The world’s greatest repository of antiquities? Or a vainglorious testament to the arrogance and narcissism of empire? Either way, the British Museum has long engendered discussion and debate.
But as a child, all this flew largely over my head. As far as I was concerned, the British Museum was always just a bit.. well, dull.
Egyptian mummy? So what! Roman statue? Meh! The sheer scale of time and place just washed over my youthful mind without tingling any neurones of appreciation.
And so years passed, and it was not until my 30’s that I ventured back. This time, I felt a palpable thrill as I gazed round the entrance hall – all the more gripping for its unexpectedness.
Stepping tentatively into the cavernous glass-domed Great Court was like venturing into an oversized snowglobe. But rather than chintzy little reindeers or rickety Brighton piers, there were actual sphinxes and sarcophagi – millennia-old relics staring back at me, like they were alive and breathing.
Over time, it struck me just how many objects related to food and drink: not only cutlery, crockery, and utensils, but also in the glorified representations of feasts or hunting.
I had such a sense that, regardless of time and place, food has always been a central pillar of civilisation. It is more than a sustainer of life: it’s a gatherer of people, a connector of communities, and a shaper of identity.
Over time, I’ve been steadily making note of display items that have piqued my gastronomic interest, and I’m picking out five of them here – each originating from a different era and region, each with a culinary theme and a story to tell about the society of the time.
One of these stories is about the museum itself, and how the shadow of colonialism has shaped its collection… but more on that later. For now it’s time to buckle up – you’re about to go 5000 years back into the past…
Temple Beer Token – Mesopotomia, 3300 BC
Once, we were hunter-gatherers. But then something led us to congregate into complex agricultural societies. The question is, what? A paradigm shift in brain neurodevelopment? Some radically transformative tool or technology? No, it was arguably down to… beer.
Yes, as surprising as it may seem, the amber nectar played a significant role in the advancement of ancient society. At least in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq. And here’s the evidence – a 5,300-year old beer token, used as payment for the temple workers.
Chipped out of the tablet’s surface are swathes of cuneiform, that earliest script of shapes and figures that loosely resemble the objects they represent. (How tempting it must have been for those temple workers to chip out a few more pint glasses, or even a vintage bottle of fizz or two…)
As this relic reveals, beer was very much the hard currency of the day, the oil that greased the wheels of civilisation. But if oil implies something smooth and fluid, I’m sorry to say that Mesopotamian beer was more like sludge; drinkers even had to use a straw to extract the liquid – which incidentally was possibly how straws were invented in the first place.
Beer more or less pervaded every aspect of Mesopotamian life. It was celebrated in paintings and poems, myths and songs. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero nearly relinquishes his search for The Meaning of Life for a pint of the good stuff.
So revered it was, there was even a goddess of beer, Ninkasi. Her high priestesses, when not engaged in the usual rituals and libations, would spend their spare time, well, brewing. Even their hymns doubled up as both prayer and recipe. (Now that’s my kind of hymn!)
Finally, just take a moment to reflect on the date – 3300BC – two whole millenia before our next stop, ancient Egypt. Yes humans were gorging themselves on beer and crafting incredible stonework all those centuries ago, although hopefully not always at the same time.
Shabti box – Ancient Egypt, 1250 BC
You’re sitting at the most sumptuous banquet, being plied with all manner of decadent treats – goose livers, honey cakes, sweet wine. What could possibly be the matter? Well for starters, you’re dead. Stone cold dead.
Yep, in Ancient Egypt, not even the small matter of death got in the way of a foodie and their feastings. Death was but a minor inconvenience, that’s all.
At least that’s what’s depicted on this shabti-box, a receptacle planted alongside the sarcophagus and used to store shabti – little figurines whose purpose was to perform all sorts of menial tasks for you in the afterlife.
According to tradition, even after you die, there’s still a whole lot of stuff to be getting on with. Things to do. People to see. Love Pyramid to watch. And definitely food to eat – death doesn’t stop an Ancient Egyptian from enjoying their food.
As depicted on this shabti-box, the deceased’s soul (or ‘ba’) is receiving all manner of delectable treats from a messenger of the goddess Nut. It’s the ultimate in soul food, literally.
Of course, this all depended on your soul actually making it to the ‘Field of Reeds’, Ancient Egypt’s version of heaven. Alternatively the forty-two judges of the Underworld could have deemed you unworthy for all sorts of reasons – for example if you’d led a morally unjust life, or curiously, forgot any of their names in a sort of high-stakes game of Concentration.
The fate of those unfortunate ones was not pretty: your heart would be devoured by the demoness Ammit, and your soul condemned to eternal restlessness – arguably the theological equivalent of an infinite pub crawl round Wetherspoonses.
Wine-bowl (‘dinos’) – Ancient Greece, 350 BC
Social dining had been around for a while by the time the Ancient Greeks came along. But there’s social, and there’s social with acrobats. Yes, acrobats. Those Ancient Greeks’ dinner parties – or symposia – were literally swinging.
