Thursday, August 11, 2022

HGB Ep. 447 - The British Museum

Moment in Oddity - The Two Headed Boy of Bengal

There's a small village in Bengal, India, where a little boy was born in 1783. The midwife assisting the birth was so shocked by the child's appearance that she tried to kill him by throwing the boy into the fire. The baby had two heads. Fortunately, the baby survived with some burns in one eye and ear. Although the parents were shocked, they began to see their baby as a money making opportunity, so they decided to head to Calcutta so their son could be put on exhibit. The young child became very popular garnering requests for private showings by India's noblemen, civil servants and city officials. If this wasn't sad enough, his parents used to cover their son with sheets for long periods of time to keep those who hadn't paid to view the boy from having a peek. Now, although the boy was described as two headed, he did not have two heads growing out of a single neck. Instead, the second skull sat inverted on top of the main skull. The second head had a few irregularities. The ears were malformed, the tongue was small and the lower jaw was diminutive but other than that, both heads were the same size and were covered with black hair at their junction. Although they were fused, the heads did react independently from each other. When the boy laughed or cried the upper head didn't always respond and there were times recorded that when the child slept, the second head would be awake actively viewing their surroundings. Despite being unusual, the boy did not seem to suffer any ill affects from the parasitic twin. One day at the age of 4 the boy's mother left him alone while she fetched water. When she returned, she found her son deceased from a cobra bite. Eventually the boy's corpse was dissected and was found to have two completely independent brains. These types of parasitic twins are known as craniopagus parasiticus, and are an extremely rare type of parasitic twinning that occurs in about 2 to 3 in 5 million births. Typically the twins do not survive birth. Though the boy did die young, the fact that he survived to the age of 4 with this rare form of parasitic twinning only to meet his demise due to a cobra bite, certainly is odd.

This Month in History - Lewis and Clark Expedition Experiences Only Death

In the month of August, on the 20th, in 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition suffers its only death. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had gathered together 35 men to form the Corps of Discovery to explore into the western part of the United States to prepare for Westward Expansion. They were three months into the voyage when Sergeant Charles Floyd became ill for several days. He seemed to get better for awhile, but on August 15th, came down with what they described as a "violent colic...[and] he was sick all night." By the night of August 19th, the young man was close to death and Clark sat up with him trying to make him comfortable. Sergeant Floyd died the next afternoon and the Corps buried him on a high bluff they named Floyds Bluff in his honor. The bluff overlooked a stream that they named Floyds River as well. Modern physicians believe that based on the symptoms described by Lewis and Clark, Sergeant Floyd had acute appendicitis. This was the only death the Corps of Discovery suffered throughout the two year expedition.

The British Museum

The British Museum in London is a site to behold with over thirteen million objects in its vast collections from around the world. Over 17,000 people visit the 14-acre complex every single day, making it the most popular attraction in Great Britain. There is no doubt with the relics and other objects that are here, that a ghost or two might be hanging out due to attachments and such. And keeping in mind that some of these collections should probably be repatriated to their home countries, it's no wonder that spirits may be at unrest. Join us as we explore the history, collections and hauntings at the British Museum!

The British Museum was the first national museum of its kind, meaning it was not owned by a monarchy or private collector. Originally founded in 1753 by an Act of Parliament, the doors officially opened in 1759. The creation of this museum was inspired by a man named Sir Hans Sloane, a London-based doctor and scientist who had a vast collection of curiosities, books, manuscripts, dried plants, drawings and international antiquities. When he died in 1753, he bequeathed it to King George II for the nation of Great Britain. A 17th-century mansion named Montagu House was chosen to house the museum. The house had been built by a Frenchman called Pouget and was the grandest private residence in London at the time. This was the first public building to be electrically lit. Only the well connected were able to get tickets to see the collections until 1830 when the museum was completely opened to the public. It was also around that time that the Montagu House was demolished to make way for the British Museum visitors see today. 

