The British Museum is massive. Its immense size can be a little intimidating. When it comes to museums, bigger is better. With the help of the British Museum‘s curators, we have come up with a way to see the best of the museum in an hour. Well, it’s more like two…but who is counting?
As you walk into museum, you enter the Great Court. It kind of looks like an egg on a square frying pan. The museum is free or whatever you feel like paying. If you want to support the museum, you can become a member and buy the membership in the Great Court. You can find restrooms and the Court Café is in far corner. The Great Court also acts as a fantastic meeting place. There are some benches to your left as you enter the room. Tell your traveling companions to meet you there if and when you become separated. This is a Fighting Couple rule: Always have a meeting place if you get separated. We learned this the hard way.
The first step is to get yourself a handy British Museum map. They are available on a small stand right as you enter the Great Court. They ask for a one pound donation for the printing. This map is key to your success in seeing the museum quickly. Go get one! Guys, I know you are tempted not too, but this is one time you need directions.
Lets go! Climb the stairs or take the elevator to level III. Below are descriptions of the artifacts paired with letters you will find on your map.
The Lewis Chessmen
A) The Lewis Chessmen, Room 40
You made it to the first destination! Congrats! In front of you is a medieval chess set made in the 12th century. You have the unique privilege of looking at one of the oldest chess sets known to man. Lucky you. This set was discovered in 1831. Yes, it is missing a few pieces. They are over in Scotland. They seem to think that since it was found there, that is where it should stay. The game of chess was first played 500 BC! Check mate!
Fun Fact: This chess set washed up on the beach on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. It is thought that the set belonged to a traveling merchant on the trade route between Norway and Ireland. Who wants to guess how the merchant lost it?
B) Oxus Treasure, Room 52
Eureka! Gold! You are looking at some serious bling. The Oxus Treasure is a stash of gold that was found along the Oxus River on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. (Rough neighborhood!) These items were made by Persian craftsmen in 400-500 BC! As you look at this collection of items, it is fascinating to think that something so delicate could last so long. Impressive. My favorite piece is the chariot. Look at the golden ropes! The lion share of the treasure is here in the British Museum, but a couple of items are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and some of the coins are in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Fun Fact: The treasure, once discovered, was being transported by merchants. The merchants were captured by some Afghan robbers. One of the merchant’s servants escaped, and reported the capture to British soldiers. They hastily responded and found the robbers in a cave fighting over the loot. It didn’t end well for them.
C The Royal Game of Ur, Room 56
Feast your eyes on the oldest game board in the world. This game board was made in roughly 2600 BC. It is a great, great-grandfather of today’s backgammon game.
Fun Fact: The game was mentioned in the hit TV series Lost. John Locke gives a description of the game in “Pilot, Part 2”. Do you want to give the game a try? Click here for the online version.
D) The Portland Vase
This is one of the most unique vases in history. This beauty was crafted by Roman artisans in 1 BC. It has inspired an entire decoration style for the next 2,000 years. What makes this vase special, is that it is crafted from cameo glass. The process is extremely meticulous, a similar quality and design has yet to be crafted by any means.
Fun Fact: On Feb. 7, 1845, a drunk student on a bender, named William Lloyd, smashed the vase into 30 some pieces. He was convicted of the crime and had to pay a fine of 10 pounds and spent two months behind bars. The vase was painstakingly restored.
E) Samurai Armor, Room 93
You are looking at an excellent example of traditional warrior armor for the Samurai class of Japan. The Samurai were specially trained fighting nobles. This fighting attire was made in the late 16th century. The helmet was made a little later in the 17th century. The whiskers of the face mask were made to intimidate their foe. Scary!
Fun Fact: Not all Samurai were men, female Samurai were called “Onna-Bugeisha,” and they would fight alongside their male counterparts. Their weapon of choice was usually the naginata, a spear with a curved, sword-like blade.
F) Ceramic Tomb Figures, Room 33
These treasures from the Tang dynasty ( 600-900 AD) were decorations on the to General Liu Ting Xun. Mean looking dudes? These statues were placed in the tomb to protect the dead from evil spirits. There are some other animals that go with the tomb figures including camels and horses. The tomb was a grand parade!
Fun Fact: The world’s first book was published during the Tang Dynasty (868AD). This is 600 years before the west started printing books… The name of the first book you ask? Buddhist scripture.
G) Ivory Pendant mask, Room 25
I couldn’t find this display…sorry.
H) Easter Island Statue Hoa Hakananai’a, Room 24
This is one of our favorite pieces in the entire museum. It is a lovable little guy. This Easter Island Statue was transported to Britain by ship HMS Topaze in late 1869. It is small compared to its brothers that still stand in the South Pacific. It is carved from lava basalt. What makes this statue especially unique are the carvings on the back. This statue was found half buried. It was excavated and given as a present to Queen Victoria.
Fun Fact: The statue makes a “racy” cameo in the movie, “The English Patient”.
I) The Rosetta Stone, Room 4
Perhaps the best known and most important item in the entire collection is the vaunted Rosetta Stone. There is always going to be a horde of people in front taking pictures. It is located close to the Great Court. Walk by a couple of times and find a time when the crowd is a little smaller to take your picture. This stone solved the riddle of Egyptian hieroglyphics. It cracked the code to understanding the ancient language. What you are seeing is a royal decree issued by King Ptolemy V. It is written in three different languages: Ancient Egyptian, Demotic script, and Greek. Since it is the same message, it unlocked the understanding of the Egyptian picture writing. That’s it in a nutshell. You could spend a lifetime studying this one item.
Fun Fact: The stone was discovered in 1799. The troops of Napoleon Bonaparte were conducting a campaign in Egypt against the English and a young French officer called Pierre-Francois Bouchard discovered it at Rosetta (Rashid) when his troops were constructing a fort. Pierre-Francois Bouchard realized the significance of the stone and transported it to Cairo for examination by a team of French scholars and Napoleon himself. The stone was later “captured” by the Brits, and taken to the British Museum.
J) Assyrian Lion Hunt Reliefs, Room 10
This dramatic display features a lion in the process of meeting its demise. Featured prominently are also the winged bulls that line the entry way. The reliefs show the lion-killing prowess of the last mighty Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal. He lived from 668-631 BC. He commanded his empire from his mansion in Nineveh located in Northern Iraq.
Fun Fact: One of the favorite pastimes of the Assyrian Kings was lion hunting, although his servants actually tracked the animals, beat them to a pulp, then invited the king to finish them off…
K) Horse from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, Room 21
This is one of the items that really impressed us. It is absolutely stunning. We are horse people, and this is a striking rendition of a powerful equine. The tomb of Halikarnassos was located in Bodrum, Turkey. The finished structure of the mausoleum was considered to be such an artistic beauty, it has been named as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The tomb was destroyed by massive earthquakes in the 12th through the 15th centuries.
Fun Fact: The tomb serves as an inspiration for the tomb of US President and Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant.
L) Parthenon Sculptures, Room 18
The largest and perhaps most impressive collection on our tour is the wonderful Greek Parthenon collection. It is difficult to believe that the Greeks were willing to part with these. The collection is also called the Elgin Marbles, after the man who “brought” them from Athens to Britain. These statues lined the top of the Parthenon and other buildings on Mt. Acropolis in Athens. Walk up and down the grand hall; each of these tells wonderful stories of strength, feats of the gods, and love stories.
Fun Fact: There are efforts afoot to return these statues to Athens. One of the leading voices is none other than George Clooney. According to him, they belong in Athens. With this authoritative voice added to the mix, it should end the discussion.
That’s it! Please leave us a comment below on which was your favorite display in the British Museum.