A visit to the British Museum

David Tresilian , Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

David Tresilian continues his visits to some of the world’s major Egyptological collections before the opening of Egypt’s Grand Egyptian Museum — this week the British Museum and Petrie Museum in London

The British Museum


The British Museum, founded in 1753 and occupying its present buildings in central London since the beginning of the 19th century, is one of the world’s great encyclopaedic museums, holding artefacts from most world civilisations and including flagship pieces that make it a must-visit destination for millions worldwide.

The museum is also free, unlike others reviewed in this series whose entrance prices, $30 in the case of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and very nearly that at the Louvre in Paris, can act as a significant deterrent to many would-be visitors. They can be put off by the considerable cost of seeing what are, at least in the Louvre’s case, public collections.

However, while the British Museum gets top marks for its admissions policy, it has seen its fair share of controversy. Like at the Metropolitan Museum, this has been a result of the circumstances under which some of its exhibits were collected and pressures for their restitution to their countries of origin.

Visiting the museum on a recent trip to London, Al-Ahram Weekly found that like other world museums of comparable importance, there may now be no time of year when it is not heaving with visitors. Makeshift security arrangements had had to be set up in tents in the museum’s forecourt, since the entrance areas behind the famous neo-classical façade are not large enough to process the crowds.

The British Museum’s Egyptological collections are distributed across the historic main building, with heavier and larger items located on the ground floor adjacent to the museum’s central Great Court and other items kept in an enfilade arrangement of connected rooms on the first floor.  

Entering the Egyptian sculpture galleries from the court, visitors are greeted with massive statues of the ancient Egyptian Pharoah Amenhotep III that probably once stood at his mortuary temple in ancient Thebes, today on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor. These statues, like the neighbouring ones of lions that once guarded the Soleb Temple in Nubia and were installed by Amenhotep in around 1370 BCE, were acquired by the British Museum in the early decades of the 19th century when the situation in Egypt favoured the removal of even very large works by foreign visitors.

The Amenhotep statues were acquired by Henry Salt, British consul in Egypt during the first few decades of the 19th century, who was employed by the museum to find works for its collection. Salt was as good as his word, and a first set of works collected by him through dealers in Cairo and agents in Upper Egypt was purchased by the British Museum in 1823 for 2,000 pounds sterling, around 120,000 pounds today, a very small sum when one considers the intrinsic value of the objects and the fact that the consignment as a whole consisted of more than 120 crates.

Many of the objects in the British Museum collection can be traced back to the Salt purchase, and there were further purchases from Salt’s estate in 1835 and from other European collectors such as Joseph Sams in 1834 and Giovanni Anastasi in 1839. Still others were acquired as donations, and so in addition to the objects bought from Salt, the galleries also contain objects given by various independent collectors.

The Soleb lions were given by Lord Prudhoe (Algernon Percy) in 1835, following his trip to Egypt in 1826. Prudhoe, working with Salt, had had them removed from their location at Jebel Barka, now in Sudan, and shipped to London. The head and torso of a monumental statue of Ramses II from the Ramesseum Temple on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, the largest piece in the British Museum’s Egyptian sculpture galleries, was given by the Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1817.

Burckhardt was one of the most colourful of the early 19th-century European orientalists, and he is famous both for adopting an Arab disguise, going by the name of Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah, and for living with the Bedouin. In 1812, he was the first European to set eyes on the ancient Nabatean site of Petra, now in southern Jordan, and from there he travelled both to Upper Egypt and the Hijaz in what is now Saudi Arabia.

A measure of the free-for-all that reigned in Egypt as far as the collection of antiquities was concerned is given by Burckhardt’s acquisition of the Ramses II statue that now gazes down on visitors to the British Museum.

According to the catalogue, “when the great rush to acquire Egyptian antiquities started [after 1815], Burckhardt claimed the statue and arranged for it to be acquired by Salt.” The latter employed “Italian former circus strongman Giovanni Belzoni,” enjoying a second career as an Egyptologist, to retrieve the statue, and it was he who eventually managed to ship it first to Cairo and then to London.


FIRST-FLOOR GALLERIES: The museum’s first-floor Egyptian galleries are arranged thematically, beginning with a room on “Egyptian life and death” and proceeding through two rooms of funerary collections to rooms on Early Egypt, Sudan, Egypt, Nubia, and Coptic Egypt.

Roman Egypt is some distance away in the part of the museum dedicated to ancient Greece and Rome, and Islamic Egypt is further away still in the section on the Middle East and the Islamic world.

As curator Nigel Strudwick notes in his overview of the collection, all modern collections of ancient Egyptian material suffer from intrinsic bias, since the material that has come down to us tends either towards the monumental in the shape of the generally religious buildings erected by the ancient Egyptian kings or towards the funerary collections that generally high-status individuals had placed within their tombs.

