Showing posts tagged history

Painted wooden cippus showing Horus standing on crocodiles

Possibly from Memphis, Egypt
Late Period, after 600 BC

A cure for bites and stings

cippus was a type of stela that healed and protected against snake bites and scorpion stings. It was thought that water poured over the cippus gained healing properties. This example is surmounted by the head of the household god Bes, who protected the family from malign forces. Cippi typically show the infant Horus standing on crocodiles and holding dangerous animals such as snakes, scorpions and lions in his hands.

According to myth, the infant Harpokrates (Horus the child) was bitten or stung while in hiding with his mother in the marshes of the Delta. The lament of Isis stopped the celestial boat of the sun-god, who was supposed to be protecting the child. Re sent down his messenger Thoth, who cured the child by reciting a long list of spells. He promised that all that he had done for Harpokrates would be done for any human.

The spells first spoken by Thoth were inscribed on stelae to prevent and cure stings and bites, as well as many other complaints. All manner of conditions of unknown origin, such as convulsions, were attributed to poisoning of the blood. These were regarded as an intrusion of the forces of chaos into the ordered world; the spells were an attempt to combat the unknown.

Source: British Museum

Terracotta flask in the form of a scribe

From Egypt
New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty (about 1550-1295 BC)

This terracotta figure of a scribe depicts him as a very fat man with huge legs, sitting on the ground with one knee drawn up and a papyrus roll spread across his lap.

The figure is a bottle, one of a group of finely made red-ware vessels, sparingly decorated with black paint, that date to the Eighteenth Dynasty. The vessel is not an ink container, as Egyptian inks were kept in dry form. Like his identity, his function, once obvious perhaps, is now a mystery.

Source: British Museum

Limestone model of a town house

From Egypt
Perhaps Third Intermediate or Graeco-Roman Period, about 800 BC - AD 200

This model shows us what an ancient Egyptian house might have looked like in the later historical periods. It is always referred to as a ‘town house’, as the vertical storeys suggests that space was confined, in contrast to the spread-out ‘villa’-like structures found in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1070 BC) city of Tell el-Amarna. The house in this model seems to have had two storeys and an accessible roof. The windows are indicated on the first floor by two crossed bars, and on the upper storey with a criss-cross pattern, perhaps representing shutters. The roof would have been used for storage, much like houses in Egypt today.

Source: British Museum

Tile antefix

Roman Britain, 2nd-3rd century AD
From Holt, Clwyd

This object was one of a row of ornate terminals set along the eaves of a tiled roof. It was made in the tilery of the Roman army’s 20th legion, whose emblem of a wild boar decorates the plaque.

Source: British Museum

Writing-tablet with an intelligence report

Roman Britain, late 1st or early 2nd century AD
Vindolanda Roman fort (modern Chesterholm), Northumberland


'… the Britons are unprotected by armour (?). There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.'

This tablet describing the fighting habits of the Britons was probably a memorandum, perhaps left by a commanding officer for his successor. Despite the disparaging reference to Brittunculi (‘Little Brits’), it may be that the document was an assessment of their potential for recruitment into the local military units.

Source: British Museum

Gladiator figurine of bone or ivory

Roman Britain, 1st-2nd century AD
From Lexden, Colchester

This figurine depicts a gladiator of the heavily-armedmurmillo class. Naked, but for a loin cloth and reinforced belt, he is armed with a large visored helmet, a short sword, a curved rectangular shield, metal greaves to protect his legs, and a heavy guard on his sword arm. Appropriately, a scene of gladiatorial combat is carved on the shield.

These gladiators were often matched with the retiariuswho carried only a net and trident. A pairing like this was intended to produce an entertaining contest between the lightly-armed, but highly manouevrable retiarius and the heavily-armed but less mobile secutor.

Source: British Museum

Floor tile

Roman Britain, 1st-4th century AD
Probably from London

Inscribed with a sketch of a lighthouse

The sketch appears to show a pharos, a Roman lighthouse. Two such lighthouses flanked the Roman harbour at Dover, the main base of the British fleet. The sketch was scratched onto the tile before firing.

Source: British Museum

Gold buckle from the Thetford treasure

Roman Britain, 4th century AD
From Thetford, Norfolk

A dancing satyr

This gold belt buckle is part of a remarkable hoard of late-Roman gold jewellery and silver tableware found near Thetford, Norfolk, in 1979.

The figure on the plate is a dancing satyr holding a bunch of grapes. Two horses’ heads form the loop or bow. The buckle is one of a number of explicitly pagan items in the treasure, which was buried around AD 390, by which time the Roman Empire was officially Christian.

Source: British Museum

Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (Court D, no. 7)

Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq

c. 883-859 BC

This relief panel comes from the walls of the courtyard which led to the throne room of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC). It was positioned next to a side-door through which his throne was sometimes visible.

Although many of the sculptures decorating the palace depicted magical spirits, away from the main central door and buttresses the scenes in the courtyard were secular. This scene was part of series showing a group of foreigners bringing tribute. Their dress shows that they were from the west. The turban suggests one man is from north-western Syria, his clenched fists are a token of submission. At this time Assyria was expanding westward to acquired booty and tribute from states in the geographical region of Syria. The man with monkeys may be Phoenician. They bring luxury goods and status symbols. The monkeys may have come from Egypt or from the lands of southern Arabia from which incense was imported.

Mesopotamian kings prided themselves in the collections of exotic animals they acquired as booty or tribute. Monkeys were popular animals in the art of Mesopotamia. They were often depicted playing musical instruments, perhaps representing animals accompanying travelling entertainers. 

Source: British Museum

The Dying Lion, a stone panel from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal

Nineveh, northern Iraq

c.645 BC

This small alabaster panel was part of a series of wall panels that showed a royal hunt. It has long been acclaimed as a masterpiece; the skill of the Assyrian artist in the observation and realistic portrayal of the animal is clear.

Struck by one of the king’s arrows, blood gushes from the lion’s mouth. Veins stand out on its face. From a modern viewpoint, it is tempting to think that the artist sympathized with the dying animal. However, lions were regarded as symbolizing everything that was hostile to urban civilization and it is more probable that the viewer was meant to laugh, not cry.

There was a very long tradition of royal lion hunts in Mesopotamia, with similar scenes known from the late fourth millennium BC. The connection between kingship and lions was probably brought to western Europe as a result of the crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD, when lions begin to decorate royal coats of arms.

Source: British Museum

Flag Counter