A History of the World in 100 ObjectsNovember 16, 2011
Have you ever wondered what future generations will make of our lives when they look back? Will our descendants wonder why we continued to burn fossil fuels to drive our transportation network? Will they be fascinated by the details of how we recorded our favourite television shows on Sky+? Will they even be able to see many of the photos we are taking these days and storing in digital format?
I love history and archaeology, and the idea of objects from the past telling a story is compelling. That’s why I loved reading through Neil MacGregor’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. Neil has been Director of the British Museum since 2002, and presented a series on Radio 4 on the same subject as the book I am reviewing here.
The 707-page (including indices) book takes a look at various objects from different ages and area of mankind’s journey through time. It isn’t a purely chronological affair, but the objects do generally follow a progression from ancient to modern.
What sort of objects? How about an Egyptian mummy, which tells us something of how people lived in those times, but also how they died and what they believed happened to them afterwards. Or a bird-shaped pestle, which, Dr MacGregor writes, helps us understand the changing scene surrounding what we ate, and the fact that humans display an impressive intelligence in knowing how to cook.
We move through objects like the Standard of Ur, and a tablet which seems to tell the story of Noah’s Ark from a different time and place. Objects detailing the social climates are the most elusive and intangible to me. They tell us what people enjoyed as much as what they did.
The most modern objects are, I think, the ones that I was most interested in finding out about. Not just because they may be things I remember (not all of them are!) but because I wanted to see what Dr MacGregor would select as being the important objects to define this present age. We see a plate commemorating the Russian revolution, a throne made from various parts of weapons, and a credit card among other items. These got me thinking…
What would you choose to represent life today? A computer? A smartphone? Credit card? Car? What do you think will actually last long enough to be picked up by a scholar in a few hundred or thousand years time, allowing him or her a window back into the 21st Century? Will ditigal information survive? These are all questions I don’t really have an answer to, but I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Coming back to the matter at hand – the book – it’s a genuinely fascinating walk through history from the point of view of the objects dropped along the way. It’s great for anyone interested in history, or archaeology, or just for looking at some beautiful pictures of artefacts. And it’s hard not to read it without thinking, “I wonder what impression we will leave for future scholars”.
A History of the World in 100 Objects is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.