Highlights of the British Museum
The British Museum has preserved a universality in its collections of artefacts representing many cultures from ancient times to the modern world. The original 1753 collection has grown to over thirteen million objects at the British Museum. Here are the highlights.
Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection
- The Rosetta Stone
- The stone is valuable because it is inscribed with three versions of a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC by King Ptolemy V. The top text is in Ancient Egyptian using the hieroglyphic script, the middle passage is Ancient Egyptian Demotic script, and the bottom is in Ancient Greek. As the decree is the same in all three versions, the Rosetta Stone provided the key to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
- The Battlefield Palette 3100 BC
- This Battlefield Palette may be the earliest battle scene representation from Ancient Egypt. Created before Egypt was united as one state under one pharaoh, a regional ruler commissioned this decorated palette to increase their influence. It was intended for display in early rituals related to power. The Battlefield Palette depicts the aftermath of a great battle. A lion devours a prisoner and vultures attack bound individuals and corpses. In the top left, two captives are tied to ceremonial standards topped with images that may represent gods.
- Quartzite Head of the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III
- This Quartzite head of Amenhotep III has been carved with expert care. The eyeballs noticeably angled back from the top to the bottom lid so that they appear to look down at the viewer. The finishing polish was deliberately varied, from a glittering smoothness on the facial surfaces to less finish on the mouth and eyes, to quite rough surfaces on the brows. Amenhotep is shown with youthful-looking cheeks, broad, long, and somewhat narrow eyes and the lower lip which curves up to the open corners of the mouth, to produce the effect of a slight smile.
- Colossal Granite Statue of Amenhotep III
- This enormous red granite statue of Amenhotep III depicts the Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. This massive large fragment was created in 1370 BC, was found in the temple enclosure of Mut at Karnak in Egypt. The statue is made of red granite, and only the head and an arm are known to survive.
- Hunters Palette
- The Hunters Palette or Lion Hunt Palette is a 5,000-year-old cosmetic palette is among the few objects that feature the earliest Egyptian bas-reliefs from the late predynastic period of Naqada III. The Hunters Palette is decorated on one side only with scenes in low relief showing iconography of lion hunting as well as the hunting of other animals such as birds, desert hares, and gazelles. Three men carry the standards denoting different tribes or provinces, and the other men carry weapons, which include the bow, spear, mace, throw-stick and a rope used for tethering. Two iconographic conjoined bull-forefronts adorn the upper right alongside a hieroglyphic symbol.
- Tomb of Nebamun
- The Tomb of Nebamun is the source of some of the most famous ancient Egyptian polychrome tomb-painting scenes. This scene depicts Nebamun standing on a small boat, fishing and fowling in the marshes of the Nile with fish shown beneath the water-line. His wife stands behind him portrayed on a smaller scale, and his daughter sits beneath him holding one of his legs. Nebamun holds a throw-stick in one hand and decoy herons in the other. His cat is shown catching three birds, and many other birds are depicted flying away after being startled from the papyrus-thicket. This Tomb-Painting is one of the most significant paintings from ancient Egypt to have survived.
- Younger Memnon (Ramesses II)
- Younger Memnon is an Ancient Egyptian statue, one of two colossal granite heads from the Ramesseum mortuary temple in Thebes. It depicts Pharaoh Ramesses II wearing the Nemes head-dress with a cobra diadem on top. The damaged statue is one of a pair that originally flanked the Ramesseum’s doorway. The head of the other figure can be seen at the Ramesseum temple near Luxor.
The Middle East Collection
- The Lion Hunt
- “The Lion Hunt” is a low relief sculpture showing the Royal Lion Hunt of King Ashurbanipal with his royal entourage, together with horses, dogs on leashes and chariots. The sculpture shows captured lions and lionesses being released from cages to do battle with the King. The Lion Hunt is one of the most captivating works of art from antiquity.
- Cyrus Cylinder
- The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder, from the 6th century BC, on which is written a declaration in cuneiform script in the name of Persia’s King Cyrus the Great. It describes the king’s capture of Babylon in 539 BC and how he restored temples in major cities and returned deported people to their homes. The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus for his peaceful and just rule, and due to these precepts, this historical object has been claimed to be an early version of ‘charter of human right’.
- Royal Game of Ur
- The Royal Game of Ur is an ancient game represented by two game boards found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq and date from before 2600 BC. The rules of the game, are known based on the discovery of clay cuneiform tablets from Babylonian dating from 177–176 BC. The rules show that it was a form of a racing game similar to and an early predecessor to the present-day backgammon.
