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The Molossian Hound: The Original Mastiff

September 28, 2010

Jenning's Dog

This is one of the earliest, detailed sculptures of a dog in the Greek and Roman world. It is of a Molossian, a common breed at the time but now extinct, which is the predecessor of today’s mastiffs.

The sculpture was only acquired by the British Museum in 2001, after money was raised to purchase it from the Duncombe Estate. The previous sale of the dog, from Henry Constantine Jennings to Duncombe, in 1778 had provoked Edmund Burke to remark “A thousand guineas! The representation of no animal whatever is worth so much”

I quote from the Encyclopedia Romana:

“The Molossian is mentioned in the literature more often than any other breed. Other sources not already cited include Aristophanes (Thesmophoriazusae, 416), where it frightens off adulterers; Aristotle (The History of Animals, IX.1), where as a sheep-dog, it is considered superior to other breeds in size and courage; Plautus (Captivi, 86), where the parasite is like a greyhound (venaticus) when business is put aside and a Molossian when it recommences; Statius (Thebaid, III.203), where the maddened hounds do not recognize Actaeon, their master; Lucretius (De Rerum Natura, V.1063ff), where the dog growls and bays, fawns over its pups, howls when left alone, and whimpers when threatened with the whip; Horace (Satires, VI), where the country mouse has his fill of the city when the house resounds with the barking of Molossians.

The Molossian was said by Nicander (quoted by Pollux, Onomasticon, XXXIX) to be a descendant of a dog (Lelaps, “Whirlwind” or “Tempest”) forged in bronze by Hephaestus and given to Zeus. Nothing could escape it, just as nothing could catch the Teumessian fox. For this reason, both were turned to stone so that the one might not catch the uncatchable and the other not escape the inescapable.”

Where is it?
In Room 22, the World of Alexander. As you enter the room from the Egyptian galleries, look back once you have entered. The dog stands behind a wall in front of the entrance. In any case, the giant sculpture is hard to miss.

Further Reading
Molossian, The Jennings Dog, from the Encyclopedia Romana


Roman dog tag

September 28, 2010

Dog tag

The tag says simply “Hold me, lest I flee, and return me to my master Viventius on the estate of Callistus”

This tag is in a room filled with the common and everyday objects that Romans used in their lives. Cooking pans, children’s toys, household luck charms, all reveal that the Romans were not so unlike us today.

Where is it?
In Room 69, Greek and Roman Life. The tag sits among other everyday objects including a Roman juror’s ticket, in one of the cabinets at the southern end of the room.

Further Reading
Dogs in Rome and Greece, Encyclopedia Romana

The Ides of March coin

September 24, 2010

Eid Mar

This is the EID MAR denarius issued by none other than (Marcus Junius) Brutus shortly after he was involved in the plot which killed Julius Caesar.

The coin, on one side, shows two daggers and a liberty cap. The inscription reads “EID MAR” short for Eidibus Martiis, the Ides of March.

The other side of the coin, not pictured here, is a portrait of Brutus with the inscription “BRVT IMP L PLAET CEST” or Brutus, Imperator along with the name of the minter of the coin.

There are only about 60 silver copies of this coin in existence and 2 gold copies. The British Museum has both a silver and a gold coin. The other gold coin may be a forgery and so the only gold coin may be the one displayed in the Museum.

Where is it?
The Silver coin can be found in the Money Gallery, Room 68, in the Northeast corner.
The Gold coin can be found in Room 70, the Roman Empire rooom, in the Northwest corner.

Further Reading – The EID MAR coin
UK Guardian – Medal for Killing Caesar shows at the British Museum

The Magic Mirror of John Dee

September 22, 2010

John Dee's Mirror

“This mirror was used by the Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer and magician John Dee (1527-1608/9) as a ‘shew-stone’, one of many polished translucent or reflective objects which he used as tools for his occult research.

The mirror, made of highly-polished obsidian (volcanic glass), was one of many Mexica cult objects and treasures brought to Europe after the conquest of Mexico by Cortés between 1527 and 1530. Mirrors were associated with Tezcatlipoca, the Mexica god of rulers, warriors and sorcerers, whose name can be translated as ‘Smoking Mirror’. Mexica priests used mirrrors for divination and conjuring up visions.”
– from the British Museum description

The object was acquired from the collection of Horace Walpole whose handwriting appears on the case that comes with the mirror. The writing reads: The Black Stone, into which Dr. Dee used to call his spirits…

Dee claimed that the mirror, or speculum, had been given to him by angels.

