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Faces of the British Museum

On more than one occasion at the British Museum, I found myself looking at a piece of art and wondering about the intentions of its creator. Every ancient culture had its own style of portraying humans in art, some more realistic than others—from the blocky, ever-grave Aztecs to the majestic, lively Greeks—but I was most interested in their facial features.

What was the Scandinavian seaman thinking when he carved out of walrus tusk a chess king with a forlorn look as if his son just died? Did the Huastec potter in ancient Mexico intend for his hedgehog-shaped jug with big eyes and tiny mouth to look as if it were flying through the air about hit something? And that Greek harpist on the side of a pot—did the artist who drew her see the same melancholy expression that I see today? There is no way to know, and certainly facial expressions vary between cultures and time periods. However, I like to think that even the great artisans of old had a sense of humour.

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