History of the collection: Middle East


The Department of the Middle East covers all periods of the region from prehistory to the present day. It combines the holdings of the former Department of the Ancient Near East (previously Western Asiatic Antiquities), the Islamic collections of the Department of Asia (formerly Oriental Antiquities) and the Middle Eastern and Central Asian collections of the former Department of Ethnography (now Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas).

This includes a large amount of archaeological finds, especially from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), but extending from Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean to sites in former Soviet Central Asia. There is pottery from all parts of the Middle East (both complete and fragmentary), Neolithic and later chipped stone assemblages, seals of all periods, beads, jewellery, glass vessels, magical bowls, figurines, metalwork, small stone objects, pieces of sculpture and even modern plaster casts of ancient sculptures not in the Museum (particularly from Iran). There are also excavated plant remains, wood, shell, animal-bone and human remains. The department also holds the world’s largest collection of cuneiform tablets outside Baghdad, an important collection of Iznik glazed pottery from Turkey, Mughal miniatures from India, Palestinian costumes, and modern Islamic works on paper.

There are approximately 330,000 objects in the collection of the Department of the Middle East. A representative selection of around 4,500 objects, including the most important pieces, is on display. The rest forms the study collection which ranges in size from beads to large sculptures. All the material in the collection is made freely available for use by scholars in our very busy departmental study room. The rich resources of the study collection are also made more widely accessible through handling-classes, behind-the-scenes tours, temporary displays and loans to temporary exhibitions at other institutions.


The Middle East collection effectively began with the bequest of drawings and other items from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) and seals from the collections of Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), which were purchased by the British Museum in 1772.

Other significant early acquisitions were a number of sculptures and plaster casts from Persepolis in Iran, and the collection of Claudius James Rich (1787-1820), the East India Company's representative at Baghdad.

The.collection was dramatically enlarged in the mid-nineteenth century following A.H. Layard’s (1817-94) excavations at the Assyrian sites of Nimrud and Nineveh. At Nimrud, Layard found the state apartments of the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, as well as three other palaces and various temples.

In the Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh he opened ‘no less than seventy-one halls, chambers and passages, whose walls, almost without an exception, had been panelled with slabs of sculptured alabaster recording the wars, the triumphs, and the great deeds of the Assyrian king.'

These excavations produced large numbers of stone bas-reliefs, stelae, including the Black obelisk of Shalmaneser III, gigantic gateway figures and an assortment of small finds. Layard's work was continued by his local assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, who went on to discover the North Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh and its many reliefs, including the famous Royal Lion Hunt series. Layard and Rassam discovered the remains of the Library of Ashurbanipal, the oldest surviving royal library in the world and perhaps the single most important group of cuneiform tablets ever found.

In 1850 W.K. Loftus found Parthian slipper coffins at Warka (Uruk) in Mesopotamia and in 1854-55 he discovered a remarkable hoard of ivories in the Burnt Palace at Nimrud.

In 1872, while sorting through tablets from these early excavations, George Smith (1840-76), a young Museum assistant, found an Assyrian account of the Old Testament flood story. Smith was sent to do some more excavating at Nimrud and Nineveh, where he found a tablet containing a missing part of the story. However, he died in 1876 while returning from his third, abortive, expedition.

Between 1878 and 1882 Hormuzd Rassam’s work in Mesopotamia brought significant additions to the collection, such as the Cyrus Cylinder from Babylon, the bronze gates of Shalmaneser III and Ashurnasirpal II from Balawat, and a collection of Urartian bronzes, now the core of the Anatolian collection. Rassam also collected many thousands of cuneiform tablets and fragments.

Shortly after, E.A.W. Budge (1857-1934) was sent to Mesopotamia and acquired a large number of new tablets, many of them from Dêr. With the acquisition of further cuneiform tablets later in the twentieth century, the collection now numbers around 130,000 registered tablets and fragments.


Many of the twentieth century excavations in the Middle East have had a more serious archaeological purpose than some of their nineteenth-century precursors. The first was at Carchemish, situated on the present border between Turkey and Syria. Sponsored by the Trustees of the British Museum, work was undertaken in 1911-14 and in 1920, directed by D.G. Hogarth (1862-1927) and then Leonard Woolley (1880-1960), assisted for part of the time by T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia (1888-1935), as he is better known.

Excavations at Tell al-Ubaid in 1919 and 1923-4, directed first by H.R. Hall (1873-1930) and then by Leonard Woolley, produced the bronze furnishings of a Sumerian temple, including life-sized lions and a panel in high relief featuring the lion-headed eagle Imdugud.

Between 1922 and 1934 Woolley made many outstanding discoveries in Ur, particularly in the ‘Royal Cemetery' of the third millennium BC. These are now some of the highlights of the Middle East collection, such as the Standard of Ur, the ‘Ram in a Thicket', the Royal Game of Ur, musical instruments that include two bull-headed lyres, and some spectacular gold jewellery.

Later acquisitions and holdings

Although the collection is centred on Mesopotamia most of the surrounding areas are also well-represented. The Iranian collection grew in the late nineteenth century with the addition of the Oxus Treasure, a collection of gold and silver objects dating from the Achaemenid period (fifth-fourth century BC).

This hoard was found by villagers on the north bank of the River Oxus, in modern Tadjikistan, between 1877 and 1880. It was bequeathed to the Museum in 1897 by Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97), together with some pieces of Achaemenid and Sasanian silver plate.

The period also saw the rapid development of the British Museum’s collection of Islamic art with important bequests of Islamic metalwork and glazed pottery by Franks and Frederick Du Cane Godman (1834-1919).

The collection includes material from the Arabian peninsula, including surface finds made in Saudi Arabia by the great Arabian explorer St John Philby, plus ancient South Arabian stone sculpture and other artefacts from Yemen (formerly Aden). A collection of inscribed Sabaean bronze votive plaques was presented as early as 1862, and a large collection of other South Arabian antiquities was donated as recently as 1985.

There are also nearly 200 Punic and neo-Punic stelae from Carthage in Tunisia, most of them from the excavations of the Reverend Nathan Davis in the 1850s, representing the Phoenician colonies in the Mediterranean. The Museum also holds rich grave-goods from a cemetery at Tharros in Sardinia, while from Syria there is a collection of nearly forty funerary busts from Palmyra, again mostly acquired in the late-nineteenth century.

A group of stone reliefs from the excavations of Max von Oppenheim at Tell Halaf was purchased in 1920. A large quantity of Bronze Age pottery from a cemetery at Yortan near Troy in western Turkey was acquired in 1921. More material came from the excavations of Max Mallowan (1904-78) at Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak in 1935-38, and C.L. Woolley at Alalakh in the years just before and after the Second World War.

A miscellaneous collection of Iranian antiquities was purchased from the German scholar Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) in 1936, and the Museum received a large share of material from the work of Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943) in Iran. This mainly comes from prehistoric sites in Fars but also includes Iron Age pottery and other finds from his excavations at Hasanlu in north-west Iran.

Until the 1950s the Palestinian collection was modest, but additions were made in 1954 and 1958 with a Neolithic plastered skull and the contents of a Middle Bronze Age tomb from the excavations of Kathleen Kenyon (1976-78) at Jericho. This collection was strengthened with the acquisition in 1980 of around 17,000 objects found at Lachish by the Wellcome-Marston expedition of 1932-38.

In more recent years, archaeological material has been 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. The Museum’s ethnographic collections were also expanded during this period and highlights include collections of bedouin material from Saudi Arabia, Palestinian costume and the Littlewood collection of Yemeni pottery.