The diverse cultural life of Africa has been expressed through everyday objects and unique works of art since ancient times. The Museum’s collection of over 200,000 African items encompasses archaeological and contemporary material from across the continent.

Introduction to Africa

Humans first evolved in Africa, walking upright about five million years ago, and making the first tools about two and a half million years ago using the opposable thumb. The British Museum collection includes objects dating from this time, but also represents historic and contemporary societies across the continent.

Ancient Egypt

Towards the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E. several independent city-states were unified to form a single state, marking the beginning of over 3,000 years of pharaonic civilization in the Nile Valley. Fertile earth left behind after the yearly Nile flood provided the basis for Egypt’s agricultural prosperity, a key factor in the longevity of the civilization.
Gebelein Man: virtual autopsy, exploring a natural mummy from early Egypt
This man died more than five thousand years ago and was buried at the site of Gebelein, in Upper Egypt. The reconstruction of his grave illustrates the early Egyptian custom of placing the body in a contracted, foetal position, usually on the left side, with the head to the south, facing the west, the land of the dead where he would be reborn. Around him were all the things he might need for his afterlife, especially pottery to hold and serve food. Before the pharaohs In the Predynastic period (4400-3100 B.C.E.), the time before the pharaohs, the dead were buried in shallow graves cut into the desert sand. The graves were often lined with reed mats, making them like a bed, and the body was covered with linen or skins and more mats, like a blanket, before the grave was refilled and perhaps topped by a mound of dirt. Contact with the hot dry sand naturally preserved the bodies because the sand absorbed the water that constitutes approximately 75% by weight of the human body. Bacteria cannot breed without moisture and as a result, the bodies frequently did not decay, but simply dried out. The body of this man is remarkably well-preserved, even down to his finger-nails and hair, which has probably faded with time. Chance discoveries of these sand-dried mummies (for example, when a grave was disturbed by animals or robbers), may have promoted the belief that physical preservation of the body was necessary for the afterlife. This may have led the later Egyptians to develop means of artificial mummification after the introduction of coffins and deeper graves separated the body from the natural drying effects of the sand. The objects that surrounded Gebelein Man in his original burial are unknown. On display is a selection of typical grave-goods from other graves of the middle Predynastic period (about 3500 B.C.E.), the time we believe he died. Attempts to date the body using Carbon 14 (the radiocarbon method) have so far been unsuccessful. He has been in the British Museum collection for over 100 years, but it was not until 2012 that he was CT scanned for the first time. Detailed images created from the CT scans' high resolution X-rays are allowing us to look inside his body and learn about his life and his death in ways never before possible. © Trustees of the British Museum

Aksum

Aksum was the name of a city and a kingdom which is essentially modern-day northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Aksum was a major naval and trading power from the 1st to the 7th centuries C.E. As a civilization it had a profound impact upon the people of Egypt, southern Arabia, Europe and Asia, all of whom were visitors to its shores, and in some cases were residents.

Benin

Until the late 19th century, one of the major powers in West Africa was the kingdom of Benin in what is now southwest Nigeria.