July 24, 2011

A History of the World in 100 Objects

Tags: History, Podcasts

Available from iTunes or the BBC website or the British Museum website.

Originally broadcast on BBC radio, A History of the World in 100 Objects is an epic series attempting to describe all human history via the stories of a 100 carefully selected objects from the British Museum. The complete list of objects is available here. There are 100 episodes (one per object), each around 14 minutes long and 6.5 MB in audio only MP3 format. They are all produced to an exceptionally high standard. More information on each object is available online at either the BBC or British Museum websites and many can be seen on display at the museum.

Each episode is presented by Neil MacGregor (the Director of the British Museum) and introduces the object before proceeding to it’s historical context. Sometimes this is the method of its creation or it’s usage or it’s passage through time. For instance, episode 90 details a jade Bi originally crafted in the bronze age, but now with a poem carved into it by the Chinese Qianlong Emperor around 1790AD, is used to illustrate “Exploration, Exploitation and Enlightenment” in the 18th century. Sometimes there is also a discussion of the object’s meaning to modern viewers, like the homosexual scenes displayed on the Warren Cup in episode 36. The objects are from across the world and time although cultures that left objects of a more durable nature and written histories feature more regularly. Hence most of the objects are from Europe and Asia. while there is a single object from Australia. The cliche may be that the victors’ write history, but this series suggests history is written by those who actually manage to write it at all - especially if written in stone or metal.

Despite most human-made objects being created in the last century or so, the chosen objects are distributed reasonably evenly over time. It takes 35 objects to reach 1 AD and another 21 objects to reach 1000AD. The object’s are presented in chronological order, but organised into a groups of 5 by a theme describing the broad brush stroke of history at that point in time. The first theme is “Making Us Human” (2,000,000 to 9000BC) and the last “The World of Our Making” (from 1914 to present). Inbetween there are topics like “The Beginning of Science & Literature” (1500 - 700 BC), “The Rise of World Faiths” (200 - 600 AD) and “The First Global Economy” (1450 - 1600 AD). It would take a particularly indifferent listener not to find a couple of interesting stories among the series.

There are far too many objects to discuss them all, but here are some I found noteworthy. Object #15 is an early writing tablet detailing beer rations for workers. It seems writing is likely to have started for the utilitarian purpose of accounting, only later being used for fiction. A jade axe made in Italy but found in Britain (object #14) and a Minoan bronze (object #18) made with materials from the Middle East, demonstrate that long distance trade routes existed over 3000 years ago. Then there are the cultures previously unknown to me, like the Moche (object #48) and the Huastec (object #69). This was even the case within Europe with the Kingdom of Lotharingia (object #53), precariously squeezed between early France and Germany (and soon swallowed by them). There are also pottery shards from Kilwa, Tanzania (object #60), evidence of medieval cities and trading posts along the east African coast. The series ends with a credit card (object #99) and a solar powered lamp & mobile phone charger (object #100) - a good choice for the current world and an optimistic look towards the future respectively.