Saturday, August 30, 2008

Tutankhamun at the O2

Last Monday, I finally got around to seeing Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, and, incidentally, making my first ever visit inside the Millennium Dome. Seeing this has made me appreciate the British Museum's Hadrian: Empire and Conflict rather better than in my somewhat lukewarm write-up. I'm not saying that Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs is a bad exhibition - it isn't. But it's nothing like as good as Hadrian.

Let's start with the things I did like. I was a little concerned that it would be overly theatrical, but after an opening video (90 seconds of Omar Sharif), and despite the fact that some of the staff are expected to wear Pharaonic headdress, there is very little overtly contrived in the presentation. The objects are laid out in reasonably spacious and well-enough lit galleries, and the numbers admitted kept to reasonable levels. So there aren't many jams (except at the beginning, where they keep you waiting before admitting you and letting you watch the video), it's never impossible to get up close to a case, if you're prepared to wait, and only occasionally is there not a clear route through the exhibits, leading to confusion as people try to go in different directions. I particularly appreciated the repetition of labels in large print on the tops and sides of cases, allowing one to read about the contents even when there's a crowd in front; other exhibitions could learn from this. Those labels seemed to me concise, and informative (though my companion thought they were dumbing down).

I liked the opening galleries, that set Tutankhamun in context, by displaying objects and images associated with his predecessors in the Egyptian royal family, to whom the boy-king was clearly related (though the exhibition makes clear that exactly how is still up for debate). And it was a bit of an eye-opener how many of Tutankhamun's own objects emphasize military prowess, and victories over the Nubians to the south.

That said, the exhibition is slightly disappointing. None of the really famous Tut objects have travelled from Cairo - no chariots, no couches, no sarcophagi, no death mask (the image used to promote the exhibition is actually a miniature coffin for the Pharaoh's viscera). Contrast this with the impressive centrepieces of Hadrian - the Sagalassos head, the Beth Shean bronze. And there's less than Hadrian - I got round in an hour, whereas I'd allow two for Hadrian (the first time I went it took three, but that was reading everything and listening to all the audio guide).

And there's a certain lack of purpose. Hadrian categorically sets out to educate the visitor about Hadrian, and to change their mind about some things they may have believed. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs doesn't have much more of a purpose than showing off some nice (if minor) objects from Tut's tomb. The labels convey concise information, but there's not as much to get your teeth into as in Hadrian.

All of which might not matter so much were Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs not significantly more expensive than Hadrian. I'm still glad I went, but it's far from being the most impressive exhibition I've seen.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Marking an anniversary

On the morning of 24th August AD 79, the long-dormant volcano of Vesuvius blew its top. The events of the next forty-eight hours resulted in the provision of a unique insight into daily life in Campania in the first century AD, through the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, and other sites, such as the villas in Boscoreale and Oplontis. I've been to Pompeii four times over the past twenty-two years, and to Herculaneum three times, and there's lots still to explore. I will go again.

I've only written a few posts about Pompeii, and it's not my area of expertise, though I have taught the material quite often. There are many books, of course. The Electa Guides to Pompeii and Herculaneum are excellent, as is only to be expected. I'd definitely recommend Alex Butterworth & Ray Laurence, Pompeii: The Living City. I haven't looked inside Joanne Berry, The Complete Pompeii, but it seems likely to be impressive, and has been favourably reviewed. And there's a new book on the city from Mary Beard.

Anyway, I don't have much to say on this, but thought the date should be marked.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What's the message here?

I've just read a review in the Wall Street Journal by Sir Peter Stothard of Maria Wyke's Caesar: A Life in Western Culture. I haven't actually read the book myself, though I know I really need to at some point. And I'm not going to do more than note the slightly sniffy tone Sir Peter takes towards the field of reception studies.

What drives me to comment is the following sentence:

Ms. Wyke, however, is a sophisticated practitioner of her craft, a professor of Latin at University College London and a graduate of the British Film Institute.

For me, this raises the question: if Sir Peter knows Wyke is a professor, then why not refer to her as "Prof. Wyke"? Instead, Sir Peter uses "Ms. Wyke" throughout. This looks, on the face of it, an instance of diminishing the status of female academics, by not using the same courtesy title as one would grant to a male. It's more common than you'd think. As a male myself, I've largely been insulated from it, but a Ph.D.-qualified friend of mine described receiving an e-mail from a female student that correctly referred to two of the academic's male colleagues as 'Dr', but addressed her as 'Miss'. And this wasn't the first time something like this had happened to her.

