Friday 2 April 2010

The 99% of the British Museum not on show

In the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, the rise of civilisation is depicted with a hand picked selection of the British Museum in London.

Prehistoric axes show an appreciate of art and symmetry

Choosing just 100 out of 800,000 objects on display was no mean feat. But what is on public show amounts to just 1% of the institution's eight million artefacts.

Ed Davey investigates the 99% of the British Museum the public doesn't see - and discovers how miles of dusty shelves speak volumes about the human condition.

With his flowing white beard and donnish, almost magical air, Irving Finkel looks every inch the learned scholar.

And for decades, the Middle East curator has been conjuring a forgotten world back to the present - piecing together what he calls a "giant cosmic jigsaw".

One of the 100 objects analysed for the Radio 4 series was an early writing tablet, made of clay, written in cuneiform and dating back to Ancient Iraq.

Dr Finkel's life work has been to make sense of the remaining 129,999 tablet fragments in what is the world's largest collection.

Cuneiform, one of the world's first writing systems, arrived in the world before 3200 BC and lasted until the third century AD.

The majority of tablets in the museum are financial documents, while the piece studied by Radio 4 detailed how a beer ration was to be split.

"Hard-working individuals throughout history have always wanted their glass of beer," Dr Finkel explained. "The stimulus that gave rise to writing was nothing to do with poetry or literature, it was tax, bureaucracy and horrible things like that."

But among the collection are tablets recording literature, medicine, maths and history spanning three millenniums.

They could be written in Sumerian, Babylonian, Hittite or any one of the languages cuneiform was used for.

And there is the additional problem that most of them are broken.

"It's like opening a cupboard door in Narnia and finding yourself back in this ancient culture," Dr Finkel explained. "But clay breaks - so it is the biggest cosmic jigsaw you can imagine.

"People find bits of the jigsaw that stick together. There are moments of discovery when you are punching the air with one fist in triumph.

"And this game of trying to match complete documents has been going on since 1850."

Dr Finkel estimates there are 200 cuneiform readers left in the world, and "only 15 who are any good".

"Ours is a minuscule brother of Egyptology", he said. "There are two staff here to study the biggest collection in the world."

At the current rate it will take two centuries to complete the labour. But why bother?

The human emerges

"People sometimes see this as an irrelevance at a time when money is short", Dr Finkel conceded. "But things come out of the tablets which demand respect.

"The human being that emerges from the full collection is the same species as us."

He continued: "There is the conception that people in ancient times were not fully evolved.

"Modern humans think, cavemen grunt and Babylonians are somewhere in between.

"But ancient people thought and created, they lied and schemed and were afraid of disease - these people were every bit as intelligent as us. And that is deeply significant."

On looks alone, there may be little about clay tablets to enchant a 10-year-old.

The same cannot be said for the next collection I examine: the 241 samurai swords stored in the bowels of the museum.

Timothy Clark, head of the Japanese section, said: "At any one time perhaps five are on display.

"But the full collection is probably the most important in Europe."

He continued: "There is such a thing as a critical mass. When you have a sufficiently large sample you start to get a real feel for the taxonomy - the way technology developed and form changed.

"It allows us to give a complete picture of Japanese culture. The gallery is the interface for the general public - and experts study the entire collection up close."

An array of the swords - recently sent back to Japan to be polished - lie out for study in the back room.

They even perch upon custom-made sword cushions. But many staff are too worried to handle them because they are "downright dangerous".

"You have a softer steel inside and a harder one on the surface", said Mr Clark. "The softer metal inside creates a whiplash effect. That gives more force behind the strike.

Deadly functionality

"And the outer steel gives you a harder blade. So you have a combination of whiplash and slice."

Ouch. But the fascination with samurai swords goes way beyond deadly functionality.

"It is a combination of technology and aesthetics", said Mr Clark. "The aesthetic speaks for itself - the purity of the curve and beautiful, smooth lines into which the blade is varnished.

"At least 1,500 years of technological history has gone into it."

Considerably cruder a weapon - but with a vastly longer period of development - is the prehistoric stone hand axe.

I travel to Shoreditch where the museum stores its collection in a labyrinthine warehouse. BMX riding teenagers zip pass, perhaps unaware of the archaeological treasures cached in the nondescript building.

Amid row after row of carefully ordered shelves, curator Nick Ashton tells me what gathering more than 30,000 rocks in one place can tell us about humanity.

"We think of humans millions of years ago as much more primitive than ourselves", he explained. "But the skill in creating these objects is quite remarkable and we would have great difficulty in making them.

"They were very skilled people."

The collection is ordered by geography and era, each of the thousands of drawers sliding open to reveal a specimen lovingly crafted by our long-dead ancestors.

And from the whole emerges a picture of ourselves.

"They have a cutting edge for butchery and they are functional objects", explained Dr Ashton. "But what you see time and again is they have symmetry.

"You see that in axes found across the world, from millions of years in the past to 50,000 years ago."

Dr Ashton continued: "It goes beyond the purely functional and it tells about human appreciation of aesthetics: the creator putting something of themselves into what they are creating.

"It is the beginning of what you would call human."

Back in the tablet room Dr Finkel is pouring over his inscriptions.

"The Assyrians had a conception of the distant future", he says wryly. "Their kings buried time capsules with inscriptions for the future, so they would be gratified to know people like me study them 5,000 years later.

"But if the ordinary people knew I was pouring over their banking records they'd be pretty astonished."

Dr Finkel pauses, a selection of the baffling characters spread before him. "If I go senile I will forget how to read English long before I forget how to read cuneiform", he chuckles. "It is engrained into my very being."

Source: BBC, 02.04.2010

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