- Gilgamesh Flood Tablet
- The Gilgamesh Flood Tablet contains the flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia that is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. The flood story was added to the Gilgamesh Epic utilised surviving Babylonian deluge stories from older Sumerian poems which inspired the flood myth.
- Stela of Shamshi-Adad V
- The Stela of Shamshi-Adad V is a massive round-topped white limestone monolith that portrays the Assyrian King worshipping his gods. The monarch is shown wearing a conical hat, and full beard with his right hand extended snapping his fingers, and his left hand holding a mace, his symbol of royal authority. A significant amount of cuneiform text covers the sides of the stela, recording the king’s military campaigns,
Ancient Greece and Rome Collection
- Marble figure of a Woman – Spedos Type
- This Cycladic figurine is a female figure with an elongated slender form with folded arms. This marble sculpture is a fabulous creation of the Cycladic Culture and was probably associated with ancient Aegean religious beliefs. The marble figure has a flat profile with broad shoulders, the breasts are in relatively higher relief, and the abdomen is slightly protuberant. The legs are more rounded and separated by a deep groove. The head is of the usual Cycladic type, bent back and thin, with a long narrow nose. This figurine is slightly damaged with the feet broken away and the head has been reconnected.
- The Parthenon Marbles
- The Parthenon was built on the Acropolis of Athens, Greece between 447 and 432 B.C. as a testament to the glory and pride of the Athenian state. The Parthenon stands on the Acropolis of Athens which in ancient times, as it does today, dominates the city of Athens. The Acropolis is an extremely rocky outcrop above the city of Athens. The word acropolis comes from the Greek, Akron meaning “highest point” and polis meaning “city”. The Acropolis is a flat-topped rock that rises high over Athens, with a large flat area which has been used as a fortress and a religious centre from time immemorial.
- The Parthenon Frieze
- The Parthenon frieze is the high-relief marble sculpture created to adorn the upper part of the Parthenon’s inner chamber of the temple. It was sculpted about 440 BC, and of the 160 m (524 ft) of the original frieze, about 80 per cent survives today. The rest is known only from the drawings made in 1674 before the Venetian bombardment ruined the temple. The frieze depicts the Panathenaic procession of the citizens of Athens to the Acropolis. In this annual procession at which Athenians and foreigners participated to honour Athena by offering sacrifices and a new peplos, a dress woven by selected noble Athenian girls. The grand parade shows a thanksgiving sacrifice of cattle and sheep, honey and water, followed by the victorious army celebrating their victories.
- Metopes of the Parthenon
- The “Metopes of the Parthenon” are the surviving set of what initially had been 92 square carved plaques of marble initially located above the columns of the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. Typically each metope depicts two characters in combat. The Metopes were part of the relief sculptures that were integral to the architecture of the Parthenon. They are square marble blocks that were positioned high on the exterior of the temple walls.
- Pedimental Sculptures of the Parthenon
- The Pediments of the Parthenon are the two sets of fifty statues in marble initially located on the east and west facades of the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. The East Pediment, which was above the entrance to the temple, told the story of the birth of Athena from the head of her father, Zeus. The sculptural arrangement depicts the moment of Athena’s birth. The West Pediment illustrated the contest between Athena and Poseidon during their competition for the honour of becoming Athens’ patron.
- The Erechtheion Caryatid
- This marble Caryatid is a sculpted female figure that was initially part of the Erechtheion, which is an ancient Greek temple on the Acropolis of Athens in Greece. This Caryatid is one of six female figures that supported the architrave in the south porch of the Erechtheion. The woman wears a peplos pinned on each shoulder. A peplos is a body-length garment which was the typical attire for women in ancient Greece. Her hair is braided and falls down her back. The body weight is depicted as taken on the right leg, hidden by vertical folds of the garment and the other leg is bent.
- Lion from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
- This lion is among the few free-standing sculptures remaining from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Mausoleum was a massive structure designed by Greek architects during the Classical Greek period. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus or Tomb of Mausolus was a tomb built between 353 and 350 BC which was located at present-day Bodrum, Turkey. The Tomb was built for Mausolus, the ruler of Halicarnassus and his wife.
- Bust of Pericles
- This marble portrait bust is of Pericles wearing a military helmet pushed back on his head. Pericles (495 – 429 BC) was a prominent and influential Greek statesman, a famous orator and the general of Athens during their Golden Age. Pericles time as the leader of Athens has been called the “Age of Pericles”, as he substantially promoted the arts and literature. Through his efforts, Athens achieved its reputation as the educational and cultural centre of the ancient Greek world. He started the ambitious projects that generated most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis including the Parthenon. These projects beautified the city and exhibited its glory.
- Aegina Treasure
- The Aegina Treasure or Aigina Treasure is an important Minoan gold hoard found on the island of Aegina, Greece. The Minoan civilisation was an Aegean Bronze Age civilisation on the island of Crete and other Aegean islands which flourished from about 2600 to 1100 BC. The treasure was discovered in a tomb on the island of Aegina in 1891, although the exact circumstances have never been determined.
- Townley Caryatid
- This Townley Caryatid depicts a woman with cereal motifs on her modius headdress which is dressed to take part in religious rites possibly fertility rites related to Demeter or Ceres. In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. In ancient Roman religion, Ceres was a goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships.
- Bronze Statue of a Youth
- This bronze statue of a young man is a Roman version of an earlier Greek figure made of polished bronze. The eyes are silvered, and the irises and pupils would have been of glass or semi-precious stones. The lips and nipples were inlaid with copper to give them a pinkish hue. Some of the locks of hair were added separately to provide them with their three-dimensional quality.
- Thalia, Muse of Comedy
- This marble statue of a woman represents Thalia, Muse of Comedy. Thalia was the goddess who presided over comedy and idyllic poetry, and in ancient mythology, she was one of the nine Muses. The Muses are the inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts in Greek mythology. They were considered the source of the knowledge embodied in the poetry, lyric songs, and myths that were related orally in ancient cultures. They were later adopted by the Romans as a part of their pantheon.
- Nereid Monument
- The Nereid Monument is a sculptured tomb in the form of a Greek temple on top of a base decorated with sculpted friezes. The temple had columns on each side and stood elevated on a substantial podium, decorated with two friezes. There are also reliefs on the architrave, the inner chamber of temple walls and in the pediment. There were also many large free-standing sculptures between each pair of primary columns.
- Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa
- The Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa is the life-size sarcophagus of an Etruscan noblewoman dating from 150 BC and is a masterpiece of Etruscan artwork. The deceased woman’s name is inscribed in Etruscan along the base of the chest. She was part of a wealthy aristocratic family and is dressed sumptuously, wearing an ornate gown and cloak, with drapery over her body and adorned with a tiara, earrings, bracelets and a necklace. Seianti is depicted as a mature woman, who is adjusting her veil to show her body. She leans against a pillow and holds a mirror in her other hand, gazing into the distance.
The Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection
- Ain Sakhri Lovers
- The Ain Sakhri Lovers figurine is a sculpture that was created over 11,000 years ago and is the oldest known representation of two people engaged in a loving embrace. It was found in one of the Ain Sakhri caves near Bethlehem. The sculpture was made by carving a single rock of calcite cobble which was picked away with a stone point to create the heads, arms and leg positions of the couple.
- The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
- The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial is one of the greatest treasures ever found in England. Over 1,300 years old it sheds light on the myths and legends during the period that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial was discovered in Suffolk, East Anglia and is the site of two 6th and 7th Century cemeteries. One of the burial mounds contained a massive and significant ship burial. The Sutton Hoo Ship burial was found to include a wonderful treasure of gold and silver, including Anglo-Saxon artefacts of outstanding historical beauty and historical, archaeological significance.
- Lewis Chessmen
- The Lewis Chessmen is a collection of unique 12th-century chess pieces that were made from walrus ivory and with a few of the chess pieces made from whale teeth. The 78 Chess pieces might have belonged to at least five different Chess Sets. Most of the pieces are sculptured to represent human figures, except for the Pawn pieces, which are simply smaller, geometric shapes. The Knight pieces are mounted on horses and are shown holding spears and shields. The rooks pieces depict standing warders carrying shields and swords. Four of the rooks are shown as wild-eyed berserkers biting their shields with battle fury. The chess pieces were designed to displayed strength and ferocity except for the Queens which all have their heads resting on their hand, to reflect contemplation and wisdom.
- Holy Thorn Reliquary
- The Holy Thorn Reliquary was created to house a relic of the Crown of Thorns. It is one of a small number of significant works that survive from the extravagant world of the courts of the Valois royal family around 1400. It is made of gold, lavishly decorated with jewels and pearls, and a total of 28 three-dimensional figures, mostly in white enamel.
- Mechanical Galleon
- This Mechanical Galleon is an elaborate ornament in the form of a ship, which is also a self-operating machine with moving figures, music and a clock. It was constructed in 1585 by Hans Schlottheim, a goldsmith and clockmaker active in Augsburg, Germany. The Mechanical Galleon was made under the patronage of Augustus I, Elector of Saxony in Dresden who competed with other rulers in Europe to own elaborate art objects that demonstrated their wealth and prestige.
