Friday, 29 March 2013

Words at the Ashmolean, Oxford

Do I give the impression that I spend all of my time wandering round the galleries of museums?
Al least when I am not revisiting the memories of my home in Brittany?

In reality I spend most of my waking hours, and a great deal of my energy working here, as an internet threat analyst, or, to the layman, a computer virus analyst.

 It's a demanding role, fast-paced, the threats are always changing, evolving, becoming more sophisticated and challenging.

At work I live very much in the here and now and, of course, in the future as we work to second-guess the Bad Guys' intentions.

 Which is perhaps why, when I am not at work, I am drawn to return to the past and to a time when life was simpler, more easily comprehended, when we lived at a pace more in keeping with our human nature.

And so, after a visit to Brittany, I'd like to take you now to my second favourite, no wait, my fourth favourite, museum, after the British Museum, the Louvre and the Natural History Museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford when I went in search of Words which are, it must be said, one of my passions, after all, where would we be without words?


Walking through the familiar entrance door to the Ashmolean is wonderful enough but the host of lovely guides made it even more special. Each and every one of them seemed to be really happy to be there and each and every one of them was kind, helpful and gracious. So much so that it felt as if we visitors were all specially invited and very welcome guests.

I have to mention the lovely man who, when asked "Please could you tell me where Egypt has gone?" replied with a twinkle in his eye "Ah, that's too large and heavy to move far so Egypt has stayed where it was" and then proceeded to lead me through various rooms until we reached the Egyptian collection where he waved towards the exhibits with a flourish and said "Enjoy your visit".

And the quietly-spoken man who walked up to me as I took pictures and said gently "You are permitted to use flash photography Madam, we've found it doesn't damage the exhibits".

And all of the other guides who were so happy to help us navigate our way around the new museum and for whom nothing was too much trouble.

Where to start?
I decided that to try to see everything would be too exhausting and wouldn't do justice to the exhibits so I thought I would wander around the Ashmolean looking for a few of my favourite things, words, language, books and writing....

You wouldn't think that a museum would be the place for such things, would you?

Well it is, if you look carefully

Starting here...

Of course I headed first for "Egypt". I have spent the best part of twenty years accompanying the Ragazzi to Egyptian exhibitions. Along with dinosaurs all children are fascinated by mummies.

I prefer the hieroglyphs, of course, though I did linger by a very small mummy case containing the mummified remains of a woman and as I was trying to imagine just how petite she must have been a few passing ladies and I discussed whether our own hips would fit such a small burial box, and concluded that no, they wouldn't!

One of our group of casual debaters was almost compelled to stretch out on the case containing the mummy but we managed to persuade her that it was not a good idea to measure herself for a coffin just yet!

A copy of the Koran...
Open at Sura 23 - Believers

" Prosperous are the believers who in their prayers are humble, and who from vain talk turn aside, and who in alms giving are active"

Arabic script is so beautiful. I wish I could read and write it

Upstairs in "Early Italian Painting" I found a picture of one of my heroes.

This is St Jerome

Jerome is the second most voluminous writer (after St. Augustine) in ancient Latin Christianity. In the Roman Catholic Church he is recognized as the patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopaedists.

Well, of course a patron saint of translators would be one of my heroes, n'est-ce pas?

Mary reading a bedtime story to an infant Jesus?

I expect that the book is the bible but I rather like to imagine that Mary is reading a Beatrix Potter to her baby.

It's so important to read to your children. I still do it even though the Rags are both adults now. In fact when we cleared out all of their old toys and gave them to the children who lived next door I kept the books back. They're sitting in boxes in my house in France, safely stored for future visits when I will, once again, sit and read to the Rags.

St Catherine
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel and The Great Martyr Saint Catherine (Greek ἡ Ἁγία Αἰκατερίνη ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς) is a Christian saint and martyr who is claimed to have been a noted scholar in the early 4th century.

The Catherine wheel firework is named after the instrument of torture, the breaking wheel, on which St Catherine was martyred.

It's all Greek to me...

An ex-colleague, one of the nicer of the people I once worked with, studied Ancient Greek so that he could read old biblical texts. When he told me that I was deeply impressed.

His tales of ice-fishing in Norway and his lecture on how to bone a pike also impressed me greatly though when he told me "I expect you're like me, a portfolio of less than $4,000,000 is worthless when you come to retire" I realised that we live in different worlds!

More Arabic.

Since it is forbidden to use images of living creatures in mosques you will find some very elaborate and beautiful calligraphy used as a decoration instead.

Suits me, I find words as beautiful as artwork any day

I really must study calligraphy one day.

There's a manoir in the next village in Brittany which is owned by a fascinating man who offers courses in it. Now why didn't I enroll on one while I had the opportunity?

I can't recall what this is!

But it forms part of an exhibition on restoring old manuscripts and reminds me of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Apparently they use some form of magnetic scanning thingy now which reveals the words hidden under the grime and dirt of centuries.

So much better than the days when such scraps were stuck together with sellotape and washed with detergent!

I think this is in praise of Allah.

I listened to a BBC World Service programme a few weeks ago devoted to the Most Beautiful Names Of Allah...

Allah, Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim...

As well as learning calligraphy and Farsi (see a previous post on Iran), I would love to visit some of the world's beautiful mosques and sit and gaze at the "writing on the wall".

This is a scrap of Old English.
It's not very impressive, is it?
It's not even real, being a picture of the original page.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena/ þreatum,Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð/feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad

Of course I'm not serious.
This is Beowulf, the oldest piece of Old English writing in existence. A linguistic treasure.

"Noumenis, an infant, lies here"A child's gravestone.
A few years ago I took The Ragazzi to the museum in Viterbo, Umbria. I will never forget wandering round that dusty, empty museum with a forbidding old female guardian following us to ensure that we didn't touch anything.

When we reached the little stone sarcophagi that held the mortal remains of children my daughter asked me to translate the words engraved on the sides and, as I whispered the grieving prayers of parents she cried.

I think...
Correct me if I'm wrong.

I thought of learning Japanese once.
When my daughter was born I embarked on my first French course. Those were happy days, her safely in the creche at Caversham Adult Education Centre, me sitting at a desk conjugating irregular French verbs...

When my son was born I took up Italian. A double blessing because that's where I met my best friend Jeannie and together we studied for the Institute of Linguists exams that were to earn us both distinctions.

Had I had more babies I would have enrolled for Japanese and German.
Perhaps it really is time to start studying Farsi?

So,that's my linguistic tour of the Ashmolean museum.

Please excuse my self-indulgent memories but this is the real treasure of a museum like the Ashmolean. It leads you on a voyage of discovery, not only into a whole world that you never knew existed but also into the depths of yourself that you often forget.


  1. Words, language, books and writing, my favorite as well........ :-)
    Thanks for this very interesting post.

    1. Hello Britt Arnhild and welcome.
      Yes, I know how much you also love words :-)
      Thank you for your kind comment


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