It is some time since I posted about the Harpy Tomb. I am now pleased to report that John and the technicians completed the installation last week. The in-fill panels representing the missing panels were placed in the sequence, and a line from Virgil about the harpies and some interpretation were put in position. Visitors can simply walk through the corridor and enjoy the plaster casts of the Harpy Tomb or they can sit and enjoy the atmosphere in the gallery. For those who want some information there is some text and a photograph of the monument as it is today (courtesy of Dr Jonathan Prag). I hasten to say that the original carved panels of the Harpy Tomb were moved to the British Museum from the site at Xanthos in the 19th century. The panels we show are plaster casts of these originals. Unfortunately we didn’t have a complete set so we’ve made do with graphic panels. This isn’t so much of a handicap in the corridor which connects the Coins and Medals Gallery with the third of the Ancient Worlds Galleries, where the idea is to encourage visitors to make their way through the space without necessarily lingering too long. Unfortunately the text interpretation hasn’t worked very well and we will now re-position it against the dark grey square in the middle of the panels which was the original entrance to the tomb.
Last week we made good progress on displaying the Harpy Tomb panels in the linking corridor in between the Museum’s Numismatic Gallery and the third of the Ancient Worlds galleries on the second floor. It has always been a difficult area to use for display because it is quite a narrow space and it is often very busy with people walking through to see the Vivarium on the other side of the Museum. We planned to install some of our collection of plaster casts of ancient Greek sculpture that used to be in storage in time for the opening of the Ancient Worlds galleries just over a year ago but ran out of time. Members of the conservation and collections team had cleaned and repaired them. Since then we’ve explored a number of different options in the space before deciding to install the plaster casts ourselves.
Our technical team created a framework to support the plaster casts and installed sheets of acrylic to protect them. Unfortunately we don’t have casts of all the panels so we will fill in the gaps using panels printed with a line drawing of the design. This will provide a better understanding of the sculpture, although it is rather different from the original configuration at the top of a square sided tower. We are laying out the panels in a straight run to fit the format of the linking corridor.
As part of the interpretation we will install some vinyl lettering with a quotation from an ancient text that mentions the Harpies. In the image above the text printed onto paper has been placed in position to check that the font size fits the space. Even though this was only a test it was interesting to see that visitors were very interested and reading the text in the display. A small block of text and a photo of the site of the Harpy Tomb in Turkey will also be installed to inform visitors. The original panels are displayed at the British Museum.
My thanks to Shaun and Louise from the Visitors Services team and the anonymous couple (above) who very sportingly allowed their photograph to be taken looking at the casts
One of the areas that we did not have time to look at last year when we opened our new Ancient Worlds galleries last October was the corridor between the Numismatic gallery and the third gallery of Ancient Worlds. Which was a shame given that some of the conservation work on the objects we planned to display had already been done. In fact the objects concerned, the plaster casts of the Harpy Tomb from Xanthos in Turkey, have already featured in the Ancient Worlds blog. Earlier this week I met Senior Technician, John Miller, to discuss how we might go about displaying them.
Unfortunately we don’t have a complete set of the casts of this impressive 2500-year-old funerary monument, which may be no bad thing because the exhibition space we have in mind wouldn’t be long enough, unless we took out some rather useful cupboards to create the space needed. We’ve decided to get round the problem of not having all the pieces of the jigsaw by showing images of the missing panels alongside plaster casts of the panels we do have. In this way we’ll be able to give visitors an overview of this amazing monument using attractive objects from the store that would otherwise hardly be seen, and in a location that lends itelf to a more visual experience.
The plaster casts are copies of panels that once decorated the four sides of a monument known as the Harpy Tomb or the Kypernis tomb at Xanthos, in Lycia, in south western Turkey. The panels were at the top of a stone tower. They appear to show a ceremony taking place at the Lycian court. The ruler, who is sitting on a throne, receives offerings. The ruler and the courtiers hold sweet-smelling flowers or fruits to their noses. One of the figures is carrying Classical Greek armour: a hoplon shield and a Corinthian helmet.
It is not clear what the winged figures on some of the panels mean. They may be carrying off the spirits of the dead to the afterlife. In Greek mythology winged women called harpies tormented people. The best-known depiction of Harpies is in the film Jason and the Argonauts (1963) starring Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack. It is the special effects of Ray Harryhausen that stay in the memory. They put modern CGI to shame. In the film Jason and his crew land on an island to seek some information from the blind seer Phineus, who is being tormented by the harpies. Every time he is served a meal the harpies turn up and eat his food or defecate on it. Jason catches the harpies in a net, imprisons them in a cage and in return Phineus gives him the information he needs to find the golden fleece. All of which is great fun, especially when you’re a nine-year-old lad and it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen on TV in your entire life.
The original panels from the Harpy Tomb at Xanthos are in the British Museum. They were collected by English archaeologist Charles Fellows (1799-1860) who travelled in Turkey and found the ruins of the town of Xanthos in Lycia in south west Turkey. At this time Britain and France were competing with one another to collect antiquities for their respective museums. With the help of the Royal Navy, Fellows collected stone carvings from some of the tombs at Xanthos for the British Museum.
In a recent blog I talked about moving the Museum’s plaster casts of the Harpy Tomb from Xanthos in Turkey up to the Conservaton Lab for cleaning and restoration.
Over the last few weeks some of the conservation team have been cleaning the surface of the casts, which have got rather dusty and dirty over the years. It’s a real labour of love and calls for a meticulous and methodical approach and immense patience.
Susan Martin photographed here is cleaning the surface using cotton wool swab and a solution of water and Industrial Methylated Spirit or alcohol. The spirit evaporates from the surface taking the water with it and the swab is replaced frequently. The dirty swab is disposed of in a plastic bottle with a gesture that becomes instinctive and automatic to those doing the cleaning. You can be having a conversation with one of the Conservation Team at the same time this is going on. Talk about multi-tasking! I attach some images to show what a striking difference the cleaning makes.
It’s sad to think that plaster casts rather fell out of favour years ago but there are some tremendous opportunities to make use of this under-rated class of material. We are looking for other casts from the same monument to fill-in the gaps where we don’t have panels. So if anyone out knows of any Harpy Tomb casts that might be going spare…