Monday, 30 August 2010


Harpa, T's friend who we met in Vík, posted a really lovely picture of us on her blog in front of her house. Thanks again to Harpa, that lunch was one of my favorite memories from Iceland!!

Sunday, 22 August 2010

It's always better on holiday part II: Ísland

Well! This got long! Apologies, but I didn't want to forget anything!

After the inevitable and eternal train ride from Stansted, N and I arrived back in Oxford quite late on the Friday night and almost immediately went to bed. The next morning I got to introduce N to E and we enjoyed some delicious, delicious Manos before hitting the Museum of History of Science. Then I went to print our boarding passes for Iceland and sent N to check out the Pitt Rivers, completely forgetting to tell him that he needed to walk through the University Museum to get there... I feel a bit bad about that. He seems to have enjoyed the UMNH though.

After a somewhat fraught race across Oxford, we made it onto the bus with seconds to spare. Our ride to the airport ended with us observing the seemingly endless parade of 747s owned by British Airways that just... taxi round and round Heathrow. Our flight to Iceland was nice -- N had gotten us exit row seats -- and the Icelandair flight attendants were gorgeous as always.

We landed at Keflavik very late and staggered our way to the Flybus. I had a great sleep on the Flybus but was so exhausted that somewhere in this journey I left behind my hiking boots. I still have not found them and am very, very sad about it -- I haven't felt this sad about losing something since my bike was stolen in 2005. I haven't lost something this valuable to me since that bike either, so it makes sense.

We arrived at our flat and were pleasantly surprised by it. For 200 euros for seven days, we got a great deal. It was a bit tight, and the acoustics were a bit too good (Jim, downstairs and quite far away, yelled at us that he felt like we were in the same room), but otherwise it was lovely. We went to bed, feeling exhausted from constant travelling, and were awoken early the next morning by the delightfully long Icelandic summer morning.

For our first day, we enjoyed the sights of Reykjavik, N got his first taste of Skyr, and we walked across town to the beach at Nauthólsvik. This was a beach that I had wanted to visit on my first trip to Iceland -- it's heated by geothermal springs pouring out into the icy North Atlantic. We spent some time in the hot pool before trying out the spot in the ocean heated by geothermal water -- there are some mixing problems, naturally, with the cold water staying at the bottom but currents of hot spiralling above. So long as I swam, I wasn't cold, but if I put my feet down...

Next I decided that I wanted to swim in the actual, non-heated North Atlantic. I headed over to the beach next to the geothermal one and decided to swim out to a buoy. I was joined by N and J, who seemed to see getting into the water as some sort of sporting challenge -- I just enjoy cold water! Eventually we also convinced R to join us, but the others remained in the hot pool. To complete our time in the ocean, N grabbed my hand and we dunked our heads under water together. So refreshing! I missed Iceland so much!

N and I also did a bit of shopping and he bought us both adorable Icelandic hats. Hats were clearly the theme of the holiday. It also would not have been a complete Icelandic vacation without all of us spending some time agonizing over which 66 North gear to drop an absurd amount of kroner on, so we did that too. I got myself a nice red fleecey/sweater/jumper/zip up thing.

The next day, the others went horseback riding, so N and I explored the church, Hallgrimskirkja, that towers over Reykjavik's skyline. We were able to go to the top of the church and look out across the brightly coloured buildings of Reykjavik, and across the Flaxafloi towards Videy and brooding Mt Esja, which was covered in cloud for the duration of our trip.

Another thing that we saw in Reykjavik was the ninth largest personal yacht in the world -- Octopus -- owned by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. It has two helicopters and two submarines! Apparently it was docked in Reykjavik harbour because they were using it to look for a sunken ship. From the moment I saw it, I was consumed by a desire to tell Kanye West about it. Thanks to Twitter, I did.