- Black St George Icon
- This icon of Saint George has become known as ‘The Black George’ because the horse is painted black rather than the white horse that has traditionally been used for St George Icons. Russia converted to Christianity in 988, and much of its religious art was inspired by the Byzantine tradition. This icon made in 1400 was discovered in 1959 in a village in northern Russia where it was being used as a window-shutter.
- Knight Aquamanile
- This Aquamanile, which is in the form of an equestrian knight, was a vessel used during the Medieval period for the washing of hands over a basin at meal times. This practice was part of both upper-class meals and the Christian Eucharist. This Aquamanile was filled with water through the hole at the top of the knight’s helmet and emptied through the spout in the horse’s head.
The Asian Collection
- Seated Buddha from Gandhara
- “The Seated Buddha from Gandhara” is a statue of the Buddha discovered at the site of ancient Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan. Like other Gandharan or Greco-Buddhist art, the sculpture shows the influence of Ancient Greek sculptural art. Gandhara had been part of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom established by Alexander the Great. Gandhāra was an ancient Indic kingdom situated in the northwestern region of Pakistan, around Peshawar.
- Statue of Tara
- This Statue of Tara is a gilt-bronze sculpture of a standing figure of a female deity, created in the 8th century. The goddess’s hour-glass upper body is naked with only a lower garment tied to the hips. Tara’s right hand is shown in the gesture of giving while her left hand is thought to have held a lotus flower. The figure wears a high crown dominated by a hole in the top that was initially created for a large precious stone. The statue is famous because of its artistic history but also because it was made using a specialised manufacturing process. The figure was created from expensive metals utilising the technique of the lost wax casting in Sri Lanka.
- Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
- This statue of Avalokiteśvara is the Buddist Lord of Compassion and embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has chosen to remain in the early realm to selflessly help others attain spiritual liberation. In this statue, the right hand is in the pose of the gesture of charity. His left hand may have held a lotus which is a symbol of purity. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama is believed to be his incarnation.
- Avalokiteshvara – Guanyin
- This gilt bronze figure of Avalokiteśvara is seated in a variation of the position of “royal ease” with the right hand resting on a bent right knee and the left-hand bearing the left shoulder. Described as a “water moon Guanyin” the figure represents a favourite sculptural formula between the 10th and 14th centuries. An Avalokiteśvara is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. Seated in a position of the. The image is dressed as an Indian prince with long and fluid garments; and with sashes, scarves and jewels.
- Nandi – Figure of the Humped Bull of Śiva
- This white granite figure of Nandi, the humped bull mount of Śiva, is garlanded and decorated with bells. In the southern Indian tradition, he is shown seated with his legs tucked beneath him, and the body is foreshortened in comparison with the head and front parts. Nandi (‘rejoicing’) is the name of the gate-guardian deity of the abode of Lord Shiva. He is usually depicted as a bull which also serves as the mount to the god Shiva.
- This gilt bronze statue depicts a Garuda as part bird, and part human with flaming hair that bears the symbols of the sun and moon. The Garuda is a legendary bird creature from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology. A Garuda is generally a protector with the power to swiftly go anywhere and is ever watchful against enemies. A Garuda is a part of state insignia in India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia.
- Budai Hesheng
- This almost life-size porcelain figure represents Budai Hesheng seated with one knee raised on a rectangular plinth. He is decorated in polychrome enamels and depicted as a fat smiling bald man with elongated earlobes and a large stomach. The Budai is dressed in the loose amber-coloured robes of a begging Buddhist monk, and he holds a sizeable green-glazed cloth bag under his right arm and the drawstring in his hand. His robes are edged with a border of scrolling flowers and foliage and the plinth is incised beneath the glaze with a dedicatory inscription giving details of the date when the figure was made and the maker of the statue.
- Luohan – Yixian Glazed Ceramic Sculpture
- This life-size, glazed terracotta sculpture of a seated figure represents a Luohan. A Luóhàn is a Chinese term for an arhat, one of the historical disciples of the Buddha. As Buddhist tradition developed the most important were regarded as almost bodhisattvas or fully enlightened beings, with a range of supernatural powers. The understanding of these Buddhist concepts has changed over the centuries and varies between different schools of Buddhism and different regions
The Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection
- Double-Headed Serpent
- This Double-headed serpent is a sculpture from Aztec Mexico, which was used in religious ceremonies. The mosaic is made of pieces of turquoise, oyster shell and conch shell applied to a wood base. The sculpture depicts an undulating serpent with a head on each side. By using over 2,000 small flat pieces of stone, the artists have created the impression of a curved surface. The heads of the serpents have holes for eyes which initially would have held objects representing eyes. The vivid contrast of the red and white details on the head has been achieved through the use of oyster shell and conch shell.
