Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Back on 2nd July, I took some time out and rode the train up to Oxford to visit the Ashmolean Museum.

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That’s the one with the dodo.

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It’s been a while since I’ve been there, partly due to living 4,000 miles away, and partly because the museum has been undergoing extensive renovations especially regarding its collection of Minoan artifacts. The Ashmolean has a terrific collections of items from Crete because of Sir Arthur  Evans (1851-1961) who went to the Eastern Aegean in the early 20th century in the wake of Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of Troy in 1873. How hardcore was Schliemann when it came to Homer and the Iliad and all that? He wrote his Ph D dissertation in Ancient Greek.

After Schliemann’s discoveries, a number of scholars headed for the Aegean to see what they could find. Schliemann was busy in Asia Minor (Modern day Turkey) and on the mainland of Greece, digging up the Trojans and the Myceneans and looking into the face of Agamemnon. Evans spent much of his time on Crete, excavating (and renovating, something archaeologists wouldn’t do now!) Bronze Age (c.1600-1250 BC) palaces of a culture he called Minoan – it is a reference to king Minos, the mythological king of Crete who kept his half-man, half-bull backstairs stepchild in a labyrinth (His wife had an affair with an enchanted bull that was sent to Minos as a present from Poseiden when Minos insulted the god of the sea; she had Minos’s famous prisoner, artist and amateur flyboy Daedaleus, build her a cow suit and well, there you go).

Evans found not only many images and references to bulls among the ruins, but he also noticed that the hallways and corridors of the great palaces, in particular that at Knossos, appeared to follow the same template as a maze. And thus he decided to call them Minoans. No one knows what the Minoans called themselves as their language has not yet been deciphered.

Evans bequeathed his extensive collection of Minoan finds to the Ashmolean, which was his home institution (he was appointed Keeper of the Museum in 1884).

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This is what the Minoan gallery looks like now

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And this is how it looked before

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Here is Sir Arthur, looking fairly well pleased with himself and how everything tidied up:

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Now while there are some terrific things to see in the Minoan gallery, my primary objective on this trip was to see the Stradivarius Exhibition that was on this summer; Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was an instrument maker renowned for his incredible guitars, four of which still survive (the fifth is mostly in bits, demonstrating that Pete Townshend’s schtick is nothing particularly original). The most originally-intact Strad guitar is owned by the Ashmolean, and I had the chance to play with it about eight years ago now; it handles really well, almost as good as my cherry-wood Les Paul.

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Stradivari also made a few violins which are famous for being left behind in taxi-cabs.

The Ashmolean also has Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts, and I had a great time collecting photos along particular themes for up-coming classes and lectures. So admittedly, rather than illustrating a trip report, my photos are close-ups of people no one really recognizes, sort of like when you look at those photos after the wedding reception and try to puzzle out if that strange guy in the shabby suit wandering around the buffet table and photobombing everyone’s pictures was one of your cousins, or the groom’s.

Some people may be familiar faces, though: here is Livia (58 BC- AD 29), the wife of Augustus (63 BC – AD 14) and first lady of Rome in the last first century B.C. and early first century A.D. She contributed the ‘Claudian’ half of the Julio-Claudian clan.

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This is Claudius (10 BC – AD 54), the emperor chosen to rule by soldiers who found him hiding behind a curtain:

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And then there is Nero (AD 37-68), Claudius’s adopted son and heir, whom I suspect would be very cross at being listed as ‘#2’ as he was fiercely competitive as a performer.

He also had a complicated relationship with his mum; before it all went pear-shaped, he even put her on his coins.

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Speaking of Nero’s mother, her brother was Caligula (AD 12- 41), and he was very popular when he first became emperor; he also emphasized his family as part of his public image. This coin features all three of his sisters representing the Three Graces, heavily hinting that Caligula’s reign was the start of a new Golden Age; Nero’s mother is Securitas. This gold coin is extremely rare and this particular specimen actually belongs to the British Museum.

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This next famous face may look a bit strange; the Ashmolean has a renowned gallery of plaster copies of Classical statues; among them is this (to us) garishly painted copy of the Prima Porta Augustus. The Romans painted all of their statues and buildings like this; to us, Classical Antiquity is clean, white marble; to the Greeks and the Romans, this would be as if we skipped painting our cars and just drove around with everything painted with the primer.

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The Romans would also find our custom of clumping together statues in a gallery quite odd; they expected to see sculpture within the context of buildings, not all set up on display like Lalique knickknacks for sale in Debehams.

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Here’s some Greek and Roman sculptures from another famous gallery in the museum; it’s a mix of both the famous and unknown people, from emperors (there’s a bust of Claudius) to comedy writers. This is one of the latter, the New Comedy playwright Menander (c. 341/42– c. 290 BC).

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Menander was extremely popular in Antiquity  through to the central Middle Ages as a comic playwright; a number of his plays were adapted by the Roman playwrights Plautus (c. 254–184 BC) and Terence (195/185–159 BC) and by the tenth-century nun Hrosthswitha (c. 935 – c. 1002). Many famous Menander quotes made their way into ancient and medieval schoolbooks; Julius Caesar (c.100 – 44BC) quoted from his favourite Menander play when he crossed the Rubicon. ‘Let the die be cast’ is subsequently the only surviving fragment of the play  Arrhephoros (‘The Female Flute-Player’). Myself usually choose something from Aliens at these motorway slip-road moments, but to each his own.

Menander’s works disappeared from history from the early Middle Ages until the mid-twentieth-century.

Speaking of comedy, there is also a good selection of Classical artwork at the museum featuring models of comedy masks

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Scenes from plays (this is the sort of scene you might get from an Atellan play, which were closer to music hall acts than what we’d consider cohesive plays)

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And even models of actors that people bought as souvenirs of the festivals in which plays were performed.

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You can also find images of non-famous people from all strata of society including aristocrats, freedmen, and slaves.

An unknown man of the senatorial class

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A freedcouple (ie former slaves who were given or purchased their freed status; judging from the appearance of this couple, they were comfortable financially)

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 A procession of slaves

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This young aristocratic woman is very fashionable; her hairstyle, the ‘bump’ of hair in the front, is called a nodus; it was made popular by the women in the Emperor Augustus’s family (his sister, wife, and daughter all wore this style), and it was symbolic of a woman’s good virtue.

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My favourite discovery was this vase as I have used it many times to illustrate music and popular culture in talks and lectures, but  hadn’t realised that it was part of the Ashmolean collection. The performer, called a citharodos, is playing a cithara; it was a difficult instrument to play, and these guys were the guitar-gods of their day. The cithara was Nero’s musical weapon of choice, and it is  the same instrument he allegedly played  when he was told that Rome was on fire in AD 64. Tacitus does not report on whether he, like the muso on this vase, ever tossed his axe to adoring groupies.

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It’s a quick trip up to Oxford from Winchester, and the Ashmolean is a lovely afternoon out with lots of things that might make you move in more closely for a second look.

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Photos: all of the photos in this blog entry are ©2013 me except the photo of the exterior of the Ashmolean, the long view of the sculpture gallery, and the two overviews (then and now) of the Minoan gallery.

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