Sunday, 5 January 2014


I was intrigued to discover that two of my heroes from two different domains, naturalist David Attenborough and artist Tom Phillips, go to auctions together in pursuit of anthropological artefacts.  It makes perfect sense: Tom Phillips' enthusiasm for Ashanti gold-weights is well-known, and Attenborough is, well, Attenborough.  There is clearly a world above our world where such beings meet like gods on Olympus, and plan shopping trips together.

I saw a fascinating programme on TV recently where Attenborough sought to establish the provenance of a strange carved wooden staff he had bought at auction in the States.  A fake, according to its seller.  Not so, according to Attenborough's instincts.  It turned out he was right, and then some: it was a unique cult object from Easter Island acquired and described on Captain Cook's last voyage, transported to Tahiti, and later traded with the crew of an American whaling ship to end up, minus its backstory, in the USA.  I imagine chez Attenborough is a veritable treasure-house of such high-grade clutter.

It must be curious -- perhaps even a little annoying -- to be David Attenborough.  It is said that the Queen believes the world everywhere smells of fresh paint.  In like manner, for Sir David all doors are open, nothing is too much trouble, nobody's diary is too full.  He strides into any museum anywhere, in this case in Russia, is greeted by benignly overawed staff, and precious things are assembled and laid before him for inspection.  I don't suppose the TV crew and army of helpers does any harm, but you can practically read their minds: "Amazing! I'm really standing next to David Attenborough!"

He probably longs for a surly official impervious to charm, or a cabinet which must remain locked even for him; but everywhere in every country where BBC Wildlife programmes are loved, his face and voice are known, and for him the world may not smell of fresh paint, but wears instead a shy, delighted smile.  It is said there is an island in the Pacific where Prince Phillip is worshipped as a deity.  Small change to the man who is, surely, the uncontested Greatest Living Briton, enchanting us with his carved South Seas stick (which did, now I think of it, have a certain Prince Phillip-ness about it).

Anyway, the provenance of the magical object shown above is well-known to me, as I made it myself in my forger's workshop.  When I become disenchanted with my "ordinary" photographic work, I like to tinker with my Ring Hoard images.  This one has now taken on a Nordic, astronomical look -- perhaps a device to conjure navigational stars in an overcast night sky?

As it happens, something similar may well have existed.  The Vikings were described in several sagas as making use of a "sunstone" to determine their direction at sea, when the sun was invisible.  It has been suggested  that a large, pure crystal of calcite (Iceland spar) has polarizing properties that render an object viewed through it as a double image unless the crystal is oriented east-west, in which case a single image is seen -- rather like the split-image focussing aid in a camera's viewfinder.  Precisely such a large calcite crystal was found in 2013 in an Elizabethan wreck off the Channel Islands, within feet of a pair of navigator's dividers.

No doubt there's also one acting as a paperweight in Sir David's overstuffed study somewhere.


Andy Sharp said...


I was puzzled by where the ring hoard images had come from - clearly not paying attention - when I came across this Ring Hoard

Now that's a test of my instinctive html.

Let's hope it works.

Mike C. said...


Now that's curious, I thought I had purged all of my old webpage pages (it's hosted on the university server) -- must either be cached somewhere, or I wasn't thorough enough.

I've got a new webpage in preparation.