Posts Tagged ‘mound culture’

London — By Andrea Kirkby on September 14, 2009 at 11:36 am
Filed under: Attractions, aztec, British Museum, maya, mound culture

The ancient Americas in the British Museum

The British Museum is massive. There are rooms I’ve never visited, and I’ve been going to the Museum for years. There are the highlights, of course – the Elgin Marbles, the Egyptian mummies – but there are tiny galleries tucked away that you could easily miss.

I didn’t think the British Museum had very much on ancient America. True, compared to what it’s got on ancient Greece or Assyria, it doesn’t. But it has two rather good galleries with some absolutely stunning exhibits – rooms 26 and 27 if you want to find them.

The room on North America has some stunning artefacts from the Ohio Mound culture – pipes, with cat heads, frogs, bird heads, and a copper axe blade from 200 bc. Everything in these cases was made with extreme delicacy and precision.

But it’s the South American room that really makes the impact. For a start, it’s broken with the rule of putting things in glass cases – many of the huge stone sculptures are put on island sites so you can walk right round them, with no glass between you and the stone. There’s a sinister coiled rattlesnake, in polished granite, and a fire serpent in porous black stone which looks almost like an art deco car radiator ornament.  There are the Yaxchilan lintels, marvellously carved with barbaric scenes of blood rituals.

There are only two little rooms devoted to this region. But the quality of the artefacts, particularly in the South American room, is extremely high. Probably my favourite is the turquoise-encrusted helmet, a stunning piece of work which has been displayed dramatically against a dark background.

If like me you don’t know much about the ancient Americas, it’s worth seeing if there’s a tour on. The day I went, there was a free tour at one o’clock in the afternoon, so I tagged along. Among other things, I learned exactly what is going on in the Yaxchilan scenes – and just how painful some of the rituals were.

picture by Rachel H on flickr

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