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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
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Regional Charms: Artistic Styles in Early Europe

The early cultures of Europe spanned the continent and consisted of cultures of varied beliefs and practices, as evident in objects dating from the European Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. The Celtic peoples, widespread over the European interior to its west coast and the British Isles, are perhaps the best known of all early European cultures, recognizable through the artworks and objects they produced.

On display in this exhibit are a decorative plaque and stone ball from the Stone Age. From the Bronze Age are a stone battle-axe, bracelet, neckring, and shield. Objects from the Iron Age include a gold cup, brooch, sword, and scabbard. The abstracted style of the geometric designs and animal motifs on some of the objects often show strong regional characteristics that developed. Over time, coins, personal treasures, jewelery, and other artifacts reveal the extent to which early Europeans were influenced by the Greek, Roman, and Christian Worlds. Slightly later, Byzantium emerged in Eastern Europe, its artworks often deriving from religious subject matter, reflecting another dimension of the diverse and pluralistic features of artistic styles in early Europe.

Ivory pyx with pastoral scenes

Egypt, 6th century
Elephant ivory
H10.5, D13.6 cm
Collection of Vicomte de Janzé, Paris. Given by A.W. Franks in 1866.
P&E 66.7-14.1
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Ivory pyx with pastoral scenes

Pyxis is a modern term (from the Greek for a 'box') for a circular container cut from a section of an elephant tusk. The pyx is carved with the figures of two seated goatherds, one playing a pipe, the other a cymbal; between them is a hut, with a recumbent goat below. On the other side are two shepherdesses, one holding a basket of fruit, the other playing a pipe; between them are two sheep. About twenty examples of pyxides decorated with mythological or pastoral scenes have survived from the early Byzantine period. They may have had a secular rather than a liturgical function, such as a box for jewellery or a container for incense.

O M Dalton, Catalogue of the Ivory Carvings of the Christian Era..of the British Museum (London, 1909), no. 3

W F Volbach, Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und des frühen Mittelalters (Mainz, 1976), no. 106.
Ivory pyxis

Egypt, 5th century AD
Elephant ivory
H7.7, W9.4 cm
PE 1877.7-6.1
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Ivory pyxis

Ivory pyxis
 
Ivory pyxis
 
Ivory pyxis
 
Ivory pyxis

The pyxis is split in two and missing its lock-plate. Underneath a baldachin stands the figure of Daniel flanked by two lions. To his left an angel holds the prophet Habakkuk by the hair to take him to Babylon with a basket of pottage for Daniel. To his right is a helmeted figure holding a staff and an angel and a ram tied to a tree. This is the ram sacrificed by Abraham in Isaac's place.

A pyx was an ivory box decorated with either mythological and pastoral scenes, or with Christian scenes. Their functions probably varied: some may have had an entirely secular function as a container for jewellery, others may have contained the Eucharistic wine or medications.

K Weitzmann, (ed.), Age of Spirituality. Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1979), no. 496.
Sutton Hoo helmet replica

Steel, tinned and gilded electrotypes
Tower of London Armouries and British Museum 1973
Circumference at brow level: 74cm
British Museum SHR 2
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Sutton Hoo helmet replica
 
Sutton Hoo helmet replica

The replica is based on the fragmentary helmet found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, excavated in 1939. Like the original helmet, it is made with a cap forged from a single piece of iron to which deep ear-flaps and neck-guard are attached with leather hinges. A realistic facemask, pierced with two holes beneath the nose to enable the wearer to breathe, is attached to the front of the cap. The surface of the helmet is covered with decorative panels, two filled with sinuous zoomorphic interlace and two with figural scenes. One of these scenes depicts a pair of warriors, wearing horned helmets and holding spears and short swords or daggers. The other shows a mounted warrior riding down a fallen, mail-clad warrior who stabs upwards at the horse as it rides over him. This scene has its roots in the Roman period, but the origin of the dancing warrior scene is unknown although its distribution in Eastern England and Sweden suggests that it belongs within Scandinavian mythology.

The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of only four helmets found in early Anglo-Saxon England. Each is quite different from the other, suggesting that helmets were not made to a common design, but were individually made by master smiths for a high status patron. Structurally, with its single piece cap, ear-flaps and facemask, the Sutton Hoo helmet is unique, but its surface decoration and indeed the themes of the two figural panels have close parallels in the high status grave-fields in Uppland, Sweden. Similarities between the helmets – and the shields – from these grave-fields and Sutton Hoo suggest that while the helmet was made in Anglo-Saxon England, the metalsmiths who made it may have come from Sweden.

R Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, Vol. 2, Ch. 3, 'The Helmet', (London, 1978), pp. 138-231

A C Evans, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, (London, 1986)