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The Louvre has the Mona Lisa. The British Museum, the Rosetta Stone. Herewith, 15 of the ROM's own must-see artifacts.


When paleontologist David Evans arrived at the ROM earlier this year, he realized that fossils thought to be random bones from many different individuals actually belonged to a single skeleton. And no ordinary skeleton--it turned out to be an impressive 90-foot-long Barosaurus, a Brontosaurus-like sauropod from the Jurassic period. This rare specimen of one of the largest animals ever to walk the earth had been languishing undocumented in the Museum's vaults for nearly 45 years.

"Gordo," as it has been affectionately dubbed (in honour of ROM curator Dr. Gordon Edmund who acquired the skeleton in 1962), is the largest mounted dinosaur in Canada and the only "real" Barosaurus mounted in a life-like pose in the world. The other mounted Barosaurus is on display at the American Museum of Natural History, and it is composed of casts rather than real fossils. Gordo stretches 27 metres (90 feet), roughly the length of two humpback whales. When alive this behemoth would have weighed as much as 15 tonnes (14.7 tons)--the equivalent of three fully grown male African elephants.

What's amazing is that a skeleton of this size--Gordo's neck alone measures 29 feet (8.7 metres)--could survive virtually intact for millions of years. After a large sauropod like a Barosaurus died, Evans points out, it would have become a veritable "all-you-can-eat buffet" for carnivorous dinosaurs such as Allosaurus, and the chance of its skeleton's being completely dismembered and the individual bones carried away to far-flung locales would have been high. The ROM's Barosaurus is the centrepiece of the new James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs on Level 2 of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

"For both young and old, there is something special about seeing a giant sauropod skeleton like this one. Sauropods are icons of the dinosaur era, and one of the most fascinating groups of animals ever to evolve."

--David Evans

Head of Cleopatra

Once identified simply as "an early Ptolemaic queen or goddess," this beautiful granite bust was recently elevated to star status when proven to be a likeness of one of the most famous women in history--Cleopatra.

ROM Egyptologist Roberta Shaw made the discovery while reading a catalogue of the British Museum's exhibition Cleopatra of Egypt. In the catalogue, she noticed that a female bust, identified by British scholars as Cleopatra, looked intriguingly similar to the ROM's unidentified statue. After comparing its attributes to known images of Cleopatra in consultation with leading Cleopatra expert Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton, Shaw connected the dots, concluding that the ROM's bust is likely the sister to another Cleopatra statue found in Alexandria.

With no inscription and no provenance, scholars are left with art history analysis--the study of an era's style--to find clues. The ROM's Cleopatra is remarkably similar to its Alexandrian counterpart; the same wig, the same features, the same size. But the key feature that nails the ROM statue's identity is the unusual back pillar with attached crown. Now recognized as a "missing link," the ROM's sculpture is believed to be a very early representation of Cleopatra as Egyptian Queen; the Alexandrian statue represents her as Egyptian goddess. Still, Shaw cautions, "No image of Cleopatra has ever been proven beyond all possible doubt to be the famed Egyptian queen, including ours."

One of only three pieces of Ptolemaic sculpture like it in the world, the ROM's Head of Cleopatra also led to another revelation: it turns out that the practice of "copying" earlier statues was started by Cleopatra herself. Previously it was thought the practice began about 50 years later, during the Imperial Roman period.

The Head of Cleopatra is on display in the ROM's Galleries of Africa: Egypt on Level 3.

"Some 400 years after Cleopatra's demise, an official in the Temple of Isis, the goddess with which Cleopatra was associated, states that he 'covered the statue of Cleopatra with gold.' That could have been our statue!"

--Roberta Shaw

Untitled ("Blue Lady")

Painted a brilliant blue, this powerful sculpture embodies the intersection of the contemporary and the traditional in South Asian art. Contemporary artist Navjot Altaf of Mumbai, India, made the piece in 1999.

This sculpture's rounded figure and birthing pose are similar to those of traditional goddess figures associated with fertility from South Asia's past. Her hands are raised in a mudra, a symbolic hand gesture used in traditional sculpture. But in this case, the gesture is not traditional but invented by the artist to suggest the figure is receiving knowledge in her grasped hand while disseminating information with her open hand, referring to the central place oral history holds among artist communities in South Asia. In an allusion to South Asian traditional handicraft industries, the figure is sculpted from teak wood and coloured indigo. Her hue also suggests a sense of divinity as many Hindu gods have long been depicted with blue skin.

