We're entering the last few days of Last Supper in Pompeii, a fascinating exhibition at the Ashmolean that lets you enjoy a taste of the ancient. It's on through Sunday 12 January. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a team of conservators has been working to uncover the hidden histories of 37 previously untouched objects.
By James Webster
After a fascinating morning in the Ashmolean’s conservation labs, I find myself wandering through the Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition. Viewing the many wonderful exhibits with a renewed wonder for the conservation work that’s gone into them, my eye is drawn to a statue of Apollo towards the end.
It’s a gorgeous bronze piece, but this time that’s not the principle reason for my interest. The label tells me that it was later adapted for use as a tray holder during meals. For a moment, I ponder what the famously capricious deity would make of having his statue modified in such a way.
But for the most part, I’m caught by how it found a second life at the banquet table.
This is perhaps the biggest thing I took away from my visit to the labs. The Ashmolean was given 37 items from the Pompeii Archaeological Park’s archive. None of these had been outside Pompeii or seen significant conservation work before. As such, this represents a unique collaboration. And each object, especially those which have seen lots of practical use, tells a story.
Conservation Manager Alexandra Baldwin was kind enough to talk me through the various techniques used to analyse and conserve these objects. This is how they fight back to keep items in the best state possible. It’s also how they tease out the details that help us map each object’s journey.
Spread out on the tables in the lab are various copper pots, bowls, jugs and other vessels. Alexandra tells me that finds like these are quite rare. Due to the intrinsic value of metal, such items wouldn’t be thrown away, but sold second hand, repaired, reused and eventually melted down and remade.
But it’s exactly this long and varied lifespan that makes these objects so interesting.
There are two places you tend to find metal objects like this. The first is sites of ritual deposition, like burials. The second is places that have been struck by sudden catastrophe.
It’s only in those sites of catastrophe like Pompeii and Herculaneum that we find items that were still in use. So each nugget of information uncovered about these objects – from dents to organic residue to location found – tells a bit more of a story.
Take, for example, one of the especially fine pieces they’ve restored for the exhibition: a copper bowl with an intricate ram’s head handle and delicate silver inlay. To my untrained eye, the handle carving especially is gorgeous. This ‘patera’ was likely used for ritual hand-washing.
Slowly and painstakingly, Alexandra clearing away the detritus of the years with the help of delicate surgeon’s tools and binocular microscope. Alexandra and colleague Stephanie Ward (Objects Conservator) told me that as the fine details emerged, it became clear this was one of the finest pieces they’d seen.
Which is actually a little odd, given all these objects were excavated from one of Pompeii’s backstreet taverns. Hardly the venue you’d expect to find a well-crafted piece like this.
Looking over the maps of Pompeii, Alexandra pointed out landmarks like main roads, temples and the amphitheatre. It’s just round the corner from this site of various state-sponsored games and gladiatorial matches that the tavern is located. With a spacious garden, even including a small vineyard, it seems like it would have been a very pleasant location to pass an afternoon eating with friends. Given most ordinary Pompeiians wouldn’t have had their own full kitchens, take-away and dining out would have been a pretty regular part of their diets. So, how did such a fine piece end up in a run-of-the-mill eatery?
Further analysis (including x-rays) revealed the dents and damage the bowl had sustained. You might expect a bowl from Pompeii to be a bit worse for wear, but these were marks from before the eruption of Vesuvius. Given this clue, it seemed that this piece had probably been previously owned by a noble household, then damaged and sold on. Eventually, it made its way to this downhill tavern to be used by a multitude of regular citizens.
When the objects arrived in Oxford in several bright blue packing crates, the conservation team thought it would be a relatively straightforward job. They certainly weren’t expecting the various surprises and discoveries that their analysis would reveal about the many ordinary lives these objects touched.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was a bowl which, due to its shape, would usually be assumed to be used for ceremonial hand-washing. But during the cleaning process, Conservator Miriam Orsini found strange shapes embodied in the bottom. They looked, perhaps, like insects. None of the conservation team were insect experts, but thankfully the University of Oxford museums are filled with a wide variety of experts.
An entomologist from the Natural History Museum was called in: they identified the remains as common fly larvae and rove beetles.
Insects like these wouldn’t have been interested as water; they’re attracted to protein. So the team could determine that this bowl would have been used for raw meat or fish. Perhaps a scrap bowl or a mixing bowl of some kind? Another example of something that likely served multiple uses over time, each of which unearths another piece of lives that – if not for Pompeii – we’d know very little about.