- Hoa Hakananai’a / Moai from Easter Island
- Hoa Hakananai’a although relatively small, is typical of the famous Easter Island sculptures. Easter Island statues are called by the Rapa Nui people, Moai. This example is distinguished by carvings added at a later date to the back, associated with the island birdman cult. The statue was identified as Hoa Hakananai’a by islanders at the time it was removed from the island in 1868. Hoa Hakananai’a is made from a block of dark grey-brown flow lava, commonly described as basalt.
- Hawaiian Feathered Helmet
- This Hawaiian feather helmet, known as ‘mahiole’ in the Hawaiian language, was worn together with a feather cloak by the chiefly class of Hawaii. These helmets are made from a woven basketry frame structure decorated with bird feathers and featured a central crest running from the centre of the forehead to the nape of the neck. There were significant variations, in the design of the Hawaiian helmets, with colour and the arrangement of the feather patterns as well as the crest varying in height and thickness. The feathered garments were reserved exclusively for use by royalty symbolising their divinity, rank and power.
- Bronze Head from Ife
- This Bronze Head from Ife is one of eighteen sculptures that were unearthed in 1938 at Ife in Nigeria, the religious and former royal centre of the Yoruba people. Ife is regarded by the Yoruba people as the place where their deities created humans. It was made in the thirteenth century well before any European contact had taken place with the local population. The realism and sophisticated craftsmanship of the objects challenged Western conceptions of African art at the time.
- Benin Ivory Mask
- This Benin Ivory Mask is a miniature sculptural portrait of the Queen Mother Idia of the 16th century Benin Empire. The sculpture takes the form of a traditional African mask and features a beaded headdress and choker at her neck. The forehead shows ritual scarification highlighted by iron inlay on the forehead. The top of the mask is decorated with heads representing the Portuguese, symbolising Benin’s alliance with the Europeans. This type of hip-mask was worn by the King, on the hip, during important ceremonies.
The Prints and Drawings Collection
- “Studies of a reclining Male Nude” by Michelangelo
- “Studies of a reclining Male Nude” is a rare drawing by Michelangelo to have survived of the reclining figure of Adam reaching out to God the Father, whose touch grants him life. This studies of Adam was in preparation for the fresco of ‘The Creation of Man’ on the vault of the Sistine Chapel. It was drawn in dark red chalk over some stylus underdrawing. The reverse side of this paper has a drawing, also in red chalk, of the “Head of a Youth”, turned to the right, wearing a headscarf.
- Newport Castle by J. M. W. Turner
- Newport Castle by J. M. W. Turner depicts a nostalgic view of Newport Castle overlooking the river with sailing vessels moored and anchored beside the large walls of the castle. The arched entrance has stakes in the water for mooring, and a figure is storing or launching a rowing boat in front of the arch. Newport Castle is a ruined castle in Newport, Wales, which was built in the 14th century, to manage and control the crossing of the River Usk. In 1402 it was sacked by a Welsh ruler who instigated a fierce and long-running but ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the English rule of Wales. Newport Castle then fell into disrepair and was taken by Oliver Cromwell’s forces during the Civil War. Its use declined further in later centuries, and in the 19th century, the buildings within the ruin were used as a tannery and later as a brewery.
- “Hampstead Heath” by John Constable
- “Hampstead Heath” by John Constable is a watercolour view looking at the panoramic views that were visible in every direction in the open spaces of then-rural Hampstead. Constable enjoyed painting at Hampstead which allowed him to escape London’s summer heat. This watercolour is part of the nearly one hundred sketches he made there, in which he attempted to capture the variable sky and its atmospherics. Constable referred to the practice of painting these works as “skying” where he used the landscape to portray a sense of scale and depth.
- The Great Wave off Kanagawa
- The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Hokusai which he published in 1831 as the first print in his series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The image depicts an enormous rogue wave threatening boats off the coast of the town of Kanagawa, just off the present-day city of Yokohama. The print shows seasick fishermen in three boats with a wave about to crash down on them. As in many of the prints in the series, it depicts Mount Fuji, and the mountain itself appears in the background.
The British Museum
- Museum: British Museum
- City: London
- Established: 1753
- Location: Great Russell Street, London, UK
- Collection: 8 million objects
- Visitors: 7 million annually
“I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.”
– Winston Churchill
Photo Credit: © Hans Hillewaert; British Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]; British Museum [Public domain]; Jon Bodsworth [Public domain]; Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]; Einsamer Schütze [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)];