Treasure trove of man's history

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The Independent Online
IDENTIFICATION of the Gilgamesh fragment is only one of dozens of archaeological discoveries made every year - inside the British Museum.

Most people probably think of it as simply a vast collection of display cases filled with antiquities, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Only 1 per cent of the objects are on view. The rest - 7 million objects - are kept in storerooms and constitute the world's largest archaeological research collection.

Every year more than 10,000 scholars come from dozens of countries to carry out vital research work on this vast stored collection. The visiting scholars examine up to 250,000 items, while British Museum staff carry out research into thousands more.

Recent breakthroughs have included:

t The discovery of the earliest sword blade made of so-called "crucible" extra-hard steel. Dating from the 7th century AD, it was identified using a metallographic microscope in the museum's research laboratory;

t The discovery that the red enamel used for decorating treasures in Dark Age Britain was made from metallurgical waste products;

t The revelation that a large fragment of ancient Egyptian manuscript was in fact the missing part of a papyrus in a French museum;

t The identification of early coin forgeries and an understanding as to how they were forged;

t And the discovery that Romano-Egyptian portraits were painted after death.

Objects are studied in great detail. Paint is analysed to discover the nature and source of pigments, and wooden items are sampled to find out what type of timber was used in their manufacture and where the timber might have originated from.

Residue stuck to the insides of ancient pots is examined to discover what individual ceramic vessels were used for. DNA from mummified bodies is used to trace family relationships, illuminating previously unknown aspects of history.

And, as in the Gilgamesh discovery, thousands of fragments of ancient writing tablets are studied to reconstruct texts last seen thousands of years ago.

As well as scholars from Britain and overseas, the stored collection also attracts members of the public doing their own research projects - everything from the investigation of ancient farming methods to the study of the development of textile technology.