Arctic treasures exposed by melting ice to go on display

Arctic treasures exposed by melting ice to go on display British Museum Arctic treasures exposed by melting ice to go on display

Items made from 28,000-year-old mammoth tusks among artefacts at British Museum

A traditional Arctic whaling vessel. Photographer Kiliii Yuyan aims to reveal the hidden stories of the region. Photograph: Kiliii Yuyan/British Museum

Rare 28,000-year-old archaeological finds excavated from rapidly thawing ground in Siberia are to go on display for the first time at the British Museum as part of an exhibition on the history of the Arctic and its people.

Sewing needles and jewellery made from walrus ivory as well as carved mammoth ivory decorative objects are being lent by the Russian Academy of Science for a show that will be the biggest of its kind.

Jago Cooper, the head of the Americas collections at the museum, said the archeological site in north-east Siberia was a remarkable treasure trove, but it is also a tragedy because the objects are only now emerging due to the climate emergency.

“As the Arctic is melting, the permafrost, the frozen ground, is melting as well. The things that people were living with in that landscape, which are incredibly well-preserved in that frozen ground, are coming out as the ground is melting.

Walrus ivory needles found at the Yana Rhinoceros Horn archaeological site in Siberia. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Walrus ivory needles found at the Yana Rhinoceros Horn archaeological site in Siberia. Photograph: British Museum

“It’s like the library of Alexandria being on fire … You’re plucking out these books which are coming out … it’s a remarkable window into life, all coming out of the ground in one go.”

The loans will be part of an exhibition exploring the history of the region where 4 million people still live, including 400,000 indigenous people. It will be told through the lens of weather and the climate crisis, with scientists predicting that the Arctic will be ice-free in 80 years.

Objects from the Yana Rhinoceros Horn archaeological site in Siberia, 300 miles (480km) north of the Arctic circle, are particular highlights. It was there, 30,000 years ago, that Palaeolithic people hunted woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, bison and giant horses. They also developed the first Arctic art.

Amber Lincoln, a co-curator of the show, said the needles were an important example of Arctic innovation and would have been threaded and used to create tailored garments. “Think about that, these small needles 28,000 years ago … it kind of just gives me the chills, frankly.”

Part of the exhibition will explore the social, economic and political changes Arctic people have faced as a result of European and Russian exploration of the region, including the quest for the Northwest Passage and the global fur trade.

A child’s fur onesie. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A child’s fur onesie. Photograph: British Museum

A key object will be an Inughuit (Greenlandic) sled made from narwhal and caribou bone and driftwood. It was traded to the British polar explorer Sir John Ross in his 1818 expedition, the first known encounter between Inughuit and Europeans.

Curators said there would also be a number of new artworks commissioned as well as contemporary photography by the likes of Kiliii Yuyan among others.

Staging a show so heavily freighted with issues around the climate emergency has inevitably raised questions around the British Museum’s relationship with one of its biggest sponsors, BP.

A carved ivory model of a dog sled. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A carved ivory model of a dog sled. Photograph: British Museum

The Arctic show’s main sponsor will be Citibank. Chris Garrard, the co-director of the campaign group Culture Unstained, accused the museum of “cynically” keeping BP’s logo away from the exhibition.

A golden mask. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A golden mask. Photograph: British Museum

“The museum clearly accepts that BP has a dire record on climate change but will go on giving its backing to the oil firm, which remains 97% invested in fossil fuels.”

Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, denied a charge of hypocrisy. “I don’t think it’s contradictory,” he said. “We are all exposed to the challenges and have to think together, how to find the right solution, to mitigate the effects of these changes. We have all contributed to these changes living as citizens of the Earth, in one way or another.

“It is all of us consuming fossil fuels and those who produce it … you cannot separate one from the other. We have to think together about what changes are necessary.”

• Arctic: culture and climate is at the British Museum from 28 May until 23 August.


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