Marvels of the Macabre: The British Museum

April 2, 2017 — Britain basically got first dibs on the relics of the ancient world, what with its exploring and empiring and collecting at the right time in history. Today, its prestigious, centuries-old British Museum oversees 13 million artifacts culled from civilizations across time and planet. And most of them…are macabre.

It all started in 1753 when physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his collection of 71,000 natural history specimens, books, and historical relics to King George II. Over the centuries, the collection grew and split three ways. Most of the books formed the basis of the British Library, whose shelves today bend under the weight of some 150 million tomes. The natural history specimens are at the Natural History Museum, 70 million all told. That means what Sir Hans jumpstarted has burgeoned to more than 230 million pieces. And that’s my math quota for the day.

But all that to say that the British Museum is big. So big that you can’t adequately experience all of its artifacts in a single visit. I mean, sure, you can run full-bore through all its chambers, skidding into mummies, diving past Aztec gods, looping around Greek statues, and call it a day well spent. But you’ll miss far more than you’ll see.

The way I typically do these types of institutions when I visit for the first time is to create a short list of must-see items in advance. Then I hunt them down within the labyrinth of cavernous rooms. That way if I never make it back, I at least saw artifacts I’d always wanted to see. And if I do make it back, I can then take my time and read every word on every placard or wander aimlessly, letting the ghosts of ancient civilizations push and pull me here and there.

Aztec mask of Tezcatlipoca.

For my first ever visit to the British Museum, the four things I absolutely needed to see were the Lindow Man, a crystal skull, the Rosetta Stone, and the mummy collection.

As evidenced by these photos, I spent most of my visit in the Egyptian rooms, where we marveled at massive carvings and the ancient desiccated dead. The civilizations that got the shortest shrift from me were the Greeks and Romans. I just can’t do the entire ancient world in two hours. Of course, now I’m terrified to do too much post-visit research on the place in case I stumble across something depressingly breathtaking that I missed (*cough* Jericho skull). I never said my system was flawless.

Mostly, I loved how macabre the place was. The place had more preserved bodies than a city morgue on a bad night. Skulls gaped at us from every corner. Funerary artifacts dominated the glass cases. That is, of course, inevitable when you’re dealing with dead civilizations, and triply inevitable when you have the Egyptians hanging around.

Later, I’ll dedicated full articles to the Lindow Man and the crystal skull, but for today, know that the British Museum is monumentally awe-inspiring in a way that makes you both proud and depressed to be human, equally capable of erecting tremendous works and disappearing into the dust. Let’s go drink, for in millennia our lives (and or bodies) may end up in museums.

The Rosetta Stone, the star attraction of the British Museum.

A child mummy.

The Lindow Man, my #1 reason for visiting the British Museum.

The Gebelein Man, the rare naturally occurring Egyptian mummy.

The Colossal Scarab, one of the largest scarab carvings ever discovered.