The Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory is responsible for collections that cover a vast expanse of time, from the earliest human tools in Africa and Asia two million years ago to the art and archaeology of Europe from the earliest times to the present day, including the history of Britain under Roman occupation.
Curators in the department are experts on a wide variety of subjects, from areas such as Palaeolithic Archaeology (Old Stone Age) in Europe and around the world, Neolithic (New Stone Age), Bronze Age and Iron Age Archaeology in Europe and Roman Britain. Specialists cover many aspects of Medieval, Renaissance and Modern European culture, including twentieth-century design from North America.
The department currently has eleven galleries displaying highlights from its collections. As well as exhibitions, we are involved in a wide range of research, excavations and publications and also actively communicate with the public through radio and television programmes and new media.
Staff are engaged in helping members of the public with enquiries, the identification of objects and scholarly research. An important part of the department’s work is connected with finds of Treasure from England and supporting the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Medieval Europe (Room 40)
The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery
The recently refurbished Medieval Europe gallery showcases many of the world’s greatest medieval treasures. British, European and Byzantine objects tell the story of a period of great change when territorial wars and political turmoil shaped the continent we know today.
From the power and dominance of the Church in everyday life, to the social change spread through Europe by a new merchant class, unique and famous objects provide a gateway to the major developments of the age. The ritual and protocol of the royal court is explored, as well as the cultural, intellectual and political exchange brought about by travel, trade and pilgrimage. Examples of sacred art also show how the divine was represented at the time.
Sutton Hoo and Europe (Room 41)
The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery
The centuries AD 300–1100 witnessed great change in Europe. The Roman Empire broke down in the west, but continued as the Byzantine Empire in the east. People, objects and ideas travelled across the continent, while Christianity and Islam emerged as major religions. By 1100, the precursors of several modern states had developed. Europe as we know it today was taking shape. Room 41 gives an overview of the period and its peoples. Its unparalleled collections range from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, and from North Africa to Scandinavia. The gallery’s centrepiece is the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk – one of the most spectacular and important discoveries in British archaeology.
Europe 1400–1800 (Room 46)
The period dating from the late Middle Ages until the end of the eighteenth century was a time of great social change. Political revolution, religious upheaval and the discovery of new continents radically influenced European life.
Through objects of the decorative and applied arts, Room 46 charts the expansion of international trade, the growth of modern cities and the major developments in the arts and sciences that established the broad outline of modern European civilisation.
The direct influence of the Italian Renaissance on the material culture of the time can also be seen in objects on display.
Europe 1800–1900 (Room 47)
The nineteenth century saw unprecedented economic growth in Europe, accompanied by immense social and political upheavals. For Britain it was a period of stability and industrial supremacy. On the continent, France underwent three revolutions, while the second half of the century saw the unification of Germany and Italy.
The nationalist sentiment that lay behind these events often paid homage to the great ages of the past. This is reflected in the objects shown in Room 47, many of which have borrowed motifs from earlier historical periods.
During this period, international exhibitions fostered the growth of machine technology, yet traditional craftsmanship flourished alongside.
Europe 1900 to the present (Room 48)
Room 48 examines changing ideas about how objects should look, and the desire to make well-designed objects available to a wider audience. Many of the objects on display show how designers in the West have drawn inspiration from other cultures, past and present.
Highlights include Continental Art Nouveau, Germany’s Darmstadt artists’ colony and the Bauhaus, Russian Revolutionary porcelain and American applied arts between the two World Wars.
The Museum is actively collecting objects from the 20th century and the display continues to change as new acquisitions are made.
Roman Britain (Room 49)
The Weston Gallery
AD 43 – 410
The Roman occupation of Britain dramatically transformed the material culture of the province. Imported goods and settlers from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa created a richer, more diverse society and a wealth of mosaics, wall paintings, sculpture, glassware and metalwork was produced.
The laws, administration, currency, architecture, engineering, religion and art of Rome met Britain’s Iron Age societies to create a distinctive ‘Romano-British’ identity, which is illustrated in Room 49 through a variety of objects and artworks.
