The Castaway Hotel: Book 3

Chapter 23: Reminders of the British Empire

We spent our next two days at the British Museum, examining the multitude of cultural wonders the British had collected over the centuries. You see, they took full advantage of their dominance of the seas and their control over these various locations, while they were part of the British Empire. During that time, the realm collected all sorts of valuable pieces of art, relics and artifacts from all around the world, from the multitude of ancient cultures that had once flourished and then disappeared. Now, many of the accomplishments of these peoples were on display in the British Museum.

The building itself is a huge structure, consisting of lower level, ground level and upper floor, so it would take more than just a single day to appreciate what we wanted to see there. Besides, I like to take my time and discuss the various displays and pieces with the boys, hoping to pique their curiosity and build an insatiable quest for knowledge. Even though they feign boredom during many of my discussions about what we’re seeing, hearing them talk later about some of the same things we’d discussed, more than lets me know they don’t mind it as much as they sometimes portray.

This morning, we had an unusually large breakfast before we left to come here, since I figured we might get so wrapped up in the displays that we might just forget about eating. As remote as this possibility may seem given the boys’ appetites, we’d nearly already done that on other occasions, so I wanted to be prepared in case it happened again.

As we walked up to enter the Museum, it felt like we were approaching and entering some massive Greek or Roman temple. This current edifice was constructed in 1847, in the Greek Revival Style, complete with enormous columns and an elaborate portico. We passed through and under these colossal features and then proceeded through the main entrance, moving on to the exhibit areas. This was truly an awesome experience and it was like traveling back through time, as we toured the various displays.

As we made our way along the ground floor, we began by exploring some of the treasures of the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations. The boys were instinctively drawn to the splendor of the artifacts of Ancient Egypt and we were soon absorbed with the vast collections of statuary, sarcophagi, mummified remains and the other treasures of the pharaohs who ruled the lands along the Nile. The amount of gold they used to create some of the statues and funeral masks was like a magnet and sucked the boys toward those items until they were hooked. They were also drawn to the finely detailed and elaborately painted pieces, as well as the jewelry, tomb paintings – and then they discovered the mummies. After finding those items, the questions began in earnest.

“Whose mummy is that?” Trey asked, while Graham shouted out, “Did they make everyone who died into a mummy?” Luckily, some of my older children or their spouses began fielding some of these questions, as they were coming so fast and furious that I couldn’t possibly respond to them all.

“Man, those mummies are very small, Dad,” Sammy observed, while studying them carefully. “Are you sure they don’t belong to children?”

“Some of the mummies might have been children of a pharaoh or might even be the mummy of a pharaoh who passed away young, like King Tut, or Tutankhamen. He was only in his late teens when he died,” I replied, “but even at eighteen or nineteen, he most likely would have been full-grown. Looking at the inscriptions of the mummies shown here, though, these are all adults.”

Dion and Trey were talked into lying on the floor next to the cases containing the various mummified remains, so the boys soon discovered most the mummies were at most five foot six inches tall, while others were barely five feet tall or shorter. We discussed how the average height of mankind has gotten taller over the centuries, which gave them a lot to think about.

From that topic, we went on to discuss the tombs of the pharaohs, their ideas concerning the afterlife and the underworld and their reasons for putting so many items into the tombs of these deceased rulers. Someone then brought up the assortment of ‘Mummy’ movies, while also mentioning the supposed ‘curse’ of the mummies, and that led to even more discussion. Even my older children were getting very involved in discussing these things and there was some good interaction between them and their younger brothers.

After spending even more time in this area, while studying the many representations of the Egyptian gods and some of their rulers, we moved on to look at the Rosetta Stone, which was actually the key that helped to unlock the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Until Napoleonic soldiers discovered this stone in 1799, no one could decipher what the Egyptian symbols meant. The Rosetta Stone, which was created during the time of Pharaoh Ptolemy V and contained the same decree written in three different languages, two Egyptian (hieroglyphics and demotic) and Greek, with the Greek helping to unlock the meaning of the strange writing system used by the Egyptians. After talking about that for a brief time, we finally moved on to the displays from ancient Greece.

The wonders of the Golden Age of Greece were equally as impressive and they even had elements from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World on display, including a portion of the Mausoleum at Halecarnassus, in Turkey and a section from the Temple of Artemis, at Ephesus. We saw all kinds of statues, many missing their heads or limbs, but some were still nearly completely intact. There were collections of pottery, columns from various buildings (some even carved in the shape of women), and a small temple.

“Those marble statues over there and the friezes came from the Parthenon in Greece,” I told the boys.

“How can they freeze there?” Cole asked. “I thought it was warm there.”

