ancient history

London: Nero @ the British Museum

Regular readers will know that I generally avoid Roman history like the Antonine Plague – I’ve just never been a fan of classical history, and the Romans in particular bore me. However, one of my friends wanted to visit a museum with me (a rare occurrence, since he normally just wants to go to the pub), and I know his tastes are quite different to mine, so I suggested a few things that I thought might appeal, and we settled on Nero: the man behind the myth, which runs at the British Museum until October 2021 (and honestly, I was quite happy to look at Roman artefacts if it meant avoiding the pub, though of course we ended up doing that too). Admission is an extremely pricey £20, or £10 with Art Pass.

 

We went on a bank holiday Monday, and though I had no problem booking tickets the day before, the exhibition was dispiritingly crowded when we entered, which seems to be a recurring issue at the British Museum (this was definitely less crowded than the Arctic exhibition though). We politely joined the end of the queue for a while, but it was creeping along so bloody slowly, particularly the man and his daughter in front of us – he was taking about fifteen minutes to read and explain each caption to her, even though she was probably nine or ten and clearly more than capable of reading the captions herself, since she seemed to know more about Roman history than her dad did – it was sweet that he was taking his daughter to a museum, I guess, but I just don’t have the patience to stand behind someone reading at such a leisurely pace, so I ended up doing my usual thing of zipping ahead to whatever case was empty and then doubling back to read the things I’d missed once the people in front of them cleared out, which was possible here since there didn’t seem to be a one-way system in place.

 

As you can probably guess from my lack of enthusiasm about the Romans, my knowledge of Roman history is definitely patchy at best, and I didn’t even know that Nero was the adopted son of Claudius. The whole premise of the exhibition is to provide an objective perspective of Nero so that you can use the facts presented here to decide if he actually was as evil as history has led us to believe, or if he’s just gotten a bad rap over the centuries. Therefore, the exhibition started with information about Nero’s childhood and a sculpture of him as a child, I guess to show us how innocent he once was. Unfortunately, it then progressed into an entire wall showing the genealogy of various Roman rulers, and I rapidly started losing the will to live.

 

But I perked up a bit when I got to the section on Roman Britain, because there was some interesting stuff here, particularly the slave chain worn by native Britons enslaved by Romans. Other than Boudica, I don’t think anything especially significant took place in Britain during Nero’s fairly brief reign, so this was probably an excuse for the British Museum to give some of their collection that is normally in storage an airing, but I’m OK with that.

 

In an attempt to show a more human side to Nero, there was also a section on his family life, including the above sculpture of what his daughter Claudia Augusta might have looked like if she hadn’t died in infancy. She’s holding a butterfly, which, much as I hate the things, I can admire the skill it must have taken to carve something so delicate yet sturdy enough that it’s still intact millennia later. There were also sculptures of his wives – I think the one above might be Octavia – but it’s hard to see Nero as much of a family man when you realise he had her executed. And of course he had his mother, Agrippina, killed as well, even though they were once close. Oh, and allegedly kicked another one of his wives to death. What a charmer!

 

We also learned more about Nero’s interests. In addition to murdering and the traditional Roman blood sports, he was also fond of music and acting, apparently to an extent that his fellow upper class Romans found strange. He even appeared on stage when he was emperor, and apparently wasn’t that bad of an actor, though really, what are you going to say about an actor who has the power to kill you and isn’t afraid to use it? I picture him forcing his way on stage despite the protests of the other actors and gleefully ruining the play with hammy overacting just because he could.

  

The thing Nero is probably best known for is starting the Great Fire of Rome and then merrily playing his fiddle whilst Rome burned, but this is wrong for several reasons, the first being that his instrument of choice was a lyre, not a fiddle. Seriously though, he wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the fire, and he later organised a relief fund for victims of the fire and allegedly even let some of them stay in his palaces. However, the fire conveniently cleared space for him to build a new massive palace in Rome, which may have fueled some of the later claims that he played a role in starting it. On the plus side, his new palace looked fabulous – I loved the frescoes of sea monsters and the collection of tiny arms and heads taken from mosaics. They were so small and perfect! I was also fascinated by the giant decapitated statue of Nero with his awful hairstyle that must have looked hilariously derpy when intact, if the sketch here (below right) was anything to go by!

  

Because Nero died when he was only 30, the exhibition soon ran out of things to say about his life and moved on to his downfall, which basically happened because he pissed off the wrong people with his tax policies, and his governors started rebelling. Eventually, his guards deserted him, and he decided to kill himself rather than wait around to be killed, but he of course had to exercise his imperial powers one last time and force one of his servants to help him commit suicide. Some guy called Galba took over the Roman Empire after Nero died, but people didn’t like him either, so he was killed after a few months, followed by three other randoms who all only ruled for a few months before either killing themselves or being killed. Eventually, Vespasian stepped up to seize the reins of power, and he proceeded to pay various historians to trash Nero’s memory, which is allegedly why people think ill of him today, but honestly, it sounds like he brought a lot of it on himself by being a terrible person, though I guess not significantly worse than any other Roman emperor. They all sounded like assholes, at least according to (the famously historically inaccurate) Horrible Histories.

 

Since I didn’t know all that much about Nero going on, I did learn a thing or two, but my friend, who is much keener on the Romans than I am, was not impressed. Weird though it sounds, based on the inclusion of special signs aimed at children, I suspect they were attempting to make this exhibition somewhat child-friendly. Perhaps because of this, they left out some of the juicier rumours about Nero, like the one where after killing his second wife, he had a boy who resembled his dead wife castrated, married him, and anally raped him. Even if that particular rumour isn’t true though, I think it’s pretty clear that this exhibition did nothing to win me over to the idea that Nero wasn’t a shit – he may not have been completely evil 100% of the time, but he was still a despicable human who was responsible for a lot of deaths. For £10, I probably got my money’s worth, but this was certainly not big enough for a £20 exhibition, and based on my friend’s experience, if you like Roman history, you probably won’t learn anything new, but you might enjoy looking at the artefacts. If you can get a half-price ticket, I think it is worth going to see some of the objects on display, which are better than the normal Roman crap they dig up, but I don’t think I’d pay full price for this one. 3/5.

 

London: The Petrie Museum

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If I’m honest, when I walked in to the Petrie, and saw a huge case full of flint blades and pottery shards, I imagined this museum would be unbearably dull.  Rubbly old ancient artefacts are not my cup of tea, and I imagined I’d quickly shuffle around the museum and then get out, so at least I could say I’d been.  But, I pressed on and gave it a chance, and turned out to be pleasantly surprised by the many highlights of this extensive collection.  If you manage to stick with this post, I hope you’ll be similarly persuaded that the Petrie is worth visiting!

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The Petrie Museum is free, located in the middle of UCL’s campus, and is apparently one of the “greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archeology in the world” (per their website).  The museum is housed in only two rooms and a stairwell, but because most of the objects are quite small, there’s a hell of a lot of them (over 80,000 apparently, though I very much doubt they’re all on display).  I guess that means there’s something for everyone, especially if you like pottery.

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I am being slightly facetious here though, because there’s so much more to the Petrie than that.  As I said, it might not look like much at first glance, but if you really take the time to peruse the cases, you’ll discover so many wonderful things hidden amongst the pottery shards.

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Like limestone and glass eyeballs (I am a total sucker for eyeball stuff – I used to have an eyeball lamp and eye lights hanging from my bedroom wall, and really wanted an eyeball tattoo at one point in time, but fortunately was sensible enough not to follow through on the tattoo.  (I wish the same could be said of the stupid tattoo designs I did end up getting)).  And a tiny gold cat with a humanesque face, because why not?  (There were also a bunch of cat figurines, including one with kittens, shown a few pictures up.)

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How about some ancient socks, or a tiny baboon amulet?

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Or clay garlic?  And I think anyone with a sense of humour as juvenile as mine will be impressed by the carving of some Egyptian god with an enormous erection.  See what I mean about there being something for everyone?

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The museum exists due to the combined efforts of Amelia Edwards and Professor William Petrie.  Amelia Edwards was a writer and adventurer who collected hundreds of antiquities (she seems to have been unusually adventurous for a Victorian lady, and I’d love to learn more about her), and donated her collection to start the museum, in addition to providing a bequest to found a department of Egyptian Archeology at UCL.  The Petrie grew to the size it is today due to the early 20th century (the boom time for Egyptology) excavations of its namesake, William “Flinders” Petrie, the first chair of Egyptology in the whole of Britain.

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I know the export of ancient artefacts is a controversial subject, but as I’m unlikely to go to Egypt any time in the foreseeable future, I’m glad collections like this exist so people like me have a chance to see these incredible objects (and obviously nothing new has been added to the collection in decades, since the export of antiquities from Egypt has been illegal for quite some time).  I think the artefacts in the Petrie collection offer a much better view of Egyptian daily life than the usual sort of sarcophagi and opulent funeral accessories, and prove that the Egyptians must have had a sense of humour.  You don’t often think of ancient history as being whimsical, but that really is the best way to describe some of these objects.

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For instance, this tile of a woman having her nose scratched by a monkey (because who doesn’t want a nose scratching monkey?! Well, me, because that’s probably a good way to contract ebola and other horrible diseases, but in theory it’s a nice idea).  I will take a rather adorable hat-wearing falcon though.

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Of course, there are a few objects relating to Egyptian funerary practices, as this was such a large part of the culture, but there’s only a handful of sarcophagi, and I found the giant clay pots that some people were buried in more interesting than those anyway. Even better still were the Greek-influenced face covers, as shown at the start of the post.  I initially discovered covers in this style (I don’t know what the exact term for them is) when I made my first visit to the British Museum (many years ago now), because although I loved the Egyptian section at the Cleveland Museum of Art, their collection wasn’t anywhere near as extensive as the BM’s, and they didn’t have anything like them.  I’ve loved them ever since, and they were some of my favourite things in the Petrie.

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Although the pictures haven’t come out that well, I also think some of the textiles were really incredible.  It was just plain neat to see a shirt that’s thousands of years old, and has somehow survived the centuries and looks a great deal like a shirt someone would wear today.  Amazing.

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Most of the objects have a very terse, factual label attached, and there’s a larger description of the time period, region of Egypt, or types of artefacts, attached to the sides of the cases, but there’s not much detail on individual items (though I think there is a guide available if you want to take the time to read it).  For the most part, I didn’t mind this, both because I would have been there all night if each of the thousands of artefacts had a lengthy description, but also because it’s fun to speculate on how things might have been used, though it might have been nice to learn more about the really cool stuff.  Of course, what I think is cool might not be what everyone is drawn towards; I guess they really would have to expand on everything rather than picking and choosing, so I can see why they’ve gone with the current system (but if you don’t think a humanoid cat is cool, I don’t understand you).

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I think I’ve probably sufficiently conveyed my enthusiasm for the Petrie.  I’m glad I stuck with it, because I do genuinely prefer it to the Egyptian section at the BM.  That said, if it’s your first time in London, and you want to see big, grand Egyptian artefacts (and don’t mind the crowds) then the British Museum is probably the place to go, but if you’ve already been and want something a bit different, come to the Petrie, especially if you want to better appreciate the quirky side of Egyptian culture, and want a stress-free, uncrowded museum experience.  This truly is a hidden gem of a museum, and I definitely recommend checking it out, even if, like me, you’re not normally all that keen on ancient history.  4/5.

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St Albans, Hertfordshire: Verulamium Museum

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I know my last couple of posts have been pretty exciting (Osborne House might have even been a little too thrilling for some of you), so I’ll tone things down a bit this week with a triumvirate of posts (this weird usage will make sense when you realise the subject matter, I promise) on local museums in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.  The first is the Verulamium Museum in St Albans, which I visited with my boyfriend a few Saturdays ago.

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fairly cantankerous individual, and that the list of things I don’t like is a long one, including, but certainly not limited to: butterflies, the outdoors, using the phone, stone circles, and obnoxiously large fonts.  Well, I may have not mentioned this before, but you can add Romans to that list.  I don’t really have anything specific against the Romans, I just find them kind of dull (aside from a handful of the crazier emperors).  I”m not entirely sure why, as you’d think an entire civilisation of people who were essentially suffering from lead poisoning would be right up my alley, but I could never summon up much enthusiasm for anything before Medieval England, and really my jams (to incorrectly use the parlance of the kids) are the Georgians and Victorians. But St Albans is very much a Roman town, and there I was at the Verulamium, so I reckoned I might as well make the best of things.

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When we arrived, the adjacent parking lot was full, so we had to park a few blocks away.  I imagine most of the people were probably using the nearby park, as the museum was fairly empty.  Admission to the intriguingly circular museum is £3.80, and a heads up (because I know I was searching for them) – the toilets are right by the entrance, down the stairs at the front of the gift shop, not in the actual museum.  The first gallery was an introduction to ancient settlement in St Albans, which was known as Verulamium (hence the name of the museum, which is perhaps obvious, but my Latin is not great, and I thought it was maybe some sort of Roman term for a special kind of museum, although museum IS Latin, so I really don’t know what I was thinking.  Probably best to just ignore me on this.).

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The museum then opened up into a neat little rotunda, with various galleries leading off from the centre, each covering a different aspect of Roman life (and death), from money to merchants, to religion and entertainment.  Every topic was illustrated with a number of artefacts that had been found in St Albans, clearly a rich source of Roman treasures.  I think my favourite objects were the brooches and the whimsical face-jug, which can be seen above.  Perhaps it is a less frightening ancestor of the Toby jug?

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The best gallery had to be the one with life size dioramas of Roman life, since all you readers will of course also be well aware of my fondness for wax figures.  There was even some “ancient” graffiti on some of the walls, (the example shown here even included my boyfriend’s name) but no authentic smells (and believe me, I sniffed my way around the place).  Though I’m not that sure what authentic Roman stink would consist of, since they had good plumbing, and most authentic smells seem to be largely poo-based.  Liquamen maybe?

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Whilst I’m still not a fan of the Romans, the Verulamium Museum did win my heart with the use of a pun in the burial section.  There were a few skeleton-filled coffins on display, but only one of them was given a name, that of Posthumus, Roman aristocrat.  I mean, come on, isn’t that a good pun/name?  They’ve even reconstructed a model of his head based off his skull, and have put together a video where an actor playing Posthumus walks around modern St Albans.  It was pretty delightful.

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Another important object in the museum is the Verulamium Venus, who is of course the Roman goddess of love, rendered in bronze.  I overheard one of the museum staff telling a man that she was twice stolen from the museum, but is simply too well known of an artefact to be sold, and was thus returned to the museum on both occasions.

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The back wall of the museum is dominated by a collection of excellent large mosiacs, including the shell motif, a lion and stag, and, my personal favourite, the Sea God, pictured at the start of this post.  Scroll back up and have a look at him, and I think you’ll see why.

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After leaving the museum, we cut across the surprisingly large and well-equipped park to check out the ruins of a hypocaust and a tile floor that are preserved beneath a modern building.  There’s a couple of informational posters inside the building, but the main attraction is clearly the floor, which the walkway carefully steers you around.  The Romans may not be my cup of tea, but it is undeniably cool to see something that old just hanging out in a public park in the middle of England.  It’s definitely worth the walk from the museum if you’re already visiting.

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I did admittedly skip over a lot of the signs in the museum, because I just can’t muster up much enthusiasm about every nuance of Roman life, but if you actually are into the Classics, I’d imagine you’d love it.  I did very much enjoy the section on burial, and the mosaics were undeniably cool.  I’ll give it a 3.5/5.