The British Museum

The British Museum in London is undoubtedly ranked as one the best museums in the world, containing approximately 8 million artifacts.  It was founded in 1753 as the first free, national museum.  Its enormous collection contains items from every continent in the world except for Antarctica.  This is largely in part to the fact that the “sun never set on the British Empire” during the 19th century, meaning that Britain controlled so much of the world then, that the sun was always shining on one part of its Empire.  Because of this, the British were easily able to acquire artifacts from most of the world. Additionally, the Brits were pioneers in archaeology, so a large portion of the British Museum’s collection comes from them.

I had the privilege of spending a few hours at the British Museum in 2009.  Unfortunately, I probably saw less than ¼ of the collection because it is so large.  Entrance into the Museum is free, as are the different tours that they offer, including a tour of the Museum’s highlights.  Additionally, there are audio tour headsets available in 10 different languages that people can pay to use.  Perhaps this is no longer the case, but when I was at the Museum 11 years ago, they offered free tours of specific sections of the Museum.  I did tours of the Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Assyrian collections.

Perhaps the most famous object at the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone.  French soldiers in Egypt found this stele fragment and took it in 1799, but soon surrendered it to the British after experiencing a defeat under Napoleon.  The stone is important because it helped scholars discover how to decipher the long-forgotten Egyptian hieroglyphs, ultimately allowing us to learn more about Ancient Egypt.  Since the Rosetta Stone was created during the Ptolemaic period, when Greece oversaw Egypt, three scripts were written on it (all saying the same thing): Ancient Greek, Demotic (a form of Egyptian script), and hieroglyphic.  Scholars already knew how to read Ancient Greek, so that helped them with deciphering the other two scripts.  Over the years, Egypt has requested the return of the Rosetta Stone to its native land.

This is the Rosetta Stone. Unfortunately, my Kodak film camera did not work well inside the British Museum.

Since many famous objects at the British Museum came there through war or theft, many countries frequently ask for the return of their artifacts.  For example, many of the statues at the Parthenon in Athens are replicas of the originals at the British Museum, so Greece would like them returned.  Similarly, the British army essentially stole the Benin Bronzes from Benin City, Nigeria in 1897, so Nigeria would like them back.  Although I do not believe that countries should be robbed of their artifacts, I do see two positive results of what the British did.  First, the British Museum allows you to view the history of many different cultures all in one place, which is an experience that is not easy to replicate elsewhere.  Second, the British may have helped preserve artifacts that would have otherwise been destroyed later.  For example, in 2015, the group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) destroyed many ancient artifacts in Iraq.  This included using a sledgehammer to destroy a lamassu (Assyrian winged bull).  Fortunately, the British Museum has several lamassu that used to be located in the same area as the destroyed one.  A very disturbing video of the 2015 destruction of Iraqi artifacts can be found Here.

These lamassu (Assyrian winged bulls) were taken from Nimrud, near modern-day Mosul, Iraq (ancient Nineveh), and brought to the British Museum. They were believed to protect entrances. Here is a painting of the archaeologists trying to transport it.

In addition to world-class exhibits, the British Museum also has study rooms (where you can request to study a specific object from the collection), an archive, and a library complementing the collection.  Britain’s national library used to be a part of the Museum, but it became so large that it had to move into its own space.  While the British Library was still a part of the British Museum, famous people used to study there, including Sherlock Holmes’ author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the exiled Karl Marx.

The British Museum has a nice gift shop full of items reflecting the Museum’s collections.  Although it is more fun to browse in person, it is also viewable online.  Unfortunately, my time in the gift shop was cut short due to a situation that I hope is not common at the Museum.  As I was looking at some tiny knick knacks of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, an Eastern European man twice my age came up to me.  He said, “I can buy those for you.”  I think I looked at him confused and said that I did not want them.  He then said, “Yeah. What would you do with those?  They’re garbage.  Throw them down the toilet.  I can get you something else.”  By then, I was too creeped out, so I nervously smiled and escaped from the gift shop.  Perhaps my American flag bag made me a target, but I am not sure.