Some of the key artifacts that the museum acquired in the 19th century include the colossal bust of Ramesses II, marble sculptures from the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, Assyrian and Babylonian antiquities and the Rosetta Stone. These all laid the foundations for many of the 94 collections at the museum like the Egyptian, Ancient Near Eastern, Animals, Africa and Charles Towneley collection. It was becoming apparent that Montagu House was too small to hold the many objects being acquired by the museum and it was getting too crowded with people as well. This pushed a building committee to form to expand the museum. Architect Sir Robert Smirke, who specialized in the neoclassical style, was assigned the task of designing an addition to the museum on the eastern side and a main building to replace the Montagu House, which was demolished. What came out of Smirke's work was a monumental Greek Revival building with four wings, 43 Greek temple columns, large steps and triangular pediment constructed from concrete, cast-iron framing, London stock brick, Haytor granite and Portland stone. Bits and pieces of the museum opened over time. The King's Library Gallery in the East Wing, which held King George III's collection which included more than 65,000 books, was opened in 1827, although the whole wing wasn't completed until 1831. The West Wing was completed in 1846 and the South Wing in 1847. The forecourt opened in 1852 and the rest of the museum opened to the general public in 1857. The main quadrangle building won the Royal Institute of British Architects' Gold Medal.

All throughout the construction, the museum continued to acquire objects and even started its first overseas excavations in 1840. This was in Asia Minor and recovered the remains of the tombs of the rulers of ancient Lycia. There were more excavations in Assyria and eventually Ashurbanipal's great library of cuneiform tablets was discovered. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the 4th-century BC Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, was discovered by Charles Newton in 1857. By 1900, the museum again needed more space so property was bought around the museum, houses were demolished and new wings were built. The North Wing opened in 1914 and a conservation laboratory was added in 1920. This latter development was due to damage that some objects suffered after being moved to protect them during World War I. Objects would again be moved during World War II to protect valuable collections from air raids. The Duveen Gallery was indeed heavily damaged by bombing. This was repaired and much of the museum was restored as collections were brought back after the Blitz. There was more expansion in the 1970s and purpose-built galleries were added in 2000. Queen Elizabeth II Great Court opened in 2000, which includes the Reading Room that is open to anyone for reading, and is the largest covered square in Europe. Today the museum has expanded to include the Natural History Museum with 70 million objects and the British Library with 150 million objects. The British Museum has over 13 million objects.

Some of the interesting artifacts here include:

The Gebelein predynastic mummies, which are six naturally mummified bodies that date to 3400 BC. Two were identified as male and one as female, with the others being of undetermined sex. The mummies were found lying on their left sides in the fetal position.

The Battlefield Palette is known by several other names: the Vultures Palette, the Giraffes Palette, or the Lion Palette. Archaeologists believe that this may be the earliest battle scene representation on a ceremonial or ornamental cosmetic palette from ancient Egypt. This dates to around 3100 BC.

Several of the original casing stones from the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

One of the oldest papyri from ancient Egypt.

The Coffin of King Nubkheperre Intef from Thebes dating to 1570 BC.

Fragment of the beard of the Great Sphinx of Giza.

Book of the Dead of Nedjmet with painted offering-vignettes and columns of Hieroglyphic text. Nedjmet was the wife of High Priest of Amun at Thebes.

Brass head of an Ooni of Ife, which was a king in Nigeria. This was actually found by accident.

Bronze statue of the Buddhist goddess Tara found in Sri Lanka.

Chess pieces found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland that are made from walrus ivory and whales' teeth that date to between 1150 and 1200 AD.

The Nereid Monument is from Turkey and it looks like they brought back the whole thing. This looks like a Greek temple with the columns and between the columns are statues of the Nereids, which were mythical sea-nymphs and daughters of the sea-god Nereus. This dates to around 390-380 BC. 

The Mausoleum of Halikarnassos from Turkey was a tomb built for a king and was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This mausoleum stood 131 feet tall and had colossal free-standing statues and marble relief slabs and the pyramid roof was crowned by a four-horse chariot.

One of the Rothschilds left his collection to the museum and it is known as the Waddesdon Bequest. One of the pieces that caught our attention is the Holy Thorn Reliquary. This was fashioned in Paris in 1400 and was made to display a thorn from the crown worn by Jesus at the crucifixion. The thorn is behind a crystal window. Baron Rothschild got it in 1860 and it had been part of the Holy Roman Emperor's Imperial Treasury at one time. There's also this cheeky little guy known as the Huntsman Automaton. He was crafted by Wolf Christoff Ritter of Nuremberg in the early 1600s and is quite rare as most of these didn't survive because they were a part of German drinking parties. These were trick wine cups. There was a mechanism that would propel the cup across a table on three hidden wheels in the base and whomever the automaton stopped in front of, was expected to remove the head and chug the wine inside the body. Way more interesting than beer pong! The Assyria: Nimrud Collection features carved stone panels depicting the king and his subjects doing various activities, but what interested us about this is that one panel features the king engaging in ritual scenes with protective demons. At least that's the way the museum puts it, "protective." Okay, and where's our weird Bible people. Another room is the Assyria: Nineveh Collection. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and the place God sent Jonah to preach and Jonah decided he didn't want to do that, so God sent a storm that nearly took out the ship he was on and the crew threw him overboard when they realized he was the issue and he ended up in the belly of a giant fish for three days. The stone panels in this collection feature scenes of the transporting of huge sculptures of human-headed winged bulls called lamassu and were located at the entrances of the palace. If you've listened to The Ghost in You Podcast episode about angels, these lamassu actually depict what cherabim probably look like. They had two wings and four faces: one was a lion, another an ox, another an eagle and the last a human.

