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Saturday, May 04, 2013

The British Museum and the Church of St. Clement Danes

"The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." ~Douglas MacArthur

   Continuing our London week, Les took me to see the British Museum. It is the stuff of dreams for someone who has a love affair with history. I took over a 1000 pictures but I will restrain myself from filling this post with them; suffice to say my neck was permanently kinked from looking up in awe at remnants of the past which I had heretofore only read about or viewed in glossy encyclopedias.
   To our grandchildren I say, "Yes!" There are real, dead mummies and actual caches of buried golden hoards all awaiting your astonished eyes at the British Museum. There are huge frescoes telling pictorial tales of wars and life in other civilizations. There is a large room full of clocks and mechanisms devoted to keeping time; another room tells the history of money across cultures and millenniums. I could go on and on but instead I will include a few pictures to illustrate the wonders that await you. Imagine a real "Night at the British Museum!" 
    The columns on the outside echo some of what awaits inside. In the forecourt there are plenty of places to sit and two vendors which make excellent paninis.
 Step inside and look up in wonder as your breath is taken away by the curvilinear glass roof!
   Five floors and countless rooms and large galleries hold wonders from all over the world throughout the ages. My favorite eras are Roman and Neolithic. All righty then--here we go:
   Can you imagine a time when the world was lit only by fire? All work was done in daylight and at night candle and lamp light from small vessels such as this collection. The dark was truly pitch black then unless if was a full moon night. Stars and constellations danced across the night time skies and shadows flickered in the dimly lit corners of rooms. 
   Above is a metal cosmetic set, shown held in a woman's hands. The larger metal piece above it decorated with incised lines and knobbed terminals was used as a mortar to mix and blend items. The small boat shaped vessel and the small spoon were used to gather up enough for one application. The interior is worn from repeated use. Found in a grave with a manicure set in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, dated to 40-60 C.E. (Common era).
   To the left is a set of children's jewelry found in a child's grave. A head ornament of gold, pearls and green glass beads which lay along the part line on the head with the pendant resting on the forehead.
   Of course I stood wondering about the child in the grave. How old was she? How did she die? What was her funeral like? What color hair and eyes did she have? I could almost see her little hands reaching up to adjust her head piece, her bracelets tinkling against one another as she raised her arms. She must have been proud of her lovely jewelry and I hope she had a chance to wear it somewhere other than in her grave. Found in Southfleet, Kent and dated to 1st century C.E.
   Above is a finely wrought silver arm and its plaque which was attached to a miniature statue of victory. The plaque reads " To victory to the victorious 6th legion; Valerius Rufus performs his vow willingly to a worthy cause." The 6th Legion Victrix was stationed at York from the 2nd to 4th century C.E.
   The gold coins in the box above right are from the Bredgar hoard found in Sittingbourne, Kent. There are 37 gold Aureus which were each equivalent to 25 Denarii. A Denarri was worth 10 asses and was the so called penny of the New Testament Bible. These coins were of a latest issue of Emporer Claudius, struck between 41 and 42 C.E.
   This hoard represents more than four years pay for a Roman legionary soldier. Buried about 43 CE near the likely sight of the decisive battle between the Romans and the Britons on the River Medway south of Rochester.
I cannot help but wonder whose hands gathered these coins and hid them. What were his hopes and dreams? A small villa in a warm country where the sun would ease his aching battle scars? He must have died in the battle since his hard earned wages remained hidden until a metal detector uncovered them in 1957.
    To the right is a Roman arm purse worn by soldiers--especially legionnaires. They are often found in hill forts with coins inside.
   This one, dated between the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE was found in Farndale, North Yorkshire, in 1847 was carefully concealed in the wall of a prehistoric cairn. Inside it contained a burnt papery ash. 
   Above are 2 inscribed bronze panels--a military diploma--copies of a master held in Rome. This Diploma was issued by the Roman Emperor Trajan to Reberrus, a Spanish Junior Officer (Decurion) in a Calvary regiment. It was a most precious possession, granting citizenship and the right to marry. Found in Malpas, Cheshire and dated to the 1st century CE
   It boggles the mind to think how heavy these plates were to carry around. I wonder what other precious and important "documents" were carried from post to post. 
   The Roman army was made up of people from all over the empire. All the barbarians whose villages and territories were subsumed by Roman military might would have contributed men to the legions. Through honorable military service one could become a citizen of Rome with hopes for a retirement some day to a warm and civilized clime--but first one had to serve one's time, often in cold and forbidding climates routing other barbarians (a term for anyone who wasn't born Roman)!
