Chris Catling on…

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Museums of the world not to be missed

No matter how unlikely the subject, there is bound to be a museum devoted to it somewhere in the world. Fascinated by sanitation? According to Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in New Delhi (, ‘the toilet is a part of the history of human hygiene, which is a critical chapter in the growth of civilisation’.

At the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, there are museums devoted to Food Culture in Hong Kong and to the carrot in Berlotte, Belgium – Discover the Power of Carrots is the slogan of the Carrot Museum, where the displays have such themes as Health information, Bodily Functions, Medicinal Uses, and Better Raw or Cooked?.
In Berlin, the Currywurst Museum takes visitors on a ‘journey through the world of the popular sausage’, while Japan’s latest museum opening, in Yokohama, south-west of Tokyo, is devoted to the history and iconic global status of… 
the Cup Noodle.

Shackleton’s biscuit
There is even a museum in Kingsand, Cornwall, UK, dedicated to bits of food left over from their meals by celebrity visitors. You can buy the exhibits if you are so minded: £300 ($466) will buy you a piece of bread-and-butter pudding left by HRH Prince Charles or some croissant fragments left by the actors Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench (any money so raised will be donated to a children’s cancer charity).

That £300 is a bargain compared with the £1,250 ($1,945) that somebody recently paid for a biscuit at Christie’s, the London auctioneers. This particular biscuit was 104 years old and was manufactured by Huntley & Palmers, biscuit-makers who have an entire museum gallery devoted to their products in their home town of Reading, UK.
Inventors of the biscuit tin (ensuring that their products stayed intact on long journeys to the far-flung corners of the British Empire), Huntley & Palmer provided thousands of vitamin-fortified biscuits for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition in 1907-1909, of which this specimen, found in the hut 
at Cape Royds where Shackleton was based during the expedition, is one of the few that remains uneaten.

The biscuits saved the lives of Shackleton’s team when, having reached the magnetic South Pole, their return journey to the supply ship Nimrod became a race against time and starvation. At one point, Shackleton gave the biscuit allotted as his daily ration to fellow explorer Frank Wild, who wrote in his diary: All the money that was ever minted would not have bought that biscuit and the remembrance of that sacrifice will never leave me.

Alimentary, my dear Watson
Excavations in advance of a new Metro system in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, have uncovered two latrines dating from just before the great fire of 20-23 October 1728, when large parts of the city burned to the ground. Apparently, the contents of these 18th-century privies were so well preserved that they retained a powerful odour. Hoda El-Sharnouby, the poor archaeologist placed on latrine excavation duty, described the smell as ‘like rotten eggs’.
Archaeobotanist Mette Marie Hald, in charge of sifting the find for identifiable food remains, said that these were public latrines, and thus likely to provide clues to the diet of the city’s poorer classes, lacking their own privies. ‘We only expected to find barley porridge and local farmstead food, but we have found a whole range of more exotic fruits and plants which could possibly tell us something about trade contacts in the past.’ Hald has also found intestinal worms and other parasites. Archaeologists are fond of saying that their profession puts them in touch with the past: this excavation, says Hald, gets you ‘as close to the person, the body and everyday life as you can get’.

Further quantities of human waste – nine tons in total, or 774 large sacks – were excavated recently at the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, the town destroyed along with its neighbour Pompeii by the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Excavation Director Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill made it sound like quite a find, describing it as ‘the largest and fullest collection of ancient Roman waste ever excavated’.

This time, archaeologists found evidence for the consumption of sea urchins, fish, figs, olives, and eggs – none of which is very surprising – but also of dormice, proving that ancient Romans really did snack on these sleepy nocturnal rodents, having first fattened them up with chestnuts and acorns, and that it was not just a story made up by the satirist Juvenal.

It was all yellow
When Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered in the 18th century, the well-preserved frescos were exposed, with their rich Pompeiian red background. This red rapidly became the favoured colour for fashionable drawing rooms all over Europe.

Now, Sergio Omarini of Italy’s National Institute of Optics has concluded that many of those that are now red started out as yellow, their colour having been changed by a chemical reaction between the ochre used to create yellow pigment and hot gases from the eruption. Some frescoes even have ‘tide marks’ where yellow survives on unaffected parts of the wall, gradually shading into red.

However, Pompeii and Herculaneum expert Andrew Wallace-Hadrill says it is too soon to throw out the idea of Pompeiian red entirely: some reds, he 
says, were always red – an extremely expensive and valued colour based 
on red lead imported from Armenia, although the current brightness and 
sheen are down to aggressive restoration 
in the early 20th century. There was also 
a poor man’s version, made by giving yellow walls a thin red wash.

Censoring frescos?
That reference to over-zealous 
restoration at Pompeii has echoes in a row going on a little further north in Italy, where art experts who restored a 13th-century fresco depicting a ‘Tree of Fertility’ have been accused of censoring the work by painting over the numerous penises and testicles that used to dangle from its boughs.

The meaning of the fresco, painted in about 1265 in the Tuscan town of Massa Marittima, has puzzled art historians, some of whom see the tree as an allegory of fertility, while others argue that it is an encoded reference to power struggles between the Guelph and Ghibelline factions, rival supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy.
Town councillor Gabriele Galeotti 
has accused restorers of compromising 
the authenticity of the work, and of 
failing to respect its original character 
after seeing the results of cleaning, which he says has sanitised the mural by scrubbing out or altering some of the testicles and phalluses. The restorers 
have denied the charge, saying that the cleaning of the phalluses, to remove thick deposits of salt and calcium, was carried out with the greatest of care.

Witch’s graveyard
One of the nine women in the Massa Marittima fresco uses a pole to pull down one of the ‘fruits’ so that she can pluck it from the fertility tree. Is it possible that she is a witch?

The question arises because archaeologists working not far away, at Piombino, near Lucca in Tuscany, have found a rather odd 13th-century burial: the remains of a woman have been found placed in the ground without burial shroud or coffin, but with 13 nails driven through her jaw, and other nails used to pin down her clothes as if to secure her body and prevent her from rising from the dead.

She is not alone: another female body dug up at the same site was surrounded 
by 17 dice, a number associated with death in Italy because the Roman numerals for 17 from an anagram of vixi (‘I have lived’, the past tense thus indicating that ‘I am dead’).

Alfonso Forgione, the archaeologist from L’Aquila University leading the dig, is convinced the women were killed for practising witchcraft, despite the fact that they were buried in an ancient churchyard. ‘Perhaps because of their class and connections they were able to secure burial in consecrated Christian ground’, Forgione suggests.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 50. Click here to subscribe

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