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Have you seen the magic wand in the British Museum?

With hundreds of thousands of objects on display at the British Museum, it is easy to miss one of the oldest things in the collection. And it comes, not from Egypt, Greece or Rome but from France.

With hundreds of thousands of objects on display at the British Museum, it is easy to miss one of the oldest things in the collection. And it comes, not from Egypt, Greece or Rome but from France. This baton made from reindeer antler is decorated with an image of a horse, and is 13,000 years old. It was made at a time when ice dominated Europe and France would have been dominated by glaciers and had a population of reindeer. But what exactly is the baton for?

It was discovered in 1863 in a rock shelter at Le Madeleine in the Dordogne by Edouard Lartet, a French palaeontologist and his benefactor Henry Christy. Christy had made his fortune in selling linen and top hats and decided to devote the rest of his life to travel and archaeology. The baton mystified both of them, Christy concluding it would have been used as a “magic wand” to conjure up horses as a source of food. That didn’t explain the hole in the middle though.

In 1965 surrealist artist Leon Underwood came up with a new theory. Underwood had long been inspired by stone age and other ancient objects, and it had led him further into study of archaeology. He noticed the similarity of the hole in the baton to spear throwers used by Inuit people in the 1960s. The spear thrower worked by placing a spear in a piece of carved antler which would have straps attached to it. The thrower spins the baton to build up speed, then when released the spear flies forward with greater speed than would have been achieved if thrown by hand. To prove his point Underwood built a copy of the antler baton and used it to throw spears – the idea of making an archaeological reconstruction was fairly novel at the time.

Debate still continues about the true use of the baton, but that is what I like about objects in the British Museum, they can change meaning over time, as we find out more about the past. To find more of the treasures of the British Museum join Rob on one of his tours for London Guided Walks.

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September 18, 2020
22: The Havering Hoard

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