   If you are fascinated by life in the Roman Empire like me, you might enjoy author Lindsey Davis' books based on her wonderful Roman soldier/investigative character Marcus Didius Falco. Likewise you may also like Steven Saylor's books featuring his fascinating character Gordianus the Finder.
   Having grown up with a best childhood friend who is an amazing artist and potter, I am always fascinated by pottery. I fell in love with the whimsy of this face urn, left, found in Colchester, Essex and dated to the 2nd century CE.
   Who made it? How did they come up with such a lovely idea and for what did they use it? I am amazed such a delicate thing survived unscathed for nearly 2000 years. I can see their hands lovingly making art and utility in one fine piece never knowing their handiwork would survive nine hundred centuries to be appreciated by folks in the undreamed of future.
   As a writer I was enthralled with the Rosetta Stone--a political message from Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy V to the people of his empire--stating all of the pharoah's good works for which the priests at the temple in Memphis, Egypt supported him. Copies were posted in every temple in the land. (Some things never change!)
   As most of us are aware, the ancient Egyptians wrote in hieroglyphs--a pictographic language using pictures of things to represent ideas, activities, thoughts and feelings. The top part of the Rosetta Stone in this picture is written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The second langauge is Egyptian demotic script. Folks tried for centuries to decipher Ancient Egyptian with no luck. Then this partial slab was found in 1799 by French soldiers rebuilding a fort.
   This stone is inscribed with two languages--Ancient Egyptian and Greek, using three scripts: hieroglyphic (suitable for a priestly decree), demotic (the native script used for daily purposes), and Greek (the language of the administration). 
   Demotic is Greek for cursive and it describes the cursive form of Egyptian shown above which is written and read from right to left. With the same message inscribed in Greek at the bottom (it does not show up in this picture), Egyptologists were finally able to crack the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language in 1802. 
   MUMMIES! Yes children, there are real dead bodies inside, mummified remains of actual people who lived, breathed, loved, cried, and died in Ancient Egypt where the temple priests oversaw burial of remains. 
   Finally I've included this relief carving of the Egyptian God Bes who was very prominent in the everyday lives of ordinary people in ancient Egypt. Bes helped ensure fertility, kept women safe in childbirth and looked after children and mankind in general.
   I had no idea our beloved friend Bill Marlowe had lived a past life as a God--but here he is in all his amazing complexity staring down at us in triplicate from the walls of the British Museum. I just want to say how proud we are to know you in any incarnation!
   After a morning spent enraptured by the delights of the British Museum, we sat outside and shared a panini while we people watched. Crowds of French school kids queued outside, and folks gathered in clusters to enjoy a warm, blustery afternoon without threat of rain. 
  We spent the afternoon looking for dragons! Yes, dragons and London town is full of them! Most Americans are not aware that when visiting London one is actually visiting two cities: the one square mile City of London, and the adjacent City of Westminster. The city of London is marked at all the ancient entrances and gates by dragons which protect and defend the city. I will write more on this in another post. 
   While searching for dragons we wandered down to fleet street and up the Strand, coming face-to-face with Dr. Samuel Johnson's statue. Looking up behind him, lo and behold there was the Church of St. Clement Danes in front of which was the subterranean entrance to the public loos! Yes!!
   After refreshing ourselves below ground, we read the inscription on the plaque about this old landmark (items in parenthesis are mine): "Built by the Danish community in the ninth century and rebuilt by William the Conqueror (1066), built again by Sir Christopher Wren in 1681 (after the Great London Fire of 1666), the steeple added by James Gibbs in 1719, gutted by German incendiary bombs leaving only the damaged walls and steeple 10 May 1941, adopted in 1956 by the Royal Air Force, restored by Anthony Lloyd and re-consecrated in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 19 October 1958 (one year to the day after I was born!) as the central church of the Royal Air force." 
   The original church was founded by a well outside Temple Bar (the Royal Courts of Justice sit kitty- corner across a street) by Danes expelled from the City of London in the ninth century by King Alfred so tradition tells us.
   Those Danes settled in Aldwych, on the river between The City of London and the future site of Westminster. History records this as a time when half the population was Danish and London was in the center of the dividing line between the Saxons and the Danes.
   Mentioned in William the Conqueror's Domesday Book, this church was in the care of the Knights Templar from 1170 to 1312. 
North wall and tower 1941.

