The largest collection of antiquities outside Cairo, including the Rosetta Stone & world-famous Egyptian mummies. The British Museum boasts a collection of antiquities from Ancient Egypt unrivalled outside Cairo.
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On the ground floor, in the long, rectangular hall of Egyptian sculpture presided over by a monumental stone bust of Ramesses II, you’ll find the most iconic and most visited object in the entire building – the Rosetta Stone.
The black basalt slab was discovered in July 1799 at the town of Rashid (Rosetta) by soldiers in Napoleon’s invading army. It was later surrendered to British forces, in 1801, as part of the Treaty of Alexandria.
The stone records a decree dating back to 196 BC. At the top the decree is written in hieroglyphs, the traditional script of Egyptian monuments, already 3,000 years old at the time of the inscription. In the middle the same decree is written in Demotic, the everyday script of literate Egyptians, and at the bottom in Greek, the language used by the government.
Scholars realised immediately that the stone might help decipher the mysterious hieroglyphic language which had first been used about 3500 BC and fallen out of use at the end of the fourth century AD, after which all knowledge of how to read it was lost.
Many European scholars had tried to decipher the script, but because hieroglyphic signs looked like pictures, they assumed that all hieroglyphs were images recording ideas without language. In fact, they recorded the ancient Egyptian language with a mixture of sound and picture signs, and this was finally understood in 1822 by a French professor, Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832).
The remainder of the Egyptian galleries are situated on the first floor. Four rooms are dedicated to death and the afterlife in Ancient Egypt, where complex funeral preparations and rites were thought to be needed to ensure the transition of the individual from earthly existence to immortality.
On show are numerous coffins richly decorated with hieroglyphs, as well as a selection of mummified corpses and embalmed bodies.
There are also mummies of various animals, including cats, bulls, and even crocodiles! Animal cults were a prominent feature of religious activity in Ancient Egypt where animals were regarded as intermediaries for the gods.
There is an extensive collection of grave goods, i.e. items buried with the deceased. These include amulets, statues, funerary texts, and dozens of shabti figures – small, mummy-shaped figurines of the deceased that were designed to take their place in performing any task the gods might require in the afterlife.
As always, the British Museum provides excellent explanatory information, with wall panels explaining the process of mummification in detail.
There’s also a 5,000-year-old, sand-preserved corpse, which always comes in for ghoulish scrutiny.
Finally, the wall-paintings from the tomb-chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun are among the most famous works of art from Ancient Egypt. Dating from about 1350 BC, they were acquired by the British Museum in the 1820s.