Mary's trip to London, Oxford and Berlin travel blog

A plastered and shell-embellished skull from ancient Jericho

Bedouin robes presented to T. E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia

Ceremonial Khanjar dagger presented to T.E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia

Chief Powhatan's Mantle was probably a wall hanging rather than a cloak

Shrine of 25th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh and Kushite King Taharqa

Another view of the shrine of 25th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh and Kushite...

Relief of the ram-headed Egyptian god Amun-re on the shrine of Taharqa

A stylized relief of 25th dynasty pharaoh and Kushite King Taharqa on...

Minoan snake goddess figurines were usually associated with a domestic context 1300-1190...

A faience goat suckling a kid Minoan 1300-1190 BCE

Fragments of a Minoan fresco depicting a young acrobat or perhaps a...

Archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann thought this gold death mask depicted the face of...

Third century BCE gold Greek dress pin depicting a mythical griffin


Although I thought a good night's sleep would be all the was needed to get over whatever had taken me down on Sunday, I was wrong. I woke up Monday and still felt so exhausted I could barely wobble down to breakfast and only managed to eat a little cold cereal. I was supposed to go with the group to the Griffith Institute to look at Howard Carter's King Tut excavation archives. Since there really wouldn't be anything much to photograph and I had already seen a number of Howard Carter's watercolors at the Egypt Exploration Society in London I decided to stay in my room and rest. Since there are no eating facilities at the hotel I took an extra croissant and piece of fruit to serve as lunch. I was told about a small mall behind Kassam Stadium if I had the energy to walk over there for dinner.

By evening I felt a little better so pulled myself together and headed for the mall to find something to eat. There were only three restaurants - an American steakhouse, an Indian restaurant and a Chinese buffet. The heaviness of a steak dinner did not appeal to me and my stomach definitely couldn't handle spicy Indian food so I opted for the Chinese buffet. I had hoped there would be quite a few vegetable dishes but most of the offerings contained fried meat of some kind. The waitress mentioned a grill in the back but I didn't find any raw vegetables to make a stir fry. At least they had a sushi bar and boiled eggs so that helped. I ate quickly and got up to pay the bill and the cashier commented that I certainly ate fast. I just told her I was married to a former Marine so I had learned not to linger over a meal!

Today we're supposed to go to the Ashmolean Museum and that was my entire reason to come to Oxford in the first place so I didn't want to miss it. I was still very shaky when I got up but ate a little cold cereal and walked to the bus stop with the rest of the group.

When we arrived at the Ashmolean, our tour leaders had arranged for us to meet with the curators of the Near East and Egyptian collections. As we waited for them near the reception desk I noticed a poster featuring a picture of what was said to be the real Bedouin robes of T. E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia. I was surprised as I had not realized they were part of the Ashmolean's collections and decided I would definitely need to find them as "Lawrence of Arabia" is one of my favorite movies.

When the curator of the Near East collections arrived, we walked into the Near East galleries as he pointed out some of the collection highlights. I immediately spotted one of the famous Jericho skulls. I had learned about these skulls when I studied archaeology at the university years ago.

These plastered skulls represent some of the earliest forms of burial practices in the southern Levant and date from 7000 - 6000 BCE. During the Neolithic period, the deceased were often buried under the floors of their homes. Sometimes the skull was removed, and its cavities filled with plaster and painted. In order to create more lifelike faces, shells were inset for eyes, and paint was used to represent facial features, hair, and mustaches. The Ashmolean example is a skull from an adult male whose skull appears to have been artificially deformed from infancy. The skull retains traces of plastered decoration and has cowrie shells inserted in the eye sockets.

Some scholars believe that this burial practice represents an early form of ancestor worship, where the plastered skulls were used to commemorate and respect family ancestors. Other experts argue that the plastered skulls could be linked to the practice of head hunting, and used as trophies. Whether either of these theories is true remains unproven but these skulls clearly demonstrate that the prehistoric population took great care in burying their dead and represent some of the earliest sculptural examples of portraiture in the history of art.

The curator also mentioned that the famous archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who had excavated the Minoan capital at Knossos on the island of Crete and became keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in 1884 when it transitioned from a natural history museum to a museum of archaeology. He subsequently bequeathed his entire Minoan collection to the museum.

I have been fascinated by the Minoan culture for many years even though some scholars think Evans may have incorporated too much of his own ideas into conceptualizing some of the Minoan reconstructions he supervised. So I was particularly anxious to see the Minoan items currently on display.

The throne from the Throne Room at the palace of Knossos was displayed along with a number of ceramic vessels that were discovered in it, some featuring marine life motifs very similar to Mycenaen vessels I have seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. One of my favorite smaller items was a replica of a faience goat suckling its kid. I always enjoy depictions of animals in ancient art. I was also thrilled to see a small fresco of a young man, probably an acrobat or perhaps one of the famous bull leapers. The display also included two faience snake goddess figurines that are replicas of the figurines in the archaeological museum at Heraklion. These figurines, dating to the neo-palatial period of Minoan civilization, ca. 1700–1450 BCE, were found only in house sanctuaries and therefore thought to represent the goddess of the household and related to women's domestic activities. Some scholars think they were precursors to the Greek goddess Athena Parthenos, who is also associated with serpents.

