A History of the World in 100 Objects

December 31 2010

Click cover to order the 700-page book.


Links below are straight to the BBC Radio 4 podcasts from the fantastically successful 2010 series. They will open in a new window. BBC descriptions are slightly edited here. Main page for series.

  1. Mummy of Hornedjitef. This ornate Egyptian coffin holds secrets to the understanding of their priests’ religion, Egyptian society and Egypt’s connections to the rest of the world. At the age of eight, Neil MacGregor visited the British Museum for the first time and came face to face with this object. It has fascinated and intrigued him ever since. Image.
  2. Olduvai stone chopping tool. A simple chipped stone from the Rift Valley in Tanzania marks the emergence of modern humans. Faced with the needs to cut meat from carcasses, early humans in Africa discovered how to shape stones into cutting tools. From that one innovation, a whole history of human development springs. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, tells the story with contributions from flint napper Phil Harding, Sir David Attenborough and African Nobel Prize winner Dr Wangeri Maathai. Image.
  3. Olduvai handaxe. As early humans slowly began to move beyond their African homeland, they took with them one essential item – a handaxe. It is the most widely-used tool humans have created. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, sees just how vital to our evolution this sharp, ingenious implement was and how it allowed the spread of humans across the globe. Including contributions from designer Sir James Dyson and archaeologist Nick Ashton. Image.
  4. Swimming reindeer. Found in France and dating back 13,000 years, this is a carving of two swimming reindeer. The creator of this carving was one of the first [exaggeration] humans to express their world through art. But why did they do it? Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, tells the story of the swimming reindeer’s place in the history of art and religion. With contributions from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and archaeologist Professor Steven Mithen. Image.
  5. Clovis spear point. This sharp spearhead helps us understand how humans spread across the globe. By 11,000 BC humans had moved from North East Asia into the uninhabited wilderness of North America. Within 2,000 years they had populated the whole continent. How did these hunters live, and how is their Asian origin reflected in the creation stories of modern-day Native Americans? Including contributions from Michael Palin and American archaeologist Gary Haynes. Image.
  6. Bird-shaped pestle. At the end of the Ice Age, one of the most important parts of human existence was finding enough food to survive. Taking a pestle from Papua New Guinea as an example, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, asks why our ancestors decided to cook foods, rather than just eat them raw. The answer provides us with a telling insight into the way early humans settled on the land. Including contributions by food writer Madhur Jaffrey, campaigner Sir Bob Geldof and archaeologist Professor Martin Jones. Image.
  7. Ain Sakhri lovers figurine. A palm-sized stone sculpture made in Northern Israel 12,000 years ago clearly shows a couple entwined in the act of love. Sculptor Marc Quinn responds to the stone as art, and archaeologist Dr Ian Hodder considers the Natufian society that produced it. What was human life and society actually like all those years ago? Possibly a lot more sophisticated than we imagine. Image.
  8. Egyptian clay model of cattle. Four frail-looking cows were made from Nile mud in Egypt 5,500 years ago, long before the time of the pyramids or the pharaohs. They show the major changes that early man was undergoing at the end of the Ice Age. Why did the Egyptians start burying objects like this one with their dead? Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, goes in search of life and death on the Nile and discovers how the domestication of cattle transformed human existence. Image.
  9. Maya maize god statue. This stone maize god was discovered on the site of a major Mayan city in present-day Honduras and is wearing a headdress in the shape of a giant corn cob. Maize was not only worshipped at that time but the Maya also believed that their ancestors were descended from maize. Including contributions from the anthropologist Professor John Staller and the restaurateur Santiago Calva, who explain the complexity of Mayan mythological belief and the ongoing power of maize in Central America today. Image.