On Tuesday afternoon, we all took a trip the island of Viðey, the largest of the many islands in the bay just north of Reykjavik. We purchased our tickets and then took an extremely small ferry across a short but choppy channel to the island. Viðey is essentially a low, flat, volcanic blip in the middle of the bay, covered in green grass, with the occasional rocky beach and wildflower outcropping. It reminded me strongly of Rottnest Island off the west coast of Australia near Fremantle, but only because it was a small island that I walked all the way around.

Our initial intention was to take one of the free bicycles around the island that we had read about in the guidebook. We walked away from the small cafe to a shed with a motley collection of bicycles outside of it. I selected one with a flat tire and spent a bit of time negotiating in broken Icelandic/broken English with several men inside the shed to get it aired up. Several of them came out to help, but unfortunately used a car pump. I kept tapping the rapidly airing tire and making encouraging, please-stop-now noises, and they kept tapping it and nodding, and then it exploded. Cue lots of Icelandic laughing and taking the piss of the guy running the pump. We decided against the bikes and set out of on foot around the island for an enjoyable walk.

That evening we met several of Tom's friends, and then N and I headed off in search of some dinner alone.

On Wednesday, we rented a car with the others for a little bit of the classic Americans Abroad + 3 Britons road trip. We were promised a car that would fit seven, but the car we received was a Toyota Corolla Verso, which actually fits five, and then has two seats in the trunk (boot). R and I crammed ourselves into the back for most of the trip, sitting on what was essentially the floor, with tiny holes to peek out of at either side and our knees twisted sideways. We travelled in this way to see the fantastic waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, which is where T and J got engaged a year ago. The waterfall is immense, pouring off what was once Iceland's coastline onto the flat, lava-made plain that now stretches for a few miles down to the sea. The force of the water hitting the pool below it makes a fantastic roar and it's possible to walk behind it -- so, donning our raincoats and covering our cameras, we did! Pictures all around!

On our way to the waterfall, we were greeted by the ethereal sight of the Westmann Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) floating above the water in a jagged line, their bases obscured by cloud. This was one of the most beautiful things that we saw that day.

From the waterfall, we drove onward to Vik. Vik is a town along the southern coast, in the warmest and rainiest part of Iceland. Like every Icelandic town I've ever seen, it's a cheerful place, with neat, brightly coloured houses. We went there to meet a friend of T's, who kindly took in all seven of us and gave us a delicious lunch with fresh fruit, bread, and a homemade cake. After all of her kind hospitality and conversation, she also offered up a fresh sample of tephra from her back porch from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. T scooped some of it into my nalgene and we headed back up the coast from Vik. Meeting T's friend was one of the highlights of the trip for me!

Immediately around the curve of the hill to the west of Vik, we came to a black sand beach with some stacked basalt caves. A glacial river flows in huge meanders through the black sand to the sea and, north of the beach, the white tip of Myrsdalsjökull -- admittedly recently covered in ash, and so not too white just now -- looms over a massive glacial lagoon. We wandered around the beach and up onto the basalt stacks before piling back into the car.

Our next stop was Solheimajökull, one of the tongues of Myrsdalsjökull. Pictures from the year before taken by Tom and Jim show a blue and white glacier; this year what we saw was one covered almost entirely in black ash. Black piles of ice clustered around the river at the mouth of the glacier and there was only a thin sliver of blue ice -- from a recent crack -- visible anywhere. We walked to the base of the glacier and looked at it through brooding weather -- as when I hiked to Drangajökull, the glacier seemed to generate its own nasty weather, a spitting cold rain that turned to snow as we prepared to leave.

Our next stop was Skógafoss, "Forest Falls", a strange name for a waterfall with no trees in sight. This waterfall seems to tumble from an incredible height to smack into a wide, shallow pool. N and I walked as close to the edge as we dared and then scampered up the side of the hill beside it to overlook the top.

