took the form of an elephant because really it had been thanks to the elephants that the Galatians had been defeated, not the fighting skills of Antiochus’s men. The surviving Galatians were settled by a magnanimous Antiochus in central Anatolia where they gave their name to the place: Galatia. St Paul’s letters or epistles to the Galatians were addressed to the descendants of Antiochus’s former enemies. Who would have thought that but for elephants we might not have had an important component of New Testament Christian theology.
Gruesome fate: Galatian roughly handled by an elephant
Another example of a military victory gained with the help of elephants is the battle of Heraclea. In 280 BC King Pyrrhus of Epirus in northern Greece crossed the Adriatic sea to fight the Romans in Italy on behalf of the city of Tarentum. The Tarentines were Greeks who had settled in southern Italy and were now coming under pressure from the expanding Roman Republic. Pyrrhus landed with a Hellenistic army comprising 20,000 infantry, 3000 cavalry and 20 elephants. The Romans attacked Pyrrhus before he could receive any reinforcements . The advantage in the battle is said to have swung backwards and forwards seven times before Pyrrhus gave the order for the elephants to attack:
‘as the Romans began to be driven back by the elephants and their horses, before they could get near the beasts, started to panic and bolt, Pyrrhus seized his opportunity: as the Romans faltered, he launched a charge with his Thessalian cavalry and routed the enemy with great slaughter.’
Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Books)
Despite his victory Pyrrhus had lost 4,000 of his best troops and this has given rise to the term ‘Pyrrhic victory’ meaning a victory that has been gained at great cost.
One of Pyrrhus’ elephants with calf on a southern IIalian plate
In 279 BC Pyrrhus, now reinforced by the Samnites and various other hill-tribes of southern and central Italy, fought the Roman legions again at the battle of Ausculum. Depending on which ancient historian you follow this was a one or a two day battle. At first heavily wooded ground on the edge of the swiftly flowing river caused Pyrrhus and his allies considerable difficulty. The next day at first light Pyrrhus sent troops to occupy the difficult ground, posted contingents of archers and slingers in the spaces between the elephants and made his attack. It was a fiercely contested battle until the elephants charged:
‘Against this even the Romans’courage was of little avail: they felt as they might have done before the rush of a tidal wave or the shock of an earthquake, that it was better to give way than to stand their ground to no purpose, and suffer a terrible fate without the least advantage.’
Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Books)
Pyrrhus’ elephants rout the Romans at the battle of Heraclea 280 BC. Artistic license has run riot here.
Another account of the battle says the Romans deployed ‘anti-elephant’ wagons complete with burning brands and scythes as a counter measure to deal with the elephants but they were a failure. The Romans are recorded as having lost 6,000 men, Pyrrhus 3,505. Another Pyrrhic victory. On being congratulated on his success, Pyrrhus is said to have remarked ‘One more victory like that over the Romans will destroy us completely!’
Roman Republican currency bar decorated with a depiction of an elephant, presumably one of Pyrrhus’ beasts.
Pyrrhus accepted an invitation to intervene in Sicily as a champion of the Greeks against the Carthaginians. He enjoyed tremendous success but in the end alienated the people he was supposed to be defending and returned back to Italy where the Romans were once again pressing his southern Italian allies. At the battle of Beneventum in 276 BC Pyrrhus deployed his elephants but they proved to be as much a weapon against their own side as the Romans and Pyrrhus was defeated. One of the elephants had a calf (presumably the very animal depicted on the plate in the image above) and when they became separated during the battle, the calf panicked and the mother went to its aid, trampling nearby friendly troops. Pyrrhus returned to Epirus with the survivors. He campaigned in Macedonia and the Peloponnese again with elephants but was killed during confused street fighting at the city of Argos. It was a sad end to one of the great heroic characters of antiquity. Fittingly, his tomb was marked with a carving of an elephant.
One of the things that makes these characters from antiquity so deeply interesting is their use of elephants. It’s hard not to think they were just as much fascinated with the animals as we are.