Thankfully, if you are never able to make a physical trip to the British Museum, you can still view an enormous portion of the collection online.  Amazingly, some objects can even be viewed at 360 degrees, and then downloaded to be printed on a 3D printer: https://sketchfab.com/britishmuseum.  You can also learn more about the Museum’s objects from a series called A History of the World in 100 Objects, which was done by former Museum director, Neil MacGregor.  In 2010, he recorded 100 lectures on 100 different objects from the Museum that best represent the history of the world.  This project is available as a podcast and also on the BBC’s website.

This panel is one of the many Lachish Reliefs, which depict the Assyrian siege of the Judean city of Lachish by King Sennacherib. This scene shows the Judean prisoners prostrating themselves to the Assyrian King.
These are Assyrian siege weapons found at Lachish, Israel, which corroborates with the Assyrian Lachish Reliefs as well as the Biblical account about the siege found in 2 Chronicles 32:9. This photo is from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Sources and Further Reading

“The British Museum.” Sketchfab. https://sketchfab.com/britishmuseum (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Collecting Histories.” The British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/collecting-histories (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Collection Online.” The British Museum. https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Rosetta Stone.” The British Museum. https://blog.britishmuseum.org/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-the-rosetta-stone/  (accessed February 27, 2020).

“A History of the World in 100 Objects.” BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2 (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Video: ISIS Destroys Centuries Old Iraqi Artifacts.” Al Arabiya. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/02/26/With-sledgehammer-ISIS-smashes-Iraqi-history.html# (accessed February 27, 2020).

Samaritan Museum

Many people know about Samaritans from the New Testament parable of the “Good Samaritan,” which Jesus told in Luke 10:25-37.  According to that parable, Samaritans and Jews in the 1st Century A.D. hated each other.  In case you’re wondering if Samaritans still exist, I can assure you that they do, because I had the privilege of meeting one in 2010 at the Samaritan Museum on Mount Gerizim, which is just north of Jerusalem.  He happened to be the brother of the Samaritan high priest, and is usually the person who speaks to visitors at the Museum.

There are currently only about 800 Samaritans left in the world, with half of them living on Mount Gerizim, and the other half living in Holon, near Tel Aviv.  Over the centuries, a large portion of their population became Christian, and later, Muslim.  In fact, it is believed that the people living right below Mount Gerizim in the town of Nablus (Shechem), who now identify as both Palestinian Arab and Muslim, were once Samaritans.  Today, the Samaritans living in Holon are required to join the Israeli Army, however, since Mount Gerizim’s Samaritans are duo-Israeli/Palestinian citizens, they are not required to join.  Mount Gerizim is located in the West Bank, which is a contested area of Israel, because it used to belong to Jordan until Israel took it during the Six Day War in 1967.  West Bank means that the area is on the “west bank” of the Jordan River. 

While at the Samaritan Museum, the brother of the Samaritan high priest provided a lot of information about the Samaritans and what makes them unique.  First of all, the Samaritans originated as a people starting in about the 8th century B.C., when the Assyrian Empire was at its height.  Several Assyrian kings, especially Sargon II, would swap the captured inhabitants of one area with the captured inhabitants of another area, in order to make it more difficult for their newly-conquered subjects to rebel against them.  For example, when the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was also known as Samaria (the name of its capital), they deported a large number of its inhabitants to the northern regions of their Empire, never to be seen again.  This is where the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” originates.  The Assyrians, then, took other conquered peoples and brought them into Northern Israel/Samaria.  The Israelites living there eventually mixed with these other peoples, and this fusion became the Samaritan people.