  10. Jomon pot. A 7,000-year-old Japanese clay pot has managed to remain almost perfectly intact. Pots began in Japan around 17,000 years ago and by the time this pot was made had achieved a remarkable sophistication. This simple clay object makes a fascinating connection between the Japan of today and the emerging world of people in Japan at the end of the Ice Age. What was the significance of agriculture to the Jomon and how did they make their pots? Image.
  11. King Den’s sandal label. A small label, made from hippopotamus ivory and attached to the sandals of one of the earliest known kings of Egypt. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at what this label, with its hieroglyphs describing the king and his military conquests, can tell us about new trade links, the first handwriting, and new forms of leadership and beliefs. All of which emerge as large numbers of people come together in the world’s first cities between 5,000 and 2,000 BC. Image.
  12. Standard of Ur. A set of mosaic scenes, mounted on a single box, show powerful images of battle and regal life. The Standard of Ur was found nearly 100 years ago at a royal burial site in the city of Ur, in southern Iraq, and remains remarkably well preserved given its 4,500-year-old history. Uncovered with magnificent gold and silver jewellery at the heart of one of the first great civilisations in the world, what can it tell us about the nature of kingship and power in Mesopotamia? Image.
  13. Indus seal. The ancient city of Harappa lies around 150 miles north of Lahore, in Pakistan. It was once one of the great centres of a civilisation with vast trade connections, which built over 100 cities, some with sophisticated sanitation systems, large-scale architecture and even a modern grid layout. But the Indus civilisation in Pakistan and India had been totally forgotten until a small seal, used for making impressions in wax or clay, led to its rediscovery. Image.
  14. Jade axe. A 6,000-year-old, polished, stone axe found in Canterbury, but made in the Alps. Between 5,000 and 2,000 BC Mesopotamia built the royal city of Ur, the Indus valley boasted the city of Harappa, and the great early civilisation of Egypt spread along the Nile. But in Britain, and most other places, life was much simpler. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, tells the story of how this beautiful jade axe may have been used and traded, and how its source was traced to the heart of Europe. Image.
  15. Early writing tablet. A small clay tablet made in Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago. It is covered with sums but also some of the world’s earliest writing – about beer rationing. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at how humans invented writing to cope with the increasing sophistication of trade and commerce. Including contributions from philosopher John Searle, on what the invention of writing does for the human mind, and Britain’s top civil servant, Sir Gus O’Donnell, on the beginnings of bureaucracy. Image.
  16. Flood tablet. A small tablet, found in modern Iraq, tells of a plan by the gods to destroy the world by means of a great flood. Pre-dating the story of Noah, when it was translated in 1872, this fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh caused a storm around the world and led to a passionate debate about the truth of the Bible, and about storytelling and the universality of legend. How could the similarity between the Mesopotamian myth and the biblical Flood story be explained? Image.
  17. Rhind mathematical papyrus. An ancient Egyptian papyrus from around 1550 BC, used to train scribes. It contains 84 different calculations to help with various aspects of Egyptian life, from pyramid building to working out how much grain it takes to fatten a goose. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at man’s early experiments with numbers and discovers how the Egyptians’ understanding of mathematics enabled them to build a state machine which could manage food supplies and even compute the flood levels of the Nile. Image.
  18. Minoan bull leaper. A small, bronze sculpture of a man leaping over a bull from the island of Crete is the starting point for an exploration of the Minoans, their rich bronze-making tradition and the role of the bull in myth and legend. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at a complex and still largely unknown culture at the centre of the vast network of trade routes in the Mediterranean of the time. He also tracks down a modern day bull leaper to try and figure out the attraction. Image.
  19. Mold gold cape. A gold cape made almost 4,000 years ago and discovered in 1833, by a group of workmen looking for stones in a field near the village of Mold in North Wales. This sheet of pure gold, found wrapped around a skeleton, inspires Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, to envisage the society that made it. Nothing like the contemporary courts of the pharaohs of Egypt, or the Minoan palaces of Crete, seems to have existed in Britain at that time, but he imagines a people with surprisingly sophisticated skills and social structures. Image.
