Agamemnon Mask, Tomb V in Mycenae, 16th c BCE found by Schliemann, 1876
A dizzying array of gold, jewels, art, pottery, furniture –– the first stop on my whirlwind of a trip to England was the Ashmolean Museum –– at 330 years the oldest museum in Britain and the oldest university museum in the world (the oldest public museum in the world –– the Capitoline Museums in Rome on the Capitoline Hill was opened in 1471, predating the Ashmolean by 200-odd years).
Elias Ashmole (1617-92)
In 1677, a celebrated antiquary named Elias Ashmole gave a his cabinet of curiosities, books (including a large section on Alchemy) and botanist John Tradescant’s famed collection to Oxford University on the condition that they give it a suitable home. As it turned out Tradescant’s collection was the larger part of the donation because a fire at the Middle Temple in 1679 destroyed a large part of Ashmole’s own collection.
John Tradescant the Younger,1608-62
The history of Ashmole’s acquisition of Tradescant’s collection is not pretty –– he looks to have swindled Tradescant’s widow Ester out of her husband’s life’s work. She lost the fight to keep it and ended up drowned in a pond after much legal wrangling over ownership.
Ester said Ashmole had gotten her husband to sign it over when he was in his cups in 1659. Ashmole cultivated a close working relationship with Tradescant (or schemed as some have said) as he worked with him to catalogue his collection in 1652. Ashmole even paid to publish a catalogue of the collection in 1656 and wooed Tradescant with a promise of immortality should he deed the collection to him –– a promise he actually kept. I'm sure her state of mind was not improved by the fact that her tormentor actually moved next door to her to be better able to remove Tradescant's collection. This ruthlessness doesn't seem out of character, Ashmole set out to marry into money (his wives seemed no better than cash machines to him) and curried favor with those in power quite shamelessly.
He got what he wanted.
The building of the Ashmolean Museum began in 1678 and was opened by James, Duke of York (later King) in 1683 at an enormous cost for the time, £4,500. It was the world's first building made just for the purpose of being a museum. It displayed coins, manuscripts and zoological specimens (including the famous Dodo that was so moth-eaten it was removed in 1755). It became the Museum of the History of Science when the Ashmole collection was divided in 1894 and houses such wonders as Albert Einstein's blackboard as well as astrolabes, sundials, mathematical equipment and manuscripts.
The new Ashmolean building now houses the art and archaeology collections and was designed and built by architect and archaeologist Charles Cockerell from 1839-45. In 1908 Oxford's collection of art was combined with the holdings of the Ashmolean.
The 19th century version of the Ashmolean Museum that I remembered was old fashioned with large, classical galleries, lovely wooden floors and thick moldings (you can see the old layout HERE). Then in 2006, an extensive 3-year renovation took place undertaken by American architect, Rick Mather . This was an extreme makeover. All of the detail was stripped from the museum.
To this, earning the 2010 RIBA award in the process for design.
Ceilings and walls disappeared and new staircases were built. It now looks like any other museum but the reward for the modernization is that visitors are up exponentially and much more of the vast collection can be displayed instead of languishing in dusty storage rooms. I do miss the quirk of the old place, but that’s progress.
The whole reason for going was to view the remarkable pottery and artifact collection for a project I’m working on. It is a treasure trove. If you read this blog, you know how I love ancient decorative objects and have written about them HERE and HERE
From that golden Mask of Agamemnon above...
to pottery of early Iran
Cyclades (3200-2100 BC)
Lovely Greece and Cyprus
The collection is staggering in its breadth and scope –– I just showed you a tiny taste of the ancient world –– the museum covers many lands and many stops in time.
The Alfred Jewel inscribed 'Alfred ordered me made', 9th c. one of the most popular objects at the museum
I never cease to be amazed by the powerful shapes and patterns of these ancient artists. It is more than worth a trip to see the collections if you are in Oxford –– it was the first British museum after all.
I thought an ancient recipe would be appropriate and decided on one that I had waited a year to make until mulberries were in season again (don’t worry, blackberries or black raspberries or even blueberries would do).
The recipe is inspired by a few words of Sotades Comicus, quoted by Athenaeus (293AD), COOKS, 459, THE DEIPNOSOPHISTS, or Banquet of the Learned, VII:
“A huge dog-fish is put in my class; I baked the middle slices, but the rest of the stuff I boiled, after making a mulberry sauce" [OR "I boil'd and stufi'd with half-ripe mulberries" in a different translation].
Athenaeus material is full of descriptions for fish preparations. Although the mulberry fish is just a suggestion of a recipe, others are more involved. The recipe borrows from various techniques in the work to make a completed dish that is authentic to the period with its use of wine, herbs and spice.
Dogfish or rock eel is in the shark family. I would say shark, mahi mahi, cod or most any light fish would be great with this sauce –– honestly, it would be good with mackerel!
I am using a recipe from my favorite ancient cooking source, The Classical Cookbook. I think the sauce would be great with grilled fish as well, just cook the wine with a bit of fish trimmings and strain for the sauce.
I think you could eat this at any restaurant today and never imagine it was cuisine of the ancient world –– how great is that?
Mahi Mahi with Berry Sauce serves 4
8 oz mulberries or blackberries, black raspberries or blueberries
2/3 c red wine
4 fish steaks (mahi mahi, cod, mako shark or what you will)
bouquet garni of oregano or marjoram and rue (rue is both delicious and beautiful if you can find the plant and grow it) or parsley
2/3 c white wine
2 T Honey
2 T Fish sauce (garum if you have it!)
1 T vinegar
½ t asafoetida powder
Put the fruit in a saucepan with the redwine and cook on medium low for a few minutes.
Poach the fish in the white wine and herbs on low for 10 minutes or until done. Remove.
OR take some trimmings from the fish and poach in the white wine. Remove the fish and add to the berry mixture. Grill the fish portions sprinkled with a bit of salt and olive oil.
Add the honey, fish sauce, vinegar and asafoetida to the poaching wine and add that to the berry mixture. Strain to remove the seeds and reduce a little. Serve with or over the fish.