London, Day Two: The British Museum, first post

December 16, 2017 at 2:28 pm (London 2017)

So I’ve  been cudgeling my brain for the right adjectives to describe this singular house of treasures….But in the end, I’ve decided to let this mighty institution, repository of riches going back millennia and stretching all the way to the present day, speak for itself. (Oh well, I’m drowning in superlatives after all – inevitably!)

First, a brief but meaningful prelude: several months prior to my making this trip, Ron and I watched a set of Great Courses DVD’s entitled 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. Our lecturer was Professor Diana K. McDonald, Ph.D, of Boston College. We both thought she was excellent; she brought a rather arcane subject to vivid and colorful life.

One of the first objects that Professor McDonald introduced us to was the Standard of Ur. I recalled Ur from my Sunday School days – Ur of the Chaldees, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham – but neither of us had ever heard of this particular object. At once it exerted a strong fascination for both of us.

Possibly in the course of her talk on this subject, Professor McDonald informed us that the Standard of Ur resided in the British Museum. At any rate, I had no recollection of her having done so. As luck would have it, upon entering the first of many rooms containing untold treasures of the ancient world, the Standard was one of the first things I came upon.

Few experiences can equal that of seeing with your own eyes something that has mesmerized you in a more remote medium. You can well believe it – I pretty much jumped out of my skin! “Oh, my God – It’s the Standard of Ur!” I exclaimed, probably too loudly for the sake of decorum. (My dear sister-in-law Donna kindly indulged me in this moment.)

Herewith the description of this object from the British Museum website:

“The Standard of Ur”, decorated on four sides with inlaid mosaic scenes made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, set in bitumen. One side shows a war scene; a Sumerian army with wheeled waggons and infantry charges the enemy; prisoners are brought before a larger individual, who is accompanied by guards and has his own waggon waiting behind him. The reverse shows scenes of men are bringing animals, fish etc, possibly as booty or tribute; at the top the same large individual banquets with other men; they are entertained at the right by a singer and a man playing a lyre. The triangular end panels show other scenes; the object was found crushed but has since been restored, and samples retained.

The Standard is approximately 8.5 inches high, 20 inches long, 4.5 wide at its base, and slightly over 2 inches at the top. (The sides slope inward as it reaches upward; Wikipedia likens the shape to that of a Toblerone candy bar.) It was found in the course of an excavation of royal tombs in the city of Ur, in what was once lower Mesopotamia.

The excavation was undertaken jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It was led by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. The time period stretched from 1922 to 1934. (For more information, and some striking photos, click here.) On the Pennsylvania Museum website, there’s a lengthy and illuminating appreciation of Woolley written by M.E.L. Mallowan. (‘Max’ Mallowan, himself a distinguished archaeologist, was the husband of Agatha Christie.)

Here, in Leonard Woolley’s own words, is what happened at the dig in January of 1928:

The whole tomb had  been cleared except for this corner, where  there seemed small probability of anything being found, for the south corner and the south-east generally had produced nothing at all. The discovery of the bead “head-dress” put the workmen on their guard  and involved special care; then amongst the heads appeared a few minute squares and triangles of shell and lapis lazuli mosaic, after them two or three figures silhouetted in shell.

They had uncovered the first fragments of the Standard of Ur.

Much work of careful excavation and reconstruction lay ahead. When they had finished this labor, their meticulous efforts were rewarded thus:

(The quotation above is taken from The Standard of Ur by Sarah Collins. This booklet, about sixty pages in length, is part of a series published by the British Museum Press entitled Objects in Focus.)

Donna can be faintly discerned behind the display case above. Below, you see her more clearly, enraptured by this object:

In the lengthwise picture below, you may catch a glimpse of yet another ancient masterpiece: the Ram Caught in the Thicket.

When Dr. McDonald presented this object in her lecture, I got chills. I’d never seen it before yet I knew  – or felt that I knew –  exactly  what it was: The entangled ram whose sudden appearance saved the life of Isaac, who was about to be sacrificed by his father Abraham.   (Genesis 22)

Once again, seeing the actual piece was a tremendous thrill.



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