Evans was also acquainted with the famous German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated Hisarlik in modern Turkey, thought to be the site of the mythical Troy. Schliemann also excavated shaft graves at Mycenae, Greece in 1876. There he uncovered a gold death mask dubbed the Mask of Agamemnon. Since Evans and Schliemann were acquainted I thought perhaps the mask I saw in the display case might be the original but the original is apparently exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. I saw another museum-quality replica of it a few months ago at The Field Museum exhibit "The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great" in Chicago.

By now I had been standing for over a half an hour and I was growing quite tired so as soon as the curator of Near Eastern art finished his presentation I took the opportunity to go downstairs to rest a bit. There I found the robes of Lawrence of Arabia along with some other interesting Asian clothing, English textiles and even the mantle of Powhatan, father of Pocahontas. The 17th-century mantle was once thought to be the chief's cloak but is now thought to have been used as a wall hanging in a place of worship. Although now the mantle is in a glass case, it originally hung exposed on the wall at the Ashmolean and it is thought that visitors removed shells from the lower section to keep them as souvenirs.

By the time I rejoined the group, they were about half way through the Egyptian galleries. There I saw that the Ashmolean had reconstructed (from fragments) a shrine of the 25th dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh and Kushite King Taharqa, who ruled from 690 - 664 BCE. When he was only 20 he defended Jerusalem against an Assyrian siege led by the emperor Sennacherib. The reliefs of the king and various Egyptian gods were still quite detailed and very beautiful.

As the day wore on I also explored the Roman, Greek, Cypriot, Etruscan and Saxon galleries with another trip downstairs to eat yet another egg mayonnaise sandwich for lunch. But by 3 o'clock I knew I needed what strength I had left to walk to the bus stop and catch the bus back to the hotel. I had developed a dry cough, too, so I thought I would keep an eye out for a place to get some cough syrup.

Since I wasn't really thrilled with the Chinese buffet near the hotel, I stopped into a supermarket to look for something to have for dinner. I had no way to heat anything up and none of their sandwiches looked appetizing so I just bought a banana and a bottle of juice. I walked a little further down the street and spotted one of those chain delis called Pret a Manger. I had seen them in London and knew they had freshly made sandwiches, soups and pastries. So I went in and found another egg mayonnaise sandwich! I walked down the street a little further and spied a Boots pharmacy. I went upstairs to the cold medicine section but couldn't find anything like Coricidin HBP. A clerk offered to help but when I told her about needing something for someone with high blood pressure she was stumped. She consulted the pharmacist and he was not sure any of their cold medicine would be suitable either but recommended Robitussin Chesty Cough. My doctor has never recommended Robitussin for me so I was dubious but bought it anyway.

After a couple of missteps trying to find the right bus (wrong bus right direction; right bus wrong direction;) I finally found the stop for the right bus going in the right direction but realized I didn't know the name of the stop where we got on that morning. Fortunately, a man about my age got on the bus and sat down next to me and I asked him if he knew the name of the stop closest to Kassam Stadium. He said he was getting off there too so not to worry.

I finally made it back to the hotel but by then was really tired again and my chest felt sort of heavy. I went ahead and ate my sandwich then looked at the time and realized my doctor's office on the west coast of the U.S. would be open so I decided to call my doctor in Oregon to see if it would be alright to take the Robitussin since I'm on so much medication. When the triage nurse asked me about my symptoms that, by now, included the chest discomfort, she became immediately concerned, told me to chew an aspirin and call the EMTs. I did so and my hotel room was soon full of guys from the National Health Service. They ran an ECG that didn't show anything wrong but loaded me up in the ambulance anyway to take me to the Emergency Room at Oxford University's teaching hospital. They sprayed nitroglycerin under my tongue and I immediately felt better (which isn't a good sign, unfortunately).

At the hospital, they ran a series of tests including a blood test for cardiac enzymes (or something that indicates a heart attack), another ECG and a CT Scan for a pulmonary embolism. All the tests were negative but the doctors said they recommended admitting me to the hospital for a complete cardiac workup as I had all of the classic symptoms of angina that can preclude a heart attack. Meanwhile, the tour coordinators showed up and pointed out that if I was admitted to the hospital one or both of them would have to stay with me in Oxford and it would ruin the rest of the trip for everyone else because we were supposed to leave for Berlin in just a few hours. I had also received an email from my travel insurance carrier claiming they only covered expenses related to evacuation (despite the fact that the policy clearly stated I had separate coverage for medical expenses).

When the CT scan showed no embolisms, I told the doctors I only had three more days and I would be back in the states where I had full insurance coverage. They stressed I should see a cardiologist as soon as possible but it was obviously my decision. When I checked with the front desk to see what information they needed to bill for all of the tests I had had, the nurse just patted me on the shoulder and said, "Dear, we don't charge for services if you are not admitted. " Wow, that would have never been the case back home! I have also been to an American hospital with my husband when he was having symptoms of a cardiac problem and he was not treated with as much urgency as I was in Oxford. Obviously, the American political fear mongers who have always claimed government provided health care would not be as good as private care are totally misleading the American public!!

Anyway, faced with having to fight it out with the travel insurance people over coverage of my medical expenses or the loss of a significant chunk of my retirement savings, I reluctantly decided to go back to the hotel with the tour people and prepare to leave for Berlin.



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