The final thing we saw on our road trip was Eyjafjallajökull, the most famous little volcano in the world as of late April 2010. We could not see the actual volcano itself, just the glacier, which was quite literally black with ash. Although Iceland seems to have done an excellent job of cleaning up from the tephra fall and ensuing jokulhlaup (glacial flood), there were signs everywhere during this day trip of the destruction caused by even this very small eruption. Imagine if Katla were to go off -- T's friend told us that Vik has an evacuation plan, but I don't want to think about the destruction that it would cause to this place...

On the Thursday, N and I took a Reykjavik city bus to the neighbouring town of Hveragerdi and walked from the bus station out of town to an extremely active geothermal area nearby. This area is part of the Hengill volcano, and is full of springs and fumaroles -- the Hengill volcano powers much of Reykjavik through the geothermal energy it produces. This area is popular for hiking and Icelandic horse riding tours because the hot springs feed into glacial rivers and create some great pools for outside swimming. N and I hiked past many of these things until we found the perfect pool. The weather was cloudy and the vast amounts of steam generated a very foggy effect. We decided to enjoy the hot spring sans bathing suits (costumes) and spent some incredibly relaxing time floating in the warm water. It was probably something like 38C (100F).

After a briefly fraught escape when an entire train of horse riders filed past just as N attempted to get out of the pool, we got our clothes back on and continued to hike. We had seen a spectacular series of warm waterfalls on our way there and after hiking around several hills, we decided to turn back and strike out without a trail to reach them. N led the way and I followed, slightly sad as I soaked my non-hiking-boot shoes (but actually quite pleased with their performance -- I'll take a good pair of sensible Merrells over good-looking shoes anyday). We came to several boiling spots of mud and water, and then had to ford a stream in order to get down to the waterfalls. I really really hate stepping on sharp, slippery rocks in streams and was quite averse to crossing, but N talked me through it and encouraged me and eventually I gave in and made it across. I was rewarded with a gorgeous view down the side of the waterfall, not to mention a warm hug. N also noted that the sheep we saw beside the waterfall were the first sheep he'd ever been close to, which I found quite funny -- he clearly needs to spend more time in the North Atlantic.

The Hengill area is full of contrasts, talus slopes of fragmented basalt towering above incredibly lush green valleys. The earth itself is shockingly orange where iron-rich mud bubbles out of the ground. Sulfurous clouds can be choking, but it's beautiful in its extremes. One of my favorite sights was coming around a corner into a brilliantly green valley with a steaming meander of a stream -- dew condensing on every blade of grass -- and seeing a tight circle of dark Icelandic horses placidly eating grass as they waited for their riders to stop bathing. While hiking we were confronted with the problem of wanting to carry on in every direction and explore new things, but next time I'd like to carry on along the route and hike all the way to Thingvellir, which I'm told you can do -- it's 30 miles, not too bad if we camped along the way...

For the Friday, our last full day in Iceland, N and I rented a car again and headed off to the northwest of the country. We drove first to Barnafoss and Hraunfoss, two spectacularly different waterfalls located to the west of the Kaldadalur route that I took with J and L last summer. From the waterfalls, several of Iceland's smaller glaciers are visible -- Ok, Eiriksjökull, and some of the outlets of Langjökull. Barnafoss has water flowing violently beneath a stone arch, while Hraunfoss is created by water welling up from rocks -- no water flows along the surface to get there -- and looks peaceful enough to lie under (though since we could actually see the glaciers that the water was coming from, it seems likely that it wouldn't be quite warm).

