One of the oldest pieces in the museum is not stone or porcelain or metal, but an actual human being – someone who walked around and felt the sun on their back nearly 5,500 years ago.
Looking at the desiccated corpse we can see how wonderfully he is preserved; the skin is like leather, you can see his fingernails, and can even make out the colour of his hair. He’s known as Gebelein man, from the place in Egypt where he was found, but because of his red hair he was nicknamed ‘ginger’. Continue reading
One of the most famous of the early medieval exhibits from the museum is the Lewis chessmen. 93 separate pieces, in a variety of sizes, were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, hidden, presumably, by someone who was trading the sets. These 93 are now split between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
They’re exquisitely carved, with some wonderful details and are made mainly of walrus ivory – from the tusks of the walrus – with a few that are carved whales’ teeth. Continue reading
The Tang dynasty – 618AD to 907AD – was one of the golden ages of China. We’re often a bit unspecific about the dates of exhibits in the museum – placing things in a century or even a millennium, but we know that these figures date to 728AD.
They are tomb figures for a general called Liu Tingxan whose funeral was in that year. This type of tomb figure was widely used among high-status individuals from about 700AD. They’re glazed earthenware in a style known as ‘sancai’, which means three colours: white, green and amber/red (they also did blue and black, but let’s not disappear down that rabbit hole).
It’s a very dull piece of a granite-like stone, and the stuff that’s carved on it isn’t hugely interesting either – it’s to do with Ptolemy V, the new king of Egypt, granting tax exemptions to the priesthood. It’s not even complete – the top bit has been broken off.
So why is this the most visited object in the British Museum, buffeted by crowds sometimes ten deep, its image featuring in the British Museum shop on everything from headscarves to iPhone covers?
Because this uninspiring bit of stone – a ‘stele’ from 196BC – allowed us to decipher hieroglyphs – to understand a form of writing for the first time in over 1400 years and so unlock the secrets of ancient Egypt.
That’s because there are three scripts on the Rosetta Stone – at the bottom, Greek, the official language of the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt as the were descended from a general of Alexander the Great; demotic, the writing of everyday in Egypt; and hieroglyphs, used by the priests. Continue reading
You can keep your hoards of gold and silver, your Egyptian mummies, your blockbuster Viking exhibitions. For me, the most wonderful piece in the whole British Museum is a bit of graffiti, not done by any artist or craftsman, but by a bored squaddie looking for ways to kill time.
Scratched onto a flat part of the base of one of the extraordinary Assyrian winged bulls are a couple of dozen squares. They’re the board for a dice game and were incised around 710BC (although earlier examples of the game have been found dating back 4500 years). The thing seems to have been a sort of “race” game with counters (think of Ludo).