The origins in the 18th century (1753-1798)

By T. G. H. James, former Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities, British Museum


Objects from ancient Egypt have always formed part of the collections of the British Museum. When the Museum was founded in 1753, its first purpose was to house the many thousands of objects and the large library amassed by Sir Hans Sloane during his life. Sloane (1660-1753) was a man of many parts. He was well-connected socially and professionally; he was wealthy, a notable scientist, and a gentleman collector of wide-ranging interests. His professional activities, especially as President of the Royal College of Physicians and President of the Royal Society, provided him with colleagues and acquaintances who travelled widely, keeping in mind Sloane's interests during their sojourns in distant lands, collecting interesting items for his 'cabinet of curiosities.' Sloane was prepared to collect anything that seemed to contribute to human knowledge, and that included Egyptian antiquities. When his collection was acquired by the British nation as the core of the new national museum, it contained about one hundred and fifty items from Egypt, mostly small and unimportant antiquities acquired probably more by chance than by deliberate intent.

The time had not yet arrived for the serious collecting of ancient objects from Egypt. The country was rarely visited by Europeans, apart from the few merchants trading in the Eastern Mediterranean. The occasional adventurous traveller was likely to encounter serious difficulties, and indeed great danger, if he journeyed in the south of the country. The cities of Cairo and Alexandria were accessible, if not notably hospitable, and it was not easy to obtain antiquities on any scale.

Nevertheless, some ancient objects were brought back to European countries from the time of the late sixteenth century, and by the early eighteenth century there were enough pieces in private hands to stimulate the setting up of an Egyptian Society in London, the members of which met from time to time to dine and to discuss their Egyptian 'treasures'. Some of its members had travelled seriously in Egypt, and wrote books which stimulated wide interest in that country; such were Richard Pococke and Frederik Norden. Others had visited Egypt for commercial reasons, and had taken the opportunity to visit some of the ancient sites near Cairo, like Saqqara. Notable among these merchants was William Lethieullier.

After its foundation, the British Museum served as a focus for the generosity of private collectors. Although Sloane's original bequest had been rather modest as far as Egyptian antiquities were concerned, their presence in the national collection stimulated further presentations. At his death in 1756 William Lethieullier left most of his collection to the Museum. It included the first mummy and coffin to enter Montagu House, which then housed the British Museum. Lethieullier had purchased these at Saqqara. They were at the same time joined by a second mummy and coffin, donated by Pitt Lethieullier, a nephew of William. These two mummies cannot now be identified with certainty.

For the remainder of the eighteenth century, few Egyptian antiquities came to the British Museum apart from two small groups sent back to Britain by Edward Wortley Montagu to his brother-in-law the Earl of Bute; the latter presented them to King George III, who passed them to the Museum. They included another mummy and coffin and two large inscribed basalt slabs from temples in the Delta.