But perhaps I'm being unfair to Sir Peter. I'm fairly sure this is Sir Peter's choice, rather than something imposed by a WSJ sub-editor, as it's repeated in his blog entry referring to the review. Now, as far as I recall, the practice in Oxbridge colleges used to be to refer to members of staff as 'Mr' or 'Ms', regardless of doctorates or chairs. Sir Peter is a Trinity, Oxford, man, so perhaps he's following that practice.

Well, no. Glancing over Sir Peter's blog, his practice appears to be to refer to male writers by surname alone, without title. Perhaps Sir Peter feels he's being polite and courteous by using 'Ms.' for a woman, but actually it strikes me as rather patronizing. I'm not for a moment accusing Sir Peter of being deliberately misogynist or sexist. But it remains all too easy for males (and not for a moment do I except myself here) to slip without thinking into unexamined chauvinist attitudes.

There's still a long way to go before women are treated equally for doing the same work as men. But we can certainly make a step in the right direction if we remember to refer to, e.g., Maria Wyke as "Prof. Wyke", or "Wyke", but never "Ms Wyke".

Monday, August 18, 2008

I, Hadrian

Well, I've now seen the exhibition three times, read both the books, heard an introductory lecture from the curator, seen the DVD, and read a lot of press coverage. So what did I think?

The first thing to say is that the space in the Reading Room is well-used. It's certainly a lot better than that used for the Persian Empire exhibition a few years back, and possibly they've laid things out more effectively than for The First Emperor. There are points at which the crowds clog up (Vindolanda Tablets, Cave of the Letters material), but by and large I didn't find this oppressive. I was a little concerned that the floor wasn't as solid as it might be beneath my feet, especially as I watched the Beth Shean bronze Hadrian wobble as people walked by.

I've already posted some preliminary comments on what I thought the BM was trying to do with this exhibition, capitalize on the name recognition whilst drawing in people who don't actually know much about the emperor's life, but want to learn. And there's definitely a sense that they want to overturn some myths.

First target is Hadrian as the philosophically-minded philhellene. The recent revelation that the statue of Hadrian in Greek dress is a Victorian composite of Hadrian's head and someone else's body helps this. The notion that the emperor grew his beard in imitation of Greek practice is rather pooh-poohed - soldiers grew beards on campaign, and Hadrian probably picked the habit up in the army. For a British audience, this, I think, is somewhat pushing at an open door - I was introduced to Hadrian the soldier long before I read about Hadrian the philhellene. But it's worth remembering (as, of course, the curators of this exhibition know) that the philhellenic Hadrian is not entirely dependent upon a single statue - rather the statue was composed to reinforce what was already believed of the emperor, though the works of Philostratus and Hadrian's donations in Athens (little touched on in this exhibition). It's also worth bearing in mind what a radical departure Hadrian's portrait was in terms of imperial iconography. Up until Hadrian imperial portraits had, to one degree or another, followed the lead of Augustus, and been clean-shaven, with straight hair, close-dropped in a fringe. Hadrian's full beard and mop of curls was something new.

The other myth attacked is Hadrian the peacemaker. Hadrian's Wall (which from the illustrations one might almost think only survives from slightly west of Housesteads to slightly east of Housesteads) is presented not as a peaceful demarcation, but a symbol of power intended to divide an humiliate the locals, with more than a little in common with the Israeli Wall in Gaza and the planned fence along the Mexican border. There's not much new in this for anyone who's been teaching or studying Hadrian's Wall recently, but the general public perhaps haven't kept up.

Emphasizing Hadrian as a war leader, there is a large section on the Bar Kokhba rebellion in Judaea, which ended with the expulsion of Jews from the province, an act that we are still dealing with the consequences of. At moments one feels the despair of the last of the rebels, trapped in small caves above the Dead Sea, unable to escape, or even get out in the light very often. But one of my students noted a tendency in the labelling to distance Hadrian from direct responsibility.