The ruins of monumental stone buildings such as temples have tended to survive, particularly in Upper Egypt, as have funerary collections, when not looted, since the ancient Egyptians buried their dead in the desert where the arid conditions helped to preserve organic materials that under other conditions would have long since disappeared. It is for this reason that whereas the necropolises in Upper Egypt have contributed much to our knowledge of ancient Egypt, few remains have been recovered from the Delta, even though this would probably have been the home of most of the country’s population.

The British Museum’s two rooms of mummies are very popular with visitors and contain a selection from the estimated 140 it owns. Particularly important are the set of gilded coffins belonging to Henutmehyt, a priestess who lived around 1250 BCE, found by local people near Luxor in 1904, and, from much later, the set of coffins and funerary objects belonging to Hornedjitif, a priest of Amun at Karnak in the Ptolemaic period, whose tomb was found presumably intact by local people in the 1820s but whose contents were immediately dispersed.  

The British Museum today has the second-largest collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the world, second only to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square whose collection has now been largely transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) before its opening later this year. Only some four per cent of the British Museum’s collection is on display for reasons of space, and in addition to the first major acquisitions period in the 1820s, a second period under curator of Egyptology E A Wallis Budge in the 1890s saw the museum’s Egyptology collection increase from about 10,000 objects in 1870 to some 57,000 by 1924.

Strudwick says that many of Budge’s acquisitions were made “in circumstances that can most tactfully be described as questionable” and that he did not balk at acquiring objects from illicit excavations and smuggling them out of Egypt. With other international museums finding the time and resources to research their collections more thoroughly and present the results to visitors, perhaps the British Museum could usefully tell its visitors more about the origins of its collection and how the pieces in it came to be where they are today.


ROSETTA STONE: The best-known piece in the British Museum’s Egyptology collection is the so-called “Rosetta Stone”, an ancient Egyptian stele originally discovered in Rosetta (Rashid) by invading French troops in 1799.

However, it was not the stone’s discovery that explains its later fame, which comes instead from the role it played in the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, the pictorial writing system the ancient Egyptians used particularly in religious and political contexts, and the establishment of the modern discipline of Egyptology in the early decades of the 19th century.

Illegible for centuries after the last known inscriptions were made in the fifth century CE, hieroglyphics retained their mystery until the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion managed to decipher them in the 1820s by comparing the inscriptions made in three different writing systems on the stone, two varieties of ancient Egyptian, hieroglyphics and demotic, and ancient Greek.

The stone had originally been erected in the second century BCE and records the munificence of the Ptolemaic Pharoah Ptolemy V Epiphanes in supporting various temples. The Ptolemaic Dynasty that ruled Egypt from the country’s conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE to the death of the last Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra, at the hands of the Romans in 30 BCE, was Greek-speaking, and it is the co-existence of the three writing systems on the stone, each representing the same text, that finally allowed Champollion to crack the code.

He unlocked many of the mysteries of ancient Egypt and allowed the ancient Egyptians to communicate across the millennia in a way that had been unthinkable just a few years before. In recognition of the Rosetta Stone’s importance for the decipherment of hieroglyphs and the development of modern Egyptology, it has been given a central place in the British Museum’s ground-floor Egyptology galleries, with its history being laid out in detail in accompanying captions.

 The museum says the Rosetta Stone is one of its most popular exhibits, and on the day the Weekly visited there were large crowds around it. Tour groups to the museum often make a bee line for the stone, as do individual visitors eager to take a selfie against the background of one of Egyptology’s — and perhaps also archaeology’s — most celebrated objects.

It is not difficult to see why this should be the case since the story of the stone, found by accident by French soldiers and then fought over by French and British forces before coming into the possession of British monarch king George III who presented it to the British Museum, gives it the kind of swashbuckling aura more recently drawn upon by US film director Steven Spielberg for his adventure-hero archaeologist Indiana Jones. This is without even mentioning its more sober later history among scholars studying ancient Egyptian writing systems.

However, it is of course this swashbuckling history and scholarly importance that has made the stone, otherwise simply a large chunk of granodiorite, an igneous stone similar to granite, what it is today as one of the most controversial items in the British Museum. Like many of the other international museums considered in this series, the museum is a product of collecting practices going back over the last two centuries since the foundation of such public collections in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Like them, too, some of the items in its collection are the object of claims for restitution.

Recent years have seen an ongoing controversy over the so-called “Elgin Marbles” — sculptures taken from the ancient Greek Parthenon Temple in Athens by the British collector Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce) in the early 19th century and then sold to the British Museum — joined by others, such as those over the “Benin Bronzes” — 200 bronze plaques taken from the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria by British forces in the later 19th century — and of course over the Rosetta Stone.

Writing in the Weekly, Egyptian archaeologist and former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass has urged the return of the stone to Egypt, saying in the paper last year for example that the Rosetta Stone “is an icon of Egyptian identity, and without the stone there would be no such thing as Egyptology.” As such, he said, the stone should be returned to Egypt.

Visiting the British Museum today, and gazing on the Rosetta Stone, perhaps watching the responses of other visitors, many of whom may have come to the museum especially to see it, no visitor can fail to be aware of the stone’s eventful history since it was dug up on the fringes of the Nile Delta more than two centuries ago.

