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The Ashmolean Museum: Oxford's Window on the Ancient World

by Sean McLachlan

Oxford offers the visitor a chance to stroll through one of the world's oldest university towns, along streets steeped in history. The architecture of the colleges, the bustle of busy intellectual life, and the fine shopping attract people from around the world. But the town is also home to some world-class museums. The Ashmolean, founded in 1683, is the oldest public collection in England. While the British Museum is larger and more famous, the Ashmolean should not be missed. It boasts a wide variety of permanent collections and special exhibits, and is generally less crowded than its London rival, allowing the visitor time to reflect.

Ashmolean Museum

The Ashmolean is located in the heart of Oxford in a fine Neoclassical building. Directly inside the entrance is a wide hall lined with Greek and Roman sculpture. Satyrs, maenads and other playful figures of Classical mythology face several stern-faced Roman aristocrats who frown on their antics with ancient disapproval.

Read the labels and you'll find just how enduring Classical sculpture was. Many of the Roman pieces are copies of earlier Greek originals. The Romans, despite conquering Greece, respected Hellenic culture. Many of the sculptures here were restored centuries later in the Renaissance, when European art partially broke away from Church domination. The two most elaborate sculptures in the hall, a pair of two-meter-tall marble candelabra flanking the entrance, are even more modern. They were made in Italy in the 18th century. They are imitations of candelabra used in Rome two thousand years ago. A few bits of ancient carving were incorporated into their construction. If you look closely you can tell the difference between new and old in these giant jigsaw puzzles.

Bacchus StatueBeyond the sculpture hall are the most popular rooms, those dedicated to ancient Egypt. You might have to jostle for position with swarming school groups, but you can resign yourself to the fact that you can at least see over their heads!

The sheer number and variety of artifacts the Ashmolean has collected over the years is dazzling. There are literally hundreds of statuettes, seals, pots, and amulets on display.

While austere carvings and gold mummy cases are what makes Egyptian art famous, the Ashmolean has many artifacts that give insight into daily life of the period. One display shows wooden figurines that were placed in tombs and preserved for thousands of years by the arid climate. These images of servants were meant to come to life and care for their master in the afterworld. A woman grinds grain to make bread. A group of men brew beer. In a model granary, a burly crew fills sacks from rooms still filled with ancient seeds. Nearby, two boats sail on a forgotten wind, ready to take the deceased through the Underworld.

Another room carries the ever-popular mummies, but even more impressive is the shrine of the pharaoh Taharqa 690-664 BC. The shrine, which was shipped complete from Egypt, was part of the larger temple at Kawa, dedicated to Amun-Re, known as the "father of the gods, the fashioner of men, the creator of cattle, the lord of all being."

For more local antiquities, there are several good halls. On the ground floor is a selection of everyday objects from early England. Here are fearsome weapons from the medieval days, clay pipes smoked in 17th-century coffeehouses when both coffee and tobacco were new fads, painted floor tiles showing scenes from the Bible, and an array of tradesmen's tools.

Ashmolean Museum SwordsTwo fascinating cases hold a collection of wine bottles. First introduced in the 1630s, their shapes vary and most have makers' marks on the side, allowing historians to figure out their date of manufacture. They are ranked chronologically, so you can see how their form changed over time. Half of the collection is made up of bottles shipped to Oxford's various colleges and marked with their crests or initials. Colleges had vast wine cellars and stocked bottles by the thousands. Trinity College used broken bottles to line the top of their outer wall to keep undergraduates from climbing in after the gates closed for the night. Apparently a plentiful stock of wine wasn't enough to keep the students from spending late hours at the local pub.

Upstairs is a large gallery filled with Celtic and Anglo-Saxon antiquities from England. One wall is covered with grave goods from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. Here you can see the weapons and jewelry that men and women went to the afterlife with. The jewelry shows an odd variation of taste. Elaborately crafted gold brooches sit next to clunky and garish bead necklaces that resemble cheap costume jewelry from the 1970s.

The prize piece in this collection is the famous Alfred Jewel. A clear, tear-shaped crystal is encased in granulated goldwork. Within the crystal is a wide-eyed figure made of colored enamel, said by historians to symbolize the sense of sight. The jewel was probably the head of a pointer used to assist in the reading of religious texts. The jewel gets its name from an inscription running around the frame: "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN", which translates to "Alfred ordered me made." This probably refers to Alfred the Great, the first Anglo-Saxon king to unify much of England and a great patron of learning and literacy.

Space prohibits even a cursory description of all the Ashmolean has to offer -- but you can click Here for a gallery of images from the museum. Highlights include a gallery dedicated to Greek vases, another for Chinese porcelain, Asian sculptures, a small but educational coin room, and a collection of prehistoric artifacts from around the world. Don't forget the two Viking runestones hidden in the stairwell!

Maenad Statue Sappho Statue Buddha
Vishnu Egyptian Shawabtis Viking Brooch

Related Articles:

Oxford's Museum of the History of Science, by Sean McLachlan

Oxford: A Melange of Magic, Myth and Martyrs, by Sue Kendrick

More Information:

Ashmolean Museum
Location: Beaumont Street, opposite the Randolph Hotel; open 10-5 Tuesday through Saturday and noon-5 Sunday (including bank holidays); open until 7 on Thursdays from June-August. Admission is free.

Sean McLachlan is a freelance writer specializing in travel and history. He has written several books including Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004) and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007). Visit him on the web at http://midlistwriter.blogspot.com and http://grizzledoldtraveler.blogspot.com.

Article © 2006 Sean McLachlan
Photos © Almudena Alonso-Herrero.


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