Welcome to part two of the ‘Must-see exhibits at the British Museum’! Part one, published recently, explored the ground floor galleries. Part two starts in Room 61 and will work clockwise around the entire first floor.
Here we find artefacts from the tomb of a senior (and very successful!) ‘financial book-keeper’ in Thebes, Luxor. His name was Nebamun and he died around 1350BC. The friezes are from the chapel of Nebamun’s tomb. One shows Nebamun hunting in the marshes (that represent re-birth) with his wife (to the right) and daughter (beneath). Another shows a feast scene, with married couples (top), single ladies (top right), naked servers, female guests sniffing lotus flowers, wine jars and musicians (unusually portrayed in front profile). Also notice the jewellery, gold adornments and footwear on display in this room.
By 120AD Egypt was controlled by the Romans. The portrait on the coffin of Artemidorus is one of the iconic images of the museum, due to the clarity of the twenty-year old Roman it portrays, still lying undisturbed within.
Also see the coffin lid of Hornedjitef from 240BC. He was a priest, now made divine having joined the gods (who incidentally were believed to be made from gold). Falcons and written instructions describe how to get to the after-life. And at the rear (inside the coffin) a newt is depicted with written spells ensuring Hornedjitef is reborn at his destination!
There are more fascinating coffins, lids and cases all containing mummified remains. Make sure you see the fully exposed mummy of lady from 700BC! Look at her hands and see how they are threaded together to keep a graceful shape in death.
(To create a mummy the ancient Egyptians removed all the internal organs, including the brain through the nose – the ancients did not know the purpose of the brain. The body was washed, boxed, covered in salt and packed with sand/wood shavings. After around two months it was coated in resin, allowed to dry and finally wrapped in linen).
A chart on the wall helps us navigate the dynastic periods and geography of Egypt. (Note that Upper Egypt is in the south of the country, being the source of the River Nile!). There were thirty-three Egyptian dynasties; starting in 3200BC and lasting until the Roman invasion. (Mummification did not commence until around 2000BC.)
Notice the display cabinet showing imitation (clay) burial items – used because real items (made of basalt stone for example) could be stolen from burial tombs.
Another body (that receives much attention) is the ‘Gebelein man’, dating from 3500BC and preserved (including his internal organs) thanks to the hot sand in which he was buried. With him were buried objects for the after-life. A stab wound in the left shoulder blade may indicate a violent death.
A recent artefact (discovered near Sudan in 2004) is the ‘Jebel Sahaba’ find. These two men date from 11000BC and have multiple cut wounds to their bones. They were buried along with fourteen arrow heads.
Here we have exhibits from Ancient Iran (Persia). The clay Cyrus Cylinder (from 550 BC) is an astonishing early charter of Babylonian human rights!
The Battersea Shield (main picture to this post) is from the late Celtic period of around 190BC. It was found in the River Thames near Battersea in 1857 and was probably given as an offering to the gods.
We move to Roman Britain and its role as an outpost of the Western Roman Empire.
See the bust of Emperor Claudius, who led the successful invasion of Britain in 43AD and the Tomb of Classicianus, procurator of ‘Britannia’ following the Boudican revolt in AD60. Did you know the oldest hand written documents ever discovered in Britain are birthday invitations? These are the Vindolanda tablets on display in this room.
Also see the Corbridge Lanx Roman silver plate found in Britain in the early 1700’s. From left to right are depictions of Artemis hunting, Minerva, the mother of twins (seated) and Apollo (the twin of Artemis) nude.
In this room a number of exhibits display the early Christian ‘Chi-rho’ symbol. This looks like an X and P – being the first two letters of Christ in Greek. The cross wasn’t adopted as the Christian symbol until 100AD. The Chi-rho symbol also has the first and last letters of Greek alphabet – alpha and omega – meaning Christ is the beginning and the end. These items are among the earliest Christian silver in Britain.
This room covers Europe from 300 to 1100AD.
The Esquiline treasure is a bride’s casket, given by a wealthy Roman family in 380AD. It portrays one of the Seven Hills of Rome. The mother was Christian and the groom was pagan so there is a unique mixture of pagan gods (Venus) and winged Christian cupids. The names of the bride and groom (Secundus and Projecta) are written on the top of the casket.
Sutton Hoo (in Suffolk) is where a Saxon boat (from around 600AD) was buried in its entirety on dry land, off the east coast of England. The boat was used as a burial chamber. Most of the wood had perished (due to the acidic soil), but left behind were copper, gold and silver artefacts that challenges the concept of the ‘dark ages’. A principal treasure is the iron and copper helmet, one of only four surviving Saxon helmets. On the helmet, notice the boars over the eyes, serpent along the brow and a dragon along the nose!
The Vikings were victorious in England in the 800’s, but were ejected by Irish forces (from their early settlement in Dublin). The Cuerdale Hoard consists of around 8000 (Islamic) coins, tributes and trinkets that were buried in Lancashire (following escape of the Vikings from Ireland) in around 910AD. It is the largest Viking hoard in Western Europe.
The Lewis Chessman are chess pieces (dating from the 1100’s) found at a beach on the island of Lewis in the Western Isles of Scotland. They were believed to be part of a trader’s stock of 93 pieces lost (following shipwreck) en route between Norway and Ireland. They were discovered in 1831 by Mr McCloud whist out for a walk, following a storm. Chess was originally an Indian game (with animals as pieces). Christians adapted the game (using knights, bishops, kings etc.) and this is world’s earliest Christian chess set!
We return to the Roman times and explore exhibits from the early empire.
The legend states that Rome was founded in around 753 BC by Romulus and Remus, suckled from birth by a she-wolf. Romulus subsequently killed Remus and became the first of seven kings. By 500BC Rome was a republic and by 200BC Rome had conquered all of Italy. Entry into the Mediterranean was securely controlled by Roman occupation of Sicily and Carthage in Tunisia.
Julius Caesar became the head of the Republic and was killed in 44BC (due to having pretensions of kingship). After Caesar’s death there was a civil war. After nearly fifteen years Caesar’s (adopted) son Octavius (who controlled Africa Italy and the West) defeated Mark Anthony (controlling Egypt Greece and the East) at the Actium sea-battle. Octavius united the Roman Empire and became the first Roman emperor, ruling as Augustus, from 31BC. (Rome fell in 476AD but continued in the East as the Byzantine Empire until the 1450’s).
Notice the prow of a warship from the Actium sea-battle displaying the Goddess Athena and a bust of Augustus from 25BC.
That completes the first floor. Descend the stairs and head for the Welcome Gallery.
Here we have a section of exhibits that portray ‘living and dying’. Most notable is the giant ancestral sculpture from Easter Island and the central display of a lifetime of drugs consumed by a modern day man and woman, along with stories of their lives.
See the Aztec turquoise mosaic double-headed serpent, thought to represent earth and underworld and dating early 1500’s .
If you have time (or a special interest) don’t forget to see the ancient exhibits in Asia and China in rooms 33 and 33a (Jade collection).
That concludes part 2 of this personal selection of must-see exhibits at the British Museum.
Here are links to two other great museum visits in London. Also search ‘museums’ on the Popular Topics side bar.