From there we took one of my favorite drives onto the Snaefellsjökull peninsula. The first time I came to Iceland, I went to this place and saw the volcano, Snaefells, that rises at the end of the peninsula like an exclamation point -- and I knew that I had to take N there. After all, one of our favorite Colorado mountains is named after this one (Mt Sneffels!). Unlike Hekla, depicted by religious medieval types as the entrance to hell, Snaefells played an important role in early science fiction -- this is where the adventurers in Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth set out into the core. But I'm getting ahead of myself -- first we had to drive down the coast, from Stykkisholmur to Grundarfjordur, where last summer I had a fantastic camping experience beneath several waterfalls, and then on to Olafsvik where we ate mushroom soup in a small cafeteria. The coast there, and especially the many islands in Hvammsfjordur and the incredible Alftafjordur, as well as the strange landscape of Berserkjahraun (berserker's lava), is some of my favorite in Iceland and can't really be described (but I'm going to try). There are towering mountains, their tips shrouded in mist, and the haunting conjunction of cold, clear, silver sea and rocky coast, with the occasional red-roofed Icelandic church or farm standing alone on the edge of it all. Waterfalls pour down every hillside.

We then rounded the tip of the peninsula and came to a series of beaches. The first was white sand, and the water was a beautiful icy blue. The second was black sand and located next to it was some archaeological remains of an old fishing village. At this point the weather, which had never been spectacular, really started to close in -- we could barely see the volcano and the cloud and fog that shrouded its glaciated top really moved down now. We headed to a third beach, and as we arrived, the rain started in earnest. We got out of the car and walked down onto the beach. It was covered entirely in basalt rounded by the sea into "lava tears". Rain -- sleet really -- was sliding horizontally across the landscape, obscuring our view out to sea. We walked across the beach to take shelter behind some black basalt stacks and watched a crowd of evil Arctic terns (kria in Iceland) darting and diving into the crashing waves, trying to catch fish. Deciding that it was, on paper, the least romantic beach on earth, we turned back to the car and continued our drive along the southern edge of the peninsula. We turned briefly up the road that crosses the mountainous spine of the peninsula (54, I believe) but turned back due to fog and drove on to Reykjavik. As we drove through the tunnel from Akranes back to Reykjavik, I got progressively sadder and more introspective -- I didn't want to leave Iceland, or N, behind! Luckily Icelandic pop radio kept up a steady stream of the theme song of the vacation -- "California Gurls" by Katy Perry -- to annoy me out of the mood.

On Saturday, N and I returned our rental car and found ourselves unexpectedly stranded at the rental agency with very little time to catch our bus. We managed to get a taxi to BSI, Reykjavik's main bus terminal, and from there went on to the Blue Lagoon, our final stop in Iceland before Keflavik airport.

There's not too much to say about the Blue Lagoon -- it's not my favourite tourist attraction, especially given its price, but it certainly is a nice way to relax for a bit. I enjoyed a delicious strawberry skyr shake from the floating bar, too! Unfortunately I am now 2/2 for being at the Blue Lagoon on a warm, sunny day, when the blue-white water reflects enough to almost blind me -- I'm sure it's better in the winter, or in cloudy, cold weather. After that we went to Keflavik, where N and I attempted to locate my hiking boots, failed, ate a final skyr, shopped duty free (N bought an adorable bottle of Brennivin wrapped in a knitted jacket!), and then said some very sad -- but also promising of more fun times in the future -- goodbyes. N headed to his flight to New York and I headed on to my flight to London.

Just listing things that I did in Iceland doesn't really sum up my second trip to this gorgeous place. I also got to revisit things that I loved -- Icelandic food and drink, outdoor pools, the incredible landscape, the kind people... my second visit only taught me that I want to keep working on learning the language (albeit much more slowly than my housemate T), and that I can't wait to go back for more visits! I wouldn't mind visiting Iceland every year for the rest of my life (so long as I could go other places too) and I hope to continue the trend into 2011.

St Margaret's Church, Binsey

Today was a lazy, hazy late summer day here in Oxfordshire, so I headed off on a lazy bike ride with E. Along the way, I finally managed to see a small country church that I have been longing to see for some time now -- St Margaret's Church, in Binsey, which is just to the east of Port Meadow. It's a 12th century Norman church dedicated to St Margaret, who supposedly escaped a dragon by making the sign of a cross at it. Although that technique did not appear in "How To Train Your Dragon", it seems as effective as any other remedy against a marauding dragon, so I'll believe it.

The last time I tried to see this church, there was a wedding happening there, so it didn't seem like the time or place for me to stick my bike-sweaty head inside. This time, however, the church and churchyard were deserted. I pushed the kissing gate open and into this place:

There were quite a few new gravestones in the churchyard, as well as quite a few old enough that their faces were wiped clean and/or they had sunk into the ground. Here was the oldest legible one:

There is also a well in the churchyard -- prompting me to observe that I wouldn't want to drink out of a shallow well that shares its water table with a lot of decaying corpses. E said, "Isn't that how the Brontes died?" A little bit of wiki research into the Bronte family indicates that a. that wiki article is in dire need of editing, because while it is stuffed to the gills with information it is terribly written and b. "The following year [Charlotte] died aged 39. The cause of death given at the time was tuberculosis, but it may have been complicated with typhoid fever, the water at Haworth being so contaminated from the lack of any sanitation and the vast cemetery that surrounded the church and the parsonage...". Wiki also indicates that every other member of the family also died of some complication from TB. So: don't drink from this well.

A bit more research [read: google search] also uncovered that the well was a site of pilgrimage from the Anglo-Saxon period, as it apparently has healing properties credited to St Frideswide, Oxford's patron saint and founder of the abbey where Christ Church College is now. It is also probably the "treacle well" from Alice in Wonderland. The church's webpage encourages visitors to say a prayer at the well, not to take a drink.

Though the church is quite small, it has a neat little bell tower, very similar to many others in Oxfordshire (and presumably the rest of England):

Stepping inside, the church has quite a few treasures. Immediately facing the doorway is this wall hanging depicting the lion and unicorn crest of Great Britain. The letters in the top -- A and R -- indicate that it dates from the time of Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702-1714 (apologies for flash).
One of the more legible memorial stones on the floor of the nave:
And a view looking away from the altar... E noted that the ceiling beams had been redone in the past century, as they were sawn by machine.
Crest of Oxford, carved into the pulpit!
The altar.

Unknown crest and Google Goggles could not figure it out. Why not, Goggles? All I can pick out is a Yorkshire rose...
Pretty statue of the Virgin on the a windowsill.
Outside of the church, there were a few curious goats in a pen. They had little beards and bangs and were quite cute!

All in all, a lovely way to spend a morning.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Clash City Rockers

Several months ago, I had the idea of producing and presenting a radio show based on historical tales of different late 20th century music movements. The idea began from reading England's Dreaming, by Jon Savage, which chronicles the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols alongside vignettes from other seminal figures in the British punk scene of the late 1970s. I decided that it would be awesome to get the music for a show based on the book -- some Sex Pistols, some Clash, some Siouxsie, some New York Dolls, etc. -- and then find some good anecdotes and historical facts and put it all together into a 2 hour special.

From there my idea grew to include episodes with other times and places, again based on books about music I either have read (the first two) or want to read (the latter two):

1. Rip it up and start again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds: Talking Heads, Joy Division, Public Image Limited... though I feel that with me at the helm, this show would be about 70% Talking Heads

2. Britpop: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock by John Harris: One of the first books I ever read about rock and roll, we'd hear Pulp, Suede, Elastica, and of course Blur and Oasis

3. Our Band Could be your life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad: Haven't read it yet but I've heard it's one of the best books about music ever, so I really need to get on this if I'm to make this radio show happen!

4. Same goes for Can't Stop, Won't Stop
: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

I like each of these books because they don't just talk about the music -- they're not biographies. They're also about the wider social and political happenings, and how the music and musicians related to that. England's Dreaming is not just about the Pistols -- who made some really crap music -- but about how some clever (and not so clever) people managed to tap into a sense of public anger and outrage and react against it in a very fraught time in English history.

And then at the end of each episode of my little radio show idea, I would have 15-20 minutes of more recent (say, last decade) music that was inspired by the movement.

This is all a roundabout way to start talking about The Clash, in my opinion one of the top five greatest bands of all time, and, in terms of personal preference, tied for first.

I first discovered The Clash via No Doubt -- one of the latter's many bootleg live mp3s that I downloaded in the early days of file sharing on the internet (back when ftp sites were cool, even before audiogalaxy!) was a cover of "Hateful"*, which is originally from 1979's London Calling, an album that a few years later I would literally wear out from listening to so much (the cd actually warped from the heat in my truck's cd player).

The summer of 2004 was when I finally, truly, fell in love with The Clash. I can't remember what spurred it but I spent the majority of that summer sitting at a desk job, trading emails with N, headphones on and "I'm So Bored with the USA" drowning out the sounds of the printer behind me.

I was 20 years old, and super bored with the USA -- leaving in August for four months in the UK, a serious Anglophile's first trip to the Sceptred Isle. There was definitely that aspect of it -- getting ready for the journey -- but the Clash's lyrics totally captured me. A few decades too late for me, they had channeled their anger into brilliant songs about politics, culture, art, society... I won't go on about it too much, but just take a look at either "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" (written in the aftermath of the Brixton riots) or "Lost in the Supermarket" for two of my favorite examples.

To be fair, the Clash can be difficult to get into nowadays. There's the songs that get played on oldies stations -- "Train in Vain", why? -- and then there's this nebulous body of work beyond London Calling that's full of strange, experimental styles ranging from dub to Beach Boys parodies about the Cold War. You won't be able to understand the lyrics -- you'll definitely have to read them. And they a two-part album, Sandinista, that is often described as a "brilliant but failed experiment" that I think has some of their most important music.

It's also important to me to note that I once tried to claim ownership over a page torn out of an NME with a picture of Joe Strummer lying on a bed with his trousers unbuttoned by saying that I owned Sandinista and had listened to the second half.

So back to the radio show: I'd still really love to do something like that, but I'd like to make an episode specifically devoted to the Clash, and in fact I think I could fill up maybe two or three episodes with them. Unfortunately I don't think that Oxide Radio is exactly the format for it -- the station would probably explode, and my five listeners would just want to be in the chat room talking about Yo Dawg graphics rather than listening to me blather on about musical social history. I'm definitely still thinking about it, though.

*There were a number of covers No Doubt had that led me on to other bands/songs -- from Sublime to the Beatles' Ob La Di, Ob La Da -- and to all you haters out there, I'm never going to regret how much of my teenage years was spent in my room with Tragic Kingdom on the stereo.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

A trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum

Oxford is full of remarkable places, but they can be hard to find -- often hidden behind stone walls or down garden paths, and rarely put on full display for the brief visitor. It's one of the things I like about Oxford -- even though it's often crawling with tourists, there are still so many secret locations that can only be found with hard work.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is famous, but it's just a bit hard to find, and once inside, there is such a multitude of things to see that one could visit a hundred times and still be discovering unseen, hidden objects. To get there, one must wander up Parks Road to the Victorian cathedral of science, the University Museum of Natural History...

go through the imposing wooden doors, and...
Actually, one second, let's check something out on the outside of the Museum.
See how one of the windows has a lot of carvings around it and the other one doesn't? When the Museum was being built, there was a lengthy dispute about payment with the stone masons, who were two brothers, and eventually they picked up their things and left. The people financing the Museum (Oxford dons, natch) decided not to pay for any more carvings and as a result, there are several places around the Museum -- both inside and out -- that are bare like this. Another good example, should you find yourself there, is in the local stone columns near the gift shop -- check out the bases.

Incidentally those windows face onto a gorgeous room at the front of the Museum, which is the entomology lab, a stunning room with dark wood panelling and a gorgeous curving staircase leading up to a library on a balcony. This series of rooms is not open the public and I only saw it because I was volunteering after hours at an event.