Britain and Europe 800 BC–AD 43 (Room 50)
The Iron Age was a time of dramatic change for the people of Britain and Europe. Iron replaced bronze as the material used to make tools and weapons, while religion, art, daily life, economics and politics changed dramatically.
The story of these civilisations (known to the Greeks and Romans as Britons, Celts, Germans and Iberians) and their distinct material cultures, is told through decorated Iron Age artefacts known as ‘Celtic Art’ and more everyday objects.
Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC (Room 51)
Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other.
See this gallery on the floor plan
Ancient Iran (Room 52) tells the story of the birth of farming in the Middle East.
Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory
The Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory was established in 1969 and is responsible for collections that cover a vast expanse of time and geography. It includes some of the earliest objects made by humans in east Africa over 2 million years ago, as well as Prehistoric and neolithic objects from other parts of the world; and the art and archaeology of Europe from the earliest times to the present day. Archeological excavation of prehistoric material took off and expanded considerably in the twentieth century and the department now has literally millions of objects from the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods throughout the world, as well as from the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron age in Europe. Stone Age material from Africa has been donated by famous archaeologists such as Louis and Mary Leakey, and Gertrude Caton–Thompson. Paleolithic objects from the Sturge, Christy and Lartet collections include some of the earliest works of art from Europe. Many Bronze Age objects from across Europe were added during the nineteenth century, often from large collections built up by excavators and scholars such as Greenwell in Britain, Tobin and Cooke in Ireland, Lukis and de la Grancière in Brittany, Worsaae in Denmark, Siret at El Argar in Spain, and Klemm and Edelmann in Germany. A representative selection of Iron Age artefacts from Hallstatt were acquired as a result of the Evans/Lubbock excavations and from Giubiasco in Ticino through the Swiss National Museum.
In addition, the British Museum’s collections covering the period AD 300 to 1100 are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world, extending from Spain to the Black Sea and from North Africa to Scandinavia; a representative selection of these has recently been redisplayed in a newly refurbished gallery. Important collections include Latvian, Norwegian, Gotlandic and Merovingian material from Johann Karl Bähr, Alfred Heneage Cocks, Sir James Curle and Philippe Delamain respectively. However, the undoubted highlight from the early mediaeval period are the magnificent items from the Sutton Hoo royal grave, generously donated to the nation by the landowner Edith Pretty. The department includes the national collection of horology with one of the most wide-ranging assemblage of clocks, watches and other timepieces in Europe, with masterpieces from every period in the development of time-keeping. Choice horological pieces came from the Morgan and Ilbert collections. The department is also responsible for the curation of Romano-British objects – the museum has by far the most extensive such collection in Britain and one of the most representative regional collections in Europe outside Italy. It is particularly famous for the large number of late Roman silver treasures, many of which were found in East Anglia, the most important of which is the Mildenhall Treasure. The museum purchased many Roman-British objects from the antiquarian Charles Roach Smith in 1856. These quickly formed the nucleus of the collection.
Objects from the Department of Prehistory and Europe are mostly found on the upper floor of the museum, with a suite of galleries numbered from 38 to 51. Most of the collection is stored in its archive facilities, where it is available for research and study.
Key highlights of the collections include:
Stone Age (c. 3.4 million years BC – c. 2000 BC)
Palaeolithic material from across Africa, particularly Olduvai, Kalambo Falls, Olorgesailie and Cape Flats, (1.8 million BC onwards)
One of the 11 leaf-shaped points found near Volgu, Saône-et-Loire, France and estimated to be 16,000 years old
Ice Age art from France including the Wolverine pendant of Les Eyzies, Montastruc decorated stone and Baton fragment, (c. 12–11,000 BC)
Ice Age art from Britain including the decorated jaw from Kendrick and Robin Hood Cave Horse, (11,500–10,000 BC)
Rare mesolithic artefacts from the site of Star Carr in Yorkshire, northern England, (8770–8460 BC)
Terracotta figurine from Vinča, Serbia, (5200–4900 BC)
Callaïs bead jewellery from Lannec-er-Ro’h and triangular pendant from Mané-er-Hroëk, Morbihan, Brittany, western France, (4700–4300 BC)
Section of the Sweet Track, an ancient timber causeway from the Somerset Levels, England, (3807/6 BC)
A number of Carved Stone Balls from Scotland, Ireland and northern England, (3200–2500 BC)
The three Folkton Drums, made from chalk and found in Yorkshire, northern England, (2600–2100 BC)
Bronze Age (c. 3300 BC – c. 600 BC)
Jet beaded necklace from Melfort in Argyll, Scotland, (c.3000 BC)
Gold lunula from Blessington, Ireland, one of nine from Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, (2400–2000 BC)
Early Bronze Age hoards from Snowshill, Driffield and Barnack in England, Arraiolos and Vendas Novas in Iberia and Neunheilingen and Biecz in central Europe (2280–1500 BC)
Contents of the Rillaton Barrow including a gold cup, and the related Ringlemere Cup, England, (1700–1500 BC)
Bronze Age hoards from Zsujta, Forró and Paks-Dunaföldvár in Hungary, (1600–1000 BC)
Large ceremonial swords or dirks from Oxborough and Beaune, western Europe, (1450–1300 BC)
Bronze shields from Moel Hebog and Rhyd-y-gors, Wales, (12th–10th centuries BC)
Gold hoards from Morvah and Towednack in Cornwall, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire and Mooghaun in Ireland, (1150–750 BC)
Dunaverney flesh-hook found near Ballymoney, Northern Ireland and part of the Dowris Hoard from County Offaly, Ireland, (1050–900 BC & 900–600 BC)
Late Bronze Age gold hoard from Abia de la Obispalía, Spain and an intricate gold collar from Sintra, Portugal, (10th–8th centuries BC)
Iron Age (c. 600 BC – c. 1st century AD)
Basse Yutz Flagons, a pair of bronze drinking vessels from Moselle, eastern France, (5th century BC)
Morel collection of La Tène material from eastern France, including the Somme-Bionne chariot burial and the Prunay Vase, (450-300BC)
Important finds from the River Thames including the Wandsworth Shield, Battersea Shield and Waterloo Helmet, as well as the Witham Shield from Lincolnshire, eastern England, (350–50 BC)
Pair of gold collars called the Orense Torcs from northwest Spain, (300–150 BC)
Other gold neck collars including the Ipswich Hoard and the Sedgeford Torc, England, (200–50 BC)
Winchester Hoard of gold jewellery from southern England and the Great Torc from Snettisham in Norfolk, East Anglia, (100 BC)
Cordoba and Arcillera Treasures, two silver Celtic hoards from Spain, (100–20 BC)
Lindow Man found by accident in a peat bog in Cheshire, England, (1st century AD)
Stanwick Hoard of horse and chariot fittings and the Meyrick Helmet, northern England, (1st century AD)
Lochar Moss Torc and two massive pairs of bronze armlets from Muthill and Strathdon, Scotland, (50–200 AD)
Romano-British (43 AD – 410 AD)
Tombstone of Roman procurator Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus from London, (1st century AD)
Ribchester, Guisborough and Witcham helmets once worn by Roman cavalry in Britain, (1st–2nd centuries AD)
Elaborate gold bracelets and ring found near Rhayader, central Wales, (1st–2nd centuries AD)
Bronze heads of the Roman Emperors Hadrian and Claudius, found in London and Suffolk, (1st–2nd centuries AD)
Vindolanda Tablets, important historical documents found near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, (1st–2nd centuries AD)
