They say that history is made by people. That the future, ever fluid and shifting, is conceived of by brilliant minds, won with hard, callused hands and molded through gruel and labor. That the struggle and toil of our generation will be forever etched into history. But we are mere humans. Mortals of flesh and bone. In the grand scheme of things, our people, and the little societies we prop up are but specks upon the incomprehensible immensity of time. Like all others, the unyielding river of time will eventually claim us. And when we are devoured by time, what will remain of the great minds that dreamed this world? What of the hard, callused hands that won this world, of the struggle and toil through which this world was born? When flesh crumbles and empires fall, all that will remain are objects. It is depressing to imagine an artifact as the culmination of one’s life. To think of a lifetime of toil entombed within a rusted sword. But objects are sly, keeping many a secret wrapped deep within a rusted embrace. Buried deep beneath the grime, sheathed in rust is the sparkling splendor of enlightenment. For simple objects have shaped our past and continue to shape our future. This essay will be analyzing three of the most important objects from our history. These will be the Rosetta Stone, the Sutton Hoo Helmet and the Elgin Marbles. This essay will look at the history of these objects and the significance of these objects towards our understanding of the past. Additionally, the essay will be analyzing these objects as cultural artifacts before finishing with a conclusion.
The first object this essay will be looking at is the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite stone stele from Ancient Egypt, upon which a decree is inscribed. The decree was from the reign of King Ptolemy V, issued by a council of priests to reaffirm their support of the King. It also talks of King Ptolemy’s contributions towards the temples of the priests. From the Rosetta Stone, we can see that religion continued to play an important part in the administration of Egypt. The King’s contributions towards the temple of the priests shows how far the King would go to keep the favor of the priests, and the power of religion in the courts of Ancient Egypt. The decree itself was translated into Hieroglyphs, Demotic and Ancient Greek. The Hieroglyphs was a system of pictorial writing, an enigmatic way of writing few Egyptians understood. In Ancient Egypt, Hieroglyphs were commonly associated with religion and were mainly used by priests. Demotic was another Egyptian system of writing, an early descendent of Coptic, the official Egyptian language today. Demotic was far clearer to write and learn, compared to the symbols and pictures of the Hieroglyphs. Demotic was mainly used among the general populace, giving it the name Demotic, “The Language of the People.”
Ancient Greek was a language developed from the Greek City States. However, Alexander the Great’s conquests sowed the seeds of Greek culture far and wide. After Alexander’s death, his Empire was carved apart by his generals. One of these generals was Ptolemy Soter, known to us as Ptolemy I. He seized control of Egypt and brought with him Greek traditions and customs. One of these customs would have been language. Under his descendants, Ancient Greek became the language of royalty. As a result of this, Ancient Greek became the language of royalty in Ancient Egypt. With the rise of Christianity, and the closing of many Pagan temples, knowledge of the already obscure Hieroglyphs was lost. Along with this, large portions of Ancient Egyptian History and the Religion had been recorded in Hieroglyphs. For centuries, scholars had been attempting to decipher the Hieroglyphics, to no avail. However, Ancient Greek remained an important part of history, establishing itself as a cornerstone of Western culture. Ancient Greek was the language of knowledge, the language of Homer, Aristotle, Pythagoras and countless others. Thus, the language was preserved in the form of philosophy, history and entertainment.
For more than a millennium, Hieroglyphics had been a lost language. So when the Rosetta Stone was first chanced upon by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799, during his expedition into Egypt, scholars recognized the importance of this artifact. Finally, they had a bridge to the translation of the cryptic Hieroglyphics through the already known language of Ancient Greece. However, these efforts were interrupted by Napoleon’s defeat, where the Rosetta Stone, along with many other artifacts were ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Alexandria. After the Rosetta Stone arrived in England, efforts to decipher the Hieroglyphics commenced. However, it was only until 1822, when the French scholar Jean-François Champollion realized Hieroglyphs represented sounds. This discovery was only solidified when he pieced together the name of foreign rulers using Hieroglyphics. Along with his knowledge of the Coptic language, which is closely related to the Demotic text found upon the Rosetta Stone, he was able to decipher the enigma of Hieroglyphs that had eluded scholars for centuries. Through the Rosetta Stone and our newly acquired understanding of Hieroglyphics, we were able to decipher centuries of lost Egyptian history and religion. I chose the Rosetta Stone because of the significance it has had to Egyptology, the key to centuries of history and religion long forgotten. Additionally, the Rosetta Stone increased our understanding of Demotic. This allowed us to look into the daily lives of Ancient Egypt’s general populace, cementing our understanding and providing new angles towards Ancient Egypt’s culture, history and religion. The Rosetta Stone is the basis of the complete picture of Ancient Egypt we are presented with today, rather than the fragments of one history’s most magnificent civilizations.
The second artifact is the Sutton Hoo helmet. The Sutton Hoo helmet was a lavish helmet from the Anglo-Saxon times. It depicts eyebrows, a nose and a mustache. The helmet itself would have been made from iron, coated in a sheets of bronze tin. Intricate patterns would have been etched into the bronze tin, depicting scenes of war and figures. However, the helmet itself was but a part of a magnificent ship-burial for a warrior Chieftan whose identity continues to elude us. This burial consisted of a 27 metre long-ship and a myriad of weapons. In the Sutton Hoo burial, more than 4,000 garnets, a type of red jewel were found. The magnificence and lavishness of the burial gives an idea towards the importance of this unknown warrior Chieftan.
With its lavish decorations, scholars estimate the Sutton Hoo helmet would have served as crown of some sort, signifying the status and prestige of the owner. Additionally, the helmet shared similarities in design with Anglo-Saxon crowns. Most estimates of the owner of this helmet would point towards King Rædwald of East Anglia, one of the warring Saxon kingdoms that controlled what would today be Norfolk and Suffolk. More than a millennium ago, this ship would had been lowered into a mound as men and women bid their Chieftan farewell. However, this Chieftan’s ascent into the realm above was not to be an easy one. Long after the burial, the roof of the long-ship collapsed, crushing many of the precious artifacts. However, the Sutton Hoo helmet was not to suffer the same fate. Over time, the iron helmet had fully oxidized, forming a hard, protective layer around the helmet. If the helmet had not been oxidized, it would have been crushed, rendering it a deformed shape that would have been impossible to restore. However, oxidization protected the helmet from this fate. Instead, when the roof of the long-ship collapsed, the helmet shattered. This allowed its reconstruction; first in 1945 then in 1971, after criticism over the shape of the helmet.
The Sutton Hoo helmet had a massive impact on our understanding of history, especially concerning the period known as the Dark Age. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, barbarian tribes flooded across Europe, kingdoms that would eventually become the nations of France, Germany and countless others. Few records of this era survive, and the ones that have survived talk of barbarism and brutality. Additionally, many records from this time were often shrouded in myth and legend. In the past, this era had commonly been known as the Dark Ages, an age dismissed as a decline in culture, demographics and economics. However, from the Sutton Hoo helmet, and the rest of the burial, we can see the prowess of this era. The elaborate craftmanship of the helmet and other riches discovered in the tomb tell us the Anglo-Saxons weren’t simply a horde of barbarians ravishing the remnants of the Western Roman Empire. From the Sutton Hoo burial they excavated hanging bowls from the Celts who inhabited the West of England, gold coins from Europe and silver cutlery from the Mediterranean. Thus, we can conclude that the Anglo-Saxon world and the surrounding tribes were interlinked by trade routes that stretched from Britain to the Mediterranean. The tribes that occupied what had once been the Western Roman Empire were not simple savages, but men and women who left behind a legacy of culture and trade, who sowed the seeds of what would eventually blossom into the nations of Europe today.
As for the Sutton Hoo helmet, it has become both an icon of history and culture. Often described as “the face of the Anglo-Saxons” and “one of the most iconic objects from the past,” and has come represent the Middle Ages, English History and archaeology. In 2006, it was voted as one of 100 cultural icons of England. The Sutton Hoo helmet may have helped remind us of the prowess of craftmanship and trade during the “Dark Ages,” it has also become a cultural icon, cementing itself in history with the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles and Tutankhamen tomb as one of the most recognisable icons of archaeology and history.
The final object this essay will be looking at are the Elgin Marbles. The Elgin Marbles are a series of marble sculptures. These were once a part of the Athenian Parthenon and other buildings found upon the Athenian Acropolis. They were believed to have been sculpted by the Greek architect Phidias, over two millennia ago. These sculptures depict mythical creatures, accompanied often by scenes of battle. The Parthenon itself was originally built under the orders of Pericles to store the gold from the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city-states against the Empire of Persia. The Elgin Marbles range from scenes of mythical battle, of the Greek Gods clashing against the Titans, to the Greeks battling the Persians. The message is clear. The sculptures are meant to conjure a mentality of “Us vs. Them,” of a united Greek people against the common threat of Persia. The sculptures are some of the finest showcases of Athenian craftsmanship. Over two millennia ago, sculptors were able to turn lifeless chunks of marble into vivid statues bursting with a humanity that marble could never contain. The Parthenon and the Elgin Marbles display the peak of Athenian civilization. The Parthenon took around 15 years to build. When you consider the limited technology available and the complexity of the Parthenon, one appreciates how Athens earned the title “The Cradle of Western Civilization.”
