Of recent weeks I seem to have been visiting other people’s museums a lot. I suppose it is predictable, given my period interests and that I was in the UK, that this would develop an Anglo-Saxon theme, but it does seem to be a good time for Anglo-Saxon studies just now for a range of reasons. I thought I’d post about it all, anyway.
First of the exhibitions was the archaeological gallery of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. To my great shame I’d never been there before, but I went with T’anta Wawa, despite the which, we didn’t have time to do the anthropological collection. There was quite enough archaeology. A lot of it appears to have been on display for a long time, or at least the cases look seventies vintage. The prehistoric stuff is very comprehensive, but with labels that only a professional could follow, geological terms used in cold blood and so forth. The historic stuff, Roman and Celtic onwards, is much friendlier to the casual enquirer, though I suspect that my workplace have got most of the best Roman and Greek. The particular attraction of the MAA is that a great deal of its collections were actually found locally, so you can look at a Saxon funerary urn or whatever and suddenly realise that it came from just down the road. And their Saxon display is very splendid, because there just were a lot of burials with grave-goods in the general area. So that started me off well for medieval bling. I wish I could show you more, but their catalogue has no pictures in it; the pictures that there are, meanwhile, don’t have any object data, but I’m pretty sure I’ve shown you the only Saxon thing on their highlights page. Plenty to see if you’re there for real, though, and we only did half of it.
Two days later I was lucky enough, because of the job, to be among a small crowd invited to an opening of a much smaller museum at Girton College in Cambridge. This was the first women’s college in Cambridge, and though it is now co-ed it has a long tradition of fiery female dons and academic interests in the `other half’ of society in a range of different ways. It was built some distance out of town, in what was then fairly rural surroundings (and they still are very leafy) but early work for the foundations quickly revealed that they were not the first to dig holes here and they wound up calling in help to clear out an Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery at high speed in advance of the foundations. (They also found two Roman graves, but despite suggestions in the college publicity that this makes it a continuously-occupied site from Rome to Anglo-Saxons there is a big gap in the finds between second and fifth centuries.) Only what was necessary to build the college was removed, meaning that probably plenty more remains to be unearthed, but what there was was formed into a collection and after a while a room was built to house these and other antiquities, very largely from Egypt but obviously with a fair Anglo-Saxon component. This, the Lawrence Room, has just been revamped and was now being opened up to visitors.
However, chief among the antiquities is Hermione, an Egyptian mummy given to the college by William Flinders Petrie. She has her portrait on her wrappings, and X-ray analysis has revealed that within the wrappings, indeed, are the remains a young girl whose face has been reconstructed digitally and looks not dissimilar. But the name is the excitement, and why Petrie gave her to Girton: she is named “Hermionê Grammatikê”, ‘Hermione the literary lady’, which makes her a fairly unusual first-century female scholar, or at least, student. And, though the odds are heavy against, there is apparently a scrap of papyrus in a Leipzig collection, on which is preserved a writing exercise to her teacher by one Hermione, in Greek, of roughly the same date (i. e., to within a century, gods bless radio-carbon). Wouldn’t it be nice to think, and so on… There are also shed-loads of Egyptian shabtis and even a few pieces of fabric, and because it is usually kept in darkness because the room is as much storage as display, they felt that they could have the lights up for the brief time we were viewing the artefacts. I can’t stress how much difference this makes. One could be forgiven for leaving the Fitzwilliam’s fabulous Egyptian display, or many of our others, with the impression that the ancients lived entirely in a dim half-light in which everything appears brown. Those are permanent displays which have to be lit all day, and light damages fabric and pigments like nothing else, so the light has to be kept down. But here the original colours could briefly be allowed to shine, bright coral, lapis lazuli and ochre, and for once it felt like the owners of these objects might have enjoyed them. The curators were very happy to tells us how they’d worked hard on the lighting so that when standing at the cases lights above them made what you were looking at visible without casting everything at the bottom into shadow; this is not a simple thing and it has been done very well.
The college collections that are kept in the Lawrence Room are currently being fully catalogued so as to go online. I’m told that this will happen midway through next year. The collection is only accessible by appointment with at least 24 hours’ notice, and is primarily intended for teaching and research within the college, but it’s really very nicely done and I hope they can make it more of a thing to visit.
Then two days after that, again with the redoutable T’anta Wawa and a medievalist friend of hers plus entourage, I finally visited the Treasures of the British Library exhibition. I realise that this is a stupid thing not to have done, but as I don’t live in London my visits to the BL tend to be for pressing needs of books, and there isn’t time to play tourist. I’m glad I finally did though, because the things that are there! They are tremendous and splendid. They start you off gently, with mere autographs of Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen, Mozart and Hadyn (among others), but by the time you’ve been along the Shakespeare case and then made it into the sacred texts, and find you’re looking at the Codex Sinaiticus, which is quite like the oldest surviving text of the Bible, you begin to realise that things have got a bit heavy. And then it just piled on: the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Harley Psalter, the Gutenberg Bible, Textus Roffensis, and most especially a manuscript that others will be able to place better than I now can, containing a text of the laws of King Edgar probably glossed by Archbishop Wulfstan I of York, no less. I realise that wasn’t the most special thing there but I felt more of a connection to it because of having occasionally wrestled with Wulfstan’s legacy in the past. And of course there’s one of the BL’s two 1215 copies of Magna Carta, along with the Articles of the Barons, the papal bull repealing the Charter and one of the 1225 copies that got onto the Statute Book, and these have a room to themselves, where a ‘virtual creator’ will tell you all about them. She is cued from a touch-screen display with a list of questions, but it’s not at all clear that that’s what’s going to happen when you touch it, and in the hush of the rest of the exhibition it was actually quite startling. In fact this was a sign of something larger, which is that the people who set this exhibition up don’t seem to have spent much time looking at it. Lights, again. The manuscripts need protecting, but one can hardly see them; one certainly can’t, what is sort of crucial to their purpose, read them in many cases. And what light there is is arranged to shine from behind you, so that if you move close to the case, you block the light out. This probably wouldn’t have struck me without the contrast of the Lawrence Room two days before. More could be done with that, come the next revamp. Anyway, we’d all got a bit full up with marvel and had to take a break before we got to the gorgeously painted Far Eastern stuff, so I imagine I’ll be back, but I shall be fiercely tempted to bring a torch. Meanwhile, ironically, actually the BL’s tremendous virtual exhibitions of its material, like the Lindisfarne Gospel where you can virtually turn the pages, is actually giving you much better access to some of the treasures that they have on physical display.
Wulfstan has to be in there to connect the theme, anyway, but even back at work it’s been clear that Anglo-Saxons are the new black this month, as this cover of the BBC History Magazine for May shows. Two articles, one on Sutton Hoo’s importance now by Alex Burghart, whom I believe has now got a real job and is thus a sad loss to the field, and the other article is a rehashed one by Michael Wood about Athelstan and the unification of Britain (and Brunanburh). And if this prominence of matters Anglo-Saxon weren’t enough I see also that the Naked Philologist, who may or may not be happy to see Wulfstan mentioned, has also returned to the blogosphere. Though she’s temporarily moved later, it seems, and therefore deserves to be celebrated rather in an entry also noting the return to the blogosphere (and Kalamazoo) of Geoffrey Chaucer. But I don’t have one of those coming, so they will both have to be here and some day soon I’ll have something of my own to add, hey?