The Sublime and the Ridiculous at the National Geographic Museum.

First sublime: The Anglo-Saxon Hoard

In the summer of 2009, an amateur archaeologist named Terry Herbert and his faithful metal detector uncovered an unexpected treasure in the farmlands of Staffordshire, England. Herbert phoned in experts and by the time all the objects had been unearthed, they counted more than 3,500 gold and metal artifacts, mostly dating from 650 A.D. However, few clues remained as to who buried the hoard, or why they had done it.

Artifacts from the Staffordshire hoard Photograph by Rob Clark

So many rich, red and gold-patterned pieces first look like cloisonné red glass enamel. They are actually flat, polished slices of garnet, meticulously cut, and shaped, placed over patterned gold foil (to make the red stone really glow) before being fitted into their golden cells. The fact that so few pieces of garnet popped out when these pieces were crumpled, stashed in leather pouches, and buried is a testament to the obsessive, myopic (there was no magnification at the time) craftsmanship that went into making them, especially with the very low-tech tools of the Dark Ages. Some of the gold may have come from Byzantium, the garnets from Bohemia, but that, too, is puzzling in a time when travel and trade were very limited. Many bits of gold might have been ripped off the vanquished in haste, or merely stolen by one individual. Theories abound.

Gold hilt fitting with intricate garnet decoration (1 1/2 in. x 7/10 in.)

Folded, mangled bits of gold, many quite tiny, have iPad-based interactive tutorials that show what these objects were, how they’d adorned sword hilts, helmets, and precious books, although there are many that still remain a mystery. Thin, braided wires bent in the shape of eyebrows were first thought to have been eyebrows on a helmet’s face, until it was discovered that they actually finished and strengthened the hinged part of metal cheek-guards. These are truly exquisite pieces of a puzzle, that will keep historians and curators busy for decades.

Zoomorphic designs appear on a cross that was folded up and buried for unknown reasons.

Just three percent of this amazing hoard of gold has come to the US, and only to the National Geographic Museum. It’s a fascinating, mystifying show, and so well presented, with background videos of how the original metal-work was done and how conservators have gone about cleaning it. They discovered that natural thorns were the very best tools for gently scraping away soil without abrading the soft gold and garnets, specializing with several different kinds for different tasks. Local botanists are keeping them well-supplied. The exhibit even had stereo viewers into which we could peer to experience the conservator’s eye-view of an actual cleaning being done under high-powered magnification. Yep. Thorns!

And Now for the Ridiculous: Grossology

Cow

This was a fun show that made us pine for our grand-kids! It was about everything slimy, scatological, and as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, ‘things rank and gross in nature’. A lot of gross facts were happily presented by marvelous animated creatures, like a house-fly describing its table manners, a cow describing her digestive tract, and a parrot describing the structure of bird poop.  Oh, there were LOTS of things about poop: a veritable thesaurus on that substance.

Cow's insides

There were giant ticks, leeches, and mosquitoes that one could pump full of ‘blood’, owl pellets cross-sectioned, dissected, and magnified, and lots of less gross but very funny/odd animal facts presented in imaginative ways, like showing how many gallons of milk a baby whale consumes in a day.

Lots of fun hands-on stuff, and it was only after I fully participated in some of these that I remembered another grossology: that little kids have boogers and cooties, and not always clean ‘hands-on’. I fled to the loo to wash up, just in case.

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