MOSTLY we try and grasp the reality of the humanitarian catastrophe affecting refugees around the Mediterreanan through statistics – which are notoriously unreliable – and through images. Desperate people clinging to life belts, queuing in the cold as borders are closed and armed guards refuse entry to any land that may be safe, images of bodies washed up on beaches of one small child and then many, many more. The images are immediate. We both trust and distrust our responses to them. Our demand for them as insatiable as it is satisfied.

“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience,” said the philosopher of the image, Susan Sontag. She shows carefully the ways in which, fickle as we are as modern human beings, we gaze at the numbers and images of atrocities demanding “the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry”. Artistry, she claims,“is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance.”

Even so, for all the images and statistics which pull and tug us into action, despair and indifference all at the same time, there lingers a sense that something important about being human in 2015 has been unfolding in the Mediterranean, off Lampedusa and Lesbos. All along the lines of land, which represent the haven and simultaneous asylum hell that is Europe today, hands have helped and have hindered the human cries for help.

Speaking recently at the University of Glasgow, the Italian Ambassador spoke of never having been prouder of his country than when it undertook its operation Mare Nostrum, upholding the old laws of the sea and rescuing those making the treacherous journeys. The EU Triton operation, replacing Mare Nostrum, has been largely responsible for much of 2015 for the great increase in the death toll.

On the isle of Lampadusa, the refugee bodies have been washing up unrelentingly, for more than a decade now. The situation is chronic and inhabitants have come to find ways to deal with the presence of so much death around about them, not least by those from Eritrea and Syria. For the sated, spoilt, peacetime Europeans the arrival of the bodies – alive and dead – offers an existential challenge for which our media images and our statistics are, for the most part, profoundly insufficient.

Sontag suggests that in times of atrocity we will perhaps require “more reverential contexts” to look upon images and settle into ourselves, bearing the intolerable in silence perhaps, as we contemplate the conditions, conflicting and unconscionable, of what human beings endure and are capable of.

The last acquisition of Neil MacGregor, in his tenure as director of the British Museum, is an object made by a carpenter, Francesco Tuccio, from the wrecked timbers of the boat which sank off Lampadusa in October 2013. Of the 500 on board, only 151 survived. One of those lost was a cousin of ours. Others were all sons or daughters too. The grief ripping through the Eritrean community in Glasgow, and elsewhere, was raw. The numbers, the images of coffins, the news that they had been granted asylum post mortum, in Italy – none of these actions strong enough or of sufficient profundity to hold such a grief.

Yet here, in the Lampadusa Cross, the simple gift of a carpenter gathers to it the stories of another carpenter that reaches out to us down the millennia. Two pieces of wood from an artist’s hand. A salt-timbered coffin from the mass grave that is the Mediterranean.

In the British Museum, in appalled and eloquent calm, we may now contemplate what we have lost and what we have done.

Alison Phipps is Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies at the University of Glasgow and Convener of Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network. @alison_phipps