Wall-paintings and sculptures from the Roman Villa at Lullingstone, Kent, south east England,1st–4th centuries AD)
Capheaton and Backworth treasures, remnants of two important hoards from northern England, (2nd–3rd centuries AD)
Stony Stratford Hoard of copper headdresses, fibulae and silver votive plaques, central England, (3rd century AD)
Gold jewellery deposited at the site of Newgrange, Ireland, (4th century AD)
Thetford Hoard, late Roman jewellery from eastern England, (4th century AD)
Early Mediaeval (c. 4th century AD – c. 1000 AD)
Part of the Asyut, Domagnano, Artres, Sutri, Bergamo and Belluno Treasures, (4th–7th centuries AD)
Lycurgus Cup, a unique figurative glass cage cup, and the Byzantine Archangel ivory panel, (4th–6th centuries AD)
The Sutton Hoo treasure and Taplow burial, with some of the greatest finds from the early Middle Ages in Europe, England, (6th–7th centuries AD)
Two Viking hoards from Norway known as the Lilleberge Viking Burial and Tromsø Burial and the Cuerdale Hoard from England, (7th–10th centuries AD)
Irish reliquaries such as the Kells Crozier and Bell Shrine of St. Cuileáin, (7th–11th centuries AD)
Early Anglo Saxon Franks Casket, a unique ivory container from northern England, (8th century AD)
A number of important pseudo-penannular brooches including the Londesborough Brooch and the Breadalbane Brooch, Ireland and Scotland, (8th–9th centuries AD)
Carolingian cut gems known as the Lothair Crystal and Saint-Denis Crystal, central Europe, (9th century AD)
Anglo-Saxon Fuller and Strickland Brooches with their complex, niello-inlaid design, England, (9th century AD)
Seax of Beagnoth, iron sword with long Anglo-Saxon Runic inscription, London, England, (10th century AD)
The earlier of the River Witham swords
Mediaeval (c. 1000 AD – c. 1500 AD)
A number of mediaeval ivory panels including the Borradaile, Wernher and John Grandisson Triptychs, (10th–14th centuries AD)
The famous Lewis chessmen found in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, (12th century AD)
Reliquary of St. Eustace from the treasury of Basel Munster, Switzerland, (12th century AD)
The unique Warwick Castle Citole, an early form of guitar, central England, (1280–1330 AD)
Savernake Horn, elephant ivory horn with silver gilt mounts, England and Scotland, (1325–1350 AD)
Asante Jug, mysteriously found at the Asante Court in the late 19th century, England, (1390–1400 AD)
Holy Thorn Reliquary bequeathed by Ferdinand de Rothschild as part of the Waddesdon Bequest, Paris, France, (14th century AD)
Dunstable Swan Jewel, a gold and enamel brooch in the form of a swan, England, (14th century AD)
A silver astrolabe quadrant from Canterbury, southeastern England, (14th century AD)
Magnificent cups made from precious metal such as the Royal Gold Cup and the Lacock Cup, western Europe, (14th–15th centuries AD)
The later of the River Witham swords
Renaissance to Modern (c. 1500 AD – present)
The Armada Service, 26 silver dishes found in Devon, south west England, late 16th to early 17th centuries AD
Early Renaissance Lyte Jewel, presented to Thomas Lyte of Lytes Cary, Somerset by King James I of England, (1610)
Huguenot silver from the Peter Wilding bequest, England, (18th century AD)
Pair of so-called Cleopatra Vases from the Chelsea porcelain factory, London, England, (1763)
Jaspar ware vase known as the Pegasus Vase made by Josiah Wedgwood, England, (1786)
Two of Charles Darwin’s chronometers used on the voyage of HMS Beagle, (1795–1805)
The Hull Grundy Gift of jewellery, Europe and North America, (19th century AD)
Oak clock with mother-of-pearl engraving designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, (1919)
Silver tea-infuser designed by Marianne Brandt from the Bauhaus art school, Germany, (1924)
The Rosetta Vase, earthenware pottery vase designed by the contemporary British artist Grayson Perry, (2011)
The many hoards of treasure include those of Mildenhall, Esquiline, Carthage, First Cyprus, Lampsacus, Water Newton, Hoxne, and Vale of York, (4th–10th centuries AD)