Where is it?
Found in Room 1, The Enlightenment Galleries
Entering the Englightenment Galleries from the Great Court, turn left.
John Dee’s artifacts are in Case 20.

Further Reading
British Museum entry
Wikipedia on Dee’s artifacts
Dr. Dee’s Shew Stone, Notes & Queries, March 29, 1924

Heart Coffin

September 14, 2010

Heart Coffin, British Museum

This was the coffin for Sir Henry Sidney’s heart. The heart was buried separately from the body, at least among the aristocracy in 1586 when Sir Henry died. His heart was buried in Shropshire, his body in Kent.

The inscription reads “HERLITH THE HARTE. OF SYR HENRYE. SYDNY. L.P. ANNO.” The curators notes say:

Another lead urn with name of John Peck and dated 1562 recently acquired by Ryedale Folk Museum in North Yorkshire in 2009, but these are rare. See book in BL by Charles Bradford London 1933 on heart burial for the practice.

By the early 12th century, as noted by Bradford, it was already common practice to eviscerate and bury the body apart from the heart, brain, tongue etc. as part of the embalming process. Heart burial, as a specific practice came later and it is unknown precisely how it came about.

Separating the heart from the body also involves two separate burials. This can be useful, as in the case of Thomas Hardy where the ashes of his body lie at Poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey but his heart is buried next to the grave of his wife.

Where is it?
The Heart coffin can be found in Room 46 (Europe 1400-1800)
It resides on the lowest level of the glass case in the Northeast corner of the room.

Further Reading
Heart burial, Wikipedia
Heart burial, Google books, Charles Angell Bradford

The Tring Tiles: Infant Jesus killing and reviving his playmates

August 18, 2010

Tring Tiles, British Museum

Pictured above is one of the Tring tiles displayed at the British Museum. Their origin is a bit of a mystery and their subject is unique. They are illustrated stories of Jesus as a child.

In the tile above, a boy jumps on Infant Jesus’ shoulder. Angered, Infant Jesus kills him. The parents, pictured on the right-hand side of the tile, come and complain to Joseph, Jesus’ father. Jesus revives the boy, who walks off to the right.

There are other tiles depicting: Jesus at school, getting slapped by the teacher for his insolence, Men hiding their children in an oven so that Jesus doesn’t find them and so on..

Many of these stories are taken from Apocryphal Gospels of the life of the Infant Christ. But these are one of the few illustrations of those gospels ever found.

These are also the only known examples of sgraffito tiles ever found in England. Tiles like these have only ever been found in France and it is a mystery how they ended up at Tring. Their fantastic condition also makes them look unusually modern.

Where is it?
These are in the southwest corner of Room 40, the Medieval Europe room.
Entering the room from the stairs, go immediately to your right and into the corner. They are displayed on the wall.

Further Reading
The Mystery of the Tring Tiles by Wendy Austin
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Wikipedia
The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the
Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions
(PDF) By Mary F. Casey

The Mermaid Mummy: A Japanese 18th Century FeeJee Mermaid

August 15, 2010

Mermaid Mummy

The mummy of a mermaid supposedly discovered off the coast of Japan in the 18th century.

In fact, of course, a monkey grafted onto a fish tail.

The acquisition note of the item simply reads:
“1942: Japan. Said to have been caught over 200 years ago.”

Where did this particular specimen really come from?

“Prominent in ancient, medieval and modern mythology, mermaids (and less usually, mermen) were presented as three-dimensional curiosities in European drawing-rooms and popular sideshows from at least the seven-theenth century. A significant number of these seem to have originated in East Asia, especially in Japan.

Such ‘mermen’ consist of the dried parts of monkeys, with fish tails, probably on wood cores. The British Museum example, donated by HRH Princess Arthur of Connaught, was said to have been caught in Japan in the eighteenth century and to have been given to Prince Arthur by one Seijiro Arisuye” (Bryan Durrans)”

– from ‘Fake? The art of deception’.

Where is it?
Found in Room 1, The Enlightenment Galleries
Entering the Englightenment Galleries from the Great Court, walk straight across to the far (East) wall. Looking down to the lower left, in a badly lit cupboard you will (hopefully) see the Feejee mermaid.

Further Reading
‘Fake? The art of deception’. Edited by Mark Jones. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990.
The Feejee Mermaid in Cryptomundo
The Feejee Mermaid in the Museum of Hoaxes