  After the devestation incurred during WWII what was left of the church was handed into the keeping of the Air Council and a world wide appeal was launched to rebuild it. Bequests and donations totaling £250,000 were given and within two years restoration work commenced. St. Clement Danes was reconsecrated as a perpetual shrine of remembrance to those killed in active service and those of the Allied Air Forces who gave their lives during WWII.
   As we entered inside I was struck by the radiant beauty of this shrine of worship. Inside it is totally dedicated to remembrance.  Quiet consecration filled the air yet I felt as though I was being given a warm hug of welcome.
  As one moves along the side aisles one becomes aware of niches along the way toward the front on both sides. There are ten shrines and each of them holds one Book of Remembrance tallying a total of 125,000 names of those who have died while in active service with the RAF. 
     Book I, on the left nearest to the altar, pre-dates the RAF and has names of balloonists who served with the Royal Engineers, members of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps and RAF personnel up to the outbreak of the Second World War. 
   Books II to IX contain the names of all those who died on service during the Second World War. Book X, on the right nearest to the altar, is from VJ day 1945 to the present day. The pages are turned daily and twice a year Book X is brought up to date. 
   Those who die in service are remembered shortly after their death during a celebration of the Holy Communion and family members are often present. 
   Once a year in November a memorial service is held for all those who have died during the past year and families are invited to attend. This is a most moving occasion and has helped many people in their grief. It is these books and the names within them that people come across the world to see, making St Clement Danes truly a place of pilgrimage and remembrance. (© Crown Copyright 1996-2012; used with great respect to the RAF and the Church of St. Clement Danes)
 One of the ten books listing the names of 125,000 Air Force dead. Sobering indeed...
    Looking down I see the floor, made of Welsh slate. It is dotted with military precision--embedded with medallions the entire length and width of both church aisles. These are the badges of over 800 RAF commands, groups, stations, squadrons and other formations. Everywhere I look there are touching and tasteful memorials to those who gave their lives to protect this Island's liberty, including the United States and Poland--British allies in the Second World War.
   The weight of war pressed down on me with its terrible cost in human lives. I felt the spirits our dear friends Ken and Sue Deveson very close by for the remainder of the day. Ken served in the RAF (as did Sue, as the wife of an  airman. Anyone who knows anything about military life knows the spouse is also in service, if not always recognized overtly). I could also feel George and Carol Palin, and Maffi there with us in the muffled quiet of St. Clement Danes.

    As Les and I quietly read literature and plaques, three men sitting with their heads together in a pew, smiled at me. They were planning Thatcher's funeral! I realized suddenly where I have heard the name of this church before: on the evening news as Baroness Thatcher's funeral arrangements were disclosed to the public. Well that explained the line of very large lorries parked just outside!
    Les spoke to one of those gents who said a practice run of the funeral march had taken place at 4 a.m. that very morning. We accidentally stepped into a current of living history unfolding. Time to go, and we slipped away...


Carol said...

A brilliant blog Jaq - very moving and beautifully written. Thank you. xx

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

My thanks to you and George for your service and friendship Carol. I only wish war were truly something one ever only learned about from ancient history in museums.

Anonymous said...

From one form of the deceased (Kensal Green) to another form of the deceased
(by wars and other dastardly methods)
the historical aspects of the area
has been well illustrated. Jaq is in her journalistic element! I feel as if I am following in the footsteps of les and Jaq, in the shadows, behind them, invisible to all yet there.
I shall never understand war and yet man's will to conquer and destroy and to take will always be there in this
current realm of which we dwell. Maybe time will correct such situations in the far future, one may only hope.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Thank you Bryce--we are happy to have you following along with us! Old men start wars and send the brightest and best--the cream of the next generation of young men and women--to die in them. I agree with you. I make a marked distinction between the war mongers and the soldiers who serve. Collectively if humanity wanted to live on a peaceful planet-we certainly could and would. That is what saddens me. Onward in the next post to the British Library!

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs