British Museum canters through 5,000 years of equine history

assyrian-relief-0071.jpgA celebration of the horse – from newly excavated Saudi Arabian rock carvings to Victorian London’s dung dilemma
Assyrian relief
A fragment of an Assyrian 9th-century BC carved limestone relief from Nimrud, Iraq.

The British Museum is planning its first exhibition devoted to the horse, with a display tracing the animal’s story across thousands of years of human history.

The exhibition will range from a stylised figure that decorated a 3,000-year-old harness, to the Georgian thoroughbreds Hambletonian and Diamond, immortalised on a gambler’s gaming chip – appropriately since Hambletonian won a staggering 3,000 guinea prize when he beat Diamond by a short head at Newmarket in 1799.

Curator John Curtis said: “There are probably horses somewhere in every gallery in the museum, from Assyrian sculptures to coins. They’re so familiar and ubiquitous they mostly go unnoticed. We want to bring them together and show their importance in history. The horse was an engine of human development and, until a generation ago, part of the everyday experience of life even in the heart of London.”

There were so many horses in Victorian London that one solemn calculation concluded that the city would become uninhabitable by the turn of the 20th century, buried under a rising tide of dung. “And now they’re gone completely in one lifetime,” co-curator Nigel Tallis said sadly. “Many city dwellers will never see a horse in the street except police horses and the odd procession, and yet from mews to horse troughs, the city is still full of evidence of their day.” The exhibition will bring together scores of horses from the museum’s own collection, including a miniature gold chariot drawn by four horses, made around 2,500 years ago, part of the Oxus treasure hoard of ancient Persian gold.

The loans will include paintings by George Stubbs, newly excavated carvings of horses from Saudi Arabia, panoramic photographs of incised horses on rock faces which may be thousands of years old, clay tablets promising gifts of horses and chariots, and beautiful harness decorations, some in pure gold.

Until the development of artillery, a skilled archer on horseback was the most dangerous weapon in any war. The exhibition will include two complete sets of Islamic and western horse armour from the royal armouries.

The wild horse was domesticated at least 5,000 years ago and probably far earlier, initially for meat and later for transport, transforming how far a man could travel and how much he could carry. The exhibition traces the evolution of the elegant, swift Arabian horses, associated in legend with King Solomon and Muhammad. Said to have been created by angels or born out of the wind, they were prized more highly than gold, and made suitable gifts for princes and emperors.

Their distinctive, high-arched necks and tails can be seen in Assyrian sculptures, Egyptian wall paintings and ancient Greek vases, and the exhibition will also trace the bloodlines of all modern thoroughbreds back to three famous Arabian stallions imported into 18th-century England: the Darley Arabian, the Byerly Turk and the Godolphin Arabian.

Curtis, whose career as an archaeologist has been devoted to the ancient near east, can testify to their speed: when he turned back from a site visit in Iran and his horse sensed he was homeward bound, it bolted, leaving him clinging to its mane. Loans from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge will trace the history of the Crabbet Arabian Stud, complete with a bedouin tent for entertaining visitors, at Crabbet Park in West Sussex, where the writer and diplomat Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and his wife, Anne – granddaughter of the poet Byron – imported and bred Arabian horses, eventually dividing the collection when his string of mistresses led to their separation.

The free exhibition, which will open in May, has been timed to coincide with the Olympic Games, but has also been conceived as a diamond jubilee gift to another celebrated horse breeder, the Queen.

The Horse: Ancient Arabia to the Modern World, 24 May – 30 September