A few students took the opportunity to listen to the A History in 100 Items Podcast by the Britihs Museum, and then attempt to find the items on display at the museum itself. Here are these responses.
The Admonitions Scroll, By AJ
The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court of Ladies, usually referred to more simply as the Admonitions Scroll, dates back somewhere between the 5th and 7th century as one of the earliest surviving Chinese scrolls. Painted on silk, it can only be displayed in the museum for short periods to prevent damage from the light. Unfortunately, it was back in storage for restoration when I was at the British Museum. However, thankfully, there is a fully comprehensive interactable that is always on display that I will provide a few scenes from.
In the boundlessness of creation, yin and yang first separated out. / Scattered qi and flowing substance were moulded and shaped. / At the time of Emperor Fu Xi, heaven and human were first divided. / Thus began the relationship of husband and wife, as well as that of lord and minister. / The way of the household is regulated, the plans of the ruler are ordered. / A woman’s virtue values gentleness; she conceals beauty within, and is pure and perfect. / Gentle and meek, virtuous and careful, her proper place is in the chamber. / When she gets married the girl arranges her robes and ties up her apron; respectfully she prepares the household meals. / Solemn and dignified in bearing, with pure virtue she gazes up reverently.
This is the translation of the introductory poem of the scroll believed to have been commissioned by the Jin court to reprimand Empress Jia, who had become the true power in the land as she ruled for her husband.
Here, the fourth scene of the scroll, and the first surviving scene on the scroll, is Lady Feng and the bear. In this scene, Lady Feng, and consort Yuan puts herself between him and a bear; shielding his body with hers. Meanwhile, Lady Fu, not in frame of the photo, has her back to the scene. Historically, it’s believed Lady Fu ran when the bear attacked and guards killed the animal before it got to Lady Feng who did shield the emperor.
In scene seven, the toilette scene, shows the palace ladies at their toilette. One woman sits in front of a bronze mirror while another does up her hair as another looks into her hand mirror, and her face is reflected back the audience. The scene may be presing the importance of beautification rituals for court ladies, or perhaps the mirrors are reflecting back to us that their true face is as their public face.
In scene ten, the rejection scene, the emperor stops the approach of one of his consorts, who is visibly shocked. The scene is to instruct consorts not to be prideful, a the emperor is to only hold one above the others.
The twelfth scene showing the court instructress creating the scroll and instructing two young ladies, and it’s where the unending sexsim of the scroll got to me. I was able to gaze upon the other parts, reminding myself of the time period and trying to minimize the ethnocentrism I’m viewing this scroll through. But I got to this part and was just enraged. I think it’s because the instructress is a fabrication. She’s a political face for this scroll commissioned by a group of men from another man because they disliked the way in which a woman acted powerfully.
After that, one can find marks from emperors past who owned and viewed the scroll. A scroll like this was viewed privately with maybe only a select group of people at once if at all, but emperor’s past marked their approval and thoughts upon the scroll with their seals.
Olmec Mask, by Kelly
When choosing an object from the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Items podcast, I was drawn to the Olmec mask. This particular mask was not used as an actual mask, but likely was hung around the neck of an Olmec citizen. It is thought that wearing this ornament would identify the wearer as an “ancestor or deity.” Dated between 1200 and 400 BCE, and then re-used by the Maya between 100 and 900 CE, this mask is typical of Olmec art style, and was finely crafted. The Olmecs are the earliest Central American civilization, which makes it amazing how well this item has lasted. This mask has clefts, incisions, and glyphs that are symbolic of the four quarters of the human world.
When I went to seek out this item, I was dismayed to discover that it is currently on an internationally touring exhibition with A History of the World, by the British Museum. I was unable to find where it is currently, but the tour is likely comprised of many objects found in A History of the World in 100 Items exhibition. I am glad that I could find where it was typically found in the museum, in the Native American hall. It would normally be surrounded by very old treasures, also of Olmec craftsmanship.
Mayan Maize God Statue, by Tyler
The pose this young Mayan Maize God is doing is one of emergence from the Underworld to signify a new the new cycle of the agricultural season; as if he is in “communion” with what he is doing. Discovered almost 1,300 years ago in Honduras, this Maize God was carved from limestone. Corn, in this area, was associated with having sacred kinds of properties since the upper class were the ones to grow it. This god, albeit a myth, was a very ancient form of ritual for the Mesoamerican people.
To start, I picked this podcast because it was something different for me. I do not have a vast knowledge when it comes to mythology, so gaining knowledge on this is a huge step for me. Also, if I want to talk about history, I am not a huge fan of the ancient periods (Mesopotamia, Egyptian, etc.). I was going out of my own knowledge base to seek new information, and I did. After the Ice Age, people made up these gods to help them with their harvests. The Maize God strikes me as peculiar because, as a first-world human, the fact that people worshipped a mythical god for the hope of a good crop season is so interesting. I’m sure today farmers have their own rituals, but to think of a specific god for corn appeals to me. So much of people’s lives back then were based around legends or spiritual practice for their benefit, and this is just one item from the past that we have to tell that story.
Looking at the statue after I saw it was insignificant, however. I found my artifact in a stairwell. It was out of the way and hanging on a plain wall. There was no justice to this figure because there was no “real” exhibit. It blends in with the wall so much, I thought it was a decorative statue within the museum. Regardless, finding a piece of history that I learned about before I came here was shocking and surreal.
The Swimming Reindeer, by Ryan
I was on the lookout for this, The Swimming Reindeer. It is made out of the tip of a mammoth tusk which dates back to 11000 BC making it one of the oldest things in the museum. On it is two carefully carved reindeer depicted one behind the other. The one in front is way more detailed it is a female with smaller body and antlers. The one following is the male figure it has larger antlers and equally detailed carving of the ears. Both animals are depicted with their chins up, the antlers laid back, the front legs extended forward and bent at the knee and the back legs extending back. After a while of searching I did ask where its location was, it is currently not on display.
Sculpture from Ain Sakhri, by Hannah
The podcast I listened to was about the Ain Sakhri Lovers. It was extremely hard to find this statue because it is so small and has a specific category that is unlike other artifacts within the museum. As the place card says this is the first found artifact of a couple in an intimate embrace but what is interesting is that you cannot see faces. It’s not clear which is the man or the woman or if in fact it is a heterosexual depiction. It is two beings consumed together in loves embrace. Within the podcast it listed some possible uses for this statue such as fertility or trying to connect with the Mother Goddess. In the time this is dated back, sex wasn’t used for reproducing, but merely for love. What struck me most about this figurine was its relevancy today. The podcast label “artifact” from a time that stays in that time but “art” is from a time but is relevant to the present day. Because this statue has no specific gender roles it’s a symbol of intimacy for anyone no matter their sexual orientation. It’s amazing that something from 9000 BC still is relevant today and a message we are fighting for now that love is love, not a gender.