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50 Objects, 50 Stories visual arts review (Nicholson Museum, Sydney)

Our cousins climbed down from the trees around three million years ago, but the documented evidence for the steady march towards “civilisation” only begins around 2,500 BC. That leaves a lot activity unaccounted for. Enter the Swiss Army Knife of the Stone Age: the hand axe. One of these treasures is on display at Sydney’s Nicholson Museum of antiquities in an exhibition called 50 Objects 50 Stories— a trove of artefacts, each one with a story nesting in it like a Russian doll.

The oldest, by a very long shot, at half a million years, is this yellow jasper hand axe, and perhaps it has the best story of all. With it, man could butcher carcasses and crack bones for marrow — an instant protein hit which gave him a brain much larger than his furry competitors. Man hasn’t looked back since then.

Paleolithic hand axe

It has been carefully fashioned, harmoniously proportioned and intended to please the eye. So, this is also where art begins — with the desire for something greater than the utilitarian and celebration of the skills acquired to make it so. And this hand axe provides another valuable insight: the capacity for its maker to imagine in a rough piece of stone, the shape he wishes to achieve — a huge conceptual leap. The person who shaped this axe was probably learning to shape a sentence at the same time. Thus our entire human history is ninety-nine percent Prehistoric, compared to which the developments from the steam engine to the credit card, are a mere eye-blink.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe took for granted the superiority of Greek and Roman culture and their habits of mental and physical discipline — never mind that much of this learning only survived thanks to Arabic scholars — which is why their museums have a disproportionate number of naked muscular chaps carved in marble  and red and black terracotta vessels with endless scenes of antique gods and goddesses disporting themselves. These scenes embody the very essence of tragedy, comedy and poetry from which our modern literature and theatre spring. One majestic black figure amphora (wine vessel) in the exhibition depicts muscular men wearing animal skins, holding shields and spears and locked in combat. Exciting enough, but even more interesting are the circumstances of its survival. In 1828 a farmer ploughing his field with oxen near the city of Vulci just north west of Rome, saw his animals disappear from sight. They had fallen into an Etruscan tomb. The novelist D. H. Lawrence subsequently wrote about this honeycomb of tombs across the countryside and their thousands of vessels so carefully buried to accompany the dead into a life of further drinking and partying. It seems the site was relentlessly plundered and while gold treasures were seized and sold on the black market, the pots were deemed worthless and crushed into the soil. This particular pot had a lucky escape.


With today’s passion for authenticity, the examination of plaster and marble copies of works from antiquity has lost some of its appeal. Yet the intricate white and yellow marble bust of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, reminds us of the Romans’ fondness for boasting of their military exploits with the help of assorted gods. Augustus’s broad chest is sporting a breastplate decorated with scenes mourning women, representatives of  conquered Gallic and Germanic tribes, a sun god racing his chariot across the sky — even two sphinxes which are symbols of Augustus’s victory over the hapless Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in 30BC. This is one of the most rewarding objects in the exhibition.


Crime writer Agatha Christie (who created Hercule Poirot) accompanied her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan on his excavations in Syria and Iraq from the 1930s onwards. Among his greatest finds were the  so-called ‘Nimrud ivories’, small intricately carved plaques at the site of the capital of the great Assyrian Empire. Christie used her jar of cosmetic face cream and a knitting needle to coax the soil from them. She quipped “there was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face …”. The state of her face probably didn’t upset Mallowan for as Christie is also meant to have remarked: “An archaeologist is the best husband any woman could have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her …”

There are other remarkable works in this exhibition: a papyrus fragment from Homer’s Iliad,  silver and electrum coins, a framed tableau of human remains from fifteenth-century France, an extraordinarily well preserved mummy coffin said to be of Padiashaikhet (who lived around 700 BC) and a plastered skull —  an ‘ancestor’ portrait, dating to 7000BC found in Jericho.

Senior curator Michael Turner has created a journey at the Nicholson Museum (which was established in 1860) to engage all those whose imaginations are not sufficiently nourished by the stream of ephemera that threaten to overwhelm our modern lives.






50 Objects, 50 Stories is at the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney until May 2014. Images by Rowan Conroy, Courtesy Nicholson Museum.

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