Monday, 15 August 2016

'Sunken Cities' at the British Museum

The latest big exhibition at the British Museum is all about two cities that sunk into the Mediterranean and vanished until they were re-discovered by accident in the last century, the cities of Thanis-Heracleion and Canopus. The underwater excavations began in 1996 and they've found some fascinating stuff so far.

A lot of the exhibits aren't necessarily Egyptian but are Greco-Egyptian from the period of the Ptolemies, the dynasty appointed by Alexander to rule that part of his empire.The Ptolemies adopted many Egyptian customs to bolster their right to rule - using the title pharaoh rather than anything else, marrying within the family, becoming objects of godhood, building temples to Egyptian gods and associating themselves with the local deities - but their Greek heritage also came with them.

One of the more obvious examples of this mixing of the cultures is this lovely life-sized statue of Queen Arsinoe II with its typical Egyptian striding forward movement of royal statuary but the delicacy of the drapery around her is typically Greek, making the cloth almost invisible. You can walk round this statue and it's just as good from behind with the delicacy and movement of the buttocks and thighs.

A big 'wow' moment was the first glimpse of a giant bull, Apis in all his glory. So solid, so there and the detail of his face is wonderful. He is a startling and imposing sight and gathered many visitors to examine him in detail, just like I had to. He wears a solar disc crown (which you can't really see in this photo) to signal his divinity. Bulls were worshipped in many parts of Mediterranean cultures over the eons and it's easy to see why in this marvellous sculpture.

Some of the exhibits have video screens beside them so you can see clips of the archeologists in their diving suits finding the exhibit and excavating it. That's quite a novel approach and works really well when you can see the artefact all cleaned up and there in front of you. Some of the colossal statues were in several pieces when they lay in the sea but have been put back together again such as this statue. It's all terribly impressive.

There was a pair of matching statues of Isis and Osiris at the start of the part of the exhibition that focused on the Osiris mysteries and ceremonies. They are gorgeous and in seemingly perfect condition. Those ancient Egyptian sculptors knew how to work their stones to perfection and there are some tremendous examples of the wonderfully smooth textures in the lovely museum at Luxor which I visited years ago. This pair of statues are really marvellous in their detail and craftsmanship, stylised of course, but that's part of their joy. I went back several times to take another look.

I think this is the British Museum's best exhibition for a while and well worth visiting. There's so much more to the exhibition than I mention and some wonderful - and very informative - artefacts. I loved the statue of Horus protecting Nectanebo II, the last truly Egyptian pharaoh, and the statue of Taweret near the exit - now she's a goddess worth worshipping! My advice? Go and see this exhibition if you can, it's definitely worth a wander round and something to marvel at. Well done British Museum!

No comments: