Operation Ozymandias

The transportation of a pair of ancient Egyptian feet (ECM.2189-2010) to their new home in the Jafar Gallery.


The object in question was a pair of extremely heavy red granite c3000 year old feet which were once part of a larger statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (known to the Greeks as Ozymandias). It had been in ‘temporary’ storage in a window alcove for at least 2 years, awaiting a more permanent place in the Jafar Gallery.

In early September 2017, the new wooden plinth had been made, so I got the nod from Rebecca Tessier, Museums Officer, to go ahead and start planning what we would need for the move.


Firstly I needed to get a good idea of the weight of the piece. Using the dimensions, I could work out the volume and therefore have a pretty close estimate using a reliable formula. The estimated weight came out as 283 kgs, so very heavy for an object that is around the size of a large footstool!

I asked our Buildings Department if they had anything suitable to lift this kind of object but unfortunately they did not, but suggested that we might use a car engine crane. This sounded like a perfect solution so I went about sourcing one from a hire company, along with the required lifting slings.

One piece of equipment that Buildings could supply was a pallet truck which would be needed to move the wooden pallet which the feet were currently sitting on.

It was decided that we would transport the feet to the Jafar Gallery with the use of the Buildings’ van, but we still needed a strong trolley to get them from the Cloisters through the Postern Gate and onto the van.

The last piece of the plan would be to enlist some strong manpower from the Buildings team and so we were all ready for the move. The date set was 17th November 2017.


In order to be able to pick the object up it needed to be brought out into the centre of the floor, as the access to the alcove of the window was quite restricted and the base legs of the crane were not wide enough to get in close to it where it was. We did, however, manage to move it to the centre of the room with the use of the pallet truck. The next stage was to get the lifting slings underneath the object, but it was proving impossible to lift manually, even with four men, due to its relatively small size, yet significant weight. The problem was actually getting a good grip on it.

We were able to partially dismantle the wooden pallet in order to slip the first sling underneath one end, then slide it along the pallet far enough to get the second sling under the other end.

The crane could then be moved into place to attach the slings and lift the object high enough to transfer it to the trolley, which would in turn take it to the waiting van. The engine crane which we used had a maximum lifting capacity of 2000 kgs, so it was more than capable of doing the job and proved perfect as it was possible to fold it up in order to transport it easily between each step of the process.

Once we moved the object to the van we used the crane again to lift it on board ready for transport to the Jafar Gallery, where there is a lift between the ground level and the gallery level.

The lifting process was reversed to move from the van back on to the waiting trolley, then into the lift and up to the gallery level. We’re almost there!

For the final time, the trusty crane was set up next to the waiting plinth in the Jafar Gallery. We made sure to protect the polished floor between the lift and the plinth, then carefully wheeled the feet up alongside it. As can be seen in the picture below, we were again faced with the problem of the fairly narrow crane legs and found that we were literally inches away from being able to lower the feet directly down into position.

The solution turned out to be one that many believe the ancient Egyptians came up with when faced with a very similar problem. We lowered the object gently on to three wooden broom handles placed below, then used them to roll it along the plinth until we were happy that it was in the correct alignment. We could then remove the lifting straps and the broom handles and voilà, Ozymandias’s feet were safely in place.


Bryan in the Jafar Gallery, watching the feet being lifted onto its plinth by the crane

This was a perfect example of great teamwork. Everybody involved contributed their own individual knowledge and expertise and showed that if we all pull together, we can achieve great things!

By Bryan Lewis, Foundation and Collections Handyman

Ramesses’ feet, along with a host of other objects from antiquity, can be seen by all at the Jafar Gallery every Sunday between 2.30pm and 5pm. Please drop by! https://www.etoncollege.com/MuseumAntiquities.aspx

Vespucci’s Odyssey: humanism and exploration

The wanderings of Odysseus on his return from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca have served as an archetype for more than two millennia of narratives about travel in western culture. Traditionally ascribed to the blind poet Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey are the culmination of an oral tradition dating back to the Mycenaean age, handed down and developed for performance by nameless poets over five or more centuries before reaching their present form around 675-725 BCE. The poems were probably put into writing by the mid-6th century BCE, and the earliest surviving manuscripts are papyri from the 3rd century BCE, when Alexandrian scholars produced a relatively stable text which was copied by scribes and spread across the Hellenistic world. About 300 medieval Greek manuscripts of Homer survive from the 9th to 15th centuries, but in western Europe, Homer’s poems were transmitted through Latin abridgements until the revival of Greek learning in the Renaissance, when the influx of Byzantine refugees after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought scholars and the writings of Greek authors to the west.

A 15th-century manuscript of the Odyssey in College Library bears witness to this Greek diaspora. Given to Eton in 1954 by the book collector and Old Etonian John Hely-Hutchinson, it is in a binding typical of books from the library of San Marco in Florence, and the scribe has been identified as Joannes Skoutariotes of Thessaly, who was active from 1442 to 1494. Written on fine vellum, the manuscript is mostly undecorated apart from the small illuminated initials and the very fine border of white vines attributed to the miniaturist Filippo de Matteo Torelli, with putti and other creatures peeping out of the vines and vignettes showing scenes from the poem of Penelope weaving and Odysseus coming ashore. A charming feature of the border is the way it incorporates a marginal correction by the scribe, about two thirds of the way down the right-hand margin.

Homer's Odyssey, 15th century Italian manuscript (Eton MS 261)

Homer’s Odyssey, 15th century Italian manuscript (Eton MS 261)

An inscription on the final leaf of the manuscript, erased and barely legible, identifies the owner: ‘Liber Georgii Antonii Vespucci’ [the book of Giorgio Antonio Vespucci]. The youngest of three brothers of the Vespucci family of Florence, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci studied with the notary and humanist scholar Filippo de Ser Ugolino Pieruzzi, who inspired in him an interest in voyages, astronomy and discussions of the shape of the earth. He became a Dominican friar, scribe and teacher of classics in humanist circles, numbering among his friends the Neoplatonist philosopher and astrologer Marsilio Ficino and the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. In addition to copying books for the family library and for others, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci formed a notable collection of manuscript and printed books in Latin and Greek, estimated at between 150 and 200 volumes, and after his death the majority of these were bequeathed to the Dominican convent of San Marco.

As an educator, Vespucci taught young men from the best families in Florence and foreigners drawn to the city by the lure of humanism, including Greek and Byzantine exiles. Among those to whom he imparted his knowledge was his nephew Amerigo, who was intended for a commercial career which eventually led him to join between two and four voyages of exploration to the Americas in the service of Spain and Portugal around 1500. The exact number is disputed, as is Vespucci’s authorship of letters describing the voyages, which may be fabrications by others based in part on genuine letters. However, the publication and widespread circulation of the letters under a Latinised form of his name, Americus Vespucius, is thought to have inspired the cartographer Martin Waldeseemüller to coin the name ‘America’ in his 1507 world map, the Universalis Cosmographia, the first to show the Americas as a separate continent from Asia.


Domenico Ghirlandaio, ‘Madonna della Misericordia and Deposition’, fresco in the Vespucci Chapel, church of Ognissanti, Florence, 1473-1476. The twelve kneeling figures under the Virgin’s robe are members of the Vespucci family; however, scholars are not in agreement in the possible identifications of the individuals. Image from the Web Gallery of Art via WikiCommons

A composition book from Amerigo’s time at his uncle’s school survives in the Biblioteca Riccardiana in Florence. In it, he set down ideas and discussions on a variety of subjects and translated them into Latin. They travelled together to Rome, and Giorgio Antonio seems to have inspired his nephew with a love of travel and belief in its benefits. One passage reads: ‘Going back and forth to many distant lands, where by talking and trading one can learn many things, not a few merchants have become wise and learned … Moving about and making enquiries concerning the world, whose limits we have not yet completely ascertained, they can furnish valuable advice …’. It is tempting to believe that perhaps Amerigo Vespucci pored over his uncle’s manuscript of the Odyssey, or at least listened to tales from the poem.

By Stephie Coane, Deputy Curator of Modern Collections

Giorgio Antonio Vespucci’s copy of the Odyssey is on display in the current exhibition in College Library’s Tower Gallery, ‘VOYAGES: a journey in books’. The exhibition is open 24 November 2017 – 30 April 2018, Monday to Friday, 9.30-1 and 2-5 by appointment. To book, please contact us at collections@etoncollege.org.uk or 01753 370590.

A Collections Christmas Cracker

Welcome to our final blog of the Michaelmas half!  We’ve chosen twelve of our favourite seasonal objects from the Collections, for your festive enjoyment.  Merry Christmas!

Preparing for Candlemas

Whilst some are getting ready for Advent and the Christmas season, at Eton we are looking forward to another Christian festival.  Candlemas commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and falls on 2nd February – the fortieth, and some say final, day of Christmas.  In 2018, a special Candlemas service will be held in the College Chapel to install a newly commissioned silver altar set.

The pair of candlesticks are being made by Rod Kelly, one of the UK’s leading silversmiths, who specialises in low relief chasing.  Rod has established the South House Silver Workshop Trust to support young graduate silversmiths, who visit his workshop in Shetland to be mentored and receive technical training.

The chalice and patten are being made by Miriam Hanid, who has been working as a professional silversmith since 2008.  Her training has included a Master Craftsman Internship with Rod Kelly sponsored by the Goldsmiths’ Company.  Four of her pieces won awards in the 2017 Goldsmiths’ Craft and Design Awards.

The gallery below shows Rod and Miriam’s recent work on the altar set in progress.

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Images by Rod Kelly and Miriam Hanid; text by Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

How the murder of an Old Etonian fractured Anglo-Greek relations

Abominable Eton

On 25 October 1851, 13 year old Edward Henry Charles Herbert wrote to tell his mother of a fair in Windsor. Visiting the fair would be an excellent opportunity to escape Eton, a place he refers to as an ‘abominable hovel of a hole’.

However, he is hesitant.

Masters and 6th formers are deployed to catch any free roaming Lower Boys in search of festivities. If caught by a Master he would be flogged and turned down a form, simply ‘a great bore’ in Herbert’s books. Worse still, a 6th former would inflict lines of Virgil on him.

Weighing up the odds, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

From his letters it is easy to imagine Herbert as the epitome of a Victorian teenager. His main grievances: having ‘drunk not beer nor wine’ and having eaten neither ‘apple tart nor clotted cream, nor any second course at dinner’. Consequently he states ‘I detest Eton, I abominate it.’

Despite the difficulties Herbert felt in these early days, he did well at Eton. At one point he worked so hard to impress his Master and Tutor that he tried to ignore a fever. He soon settled in, winning a series of prizes, he progressed well through the school and received a scholarship to Oxford.

Letter addressed by Edward Herbert to his father, c.1851

Letter addressed by Edward Herbert to his father, c.1851. (ED/354)

This series of letters, written by Herbert in the early 1850s, provides an interesting first-hand account of life at Eton during the mid-Victorian era. As a stark contrast, the Eton archive also holds the newspaper reports from his untimely death. His struggles at Eton were nothing compared to what was to come.

Held To Ransom

On Monday 11 April 1870, Herbert joined a group of seven other tourists on a day trip to the site of the Battle of Marathon.

As they travelled through the mountains, they were ambushed by a band of brigands, who demanded one million drachma and amnesty for their safe release.

A Brutal Murder

The captives were not treated poorly. Another Old Etonian, Frederick Grantham Vyner, reportedly ran races and tossed boulders with his captors.

However, the Greek government refused to grant amnesty to the captors. Instead they planned a siege. The group were located and surrounded and in the confusion and panic, one by one Edward Herbert and his companions were shot dead.

Not long afterwards the brigands were themselves captured. The Greek government made an example of them, executing them and putting their heads on public display.

Herbert’s body returned to his ancestral home of Highclere Castle and was laid to rest by the friends and family who were so often mentioned in his letters.

International Tension

The incident was to be known as the Dilessi Massacre. It shook the country and was widely reported across Europe. Emotional speeches were made in Parliament by friends and relatives of the victims, who all spoke out against the Greek government and their ill-planned rescue.

These sentiments were felt across the country and even by Queen Victoria. The episode severely tested the relationship between Britain and the young Greek state, whose independence Britain had helped to attain.

Heads of Greek Bandits

The heads of the seven bandits of the Dilessi Massacre, as publicly displayed. From a scrapbook (ED/354/57-58).


By Georgina Robinson, Archives Assistant

Travels with a potato

At some point in the 1970s a small Roman coin was discovered in a garden off Eton High Street. It was not until 1984, however, that Jack Speller was able to get his find properly identified by the Keeper of Antiquities at Eton College, Dr Michael Ballance. What he had uncovered was a coin of the Emperor Probus (with a figure of Victory on the reverse) from the late third century CE.

