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The Department of Middle East houses a rich South Arabian collection, one of the most important outside Yemen.
It includes over 800 antiquities from Yemen: inscriptions on stone blocks and metal plaques, sculptures, funerary stelae, altars and incense burners, silver and bronze coins, gold jewellery, seals, metalwork and pottery.
From the cultural, historical and linguistic point of view, it is a complete collection, that includes material originating from all the kingdoms of the ancient South Arabia: Saba, Main, Qataban and Hadramawt. Thus, the British inscriptions document the four Semitic languages of South Arabia.
 
The British connection with Southern Arabia begins in 1838, with the acquisition of Aden by Commander Stafford B. Haines from Sultan Mahsin bin Fadl of Lahj and Aden.
The strategic position of the port of Aden was significantly enhanced with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869. Aden became the main local market for South Arabian antiquities owing to its concentration of foreign residents and travellers passing to and from India via the Red Sea.
 
Apart from a single coin bequeathed in 1824, the ancient South Arabian collection only developed after 1862 as a result of gifts and purchases from British political administrators and military officers based in Aden, as the Colonel William Marcus Coghlan, which presented in 1862 an important collection of 27 inscribed bronze plaques from Amran, a small town north of Sana.
From this period onwards British military officers, political agents, district officers and other civil servants played a significant role in the recording and acquisition of antiquities, particularly from the area of the Wādī Bayḥān and the Wādī Markha.
The British Museum, according with its intellectual tradition, was particularly interested in acquiring inscriptions, a choice which contributes and coincides with the first attempts to read these inscriptions and include them in the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum.
 
The South-Arabian collection of the British Museum has been catalogued within the European project MENCAWAR. Photos are courtesy of the British Museum.

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