  20. Statue of Ramesses II. Colossal statue of Ramesses II, one of ancient Egypt’s most famous and successful pharaohs. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, considers the achievements of Ramesses II, a ruler who built monuments all over Egypt, inspired a line of future pharaohs and was worshipped as a god a thousand years later. He looks at how this statue helped define the image of imperial Egypt and talks to sculptor Antony Gormley about creating monumental works of art. Image.
  21. Lachish reliefs. Stone carvings from the palace of King Sennacherib of Assyria, showing his army attacking the town of Lachish, near Jerusalem. The Assyrian war machine was to create the largest empire that the world had ever seen and used the terror tactic of mass deportations. These giant stone carvings show powerful images of war and, perhaps for the first time, the terrible consequences on civilian populations. Includes contributions from the statesman Paddy Ashdown and the historian Antony Beevor. Image.
  22. Sphinx of Taharqo. A sphinx with the black African face of pharaoh Taharqo of Kush, in Sudan. These days few people even know that the mighty land of the Pharaohs was once ruled over by its southern neighbour. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, describes what was happening along the River Nile and how a powerful new king, from a vibrant new civilisation, conquered Egypt. Image.
  23. Chinese Zhou ritual vessel. A Chinese bronze vessel used both for feasting and as an object to be buried alongside the dead for use in the afterlife. What can this beautiful bronze bowl tell us about life in China at this time? Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, finds out how the long-established Shang dynasty was overthrown by a group of outsiders, the Zhou. With contributions from Dame Jessica Rawson and the Chinese scholar Wang Tao. Image.
  24. Paracas textile. Pieces of cloth found wrapped around a mummified body on the coast of Peru. The early Peruvians went to astonishing lengths to make and decorate their textiles, whose colours remain striking to this day. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, asks what they were for and what they tell us about the beliefs of this time. He tries to piece together what life might have been like for these people living on the Paracas peninsula around 500 BC. Image.
  25. Gold coin of Croesus. One of the world’s earliest coins, minted in ancient Turkey about 2,500 years ago. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at how a powerful new state found a dramatic way to help run its increasingly complex economy and trading networks. How did money, in the form of coins, first come about? And why do we still talk of the wealth of Croesus, a king of Lydia, in what is now western Turkey? Image.
  26. Oxus chariot model. This hand-sized model of a gold chariot pulled by four horses helps explain the rule of Cyrus, the “king of kings”, and his ambitions for his vast territory. Cyrus, the first Persian emperor, created the largest empire the world had ever known. It stretched from Turkey to Pakistan and required a hugely sophisticated network of communications and control. Image.
  27. Parthenon sculpture: centaur and Lapith. Sculpture of a half-man, half-horse rearing over a dead human from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Carved out of marble around 440 BC, these beautiful figures continue to generate huge controversy around the world for the fact that they remain in London and have not been returned to Greece. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, acknowledges the political controversy, but concentrates on their artistic story and the ancient Greek world that created them – a culture besotted with the myths and imagery of battle. With contributions from Greek archaeologist Olga Palagia and classicist Mary Beard. Image.
  28. Basse Yutz flagons. The Basse Yutz flagons – two bronze drinking flagons made by the Celts in Northern Europe 2,500 years ago and considered to be [among] the most important and earliest examples of Celtic art. Writer Jonathan Meades and Barry Cunliffe help describe the Celts, dissect the stereotypes and consider their celebrated love of drink. Image.
  29. Olmec stone mask. A stone face made by Olmecs, the first Central American culture to build cities and develop writing. As the Parthenon was being created in Greece and the Persians were expanding the world’s biggest empire, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, considers what was life like for the “mother culture” of Central America. With contributions from the Olmec specialist Karl Taube and the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. Image.
  30. Chinese bronze bell. A Chinese bell which plays different notes when hit in different places. Confucius believed in a society that worked in harmony. How do his teachings go down in China today? Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the Confucian view of the world with reference to this large bronze bell, and with help from the writer Isabel Hilton and the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Image.
