World Amazing Stuff: British Museum's top five masterpieces

British Museum's top five masterpieces

Today the British Museum has been celebrated with a Google Doodle, 255 years to the day after it first opened its doors.

Back in 1759, it was housed in the Bloomsbury mansion, Montagu House (on the same site as today's building), with a collection based on the bequest of the physician, naturalist and collector Sir Hans Sloane. Initially it attracted 5,000 visitors per year.

14/01/2014, the museum announced that a record 6.7 million people flocked through its doors in 2013 and beating the previous annual record of 5.9 million in 2008. This was partly attributed to a string of superb exhibitions including Ice Age Art and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the latter of which was seen by 471,000 people.

As well as the temporary blockbusters though, the British Museum has a first-rate collection on permanent display. Here below we pick British Museum's top five masterpieces. The British Museum is open daily from 10.00 to 17.30 and is free to enter

The Parthenon Sculptures

Aka, the Elgin Marbles. Purchased by Lord Elgin in 1816, these sculptures survive from the ruin of the Parthenon, the fifth-century BC temple to Athena set high above Athens on the rock of the Acropolis. They are a source of continued diplomatic dispute with Greece, the British Museum refusing to countenance repatriation and with good reason. These 75m of sculpted frieze are arguably the BM’s greatest treasure.

The Oxus Treasure

This hoard of 180 gold and silver items, dating from the Persian empire of the 5th century BC, is perhaps the finest surviving collection of Achaemenid metalwork. One of its prize pieces is the glitteringly intricate model of a manned, four-horse chariot. Not really until the Renaissance creations of Cellini would gold smithery reach such peaks of sophistication again.

The Rosetta stone

The key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs after countless centuries of head scratching and bemusement. The inscription on the stone isn’t especially exciting in itself: a decree affirming the royal cult of the 13 years old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation in 196 BC. But the fact it was written in three different scripts hieroglyphs, demotic Egyptian and Greek allowed modern scholars to begin to decipher hieroglyphs for the first time.

The Lewis Chessmen

These 82 chess pieces were carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth in the late 12th century and found on a beach on the windswept Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, in 1831. The pieces represent the highest classes of society and may well have been made for a medieval Norwegian king, as a symbolic display of his sovereign power (the Isle of Lewis then being part of the Kingdom of Norway).

Mummy of Katebet

It’s not easy picking one from the BM’s fine collection of Egyptian mummies, but this particular example from Late 18th Dynasty Thebes is a longstanding favorite. It preserves the body of 'The Chantress of Amun’ a well-regarded singer who performed at temple rituals. Her mummy's rich outer trappings include a gilded mask, elaborate wig and real rings on the fingers of her carved hands.