Yet the piece's contemporary reference is striking. The metal bottle rack the figure sits atop refers to an iconic work of Western Modernism--Marcel Duchamp's Bottle Rack. With these contrasts, Altaf captures and questions a series of contrasting and unresolved dialogues--about hand-crafted and industrial materials, past and present, Modernism and tradition, and Western and South Asian world views. Exploratory and experimental in both material and medium, Altof's "blue lady," like her other works, maps the trajectories of memory, history, and culture.

This sculpture is part of a series of works the artist produced while working among Adivasi, or "aboriginal," artists in Kondogaon, a central Indian town. In the series, guided by her own social concerns, Altaf explores alternative and collaborative art-making practices.

The "blue lady" is on display in the Sir Christopher Ondaatje South Asian Gallery on Level 3 of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

"Navjot Altaf's sculpture exemplifies South Asian art's grounding in tradition while also reflecting a vibrant contemporary culture."

--Deepali Dewan

Bishop White Painting (North Wall)

Painted more than seven centuries ago, the mural The Paradise of Maitreya once adorned the walls of a Buddhist monastery in China that no longer exists today. Created by the famed painter Zhu Haogu in 1298, the richly coloured mural depicts an imagined heaven with Maitreya, or Buddha of the future, as the central figure. Related deities surround him along with a king and queen converting to Buddhism, their heads being shaved in preparation.

Few museums outside China have examples of such murals. The ROM's is one of the best-preserved Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) temple wall paintings in the world. Shipped in 1928, it arrived at the Museum in 63 sections and was painstakingly restored in 1933. It's still possible to see where some of the sections were joined together. As part of the Renaissance ROM project, in 2005 The Paradise of Maitreya received another much-needed conservation treatment, restoring it to its full magnificence.

The mural is the centrepiece of the ROM's Bishop White Gallery, which holds one of the world's most important collections of Chinese temple art.

"The grand composition, intriguing subject matter, and powerful visual appeal of this magnificent mural spark curiosity. At the time it was created, it would have captivated many Buddhist followers with the reassuring message of spiritual salvation through faith and devotion."

--Ka Bo Tsang

Assyrian Relief

In the ancient city of Kalhu in Northern Mesopotamia (today known as Nimrud, Iraq), this impressive alabaster relief once adorned the palace walls of Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC). The scene it portrays--two human-figure winged gods worshipping a sacred tree--was part of a larger relief cycle. Like the other palace reliefs, it was intended to link Ashurnasirpal to the divine, as a means of reinforcing his authority as ruler.

The sacred tree, or tree of life--signifying the connection between heaven and earth--is an ancient motif found in countless cultures throughout history. It is depicted in Turkish ceramic tiles from the Ottoman Empire, in the Bible, and even today among Siberian tribes, who use a simple pole to symbolize the tree. At the bottom of the relief, an inscription in cuneiform--the earliest form of writing--lists the titles and attributes of Ashurnasirpal II.

The Assyrian relief is on permanent display at the entrance to the new Wirth Gallery of the Middle East on Level 3.

"This relief contains a symbol--the tree of life--that has been a constant of human spirituality across time and cultures."

--Krzysztof Ciuk

Giant Cerussite Gem

A magnificent transparent gemstone, this is the world's largest faceted specimen of the mineral cerussite. The gem's rarity and the difficulty in cutting it has meant there are few large faceted stones in existence. Until now, no one has been able to facet, or cut, a cerussite larger than 200 carats. The ROM's specimen is a remarkable 900 carats. What makes this mineral so difficult to facet is the very thing that makes it an irresistible challenge to gem cutters--it is extremely sensitive to heat and vibration. Even warmth from the palm of the hand can damage it, so great care was taken to prevent the inevitable heat generated during polishing and grinding from shattering the gem.

This specimen's name, the "Light of the Desert," honours the gem's intense fire (called dispersion) and the deserts of Namibia, where it was found, and Arizona, where it was faceted. Dispersion, caused by light splitting into the spectrum of colours, is even greater in cerussite than in diamond. The larger the gem, the more dramatic the dispersion. The sheer size of this cerussite gem generates a spectacular fire.