Fascination with elephants? Child’s toy from Cyprus in Manchester Museum
Ceramic elephant in Manchester Museum’s archaeology collection
News that the 160 mile journey of the Indian Elephant Maharajah from Edinburgh to Manchester is being repeated by comic artist Oliver East has really struck a chord here at Manchester Museum, not least because the skeleton of Maharajah is displayed here. Maharajah walked to Manchester with his keeper in 1872. Edinburgh’s menagerie had got into financial difficulty and the animals were being auctioned. Belle Vue zoo in Manchester bought Maharajah but then had the task of bringing him back. The original plan involved putting the elephant onto a train, but Maharajah did not take kindly to this and so the elephant and his keeper Lorenzo Lawrence walked back to Manchester. It’s been suggested this may have been orchestrated by the keeper in order to make more money from undertaking the 160 mile journey on foot.
The journey took ten days covering about 20 miles each day. Maharajah was a famous attraction at the zoo and gave rides to visitors on a seat suspended between his tusks. After he died his skeleton was acquired by Manchester Museum and can be seen on display on the first floor in the Manchester gallery.
Skeleton of Maharajah at Manchester Museum
Oliver East’s commemoration of Maharaja’s journey invites comparison with other long journeys involving elephants. One of the most famous journeys in history was Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with no less than 37 elephants in 219-218 BC.
Elephants over the Alps – illustration by Andrew Howat in Neil Grant’s ‘Roman Conquests’ (1991)
Hannibal was a general from the city of Carthage in North Africa. The city had established an empire for itself in Spain after being defeated in the First Punic War by the Roman Republic. Hannibal’s attempt to defeat the Romans by taking an army overland from Spain to Italy was inspired and after defeating the legions in a number of battles, much of southern Italy went over to the Carthaginians. Rome, however, had the determination and the resources in manpower to withstand any number of defeats and after many long years of warfare, Hannibal was ordered to return to Africa. He was defeated by the Roman general Scipio at the battle of Zama in 201 BC, Carthage sued for peace and the Second Punic War came to an end.
Smaller African Forest elephant on a Carthaginian coin
Marching elephants across the Alps has captured the imagination of many people over the generations but militarily the elephants were not terribly reliable as weapons of war. Most of Hannibal’s elephants sadly died during the northern Italian winter and although Hannibal received some more as reinforcements from Carthage, they were not really a major threat once the Romans knew how to deal with them. They were only really dangerous if the opposing forces had not encountered them before. Nowadays the elephants would be seen as an incredible piece of PR. Many of Hannibal’s elephants were of the smaller African Forest elephant species and it is debatable whether they were big enough and strong enough to carry a howdah or turret. Hannibal seems to have had at least one Indian Elephant, “the Syrian”, on which he rode during his campaigns.
So Maharajah’s long journey to Manchester (160 miles) is pretty modest in comparison with that undertaken by Hannibal’s elephants (almost 1000 miles) but even that is fairly modest compared to the earlier journey from North West India to Turkey made by elephants in the army of the Macedonian general Seleucus (about 2000 miles). Even if an elephant cannot trot, gallop or jump, it is perfectly capable of making very long journeys at a slow and steady walking pace. The bones of the elephant’s foot are embedded in sponge-like tissue which, as writer H.H.Scullard says in his book The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (Thames and Hudson, 1974) acts like a shock-absorber. Maharajah’s daily stint of 20 miles or so is high in comparison with ancient journeys but it reflects the fact that he was walking on a road. Hannibal and Seleucus’s elephants had to walk at least for part of the way over the most challenging terrain ever tackled by elephants. Hannibal’s elephants averaged about 80 stades, which is about 10 miles a day.
Invitation to Miss Crompton to attend lecture by Howard Carter
A long time ago, before I started working full-time on the Easter island exhibition, there was something of an ancient Egyptian theme going on. It started with finding a wonderful invitation from 1923 in one of the archive boxes. It was addressed to Miss Winifred Crompton to attend a lecture by Howard Carter. Miss Crompton was Assistant Keeper of Egyptology at Manchester Museum. She died on 8th October 1932 (Manchester Museum Annual Reports 1932-3, p.8). It was largely thanks to her that so much of the Egyptology collection presented by Jesse Haworth was catalogued.
