Needles and Pins

I can’t recall whether it was on University Challenge or some less august programme, but I recently heard the following question asked:

Where in the world will you find the most Egyptian obelisks outside of Egypt?

The answer came to me immediately (and not entirely because I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Origins of late), but because I’ve seen so many.  London has a Cleopatra’s Needle (as do Paris and New York), Catania has its famous lava elephant bearing an example, the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and even Durham University possesses one.  By that count alone I’d have seen almost as many ancient Egyptian tekhenu (the original name, obelisk being a Greek word) outside of the country as Egypt herself possesses.  (Eight remain there).

Cultural imperialism at work.  Absolutely, but starting with the Roman Empire, for Egypt was a province of Rome for six centuries, and as supplier of much of the empire’s grain, arguably the most important.  Invariably Egyptian influences found their way into Rome and continued to do so.  Rome’s Piazza del Popolo features one of the city’s obelisks, but lion fountains rest on pyramidal structures, and sphinx topped walls are also present.

The antique shops feature the products of classicism and Catholicism flanked by more modest stele, and in this case a nice framed print comparing all of Rome’s pointed acquisitions.

All of which raises the argument which in this country gravitates most frequently to The Elgin Marbles; should these artefacts be returned to the country of their origin?  I’m a firm believer that the answer is an emphatic “No”, and for much the same reason that I voted against leaving the European Union.

Conflicts and prejudices are very often driven by a lack of understanding, or beliefs that have distorted truths at their hearts.  The more we know and understand one another the better in my view, and the art and history of different cultures is an important element of this.  Yes you can learn a lot by visiting another country (and I thoroughly enjoy doing so) but my cultural appetite for this was whetted in my teenage years by the British Museum, and though I first visited it to see a temporary exhibit, the permanent collections have had just as much impact on me over the years.  (That exhibit was another Egyptian marvel by the way; the mask and grave goods of Tutankhamen).

So for me Rome should keep her obelisks.  If they make people more curious to learn about Egypt so much the better.  Besides which, the Vatican, the Pantheon and several other sites in the city wouldn’t be the same without them.

And if you think I’ve forgotten the crowning glory of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, it was a deliberate exclusion.  The wealthier citizens of Rome commissioned a few of their own to be made in Egypt so this, the example atop the Spanish Steps, and the one outside Santa Maria Maggiore aren’t quite the genuine article.  Reproductions have a long history too.


Digging in the Dirt

For the last couple of days or so, the fishing boats in Whitburn’s small lagoon have been dwarfed by a larger, slightly unconventional shape in the middle distance.  This is the Trinity House Vessel Galatea, whose profile is the result of a raised deck in the bow which serves a helipad, and a lowered deck astern where a couple of derricks can load and unload marker buoys and scientific equipment.

The vessel undertakes a variety of different activities, and I have no idea what it is doing off our coast, but it’s entirely possible that it’s role is to update the records of old wrecks; Whitburn Steel has a history of showing no mercy to those who drift too close.

In the foreground, a lone angler digs for bait, and I might have considered him as a suitable subject for today’s portrait, but I have been here before.

Slightly north of him at the edge of another patch of rocks was a second man whose clothing camouflaged him against the browns and greens of the vegetation on the exposed stone.  Initially I thought him another worm hunter, but as he straightened from his exploration of the mud, he picked up a second piece of equipment; a metal detector.

When I studied Classics at school, Mortimer Wheeler was still seen by some as the great god of archaeology, and metal detectorists were seen as vandals who disturbed vital evidence at sites of antiquity in their single-minded quest for coin hoards and the like.

Nowadays the metal detector is another valuable tool in archaeological exploration, and many significant finds owe their discovery to the technology.

No such luck for Derek this morning.  Working away from the high water mark, where the debris of modern life is plentiful he was in search of something older, maybe Victorian, but when I spoke to him his riches amounted to no more than a few scraps of aluminium and a very modern 10p piece.  Looks like the thrill of the chase will have to keep him occupied for a little longer.

Peter Gabriel – Digging In The Dirt