The British Museum’s Ancient Collection
London’s British Museum—the ultimate treasure trove of artifacts and treasures — chronicles the story of Western civilization. The collections from Egypt, Assyria, and Greece are the best of their kind and show the foundations of who we are as a society.
Complete Video Script
Huge European cities like London are made manageable by excellent subway systems. London’s mighty “Tube” takes us anywhere in the center for less than the cost of a cucumber sandwich at Harrods. We’re on our way to the British Museum.
At the peak of its empire, when the Union Jack flew over a quarter of the planet, England collected art and artifacts as fast as it collected colonies. This place, the British Museum, is the showcase for those extraordinary treasures.
Its centerpiece is the Great Court — an impressive example of Europe’s knack for preserving old architectural spaces by making them fresh, functional, and inviting. The stately Reading Room — a temple of knowledge and high thinking — was the study hall for Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and T.S. Eliot. Karl Marx researched right here while writing Das Kapital.
The British Museum is the chronicle of Western civilization. You can study three great civilizations — Egypt, Assyria, and Greece — in one fascinating morning.
The Egyptian collection is the greatest outside of Egypt. It’s kicked off with the Rosetta Stone, which provided the breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Discovered in 1799, it told the same story in three languages: Greek, a modern form of Egyptian, and ancient Egyptian.
This enabled archaeologists to compare the two languages they understood, with the ancient Egyptian, which was yet to be deciphered. Thanks to this stone, they broke the code, opening the door to understanding a great civilization.
The Egypt we think of — you know, pyramids, mummies, pharaohs, and guys who walk funny — lasted from about 3000 to 1000 BC. It was a time of unprecedented stability — very little change in government, religion, or arts. Imagine 2,000 years of Eisenhower.
Egyptian art was art with a purpose. It placated the gods — the entire pantheon, a cosmic zoo of deities, was sculpted and worshipped — and it served as propaganda for the pharaohs. They ruled with unquestioned authority and were considered gods on earth.
And much of the art was for dead people — for a smoother departure and a happier afterlife. In ancient Egypt, you could take it with you.
Corpses were painstakingly mummified: the internal organs were removed and put in jars, then the body was preserved with pitch, dried, and wrapped from head to toe.
The wooden coffin was painted with magic spells and images thought to be useful in the next life.
The finely decorated coffins were put into a stone sarcophagus, like this. These were then placed in a tomb, along with the allotted baggage for that ultimate trip. The great pyramids were just giant tombs for Egypt’s most powerful — carefully designed to protect their precious valuables for that voyage into the next life.
In its waning years, Egypt was conquered by Assyria — present-day Iraq. These winged lions guarded an Assyrian palace nearly 900 years before Christ. Assyria considered itself the lion of early Middle Eastern civilizations. It was a nation of hardy and disciplined warriors.
Assyrian kings showed off their power in battle, and by hunting lions.
This dying lioness, roaring in pain, was carved as Assyria was falling to the next mighty power: Babylon. History is a succession of seemingly invincible superpowers, which all eventually fall.
Greece, during its Golden Age — roughly 400 BC — set the tone of so much of Western civilization to follow. The city of Athens was the site of a cultural explosion, which, within a couple of generations, essentially invented our notion of democracy, theater, literature, mathematics, science, philosophy, and so much more.
An evocative remnant of Greece’s glory days is the sculpture, which once decorated the Parthenon — a temple on the Acropolis Hill in Athens. Here a long procession of citizens honors the goddess Athena. The carvings of the temple’s pediment — even in their ruined state — are a masterpiece, showing gods and goddesses celebrating the birthday of Athena.
The Greeks prided themselves on creating order out of chaos, here symbolized by the struggle between half-animal centaurs and civilized humans. First, the centaurs get the upper hand. Then, the humans rally and drive them off. In Golden Age Greece, civilization finally triumphed over barbarism.