Originally intended to commemorate the munificence of members of the originally Greek Ptolemaic Dynasty towards their Egyptian subjects and assure the latter of the protection the dynasty accorded to the Egyptian religion despite themselves having different gods, the stone now serves as a bellwether of attitudes towards archaeological collection and conservation practices and the demands of modern states to serve as the custodians of the artefacts found on their territories.

Its present meaning as an object caught up in a complex debate that is as much about historical injustices and present restitution as it is about where particular objects should or should not be on display almost overshadows its older one in providing raw material for scholars to decipher previously lost writing systems.


PETRIE MUSEUM: The British Museum is in the Bloomsbury area of central London, part of the UK capital that has been associated with intellectual pursuits from at least the early decades of the 19th century when the nearby University College (UCL), now part of the University of London, was founded.

The area is perhaps best-known not only for its academic associations — UCL and other University of London institutions are within easy walking distance — but also because in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was still in part a residential area, often for intellectual members of the British upper classes who lived in some of the neighbouring streets and squares.

    Wandering through the area today, visitors may come upon Gordon Square, a few hundred yards from the British Museum, where the celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes had a house in the early decades of the last century near to those lived in at various times by writers such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey.

In nearby Russell Square, they may come across the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), today part of the University of London and founded in 1916 as a centre for the study of Arabic and other “oriental” languages. Near UCL, though rather hidden in a side street, there is a small museum dedicated to the memory of one of the best-known British Egyptologists, William Flinders Petrie, often seen as a pioneer of modern excavation methods and holder of Britain’s first academic post in Egyptology.

Petrie first went to Egypt in 1881, apparently as a result of boyhood interest, where he worked on a survey of the Giza Pyramids. Returning to England the same year, he met British novelist and Egyptologist Amelia Edwards, patron of the newly founded Egypt Exploration Fund, who became a life-long supporter, not only insisting that Petrie be funded to carry out excavations at Tanis in the Nile Delta but also arranging for him to hold the Edwards Chair of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL after her death in 1892.

After the Tanis excavations, Petrie’s career went from strength to strength and many others followed including at the Delta sites of Naukratis and Daphnae. In 1887, he was excavating in Fayoum, where he discovered a cemetery of Roman-period mummies with painted portraits at Hawara — the famous Fayoum portraits, remarkably life-like images of the mummies’ long dead owners — as well as at the Middle Kingdom site of Lahun. After 1890, he was employed by the Palestine Exploration Fund in neighbouring Palestine, and then again in Egypt and Palestine until his last excavations in Palestine in the 1930s.

Petrie was a remarkable figure, intellectually and also physically when one considers the number of his excavations over a more than 50-year career. Founded in 1915 when it was housed in a wing of UCL’s main building, the museum that bears his name contains not only objects that Petrie himself collected but also the collection bequeathed by Edwards. It was used as a teaching collection for Petrie’s lectures and was not at first open to the public.

Visiting it today, the overall impression is of glorious disorder, with display cases reaching from floor to ceiling and crammed with every sort of object, many of them bearing handwritten labels that may well date back to Petrie’s time. According to curator Alice Stevenson in a book accompanying the collection, what visitors see today has survived only according to the luck of history, since much of UCL’s main building was destroyed by German bombing during World War II and the collection only escaped by a hair’s breadth.

Despite his reputation for carefully recording his excavations, Petrie did not lavish the same attention on his museum — perhaps he did not have time — and its proper cataloguing only really started after his death in 1942. Stevenson picks out objects for special attention that played an important role in his career and his developing conception of Egyptological periodisation, including a collection of pottery vessels unearthed at the Naqada Necropolis in 1894 that allowed Petrie both to develop his method of sequential dating, called seriation today, and led to his being temporarily called Abu Bagousheh, “father of the pots” or the “pot man”, owing to his apparent fascination with them.

She points to a collection of mud seals excavated by Petrie at Tarkhan in 1912 with the name of ancient Egypt’s semi-mythical first pharaoh Narmer imprinted on them. These were used as lids for pottery jars, she says, perhaps suggesting that they might have played the same sort of role as the “by appointment” label used on some food products in the UK today to suggest that they are eaten by members of the royal family.

One of the rarest items in the collection is a 4,500-year-old bead dress found at Qua near Assiut in the 1920s that the museum says might once have been worn by an ancient Egyptian dancer and worn over a linen undergarment. There are few large and no monumental pieces in the Petrie collection, but there are cases full of small and intriguing items like pieces of ancient Egyptian jewellery and cases of ancient Egyptian beads.

Most of these have some connection to Petrie and his excavations, including a gold cylinder amulet from the Lahun (Haragah) site in Fayoum that is decorated with thousands of individually soldered gold beads. This was found by local excavator Ali Mohamed Suehi, described as Petrie’s right-hand man on successive excavations. There are also examples of the famous mummy portraits found by Petrie during excavations at nearby Hawara in 1888 and 1910.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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