Later I attended a lecture on Mummies and Scanning given by Bob Lyons in the Museum’s Kanaris Theatre.
Bob introducing his lecture about mummification
CT scan of Egyptian mummy
Red shrouded coffins – an association with people who suffered violent deaths?
Almost a year after it was first mooted and after six months’ hard work Making Monuments on Rapa Nui the Statues from Easter Islandopened with a Private View on Tuesday evening. About 300 people attended the official opening to hear speeches from Dr Nick Merriman, Director of Manchester Museum, Prof Colin Richards, from the Department of Archaeology, and Mathias Francke, Chilean Deputy Ambassador, and to see the exhibition for the first time.
The subject of the exhibition is monumentality on Easter Island or Rapa Nui. Perhaps the exhibition should have been called ‘monu-mentality’ because the first thing visitors see on entering the Museum foyer is the Easter Island statue called Moai Hava, which is on loan to us from the British Museum as part of its National Programme. The loan of Moai Hava and a number of other objects from the British Museum collection was kindly funded by The Dorset Foundation. Behind Moai Hava the entrance to the temporary exhibition gallery is marked by a large wall image showing Rapanui islanders ‘walking’ a statue or moai with the aid of ropes. This and other striking images used in the exhibition first appeared in the National Geographic Magazine in July 2012. However, we are not saying this is the only way statues were moved, even if the technique has been shown to be a practical way of moving large and heavy stone statues by carrying out experimental archaeology.
Once in the temporary exhibition gallery visitors see a large wall-mounted screen with a sequence of still photographs showing various sites and views on Rapa Nui. This part of the exhibition is an orientation gallery. A satellite image of the Pacific Ocean in one corner shows the extreme geographical isolation of the island. That Polynesian voyagers found it is testament to their astonishing sea-faring skills, but even they must have struggled to get there because no pigs or dogs – traditional sources of protein – have been found on Rapa Nui by archaeologists. Presumably they ate all their animals except for chickens en route. This part of the story is illustrated by a Maori wooden canoe prow from Manchester Museum’s collection. This is strictly speaking outside the historical time period and no-one really knows strictly speaking what a Polynesian voyaging canoe looked like but it illustrates the concept handsomely, together with a wooden bailer.
In comparison the Europeans who arrived off the coast of Rapa Nui during the 18th century were no more than Johnny-come-latelies. This period of the island’s history is shown by a copy of Captain Cook’s published journal on loan from the University’s John Rylands library, portraits of Cook and Rapanui islanders and a reproduction of the famous de Vancey print showing the Comte de la Perouse and members of his crew investigating a statue whilst simultaneously having their hats stolen and pockets picked by the Rapanui. Opposite, there are display cases showing a selection of items from popular culture that explore the influence of the statues. They include American comics, a First Day stamp showing Moai Hakananai’a, the other Easter Island statue taken away by the HMS Topaze expedition of 1868, and a DVD copy of the film Rapa Nui (1994).
In the adjacent display case ‘Museum Island’ the importance of tourism in the island’s economy is highlighted by a selection of souvenirs, including a copy of a RongoRongo script inscription, collected by one of the Museum’s curatorial assistants when she went to Easter Island for a holiday.
The last panel in the orientation gallery shows excavations at Puna Pau, the quarry where the famous cylindrical top knots or pukao were obtained. It makes the point that if we are to answer some of the many questions that still remain about the island we have to look to archaeology to answer them. Wall-hangings covered in RongoRongo script characters create a screen through which visitors pass in order to enter the main exhibition gallery.
The first view of the gallery is jaw-dropping: visitors are greeted by two 2.5 metre (10 feet) tall replicas of moai complete with their pukao or topknots, one of them with its eyes inserted. The replica statues were sculpted by Chris Dean of Freeform Studios Ltd with the help of Peter Spinks of Creative Models. It appears that eyes were only inserted into the statues’ eye-sockets during ceremonies or festivals. This would have activated them; once removed the statues returned to dormancy. The Rapanui invoked the intervention of powerful ancestors through the statues.
