The British Museum houses more than 8 million objects. Not all of them are on permanent public display, but there are enough there to keep you busy for many days, should you have the time. However, this is unlikely to be the case, especially if your time in
is limited. What you will regard as a
“must see” item will doubtless depend on your personal interests, but there are
a number of objects that it would be a shame to miss, and some of these are
suggested below. London
These suggestions are from the Museum’s permanent collection, as opposed to the temporary exhibitions that are mounted from time to time. Such exhibitions often include treasures from private or overseas collections that are only viewable on very rare occasions, and it is therefore a good idea to plan your visit so that you can take in a temporary exhibition as well as your selected items from the main collection. One factor to bear in mind is that the permanent collection is free to view, whereas an entrance fee is usually charged to view a temporary exhibition.
The Elgin Marbles
The Elgin Marbles is the name usually given to the Parthenon sculptures that were acquired in Athens (Greece) by Lord Elgin between 1799 and 1810 and bought by the British Museum in 1816, although Elgin brought back objects from buildings other than the Parthenon, and some of these can be seen elsewhere in the Museum.
There has long been talk about whether the
Museum should continue to house the
sculptures, or if their rightful home is in . Although it is unlikely that they
will be returned to Athens Greece
in the near future it is possible at some stage, so if your visit to the is a once-in-a-lifetime event,
the opportunity to see them should not be missed. British Museum
The sculptures are housed in the Duveen Gallery (Room 18), which is on the extreme “left” of the building from the main entrance. The visitor with little time will therefore have to avoid the temptation to look at all the other treasures he or she will pass on the way!
Having reached the gallery, you could easily spend an hour or more taking everything in. What you have here is a huge collection of reliefs and three-dimensional sculptures that were carved in about 440 BC to adorn the upper walls and pediments of the
Temple of Athene (known as the Parthenon) on the Acropolis at . You can see these
sculptures at eye-level, whereas the original viewers would have had to look far
above their heads. The collection is far from complete, many pieces having been
lost before Athens Elgin’s time and others being housed
in museums in Athens, and elsewhere. Paris
You will be rewarded with a view of beautifully carved marble figures of men, women and animals. Some of these, from the frieze of the temple, represent a ceremonial procession that presents a picture of life in ancient
in considerable detail. Other pieces
show scenes from Greek mythology, the most dramatic being of the battle between
the Centaurs and the Lapiths. This is sculpture of the very highest quality
which, even in its damaged state, for example with heads and limbs missing,
cannot fail to impress. Athens
The Rosetta Stone (see photo above)
This is a stone slab (or “stele”) that is of immense importance to Egyptology. Consisting of a form of granite known as granodiorite, it measures 45 inches (114 cm) in height and weighs about 1,700 pounds (769 kg), although it is not complete and it is easy to see where parts of it have broken away. It dates from 196 BC but was only discovered in 1799 during Napoleon’s occupation of the Nile Delta, at the town of
Its value as an object comes from the inscription on it, which the viewer can easily see is in three distinct sections. These represent the same text (a decree issued on behalf of Ptolemy V) but in three languages, namely Ancient Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Demotic (a script used in Egypt after hieroglyphics fell out of general use). Despite the fact that the amount of hieroglyphic text is relatively small in comparison with the other scripts, it was enough to provide the key to a lost language.
As it happens, the Rosetta Stone is not the only example of a trilingual or bilingual ancient text, but it is certainly the best known. Like the Elgin Marbles, it has been the subject of conflicting claims as to where it truly belongs, but it has been a central feature of the British Museum’s collection since 1802 and is now displayed in Room 4 (Egyptian sculpture), which runs alongside the Great Court at the centre of the building.
Also in this room is the massive statue of Ramesses II which weighs more than seven tons and was carved from a single piece of granite in about 1250 BC.
Sutton Hoo ship-burial
The discovery in 1939 of the burial site of a 7th century Anglo-Saxon king or warlord was one of the most important in the history of British archaeology. The dead man had been buried in a ship together with many of his possessions, the whole being covered with earth to form a barrow. The finds were presented by the owner of the land, at Sutton Hoo in
Suffolk, to the , where they are
now one of its greatest and most visited treasures. British
Pride of place goes to a ceremonial helmet which was originally found in about 500 pieces but which has since been reconstructed, and replicas have been made to show how it would have looked originally. The workmanship is extraordinary as is the decoration; for example, the nose and eyebrows of the mask form the shape of a bird, and it also has a moustache.
As well as the helmet, the display in Room 41 (upper floor) contains some other remarkable objects from the burial, including a sword, bowls, spoons, a magnificent gold belt buckle, an intricately decorated purse lid, and a reconstructed lyre.
Next door, in Room 40, are the Lewis chessmen that were carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth in the late 12th century, probably in
The detail on these pieces is fascinating and bound to bring a smile to the
Hinton St Mary mosaic
This was found in a field in
in 1963, having originally been part of the floor of a 4th century Romano-British
villa of which hardly any trace remained. However the mosaic was in excellent
condition and was carefully lifted so that it could be transported to the , where it is now on view in Room
49 (upper floor). British Museum
This is one of the most complete mosaic floors ever found and is remarkable in several respects, including its size (about 26 by 17 feet, 8 by 5 metres) and its excellent condition. However, what makes it stand out is the inclusion, in the central roundel, of a head and shoulders that could have been intended to be a representation of Jesus Christ. The clue is in the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” that are the first two letters of “Christ” and are often found in early Christian art.
If this is an imagined portrayal of Christ it is one of the earliest known, and it is certainly the only known example on a mosaic floor anywhere in the
The rest of the design consists mainly of geometric patterns and hunting scenes, but there is also a mythological scene of Bellerophon slaying the Chimaera, which can be interpreted as good conquering evil. It is possible that the four heads within the corners of the main design are those of the four evangelists. Even if this is not the case, and there is no way of knowing, the combination of Christian and Pagan imagery provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of wealthy Romano-Christians of this period.
If time permits, other items that might be high on your list could include the
Easter Island statue in
Room 24, the Egyptian mummies in Rooms 62 and 63, items from the Oxus Treasure
in Room 52, and the 16th century mechanical galleon clock in Room
You will soon decide that one visit to this amazing museum is not enough and you will want to come back as often as you can and stay for much longer!
© John Welford