History of the collection:
Britain, Europe & Prehistory


The Department of Britain, Europe & Prehistory was created in 2003. The collection includes some of the earliest objects made by humans 2 million years ago, with Palaeolithic and Mesolithic material (Old and Middle Stone Age) from Africa, South Asia and Western Europe. The Upper Palaeolithic collection from Europe is one of the most important in the world.

The collection also includes some of the best known prehistoric and Roman material found in Britain, with the Roman collection reflecting all aspects of life in the province of Britannia from the first to the early fifth centuries AD. The collection continues chronologically through medieval, Renaissance and modern Europe.


Generous benefactors, archaeological activity and a succession of skilful keepers have enriched the collection during its history. The collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), scientist, physician, and antiquarian, acquired by the nation after his death, gave rise to the British Museum. Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97), who joined the Museum in 1851, used his private fortune to acquire a vast number of objects, including British and European prehistoric material.

In 1898 the Waddesdon Bequest, a collection of around 300 precious objects donated by the Rothschild family came to the Museum during the keepership of Sir Charles Hercules Read.

Acquisitions and holdings

The character of the department and its collecting policy has been shaped by its acquisitions and benefactions. These include palaeolithic collections from Sturge, Christy and Lartet, the Greenwell and Morel collections from later prehistoric sites in Britain and Europe and Romano-British material from the Charles Roach Smith and Gibbs collections.

The comprehensive horological (the art or science of making timepieces, or of measuring time) collection springs principally from the acquisition of collections made by Charles Fellowes (1874), Octavius Morgan (1888) and Courtney Adrian Ilbert (1958).
In 1978 the gift of 1200 pieces of jewellery from the private collector Mrs Anne Hull Grundy included significant twentieth century pieces and formed the basis of a collecting policy which, since 1979, has seen the department actively extending its applied arts collection into the twentieth century.