But symposia weren’t just about fun. They weren’t even about the food, which by all accounts was pretty grim – a frugal selection of cheese, onions, olives, garlic and mashed beans. Mithaecus may have written one of the first cookbooks known to civilisation in 5th Century BC, but that didn’t mean everyone was getting Nigella’d up in the kitchen.
Instead, it was all about social status, which, it turns out, was largely determined by which symposia you got invited to, and who accepted your invitations in return – a blueprint that has served many a society since.
The formalities didn’t stop there either, for symposia were also heavy with ritual and etiquette. From the sycophantic fawning over your host (“oooh.. nice tapestry, that must’ve cost a fair few drachma!”), to the opening libation in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine.
And of course, the obligatory drunken game or two of kottabos, where guests had to flick dregs of wine at each other’s cups. The custom was to recite the name of one’s beloved whilst doing so, and a clean thwack was meant to augur well for one’s love life.
How charmed the said beloved would have been by such a tribute would have been unclear, at least for the female beloveds. They would have been cooped away from all the action, for symposia were resolutely all-male affairs. Even the room in which they were held was called the andron, literally ‘men’s room’.
If women were involved at all, it was only in the demeaning form of serving girls, acrobats, dancers, or – as illustrated on this ceramic wine-bowl – prostitutes. (So, not your usual line of John Lewis crockery, that’s for sure..)
Indeed, with the outlandish banter, drunken buffoonery, boorish songs, and occasional lustful dalliance – one can see how symposia were also early forerunners to elitist male drinking societies like the Bullingdon Club. Or – as the current incumbent in Number 10 might have once called it – just a regular night in.
Utensil-holder – Etruscan Italy, 325 BC
Symposia may have been raucous affairs, but the Ancient Greeks would have probably still considered our next item most obscene. After all, this Etruscan kitchen utensil-holder sports a male figure who is, well, completely starkers. So much so that you’d have to be careful where to hang your ladle.
An Ancient Greek would probably have cited this as yet more evidence of Etruscan sexual permissiveness. In fact for the Romans – then a start-up civilisation right on the Etruscan’s doorstep – the word ‘Etruscan’ was even used as a euphemism for prostitute.
As it turns out, though, the Ancient Greeks’ objection wouldn’t be so much with the male satyr – naked to denote the creature’s connection with nature and the wild – but rather with the fully-clothed female maenad, a mythical character whose role was in turns: priestess, acolyte, nurse, or warrior.
As we’ve learned, women barely got a look in when it came to representation in Ancient Greek art – at least not in a dignified or equitable way. In contrast for the enlightened Etruscans – sandwiched in time and space between their more seemingly illustrious civilisations – gender equality was much higher up the agenda.
This went beyond art and into the realm of public life too, where Etruscan women were freely able to go out, partake in symposia, and even meet up with male acquaintances. Such conduct would have been considered quite scandalous to their Greek and Roman counterparts.
And it’s this liberal Etruscan stance on women’s rights that the Greeks and Romans equated with promiscuity – arguably a reflection of their own deeply-rooted misogyny.
The succeeding Romans may have borrowed the alphabet from the Etruscans, but not their attitudes to women. Which all goes to show – just because a society has advanced the cause of gender equality, doesn’t mean that some pernicious conservative forces can’t undo it all again.
Bronze plaque – Benin, 16-17th Century AD
This final piece harks from a mere 400 years ago. Like the others, it depicts both food and people connected with food. In this case, we have three figures cradling bowls of various provisions, including two rather sizeable eggs, possibly ostrich in origin.
It’s a beautiful item made of bronze, and as the holes in the corner attest, would have grandly decorated the walls of the king’s palace in Benin, along with countless other such pieces.
It’s also a piece that made me completely rethink what I thought about the museum – from my initial sense of awe, to something much more disquieting.
Museums undoubtedly play a valuable role in society. Being able to witness these objects first-hand, and take in their historical and cultural context, is vital in an era where artifice is all too readily peddled, and ignorant views celebrated.
Indeed, my visits to the British Museum have taught me much about people and places I’d otherwise have little direct connection with – such is the power of these collections, and especially in a museum of this size and stature.
But the fact that we can view these items far from their place of origin raises important questions about where they really belong, not to mention the sometimes dubious or even outrageous means by which they got here.
In that regard, I’m featuring this bronze not because of what’s on it, but more to do with the story of its acquisition. And it’s a story of arrogance, greed and brutality. A story of colonialism.
The year is 1896: the British had already established themselves as a colonial power in Benin (in what’s now Nigeria), acquiring and trading in valuable food commodities such as pepper and palm oil.
Realising that even more riches were to be had if the locals just stopped getting in the way, the British decided they might as well take over and depose the king – an action which was of course de rigeur for any self-respecting colonial power.
The King of Benin managed to foil the British as they advanced, but that wasn’t the end of the matter. In retaliation for the sheer audacity of trying to defend themselves, the British Admiralty then embarked on the unimaginatively, if rather grisly, titled: “Benin Punitive Expedition”.