Walking around the exhibition after seeing the labs, this sense of exhibits as holding secret stories felt incredibly pronounced. A lot of them feel full of personality. There’s the branded murals and fish sauce bottles from one of Pompeii’s nouveau riche fish sauce (‘garum’) barons, clearly keen to show off his humble beginnings. Devotive offerings found in kitchen shrines (close to the hearth that was the centre of the home) also seem to whisper about ancient hopes and prayers.
Amidst the case that contains many of the newly conserved items, we can also see one jar left in the state in which it was excavated. It’s crusted with pumice that grows off the rim like a rocky fungus, and coated with a light blue sheen of volcanic-formed Lapili. It’s a stark contrast to the other pieces, delicately restored to their distinctive copper-tarnished surfaces.
A video nearby illustrates some of the work in the labs that I was privileged to have explained to me. We see, for example, how x-rays revealed the various repairs the vessels had undergone. Some had clearly been fixed up by skilled craftspeople with thin copper strips, riveted on. Others had crude repairs of melted lead poured over cracks. Again and again, these vessels were used and re-used, a constant part of the practical lives of Pompeiians.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that they’re being used here, again, as part of an exhibition that highlights the relationship between a people and their food.
And there’s still more analysis underway. Many of the objects still had traces of organic material (partly thanks to the copper they’re made out of, which kills bacteria). In another collaboration, the Oxford Archaeology and Chemistry departments are currently working together to find out what that can tell us.
Once the exhibition ends (after the last day tomorrow, 11 January), still more work will be done with x-ray and other techniques. It seems this partnership with the Parco Archeologico di Pompei, with funding for the conservation work supported by the Stockman Family Foundation and the Helen Roll Charity, has more secrets to uncover.
Coming up next for the conservation labs at the Ashmolean will be some work on their Ancient Near East collection. Among other techniques, this project will use hyperspectral imaging to uncover more about ancient objects from sites such as Ur and Nimrud. While it’s too early to say what will be discovered, they are hoping that such analysis could (for example) tell us more about the pigments and colours which would have decorated ivory and carved figures, and stone reliefs, bringing a bit of colour back into history…
The concert in May 2019 saw Gaz and his band perform a bespoke set with the 42-piece ‘Hot Fruit Orchestra’, made up of students, professors and alumni of the Oxford University Faculty of Music. The Hot Fruit Orchestra was a ‘scratch orchestra’ – none of the musicians had played together before.
The response from the players and the audience was equally as enthusiastic. Professor Gascia Ouzounian, who performed at the concert, said: "This was an extraordinary opportunity for students and staff from the Faculty of Music to play alongside Gaz Coombes, one of the world’s finest singer-songwriters, in the Sheldonian, an historic building, with gorgeous orchestral arrangements by composer Luke Lewis.
DPhil student and performer Patrick Brennan said: "I really enjoyed the fusion that took place in the Sheldonian that evening - the chance to play my violin at an orchestral desk, but accompanied by guitars, drums, synthesisers, and of course Gaz Coombes’ sensational vocals."
The venue was provided for free as part of the Sheldonian Theatre Curators' 350th Anniversary Community Engagement Scheme - a way of allowing the community and different groups of people to access the historic building.
Track listing for ‘Sheldonian Live EP’:
1) The Girl Who Fell To Earth (Sheldonian Live)
2) The Oaks (Sheldonian Live)
3) Walk The Walk (Sheldonian Live)
4) Slow Motion Life (Sheldonian Live)
Convocation House hosted a rather unique hour-long concert last month. It included works from Joseph Haydn, Arvo Part, Nils Frahm, Philip Glass and Peteris Vasks. The most singular thing about it? Four of the pieces were completely silent…
The concert was the brain child of the Silence Hub, a research group in The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). The trio at the Hub's heart are Professor Kate McLoughlin of the Faculty of English, Dr Willem Kuyken, Ritblat Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science, and Dr Suzan Meryem Rosita Kalayci of the Faculty of History.
The event they organised brought members of the SCANJ string quartet together with cellist Jacqueline Josephine. As Professor Kate McLoughlin said afterwards, 'I hoped to put on a unique programme in which the audience would be confronted by performances of silence by people who are used to playing in public.'
'They usually perform music, of course,' she added.
The performers rose to the challenge of performing the silent pieces alongside more traditional music (though the pieces chosen were still quiet, contemplative or contained meaningful pauses). One attendee, Sarah Bedford, said: 'Particularly notable were the parts where the musicians did not "play" anything, and yet were performing the piece and sat with full attention on performing through the silence.'