The ROM's giant cerussite gem will be on permanent display in the new Teck Cominco Suite of Earth Sciences Galleries when it opens on Level 3.

"The cerussite embodies all the key elements of a truly great gemstone: a historic locality, no inclusions, world-class cutting, large carat weight, and fantastic fire. Appealing to both the curious novice and the gem connoisseur, the Light of the Desert is a marriage of culture and the earth's bounty."

--Katherine Dunnell

Burgess Shale's Odontogriphus

The half-billion-year-old Burgess Shale, a spectacularly rich fossil site in Yoho National Park in BC's Rocky Mountains, provides a rare window into a crucial phase in the history of early life on Earth. Lying entombed within the rocks are exceptionally well preserved fossils of soft-bodied marine invertebrates that lived soon after the most important animal diversification in the history of life--the Cambrian Explosion. Most of the marine animals we know today have distant relatives in the famed shale.

More than 100 years ago this exceptional site, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was first excavated by the Smithsonian Institution. Beginning in 1975, ROM field crews, led by Dr. Desmond Collins, amassed hundreds of thousands of specimens over 18 field seasons, making the ROM's the largest and most diverse collection of Burgess Shale animals in the world. The specimens--held in trust for Parks Canada in a unique preservation relationship--continue to reveal answers about the origins of animal life.

Of the more than 200 species in the ROM's Burgess Shale collection, one in particular is causing a stir in the scientific community--Odontogriphus. ROM paleontologists Jean-Bernard Caron, David Rudkin, and their colleagues, in a recently published article in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, shed new light on this fossil previously dubbed "the toothed riddle." Their research revealed the "tooth" to be a type of feeding apparatus called a radula, proving that this fossil animal was related to primitive molluscs. Odontogriphus is entirely soft-bodied, showing that the mineralized skeletons of today's molluscs evolved later in time.

One specimen of Odontogriphus, pictured here, is on temporary display on the 2nd floor of the Rotunda. Other highlights of the ROM's Burgess Shale collection will be prominently displayed in the The Peter F. Bronfman Gallery of Earth and Early Life when it opens on Level 2.

"One of the most emblematic members of the Burgess Shale fauna, Odontogriphus was for many years one of the most poorly known. Hundreds of newly discovered specimens have afforded us a detailed view of the animal and we now know that, like other fossils from the Burgess Shale, Odontogriphus has a bizarre anatomy, with characters not common in modern animals."

--Jean-Bernard Caron

Tomb of General Zu Dashou (Ming Tomb)

To generations of ROM visitors, it has been known simply as "the Ming Tomb." But recent research by ROM curator Klaas Ruitenbeek proved that the large-domed burial mound once contained the remains of famed Chinese general Zu Dashou and his three wives. The general's legendary bravery and loyalty as a tireless defender of the Ming dynasty against the steadily advancing Manchus earned him a place in Chinese history similar to that of General Wolfe's in Canada.

And neither is his story without tragedy. By the time the Ming imperial dynasty finally fell in 1644 several of General Zu's sons had switched loyalties and were fighting against him. In 1631, the general had given one of his loyal sons to the enemy as a hostage in an effort to expedite siege negotiations to relieve the people of the city of Dalinghe, who were starving. The tomb was erected after the exiled general's death in 1656, an indication of the esteem in which he was held, even by his enemies.

Centuries later within the walls of the ROM, the massive stone gateway, altar, and burial mound replicate the formation in which they were found in 1919 near a small village north of Beijing. A tall warrior statue in helmet and chain mail stands guard with his sword, as does the statue of an official with his tablet of office. The two camels, symbols of high rank, also once flanked the sacred path that led up to the tomb. Other tombs found within the enclosure next to the general's were most likely his sons'.

The Tomb of General Zu Dashou is on permanent display in the ROM's Gallery of Chinese Architecture, Level 1.

There was a tradition that the ROM' s tomb belonged to the famous general Zu Dashou, but we didn't know if it was true or where the tomb came from. I found the final proof only when, on a cold winter morning in 2005, under a tall tree in the middle of a garbage recycling station north of Beijing, I saw the name of one of Zu Dashou's sons carved on a giant stone slab raised on a stone tortoise.

