Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
Open: Daily 10am – 5:30pm, Fridays until 8:30pm
One of my favorite sites in London is the British Museum. So many pieces of historical significance lay under this very roof. Antiquities from all over the world can be found here, many of them created thousands of years ago. The British Museum itself, states that they exist to “tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day.”
As with all museums, everyone has their favorite item or exhibition. Although some important artifacts like the cat mummies are interesting, they wouldn’t make my top 10 list. My favorites either have the historical factor or the WOW factor; either way, I was amazed I was able look upon these artifacts with my own eyes. Here are my faves:
The Rosetta Stone
Room 4, ground floor
The infamous Rosetta Stone has to be the most popular artifact within the British Museum. Located right off the Great Court on the main floor, it’s the first artifact most people see upon entering the museum. Dated from 196 BC, this large granite stone has a decree inscribed in three languages on it: Greek; hieroglyphs; and demotic Egyptian. This stone provided the key that allowed scholars and researchers to read Egyptian hieroglyphics for the very first time.
In 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, he brought art and science experts along. Both soldiers and experts were instructed to seize and study any important cultural artifact found while in Egypt. The slab that would become the Rosetta Stone, was found after being unburied by French soldiers. It was then that the French knew they had found an important artifact in the town of Rosetta. The French had possession of the stone until the British defeated Napoleon’s army in Alexandria, Egypt and took the antiquities they were hauling. The English government took possession of the Rosetta Stone then and have had it ever since.
The Elgin Marbles
Room 18, ground floor
The ancient Parthenon of Greece was once a highly revered temple dedicated to Athena. Built in the fifth century BC, the Parthenon contained numerous sculptures on the interior and exterior of the building. After an explosion in 1687, many of these sculptures and decorative details fell off the temple. A Scottish ambassador (the 7th Earl of Elgin) to the Ottoman Empire removed many of these pieces from the Parthenon, who later sold them to the British Museum.
The Elgin Marbles include some of these pieces of the Parthenon that fell off from age or the explosion. Other pieces come from either inside the Parthenon or from other buildings that stood on the infamous Acropolis of Athens. The many decorative friezes (sculptures within a horizontal band of architecture) and intricate statues now sit in the British Museum.
The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and Helmet
Room 41, upper floor
The 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial site in Suffolk, England is one of the most significant English archaeological discoveries. This discovery yielded a ship burial site as well as the likely burial site of a ruler of the East Angles. Burial was likely around 625 AD and its discovery presents a lot of information and artifacts about a time period that researchers once knew very little about.
The site has been vital in understanding earlier Anglo-Saxon periods. It is stated that the Sutton Hoo burial site is one of the most significant archaeological finds in England not only for the size of the excavation, but also for how complete it is, the condition of the contents and for its suggestive importance of burial rituals. In addition to the helmet and ship, numerous other artifacts were collected, such as coins, pottery, buckets, combs, human and animal remains, weapons, silver plates, shields and swords, as well as ornate metalwork dress fittings.
The Colossal Granite Head of Amenhotep III
Room 4, ground floor
Amenhotep III was a pharaoh of ancient Egypt, ruling around 1390 to 1350 BC. This colossal statue of his head was discovered in an ancient temple in Egypt in 1817 when the top of the head was protruding from the ground. The statue was found broken, with an arm belonging to the statue found close by. Amenhotep III wears the double crown of upper and lower Egypt. The statue is likely from around 1370 BC and is made from red granite. The head measures almost 9 1/2 feet tall and likely weighs around 4 tons. And yes, his arm can be found right next to his head within the museum. My daughter even gave his hand the obligatory fist bump.
Room 24, ground floor
This huge basalt stone was found on Easter Island around 1200 AD. Carved in the shape of a man, its name, “Hoa Hakananai’a”, means Stolen/Hidden Friend. Interestingly, it was once painted with red and white designs and the eye sockets were decorated with red stone and coral. These large stone statues would have been placed on a platform on Easter Island, with their backs to the sea, acting as protector of the island. It’s hard to imagine that so long ago, these Easter Island natives quarried, carved, and raised over 880 of these stone moai on their island.
Found by a British crew in 1868 doing surveying work, this four ton statue was surprisingly carried back to the British boat (perhaps unwillingly) with the help of the native islanders.
Three Human Figures
Room 59, upper floor
These three figures were found in a tomb near Bab edh-Dhra, close to the Dead Sea in Jordan. Researchers have dated these crude figures (made of unfired clay) to be from 3300-3100 BC. Two of the figures are obviously male, while the third (far right) either lost a piece of clay or was made to resemble a woman. It’s amazing to me that something so small and so old has amazingly made it safe into the hands of a museum for us all to see it thousands of years later.