Probus was born in Sirmium in modern-day Serbia, joined the army as a young man and worked his way up through the ranks. While serving as commander of the eastern army in 276 he was proclaimed emperor by his own troops. He reigned for six years (an impressive feat during these tumultuous years), and was fully occupied during that time fighting Franks and Vandals in Gaul and Middle Europe, putting down usurpers and rebellions, planning a major campaign against the Persians and supervising the regeneration of his hometown of Sirmium. Ironically it was his innocent-seeming efforts to help his hometown that led to his death. His plans to drain the local marshes and reclaim valuable farmland seem inoffensive, even laudable, but his soldiers, resenting the Emperor’s strict disciplinarianism, chased Probus into a nearby watchtower and hacked him to death.

So much for Probus – what about his coin? From the Greek legend it is clear that the coin, a tetradrachm with a value equivalent to a denarius (mostly bronze with just a trace of silver), must have travelled some distance from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire to reach a garden in Eton. The legend reads:



Reverse of a tetradrachm: bronze coin minted in Alexandria, 278-279 CE

Since Alexandria in Egypt was the only city to produce Greek coinage for Probus we can be confident that this is where it was minted. From the Greek letters on the obverse we are also able to date the coin to the fourth year of Probus’ reign (278-279 CE).

How then did this Greek/Egyptian/Roman coin make its way to Eton? Unlikely as it may sound, it did not travel with a Roman soldier or merchant, but hitched a ride to Britannia in a sack of potatoes. Jack Speller had not been not digging in his garden when he unearthed the coin, but emptying out the soil from a sack of particularly earthy new potatoes. As the clods of earth fell out, something caught Jack’s eye and that something, after days of painstaking cleaning to remove the heavy clay, turned out to be our Roman coin. Since the potatoes came from Cyprus, the coin must at some point in antiquity have made its way from Alexandria to that island, where it presumably lay lost and buried for almost two thousand years. In the 1970s it was then unwittingly scooped up into a hessian sack and transported all the way to Tudor Stores Grocery shop on Eton High Street.

Some forty years later Jack’s daughter offered the much-travelled coin to the Eton Museum of Antiquities and we have been delighted to accept it as much for the story of its journey, as for the object itself. So the next time you find yourself peeling potatoes, keep your eyes peeled too: you never know what you might find.


Obverse of a tetradrachm: bronze coin minted in Alexandria, 278-279 CE

By Rob Shorrock (RECS), Keeper of the Eton Museum of Antiquities

A year in the life of an archives assistant

Coming to the end of my time as the Archives Assistant at Eton, I find myself divided between feelings of excitement for the future, gratitude for everything I have been able to see and learn, and sadness at leaving a Collections team that made it such an enjoyable experience, and one in which my consumption of cake has tripled.

The position is a trainee role, allowing me to learn what it takes to be an archivist, gain hands on experience, and (hopefully) help contribute to the work of the College Archives along the way. Over the year I have certainly been kept busy, working upon a range of projects including: cataloguing records of an island owned by the College; running a session as part of a challenge day at a local primary school, allowing 8 and 9 year old pupils to get hands-on with our records and investigate the life of Dr John Keate, a 19th century Eton Head Master; and assisting researchers using our records. The majority of my time has been spent cataloguing around 3300 letters sent to the College bursars between 1775 and 1900, which discuss day to day business – from food orders to the income from the College’s estates and the construction of new buildings to meet the needs of the ever expanding school.

When I started this job I thought that being a successful archivist was all about having a good eye for detail and an ability to order things, I now know that there is so much more to it than just that. You must have the confidence to trust in your knowledge and skills, knowing that a mistake could impact upon a researcher in the future. Be versatile enough to deal with the wide range of material in your collection, from wax seals, parchment rolls and boxes upon boxes of handwritten letters; to magazines, books and even emails. If I had my time again, I would certainly brush up on my non-existent Latin and Greek! Not to forget being willing and determined to spend hours removing rusted pins, paperclips and staples from documents they would otherwise damage.

I remember being unsure before I started of what to expect from the College Archives. What I have found is a place in which I was given the opportunity to ask questions, work within a fantastic archive on amazing records, and learn from excellent people.

By Josh Insley, Archives Assistant