  31. Coin with head of Alexander. Coin showing Alexander the Great, issued by one of his successors. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, tells the story of Alexander through this small silver coin made years after his death. One of history’s most famous leaders, his empire was to stretch from Egypt to northern India and left an impressive legacy to the world today. Political commentator Andrew Marr considers Alexander as a model for future rulers and the historian Robin Lane-Fox explains the motivation behind Alexander’s extraordinary ascent. Image.
  32. Pillar of Ashoka. A fragment from a pillar edict of Indian ruler Ashoka. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at how Ashoka turned his back on violence and plunder to promote the ethical codes inspired by Buddhism. Ashoka communicated to his vast new nation through a series of edicts written on rocks and pillars, but what is his legacy in the Indian sub-continent today? Amartya Sen and the Bhutanese envoy to Britain, Michael Rutland, describe what happened when Buddhism and the power of the state came together. Image.
  33. Rosetta Stone. Ancient Egyptian stela with text in Greek, hieroglyphs and demotic. The Rosetta Stone is one of the British Museum’s best known objects and a valuable key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, tells the story of the Egypt of Ptolemy V. He also looks at the Greek kings who ruled in Alexandria and the struggle between the British and the French over the Middle East and their squabble over the stone. Historian Dorothy Thompson and the writer Ahdaf Soueif help untangle the tale. Image.
  34. Chinese Han lacquer cup. A lacquer cup made on the orders of the Chinese Han dynasty emperor. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, tells the story of the cup, most probably given by the emperor to one of his military commanders in North Korea, and how the Chinese maintained loyalty and control by dispensing luxury gifts. The historian Roel Sterckx underlines the importance of lacquer for the period, while writer Isabel Hilton looks at how the production of goods under state control has remained a consistent interest of the Chinese. Image.
  35. Head of Augustus. Head of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at one of the world’s most famous rulers, whose powerful, God-like status is brilliantly enshrined in a 2000-year-old bronze head with striking eyes. He explores how Augustus dramatically enlarged the Roman Empire, establishing his image as one of its most familiar objects. The historian Susan Walker and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, help explain the power and methodology of Augustus. Image.
  36. Warren cup. A silver cup that offers a rare glimpse into the world of sexual love in ancient Rome. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at the Warren cup, which features such explicit images of homosexual acts that it was once banned from America and museums refused to buy it. He explores how sexuality was viewed at this time and why the Romans were so keen to copy the Greeks. The historians Bettany Hughes and James Davidson help provide the answers. Image.
  37. North American otter pipe. Stone pipe shaped as an otter and used in ritual tobacco-smoking. The pipe is one of hundreds shaped as animals that were found in huge mounds in present-day Ohio. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, pieces together the evidence for how these pipes were used. Former MP Tony Benn considers the allure of smoking, while Native American historian Gabrielle Tayac describes how the pipe performed a central role in traditional life. Image.
  38. Ceremonial ballgame belt. A ceremonial stone belt from central America. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at the ceremonial version of the leather and fibre padding used in an ancient ball game – the world’s oldest-known organised sport. Historian Michael Whittington considers the ritual aspects of the game and writer Nick Hornby describes how sport straddles the emotional territory between the sacred and the profane. Image.
  39. Admonitions scroll. Chinese scroll with advice for palace ladies on correct behaviour. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores this eleven-foot painting based on a poem, which attempted to define the proper behaviour for women during the tumultuous time that followed the collapse of the Han Empire. He tells the story of the scroll and finds out what it is was about women’s behaviour that was so worrying men of the period. Image.
  40. Hoxne pepper pot. A silver pepper pot from a Roman treasure hoard found buried in England. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at how the elite of Roman Britain sustained their appetite for luxury goods and good living in the years before their demise. He explores how Romans satisfied their particular taste for pepper, with contributions from the food writer Christine McFadden and historian Roberta Tomber. Image.
