Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Nirvana for Archaeology Nerds

During my time in England, I made it a point to visit several sites that were not part of our required course list. This wasn't too difficult, as there are so many museums, archives, and libraries throughout the country to sate anyone's desires. The one that stuck with me most, however, was my visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. For someone who has been a student of art and archaeology for many years, the Ashmolean was a name I heard referenced often. However, I had recently forgotten it until my professor mentioned it while we were visiting the Bodleian in Oxford. All of those high school and college courses in Art History and Archaeology came flooding back and I knew I needed to visit that museum before we headed back to London.

After finishing with our required visits of the day, I quickly rushed over to the museum, praying that it was open past 4 p.m. I was relieved to know it was open until 6 p.m., so I had a couple hours to really experience the museum....and it takes that long to see it all. Discussing every aspect of the museum, however, would be too much for the blog post so I am going to focus on the parts of the museum that really struck my interest: the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art and archaeology wings.

But first, a little bit of background. The Ashmolean has been around for centuries, but the modern version has only existed since 1908. The early 1600s see the collection begin to grow, but mainly in portraits and donated collections from notable Englishmen. It continued to grow for the following two centuries until a large collection of Greek and Roman sculptures were given to the museum by the Countess of Pomfret in the mid-18th century. This expand the museum greatly and it became necessary for the museum to expand in floor space as well. This was finally made possible in 1845. The final major growth of the museum happened in 1908, when Oxford University's University Art Collection united with the Ashmolean to form the modern museum.

When one walks into the Ashmolean, they are directed first to the Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern collections. It is a wonderful wing with lots of artifacts from all periods of Egyptian history. What is especially nice is that fact that it is not nearly as packed at the British Museum, so one can really enjoy the history around them. There is a strong collection of pre-dynastic Egypt, which is a period that many people do not focus on. For example, you can see the Scorpion Macehead, an early Egyptian king who's name is now enshrined in popular culture after The Rock starred in The Scorpion King. According to the museum's website, they are working on a redesign of this part of the collection to help serve their patrons better.
It's really quite stunning in person

The Greek and Roman collections were especially exciting. Specifically, the Ashmolean has a very famous bronze statue: The Artemision Bronze. It was recovered at a shipwreck in the Mediterranean and scholars are still unsure of whether or not it is Poseidon or Zeus. This is because the statue is missing the piece it should be holding in its right hand. It could have been a trident. Or it could have been a lightening bolt. As someone who has seen this sculpture in lot of courses over the years, I was overjoyed to have my photo taken with it.

What is special about the Roman collection is their Cast Gallery. The museum has had casts made of famous statues located in different museums around the world and they have them all housed in one gallery. Thus, patrons of this one museum can see such sculptures as the Statue of Augustus and the Laocoon.

Emperor Augustus (aka Octavian)
Overall, this is a really wonderful museum. It houses much more than what I wrote about here and is well worth the visit while you're in Oxford. If you're only in London, Oxford is merely an hour train ride away and should be visited for the university, if not for this museum as well. I highly recommend it, for the museum has a lot of wonderful items, is well planned out, and had a lot of helpful attendees to make sure your visit is pleasant and informative.

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