History of the collection


The Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities was formed in 1860. It is home to objects which come from Greece, Italy, Turkey and other lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea, and which date from around 3000 BC to AD 300.


When it was founded in 1753 the British Museum resembled, even by the standards of the day, a rather old fashioned cabinet of curiosities. Natural history specimens loomed large in the founding collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), while his antiquities were generally small and, except for the collection of coins and medals, rather undistinguished.

Although Greek and Latin literature were the basis of education, there was no concept of Classical archaeology at this time. Objects were classified as either ‘natural’ or ‘artificial rarities’. The ‘artificial’ could be subdivided by material - bronze, pottery, stone and so on - and also by culture as in, for example, an Etruscan vase or Egyptian mummy.

The growth of the collection over the next half century eventually led to the creation of a Department of Antiquities in 1807 with the coin specialist Taylor Combe as its first keeper. His major task was to oversee the installation of the Egyptian sculptures, acquired as spoils of the Napoleonic wars in 1801, and the Townley Marbles, purchased in 1805, in a new suite of rooms collectively called the Townley Gallery.

As the collection grew, however, it became clear that Old Montague House, the original home of the Museum, was too small for its purpose, and so in 1823 the architect Robert Smirke was commissioned to draw up plans for an entirely new building, which he did in the then fashionable Greek Revival style. The old Jacobean mansion and its Palladian-style Townley Gallery were pulled down and gradually replaced with grand rooms arranged over two floors around a central courtyard. Antiquities were to be accommodated on the west side with sculpture on the ground floor and portable objects, such as vases and bronzes, at the upper level.  

As the new building grew, so did the collection. Such was its volume by 1860 that not only had Smirke’s original plan for the Museum been greatly extended by additional galleries on the west side, but also overspill had to be accommodated in unsightly sheds erected within the grand and formal colonnades of the south front. These were mainly needed to house finds made by Charles Newton (1816-1894), who conducted excavations at various sites in south-west Turkey between 1856 and 1859, including his rediscovery of the fabled Mausoleum of Halikarnassos.

Such increases, not to mention major additions from other ancient cultures, made the old Department of Antiquities too large to be managed by a single individual. Since the premature death of Taylor Combe in 1826, it had been led by the formidable and now venerable Edward Hawkins. With his retirement in 1860, the department was divided up and Newton was appointed the first keeper of the newly formed Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

Collection and acquisition

The collection of Greek and Roman antiquities has been assembled in three main ways: by gift or purchase of individual items; by the acquisition of private collections in part or as a whole; and by excavation. The second-century BC bronze head of a Greek poet is an early example of the first category.

Found at Smyrna, modern Izmir, in western Turkey, the head had been in the collection of the Earl of Arundel (1585-1646) and afterwards in the collection of the royal physician and contemporary of Sloane, Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754). It was presented to the Museum in 1760 by the Earl of Exeter. Having been part of distinguished private collections gives such treasures extra interest.

There are many objects of similar importance still in private hands and, occasionally, they come up for sale. This gives the Museum with an opportunity to make an important acquisition without going against its policy of not acquiring objects which have been recently or illegally exported from their country of origin.

The acquisition of complete collections, or even parts of them, accounts for by far the greatest number of objects in the department. One of the earliest and most significant private collections was purchased from Sir William Hamilton in 1772.

For many years Hamilton was British ambassador to the Bourbon court of Naples, during which time he had plenty of opportunity to collect antiquities from Roman towns and villas buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 and from tombs in the countryside of southern Italy and Sicily. From these, especially, Hamilton put together a collection of painted Greek vases. This marked the beginnings of the modern study of Greek vases as well as their influence on the decorative arts.

Purchase of the Hamilton collection transformed the Museum’s antiquities collection. It set the Museum on a course that turned it from being primarily about books, manuscripts and natural history and made it the great collection of art and antiquity that it has become.

Not least in this story of the making of the modern Museum is the exceptional quantity and quality of architectural sculpture from Greece and Turkey. The first to come were the sculptures from the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae in 1814 and, most famously, the Parthenon sculptures purchased in 1816.

The third means of acquisition was excavations, either carried out directly by the Museum itself or by agents acting on its behalf. Controlled excavation was only fully developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Charles Newton was a pioneer and the first Museum archaeologist to employ systematic record keeping and photography.

Excavation became especially important in the discovery and understanding of then little known or understood prehistoric phases of Greek civilisation, such as that of the Minoans and Mycenaeans.

In recent decades the pace of acquisition by the Greek and Roman Department has slowed down considerably due to cost, lack of opportunity and, above all, the strict acquisitions policy of the Museum. Current staff members concentrate less on acquiring new collections and more on processing and promoting public understanding of those already in the Museum. Sometimes this may involve returning to places previously excavated.

The Return to Cnidus project is a successful partnership between the Museum and Turkish colleagues from the Selçuk University of Konya that seeks a better understanding of sites in this important Karian city in south-west Turkey. It was first explored by Newton, and many important objects in the Museum come from there.

This is just one of many instances in the work of the curators of the British Museum, where two histories run in parallel. The first is that of the ancient civilisations themselves, while the second is that of previous curators, whose industry has made the British Museum’s collection so rich a source of first hand knowledge.

Further information