The first display case of objects from the island under the heading ‘Polynesian Gaze’ explores the concept of seeing in this culture. Stone and wooden figures, the latter with bone and obsidian eyes, a wooden staff with an anthropomorphic terminal and a pair of replica coral and scoria eyes based on those found next to a fallen moai by Rapanui archaeologist Sonia Haoa prepare the visitor for the model of the topknot quarry at Puna Pau, on which they see carved another pair of eyes. It is as if the Rapanui were showing that this is not just an inert material to be carved, it is a living entity, exposure to which was considered dangerous or tapu (the origin of our word taboo) unless appropriate rituals were observed.
A large free-standing replica pukao complete with a petroglyph of a Rapanui vessel gives an impression of the size of the statue which it would have decorated. In the course of carving pukao from the quarry it has been estimated that the Rapanui removed some 1000 cubic metres of volcanic scoria. Head wear was important in this culture but the red stone made the pukao even more significant because red represents power, vitality and authority (or mana) to Polynesians. Some fourteen pukao never left the vicinity of the quarry. Previously they were interpreted as having been abandoned in transit because of some kind of disaster that overcame the islanders. However, work by the British team of archaeologists now shows that the pukao were wayside markers intended to warn workers of their imminent arrival at the quarry and to give them an opportunity to prepare themselves for exposure to tapu and also to shed their pollution from working in the quarry on the return journey.
These ideas are developed further in a section called Ao and Po (pronounced ‘Ow’ and ‘Paw’). Volcanic craters had special significance to the Rapanui as well as Polynesians more generally as a passageway between the realm of the everyday (Ao) and the realm of shadows and spirits (Po). It is no accident that the Rapanui selected stone from extinct volcanoes at Rano Raraku and Puna Pau to make their statues and topknots. Polynesians and Rapanui tattooed themselves as a way of protecting themselves against exposure to tapu. In fact the Rapanui are some of the most heavily tattooed people in Polynesia. Two tattooing ‘pens’ used to mark women’s bodies in Fiji are shown in this section of the exhibition. This section also sets up an equivalence between tattoos marked on flesh and petroglyphs carved onto the island’s rocks as a means of protecting by creating a decorative wrapping and membrane-like surface that effectively ‘shields’ the person and the island. In their relationship with the island the Rapanui appear to have thought of it and its constituent rocks as a living entity. The exhibition has been enriched by the work of Prof Colin Richards and his colleagues at University College London, Bournemouth University and University of Highlands and Islands.
The concept of the island as a living being may help to explain aspects of the carving of the moai. Rather than extract blocks of rough stone to be worked at the destination the Rapanui carved the statues or moai complete in the quarry. A number of stone adzes or toki can be seen in the corner display unit. The narrow strip or keel of stone joining the statue to the bedrock was then chipped away to release the statue. This is rather like severing the umbilical of a new-born baby. The Rapanui may have thought the rock was literally giving birth to the statue, which was either alive or had the capacity or agency to be alive. Again this chimes with what Rapanui told early researchers when asked how the heavy stone statues were moved. They said that the moai walked to their destinations with the help of a shaman. A large artist’s impression from the National Geographic magazine shows teams of Rapanui ‘walking’ a statue by alternately tugging on ropes.
If any further demonstration of the Rapanui’s skill in working rock with hand-held tools were wanted there is a beautiful stone fish hook complete with part of its trace or line made from vegetable fibres.
The end wall of the gallery is devoted over to sections about the quarries at Rano Raraku and Puna Pau and a model of an ahu or ceremonial platform. The sections are beautifully illustrated by official expedition photographer Adam Stanford’s images of the sites. The Rapanui gathered different stones from all over the island and incorporated them in their ahu. This is hardly surprising given what has been said earlier about the significance of different kinds of rock – the volcanic tuff from Rano Raraku and the the red scoria from Puna Pau to name but two. A later section shows a selection of different stones from Rapa Nui kindly lent by the London Natural History Museum and the Oxford Natural History Museum.
The exhibition sketches the organisation of Rapanui society based on comparisons with other Polynesian islands. Some of the most wonderful exhibits are to be found at this point: a spectacular wooden staff with carved head and bone or coral and obsidian eyes, a pair of wooden dance paddles and wooden figurines.
