'In this book, we travel back in time and across the globe, to see how we humans have shaped our world and been shaped by it over the past two million years. The story is told exclusively through the things that humans have made - all sorts of things, carefully designed and then either admired and preserved or used, broken and thrown away. I've chosen just a hundred objects from different points on our journey - from a cooking pot to a golden galleon, from a Stone Age tool to a credit card, and each object comes from the collection of the British Museum.' [from the introduction]
This book takes a dramatically original approach to the history of humanity, using objects which previous civilisations have left behind them, often accidentally, as prisms through which we can explore past worlds and the lives of the men and women who lived in them. The book's range is enormous. It begins with one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands, a chopping tool from the Olduvai gorge in Africa, and ends with an object from the 21st century which represents the world we live in today.
Neil MacGregor's aim is not simply to describe these remarkable things, but to show us their significance - how a stone pillar tells us about a great Indian emperor preaching tolerance to his people, how Spanish pieces of eight tell us about the beginning of a global currency or how an early Victorian tea-set tells us about the impact of empire. Each chapter immerses the reader in a past civilisation accompanied by an exceptionally well-informed guide. Seen through this lens, history is a kaleidoscope - shifting, interconnected, constantly surprising, and shaping our world today in ways that most of us have never imagined. An intellectual and visual feast, it is one of the most engrossing and unusual history books published in years.
Vote for your favourite object on our Penguin UK Facebook page.
1) Mold Gold Cape
Finely worked gold cape, found in Mold, north Wales
For the local workmen, it must have seemed as if the old Welsh legends were true. They’d been sent to quarry stone in a field known as Bryn-yr-Ellyllon, which translates as the Fairies’ Hill or the Goblins’ Hill. Sightings of a ghostly boy, clad in gold, a glittering apparition in the moonlight, had been reported frequently enough for travellers to avoid the hill after dark. As the workmen dug into a large mound, they uncovered a stone-lined grave. In it were hundreds of amber beads, several bronze fragments and the remains of a skeleton. And wrapped around the skeleton was a mysterious crushed object – a large and finely decorated broken sheet of pure gold.
2) Oxus Chariot Model
Gold model, found near the Oxus river, on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan
In the fifth century BC, societies across the world were beginning to articulate very clear ideas about themselves and about others. They were inventing and defining what we would now call statecraft. This is the era of what some have called the ‘empires of the mind’. The world superpower of 2,500 years ago was Persia, an empire that was run on a rather different principle from previous empires. As Dr Michael Axworthy, the Director of the Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Exeter, has put it, up to that time they had generally been based on naked might being right; the Persian Empire was based on the principle of the iron fist in the velvet glove.
I want to explore that empire in this tiny golden chariot, pulled by four golden horses. It’s easy to imagine a chariot like this racing along the great Persian imperial roads. There are two figures in it: the driver, who stands holding the reins, and the much larger and clearly very important passenger, who sits on a bench at his side. He is probably meant to be a senior administrator, visiting the distant province that he rules on behalf of the king of Persia.
3) Admonitions Scroll
Painting, from China
After banqueting and gay sex in the early Roman Empire, smoking and ceremony in North America, ball games and belief in Mexico, we come to another kind of elaborate social pleasure – looking at painting. Specifically I want to look at a masterpiece of painting from China, in the form of a scroll, based on an original painted around the years AD 400 or 500. It embraces three separate art forms, in China known lyrically as ‘the three perfections’: painting, poetry and calligraphy. As a handscroll it was made to be viewed with selected friends, and as a fine work of art it was cherished by emperors over hundreds of years.
It’s known as The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies, or the admonitions Scroll, for short, and it’s a form of ancient guide to manners, and above all to morals, for ladies of the Chinese court – it tells powerful women how to behave.
4) Kakiemon Elephants
Porcelain figurines, from Japan
The elephants in the British Museum were shipped to Europe from Japan sometime between 1660 and 1700. They are about the size of Yorkshire terriers, and you know they are elephants essentially because they have trunks and tusks. Otherwise they are pretty startling. The body is of white porcelain, a beautiful milky white, and over that, painted in enamel, is broad decoration – patches of red on the legs, blue patterning over the backs, which is clearly meant to represent a harness, and a primrose-yellow edged in red on the insides of the ears – which are clearly the ears of an Asian elephant. The eyes, equally clearly, are Japanese eyes. There can be little doubt that the artist who made these elephants is imagining a creature that he has never seen, and there is no doubt at all that this artist is Japanese.
5) Hedwig Beaker
Glass, probably made in Syria
For many people, the name Hedwig, if it means anything at all, conjures up the obliging owl that delivers messages to Harry Potter. But if you come from central Europe, and especially if you come from Poland, Hedwig means something quite different: she’s a royal saint who, around 1200, became a national and religious symbol and who through the centuries has delivered not messages but miracles. The most famous of all Hedwig’s miracles was that the water in her glass turned regularly into wine, and across central Europe there is to this day a small, puzzling group of distinctive glass beakers alleged to be the very glasses from which she drank the miraculous liquid.
