A Quick Virtual Trip
With over 8 million artifacts in its permanent collection, the British Museum is a history lover’s Xanadu. You can find items from all cultures and time periods starting with cavemen right up until our own time. The museum itself launched a special radio series later turned into a book examining 100 of its most interesting artifacts and today we are also taking a look at 10 of those items.
1. Olduvai Stone
This is the oldest manmade object found in the museum. An incredibly primitive chopping tool, this stone is between 1.8 and 2 million years old. It was recovered from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania by British archaeologist Louis Leakey in 1931. The appearance of the tool is so crude that people could wonder how can we be sure that it is actually a tool and not just a piece of rock carved through natural processes. Close inspection reveals that the sides were carved using repeated blows with the same force. Since uniform patterns don’t really occur in nature, this is one of the oldest surviving tools in human existence.
2. Maya Maize God Statue
Recovered from a temple in Honduras, this Mayan statue is a representation of their maize god dated to 715 AD. Maize played an important role in Mayan society and statues depicting maize gods were frequent. Traditionally, the Mayan god was decapitated at the start of harvest, but was reborn during the next growing season. This rebirth meant to parallel the agricultural cycle and it could also explain why the head and the torso of the statue don’t appear to match on closer inspection.
3. King Den’s Sandal Label
Despite our passion for ancient Egyptian culture, we know very little about the 1st dynasty (first line of kings to rule over unified Egypt). One notable exception is Den, a pharaoh who ruled for 42 years during the Early Dynastic period. The British Museum has an ivory sandal label from around 2985 BC showing King Den vanquishing his foe. The king is identified by name in the rectangle in front of his head and the falcon above it denotes that he is royalty.
4. Minoan Bull Leaper
Bull-leaping was a frequent motif in Bronze Age art. It was particularly important for the Minoans of Crete who used it as a ritual for bull worship. Perhaps their most significant work of art is the bronze statue of the Minoan bull-leaper housed at the British Museum. It’s been dated to 1700-1450 BC. Bulls were clearly prized in Minoan culture and, in Greek mythology, the island of Crete is also the location of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.
5. Croesus Gold Coin
King Croesus ruled Lydia, a kingdom in modern day Turkey, between 595 BC and 547 BC. He was legendary for his wealth and is still considered one of the richest kings in history. He is also usually credited with issuing the first gold coins. Coins made of gold existed beforehand, but they also contained silver, forming an alloy known as electrum. The Lydians employed a method to keep the purity and weight of their coins relatively constant. The coin at the British Museum depicts a lion and a bull on one side. The other side simply has two deep impressions made by the tool used to punch the images.
6. Olmec Stone Mask
This stone mask dated to c. 900-400 BC was found in Mexico. It belonged to the Olmec, the oldest civilization in Central America that laid the foundation for many other cultures that followed it. The mask is made from a stone called serpentinite and it features traditional Olmec art motifs like the toothless mouth and the child-like features. The mask also has two glyphs on each side of the mouth, Olmec glyphs being the oldest known form of writing found in America.
7. Coin with the Head of Alexander the Great
Coin minted around 305 BC featuring the head of Alexander on one side and Athena on the other one. What’s interesting about this coin is that it wasn’t minted by Alexander, but actually by Lysimachus. As we’ve mentioned before, since Alexander never named an heir, his death triggered a succession war between several claimants to the throne known as Diadochi. One of them was Lysimachus who came to rule over Thrace and he used coins with Alexander’s face on them to legitimize his rule and create a connection between them. Alexander is depicted with ram’s horns as the reincarnation of the god Ammon.
8. Admonitions Scroll
Made sometime between the 6th and 8th century AD, the Admonitions Scroll is considered a masterpiece of ancient Chinese art. Painted on silk, the work actually illustrated a much older parody written by Jin Dynasty poet Zhang Hua. The protagonist of the story is the court instructress who is teaching the ladies of the imperial harem how to behave properly. It’s actually a copy based on an original work by 4th century artist Gu Kaizhi that was lost.
9. Korean Roof Tile
This 8th century Korean roof tile was recovered from the ancient capital of Kyongju. It depicts a monster mask (some claim dragon) which was used to ward off evil spirits. This practice was borrowed from China and in Korea a tile would have to be placed in each cardinal direction. Of course, not everyone could afford these detailed decorations so they were seen as a symbol of wealth and sophistication.
10. Ife Head
This bronze head is part of a collection of 18 sculptures that were discovered in Ife, Nigeria in 1938. The head was most likely made in the 13th or 14th century. Although we don’t know who the statue represents, the elaborate headdress could represent a crown, indicating that the person might have been a king.