Walking through the front doors of the British Museum is a bit overwhelming. The entryway takes visitors through majestic Grecian columns into a building that’s been around since 1852. Okay, so 1852 is pretty new by London standards, but my hometown in Missouri wasn’t even incorporated until 1873, so 1852 is old to me. That, however, is just the age of the building. The museum as a repository of knowledge is much older.
The British Museum was founded in 1753 as the first national public museum on the planet (and the solar system, I guess. Depends on what future Mars missions dig up). At that time back home, George Washington was only 21 years old, and probably still let his mother do his laundry. Parts of North America were ruled by England, Spain, France, and Russia. We wouldn’t even declare our independence for 23 years, and wouldn’t elect the aforementioned Washington as our first president for 13 more. The museum I stood in had more history than my entire nation (not the continent. There’s a difference).
For a history nerd, this was kind of like a “Star Wars” fan meeting Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford at a bar and playing trivia for shots. Hey, I just noticed the British Museum sells beer, so, as a “Star Wars” nerd too, visiting the British Museum isn’t just kind of like that, it’s exactly like that.
The museum began when ridiculously wealthy physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, who collected more than 71,000 books, drawings, coins, and specimens of flora and fauna across the world, donated his collection to the British government so others could learn from it. Sloane was also governor of England’s first children’s hospital, and he created chocolate milk. I’m not making that up. He not only started the British Museum, a place that attracts 6 million visitors every year to view the wonders of the ancient world – for free, he wanted to help sick children, and he invented chocolate milk. This guy wasn’t Sir Sloane, he was Saint Sloane.
As the museum grew, quite a number of natural items in Sloane’s collection were moved to a different site to start the British Museum of Natural History, and treasures, thanks to Britain’s colonial period, began pouring in. This is what grabbed me by the cerebrum and shook really, really hard, the insane amount of history.
Where should I start exploring the wonders of the past? This museum is filled with items from the earliest known human-made chopping tool (from the Olduvai Gorge, 1.8 million years old), to pages of early Bibles, to a really pricy gift shop. Although I spent the day in the museum, here are three items that gave me a feeling of awe.
1. A Moai statue from Easter Island named Hoa Hakananai (which means “stolen friend”). The island, the southernmost part of the Polynesian Triangle, has two major distinctions, one of which is that it’s the populated area farthest away from any other populated area on Earth. Seriously. At more than 2,000 miles from Tahiti and Chile it’s way out there. The second is the island is home to 887 large, mysterious Moai statues. No one really knows how or why these multiple-ton (excuse me, tonne) statues were carved, and anyone who says they do really needs to mind their own business.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Squidward’s house on SpongeBob SquarePants is a Moai. Oh, my head hurts.
The four-ton statue in the British Museum, carved from volcanic stone around 1000 A.D., was “collected” (hence the name “stolen friend.” Easter Islanders have a great sense of humor) by the crew of the HMS Topaze in 1868. As the Easter Islanders helped the Topaze crew, led by Captain Richard Ashmore Powell, raft the statue to the ship, seawater washed away the red and white paint that once decorated it.
Today, the Moai squats on a marble pedestal on the ground floor of the museum near a sign that says not to touch it. I touched it anyway.
2. The chin beard of the Sphinx. Okay, the piece isn’t very big. It’s only one-thirteenth of the beard of the Great Sphinx of Giza, but still. This piece of carved limestone is an actual chunk of one of the most recognizable symbols of ancient Egypt. For Americans, let’s put this into perspective. This is like having a clipping of Abraham Lincoln’s beard, if Lincoln were the size of Godzilla and not only signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he defeated Rodan in hand-to-hand combat.
The best we can guess, the Great Sphinx was carved by, uh, just some guys, or something, around 7000 B.C. Really, we don’t know where this thing, one of the biggest statues ever, came from, and we don’t know who carved it.
The Great Sphinx, a lion’s body with the head of an Egyptian king, probably didn’t start out as a lion with a human head. The head is thought to have been carved from an existing head around 2550 BC; the beard was added during the Eighteenth Dynasty between 1550 and 1295 B.C. Many people, from fifteenth-century Arabs to Napoleon’s troops in the 1800s, vandalized the Sphinx, resulting in the beard falling into the sand.
Italian Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Caviglia excavated this chunk of beard in 1817 and, since his digs were funded by the British Consul-General Henry Salt, he donated the section to the British Museum.
3. The Rosetta Stone. If you don’t know what this is, I will personally come to your house and punch you in the face. This polished piece of granodiorite was carved in 196 B.C. with a decree from Egyptian King Ptolemy V to. … You know, the decree doesn’t matter. That’s not why the Rosetta Stone is one of the three coolest things I saw in the British Museum, a place packed with cool things. It’s what the stone did.
By the time 18th Century French soldier Pierre-Francois Bouchard stumbled upon the stone, the world had forgotten how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Really. There were walls and obelisks and temples across Egypt carved with these intricate symbols, and no one knew what they meant. Then came the Stone. The decree was carved in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics (royal Egyptian language), Demotic script (common Egyptian language), and ancient Greek. Through the known languages on the stone, archeologists were able to decipher the ancient Egyptian language, opening the door to understanding one of the oldest, most fascinating kingdoms the Earth has seen.
After the British defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, the Rosetta Stone found its way into the British Museum in 1802. Fellow Americans, take a second to process this. The Rosetta Stone has been in the British Museum since 1802. We put things made in 1802 into museums.
Okay, these are my top three things I saw in the British Museum. I didn’t even get into the mummies, or the Greek Parthenon statues, or the fact that this awesome museum offers wine with bacon sandwiches.