Episode 335 – The British Museum

The exterior of the British Museum, founded in 1753, opened in 1759, with the pediment over the main entrance installed in 1852 to mimic the Parthenon’s style, but with its own allegorical figures.

It’s complicated.

We’ve been so incredibly fortunate this year to have travelled the world and seen wonders we never imagined we’d experience in person: the ancient library of Ephesus, the Parthenon and Acropolis Museum in Athens, Corinthian columns right in Corinth, Karnak’s Temple in Luxor and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, the pyramids of Giza, the Necropolis in Saqqara, the Nile as it flows through Cairo, the temple of Ramesses II in Memphis, the ancient site of the games in Olympia, the colosseum in Rome, the preserved remains of Pompeii, Diocletian’s Palace in Split, the Alhambra in Granada, the mosques in Istanbul… the list goes on and on.

Having walked under the 100°F sun to visit the opened tombs of pharoahs and found them largely empty, wandered through the giant statues and columns in Luxor and noticed the gaps, and especially having visited the Acropolis Museum beside the Parthenon and seen how few pieces of the original frescoes and pediments are left to be displayed there, I felt very conflicted seeing so many “missing pieces” on display here. Episode 246 – Athens

The interior Great Court, completed in 2001, surrounds the central library.

Don’t get me wrong. The displays are magnificent. The artifacts are treasured and cared for. The fact that they are on display means that thousands of people can see them and learn about and from them every day, but it still made me sad.

These stone reliefs, known as ‘freedmen portraits’, were once part of tombs that lined the Roman empire’s roads. Freedmen and freedwomen were ex-slaves who had bought their freedom, earned it through good service, or had been freed in an owner’s will. They were not full citizens, but they dominated the professions that their owners, as the Roman elite, could not openly take part in. As bankers, merchants, shippers, factory owners and craftsmen, freedmen ran the imperial economy and became rich and influential and could afford ornate tombs.
This portrait shows Loc Apudius Pulam, freedman, with his wife (right) and daughter (left) On either side are corn measures, indicating his trade as a corn merchant.

Top: sarcophagus for a Roman Syrian child.
Bottom: identifying stone faces used to seal burial compartments in Roman Syrian tombs outside Palmyra, AD 50-270. Each plaque would also have had an inscription.

Top: painted Etruscan cinerary urn 150-100 BC from Chiusi. Bottom: LIFE SIZED painted terra cotta figure of an Etruscan woman, depicted atop her sarcophagus. 150-130 BC. When we walked into the room with that lower sarcophagus, both of us just stopped and said “wow”.

Terra cotta votive figures used in Cyprus as “proxies” to pray to the gods. Some hold offerings of food, or are playing music. Periodically, they would all be cleared away from the altar into a communal pile (photo bottom left) to make room for more.

Wall painting from House 92 in Pompeii. When we visited the site, very few walls still displayed their decorations; archeologists had removed many to “safety”.

Ornate jewelry and sculpture from Cyprus, circa 300 BC. The detailed workmanship was masterful.

In the “Islamic World” exhibits, the intricately patterned ceramic tiles and chased silver lion reminded me of the gorgeous designs we saw at the Alhambra and in the mosques we visited in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The sarcophagi and mummies in the Egyptian rooms are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and that includes Tutankhamun’s ornate gold and blue sarcophagus. The multiple nested coffin designs, and the detailed interior and exterior decoration, with colours preserved for millenia by the dry desert air, were absolutely breathtaking.

The inside of this outer sarcophagus box is inscribed with “The Book of Two Ways”, which explains how to complete the journey into the afterlife.

Three nesting layers of gold-painted sarcophagi. The more important the person who died, the more layers in which their mummy might be entombed. The largest of these containers would also have been encased in a more traditional wooden “box”, and then potentially also in a stone sarcophagus.

Unfortunately there’s lots of reflection from the glass case, but these two wooden statues are of (L) King Ramesses IX from tomb 6 in the Valley of the Kings, dating to about 1126-1108 BC and excavated around the turn of the 19th century, and (R) King Ramesses I from tomb 16 in the Valley of the Kings, dating to about 1294 BC and excavated in 1817.

We have seen mummified cats before, but never a mummified sacred ox. Note the facial features painted onto the wrapping!

More stunning detail and colours both inside and outside this wooden coffin.

During the Roman period in Egypt, coffin portraits became popular, as well as plaster depictions of the dead person, which could be laid onto or attached to the sarcophagus.

The outer layer of this complete 3-layer sarcophagus was absolutely massive.

Items from inside an Egyptian tomb, representing servants to look after the tomb’s occupant in the afterlife, and boatmen ready to ferry them there.

One of the wooden sarcophagi with external hands, holding scrolls. We learned that not all coffins were wood; in later dynasties some of the most ornately decorated ones were made of layers of linen and plaster, or even incorporated sheets of papyrus, much like papier maché!

I was awed by the exhibit, but how much more magnificent would it be to walk into a tomb in Egypt and find it full of preserved artifacts? How much more breathtaking would it have been to see the Nereids Temple in Turkey instead of in a museum, no matter how beautifully displayed?

Huge Assyrian human-headed winged lion and winged bull ca. 883–859 B.C.

Head of one of the 2 statues of Ramesses II, from Thebes (Luxor), acquired in 1817. The body and the other matching intact statue are still “in situ” outside the Ramesseum in Egypt.

The Gayer-Anderson Cat is an ancient Egyptian statue of a cat, one form of the goddess Bastet, made of bronze with gold ornaments. It dates to about 600 BC, and probably came from a temple. It is “named” for Major Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson, who donated the statue to the British Museum in 1939. Images of Bastet always remind us of our own well-loved Siamese cats.

The ancient mosaics in the British Museum are splendid, but seeing them today did not have quite the same effect as seeing them in the Lapidarium of Tergeste in Trieste, just a few km from the location of the villa in which they originally formed the flooring, or actually walking over the plexiglass-protected mosaic floors of the entrance to the recently discovered Roman theatre in Cartagena Spain.

Just some of the mosaics on display. The figure centre bottom is the Titan Oceanus, with his seaweed beard.

And before you remind me that not everyone is privileged enough to travel the world, there are ways to “see” things in 2022 that did not exist in the 19th century when most of these items were brought to England: digital photographs and videos, and even holographic imaging. That said, even the expedition which collected the Parthenon marbles was originally tasked to “draw, document, and mold antiquities” to preserve on paper, canvas, and in plaster things that people could then see in museums. This wonderful (short) article is worth reading: Smithsonian magazine – the Elgin marbles debate.

There were also many, many exhibits of iron age Roman items found IN THE UNITED KINGDOM, from Roman settlements and military buildings dating to the Roman invasion of Britain. Those (in my opinion) properly belong in a British museum as evidence of millenia of history here.

We also took a quick glance into the Clocks and Watches exhibit. The workmanship, both scientific/mechanical and artistic, on these timepieces was unbelievably intricate. Unfortunately, the museum was closing some galleries as the evening approached, and we took in the clocks very quickly en route to the Parthenon marbles.

Top two: monumental carillon clock from 1589, based on the cathedral clock on Strasbourg. Every hour it plays Martin Luther’s “Vater Unser” (Our Father) as the figures rotate. The top level is Christ and Death, which strike the hour. The second level is the Four Ages of Man, striking the quarter hours. The third level has angels processing in front of a seated Madonna and Child when the music plays. At the bottom, a carousel shows the days of the week as represented by their ruling planets. The three dials on the front are a 24-hour dial, a minute marking dial, and an annual calendar naming holy days.
Bottom: this 1584 automaton from Augsburg was used to announce court banquets. A miniature organ in the hull plays music, and the ship travels across the table; when it stops, the front cannon fires, lighting a fuse that fires the other guns.

The Parthenon marbles (the “Elgin” marbles) were the most emotional exhibit for me. When we saw the sculptures from the east pediment, I wanted to cry, because I’d seen the empty spaces in the Acropolis Museum into which they would have fit – and at the same time the thrill of seeing them up close made the hairs on my arms stand on end. They are indescribably detailed and beautiful. Part of me is grateful that they were saved after a Venetian cannonball exploded in the Parthenon in 1687, and part of me is angry at the way many pieces were simply “hacked” off the walls (in order, presumably, to fall within the permission given to take any items that had been detached during the explosion) and thus damaged further.

Sculptures from the east pediment of the Parthenon.

About 50% of the Parthenon’s marbles are in the British Museum. Another 33% are in the glass display hall of the Acropolis Museum which is beside, and mirrors, the Parthenon. the remaining 17% are in undisclosed private collections or museums elsewhere.

Marbles from the interior of the Parthenon. Those still in Athens are now displayed in a similar way, at eye level.

There were actually several exhibits that were plaster casts made from marble left in situ, and were no less spectacular for being reproductions… and we were allowed to touch those!

The ACTUAL Rosetta Stone, which allowed Egyptian hieroglyphics to be decoded. Now that it has served its purpose, should it be returned to Egypt?

I’ve been looking forward to visiting the British Museum since I was a child, reading about archeologists and tombs and temples, so today was a long-standing wish fulfilled. If we’d not had our world cruise experience, I might never have had a second thought about how the items on display got to where they are today. But we did, and I did.

It’s complicated.

Food note: after a full afternoon at the museum, and facing a one hour bus ride home, we opted to stay in the city centre for fish (plaice this time) and chips. Fish and chips in England really are the best!


  1. I don’t disagree with your “complicated” thoughts at all Rose. But another thought to add is that perhaps many of the items are more protected where they are now – from the elements, from robbers and, in some countries, from those who would seek to destroy such treasures as has happened in recent decades.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is certainly one of the justifications for not returning artifacts. But if we turned it around, and another country decided they could better “preserve” our history by taking statues (we’re destroying some recent,y too), or books, etc, how would we feel?


  2. Thanks for another great post! Years ago, Julee and I had a couple of days in London at the end of a trip. We tried our best to cram in as much sightseeing as we could and ended the afternoon of our 2nd and last day at the British Museum. We were literally running through the museum trying to absorb as much as we could in a few hours. Later when we were home and I was back to work, I stopped in Seattle to see a customer. A woman who worked there whom I had only been once introduced to came over and said “Art, were you by any chance in the British Museum a couple of weeks ago?” Stunned, I replied that I indeed was. She said “I thought that was you, and I tried to come over to say Hi, but you were moving so fast I couldn’t catch up to you!”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rose, I had similar feelings that you did visiting the museum. We were always upset when we read that this artifact was ‘donated’ by so and so. We knew they were ‘liberated’ from their original country and then given to the museum for safe keeping. The Asyrrian human headed lions were breath taking but I was in total awe of the Rosetta stone.

    Enjoy the rest of your European trip.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s