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History of the collection

Introduction

Objects from Ancient Egypt have formed part of the collection of the British Museum since its beginning as a home for the objects left to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane when he died in 1753. About 150 items from this original collection were from Egypt.

Today the collection includes more than 100,000 objects, including a large collection of sculpture dating back to 10,000 BC

Development

European interest in Egypt began to grow after Napoleon Bonaparte invaded in 1798, particularly since his expedition included scholars to record information about the country. When the British defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, a number of antiquities were ceded in the treaty, and, in 1802, were presented to the Museum in the name of George III. The most famous of these was the Rosetta Stone.

Egypt then came under the control of Mohammed Ali, who was determined to welcome foreigners into the country. As a result foreign consuls began to form collections of antiquities.

Henry Salt, Britain's consul, created a large collection with his agent Belzoni, who was responsible for the removal of the colossal bust of Ramses II, known as the 'Younger Memnon', presented to the British Museum in 1817.

Salt's two collections formed the core of the department’s holdings and in the 1830s many other important collections of papyri and antiquities were acquired. By 1866 the collection consisted of around 10,000 objects.

Collection and acquisition

Antiquities from excavations started to come to the Museum in the late 19th century as a result of the work of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society). The efforts of E.A. Wallis Budge (Keeper, 1894 -1924) were another major source of antiquities.

Budge regularly visited Egypt and built up a wide-ranging collection of papyri and funerary material. When he retired, the collection contained about 57,000 objects.

In the following years there were more limited programmes of excavation and today antiquities are no longer exported from Egypt, although the work of research and study on the collection continues, including archaeological fieldwork in Egypt.

In recognition for the British Museum’s involvement in salvage excavations around the Fourth Cataract in Sudan, the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums has donated collections of study material from sites in the area.

Further information

A more detailed account of the development of the collection has been written by T.G.H. James, former keeper of the department.