While on Mount Gerizim, I learned that Samaritans believe that they are descended from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi.  The first two listed are among the ten tribes deported by the Assyrians.  Jews believe that they are descended from the tribes of Judah (where the word “Jew” comes from), Benjamin, and Levi.  These tribes lived in the Southern Kingdom of Israel, so were never deported by the Assyrians.  Most of the tribes of Ancient Israel had their own allotment of land, however, the tribe of Levi became the priests, so they were scattered throughout all of Israel and never allotted their own land.  That means that both the Jewish and Samaritan claim of having Levite lineage is possible.  Researchers have actually administered DNA testing on Jews claiming priestly lineage (people with the last name of Cohen qualify, since that is the Hebrew word for “priest”), and concluded that a Jew claiming priestly descent from Europe and another from Northern Africa actually have a unique chromosome (Y-Chromosomal Aaron) not found in any other population group in the world.  When the test extended to Samaritans claiming priestly descent, the chromosome was not exactly the same, but extremely close.

There are not many artifacts at the Samaritan Museum, but the most noteworthy is the Samaritan Torah scroll, known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, and written in a language related to ancient Hebrew. It has three handles, representing the three tribes that the Samaritans claim to descend from.

What makes the Samaritan religion different from Judaism is that, wherever a Jewish Bible reads “Jerusalem,” a Samaritan Bible says “Mount Gerizim.”  Mount Gerizim is referenced in the Jewish Bible, but does not have the importance that the Samaritans give to it.  At the end of Deuteronomy, it says that after the people of Israel left Egypt, they eventually went with Moses to the top of Mount Ebal, where they read the curses that God would place upon them if they disobeyed him.  Then, they went to nearby Mount Gerizim, and read the blessings that God would place on them if they obeyed.  Perhaps this, and the fact that Mount Gerizim was located in Samaria while Jerusalem was not, attributed to why it is now revered by the Samaritans.  The New Testament potentially references the importance of Mount Gerizim to the Samaritans as well.  In John 4, a Samaritan woman told Jesus that her ancestors had been worshipping on “this mountain” (the mountain was not specified, but was probably Mt. Gerizim).  Not far from the Museum is the remains of a Samaritan Temple, but a Jewish king destroyed it in the 1st Century B.C.  A Byzantine church was later built over it, so most of the visible remains come from that latter period.

There are a few other interesting comparisons between the Samaritans and the Jews.  For example, on Mount Gerizim, I saw an outdoor, circular area, where the Samaritans still sacrifice a lamb on Passover each year.  Visitors are actually welcome to watch.  Jews no longer literally sacrifice a lamb on Passover, but they do put a lamb bone on their Passover table to remember the ancient practice.  Similarly, like the Jews, the Samaritans follow Deuteronomy 6:9’s injunction of placing God’s commandments on their doorposts.  However, whereas Jews follow it by placing a tiny scroll (mezuzah) containing Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 inside a little box adhered to their doorposts, Samaritans carve out a Bible verse of their choosing above their doorways.

A Jewish mezuzah on the doorpost of a home.
A Samaritan mezuzah above a doorway on Mount Gerizim.
[I failed to take a photo of a Samaritan mezuzah, so this photo is not attributed to me. It is from Wiki Commons, meaning that it is in public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mezuzah_IMG_2125.JPG]

Thankfully, Samaritans and Jews do not hate each other as they once did. They are now accepted as Israeli citizens, even if they live in the West Bank. Additionally, another interesting development in the Samaritan community has to do with marriage. Samaritans are only permitted to marry within their community, however, since their numbers are dwindling, there is now a new rule. If a Jewish woman is willing to convert to the Samaritan version of Judaism, then a Samaritan man can marry her. It does not apply to Jewish men though.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Nablus.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Nablus (accessed December 2, 2019).

Feldman, Rachel. “Diving Deep into Mezuzah Customs and Lore.” Judaica WebStore. September 22, 2019. https://blog.judaicawebstore.com/judaicapedia-what-is-a-mezuzah/ (accessed December 2, 2019).

Ireton, Sean. “The Samaritans: Strategies for Survival of an Ethno-Religious Minority in the Twenty First Century.” Anthrobase. 2003. http://www.anthrobase.com/Txt/I/Ireton_S_01.htm (accessed December 3, 2019).

