Janus: the Roman god of beginnings, doorways and the New Year

By Wes White, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

On Tuesday 17 January we featured the first ‘Museum on the Move’ at Canada Water Library. Each month we’ll present a themed collection drawn from the Southwark Heritage collections. Original documents and artefacts from the Cuming Museum will be on display, freely available for visitors to see and swap thoughts about in the library, while artworks are shown on a big screen above.

Temple of JanusMy theme for January was Janus – the Roman god of beginnings, doorways and the New Year; after whom January is named. He is famous as the god with two faces – one looking into the future, and the other on the back of his head peering into the past. Janus might not be an ‘A-lister’ in the Roman pantheon, being less well known than figures with planets named after them like Jupiter, Mars and Venus; but even so he was a significant figure in Roman mythology, and the Cuming collection actually features a number of objects directly related to him. These come in the form of coins bearing his likeness; and even one showing his temple, from the reign of Nero. The story of Janus’ temple tells that its gates stood open when Rome was at war, but closed in times of peace – and they were rarely closed.

Also featured in the display were some press cuttings sourced from Southwark’s Local History Library and Archives about New Year celebrations in years past; particularly from the year 1900. I picked out that year to look at because of the significance of the turn of the century, only to find myself reminded by the Bishop of Rochester that technically the new century would have begun in 1901.

And considering that New Year’s Eve is famously such a busy time for the emergency services, I was also surprised to find a story called ‘Firemen at Play’ describing the Fire service’s own New Year’s Eve party – it finished up, predictably, with some of them having to get changed out of their party gear to tackle a fire…

Because Janus stood at the threshold of the New Year, he was also the god of all kinds of crossing-over points and doorways. This gave me the opportunity to feature some of the Cuming collection’s keys in the display. Those included a surprisingly small and humble key to Marshalsea Prison (which several visitors thought looked just a bit too easy for the pirates and smugglers the prison held to copy), and a far bigger, heavier, 13th century key to Bermondsey Abbey, which stood until the reign of Henry VIII. The Abbey is widely thought to be the reason that the area is known as ‘The Blue’ – as the colour represented sacredness.

By far the oldest thing on display this month was a fragment of an even older belief system than the Roman myth that Janus was a part of – a fragment of a false doorway from a tomb in Thebes. This and other Egyptian artefacts came to the Cuming collection via the explorer James Burton in the 1830s. So, why would there have been a false doorway in a tomb? It was false only to the living: this was the door that the departed spirit was supposed to step through, into the next world.

Fragment of a false doorway from a tomb in Thebes

The next outing for the ‘Museum on the Move’ will be at Canada Water Library on Tuesday 14 February, 2pm to 4pm, and you might be able to guess the theme from the date! It’s Valentine’s Day – come and check out an exploration of romance down the ages.

The Last Giraffe of Walworth

Opened in 1831 by Edward Cross, the Royal Surrey Gardens in Walworth hosted a huge number of grand events; from re-enactments of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and The Great Fire of London, to spectacular fireworks displays and hot air balloon flights. The gardens housed a large music hall as well as one of London’s first zoos.

The Zoological Gardens included a large circular domed conservatory at its centre which housed a pond of exotic fish and birds as well as cages of large carnivores, including lions and tigers. Feeding time was a big affair and keepers were known to tease the hungry carnivores to ‘put on a good show’ for the visitors. Other exotic animals such as pigmy elephants and monkeys were kept at the zoo which rivalled the equally new London Zoo at Regent’s Park.

In 1843 five young giraffes were purchased for the Zoological Gardens. Bred from captive giraffes in Africa, they were bought at just 6 weeks old and were hand-reared. Their journey to Walworth took them across Africa travelling for 35 days to Cairo. At such a young age it was too far for the young giraffes to walk so they were strapped to the side of camels for transportation. From Cairo they travelled along the Nile by boat. Passage to Britain was booked on a ship from Alexandria, however, the young giraffes were growing taller and a 15ft high space had to be cut into the ship in order to transport them safely. Once arrived in London the animals were walked through the streets, from the docks to the zoo, under cover of darkness so that the sight of ‘strange horses’ didn’t scare the local residents. The giraffes, the first on public display in Britain, caused quite a stir – their “Nubian attendants” even more so, becoming celebrities in their own right.

Giraffes and their attendants (P02185)

The Cuming family visited various events, fairs and fetes at the gardens and saved posters, tickets and souvenirs as part of their growing collections. The only surviving souvenir from Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens is a lovely plaster of Paris model of a one of the young giraffes, which stands around 38cm high. This was added to the collection by Henry Syer Cuming in the mid-1800s.

However, in 2013 a fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall which housed the Cuming Museum. The model giraffe was rescued but sadly had been broken into six pieces, all of which were dirty and discoloured from the smoke and fire, as well as being water damaged in the aftermath. Along with other damaged items the giraffe was sent to Plowden and Smith for restoration.

After numerous trials conservator Francis Toohey decided that the most suitable way to clean the fragile surface was with deionised water and white spirit, applied with a moist cotton bud and immediately dried. It was very slow and delicate work.

Once cleaned, work could begin on putting the giraffe back together piece by piece. PVA adhesive was used to bond the fragments together again and small holes or missing parts were made up with a soft acrylic filler and plaster of Paris tagged with Barium sulphate. As well as referring to photographs of the model before the fire conservators also researched giraffe anatomy, paying particular attention to the shape of the skull, to ensure the reconstruction would be accurate.

As different fragments of the giraffe suffered different fates during and after the fire – some badly scorched or soot damaged, others more seriously water damaged – it meant that although the structure was once again intact, the damage was still noticeable. It was decided that while any fills would be colour matched as closely as possible the patchwork colouring of the different fragments would remain, conserving the damage caused by the fire as part of the history of the object itself.

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You can now view a 3D model of the reconstructed giraffe on Sketchfab.

Weighing of the Heart

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

At this time of year the heart is everywhere: on a card, represented in chocolate or even on your sleeve.  The Ancient Egyptians, however, saw the heart not as a romantic symbol but as the key to getting into heaven.

Egyptian death rituals demanded that most organs were removed from the deceased and preserved in jars along with the mummified body so that they would serve a function in the Afterlife.

The heart and the brain were treated differently.  The brain was thrown away, as it wasn’t thought useful (some days I’m sure we can all sympathise with that).  But the heart was preserved and put back inside the body cavity. In some cases an amulet in the shape of a heart or other important symbol would serve if the real heart was damaged or decayed.

Ancient Egyptian Heart AmuletAncient Egyptians regarded the heart as the most important organ of all.  For them, it was the seat of memory, intelligence and emotion. But, crucially, the heart was also the passport to the Afterlife.

After death the souls of the dead would be judged and the successful were admitted into heaven.  The unsuccessful would be erased from memory, a terrible fate.

The judgement took place through the “weighing of the heart” ceremony.

FeatherFirst of all the dead soul, on arrival at the entrance to the Afterlife, would have to undertake rituals and state their case for acceptance.  Then the god Anubis would take them to the Hall of Maat and weigh their heart against the weight of a feather.

If the heart and feather balanced then the dead person was judged to be good and passed into a happy eternity.

If the heart outweighed the feather then it was judged to be heavy with guilt due to all the bad deeds the person had committed in life.

That soul was then cast away to oblivion.  The god Thoth recorded the verdict in his book and the heart of the bad person would then be eaten by Ammit, the “gobbler” goddess. Part crocodile, part lion, part hippo, she sat by Thoth ready for a meal.

So whether this Valentine’s day finds you with a light or heavy heart just think: Anubis might be watching and Ammit might be smacking her lips for a chance of a snack!