Top 10 Curiosities to see at the Ashmolean Museum

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Ashmolean Museum

The museums that often have the most interest for me have been started by individual collectors adding pieces due to their passion for the subject or uniqueness of items rather than value. That passion comes through in the layers of the collection. I was drawn to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford England for this reason. 

Ashmolean Museum in Oxford England

Britain’s first public museum has its roots in collecting. In 1683, Elias Ashmole presented his collection to Oxford University which created the Ashmolean Museum to house them. The collection was miscellaneous man-made and natural specimens and curiosities from every corner of the world with the donation.

The neoclassical museum that stands today was not opened until 1845, and the museum continued to grow with archaeological collections added in the 1890’s making it now one of Britain’s most important museums of art and archaeology.  The collections span the civilizations of east and west, charting the aspirations of humankind from the Neolithic era to the present day. In the spirit of the museums creation, here is my selection of curiosities & unique items to hunt down in this museum:

My Top 10 Curiosities discovered...

1

Drawings by Michelangelo & Raphael

Step before the Old World masters when viewing their sketches created as practice for their future great works of art, sculptures and paintings.

The drawings were acquired in the 1800’s and used to be on public display but now are only viewable by appointment

Appointment only – See how here

Drawings by Michelangelo and Raphael

2

Alfred Jewel

Anglo-Saxon artifact dating back to the late 9th century and thought to be made for Alfred the Great.

Discovered in 1693, it is made of enamel and quartz enclosed in gold & inscribed “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN”, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The jewel was once attached to a rod, probably of wood, at its base and thought that the jewel’s function was to be the handle for a pointer stick for following words when reading a book.

Alfred Jewel

3

Abingdom Sword

This Anglo-Saxon sword dates back to the 9th or early 10th century.

The sword was found in the 19th century at Bog Mill near the town of Abingdon on the River Thames in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) in England.

The Abingdon Sword has silver mounts inlaid with niello in the Trewhiddle style.

The sword’s guard has interlaced animal motifs.  Other parts of the ornamentation includes symbols of the Evangelists.

The pommel of the sword has two animal heads for decoration while only a few inches of the blade remain on the hilt.

Top 10 Curiosities to see at the Ashmolean Museum

4

Messiah Stradivarius

This violin was made by Antonio Stradivari & is considered one of the most famous of his creations

It is not called the Messiah because it is in any way miraculous, but simply because one of its owners in the 19th century often boasted about it but never showed it. A friend commented that it was like the Messiah, “always promised but never appearing.”

The violin is never played but forms part of the university’s study collection.

The Stradivarious Messiah

5

Metrological Relief

How do you measure up to an Ancient Greek?

In many civilizations standard units of measurement have been based on parts of the human body (and the study of systems of measurement is known as metrology). Many of these are to be found here.

  • Outstretched arms: a fathom (normally 6 feet, but here 7 times the foot shown on the relief), which is 2.08 metres here (assuming the relief to have been symmetrical). Now you can measure a Greek Fathom.
  • Elbow to fingertip: an ell (or cubit), which is 52 cm here (and there are four of them in the fathom). This is in fact the usual measurement not of the standard cubit, but of the royal cubit (a hand’s breadth in addition to the forearm measurement of the standard cubit): which shows how distorted the figure really is — in real life his hands would probably have touched his knees.
  • A foot (over the right arm), which is here 29.7 cm.
  • A clenched fist (beneath the right wrist), which is here 11 cm.
  • Fingers, here 1.85-2cm.
Top 10 Curiosities to see at the Ashmolean Museum

6

Ceremonial cloak of Chief Powhatan

Chief Powhatan (died 1618), whose proper name was Wahunsenacawh was the father of Pocahantas who eventually converted to Christianity and married the settler John Rolfe.

He was the paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians in the Tidewater region of Virginia at the time English settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607.

Powhatan led the main political and military power facing the early colonists.

Chief Powhatan Ceremonial Cloak

7

Lantern that Gunpowder Plot conspiracist Guy Fawkes carried in 1605

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.

The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament.

The plot was revealed to the authorities in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle.

During a search of the House of Lords at about midnight on 4 November 1605, Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder—enough to reduce the House of Lords to rubble—and arrested, convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

The thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot was commemorated for many years afterwards by special sermons and other public events such as the ringing of church bells, which have evolved into the Bonfire Night of today and prompted John Milton’s poem with this famous first line. 