Helmet and Crushed Skull from Ur
Room 56, upper floor
This amazingly preserved artifact definitely has the “wow” factor (at least for me!). Found in modern-day Iraq, this artifact, found in the ‘King’s Grave’ at the Royal Cemetery of Ur, dates from 2,500 BC. Within this grave, six soldiers wearing copper helmets were found crushed by the weight of the soil, which had presumably been thrown into the grave upon burial.
The Aztec Double Headed Serpent
Room 27, ground floor
This Aztec artifact was found in Mexico and is believed to be from 1400-1521 AD. It’s constructed from one piece of wood, and is covered with a mosaic of finely cut and polished turquoise, oyster, and conch shell. The museum believes that this piece would have been worn on a ceremonial breast plate. Snakes were known to be sacred to the Aztec people because they symbolized the feathered serpent god called Quetzalcoatl. It’s the amount of detail, the vivid colors, and the fine craftsmanship for a 500-600 year old artifact that makes this a showcase piece.
The Portland Vase
Room 70, upper floor
The Portland Vase, dated from 1-25 AD, is a Roman cameo glass vase. A luxury item, this type of glass is made from 2 different colored glasses and a skilled hand to etch and carve it. The artistry in this vase is amazing for its time. In fact, the Portland Vase is said to be the most famous piece of Roman cameo glass and has inspired many artisans within the last few centuries.
There are two scenes portrayed on the vase, however historians cannot seem to agree on the interpretation of the scenes. The horned man in the left photo above acts as a space between the two scenes. Despite being purposefully shattered in February of 1845 (by a drunken man), the vase looks impeccable after its few restorations.
Room 50, upper floor
Lindow man is the preserved body of a man who was found in the Lindow Moss Peat Bog in England. In 1984, commercial peat cutters came upon Lindow Man, the second body to have been found there at that time (Lindow Woman was found here the year before). After studying his body, researchers believe Lindow Man most likely suffered a painful death, including strangulation, a blow to the back of his head, and a cut throat.
Dying between 2 BC and 119 AD, Lindow Man was one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 1980’s due to how well he was preserved in the bog. Because peat slows the decaying process of corpses, scientists worried that Lindow Man would quickly deteriorate in our atmospheric conditions. Scientists settled on freeze-drying him and placing him in a special climate controlled box.
Other Notable Artifacts:
- The Lewis Chessmen – Twelveth century chess pieces, most likely from Norway, carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth. According to the British Museum, “The chess pieces testify to the strong cultural and political connections between the kingdoms of the British Isles and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, and to the growing popularity within Europe of the game of chess, the origins of which lie in India after around 500 BC. Chess arrived in Christian Europe via the Islamic world, where the game was adapted to reflect medieval European society.” (Room 40, upper floor)
- Mummies from the 4th century BC – Note: there is a mummy of Cleopatra from 100-120 AD that is NOT the infamous Cleopatra. (The famous Cleopatra lived from 69-30 BC.) The Cleopatra mummy is of a 17-year-old who was a child of a government official. (Room 62-63, upper floor)
- Colossal Horse from Halikarnassos – from the 4th century BC, found in Turkey (Room 21, ground floor)
- Vindolanda Tablets – Dated between 85 and 130 AD, these tablets are thin pieces of wood that were used as writing papers for Roman soldiers. They are the second oldest handwritten documents found in Britain. (Room 49, upper floor)
- Cat Mummies – In ancient Egypt, cats were associated with deities and considered sacred, despite not being worshipped themselves. Find these cat mummies, as well as other animal mummies, in the museum. (Rooms 62-63, upper floor)
- Roman and Greek Antiquities (Rooms 69-70, upper floor)
Please note: My room information is based on 2017 locations. Exhibitions and artifacts may change rooms, so check with the British Museum’s website before visiting.
There are so many ancient and interesting artifacts at the British Museum that you could spend DAYS seeing it all. Do yourself a favor and research what you want to see at the museum so you can maximize your time there. In addition to a museum gift shop, there is also food and drink is available within the great court of the museum.
The British Museum will definitely be on my list of things to see if I ever get back to London. Have you ever been to the museum? What did you like best? Let me know in the comments!
sources: bbc.co.uk, history.com, google.com, wikipedia.org, britishmuseum.org, thoughtco.com, modernancientegyptologist.blogspot.com, timeout.com, mirror.co.uk