The most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia

Department of the Middle East

Contact details

Phone: +44 (0)20 7323 8308

Department of the Middle East
The British Museum
Great Russell Street
London
WC1B 3DG

The Department of the Middle East covers the ancient and contemporary civilisations and cultures of the Middle East from the Neolithic period until the present.

It holds a wide range of archaeological material and ancient art from Mesopotamia (Iraq), Iran, the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel); Anatolia (Turkey), Arabia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Highlights of the collection include Assyrian reliefs, treasures from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and Ashurbanipal's library of cuneiform tablets from Nineveh.

The Islamic collection includes archaeological assemblages from Iraq, Iran and Egypt as well as collections of inlaid metalwork from medieval Iran, Syria and Egypt and Iznik ceramics from Turkey. Ethnographic collections from the Middle East and Central Asia are also held by the department. These include textiles, furnishings, jewellery and other objects related to daily life.

In addition to Persian, Turkish and Mughal Indian works on paper, the department holds a major collection of contemporary art from the Middle East.

Accessing the collection

Object identification

History of the collection

18th century

The Middle East collection began with the bequest of drawings and other items from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane and seals from the collections of Sir William Hamilton, which were purchased by the British Museum in 1772.
About Sir Hans Sloane

1820s

Sculptures and plaster casts from Persepolis in Iran were added, along with the collection of Claudius James Rich (1787–1820), who was the East India Company's representative in Baghdad (Iraq) at the time.
About Claudius James Rich

1840s–1850s

The collection grew following excavations at the Assyrian sites of Nimrud and Nineveh, which produced large numbers of stone bas-reliefs including the famous Lion Hunt scenes. They also revealed the first cuneiform texts from the Library of Ashurbanipal, on which the field of Assyriology was built. Two-hundred Punic and neo-Punic stelae from Carthage in Tunisia were also added to the collection at this time. 

1872

A young Museum assistant called George Smith (1840–1876) astonished the world with his discovery of an Assyrian version of the biblical flood story.
About George Smith

1878–1882

Hormuzd Rassam's work in Mesopotamia brought significant additions to the collection, including the Cyrus Cylinder from Babylon, the bronze gates of Shalmaneser III and a collection of Urartian bronzes that are now the core of the Anatolian collection.
About Hormuzd Rassam

1922–1934

Some of the highlights of the Middle East collection – including the Standard of Ur, the 'Ram in a Thicket', the Royal Game of Ur and some spectacular gold jewellery – were discovered in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur by Leonard Woolley.
About Leonard Wooley

1954–1958

The Palestinian collection was small until a Neolithic plastered skull and the contents of a Middle Bronze Age tomb, from the excavations of Kathleen Kenyon (1976–1978) at Jericho, were added.
About Kathleen Kenyon

1960s–1990s

Archaeological material was added to the collection from excavations at Siraf in Iran, Petra and Tell es-Sa'idiyeh in Jordan, Tell es-Sweyhat in Syria and Merv in Turkmenistan.

1983

The Godman Bequest of around 600 ceramics collected by Frederick Du Cane Godman (1834–1919), including an unparalleled collection of Iznik pottery from Ottoman Turkey, tiles and vessels associated with the medieval ceramic production of Kashan, Iran, and notable examples of Hispano-Moresque pottery from Spain.
About Frederick Du Cane Godman

2005

The British Institute for the Study of Iraq donated an important collection of cuneiform tablets and carved ivories excavated by them during the 1950s.

2012

Over 400 20th-century objects from the Arabian Peninsula entered the collection from Leila Ingrams (1940–2015). They were collected as a result of her parents' activities and travels in the Hadramaut and Zanzibar.
About Leila Ingrams

Staff

  • Gareth Brereton – Curator, Mesopotamia
  • Irving Finkel – Assistant Keeper, Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures
  • Zeina Klink-Hoppe – Phyllis Bishop Curator for the Modern Middle East
  • John MacGinnis – Lead Archaeologist, Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Programme
  • Natasha Morris – Project Curator, Modern Middle East
  • Venetia Porter – Assistant Keeper (Curator), Islamic and contemporary Middle East
  • Sebastien Rey – Lead Archaeologist, Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Programme
  • St John Simpson – Assistant Keeper, Ancient Iran and Arabia
  • Jonathan Taylor – Assistant Keeper (Curator), Cuneiform Collections
  • Olivia Threlkeld - Project Curator: Looking East
  • Jonathan N Tubb – Keeper of the Department of the Middle East
  • Julia Tugwell – Project Curator: Looking East

The work of the department is supported by a team of Collection Managers and administrative staff.

Research

The Department of the Middle East is actively involved in research on the collections and the cultures represented by them.

This varies from excavations and fieldwork to studying, investigating and cataloguing the extensive collection of Middle Eastern material here at the Museum.

There are about 300,000 objects in the department's collection. A representative selection, including the most important pieces, is on display and totals some 4,500 objects.

See below for information about current projects being undertaken by staff in the Department of the Middle East.

Research

The Iraq scheme

The British Museum takes an active role in communicating the importance of Iraq's archaeological and historical legacy.

This is achieved through gallery talks, lectures and study days within the Museum and in the broader community.

Since 2015 the Museum has run a major training scheme, helping Iraqi colleagues develop their archaeological skills.

After the destruction of heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, we're working with staff from the Iraq State Board of Antiquities on a wide variety of retrieval and rescue archaeology techniques.