The Enlightenment Room would be of particular interest to us and our listeners. There is a lot of cool stuff in here that highlights the seven major disciplines of the Enlightenment: the natural world, the birth of archaeology, art and civilization, classifying the world, ancient scripts, ritual and religion, and trade and discovery. The Enlightenment Period was from 1715 to 1789 and people tended to collect sacred objects like charms, amulets and statuary representing ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Indian religions and they also collected items that were used in occult and magical practices. Several artifacts displayed here once belonged to alchemist and occultist John Dee. Dee lived during the Elizabethan period. He was born in 1527 and eventually became an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, who allowed him to choose her coronation date. He had one of the largest libraries in England, coined the term "British Empire," studied mathematics, astrology, alchemy, divination, Hermeticism and the Enochian language. That last bit is said to be an angelic language. He claimed to have conversations with angels and kept journals full of these dialogues. Dee's items that are here at the museum include his Magic Mirror, Magic Discs, and Crystal Ball. The Magic Mirror is made out of obsidian and came out of Mexico sometime between 1527 and 1530. This sinister looking black mirror was said to have been used by an Aztec priest to conjure visions. Dee used it to talk to angels and pulled it out for many seances. The crystal ball is made from rock crystal and measures only 2 inches in diameter and was also used for talking to angels via scrying. There are also three Magical discs that were made in the late sixteenth-century from wax. There are engravings on these discs that include symbols and inscriptions and Dee called one of them the "Seal of God."

We thought we'd have a little fun and put the term "ghost" into the collections search and we were certainly shocked to find that 333 objects popped up. There were books, clothing, amulets and the number one objects for this word were drawings, most of them Asian. Another common item that came up were these netsukes from Japan. These are little statuettes, many of which are pretty creepy looking. Most seem to date to the early 19th century or Edo Period. We looked up netsuke and they are defined as miniature sculpture that originated in the 17th century in Japan and were initially a simply-carved button fastener on the cords of an inro box. They went on to become these ornately sculpted objects. An inro box is a Japanese case for holding small objects and usually worn around the waist of a kimono. Another item that caught our attention was Number 10 of 32 issues from Volume II of an illustrated periodical of eight pages entitled "The New Casket." How would that not catch our attention? But the headline was what really did it, "The Headless Horseman" and the wood engraved illustration features two men on horses looking like they are talking to each other, but one is holding his head under one arm. This dates to Saturday, March 10th, 1832.

The British Museum has every reason to be haunted. There are hundreds of objects connected to death, the remains of 6,000 people and statues of demons and gods. Stories of hauntings are plentiful. Museum staff and visitors have reported doors opening and closing on their own, dramatic temperature drops, music from another era playing, many times ancient in origin and alarms go off on their own for no reason. A Dutch couple was in the Clocks and Watches gallery and took a picture of a model ship dating to the 16th century from Germany. They saw in the picture a reflection in the glass case of a female little person who was missing clumps of hair and wearing a 16th century dress. When they turned around, there was no one there. When they asked a woman at the information desk about this development, she directed them to the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain. A picture of what was described as a "mummified Mexican baby boy hovering in mid-air" has been taken. Flying pebbles have struck people on the forehead. 

The CCTV revealed a weird occurrence one evening when a security guard closed and bolted a set of double doors. Another security guard radioed him that the doors were open and still needed to be locked. The first security guard was incensed as he knew he had locked them, but when he returned, they were wide open. He locked them again and told the other security guard that he knew he locked those doors. They checked the footage and sure enough, they saw the doors moving on their own.