The final section of the exhibition explores the reasons for the decline of Rapanui culture. It skirts contentious explanations such as the eco-disaster theory. According to this theory the Rapanui chopped down all their trees or introduced deliberately or inadvertently rats which gnawed the seeds of nuts of the palm trees and ate seedlings and thereby prevented the palm forest regenerating. Some researchers have pointed to the large numbers of stone enclosures or manavai on the island as evidence that the Rapanui adapted to their new circumstances. However, if the large numbers of obsidian implements or weapons called mata’a are anything to go by, this later period in the island’s history following contact with Europeans was characterised by increasingly bitter warfare. The statues were toppled and there were fewer and fewer standing each time visits were made to the island. It’s been suggested that this happened at least in part because of lack of maintenance but the fact that statues were toppled and their heads broken off in the process suggests this was done intentionally by other clans on the island. Toppling and destroying a community’s stone statues would rob it of power and authority. Not everyone would agree with this reading, nor the suggestion that the Birdman race, only touched upon here, is a late innovation but then the main focus of this temporary exhibition is ‘monu-mentality’ and incidental topics such as RongoRongo script and the Birdman cult, however fascinating, are only mentioned in passing.
The exhibition opened to the public on Wednesday 1st April and so far the response – at least to judge by comments in the Visitors’ Book – has been very encouraging:-
“Congratulations. Quite an impressive display of our culture for the joy and education of this city.” Mathias Francke DCM Embassy of Chile.
“Amazing exhibition, beautifully laid out and put together. Will be back again” Edwin S.
“Brilliant! We look forward to visiting in June”
“Fantastic loved the layout especially the statues” Tom C.
“Really enjoyed this exhibition. Glad we saw it on a vv cold day outside.” Jan O.
“Glad to see an intelligent reappraisal of the role of the statues within the island’s social community. I look forward to seeing the results of the archaeological fieldwork when they are published.”
“A wonderful exhibition very informative and well-presented. It’s a shame the exhibition wasn’t earlier in the year as it was one of the themes on the GCSE exam paper. Thanks Kate M.”
“Amazing to see the Rapa Nui statues up close. I brought my daughter so she could get some great photos for her A-level photography course… Thank you for allowing to take photos.” (02/04/15)
However, some German visitors complained about the lack of dinosaur keyrings in the Museum shop. Which all goes to show you can’t please all the people all the time…
“I liked it because I had never heard about Easter Island before. It was good to learn about the statues.” Katy aged 9 from Sale
“I went to Easter Island and this was a great little step back in time.” Michael and Helen April ’15
“I never knew they wore hats. How interesting.We really liked the moai statue at the entrance. Also the replicas in the gallery itself.” Aaron and Suzanne
“I thought it was good and I liked the statues.”
“Amazing. I learnt about Tutankhamun but not this. Loved it.”
“It is a fantastic display, very fascinating, my father Tom C. said it was one to come and see. He wasn’t wrong.” Rebecca (7/04/15)
“A most interesting exhibition on the Statues of Easter Island” Alan W. (08/04/15)
“Fascinating exhibits. Very informative member of staff. Learnt something new about the origins of our word taboo as well.”
“Loved seeing the display today. Many thanks”. Marie & Millie from Wakin.
Looking forward to reading and sharing more visitors’ comments as this exhibition progresses. As this last weekend was the Bank Holiday, I asked Dan for a flavour of what visitors were writing in the comments book and he replied: “They’re very positive, people have said great exhibition, very informative, and commented on how good the statues are. One person said it’s “sick” (meaning good, I think!), and one said that Easter Island is where the Easter Bunny lives!”
“I liked the exhibit and I liked the bit with Batman and Thor. I also learnt a lot!” Ruby H. (11/04/15)
“A great exhibition, very informative. Thrilled to bits I can say I have that I have seen an Easter Island statue” J.D. (11/04/15)
“This was thoroughly exciting! I always wanted to know more and see a real Moai. I would love to see this again! Thank you x” (11/04/15)
“After watching Dr Jago Cooper’s excellent program it inspired me to learn more, so lucky then to have this excellent exhibition in Manchester. Thanks.”
