26 May 2011

The Great North Museum

Ohh how lovely it is to get to a museum and it's free entrance.  If this is the horrors of European social democracy...  Free museum visits take the pressure off of feeling like you have to get your money's worth and see everything, because you can just see what you want and then leave, edified by what you saw and not exhausted by it.

To me, it seemed like this museum would be a good introduction to Hadrian's Wall museologically, and indeed it was.  As the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli has the best artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, so it would seem does The Great North Museum have the best artifacts from the Hadrian's Wall region.  After our Roman sojourn from 2000-2002, I've gotten to visit some of the far reaches of the ancient Roman Empire: the Ponte del Diablo and the Römanisches-Germanisches Museum.  Because of the need to defend the borders, it seems there was more diversity at the far reaches of the empire than there was in other areas - and from such diversity, a greater cross-section of ancient Roman life appears than it does in Rome itself.  This is something I expect to see more of in the next week or so.

While 9.9 times out of 10 I'm not a fan of touch screen doodads in museums, there was a really interesting interactive display in this exhibit: when a century finished a section of the wall, they carved their name into a century stone.  In this kiosk, you can record your name and then see your initials on the screen, with a soldier walking around it, too:
The soldier is covering his head because it's raining in the video the way it was raining outside today.  Can you find our initials?
However, museum analysts: my mom did comment on how hard it was to use.  So ixnay on the ioskkay, eh?

These bronze harness mounts from the 2nd-3rd century CE were some of the finest artifacts on display:

These figures were all throughout the exhibit, providing more personal stories of life along the Wall in Roman times.  I'm posting this one so that my friends E & A can see that I wasn't making up the thing about the Phrygian cap:
Aux armes, citoyens!

I wasn't expecting such excellent highlighting of the Cult of Mithras, but I guess I should've, because it was a cult very popular amongst Roman soldiers.  I certainly learned some new things today.  The cult of Mithras has a legacy that we still are connected to today, because of Christianity's adaptations of pagan customs.  I excerpt some sections of a BBC article about it (and if that's not enough, here's another link):
Mithraism and Christianity had many similarities - baptism (although Christians used water instead of blood), bread marked with a cross and wine taken in a ritual meal, Sunday as a holy day, and the idea of brotherhood of members with a priest who was called 'father'.
Mithras himself was born of a virgin on 25 December, and lived a celibate life. On 6 January following his birth, the infant Mithras was visited by Magi. He is often pictured between two torchbearers, one pointing upward to heaven, the other downward to hell - just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, one of whom repented while the other did not.
Interestingly, an inscription to Mithras exists which reads:
'He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.'
St Peter's Basilica in Rome stands, in fact, on the very spot on which the last Taurobolium - the blood-baptism of the bull sacrifice - took place in the 4th Century in what is called the Phrygianum, referring to Phrygia, the place of Mithras' origin. This is according to David Fingrut, Mithraism: The Legacy of the Roman Empire's Final Pagan State Religion, 1993.
It has been argued that the Emperor Constantine, long regarded as the founder of Christianity as a state religion in Rome - and now known to have been a follower of yet another solar cult, that of Sol Invictus - simply overlooked the amazing similarities in the different mystery cults of his day in the service of unity in his far-flung empire.

There was also an interactive feature where you walked into a small, windowless room, and were transported in time to a Mithraeum. One of my favorite archetypal visual symbols is often found in Mithraic imagery, Christian imagery, and other forms of folk art:
Altar detail, The Great North Museum

But now that we're on this Mithras thing, I may as well illustrate the Phrygian cap idea: As you see in the picture above, the devotee of the Cult of Mithras is wearing one, ceremonially. It's the hat Mithras wears in reliefs as he's killing the bull. After wide use in ancient imagery, it then was adopted as a symbol of freedom in the French Revolution, American Revolution, and the (French) Revolution of 1830 - see Delacroix's painting, Liberty Leading the People, and then various Bolivarean Revolutions.  Because I'm weird like that, I have made one prototype and will probably make another, to bring back the Phrygian cap.
This was I think last year sometime?  Goofy me - but Phrygian Cap v. 2.0 will be better.
My only criticism of the Hadrian's Wall exhibit was that there was no intro text and it was difficult to understand how to use the exhibit - even though it was self-guided and circular, with no intended route, which I prefer.  It'll be interesting to see what's left at some of these sites after seeing what's there from them in the museum.  Also, perhaps because of British museological style, there was a lot of restored and filled-in fragments, instead of just fragments left alone.  Controversial.

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