  41. Seated Buddha of Gandhara. One of the earliest images of the seated Buddha. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at how Buddhism set about creating the classic image to represent the real life Buddha, who lived and roamed around North India in the 5th century BC. It was not until over five hundred years later that the classic seated image was first formulated. The Dalai Lama’s official translator, Thupten Jinpa, and the historian Claudine Bautze-Picron help explain how the image came about. Image.
  42. Gold coin of Kumaragupta I. Gold coin from the Gupta empire, showing a goddess and a horse. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the Hindu images of gods and goddesses that can be found on coins from the Gupta empire, which flourished in India from around 320 to 550 AD. The Gupta period is regarded by many Indians as a golden age, a time when Indian cultural life and religion came together to create temples and texts that are central to Hinduism today. Image.
  43. Silver plate showing Shapur II. Silver plate showing Sasanian King Shapur II, who ruled Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at power and faith in 4th-century Iran. He describes how an apparently secular image of King Shapur II hunting deer reveals the beliefs of the day, when the king was seen as the agent of god and the upholder of the state religion – Zoroastrianism. He explores why the belief system of such a powerful dynasty failed to become a dominant world religion. Image.
  44. Hinton St Mary mosaic. One of the earliest known images of Christ. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at this mosaic which was made somewhere around the year 350 and was found on the floor of a Roman villa in Dorset. He explores what the object’s survival says about the state of Christianity at this time and what sort of Christ was imagined in Roman Britain. Historians Dame Averil Cameron and Eamon Duffy help paint the picture. Image.
  45. Arabian bronze hand. Life-sized bronze hand with writing on the back. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the religious climate of pre-Islamic Arabia and its wealth of local gods and imported beliefs. The bronze hand is not part of a god, but a gift to a god in a Yemeni hill village. The hand surgeon Jeremy Field considers whether this was the modelled from a real human hand and religious historian Philip Jenkins reflects on what happens to the old pagan gods when a brand new religion sweeps into town. Image.
  46. Gold coins of Abd Al-Malik. Gold coins from Syria. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at how the Syrian capital Damascus was rapidly becoming the centre of a new Islamic empire. He tells the story through two gold coins that perfectly capture the moment – with contributions from the historian Hugh Kennedy and the anthropologist Madawi Al-Rasheed. Image.
  47. Sutton Hoo helmet. Helmet found in the grave of an Anglo-Saxon warrior king. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, travels to East Anglia to describe the sensational burial discovery that has been hailed as a “British Tutankhamen”. He looks at the helmet, the world it inhabited and the imagination it has inspired. The poet Seamus Heaney reflects on it in the context of the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, and archaeologist Angus Wainwright describes the discovery of the great grave ship where the helmet was found. Image.
  48. Moche warrior pot. Pot in the shape of a kneeling warrior, made by the Moche in South America. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, uncovers what life and culture was like in South America at a time when, a continent away, Islam was transforming the Middle East. He explores the story of the Moche people and introduces us to a remarkable lost civilisation, with help from expert Steve Bourget and the potter Grayson Perry. Image.
  49. Korean roof tile. Roof tile with image of an intimidating face intended to scare evil spirits from a house. The tile is from Kyongju, the ancient capital of Korea. Similar tiles were used earlier in China, but once introduced into the Korean peninsula, they reached a new height in popularity and artistry. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at what was happening in Korea, as it became a newly unified kingdom under the Silla state. Image.
  50. Silk princess painting. Fragile silk painting telling a story of industrial espionage. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the Buddhist kingdom of Khotan, now in Western China, and explains how the secrets of silk manufacture were passed along the Silk Road. Cellist and composer Yo Yo Ma and the writer Colin Thubron consider its impact – in reality and on the imagination. Image.
  51. Maya relief of royal blood-letting. Maya temple carving showing a scene of ritual blood-letting. Neil MacGregor, Director of British Museum, looks at a limestone carving showing a king and his wife, who is piercing her tongue to induce pain and provoke a visionary trance. He describes a culture which built a great city in the jungle of modern-day Mexico, with contributions from Virginia Fields, expert on Maya iconography, and psychotherapist Susie Orbach. Image.
  52. Harem wall painting fragments. Portraits from a wall painting of women from the caliph’s palace in Samara. Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor explains what life was really like in the great court in the ancient city of Samara, north of Baghdad – one of the great Muslim capitals of the world. The paintings offer a vivid insight into the lives of the rulers of the Abbasid court and the slave women whose job was to entertain them. Image.
  53. Lothair crystal. Crystal engraved with images from the Biblical story of Susanna. Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, looks at the Lothair crystal, made in the mid-9th century and showing scenes of Susanna, wife of a rich merchant, falsely accused of adultery. The crystal was intended to exemplify the proper functioning of justice but, intriguingly, the king it was made for was himself trying to have his marriage annulled so he could marry his mistress. Image.
  54. Statue of Tara. Statue of female Buddhist deity Tara from Sri Lanka, who represents mercy and compassion. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores what was happening in South Asia during Europe’s medieval period. He tells the story through a statue, which was crafted for a powerful ruler in Sri Lanka 1,200 years ago. Richard Gombrich and Nira Wickramasinghe contribute. Image.
  55. Chinese Tang figures. Ceramic figures from the burial of a Chinese Tang general. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, describes how, around 700 AD, the elite of China’s Tang Dynasty chose to leave their mark on the world by writing or commissioning their own obituaries. China scholar Oliver Moore explains the ambitions of the dynasty and journalist Anthony Howard describes the power of the obituary. Image.
  56. Vale of York hoard. Hoard of coins and other items buried in a silver cup. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines a great Viking treasure hoard that was discovered by metal detectors in a field in North Yorkshire. This recent discovery consists of over 600 coins, from as far away as Afghanistan and Iraq, and dates back to the 10th century. Neil describes what the England of the early 900s was really like, and unravels the cliches that abound about the Vikings. Image.
  57. Hedwig glass beaker. Glass beaker from central Europe probably made by a Muslim craftsman. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines a glass beaker made in Syria or Egypt at a time when Christians were warring with Muslims in the crusades. The glass became associated with the miracles of a Christian saint, Hedwig, who turned water into wine when it touched her lips. But how did Islamic glass reach Christian Europe during the Crusades? Image.
  58. Japanese bronze mirror. Bronze mirror decorated with dancing cranes. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at a mirror which comes from a time when the Japanese suddenly cut themselves off from the outside world and stopped all official contact with China, a country it had frequently borrowed ideas from. Writer Ian Buruma and archaeologist Harada Masayuki help tell the story of the Heian period of Japanese history, a moment of great cultural awakening. Image.
  59. Borobudur Buddha head. Head of a Buddha statue from Borobudur in Java. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines a stone head from one of the world’s greatest monuments. He looks at the monument, which is built from one-and-a-half million blocks of stone and devised as an architectural aid to spiritual practice, and considers the trade routes that brought Buddhism to South East Asia. With contributions from anthropologist Nigel Barley and writer and Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor. Image.
  60. Kilwa pot sherds. Pieces of broken pottery found on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, off the coast of Tanzania. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, sifts through a selection of broken pots found on a beach. He finds the variety of glazes and decorations reveal a string of thriving communities along the East African coast with links across the Indian Ocean and beyond. Historian Bertram Mapunda and writer Abdulrazak Gurnah help piece together the cross-cultural mix that produced the Swahili culture and language. Image.