Sarah was also complimentary of Dr Kuyken’s contribution in guiding the audience through the event. As Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science, he was well equipped to use his expertise to foster that sense of peace and contemplation. Sarah added this was especially helpful as 'having the questions from the research team like "what words does 'silence' conjure up for you?" meant that you were able to mull that over in the quietness, rather than letting your thoughts wander to other things.'
Feedback was gathered from the audience, with about two thirds responding positively. Professor McLoughlin hoped the event would 'create an event of silence, quietness and peacefulness that would help people enter a calm, reflective mood'. And many did report a sense of tranquillity that came with the event.
A debrief was also held the day after with a few audience members. Dr Suzan Meryem Rosita Kalayci said this was her favourite part. 'The conversations that emerge are really valuable,' she said. 'One audience member said something about silence being an unoccupied space, a threshold of some sort. That struck a chord with me.'
Each member of the Silence Hub approaches the concept of silence from a different angle. Dr Kalayci has studied the role of silence in the history of the Eastern Mediterranean. Her research informs some of the Hub's future activities, with the Hilary Term featuring events on the theme Silence & Syria.
'I have lived in Syria for many years, so the theme is very close to my heart,' she said. 'There is a lot to be said, especially about our silence on the war in Syria. I think silence is a very powerful tool of protest because, like a full stop at the end of a sentence, it offers the chance of a new thought.'
There are already plans in development for an essay competition for young adults in Arabic, English and Kurdish; a pop-up library with books about Syria and talks by writers from Syria; a book of collected essays about Syria; and a collaboration with the artist Erkan Özgen.
The Syria events will also include poetry readings, relating to Professor McLoughlin’s work on the role of silence in literature, which also links into silence in conflict. Her last book was 'about the figure of the war veteran in literature and culture - what philosophical ideas he stands for in literary works - and the last chapter was about veterans who can't or won't speak about the wars they have been in.'
By interspersing poetry with contemplative silence, the readings should raise questions about some of Professor McLoughlin's key ideas that she’s also exploring in a book about silence in literature: 'First, what are we talking about when we talk about silence (in other words, what does silence mean)? And second, why is silence so powerful?'
For more details of news and future events, keep an eye on the Silence Hub’s website.
The Financial Times has just released its list of Business Books of 2019.
The list is mostly comprised of titles you would expect to see on CEOs’ shelves, such as books on management and big technology firms.
But one stands out from the rest: a book based on Oxford research into life and health in the Victorian times. It turns out Anxious Times: Medicine and Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Britain has a lot to teach us about modern life.
Written by Dr Amelia Bonea, Dr Melissa Dickson, Professor Sally Shuttleworth and Dr Jennifer Wallis, the book emerged out of the Diseases of Modern Life: 19th Century Perspectives research project at Oxford University.
Funded by the European Research Council, the project was led by Sally Shuttleworth, Professor English Literature at St Anne’s College. The project looks at how literature, science and medicine reflected the stresses of a rapidly changing society, finding many interesting parallels to our own.
Professor Shuttleworth was 'delighted' to hear the book was named in the list. She said: 'It was very unexpected. That said, when writing the book and running the project, we were very aware that the themes we were looking at are concerns for public health and business at the moment.'
In the FT's list, they say Anxious Times "makes the fascinating case that the stress and anxiety of the Victorians…foreshadowed our own age's problems with burnout and disruption".
Speaking about these parallels, Professor Shuttleworth said: 'I think it's of huge relevance to today's audiences and thinking. We spent time looking at what we now call "executive burnout", but that back then was called "overpressure".
'This had a lot to do with the coming of the telegraph, suddenly you had to work on a much wider, global scale, and you could be inundated with telegrams at all hours of night and day. Businesspeople in London would often even have telegraphs in their own homes, which really added to the pressures.'
If this sounds familiar – perhaps you too struggle from being always a phone call or email away from work - then you’re starting to understand a key parallel between modern day and Victorian times: the speed of technological change.
'I think every generation has a sense that things were better somehow in the past, but there are very strong parallels between now and the 19th century,' said Professor Shuttleworth. 'It's down to the rapidity of the change; if you think about that period, they went from being overwhelmingly agricultural to an industrial society in around 50 years.
'The railways carpeted the country, and with the creation of global telegraph lines, suddenly a letter that would have taken six months to get to Australia can be telegraphed in a matter of minutes. So the shift in how you orient yourself in the world and in your understanding of time and space is just remarkable. And I think that’s the same kind of issue we're coping with now.'
There are further similarities in the sheer amount of information available. The advent of the steam stress meant that people felt they were bombarded with print, while the new penny post led to a surge in advertising. We're seeing an echoing of that now, with concerns about how much space we have left where we’re not consuming information or being sold something.
