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Posts Tagged ‘British Museum’

Jack's Beanstalk

I forgot to blog about the Kingdom of Ife exhibition at the British Museum, and I’ve just found out that it closes on 4 July. So you have a few days to go.

This is the exhibition that includes those remarkable brass heads from 14th and 15th century West Africa. They are stately and serene, but still highly personal. William Bascom, an American anthropologist who was involved in the finds, wrote: “Little that Italy or Greece or Egypt ever produced could be finer, and the appeal of their beauty is immediate and universal”

Less powerful, but equally interesting, were two terracotta chameleons about 4 inches long, each perched on a stone. Chameleons had a mythical status in Ife culture, and the captions retold the Ife creation myth (I’m summarising):

Olodumare, the supreme god who inhabited the sky, sent the god Orishanla to create the world and humankind. He got drunk on palm wine and fell asleep, so his younger brother Oduduwa took over the job.

Oduduwa climbed down an iron chain that had been hung from the sky to the watery land below. He carried from the sky above a snail-shell full of soil, a five-toed chicken, and a chameleon. He emptied out the soil, and the dry land was formed by the chicken kicking the soil around as he searched for food. The chameleon tested the land to see if it was firm. And then Orishanla (now sober) created human beings, while Oduduwa formed the rest of the living world. Oduduwa is described as the progenitor of the Yoruba race.

I love creation stories. But this one excited me so much because it reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk. This beautiful image of the world above being united to our own world by some kind of cord. Either let down from above, like the chain; or grown up from below, like the beanstalk. The Tower of Babel. Jacob’s ladder. The Cross. Human desire stretching up; and God – perhaps – reaching down. Although for Jack the world above the clouds was not particularly heavenly.

It was always one of my favourite children’s stories. And even the comic version done for TV by the Goodies seemed magical to me. I must find a modern children’s book to see how it is being depicted today.

Here is the British Museum plug for the exhibition. It’s well worth catching:

This major exhibition presents exquisite examples of brass, copper, stone and terracotta sculpture from West Africa.

The Kingdom of Ife (pronounced ee-feh) was a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa (in what is now modern south-west Nigeria). 

Ife flourished as a political, spiritual, cultural and economic centre in the 12th–15th centuries AD, and was an influential hub of local and long-distance trade networks.

The exhibition features superb pieces of Ife sculpture, drawn almost entirely from the magnificent collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

The artists of Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper to create a style unlike anything in Africa at the time. The technical sophistication of the casting process is matched by the artworks’ enduring beauty.

The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include images of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity.

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I had a magical moment yesterday. I was at the British Museum with some friends. They were there to see the Egyptian mummies, but I was keen to visit the stone tools that have been selected as the first exhibits in a new Radio 4 series: “A history of the world in 100 objects”. [You can listen here].

I walked into the room, and a member of staff had some objects out on the table in front of her: A chopping tool, that would have been used to cut meat and smash bones to extract the marrow, and two handaxes. I assumed they were modern copies. But they were authentic — and we could touch them!

I need to stop myself using too many exclamation marks here. I held in my hand, the same hand that is typing this post, a chopping tool that was about 1.8 million years old, and a handaxe from about 1.2 million years ago — both found in the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania. What a staggering thought, that this object in my hand was crafted and used by some early hominid nearly two million years ago.

The shape of the chopping tool was almost identical to that of a computer mouse. It was long, curved and smooth on the top, to fit the palm of the hand; the bottom was rugged for smashing, but more or less flat; and there were even slight indentations on the two long edges where the the curve met the base (just like a mouse) so the thumb and fingers could get a grip.

Stonehenge HDR Panorama by V for Photography.

I’ve held a Roman coin before, and many years ago as a child (when the site was completely open to the public) I ran my hands along the side of one of the stones at Stonehenge — making that connection, taking me back a few thousand years. But this connection over so many hundreds of thousands of years was something of quite a different order, and I catch my breath just thinking about it.

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