This involved ruthlessly razing Benin to the ground, setting alight its towns and villages, and brutally murdering thousands of inhabitants. The British troops then set about looting over 2000 artefacts and sculptures that decorated the palace, now collectively known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’.
In terms of what happened next, we can find the following account on the museum’s very own website: “The British Museum then successfully petitioned the Government to safeguard some of these objects and over 300 brass plaques were sent to the UK“.
Safeguarded? Or stolen?.. However it’s dressed up, the problem of provenance doesn’t stop with the Benin Bronzes – much of the museum’s collection derive from an era when the British Empire brazenly appropriated artefacts from around the world, often with a gross sense of entitlement and more than a smattering of violence.
Now that decades have passed since the sun finally set on the Empire, there is an ongoing and at times vociferous debate about what should be done with many of these artefacts, some of whose acquisitions are decidedly murky at best. The British Museum in particular has faced a great deal of scrutiny and criticism on how it has handled requests for returning items.
Particularly objectionable is the periodic recourse to the argument that other countries are simply incapable of looking after what are, in effect, their own artefacts – a position that smacks of the same haughty arrogance of the British Empire itself.
Nigeria has been asking for the return of its Benin Bronzes for decades. It was only in 2018 however that British government finally relented and agreed to lend them for the opening of Nigeria’s Royal Museum next year. The operative word being “lend”, which means at some point Britain will be bringing the bronzes back out of Nigeria all over again.
The British Museum often likes to point to the sheer numbers of visitors from all over the world who traipse up and down its corridors to look at its treasures. But this is surely a spurious point when one considers the overwhelming ethical duty to return appropriated, if not frankly stolen, objects to their places of origin.
And if you are going to make an issue out of public accessibility, then what about the local people being denied the opportunity to access historical artefacts from their own communities?
In the meantime, whilst such objects do remain in the UK, there should be an onus on museums to present them in a way that actively educates about Britain’s colonial past, accompanying them with the necessary stories of their acquisition, and doing so with frankness and humility.
The British Museum does appear to have taken at least a tentative step in that direction. Last year it posted an article entitled ‘Collecting Histories’ which focused on the very issue of provenance and colonialism. Earlier this year, it ran a programme of events – ‘Era of Reclamation’ – curated by Bonnie Greer, which discussed issues around racism and Black History.
Meanwhile various other groups, such as Black History Studies and the Uncomfortable Art Tours, also utilise the museum as a way of exploring and educating on such themes through its tours and talks.
But still, there’s a long way to go before these historical wrongs are adequately addressed, and proper reconciliation made. As was pointed out in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal, the government seems more determined at times to forcibly deport its own citizens than return its stolen items.
This plaque also reflects the fact that colonialism is not just a historical event, lost in the mists of time, one that no longer concerns us. Its legacy is still keenly felt today, and continues to ask questions of us all, from individuals to organisations.
And this is no less relevant to the world of food and food-writing. The history of food is deeply connected with colonisation, and recent events have brought these issues very much into the spotlight.
From the chronic lack of diversity in the upper echelons of the food industry; to the eschewing of writers expert in the cuisine of their heritage in favour of established white counterparts. From the restaurant critic repeatedly called out for penning racist content; to another who rejects a call for greater diversity in restaurant reviews, partly based on their view that customers prefer pasta to Eritrean food (which ironically ignores the fact that pasta comprises a substantial part of Eritrean cuisine, a consequence of Italian invasion and colonisation).
This needs to change. We need leaders at all levels and in all spheres to be more committed to equality and diversity, and to lead by example. We need to reform our school curricula, so that the next generation understand colonialism and all its consequences, and learn about a more diverse range of influential people from the past. And we need to look at ourselves to acknowledge our own privileges and prejudices – we all make mistakes and assumptions after all – and to educate and challenge ourselves, shouting out against injustice and racism wherever we see it.
And on that basis, surely now’s the time for the British government, along with the British Museum, to finally make the right choice and send these bronzes, and all other stolen treasures, back home where they belong.
For further discussion on the provenance of museum collections, here’s a more in-depth article by Ellen Peirson-Hagger in the New Statesman, whilst for a more satirical take, do check out James Acaster’s brilliant stand-up routine, “Finders Keepers“.
Several inspiring initiatives have recently started up in the food world. Black Book is a global representation platform to help support black and other non-white people in the industry, as well as addressing systemic inequalities, for example through their recent series of online talks, ‘Decolonising the Food Industry’. Sourced meanwhile looks to research food and drink culture with a decolonialised perspective, in a way that’s inclusive and global. And then there’s Vittles, a wonderful newsletter that champions and celebrates diversity across the food world, and in which editor Jonathan Nunn has recently written about decolonising restaurant reviewing.
Finally, special thanks to Shahnaz Ahsan for her help reviewing this piece. If you’d like to read more reflections on racism, including in the world of food-writing, here’s my post, Kaki, One Year On.