The effects of time

For all the ways societies have managed, organised, manipulated and structured time, the passing of time is inescapable. European societies have often depicted these changes in a series of images known as the ‘Ages of Man’.

Stopping the effects of time

We can see this ageing process in coins. Through trade and commerce, coins travel far and wide and in the past they were often the onThe Ringlemere gold cuply images people saw of their rulers.

As rulers grew old, they sometimes minted new coins with new portraits that showed how age was changing their appearance.

However, it is unusual for coins to show this ageing, as many rulers preferred to maintain a youthful public image by continuing to mint an unaltered portrait.

Conserving and preserving objects

Modern cosmetic surgery is perhaps the ultimate response to personal ageing. Many of the objects in the British Museum have been through a process of a kind of ‘cosmetic surgery’. Conservation enables us to remove, or help prevent, the effects of time.The Mold gold cape

By using a range of techniques, (a combination of traditional and modern methods and machinery) we can preserve objects in their current state.

We can also use modern technology to turn back time and see what objects might have looked like when they were mTime gnawing at objectsade, perhaps thousands of years ago.

Yet, however hard we try to restore and preserve, we cannot halt time. In this print, we can see Father Time relentlessly gnawing at objects.

Dating objects

Dating is another of the great questions that we struggle with in the Museum – how old is the object? Even the date given on an object can be misleading and the most sophisticated scientific techniques do not always reveal the true age of an object.

Neolithic sweet trackHowever, the three main techniques used by Museum scientists are radiocarbon dating, which enables us to work out how long ago a plant or animal died; thermoluminescence, which enables us to work out how long ago a piece of pottery was fired; and dendrochronology, which can help date objects containing wood.

Dendochronology is also known as tree-ring dating. It was used to work out that a section of an ancient trackway from Somerset in England, known as the Sweet Track, is made out of wood from trees cut down between 3807 and 3806 BC.


More information about objects featured here (from top)

Highlights

Browse or search over 4,000 highlights from the Museum collection