“Very detailed. Put together in a fascinating way” (12/04/15)
“I liked the exhibition a lot and I learnt some interesting stuff about Rapa Nui. The moai are really cool.” (12/04/15)
“Thank you for teaching me the proper name of Rapa Nui which I have arrogantly, eurocentrically, known as Easter Island. Beautifully pitched exhibition. Informative and fascinating.” Nicky (14/04/15)
“Amazing exhibition. I love the layout of the exhibition. It really highlighted the pieces and makes the Easter Island history exciting. Thank you for doing this exhibition. I really enjoyed it.” (14/04/15)
“I think that this exhibit is amazing! I am very confused as to how the islanders moved the statues. It is very strange.” By Josh L. (15/04/15)
“An extremely well-crafted exhibition really helps visitors understand and visualise what the statues would be like in situ.” (19/04/15)
“Lovely exhibition, wish it had been bigger. Loved the fabric entrance.” (19/04/15)
“Fascinating Easter Island exhibit” Ross D., Newcastle upon Tyne
“Last week I returned from Chile having spent 9 days exploring Rapa Nui – a unique and utterly amazing experience. I visited Orongo village, from where the moai currently on loan here from the British Museum was taken, and looked at the empty space. The islanders traded it willingly in 1868 and helped it to the Topaze but now it’s time to give it back!” Trevor [N.B. Moai Hava on display at Manchester Museum was taken from Rapa Nui by the HMS Topaze expedition in 1868 but it did not come from Orongo – that statue is Hoa Hakananai’a which is in the British Museum]
“Really nice exhibition. Thank you. I look forward to seeing more in the future. Keep up the good work.” Chile (30/04/15).
“We liked your exhibition. Olina loved the books but was scared by the eyes! And I loved the facts about tattoos.” Melanie and Olina (30/04/15)
‘Fantastic. Could not have been better and so worth the long journey over to get here.’ V.C. and V. Long. (17/06/15)
‘An absolutely fascinating exhibition. Thank you. Very informative and I shall take a much more interested approach to all things relating to Rapa Nui in future.’ (16/07/15)
‘I thought that they were very interesting and it was cool how they slide the statues down to a hole to lift it up. I thought that the entrance behind the curtain is pretty cool. The exhibition was awesome.’
‘Wonderful exhibition of some truly tremendous historical artefacts. Thank you for transporting us to Easter Island. Very well put together and the entrance behind the curtain is great!’
‘A truly inspirational exhibition with plenty of information to grab your interest. Irving was so helpful and he had Chloe aged five-and-a-half wanting more. Thank you all.’ Ben & C from Australia and Maureen from Eccles
‘A very informative exhibition and I have learnt about the people of Easter Island.’ (12/7/15)
‘Very well thought out space and thought-provoking. Clear and accessible information. Thank you!’
‘Very interesting. I learnt a lot more about the history and the statues themselves. Thank you…. Merrifield’
‘It brought the island to life. I had on idea about the volcanoes in each corner or the sheer number of statues. Very respectful exhibition, thanks.’ (13/7/15)
‘We visited Easter Island in Feb this year and read about the stolen moai so had to come and see it here. EASTER ISLAND is fantastic and well worth the journey. Ian W. and Viveien P.’ (17/7/15)
‘That’s cool I really love travel. If I have time I must go to Rapa Nui to have a look! Jacky from HK, traveller.’
‘Very, very interesting! Especially to learn how the clans treated the rock as a living being!’
‘Rapa Nui is Polynesian not Chilean’ – another visitors has annotated the last work with the comment ‘incorrect’
‘Thank you this was an inspiring exhibition’ (19/7/15)
‘Brings back memories from our visit to Easter Island in 2007 Thanks Laura and Stefan’
‘Very interesting exhibition. Liked the artefacts. Never knew about Easter Island until today. Kelly and Arnold’
‘Loved the exhibit. I’m an archaeology student but never really studied Rapa Nui before. This exhibition was informative and well-done. Emily B.’
‘Thank you for a wonderful exhibit – as well as the entire museum. Matilda Dallas, Texas, USA’ (20/7/15)