Professor Shuttleworth recounted one story where: 'There's this wonderful description of a doctor being unable to eat their breakfast there were so many advertising flyers for drugs companies all over his table. So there was that same sense of being pressured to buy.'
It’s not just the similarities that may surprise readers. Anxious Times also uncovers some key differences in societal attitudes. Professor Shuttleworth explained: 'One of the big surprises was the way people were so sympathetic to sufferers from "overpressure" or "overwork".
'They accepted breakdowns as not being shameful, and would send executives off to health resorts for six months or more to recover. There was an understanding that convalescence required substantial time. I think that’s something that’s been completely lost.'
Given that kind of surprise, it becomes even clearer why this is vital reading for business. Professor Shuttleworth said: 'I think the lessons are that you shouldn't worry things are unprecedented. You can gain greater understanding of today's problems by placing them in historical perspective.
'There are also lessons to be learned from the ways in which the Victorians addressed the problems of industrial pollution which they had created, with local public health or 'sanitary' groups across the country getting together to measure air and water pollution, for example, and campaigning for legislation to control factory smoke,' she added.
'We tend to think of the "green city" movement as a creation of the twentieth century, but it also has its origins in the Victorian period. I was quite surprised and delighted to find all that!'
The Diseases of Modern Life research project has also had recent success in winning an Oxford Preservation Trust Award. Their Victorian Speed of Life light and sound show for Victorian Night Light was just named Best Temporary Project.
You can watch this in the video below, which uses projection and narration to give a whistle-stop tour of the research that went into the book.
Professor Peter Frankopan became a bestseller in 2015 when his book, The Silk Roads, captured interest across the world. As well as traveling as prolifically as the roads it’s named after, the book was also named one of the 25 most important books to be translated into Chinese in the last 40 years. It’s an engaging and erudite look at how travel and connections between cultures in the east became a lynchpin of world history. Richly researched, Peter’s been praised for giving its readers the chance to challenge the western perspective and see history in a bold new light. His follow-up, The New Silk Roads, looks to the future and how recent events are shaping a future along new global lines.
This month, Frankopan was awarded the Calliope Prize by the German Emigration Center Foundation. The awarding panel said the way The Silk Roads ‘breaks with the Eurocentric perspective’ was a big part of their decision.
Frankopan, who is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, has always been fascinated by how schools in the west don’t teach a lot of history about Asia, Africa or the Americas (pre-Columbus). When he first came to Oxford as a graduate student, he was excited to build on how the university teaches the history of regions to the east of Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Certainly, it seems like his writing hit upon a hunger for new and diverse points of view.
Asked to explain part of the wide appeal of his work, Peter said: ‘I suppose that the main thing is that if you look at the history of exchange, of connections, and how the big jigsaw puzzle of world history fits together, one can find new perspectives even about things that seem very familiar.’
‘Delighted’ to be awarded the prize, Frankopan is looking forward to putting the lion’s share of the prize money towards a new project: working with the German Emigration Center, Frankopan will look at links between multilingualism and having an open view of the world.
Speaking of the upcoming project, he said: ‘I have always been interested in how language helps facilitate exchange, as well as overcoming boundaries. So as well as being honoured by the recognition for my past work, I am excited by the prospect of gathering data not only about how to measure the openness of societies, but see if and how the conclusions might have practical applications in the future.’
While the research is in the early planning stages, Peter explained: ‘My working assumption is that multilingualism tends towards two forms: first, elites who can afford language lessons, including the time to study, learn and memorise. Second, those who are forced to adapt because they are migrant workers and need to learn languages to work and survive. I have an open mind about how language proficiency is linked to tolerance and open-mindedness. But the aim of the research is to gather data so we can quantify and shape these ideas. And of course, potentially be proved wrong – and find that we are drawn into different directions. That in itself would be very interesting.’
The award is given to a researcher who ‘help[s] convey migration in a lasting, global and easily understandable way’. This is in keeping with the German Emigration Center’s mission to illustrate the impact of both emigration from the country and immigration to it.
It seems appropriate then that Peter sees the new collaboration as part of an academic duty to enable progress through generations: ‘One of our roles at Oxford is to teach, inspire and encourage the next generation to think about what matters, and to help train them on how to best answer those questions. So my hope is just that: to be a link in a chain that enables others to build on my work and research. Then they can take things on in whichever direction they think is most productive.’
Professor of Global History, Peter Frankopan, has been awarded the Calliope Prize from the German Emigration Centre Foundation. The Calliope Prize award ceremony will take place on November 23, 2019 at the German Emigration Center.
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