And that fits in with the general tenor of the exhibition. For all the questioning of certain aspects of his image, I emerged from this exhibition with the feeling that almost all involved (with the exception of the Jewish archaeologists who brought the Bar Kokhba material) retain an enormous amount of admiration for Hadrian. Little controversies are swept under the rug. Hadrian's birth in Rome is taken as a given fact, not, as some have argued, something Hadrian made up in his autobiography to make him seem more authentically Roman. The deathbed adoption of Hadrian by Trajan is only said to lead to rumours and uncertainties - little space is given to the notion that the adoption might have been concocted by Trajan's wife Plotina and the Praetorian prefect Attianus.

My own relationship to Hadrian is very ambivalent. I was brought up to admire him as one of Gibbon's Five Good Emperors, but the more I read about him, the more I feel that we let Hadrian get away with stuff that the likes of Nero would be pilloried for. Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli is every bit as grandiose and indulgent at Nero's Golden House or Tiberius' Villa Jovis at Capri, but Hadrian's does not have the same bad associations, perhaps because it was not in the centre of Rome, taking up people's home's as Nero's was, or inaccessible from the capital as the Villa Jovis.

But I don't want to come across as having a go at the exhibition. It's a good exhibition, with a good collection of material. I'm not sure how much I learnt from it, but then I'm probably spoilt for a lot of this material. I hear people around me being surprised at the notion that Hadrian was from Spain, not Italy, which is something I've known for decades. I'm clearly not the target audience. Nevertheless, there were some things I hadn't seen before. The busts of young Hadrian show him looking like nothing so much as a European prince of the 1830s (and also bearing a resemblance to some portraits of Nero). And it was nice to see Gismondi's model of Hadrian's Villa. And the Mondragone head of Antinous is as sexuality-transcending as it ever was.

And through all of this, the face of the emperor follows you. There are fourteen statues or portrait busts (plus one headless, and a few coin portraits), and you are presented with the image repeated in photographic form throughout the exhibition. And that is the impression I will take away with me - the face of the emperor, and perhaps a sense that I know the complicated man behind that face a little bit better.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A couple of discoveries

It's been a week for archaeological discoveries. and for once I'm not blogging them because I disagree with something that's been said about them,* simply because they're interesting.

First of all, a colossal head of a Roman imperial woman was found in Sagalassos in southern Turkey, in the same baths complex where last year the remains of a statue of Hadrian were found. My first thought was that this might be Hadrian's wife, Vibia Sabina. This also was the first thought of the excavators, but they soon realized that this doesn't look like most portraits of Sabina (that's a statue from Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, like the Sagalassos head of Hadrian, currently in the British Museum's Hadrian: Empire and Conflict exhibition, which I will blog about - I'm going again tomorrow). Instead, they now think it's Faustina, wife of Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius. David Meadows on Rogueclassicism kindly provides another example for comparison. I'm not absolutely sure I buy the ID, but it certainly isn't Sabina.

Accepting that it is Faustina, this doesn't mean it's not connected with the statue of Hadrian. Sagalassos was an important centre for the imperial cult (Hadrian had made it so), and what one could have here is part of a group of statues from the Antonine period, with the emperor's deified (adoptive) father, and his deified wife. The excavators suggest that the statues come from a Kaisersaal ('emperor's room') from within the baths complex. There's no word in the reports as to whether the female toes found last year, and thought at the time to be part of a stature of Sabina, go with the head, but it's surely plausible.

The other discovery, again with a Hadrianic connection, comes from Newcastle, where two Roman sarcophagi have been found. What's refreshing about this are some of the comments made by Richard Annis, in charge of the dig. I can't now find where these comments were made, so you'll have to take my word for it, but instead of saying "this completely changes our picture of Roman Newcastle", what he said was that the dig confirms what had always been thought to be the case. Just about every fort along Hadrian's Wall has produced evidence for a vicus or civilian settlement, with Vindolanda, Housesteads and Birdoswald merely being amongst the best known. It stands to reason, then, that the Roman fort at Pons Aelius (now under Newcastle Castle Keep) should have had something similar. These excavations, with the discovery of buildings and roads as well as the cemetery, now prove it.

* Well, apart from a comment about Vibia Sabina being "forced into a marriage with the homosexual emperor [Hadrian] at the age of 14", which is calculated to make the readers view the marriage of Sabina in twenty-first century cultural terms.