“Mount Gerizim.” Bible Walks. February 23, 2018. https://biblewalks.com/sites/MountGerizim.html (accessed December 2, 2019).

“Samaritan Museum.” Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/samaritanmuseumhargrizim/ (accessed December 4, 2019).

Shen, Peidong, Tal Lavi, Toomas Kivisild, Vivian Chou, Deniz Sengun, Dov Gefel, Issac Shpirer, et al. “Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations from Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation.” Human Mutation 24, no. 3 (September 2004): 248–60. https://doi.org/10.1002/humu.20077.

Jamestown

Because it was recently Thanksgiving, I want to write about Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the United States.  Although not directly part of the Thanksgiving story, the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 paved the way for the English settlers, known as the Pilgrims, to established Plymouth Colony in 1620.  (Thanksgiving originated from the latter group’s story.)

English males arrived in what is now known as Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, because the English were competing with the Spanish, who had already settled in different parts of the “New World.”  They named their settlement “Jamestown” in honor of their King, James I.  This was the same James after whom the famous King James Bible translation of 1611 was named.  The settlement was on a peninsula near the Atlantic coast.

Jamestown’s history includes a rocky relationship with the Native American tribe, the Powhatans, who were already living there.  The most famous Powhatan is probably Pocahontas, because of the writings of one of Jamestown’s future governors, Captain John Smith.  According to him, Pocahontas did not allow her father, the Powhatan chief, to kill him after he was captured.  John Smith was a prolific writer, but he was also an exaggerator, so nobody knows how much of his writings are fact or fiction.  Pocahontas eventually married another Jamestown settler, John Rolfe, but she became ill and died around the age of 21, while visiting England with him.

The English were ill-equipped, so many died of starvation and disease at Jamestown.  Additionally, cultural clashes with the Powhatans led to fighting between the two groups.  However, once life became more stable for them, English women started joining the men.  In 1619, the English brought African captives to Jamestown.  They became the first recorded Africans to live in North America.

If you visit Jamestown, you have the option of seeing two sites.  The first is Historic Jamestowne, which is owned by the National Park Service and contains the original site of the English settlement.  Today, it is primarily an archaeological site, because not much of the site is still visible above the ground.  However, there is a museum there that houses objects that archaeologists have found at the site.

The second site is about a five-minute drive away from Historic Jamestowne, and is called Jamestown Settlement.  Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum.  That means that the site replicates what Jamestown would have looked like in the 1600s, and has historic reenactors walking around the site, providing tours and answering questions.  The reenactors are dressed as both English settlers and Native Americans.  The Native American reenactor that I met was actually of Native American decent.  The site also includes replicas of the three ships that brought the first English settlers to Jamestown.  Visitors can go inside of them.

Jamestown Settlement is pricier than Historic Jamestowne, but does include duo-ticket deal options for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which is owned by the same organization as Jamestown Settlement.  This museum is thirty minutes away from Jamestown and is in Yorktown, where the Revolutionary War (the U.S.’s war for independence) ended.  Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to visit that museum.  However, I believe that they do Revolutionary War reenactments there.

Jamestown’s importance in history is evident by the fact that it paved the way for the eventual English domination of most of North America.  The English legacy still lives on, not only by how it influenced the governments of both Canada and the United States, but also in the fact that English is the primary language spoken in North America today.  However, Spanish settlers clearly won dominance in Mexico, Central, and South America, as Spanish is the primary language spoken in those areas today (Brazil, which speaks Portuguese, is a notable exception.).

P. S. Although this is completely unrelated, I wanted to mention an update. In a previous post, I wrote about how I discovered a letter from 1933 in a book that I was cataloging. Well, I was able to track down the grandson of the letter’s recipient, and return it to him! https://arkeh.travel.blog/2019/11/17/library-detective-work/

Sources and Further Reading

“Jamestown Settlement.” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. https://www.historyisfun.org/jamestown-settlement/ (accessed November 29, 2019).

“A Short History of Jamestown.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/a-short-history-of-jamestown.htm (accessed November 29, 2019).