Home to one of the largest and most comprehensive permanent collections of any museum in the world, it’s easy to see why the British Museum is such a popular London attraction. From the legendary Rosetta Stone to the controversial Elgin Marbles, the Lewis Chessmen to the ghoulish Egyptian mummies, there are so many British Museum highlights that it’s impossible to see everything in one go. With so much on offer, we’ve compiled a list of our 10 top artefacts to help get you started. Best of all, for visitors who are staying at The Montague on the Gardens in Bloomsbury, the British Museum is mere metres away. Stay in one of our luxury suites, and you can peruse the collections at your leisure.
1. Kakiemon Elephants
Made in Japan to be sold in Holland and Britain, these elephant figures date back to the Edo period of the late 17th century. Not only are they fascinating to look at for their decorative appeal, they’re also historically significant for reflecting when the Dutch East India Company controlled the porcelain supply.
2. The Vindolanda tablets
The Vindolanda tablets were excavated in 1973 in northern England, at the site of an ancient Roman military post. The extraordinary fragments were preserved in waterlogged conditions in rubbish deposits, and are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in all of Britain.
3. Mummy of Hornedjitef
One of several Egyptian mummies in the museum’s permanent collection, Hornedjitef was an illustrious priest in the Temple of Amun at Karnak during the reign of Ptolemy III (246-222 BC). The elaborate decoration and fine gilding of his inner coffin is quite spectacular, marked by its distinctive beard and highly embellished collar.
4. Black-figured amphora depicting Achilles and Penthesilea
This historic amphora (wine-jar) dates all the way back to 540-530 BC, and is credited to the distinguished ancient Greek vase-painter and potter Exekias. The scene depicted here is one of tragedy and pathos from the Trojan War, as the famous Greek hero Achilles slays the Amazon queen, Penthesilea, and at the same moment realises his love for her.
5. Sir Percival David Collection of Chinese ceramics
On long-term loan from the Percival David Foundation, this rare and exciting collection of Chinese ceramics occupies its own gallery at the British Museum. Priceless treasures include Ming Dynasty bowls and the David Vases, said to be two of the best-known Chinese porcelains in the world.
6. Rock crystal skull
Originally thought to be an ancient Mexican object, this rock crystal skull was purchased by the museum from Tiffany and Co., and has been examined many times since. Experts have since decided that the skull was most likely produced in Europe in the 19th century, making it a controversial fake. Either way, the glittering object is captivating to behold.
7. The Becket Casket
Some of the remains of Archbishop Thomas à Becket were once held in this reliquary, decorated with precious Limoges enamel. Following his murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, Becket was pronounced a saint, and his relics were spread between at least 40 similar caskets for distribution across Europe.
8. Apotropaic wand
This ancient Egyptian wand (circa 1750 BC) was used to ward off evil spirits and threats during childbirth and early infancy. Made of hippopotamus ivory, the object is covered with range of protective symbols thought to safeguard the wellbeing of both mother and baby.
The discus-thrower is a Roman marble statue and copy of the bronze original from the 5th century Athenian sculptor, Myron. The figure depicted in this famous work represents the athletic ideal: a young male whose muscular build and physical proportions are entirely harmonious.
10. Bronze figure of a seated cat
This bronze feline figure is both a representation of the goddess Bastet and an example of the importance of the domestic cat in ancient Egyptian culture. In honour of its divine associations, the cat is embellished with gold rings, a silvered collar, and a protective wedjat (eye amulet) around its neck.