Phil Heary had been a guide at the museum for nearly 30 years and he had plenty of experiences. He told the MS Amlin website that the upper Egyptian gallery always made him feel very uneasy and the temperature plummeted many times in there for no reason. He related, "One occasion I will never forget was in the early 1990s when, during a visit by Prince Charles and the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, I was asked to prepare the gallery before the dignitaries arrived. Heary remembers the room feeling as cold as a freezer, his breath making clouds in the air. And there was a foul smell, he said, which made his stomach turn. When another colleague joined him, the gallery suddenly returned to normal. Soon afterwards, Prince Charles and Mubarak arrived on their tour, oblivious to the eerie goings-on."

An American-born artist named Noah Angell put together an audio guide called Ghost Stories of the British Museum after interviewing several curators, security guards and museum guides. He told The Economist about some of these stories, "In one story, a security guard found himself inexplicably captivated by a 19th-century wooden Congolese sculpture of a dog. Sensing that the sculpture had inanimate powers, he pointed his finger towards it—and fire alarms in the gallery allegedly went off on cue. Other tales include ones of haunted stairwells, a crying caryatid from the Elgin Marbles, and secret powers from statues of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet." A security guard watching live CCTV footage in 2014 featuring a stairwell near the upper Egyptian Gallery told Angell that he saw huge orbs of light moving in the air and he described them as hovering "completely static in mid-air for three or four seconds. They would chase each other around in circles and zip off into the distance.” He called a couple of other guards to check it out and they found nothing in the stairwell while at the same time, this security guard was still seeing the orbs on the camera.

Angell shared another story from 2004 about an encounter that got violent. A security guard was locking up doors, but he had some trouble when he got to Gallery 42 with ancient Anglo-Saxon artifacts on display. One of the artifacts here is the Sutton Hoo helmet, thought to have been worn by a mighty seventh-century king of East Anglia called Raedwald. The doors would not push closed, so he shoved them hard. Angell said, "When he did, he felt very distinctly that someone’s wrist came out from between the two doors, caught him in his sternum and knocked him a metre or so onto his backside." This was witnessed by another guard. A psychic medium came through the area and explained why there is activity in this gallery. There had been a conversion of the Medieval Christian Relics Gallery into the Islamic Gallery and apparently some spirit keepers told the psychic the following, “Whoever was looking after that, whoever was linked to those objects, maybe more than one person, has got the hump, because you swapped Christianity for Islam, and in the Medieval world, in those times, that was the devil. Because you represent the people who work here [you] are responsible. That’s why the doors closed on you, and that’s why your man was thrown. That’s what it is – you’ve replaced Christianity, you have replaced it with something that’s a devil to us. You displaced us for that.”

A female security guard was down in the storage rooms in the basement, turning off lights when she felt like someone was standing behind her and this is way weird, but she told Angell, "I felt them reach into my body, and grab me by the spine. It sent the most intense chills up and down my spine; my legs went to jelly." A male security guard went down to check out the rooms after she related what happened to her because he thought the story was bull. Same thing happened to him. He described it as something unseen grabbing his spine.

Another weird experience connected to the Egyptian collections is connected to a photo taken of a child. This was in front of a large tableau of hieroglyphics and a large black mass is seen in the picture that seems to be rising out of the floor. The tourists showed the picture to a guard who was quite freaked out by it. Jim Peters, a Collections Manager said, "There was a time when the cleaners refused to clean the cases in the mummy gallery because the mummies would move. So they refused. They genuinely believed that the mummies were moving, and refused to go in there. So, the museum had to do something about it, and get different people in.” The museum tried to explain these occurrences as the cleaners just being a little too aggressive in their cleaning and causing a static charge that caused the cloth to move, making it look like the mummies were moving.

One of the more well known haunted objects at the museum has been dubbed "The Unlucky Mummy." This is actually a coffin lid or mummy board, rather than a mummy. Archaeologists believe it once belonged to a woman of high status who lived sometime between 950-900 BC. The mummy lid was excavated in Thebes and bought by four Englishmen, all of whom died in unfortunate circumstances. That had people calling this object cursed. In the early 20th century, journalist William Thomas Stead wrote about the curse in an article and even regaled his fellow passengers on the Titanic with stories about the Unlucky Mummy. And we all know what happened there. Was this object the real reason the disaster happened?

Museums present us all with some moral issues. These are places where we can learn from and experience the past. On the other hand many places in the world have been vandalized and taken from, so that we can have these objects to put on display and perhaps that has led to some disturbed spirits in these museums. Is the British Museum one of these haunted museums? That is for you to decide!

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