The Future of the British Museum


The British Museum contains some wonderful artifacts for anyone interested in ancient Britain. Be warned, though, if you go looking for items covered in this article, as some will not be available to view this spring, or even later.

When I visited the Prehistoric and Romano-British Collection last November, certain items had already been removed from current display in preparation for the move to the new Prehistoric and Romano-British rooms. As a result, the galleries have a dilapidated air about them, which detracted from my enjoyment. For instance, it is almost impossible to view the Lindow Man properly as he is poorly displayed. I look forward to seeing the prehistoric collection more imaginatively displayed in the new gallery rooms. British Heritage will bring readers more up-to-date details as work progresses.

However, there are some truly memorable items in the British Museum, which deserve mention in our special Ancient Britain issue. The present gallery devoted to ‘man before metals’ shows items made by early man. One of the most interesting is a section of the Sweet Track, a pathway of wooden hurdles laid across a Somerset marsh nearly 6,000 years ago to permit movement across the wet land. Also in the museum’s collection are the Folkton Drums, three carved chalk cylinders with eye and eyebrow markings, found beside the skeleton of a five-year-old child in a tomb of the early Bronze Age (c. 2200 BC) in North Yorkshire. As with many of the very early artefacts, we do not know the true story behind them, and can only guess at their significance and meaning. They are intriguing keys to the past but we are still seeking the right keyholes.

A charming item, still on display at the museum, and more easily understood than the drums, is a small gold cup, about 3.3 inches high, which was discovered in a Bronze-Age burial mound at Rillaton, Cornwall, in 1837. Also in the grave were a fine bronze dagger and beads. The British Museum Souvenir Guide says the body of this cup was beaten from a single piece of gold in about 1500 BC, and it is one of only three such cups ever to have been found in temperate Europe. The burial mound was on land belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall, and the finds, being a treasure trove, were sent to King William IV. The cup, according to the British Museum’s Guidebook, then disappeared, only to turn up again after the death of George V. It was found on his dressing table, where it had served as a receptacle for His Majesty’s collar studs!

Dr. I. H. Longworth, former Keeper of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities in the British Museum, says in his book, Prehistoric Britain, that perhaps the most spectacular of all objects that have survived from this period comes from North Wales. It is a cape of beaten gold, 9.3 inches high, found in a grave at Mold in Flintshire in 1833. The cape covered the bones of a skeleton encased in a stone cist buried beneath a round mound of earth and stone. Made from a single sheet of gold, the cape is covered in embossed decoration, conveying the idea of multiple strands of beads. Dr. Longworth points out how the rows of holes, which follow the upper and lower edges of the cape, show that the gold was once attached to an inner organic lining, presumably of leather, and stiffened internally at the base with a strip of sheet bronze, fragments of which survive. The ceremonial nature of the cape is confirmed by the fact that anyone who wore it would have been unable to move his upper arms.

The Lindow Man appears to have been a victim of a different type of ceremony. According to the Museum Guidebook, he was found in a peat-bog in Cheshire in 1984, and probably dates from the Iron Age, c. 300 BC. Unfortunately, a peat-cutting machine sliced the naked body in half. But medical and forensic scientists have extensively examined what remains. It seems he was the victim of a ritual killing. A blow to the head stunned him, then he was garrotted with a twisted cord, and finally his throat was cut. He was then thrown into a shallow pool at the marsh edge. Dr. Longworth points out that he was no ordinary peasant, as his nails were well manicured. His real identity remains a mystery.

Another room in the museum currently covers Bronze-Age Britain and the early Iron Age in Europe, much of which was then occupied by the Celts. There were fine craftsmen in Britain at this time, and their skill is reflected in items such as the two bronze shield fronts, the Battersea Shield and Witham Shield. Both date from the 1st or 2nd century BC, and both were found in rivers. The Museum Guide says there have been suggestions that armour and weapons may have been thrown into the water as offerings to the gods. A splendid bronze helmet, the only horned Iron-Age helmet so far found in Britain, was dredged up from the Thames near Waterloo Bridge. The owner must have been very powerful and the horns possibly symbolized strength. The helmet was probably only worn on ceremonial occasions.

Other examples of excellent craftsmanship are the golden necklaces of the 1st century BC. The great majority came from East Anglia and Queen Boudicca of the Iceni almost certainly wore something like this. The finest of them all, found at Snettisham, Norfolk, in 1950, is a stunning ornament.

Workmen digging a gas main in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, in 1965 uncovered a rich cremation burial, probably that of an Iron-Age chieftain. The British Museum dates this from the end of the 1st century BC, and a reconstruction at the gallery shows it contained pottery, metal vessels, and a unique set of decorated glass game pieces. I enjoyed this display especially, as it is set at eye-level, which creates the distinct feeling that you are standing in the middle of the burial, transported back to the 1st century.

The British Museum has many superb collections and once all these prehistoric artefacts are adequately displayed in their new homes, they’ll be an amateur historian’s dream.


The British Museum is always worth a visit, and until now, it has always been free. But these are tumultuous times for Britain’s famous institution. Director Dr. Robert Anderson faces a £l.3 million cut in the museum’s 1997 government subsidy, which should have covered essential operational costs. The British Library, which currently pays £3.5 million in annual rent, will soon relocate, eliminating this valuable source of income.

Last November, the London Times reported that Dr. Anderson was considering the introduction of a £5 admission charge this year, and quoted him as saying ‘I desperately want to avoid charging, but ultimately we have to accept that it is a possibility. Staff cuts are almost inevitable.’ The same article stated that staff cuts could run as high as 20 per cent and that the museum may be forced to close some rooms. Readers planning a visit in 1997 will be relieved to hear that as we go to press with this issue, Dr. Anderson has decided to defer the introduction of an admission fee for now.

In order to offset the impending crisis, the newly founded British Museum Development Trust, headed by HRH The Princess Margaret, is raising funds for capital projects. One of its most ambitious aims is the redevelopment of the Great Court and the Round Reading Room (the former home of the British Library). Some £60 million will be spent on this project and it is scheduled for completion in the year 2000.

Emphasizing the need for help with operational costs, Dr. Anderson says in the Times article: ‘People only donate money for things that can be seen, not for salaries or mending roofs.’ He says the Great Court scheme will be financed by both a National Lottery grant and private sector contributions.

The development programme is also providing major new permanent displays including a series of rooms for the Prehistoric and Romano-British collections, with the Weston Gallery of Roman Britain scheduled to open this summer. *



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