In 1810, the 7th Lord of Elgin removed some of the sculptures from the Parthenon, sculptures that had survived more than two millennia of the wrath of age and war. He brought the sculptures back to England, giving them the name of the Elgin Marbles. He did this under the alleged permission of the Ottoman Empire, the conquerors of Greece at the time. However, no document was ever recorded of this permission. Lord Elgin was a self-professed lover of art and antiquities. Fearing the damage done to the artifacts of Ancient Greece by the apathy of the Ottoman Empire, he brought them back to England, selling the sculptures to Parliament. They in turn presented the Elgin Marbles to the British museum. Here they would reside, from 1816 to the present day, preserved within the towering walls of the British museum.
From the beginning, Lord Elgin’s actions were controversial. The poet Lord Byron famously denounced Lord Elgin as a vandal. In 1816, a public debate was held in Parliament over the legitimacy of Elgin’s actions, in which Lord Elgin was absolved of the charges. After the gaining independence from the crumbling Ottoman Empire, the newly established Greek government began a campaign to retrieve plundered artifacts. The Elgin Marbles were included as one of these artifacts, being one of the most significant and recognizable monuments from history. The debate continues to rage on today, with prominent figures such as Stephen Fry, George Clooney and Christopher Hitchens voicing their opinions on this issue. Personally, I am for the British Museum retaining the Elgin Marbles. I believe this way, an artifact of such significance would be better protected and preserved under such a prestigious institution.
Keeping Elgin Marbles in the British Museum would allow greater numbers of people to appreciate such a beautiful monument. Additionally, if this rule were to be applied everywhere, there would be no purpose to museums. Although museums generally focus on the history of their nation, it would be unreasonable to rob them of all foreign artifacts. After all, no one nation owns history; it is something to be embraced and shared. I believe the Elgin Marbles today are not displayed for profit or decoration, they are better preserved and appreciated than they would be anywhere else.
Cultural artifacts are human creations that provided clues towards the culture of its creators. These artifacts are classified into three groups. Primary artifacts are objects employed directly, such as a gun or a sword. Secondary artifacts are objects giving detail on the primary artifacts. These would include a manual describing how to operate a gun or instructions depicting how to craft a blade. Tertiary artifacts are a depiction of a secondary artifact, such as a picture of a manual describing how to operate a gun. Cultural artifacts are important because they provide us with clues towards the society of the creator. They provide us with information about the technological advancements, trade and economics, the hierarchy and government and many others. The Sutton Hoo helmet would be classified as a primary artifact. This object has been produced directly, with no secondary purpose for another object. It has mainly provided us with clues towards the technological prowess and trade of the “Dark Ages” through the craftmanship of the helmet and other riches discovered in the burial, although the burial itself provides hints towards the hierarchy of the society.
The Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles under most occasions would be categorized as primary artifacts. Although they both record events, they don’t relate directly to a primary artefact, rather they relate to an entire event. The Rosetta Stone provides hints mostly towards the hierarchy of the government, its significance stemming not from the content but from the writing itself. The Elgin Marbles provide information mostly on the attitudes of Greek society at the time, and the craftsmanship of Athens. Out of these three objects, the Rosetta Stone has been the most important historically, helping us decipher millennia of lost history. The Sutton Hoo helmet is the most significant culturally. Although it has provided us with a new outlook on what was once dismissed as “The Dark Ages,” its fame as a British cultural icon has eclipsed its historical status. The Elgin Marbles are the most controversial. Although it is important both culturally and historically, it is known today for the questions it has raised over the plundering of artefacts.
What is an object? Objects are the shattered bricks of the Berlin Wall, as a unified Germany tore apart the wall that had separated brother from sister and husband from wife for nearly forty years. An object is the Ninety-Five theses Martin Luther supposedly nailed to the door of a church, leading to half a millennium of conflict, a conflict whose scars remain visible, etched deep into our world. An object is the Rosetta Stone, which provided us with a key through hieroglyphics to unlocking nearly three millennia of history. Objects are the foundation for our understanding of the past, the only things to have survived the ferocious wrath of time. The essay today has analyzed three objects have provided us with a cornerstone upon which we have built our vision of history. These three objects have not only been important historically, they have also established themselves as cultural icons while raising controversial questions over history. Each of these objects has not only defined our understanding of the past, they continue to define our future. For an object is not merely a rusting sword to be displayed at a museum. Objects are the last fragments of societies, organizations and humans shattered by age. The desolate howl of a dictator as rebels carve a bloody path through his crumbling palace. The cry of joy as a scientist discovers a new medicine. The impassioned roar of a general as he leads his men through the killing field. We will never see these magnificent societies and great men ever again. Eventually, time will devour all. But through objects we can get closest to them we will ever get. For to us, these beings of flesh and bone are but more victims of time.