Remember Remember the 5th of November.

Guy Hawkes Lantern

8

Death mask of Oliver Cromwell

Death masks were created post-mortem to create a template from which future paintings could be created. In some cultures, they are also ceremonial.

Oliver Cromwell (25 April 1599 – 3 September 1658) was an English military and political leader and later Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Cromwell is one of the most controversial figures in the history of the British Isles.  He is considered a regicidal dictator, military dictator, hero of liberty, & class revolutionary.

In a 2002 BBC poll in Britain, Cromwell was selected as one of the ten greatest Britons of all time.

Traveling throughout England and Ireland, you will hear story after story about Cromwell’s pursuit of Catholics in Scotland and Ireland that are characterized as genocidal or near-genocidal. He also was known for destroying many Catholic churches and at minimum stabling his horses inside including Roslyn Chapel.

Oliver Cromwell Death Mask

9

Arab ceremonial dress owned by Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence lived from 16 August 1888 – 19 May 1935

He was a British Army officer renowned especially for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, and the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule of 1916–18.

The breadth and variety of his activities and associations, and his ability to describe them vividly in writing earned him international fame as Lawrence of Arabia, a title which was later used for the 1962 film based on his World War I activities.

Lawrence of Arabia Ceremonial Dress

10

Collection of Posie rings

Posie rings are gold finger rings with a short inscription on their surface.

They were popular during the 15th through the 17th centuries in both England and France as lover’s gifts.

The language used in many early posy rings was Norman French, with French, Latin and English used in later times.

The quotations were often from contemporary courtship stories and usually inscribed on the inner surface of the ring.

Could this have inspired the One Ring in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings?  Tolkien lived in Oxford and had many inspirations for his novels from his daily life.

Top 10 Curiosities to see at the Ashmolean Museum

11

Dodo Bird

Honorable Mention: The Museum used to have a stuffed Dodo bird but it decayed to the point that it was destroyed except for the beak and foot.

Today, you can only see the postcard, but you can imagine that CS Lewis also saw this as inspiration for its inclusion in Alice in Wonderland.

Dodo Bird

MORE

You could spend days in the Ashmolean. The collections of so many explorers reveal artifacts and stories from many cultures.  Here are more treasures from this amazing museum that may be of interest:

  • Oxyrhynchus Papyri, including Old and New Testament biblical manuscripts
  • Late Roman gold glass roundels: (Over 30 pieces) from the Catacombs of Rome, the 3rd largest collection after the Vatican and British Museum.
  • Prehistoric Egypt antiquities and the succeeding Early Dynastic Period of Egypt
  • The Minoan collection: Collected by Arthur Evans it is the largest outside Crete
  • The Parian Marble: The earliest extant example of a Greek chronological table
  • The Narmer Macehead and Scorpion Maceheads: A decorated ancient Egyptian macehead found by British archeologists James E. Quibell and Frederick W. Green in what they called the main deposit in the temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis during the dig season of 1897/1898
  • Kish tablet: A ca 3500 BC limestone tablet found at Tell al-Uhaymir, Babil Governorate, Iraq - the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Kish. The Kish tablet is inscribed with proto-cuneiform signs that is pictographic, and represents a transitional stage between proto-writing and the emergence of the partly syllabic writing of the cuneiform script proper.
  • Dalboki hoard of Thracian artifacts: The Thracians were a group of Indo-European tribes ca 400 BC inhabiting a large area in Central and Southeastern Europe. They buried rich hoards of previous objects (flasks, jewelry & weapons) to hide them from the enemy and for ritual purposes. More than 80 Thracian treasures have been found in Bulgaria.
  • Scythian antiquities: From Nymphaeum, Crimea
  • Paintings by Pablo Picasso, Giambattista Pittoni, Paolo Uccello, Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Paul Cézanne, John Constable, Titian, Claude Lorraine, Samuel Palmer, John Singer Sargent, Piero di Cosimo, William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones
London Bridge at Night by William Holman Hunt
London Bridge at Night by William Holman Hunt

This was one of my favorite paintings in the collections.

Inspired to visit the Guinness Storehouse?

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