Saturday, May 31, 2008

The lions in the castle

Have been feverishly meeting a deadline the last couple of days. But on Thursday I was also required to do acting, at the lavish showbiz launch of Dr Debbie Challis' new book. In a strange reversal of the norm, Ms Lisa Bowerman played "Narrator", and I was the famous archaeologist.
The Lions in the Castle
Two stone lions sit either side of the South Staircase from the entrance hall of the British Museum. Visitors largely ignore them in their haste to do the top ten sights of the museum or get to whatever blockbuster is showing.

The lions once adorned the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. An earthquake dislodged them at some point in the middle ages and they were re-used to decorate the late crusader castle of the Knights of St John in Bodrum. And then 150 years ago in 1856, they were identified by archaeologist Charles Newton who thought they’d be a lot better off in the British Museum. In excavations of the Mausoleum, Newton had found many of the hindquarters of lions and hoped to be able to unite the bodies with the heads in the British Museum. As Newton wrote:

Newton: I was anxiously awaiting for the papers empowering me to take possession of the lions which I had discovered in the Castle last year. Unavoidable delays had prevented the granting of this document.

Narrator: To hurry things up, Newton despatched his good friend the painter George Frederick Watts to Istanbul to acquire the paperwork needed. Although perhaps ‘hurry’ is the wrong word: on the way, Watts had time to cruise through the Greek islands to Athens and paint one portrait of the British ambassador and another of the commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet.

While Watts was away, word was spreading that the lions were of value. Why then, should they be shipped off to London? The Ottoman Minister of War had ordered the Commandant of the Castle of St Peter to remove the lions from the walls and send them to Istanbul.

Newton: It was not a pleasant sight to see this operation performed under our very eyes . . . Two more lions were soon dug out of the walls. The extraction of two of my eye teeth could not have given me so great a pang.

Narrator: Just to rub it in, the Commandant visited Newton at the excavation site where he contrasted the ‘little fragments’ of sculptures Newton had found on the excavation site with the big impressive lions he had extracted from the castle.1

Newton: I endured his civil impertinence for about a quarter of an hour, till at last my inward chafing found vent in a strong expression or two in English addressed to Captain Towsey. The Turks did not understand what I had said: but guessed from the expression of my countenance what was passing in my mind . . .

Narrator: Thinking he had lost them for good, a dejected Newton had photographs taken of the lions. Then they were placed on a ship ready to sail for Istanbul.


At four AM the next morning Watts sailed into Bodrum with the paperwork Newton had been waiting for. A sailor was sent to wake Newton, but:

Newton: I had had so many disappointments about the paperwork that I received this news with sceptical indifference, and doggedly fell asleep again.

Narrator: He was woken up again two hours later by another messenger from Captain Towsey.

Newton: I answered Towsey’s news very sulkily as I believed the lions were gone. But he told me that the ship was still in the harbour awaiting a fair wind. I jumped into the boat without a word more: a few vigorous strokes brought us to the harbour.

Newton and Towsey went to see the Commandant, who was surprised to see them so early in the morning.

We disrupted him with that indecent haste with which mad Englishmen occasionally invade the kieff of an Oriental when any real emergency occurs. I put the firman in his hand with that air of cool satisfaction with which a whist player trumps an ace on the first round.

Narrator: The Commandant was astonished. But once he checked the details, he claimed that the statues on his boat were not the lions described in the paperwork but leopards. Newton was having no more delays.

Newton: Come, come my friend. Aslanlar or caplanlar, you know very well what are the beasts meant by the firman, and where to find them. I claim those beasts, and no other.

Narrator: The lions were handed over, though Newton reimbursed the Commandant for his expense in removing them. Although, one solitary lion from Bodrum made it to the museum in Istanbul where it is displayed on its own. The lions were duly transported to London were they sat in a shed until there was room in the museum to display them. Newton’s friend and fellow archaeologist, Austen Henry Layard objected to the treatment of these antiquities in a creaky shed that let the rain and soot in, but that is another story.