--Klaas Ruitenbeek

Narwhal Tusk

Covered with carved images of the traditional Inuit world, this sculpture made from a narwhal tusk is a significant example of contemporary Inuit art because of the stories the carvings tell. Its images depict a microcosm of the Inuit world: principal animals (polar bear, white whale, seal, walrus, birds), a winter hunting scene, and Sedna (Mother of the Sea Animals) are portrayed alongside depictions of traditional acts such as drum dancing, which helped maintain the relationship between humans and animals.

The carvings include a twin-serpent staff, an ancient Greek symbol of medicine. Artist Adam Pudloo Kilabuk of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, included this symbol of the non-Aboriginal world alongside more traditional iconography in recognition of the important role of modern medicine in Inuit lives. The juxtaposition is in keeping with the overarching narrative of the tusk: the idea that different "worlds" can be intertwined, indeed, that a fine balance between these worlds is a contemporary Inuit reality.

The narwhal tusk is on permanent display at the entrance to the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples on Level 1.

"The narrative carved into this narwhal tusk represents Inuit cultural values: dependence on the land, relationship to the animal world, and the value of cooperation. It ties together traditional and contemporary ways of being. Taking his place in the pantheon of the world's producers of great art, Adam Pudloo Kilabuk has uniquely expressed the dynamic relationship between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal worlds."

--Kenneth R. Lister

Statue of Sekhmet

Animal-headed gods are ubiquitous in Egyptian art, and this particular one--a life-sized sculpture of Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess--is a very fine example. Dating to the reign of King Tutankhamun's grandfather, Amenhotep III (c. 1360 BCE), the granite statue likely comes from the Mut Temple at Karnak. Amenhotep III had such a penchant for Sekhmet that it's estimated more than 700 statues of the warrior goddess once stood in his temples.

One of the oldest known Egyptian deities, Sekhmet is mentioned numerous times in spells from the Book of the Dead as both a creative and a destructive force. Her name means "the (One Who is) Powerful." But her other titles point to sometimes terrifying attributes: the "(One) Before Whom Evil Trembles," the "Mistress of Dread," and the "Lady of Slaughter." The last refers to a legend in which she is said to have slaughtered nearly all of mankind. While there are no particular myths associated with her other terrifying titles, they are no doubt meant to signify her awesome power.

This magnificent Pharaonic sculpture can be seen in the ROM's Galleries of Africa: Egypt on Level 3.

"Hundreds of sculptures of this ferocious feline were commissioned by King Amenhotep III, perhaps as a means to combat some adversity, such as a plague."

--Roberta Shaw

Tagish Lake Meteorite

This unassuming piece of porous black rock small enough to fit in the palm of your hand may be the ultimate time capsule. The Tagish Lake meteorite contains the oldest and most primitive organic material dating back to the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago.

What makes the Tagish Lake find so significant is that it was collected cold and remained frozen--thanks to a quick-thinking sometime geologist, Jim Brook, who recovered the samples from a frozen lake in northern Canada in the winter of 2000 and immediately stored them in his wilderness camp freezer. By preserving the ice-cold temperature of the meteorite, the complex carbon-based compounds contained within may still be as pristine as the day they were formed in the darkness of deep space. One day, the Tagish Lake meteorite may reveal answers about the very earliest days of our solar system.

A thawed sample of the meteorite will go on permanent display in the ROM's new Teck Cominco Suite of Earth Sciences Galleries when it opens on Level 3.

World-Record Moose

One of the most impressive features of moose are their large palmate antlers. At a spread of 1.79 metres (about 6 feet), the antlers on this moose in the ROM's collection are considered a world record--measuring more than 12 centimetres (5 in) longer than the nearest competitor.

The moose is so striking that it was offered a starring role in an automobile commercial. In June 1992, the moose travelled by transport truck to Kapuskasing, Ontario, where it was filmed for a GM Saturn commercial.

This particular moose is actually a composite of two animals: the antlers were given to the ROM in 1901 and come from Nipissing, Ontario, while the body was donated 30 years later, and is from Cochrane, Ontario. Although not completely unknown, it isn't common practice to create a composite using two animals. Two good reasons persuaded the ROM to do so: there was a skilled taxidermist, Knud Neilson, on staff during the 1930s, and the world-record antlers required a body befitting their stature.

