by John Osborne
If you mention Sicily to most people, many will think of the television series Inspector Montalbano. However, ‘Storms, War, and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas’, an exhibition now on at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford provides a greater historic understanding of Sicily. Its new exhibition reveals that there is more to Sicily than poverty and that its rich history has until comparatively recently lain unknown to the British public.
According to the museum the treasures on show “have been uncovered over the last sixty years since the advent of SCUBA diving which made possible sustained underwater exploration. While some of the objects are chance finds pulled up by local fishermen, most are from shipwrecks excavated by archaeological divers”. Much of the credit must go to Honor Frost (1917 to 2010). One of her achievements was the discovery of a Carthaginian warship off the north-west coast of Sicily in 1971.
Although Punic ships are well represented in the exhibition surprisingly little is on display about Dr Frost. According to Wikipedia “the Punics also known as Carthaginians, were a people from Ancient Carthage in modern-day Tunisia, North Africa”. Archaeology has come a long way since the pioneering work of Heinrich Schliemann, who was responsible for the many discoveries at Troy, and Joseph Whitaker, a wealthy Englishman whose extraordinary discoveries on the island off Motya, located on the north-west coast of Sicily brought to the surface much than had remain hidden for thousands of years. Early archaeology on the island was largely carried out by amateurs. According to Dr Alexandra Sofroniew, Exhibition Curator, Ashmolean Museum that changed in the 1920s when professional archaeologists largely replaced amateurs.
All the exhibits were found underwater, except the model of a small boat. Sicily has been invaded by so many people from the Greeks and the Romans to the Arabs and the Normans. This exhibition demonstrates the diversity of the island and is another aspect so often neglected in newspaper articles. There is much more to Sicily than sea, sand, and exquisite reasonably priced food.
‘Storms, War, and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas’ is much larger than ‘Sicily: Culture and Conquest’, the British Museum’s exhibition about Sicily, and the other exhibition about Sicily currently on in England. The Ashmolean Museum’s is in many ways also more interesting. It includes “please touch” and “please smell me” exhibits. Also, the Ashmolean has worked with Creative Assembly, a games studio to help bring Punic ship building skills to life. These continue the modern trend in curating of endeavouring to make museums less stuffy and more appealing to children. Another major difference is that the British Museum’s Sicilian exhibition consists largely of colour photographs.
‘Storms, War, and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas‘ opened on Tuesday, 21 June 2016.
It closes on Sunday, 25 September 2016.
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