The largest covered public square in Europe, the British Museum’s Great Court was originally intended to be a garden. However with the creation of the reading room in 1852, the courtyard became the museum’s library and it wasn’t until it’s move in 1997 that the courtyard was opened again.
In the National Archaeological Museum in Athens you can find a special gallery for the finds from the Antikythera shipwreck, a boat carrying luxury goods from around 75–50 BC which was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Greece. It contained many statues, vessels, coins and of course, the famous 2000-year-old computer I’ve previously written about.
Many of the fine marble statues were recovered from the wreck site, but had been badly corroded after thousands of years lying on the seabed. The truly amazing finds however are those that were only half-buried in the seabed, leaving part of them beautifully reserved and part ravaged by time.
At a recent trip to the Natural History Museum in London I visited their new gallery of treasurers from their collections, which as you’d imagine, are amazingly varied and cover everything from geology and dinosaurs to early human evolution and the animal kingdom.
One of the most interesting specimens on display was a composite skeleton of a Dodo, the large bird native to Mauritius which was hunted to extinction over 350 years ago. The complete isolation of this island let the Dodo birds grow and evolve without natural predators and become flightless; much like the Kiwi and the Kakapo. Very few skeletons of Dodos have been found, so seeing the full majesty of the 3ft tall bird was a rare treat!
The highlight of a recent trip to Athens was a visit to the National Museum of Archaeology. The museum had a special gallery for the finds from the Antikythera shipwreck, a boat carrying luxury goods from around 75–50 BC which was wrecked in a storm. It was discovered in 1900 by sponge divers.
The highlight of the exhibition however is the Antikythera mechanism, the so-called 2000-year-old computer. It is designed to calculate astronomical positions. The construction has been dated to the early 1st century BC. Technological artefacts approaching its complexity and workmanship did not appear again until the 14th century AD, when mechanical astronomical clocks began to be built in Western Europe.
The mechanism could track the movement of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It could also track when stars would rise and set and compared different calendars such as the Egyptian Sothic year.
Another of the dials showed which of the Pan-Hellenic games were being held next, as they rotated on a four year cycle. The Olympiad Dial is divided into four sectors, each of which is inscribed with a year number and the name of two Panhellenic Games: the “crown” games of Isthmia, Olympia, Nemea, and Pythia; and two lesser gamesat Naa and another which has not yet been deciphered.
There are many inscriptions all over the mechanism, some of which explain what the dials refer to, others which give instructions for how to operate it. Its complexity makes people think it wasn’t was one-off but a practised art, and it’s compact size and wood casing meant it could have been easily transported and operated by a lay-person.
It has 30 separate gears and would have been operated using a hand crank.
The wreck is famous for the Antikythera mechanism but also contained fine tableware, pottery, sculptures of bronze and marble from Rhodes, Delos, Pergamon, Egypt, Antioch and the Syrian-Palestinian coast. I’ll make the other treasures from the Antikythera Wreck in another post!
Take a look at this rather attractive pile of coins; who doesn’t like a bit of treasure? It’s actually a photo of the Shapwick Hoard, a collection of 9,262 Roman silver denarii coins found at Shapwick on the Somerset Levels in 1998.
Where was it found?
The hoard was discovered by amateur metal detectorists in a field at Shapwick. They excavated it before reporting it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. During later archaeological investigations it was shown to have been buried in the corner of a room of a previously unknown Roman courtyard villa.
In the real world I work in museums and travel across the county of Somerset visiting its many historic sites on a weekly basis (I’m pretty lucky to be getting paid to do something I love). One day a week I work at Yeovil’s best-kept secret, the amazing Community Heritage Access Centre (CHAC). Basically it’s a museum store and research centre and it welcomes visitors for tours around their collections, which are mostly on open display.