The largest member of the deer family, moose can weigh as much as 650 kilograms (1430 lbs). During the summer months moose will consume up to 27 kilos (60 lbs) of food per day--comparable to 250 hamburgers in a day.

The moose is on display in the Patrick and Barbara Keenan Family Gallery of Hands-On Biodiversity on Level 3.

"I think of the moose as iconic because it has been on continuous display at the ROM since it was prepared in January 1934, and is likely the Museum's longest-serving mount. Its antlers have the largest spread of any North American moose recorded by the Boone and Crocket Club to date."

--Judith Eger

The Death of General Wolfe

More than a famous document of Canada's military and colonial history, the painting The Death of General Wolfe is a visual marker of the pivotal moment in 1759 when Britain finally claimed New France as its own. Not necessarily a realistic representation of the actual event, this monumental tableau contains historical figures we know were not present. Rather, it is a highly stylized version of events, infused with ideas of heroism, the idealized "noble savage," and even Christ-like undertones.

Since it first caused a sensation at the Royal Academy of London in 1771, the painting has spawned countless copies, which have secured its status as an icon of Canadian history. The ROM is fortunate enough to own one of the original five large versions painted by Benjamin West's own hand. This version was the last, painted in 1806, and remained in the artist's London gallery until it was purchased 20 years later by a descendant of Brigadier-General Monckton, Wolfe's second-in-command in Quebec.

The Death of General Wolfe is on display in the ROM's Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada on Level 1

Book of the Dead

The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead contains magical spells that were used to help the deceased pass through the dangers of the underworld and attain an afterlife of bliss. The first examples, dating back to 1550 BCE, are relatively short with few illustrations. Over time, however, the book grew in popularity, becoming longer and more elaborate.

Recently, members of the prestigious University of Bonn Book of the Dead Project in Germany judged the ROM's copy of this ancient book, written on fragile papyrus, to be one of the most outstanding specimens in the world. Dating to about 320 BCE, its artistic quality ranks among the finest of its day, and the papyrus is one of very few surviving examples to retain extensive gold-leaf decoration.

Until recently, most of the ROM's Book of the Dead scroll, which measures about 6 metres (16 1/2 feet) in length, was in storage, where it remained for almost a century; only a 1-metre section was on display in the Gallery of Africa: Egypt. But through a conservation project that began this spring, the entire fragile papyrus will be restored to its original splendour and will be publicly displayed as a whole for the first time.

The ROM's internationally prominent copy of the Book of the Dead will go on display in the Gallery of Africa: Egypt later this year.

"This book is an outstanding example of a self-help guide for passing to the next life."

--Roberta Shaw

Earl of Pembroke's Armour

This anime, a type of armour made from horizontal overlapping strips, was made c. 1553-1555 in Henry VIII's Greenwich royal workshop under Erasmus Kyrkenar, one of its great master armourers. It is one of only three Greenwich animes on view in public collections. (The others are in the Royal Armouries in England and the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.) The ROM's anime is assumed to be the core part of what is called a small garniture, an armour with pieces that can be added or detached to produce various configurations for different purposes. It's analagous to a camera that comes with different lenses.

Like all armour of high quality, it would have been designed for the exact physical dimensions of its owner, believed in this case to have been William Herbert, the first Earl of Pembroke. Custom-designed armour like this provides a more accurate portrait of its wearer than any painting or sculpture because it corresponds exactly to the physical reality of its owner. Well over 400 years after this man lived, we can see his three-dimensional form and confirm that, contrary to popular belief, people of that time were not necessarily smaller than we are today.

Armour was one part function, one part art, and one part fashion. Its direct relationship to fashion is apparent in the shape of the breastplate, which mirrors the civilian jacket, or "doublet," worn by men of the English nobility of the 1550s. Its artistry is apparent in the virtuoso craftsmanship.

This fascinating "body without a soul" is currently on display in the ROM's Samuel European Galleries, Level 3.

Photography by Brian Boyle
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Title Annotation:Star Status Artifacts
Author:Derksen, Tessa
Publication:ROM Magazine
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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