“Not freeze, as in water turning to ice, but a frieze, as in an artwork carved into the flat surfaces on a building,” I informed him. “In this case, it was in the triangular face above the columns, formed by the sloping of the roof.” I began to hear some snickering from a few of the others, thinking Cole’s mistake was funny, but after receiving an icy glare from me, the snickering stopped suddenly. I didn’t want Cole to feel bad about his mistake and refrain from asking other questions.

“Do you know what the Parthenon was?” I asked, to no one in particular.

“Yes, it was a large temple that sat up on a hill, overlooking Athens,” Trey announced, quite accurately. I guess his extensive reading had paid off.

“Exactly, it was a Doric temple, built in the fifth century BCE, to honor the Greek goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom,” I added. “In fact, at one time the Parthenon contained an enormous statue of Athena. It was made of ivory and gold and stood between thirty and forty feet tall. However, that disappeared long ago.”

“Man, who got all that gold?” Dion marveled, think of the wealth that indicated.

“Invaders who plundered and destroyed it,” I regretfully admitted.

As we moved along after leaving that area, we discovered pieces from ancient Rome. Since the Romans had been very impressed with the Ancient Greeks, they also sought to duplicate the splendor of their architecture and artwork, as well as duplicate and surpass the accomplishments of their civilization.

Some of the first things we saw was an amazing assortment of statues, vases, cameos, money, jewelry, a frieze from the Temple of Apollo, various artifacts from Roman soldiers and gladiators, Roman mosaics, and busts and other items representing certain notable Roman emperors.

“So the Romans just copied the Greeks?” Brandon asked, after noting the similarities between the collections.”

“Not exactly,” I answered. “The Romans did incorporate much from the Golden Age of Greece, but they often took those ideas and expanded upon them. Do any of you know what the Roman Aqueduct is?”

“That’s how they got water into the cities,” Danny responded. “Some of them look like bridges, but are really narrow.”

“Yes, that’s very true,” I agreed, “and if you look at those structures, you’ll see they utilize many arches in their construction. Well, it was the Romans who first used the arch and discovered how it would accept a great deal of stress, while eliminating much of the weight and materials that would be needed if it were a solid structure.”

“And they were the ones who had the gladiators who killed each other and fought animals too,” Graham added. “Isn’t that right, Daddy.”

“Yes it is, and I’m pleased that you knew that,” I told him, which caused Graham to stand a tad taller for the next few minutes.

Now that we had seen some of the splendor of those three magnificent cultures, it was staggering to think of how much they accomplished and how much they left for future generations to see, considering the limited technology of their day. To merely call it impressive and inspiring would definitely be understatements.

After that, we examined pieces from the Ancient Near East, which included antiquities of the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian (Iraq), and Persian (Iran) empires. It also included items from the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Syrians, and Israelites, who dwelled throughout the lands of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. There were also pieces of the Carthaginians (Tunisia), the Hittites and Urartians (Turkey), and the South Arabians (Yemen, South Yemen, and Saudi Arabia). These items covered the time period from about 7000 BCE until the seventh century AD.

“But where are all these places?” Sammy asked, unable to recognize the name or comprehend where they were located.

“The names of these places are generally different now, but if you can think of looking at a map, it would cover the area from Greece, extending through the Middle East and going as far as India,” I tried to explain, as simply as I could. “It would also include parts of North Africa, as well.” He seemed satisfied with that answer, although I wasn’t sure he could actually picture it in his mind. I would try to find a visual aid to explain it better later.

One of the most impressive of these items was an Assyrian sculpture of a colossal human-headed winged lion, so I took advantage of it. I had the whole family gather in front of it for a group picture. I even found another tourist who was willing to snap a few pictures of us. After posing for those serious group pictures, the boys started hamming it up for the camera, so I took the camera and played along with their silly mood. They moved under the head of that massive sculpture or sat between the excessive number of legs, while others pretended to cower in front of its fearsome form. I snapped pictures of their antics, letting them have their fun, while saving these moments for posterity, before we moved on.

From there we viewed other statues and items done in bronze, gold and stone, as well as a selection of paintings, mosaics and relief sculptures that were far too numerous to count. It has been a long and active day, but I think it was well worth our time.

When I looked at my watch, I realized we had spent the entire day there, and we were all exhausted and hungry. We left the museum and quickly located a place to eat. The youngest members of our group, Nicky, Jordan, Andrew and Sammy, were so tired from standing and walking that they almost fell asleep as we waited for the food to be delivered. However, the smell of their dinner brought them back to life and they stayed awake long enough to finish most of it, before they began to give into their weariness again.

By the time we finished our meal, my son and son-in-law had to carry their sons out to the bus, while Danny and Dustin hoisted the other two up, letting their brothers sleep on their shoulders, even after they were seated on the bus. Needless to say, that night most of us turned in early.

