A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor, Allen Lane RRP£30, 738 pages
Radio 4 listeners – and what intelligent, thoughtful Briton is not a Radio 4 listener? – have spent the past six months being charmed and intrigued by Neil MacGregor relating the history of the world by reference to 100 objects that can be found in the British Museum, of which he is director. Gloriously unfamiliar objects such as the north American otter pipe (200BC-AD100), the sphinx of Tarharqo (680BC), gold coins of Abd al-Malik (AD696) and Tang Tomb figurines (AD728) were brought alive and placed in their historical and cultural context in an amusing and often enticing way. And now here is the lavishly illustrated book of those radio scripts.
Mark Damazer, then head of Radio 4, challenged MacGregor and his museum colleagues to choose 100 objects “that had to range in date from the beginning of human history around 2m years ago and come right up to the present day. The objects had to cover the whole world, as far as possible equally. They would try to address as many aspects of human experience as proved practicable, and to tell us about whole societies, not just the rich and powerful within them.”
Yet far from being merely a sophisticated and intellectually stimulating parlour game, MacGregor’s acceptance of Damazer’s proposition had a deeper purpose, which was to try to justify museums in the digital media age. For listeners and readers will want to go to look at and be in the presence of the 100 objects themselves. This is therefore altogether more important than the jeu d’esprit that it might at first sight seem.
Because these pieces were written in order to be read over the airwaves, the style is authentic, personal and humorous, and almost tells us as much about the impishly witty MacGregor as it does about the objects.
Of the gorgeously wrought but sexually explicit Warren cup (AD5) found near Jerusalem, with its depiction of a boy peeping around a door at two Greeks engaged in vigorous sodomy, MacGregor writes: “He is clearly a slave, although it is impossible to know whether he is simply indulging in voyeurism, or apprehensively responding to a call for ‘room service’.” Elsewhere of that cup, MacGregor wonders, “Perhaps everybody believes that the best sex happens somewhere else.”
A few of the objects are well known, such as Dürer’s woodcut of the rhinoceros, the statue of Ramses II, and the Sutton Hoo helmet, but the majority will only be known to British Museum cognoscenti, and it is the obscurer objects that have been presently drawing the crowds to Bloomsbury on the back of MacGregor’s radio broadcasts. We knew the museum had the Rosetta stone, lots of Egyptian mummies and the Elgin marbles, of course, but how many of us knew about such beautiful and fascinating objects as the Mexican ceremonial ballgame belt (AD100-500), the South Korean roof tile (AD700-800), the Zhou ritual vessel (1,050BC), the Hoxne pepper pot (AD300-400) or the tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent (AD1520)?
That mankind has always tried to express itself artistically is one of the lessons we take from MacGregor’s efforts, but also that the powerful have long tried to misappropriate art for political propaganda purposes, as well illustrated by a Turkish coin with the head of Alexander the Great (305BC), or the bronze statue of the emperor Augustus (27BC), which was found in the Sudan. “A thoughtful alien handling the banknotes of China and the United States today,” MacGregor writes, “might well assume that one was ruled by Mao and the other by George Washington.”
Another lesson is that events that we think epicentral to history might just not be in the estimation of our children or grandchildren; MacGregor delights in the fact that among his objects, “Canonical events – the making of the Roman Empire, the Mongol destruction of Baghdad, the European Renaissance, the Napoleonic wars, the bombing of Hiroshima – are not centre stage”.
If there is a bias evident in MacGregor’s choices, it is for the losers in history’s great struggles; he enjoys championing underdogs whose societies were eclipsed aeons ago, and thereby forces us to think of our own place in the history of global civilisation. “The Caribbean Taino, the Australian Aboriginals, the African people of Benin and the Incas,” he writes, “can speak to us now of their past achievements most powerfully through the objects they made,” and each of them is featured here.
Because history is written by the victors – and in the case of the Huastec people only after their vanquishers, the Aztecs, were themselves vanquished by the Spanish conquistadores – MacGregor argues that written records can be less objective than the everyday objects that have survived. Similarly, we might not know for certain what the Beijing jade “Bi” ring (1200BC) was actually for, but we know what the Qianlong emperor many centuries later thought it was for. (A bowl stand.)
The 100th and final object is a solar-powered lamp and mobile phone charger. So, after 1.8m years of human development since we fashioned the Tanzanian Olduvai stone chopping tool, during which time our species has wrought such things of beauty as the gold coins of Croesus (550BC), the Moselle Basse-Yutz flagons (450BC), the David porcelain vases of Yushan, China (AD1351), as well as gorgeous objects made from stone, feathers, jade, sandalwood and silver, we have finally come to such a pitch of excellence that our own modern civilisation can be defined by a solar-powered lamp and mobile phone charger.
MacGregor could not have skewered our pretensions better; we too often think ourselves superior to earlier inhabitants of the planet simply because of the chronological – and all too swiftly altered – accident that we are alive. Look at the photographs of the majestic centaur and Lapith on the Parthenon Sculpture (440BC) or the Augsburg mechanical galleon (1585), and then fast-forward through the centuries to our own green plastic solar-powered lamp and mobile phone charger.
Look on our works, ye mighty, and despair.
Andrew Roberts is author of ‘The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War’ (Penguin)