One of Hedwig’s beakers is now in the British Museum, and it takes us at once to the high religious politics at the time of the Crusades, the great age of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, and to the unexpected fact that the war between Christians and Muslims was accompanied by a great flourishing of trade. Recent research is now leading us to think that Hedwig’s beakers, revered in central Europe as evidence of a Christian miracle, were most probably made by Islamic glassworkers in the Middle East.
6) Hebrew Astrolabe
Brass astrolabe, probably from Spain
This is a portable model of the heavens, in the shape of an exquisite, circular brass instrument, which looks a bit like a large brass pocket watch. It’s an astrolabe, and with it in my hands I can tell the time, do some surveying, or work out my position in the world by sun or stars and, if I have enough information, cast your horoscope.
Although familiar to ancient Greeks, the astrolabe was an instrument that was particularly important for the Islamic world, as it allowed the faithful to find the direction of Mecca, so it is not surprising that the oldest astrolabe to survive is an Islamic one from the tenth century. But the astrolabe pictured here is a Jewish one made about 750 years ago in Spain. It is inscribed with Hebrew lettering, but it also contains Arabic and Spanish words, and it combines both Islamic and European decorative elements. It is not just an advanced scientific instrument, but also an emblem of a very particular moment in Europe’s religious and political history.
7) Seated Buddha from Gandhara
Stone statue, from Pakistan
Our sculpture – one of the earliest known – probably dates from the third century AD, when Gandhara was ruled by the Kushan kings of northern India, whose empire stretched from Kabul to Islamabad. It was a wealthy region thanks to its position on the Silk Road, the trade routes linking China, India and the Mediterranean. From Gandhara the main route ran west through Iran to Alexandria in Egypt. Gandhara’s prosperity and political stability allowed the construction of a great landscape of Buddhist shrines, monuments and sculpture, as well as supporting further missionary expansion. The religions that survive today are the ones that were spread and sustained by trade and power.
It’s profoundly paradoxical: Buddhism, the religion founded by an ascetic who spurned all comfort and riches, flourished thanks to the international trade in luxury goods. With those valuable commodities, like silk, went the monks and the missionaries, and with them went the Buddha, in human form, perhaps because such an image helps when you are teaching across a language barrier.
8) Lothair Crystal
Rock crystal depicting Susanna and the Elders, probably made in Germany
The Lothair Crystal, also known as the Susanna Crystal, is a flat disc of rock crystal about 18 centimetres (7 inches) in diameter, and carved into it is a biblical (or in some traditions an apocryphal) story in eight separate scenes, like a crystal cartoon strip. It is a story based in Babylon, where the beautiful young Susanna is the wife of a rich merchant. While she is bathing in her husband’s orchard, two older men intrude and try to bully her into having sex with them. She calls her servants for help, and the furious elders falsely claim that they saw her in the act of adultery. We then see Susanna being led away to almost certain death by stoning, but at that point the brilliant young prophet Daniel intervenes and challenges the evidence for her conviction.
Separating the elders, Daniel asks each of them one searching question in a classic courtroom drama: under what kind of tree did they see Susanna having sex? The men give conflicting answers, their story is exposed as fabricated, and it is they who are stoned to death, for perjury. In the final scene Susanna is declared innocent and gives thanks to God.
9) Arabian Bronze Hand
Bronze hand, from Yemen
This object is a right hand, cast in bronze, but it is not the hand of a god: it is a gift to a god. It is a human hand, an almost literal manifestation of the expression ‘to give your right hand for something’. The man whose hand is represented here wished to put his hand into the hand of his particular god and to gain his favour – he even shared the god’s name, Ta’lab.
About 1,700 years ago there were far more religions in the world than today, and many more gods. Gods then tended to have strictly local responsibilities, not the worldwide embrace that we’re used to now. In Mecca, for example, before Muhammad, pilgrims worshipped in a temple that had a statue of a different god for every day of the year.
Our latest object was a gift to one of those numberless Arabian gods that did not survive the coming of Muhammad. His full name was Ta’lab Riyam, meaning ‘the strong one of Riyam’. Riyam was a Yemeni hill town, and Ta’lab protected the local hill people. Yemen in the third century AD was a prosperous place, a hub of international trade that produced some of the most sought-after commodities for the vast markets of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and India. It was Yemen that supplied the whole Roman Empire with frankincense and myrrh.
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 640
Published : 28 Jun 2012
Publisher : Penguin
Other formats for A History of the World in 100 Objects:
» ePub eBook: eBook : £4.99
A History of the World in 100 Objects
Related email updates
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication or when the author releases another book.
Please alert me via email when: