A new exhibition on Hadrian has just opened at the British Museum. At the same time, an exhibition on Skeletons has opened at the Wellcome Collections. Current Archaeology has visited them both. We report back




I have just seen two exhibitions in London, one good, one great.



The great exhibition is Skeletons: London’s buried bones at the unexpected venue of the Wellcome Gallery, part of the Wellcome Trust, opposite Euston station.   The exhibition is done in collaboration with the Museum of London, and consists of some 30 skeletons laid out sparsely and simply each in its own glass case. All come from London and range   in date from a Roman period down to the 18th century.   There are three things to be said about the exhibition.

{mosimage}Firstly, it is an adult exhibition, not aimed at children, with no dumbing down.   Just the skeleton with a simple, but comprehensive caption with a little diagram pin-pointing what there is to see.

Secondly, it is visually striking. The bones are set against a dark, pebbly background and look in their macabre way surprisingly beautiful.  

But above all the exhibition generates a feeling of empathy, one feels it is possible to understand the problems of our dead ancestors,   share some of the pain and feel the hurt that clearly many of them suffered.   I particularly sympathised with the gentleman who died from prostate cancer but there is also an interesting example of DISH — the disease that gluttons suffered from in the Middle Ages. Skeletons bring the past alive in a  way that pots and pans cannot.

This must-see exhibition is on until the 28th of September,   so if you are in London, don’t fail to go and see it.  Indeed any go-ahead museum curator in the rest of the country should hasten to see if this exhibition can go on a tour of the country.   Although the skeletons all come from London, their message is universal and deserves to be seen widely throughout the country. There is an excellent introduction on the Wellcome website – www.wellcomecollection.org, with examples of three of the skeletons.

 Hadrian: Empire and Conflict

And what do we make of new exhibition at the British Museum on Hadrian: Empire and Conflict? I have a problem with the subtitle Empire and Conflict:  surely it should be Empire OR Conflict?   Do we see Hadrian as an Empire Builder, going round establishing the Pax Romana?  or do we see Hadrian as a figure of conflict?

The trouble is that today, Rome is terribly ‘political’.   Those on the left see Rome as being a military dictatorship, ‘perpetrators of extreme violence and destruction’, while those on the right see Rome as the bearer of the pax Romana, establishing one of the longest periods of peace and prosperity the world has ever seen.   So which side was Hadrian on?

Hadrian (117 to 139) was the second most important Roman emperor after Augustus, and indeed the second of the four emperors who formed Rome’s golden age in the second century AD.   Like Augustus, Hadrian established, or re-established,   many of the principles on which Rome’s success depended. But like Augustus, Hadrian was essentially a manager rather than a fighter, and one of the first things he did was to draw back from some of his predecessor’s conquests, notably in Iraq.   The major conflict in his reign was suppression of the Jewish Revolt in 130-136.

Already the Jews had caused trouble in North Africa, virtually destroying the city of Cyrene and killing many Greeks and Romans, so when they revolted, Hadrian put down the revolt with considerable difficulty and considerable brutality: quite how much brutality is a matter of dispute.

{mosimage}The revolt is illustrated in the exhibition by a number of small items from the so-called Cave of Letters excavated in the 1960s where a number of the rebels sought refuge. Among the exhibits is a letter from Simon bar Kokhba, the leader of the revolt, showing him in somewhat testy mode, threatening severe punishments to those who disobeyed him: “any man from Teko’an who is found with you, the houses in which they dwell will be burned, and you too will be punished”.  

 There is also a set of keys which they brought with them from the homes to which they would never return. But there is also a fine glass bowl showing that despite the difficulties, they were able to bring a certain number of valuables with them and hauled them up to the almost inaccessible cave.

The exhibition is dominated by statues of Hadrian, his family, friends and colleagues. The highlight is the huge new statue recently discovered at Sagalossos in Turkey and never before put on display.  {mosimage} However there is an important new re-interpretation. There are basically three main types of statues of Roman emperor;   as a military man, as a civilian in his toga,   and as a god, normally nude. there is a fine statue of Hadrian in the nude portrayed as Mars equipped with spear and shield. (Should we perhaps put up statues of our own rulers in the nude? Perhaps not.) However Hadrian was a hellenophile — he was known as Graeculus — the little Greek — and a famous statue in the BM discovered in Cyrene in 1867, appears to show him in Greek dress. However a detailed re-examination of the statue   shows that the original restorers put the wrong head on the wrong body:   Hadrian was not quite as Greek as had been made out.  

{mosimage}One of his principal achievements was in fixing the boundaries of the Roman Empire notably by building the  wall across Northern England that bears his name. But it is difficult to do much about frontiers in an exhibition like this: the most interesting display for me was that of the three souvenir cups known from Hadrian’s Wall, the Rudge cup from Alnwick Castle, the Moorlands pan now in the British Museum and the Amiens skillet from France, all of which have inscriptions referring to the wall.   We have recently published articles on the Moorlands pan, but I had never seen it before and I was surprised to see how small they all are – about the size of an espresso coffee cup, whereas I had thought   them the size of a large breakfast coffee cup.

Hadrian also had a passion for building and for architecture. A surprise exhibit were some pilaster capitals from the Pantheon in Rome which had been rescued and brought to the British Museum   when the Pantheon was being restored in 1747. It was particularly appropriate that the exhibition is held in the former Reading room of the British Museum, which in itself was modelled on the Pantheon.   Apparently it is only a couple of feet smaller in diameter, but there are interesting photographs of the Pantheon   directly under the vault of the Reading room, so that by looking up one can compare the Reading room with the Pantheon,   and get some idea of the scale of Hadrian’s architecture.

{mosimage}And then there were his wife and his lovers. His wife Sabrina was a diplomatic marriage and there were no children but there
is a fine statue of her.   But his real passion was for his boyfriend Antinous, who drowned in the Nile and whom he attempted to make into a god.   The Romans were scandalised not that he was homosexual but that he attempted to make his boyfriend into a god. The exhibition has a famous bust once thought to be of Antinous, though recent scholarship suspects that it is a copy   of a fourth century BC head of Hermes.  

The exhibition is accompanied by a remarkable catalogue by the curator of the exhibition Thorsten Opper.   Most exhibition catalogues consist of a series of essays by different hands, followed by a catalogue of the objects by a larger number of different hands.   This consists of a continuous text by Opper, illuminated by photos of most of the objects with short captions.   This means that some of the objects are not illustrated, e.g. the letter from bar Kokhbar, of which one would have like to see a full text and translation — that is what such catalogues are for. The text also shows signs of haste — the chapter on War and Peace suddenly stops with no attempt at reaching a summary: haste – or censorship (or last minute doubts and hesitations?)

This is an interesting exhibition, and it is a great achievement for Thorsten Opper to have both curated the exhibition and to have written the catalogue.   The opening ceremony was dominated by a virtuoso performance by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who gave the first part of his speech in Latin, and went on to a dazzling exhibition of wit and learning.   In the last resort, the exhibition comes down on the side of presenting Hadrian the superb business manager, but it is an interesting and stimulating exhibition, and already it is clear  from the number of visitors that it is going to be a big success.{mosimage}



– AS


Leave a Reply