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Ancient Worlds: The creativity of great civilisations

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Ancient Worlds: The creativity of great civilisations

The Museum's collection of items from great civilisations and earlier cultures illustrates the practical similarities and artistic differences in human creativity. It's a major theme of the Ancient Worlds gallery, designed for the general public as well as students of classical studies and broader human history.

Egyptian mummy mask from the Late Period, 747-332BC

Egyptian mummy mask from the Late Period, 747-332BC

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

A window on ancient worlds

The Museum's collection includes items from the great civilisations of the past, particularly Egypt, Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, India, China and Central and South America. It also includes stone tools illustrating much older human cultures, when hunting and gathering was the universal way of life, as well as material from the Neolithic (or agricultural) revolution period, which was the essential foundation for the rise of civilisations.

These Items are displayed in the Ancient Worlds gallery, which provides an introduction to the tools and arts of all these regions. The gallery is designed for anyone who wants to know more of these aspects of the human past. It is also directed towards the needs of secondary and tertiary students doing classical studies and other courses in the broader area of human history.

From great civilisations, a common inheritance for all of us

Two big themes in the Ancient Worlds gallery contrast the similarity of the human experience across early civilisations of the Old and New Worlds, with the differences in their artistic expression. Tools, weapons, containers, personal ornaments and early written scripts have much in common in order to do what they are intended for. But the artistic creativity of different societies could take them in very different directions. Part of the range of creativity we have inherited from the past, including pottery, jewellery and stone pieces, is shown in the gallery.

Illustrating huge topics in world history

A single item from the collection has been selected to represent and signpost displays in the Ancient Worlds gallery for each region. The items are:

  • Southwest Asia, a Palestine Bronze Age bowl
  • Greece, a black figure hydria or large water jar
  • Rome, an amphora
  • China, a Neolithic painted pot
  • The Americas, a painted ceramic figure

The wider displays of items then provide fascinating insights into the similarities and differences between societies from the following regions.


Much of the gallery is taken up with material from Ancient Egypt. Isolated by desert and sea, Egypt developed a unique and self-contained culture that lasted 3000 years. This was the greatest civilisation of the ancient world. The Egyptian mummy, which was subject to a major Museum conservation project, is on show. Also on show are Palaeolithic tools dating from tens of thousands of years before the age of the pharaohs.

A CT scan reveals what lies beneath the bandages of Souser-iret-binet\u0027s mummified remains.

A CT scan reveals what lies beneath the bandages of Souser-iret-binet's mummified remains.

Images courtesy of Mercy RadiologyAuckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.


Among material from Mesopotamia are collections excavated in the 1920s and 30s by Leonard Woolley at the Sumerian city of Ur and by Max Mallowan in the 1930s at the much older Neolithic settlement of Arpachiyah in northern Iraq. These collections of complete pots and sherds, jewellery and stone tools were donated by the British Museum.


Greece is represented by material from the Archaic, Classical and Macedonian (or Hellenic) periods, that is, from about 700 BC to the conquest by Rome in 148 BC. The arts and ideas of Ancient Greece were revived in the Renaissance and have been at the heart of European civilisation since then. Most important among these are the decorated pots dating from as early as the Mycaenean culture (ca 1650-1200 BC).


The republic and empire of Rome ruled much of Europe and the Mediterranean for hundreds of years at the end of the 1st millennium BC and early in the 1st millennium AD. It is represented in the gallery by jewellery and glass among other items.


Another section presents Stone Age and Bronze Age Europe. Archaeological material including Stone and Bronze Age tools from the Swiss Lake Villages tells an important part of this story.

Bronze Age axe, Europe.

Bronze Age axe, Europe.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

India, China

The first Indian and Chinese civilisations were, like those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, based on the productivity of irrigated agriculture which led to population growth and the rise of cities and states. The Bronze Age Indus Valley civilisation and early Chinese states of the Yellow River valley are marked by their arts and well-planned towns. China was first unified under the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Ceramics and Chinese bronzes feature in the India and China section of the gallery.

Painted pot from north-west India, dating from before the rise of the Indus Valley civilisation in the 2nd millennium BC.

Painted pot from north-west India, dating from before the rise of the Indus Valley civilisation in the 2nd millennium BC.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.


Increased food production in the Americas led to larger populations and in turn to complex urban societies. The main civilisations of the New World were in Mexico and nearby parts of Central America, and on the Andean highlands and coast of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia in South America. Both areas had notable ceramic and fabric arts, and architecture that ranged from huge pyramids of the Mexican city of Teotihuacan to stone-built cities of Cuzco and Machu Picchu in Peru.

Cite this article

Prickett, Nigel. Ancient Worlds: The creativity of great civilisations. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 5 June 2015. Updated: 9 July 2015.

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