Now we've gone through the doors. We're inside of the Natural History Museum and there are lots of amazing things all around. But don't be distracted by the beautiful dinosaurs! Walk straight through the Museum.

We'll walk between two statues -- one of this famous gentleman, Sir Isaac Newton:

And one of another famous but slightly more controversial gentleman, Charles Darwin:
It never quite seems fair to me that Newton gets depicted as young and quite handsome, while Darwin is in his classic old man with beard pose. Still, I like that these two are the gatekeepers.

Once we pass between them, we'll look off to our left and see a door with a sign over it that says Pitt-Rivers Collection.

Once through the door, we'll find yourself looking into a dimly lit, cavernous space. This is the darkest museum you'll ever enter...

The thing about the Pitt-Rivers -- the thing that makes it so unique -- is that the objects are arranged by type, rather than by culture or chronology. Therefore the patterns they demonstrate are ones of form and function, rather than telling any coherent story about a single group of people. It's an interesting approach to material culture, to say the least, and one based on the principles of the Museum's founder, General Pitt-Rivers, who wanted to show the progression from barbarianism to civilization that he (as a Victorian gentleman -- he donated the money and his collection of 20,000 objects in 1884) believed to exemplify the evolution of societies.

Today the collection has something like 500,000 objects, and no longer adheres to Victorian ideas about anthropology as a study of the "progression of man" -- but it does still arrange its objects in this way. As a museum-goer, both viewing and interacting with the objects (I volunteer here for education and public outreach projects as well), I find that the arrangement gives me insight into the common patterns between societies. I am especially interested in the ones that cross modern political boundaries to embrace a way of life in a certain geographical zone (i.e., similarities between people who live in deserts and people who live in polar regions).

Ok enough anthropological blather, let's check out some of the objects!

Just to the left of the stairs down into the museum, there's a vitrine full of depictions of animal forms. I find these birds from New Zealand to be particularly beautiful:

Apologies for slightly blurry pictures, by the way. These were taken with as much light as possible and they still turned out a bit blurry! This museum is seriously dark. Here are some carvings of animals in elephant horn, from central Africa:

And a 19th century Norwegian beer drinking bowl with horse heads on either side.

Finally, my favourite objects, some kachina dolls from the Southwestern US -- but unlike the kachinas that my grandmother collected and my mother now collects, they have actual fur on them! I have seen many kachina dolls but had never seen ones with fur before seeing these.

From there, let's wander to the back corner of the museum. Here's a section full of different methods of building houses. I particularly enjoy the furry tipis:

They just look deliciously warm. And here's a Bosnian peasant house, complete with turf storage house beneath:

Finally, some models of igloos:

Standing in this corner, we're close to the totem pole that dominates the back wall of the Museum. Although many of the objects in the Museum were gifts from British explorers, missionaries, traders, and soldiers abroad, this one was a gift from its artists, from the Pacific Northwest of course.

And looking away from the totem pole, we can see the layout of the Museum's ground floor, and just how claustrophobic and warren-like it really is. This Museum is absolutely packed with vitrines, which are in turn packed with objects.

The low vitrine full of ivory-carved objects is a favourite of mine. From China:

And a selection from many different places:

There's a perfectly carved Inuit man riding a sled with ten dogs that I attempted to photograph several times, but unfortunately with no luck -- as well as an intricate Chinese carving of a series of delicate ivory balls within one another. Sometimes I like to just admire the objects themselves as art and not think too hard about them :).

Next is a section devoted to different types of ships. The one that looks like it has legomen in it is a model of a Japanese war ship.

The boat in the top here is also Japanese.

And then a display of trumpets from around the world, including some made out of shells and some made out of horns:

Oh, I seem to have lied, because we've found our way back to see the dog sledder! Here he is, in his perfectly carved glory:

I'm not too sure what the thing on the left is. A fish?

And here's a spectacular necklace that, not to be culturally insensitive, really reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Do not hug the guy wearing this.

General Pitt Rivers was an archaeologist as well as an anthropologist (as all good archaeologists are), and is thought of as the first person to bring the scientific method in archaeology to Britain. One of his rules was to document every artefact found, not just the shiny ones -- changing archaeology into the study of humankind, rather than just an exercise in treasure hunting. The Museum exemplifies that when it displays less fantastic objects like these everyday methods of making fire -- so crucial to life, but not terribly interesting to look at:

In the middle of this floor is are a few gruesome vitrines. There's the infamous shrunken heads, probably the most viewed items in here, which are actually really disgusting, and which appear in the worst scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the movie). Then there's a vitrine dealing with the treatement of the dead. It includes in one corner this bizarrely painted monkey skull set into a stone. I couldn't find any explanation about where it had come from or who had made it. Any thoughts?

There's also this skull, painted red and sewn with a design. I like how it's kept under a bell jar -- almost as if it's about to be served up on a platter.

One of my favourite sections is that depicting different methods of recording information. Here's what we'll see when we peek into the part about early forms:

Heiroglyphs and cuneiform tables and figures carved into bone and stone! That cuneiform tablet in the centre is a record of someone's bill. There's a lot to be said for the idea that the Mesopotamians essentially invented writing to keep track of accounts in their city-states.

This vitrine displays the many tools that people use to write:

And here's our last stop on the bottom floor, Depictions of Humans. I love this little guy, he's from India, and sometimes I like to hold out my arms like him and do a little dance. He's right next to a mask from central Africa in the 1800s that has four carved wooden men atop it, two of whom are white and in pith helmets -- I tried to take a picture to show you that, but sadly it came out very blurry.

Turning to the left away from this display, we'll head upstairs, to the second level. Here's the view from the top:

Immediately greeting us in this section is a brand new display, of objects made from recycled material. Some of these are pretty cool -- I especially like the bee-striped teapot, which is made from recycled toilet seats in South Africa.

Immediately behind this is a display about Aboriginal art. I am a total sucker for awesome depictions of animals in art, as you almost certainly know if you read this blog (because that probably means you know me in person and know how much I love animals), and the Aborigines do a great job with keeping it creative. The tiny figures that are on? in? some preposition the tail of this crocodile are simultaneously creepy -- don't they look parasitic? aren't their grins a bit too manic? -- and cute. And Crocodile's big eye and big-toothed grin are positively adorable.

From the Pacific Northwest, some very neat bowls.

And a glimpse down an aisle, where the vitrines are particularly beautiful.

Now let's go up to the third floor. Much of this floor is taken up by firearms -- including General Pitt Rivers' personal collection, which is large and impressive -- and there are some real gems, like a blunderbuss and some very early muskets. Old guns are always incredibly ornate and look like they couldn't harm a thing. Pro tip: if we're ever time travelling before, oh, 1830ish, and we get into a situation where we have to fight a duel, choose the pistols rather than the sword.

There's also a section devoted entirely to keys, which are quite cool to look at, and another devoted to currency. Sadly these sections are quite dark or I would show you them with pictures! One thing that becomes obvious on a lengthy visit to this museum is that any group of objects, no matter how functional, starts to look like art or ornament after you've seen enough of them.

Finally we'll check out this vitrine full of methods for dealing with snow. I like this one, because I own some snowshoes myself.

I especially like these -- from Scandinavia, they're snowshoes for horses! They actually seem like they'd be completely useless because they're so small...

And a collection of goggles for dealing with snow. I've got some of these too!

Well, that's been a quick tour of the Pitt Rivers. Leaning against the back wall of the third floor, we can see this collection of small boats silhouetted beneath the soaring ceiling:

Our trip today has only touched on a few of the amazing things to be found here -- but don't worry, because no matter how many times I visit, I'm confident that I'll only scratch the surface of all that's here.

If you'd like to see a bit more of the Museum from the comfort of your computer, check out the Virtual Collections on their webpage.