This week’s adventure was a distinctly cultural one. Another surprise here for many, including myself that I had never been to the British Museum. I think part of the reason is that I have never thought I could do a visit justice, I mean where to start in this vast Aladdin's Cave of artefacts? So I decided to book one of their ‘Highlights’ tours. This is a 90min tour hosted by an expert who takes you around some of the key pieces in the collection. Our tour guide, David, met us in the Great Court within the building, a truly impressive sight in it’s own right. This area was designed by Norman Foster in 1999 with the canopy constructed out of 3,312 panes of glass, of which no two are exactly the same. He explained that there are around 13million pieces in the collection, and only 2% of them are on show at any time. I’m glad I booked the highlights tour!
Our first visit was to the Anglo Saxon Hall to hear about some remarkable discoveries in Suffolk. In 1939 archaeologists discovered the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship under some Anglo Saxon burial mounds. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: Byzantine silverware, sumptuous gold jewellery, a lavish feasting set, and most famously, an ornate iron helmet. Dating to the early AD 600s, this outstanding burial clearly commemorated a leading figure of East Anglia, the local Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Through to the Medieval Gallery to see the Lewis Chessmen. These wonderful pieces were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis some around1831. It is believed that they were buried here for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland. At this period, the Western Isles were part of Norway, not Scotland, which is were the pieces were believed to have been made around AD 1150-1200. These pieces are fascinating,elaborately worked out of walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks. David also explained to us the history behind the game of chees which began in India and spread across to Persia. It wasn’t adopted by Europe until the 1500’s as it had been viewed with suspicion by the church.
Our next treasure was the Royal Gold Cup. Dating from about AD 1370-80 in Paris, David explained that this is one of the few artefacts which never leaves the British Museum as it is so valuable that no-one will ensure it. It really is one to see up close, made of solid gold with enamel so thinly applied that the gold shines through. The scenes shown on it relate to the life and miracles of St Agnes, who was imprisoned in a brothel as punishment for refusing to marry Procopius, son of the prefect Sempronius. And I thought dating was hard in the 21st Century! It was originally presented to the Spanish as a peace offering after the 1604 Anglo Spanish war. After that however, we are unsure where it ended up, until it went on sale in Paris in 1883. Finally being bought by a Bond Street dealer, it was acquired by the British Museum in 1892. The fact that it was bought for £8,000 back in the 1800s shows just how highly valuable it is today.
The Portland Vase is another gem in the museums collection, which dates from about AD 5-25 in Rome. Apparently there are only about 400 antique cameo vases in the world, of which this is the most famous. This is probably because the technique is so highly skilled, using a dip-overlay method, whereby an elongated bubble of glass was partially dipped into a fire-resistant container of white glass, before the two were blown together. After cooling the white layer was cut away to form the design. The cutting was usually done by a skilled gem-cutter. This vase was broken apparently by a vandal in the 1800s and in the intervening years has been broken and reassembled using ever improving techniques so that now only a few splinters remain unattached.
No visit to the British Museum would be complete without a visit to the Egyptian Rooms. The Museum has the largest collection of Egyptian pieces outwith Egypt. Having visited the museum in Cairo, I couldn’t believe that I had never seen this impressive collection in my own city. David chose to show us the artwork from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, an ancient Egyptian scribe. He explained that although the museum has an extensive collection of mummies, that these however only represented about 5% of Egyptians as the majority of them were too poor to afford this burial ritual.
The British Museum contains 11 fragments of wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun.
The paintings show scenes of daily life and include images of banquets, agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting and scenes of offerings. These are apparently some of the finest paintings to survive from ancient Egypt.
The Chinese Ceramics Room is definitely one to come back and visit in more depth. Originally owned by Sir Percival David, this forms the largest collection of porcelain which was in private hands. This gallery holds almost 1,700 objects, dating from the 3rd to the 20th Century. It is also a gallery which is clearly overlooked by most of the public, as apart from our small group, very few people were in there – in contrast to the throng of visitors we had been fighting our way through.
A visit to the Mexican gallery involved several ‘Mission Impossible’ type moments as people accidentally veered into the light beams protecting the lintels in there, setting off piercing alarms. Too much to talk about here, so onto the Easter Island (Rapa Nui) exhibit of the imposing stone figure of Hoa Hakananai, which apparently means ‘Stolen or Hidden Friend’. These figures, known as moai were carved out of stone, by using stones as the carving instruments. This gave me an even bigger respect for these awesome figures. They were carved to commemorate important ancestors and were made from around AD 1000 until the second half of the seventeenth century.
This one, estimated to weigh four tons, was collected by the crew of the English ship HMS Topaze, on their visit to Easter Island in 1868 to carry out surveying work. It was then presented to Queen Victoria, who gifted it to the British Museum in 1869 (must be a difficult present to find house room for, even in a palace!)
Our tour was now nearing the 90 minute mark as we went to see probably the most talked about exhibit in the museums collection – the Rosetta Stone. Dating back to Egypt in 196 BC, this piece is so important as it is the key to about 80% of what we know about hieroglyphs. Such is it’s popularity that there is a ‘stunt’ stone which is available for visitors to touch and feel. The real one is of such importance that during the First World War, it was transported, along with many other museum objects, to the safety of the underground tunnels near Holborn.
Although our time was now officially over, David kindly offered to talk us through the Assyrian sculpture and Balawat Gates and then onto the Elgin Marbles. With the tour now at 2 hours, we were even offered a private tour of anything that we had specifically wanted to see. This is definitely a hidden gem of a tour, at only £12, I felt I had been given a tour of world history in 120 minutes. Well done British Museum!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.