The next morning we had another large breakfast, this time with everyone knowing in advance what we’d be facing, and the women filled their purses with snacks for the boys, in case they needed something to tide them over while we were there. Today we started out with the Asian displays, with items from Japan, China, India and Southeast Asia. These were quite different from any of the works we had seen thus far, both in dress and style, and the boys were both surprised and impressed that Andrew and Sammy knew so much about much of this work.

Although some of this knowledge had come from our trip to visit their grandparents, it was also obvious their parents had not only made sure they understood their own heritage, but also taught them about other oriental cultures as well. They answered many of the other boys’ questions for me, about whom or what the items represented and what the various other items we viewed were. My two little ‘experts’ were soon held in high esteem by the rest of the family, including the adults, and basked in their fifteen-minutes of fame, even if it was a limited recognition.

After that, we toured the artifacts of Early Britain, including the period before the Roman conquest, during the Roman conquest, and throughout the medieval and later day periods. The items included ancient chess pieces, royal seals, coats of armor, weapons, chalices and other serving pieces, jewelry, textiles and mosaics. Some of the pieces were from the nobility, while other items were from the early Christian church, especially the artifacts made from silver and ivory.

Next, we saw items from various locations in the Pacific, including such places as Australia, New Zealand, the Easter Islands, the Hawaiian Islands, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Many of these items were brought back to England during the voyages of Captain James Cook, since he was among the first of the European explorers to visit these peoples. The items in these displays were also much different from what we had previously seen, with some, like an Easter Island moai monolith, which is one of those huge, oddly shaped stone heads we often see pictures of. It almost seemed surreal or even extraterrestrial. Of course, the boys wanted their picture taken beside it, so I obliged them.

“Do you think the people who lived on that island really looked like that?” Pat asked, while looking at its grotesque features.

“They may be exaggerated likenesses, with elongated heads and bodies, but they are thought to be depictions of some of their chieftains or gods.”

“Sometimes you see things on their heads,” Pat added, “are those hats?”

“That’s one of two possibilities,” I told him. “The other would be a hair style, possibly similar to what the Japanese Sumo wrestler is noted for, because they also call the hair they tie off on top their topknot.”

Pat had no more questions and most of the boys were now ready to move on, so we started moving again.
We finished up our time at the British Museum by making a quick tour through the additional display areas, the first containing a wide variety of manuscripts, books and drawings. Entering this location seemed to bring Dion and Trey back to life, as they were drawn toward the various reading materials.

“You won’t have time to sit down and read any of these,” I teased, bringing a grin to each of their faces.

“We know, but we want to see what things they’ve got in here,” Trey announced, with Dion’s confirmation.

The items in this area included many wonderful things, such as the Magna Carta (which limited the power of the king and put an end to arbitrary and unjust rule), Papal Bulls (church decrees that got their name from the bulla they were sealed with), religious texts (including various bibles), non-English items (including the Diamond Sutra, an important Buddhist scripture), early copies of Shakespearean works (including the First Folio from 1623), hand-printed and illustrated pieces (like a late 15th century copy of Aesop’s Fables), and an illustration done by Michelangelo (for one of his figures for ‘The Bathers’, which he did during the winter of 1504-1505).

The second of these special rooms contained an assortment of coins and medals from many different places and periods throughout history. We saw Egyptian coins (including the coin of Ptolemy, 305-282 BCE), Greek and Roman coins (including a silver coin with the head of Juno Moneta, from whose name the word for money was derived), and Renaissance medals. There were coins from Sicily, Japan, Iran, Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Great Britain, America, Hong Kong, Denmark, Venice, France, and Spain. There was also paper money, cowrie shells (which were used as money in Africa, ancient China, & India), and even money made by imposters, pretenders and usurpers.

While viewing these various displays of money, we also learned why Spanish silver crowns were once referred to as pieces of eight. These, and doubloons, were the coins that the pirates stole from the Spanish and buried until they could be fetched safely later.

“Why did they call their money pieces they ate?” Jordan asked me, seriously.

“Not pieces they ate, but pieces OF EIGHT, like in the number eight,” I explained. “They were called that because they could be broken up into eight pie-slice shapes, or bits, to make change. That’s why a quarter is sometimes referred to as two-bits, or two-eighths or one-quarter of a dollar.”

“You mean like in the football cheer, two-bits, four-bits, six-bits, a dollars, all for <our school> stand up and holler?” Kevin asked, picking up on that timeworn chant.

“Exactly, I told him, and it’s also why the American stock markets were originally based on eights, sixteenths and thirty-seconds and stayed that way for much of their history, and that’s only starting to change now.

By this point, someone suggested they were hungry, so we decided it was time to finish up our tour and go out to eat. We made one final survey of the family, to see if there was anything else that anyone wanted to see again or if there was something that we might have missed, but everyone was satisfied with the two days we spent there. This brought to a weary end our first week in the UK.