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Ancient Worlds

Our three Ancient Worlds galleries are called Discovering Archaeology, Egyptian Worlds and Exploring Objects. Highlighting our collections from Manchester and the region, and from ancient civilizations such as Greece, Rome and Egypt, these galleries reveal the stories behind the objects, through people who lived long ago as well as modern day archaeologists, historians and collectors.

The new Ancient Worlds galleries are supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Garfield Weston Foundation, The Monument Trust, The Headley Trust, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, The Foundation for Sport and the Arts, The Barker Foundation, The Charlotte Bonham-Carter Charitable Trust, Manchester Ancient Egypt Society and by the exhibition Tutankhamun-His Tomb And His Treasures. 


Roman altar in the Mediterranean Archaeology gallery

Discover the story behind our Roman Altar by visiting the A History of the World website. This partnership between the British Museum, the BBC and museums across the UK celebrates objects which have a story to tell.

The Museum's archaeology collection comes from the whole of the Ancient World (although the Egyptian collection is so important that it now forms a separate department), from Northern Europe to South Africa and the Middle East; covering a time-span from the Palaeolithic to the seventeenth century AD.

The major areas comprise Western Europe (including Britain), the Mediterranean, and Western Asia. In the past it was possible to acquire objects by supporting research excavations or by purchases in salerooms, but ethical collecting and changes in local laws have closed off these avenues.

We remain the repository for University excavations in the north-west, and our active research role means that we can, for example, acquire study material from Greece under Greek government permits. As collections in Britain are rationalised, transfers between museums help concentrate material where the appropriate expertise can be found: a few years ago the archive of finds from the Roman fort at Melandra (Glossop) in west Derbyshire was transferred to Buxton Museum in exchange for a collection of cuneiform tablets and other items from Mesopotamia.

We house a number of specialist collections, such as the photographs relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls built up by the late John Allegro, formerly a lecturer in the University, and the archive built up by the Alderley Edge Landscape Project. Since 1996 the Museum has been leading the multi-disciplinary Alderley Edge Landscape Project with the National Trust. Involving several departments in the Museum and elsewhere in the University as well as schools and local people, its aim has been to look at every aspect of the legends and the natural and human history of Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

Under the pilot scheme for reporting finds of Portable Antiquities, Frances McIntosh, the North-West Finds Liaison Officer of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has a desk at the Museum: finders of gold and silver objects have a duty to report their discoveries to her or to the coroner. We also welcome reports of other finds of base-metal and other objects, whether found with a metal-detector or by other means.

The discoveries from excavations in Manchester extend back into the prehistoric period and also forward into the medieval and postmedieval, where they complement the small collection of pottery and metalwork built up by gift and purchase over the years. However, the major element in the European collection comprises several thousand stone implements from Britain and other parts of Europe, ranging from neolithic polished axes from the Manchester region to the important palaeolithic and mesolithic finds from Creswell Crags in Derbyshire which recently formed the subject of an important research project from The British Museum.

The Bronze Age is represented by fine weapons from all over Britain, including part of a hoard of bronze weapons and tools thrown in the River Ribble in Lancashire as offerings to the gods. The most spectacular item must be a pair of gold bracelets from Malpas in Cheshire.

Hammerstones from England's earliest metal mines at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, most found in excavations from 1874 to 1998, have formed - along with the unique wooden shovel - the stimulus for the Alderley Edge Landscape Project.

We have been building up a substantial archive of 'Celtic' stone heads. Although some are undoubtedly modern, they represent a tradition stretching back to pre-Roman times, we now have some important early examples. Further information on such heads in the region is welcome.

At its greatest extent, the Roman Empire was the largest the world has known. It is represented in Manchester by artefacts from areas as far apart as North Africa, Palestine and Germany, as well as from Italy itself.

At this point even Britain becomes part of the Mediterranean world, and so it is not surprising that in sheer quantity the major part of the Roman collection comes from Britain.

Most of the archive is from sites excavated by members of the University and by the Manchester Field Archaeology Unit. Relatively few of these finds will ever be worthy of display, but they are a major research tool and an archive of Manchester's history.

However, the collection does include three rather unlikely treasures.

A slave-chain still in perfect condition and still capable of holding six slaves by the neck, found at Bigbury, Kent, probably the site of Julius Caesar's first victory over the British in 55BC.

A scrap of Roman amphora excavated in Manchester in 1978 in a building that went out of use in c.185AD, inscribed with a word-square which is probably the earliest evidence for Christianity in Britain.

Complementing this is a Roman soldier's bronze diploma, his demob certificate, dated 27 February 158AD, found on the beach at Ravenglass in Cumbria not long ago and handed in to the Museum.

One of the most significant recent acquisitions has been the transfer by the Trustees of the Wellcome Institute of a large number of Etruscan, Greek and Roman bronzes and other items. The result is a fine collection of painted vases, carved gems, terracotta figures and metalwork going back to the Bronze Age of Mycenae and Crete, and extending down to the Greek colonies around the coasts of the Mediterranean (Greece's largest export has always been her people) and to the Etruscans in Italy. From them we can build up a lively picture of life in the Classical world.

The collection goes back to the excavations of Sir Flinders Petrie. The tradition of supporting research in the area has continued and forms the basis for our collection from regions like Cyprus, Jordan and Syria: notable among these is that from the Jerusalem 1960s excavations conducted by Kathleen Kenyon.

We have also supported work further east, in ancient Assyria, Babylonia and Persia (modern Turkey, Iraq and Iran). The richness of these cultures is reflected in the collections: Palaeolithic tools from Mount Carmel in Israel; Sumerian, Babylonian and Akkadian clay tablets in cuneiform script from Kish, Drehem, Umma and elsewhere; carved seals, showing that bureaucracy is nothing new; massive carved reliefs and delicate ivories from Nimrud; pottery, weapons and jewellery from the "Royal Cities of the Bible".

Members of the University have excavated in Iran and Turkey, and are currently digging in Turkey. However, with changes in legislation all finds must now stay in the country where they are found. As a result our collections form a rich teaching and research resource, since they often contain material that will never be brought into Britain again and may not even be available for study in its country of origin. While much of it is in the form of fragments of pottery and bone and not exciting display material, this is the stuff of which archaeological research into the lives of ordinary people is made, particularly as modern scientific techniques develop, and so it is much sought after by students and scholars.

Visit the Alderley Sandhill Project website.