  61. Lewis chessmen. Ivory chess pieces found in the Outer Hebrides. They take us to the world of Northern Europe at a time when Norway ruled parts of Scotland. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, describes the medieval world of the chessmen and explains how the game evolved. Historian Miri Rubin considers the genesis of the pieces and the novelist Martin Amis celebrates the metaphorical power of chess. Image.
  62. Hebrew astrolabe. Astronomical instrument from medieval Spain which could perform multiple tasks, from working out the time to preparing horoscopes. Originating in Spain at a time when Christianity, Islam and Judaism coexisted there, this instrument carries symbols recognisable to all three religions. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, considers who it was made for and how it was used. Historian Sir John Elliott discusses the political and religious climate of 14th-century Spain. Image.
  63. Ife head. Head of an Oni, a ruler of Ife in Nigeria, one of medieval Africa’s most powerful and wealthy kingdoms. With deeply naturalistic features, it is widely considered as one of the greatest achievements of world art. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines the political, economic and spiritual life of the Yoruba city state that produced it. With contributions from writer Ben Okri and the art historian Babatunde Lawal, who considers its role in traditional tribal life. Image.
  64. The David vases. A pair of vases from the Yuan dynasty in China, made from instantly-recognisable blue and white porcelain. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, describes the history of porcelain and the use of these vases in a temple setting. Historian Craig Clunas talks about the volatile world of Yuan China and writer Jenny Uglow tries to put her finger on why we find Chinese porcelain so appealing. Image.
  65. Taino ritual seat. Wooden seat carved in the shape of an ancestor spirit by the Taino, one of the pre-European, native Caribbean peoples. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, tells the story of a beautifully carved four-legged stool which has survived the destruction of the Caribbean culture that produced it. Its long shape and wide-eyed face probably belonged to a chief, or “cacique”, of the Taino people who originated in South America and populated the whole region. Image.
  66. Holy thorn reliquary. Christian reliquary from medieval Europe. Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, examines an object designed to connect with Christ himself. He tells the story of this highly ornate reliquary which was made to house a thorn from the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head at the crucifixion. Sister Benedicta Ward and the Archbishop of Leeds, the Right Rev Arthur Roche, help explain the powerful tradition of relic worship. Image.
  67. Icon of the triumph of Orthodoxy. Icon from Constantinople showing the triumph of Orthodoxy. Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, tells the story of the overthrow of iconoclasm and the restoration of holy images in AD 843, a moment of triumph for the Orthodox branch of the Christian church. This icon shows the annual festival of Orthodoxy celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent, with historical figures of that time and a famous depiction of the Virgin Mary. Image.
  68. Shiva and Parvati sculpture. Indian temple statue of divine Hindu couple, Shiva and Parvati. Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, discusses a magnificent stone sculpture showing two of the most beloved and familiar figures of Hinduism. The vehicles of the deities, a bull and a lion, and their children sit at their feet, while a host of supporting musicians and attendants swirl around their heads. But how do images like this help cement the relationship between deity and devotee? Image.
  69. Statue of Huastec goddess. Stone statue made in Mexico and associated with two goddesses. Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, examines a sandstone sculpture of a goddess made by the Huastec people of present-day Mexico. The figure stands bare-breasted with hands folded over her stomach, wearing a remarkable fan-shaped headdress. This Huastec mother-goddess also became associated with the later Aztec goddess of sexuality and fertility, Tlazolteotl. Image.
  70. Hoa Hakananai’a Easter Island statue. Moai statue from the Island of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, looks at one of the most instantly recognisable sculptures in the world: a giant stone carving from Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. Why were these deeply mysterious objects made and why were many ultimately toppled over? Internationally-renowned sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and Steve Hooper, an expert on the arts of the Pacific, both respond to this monumental work of devotion. Image.
  71. Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent. Personal signature of the great Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines this monogram which is the ultimate expression of Suleiman’s authority at this time – a stamp of state and delicate artwork rolled into one. The Turkish novelist Elif Shafak and the historian Caroline Finkel explore the power and meaning of this object. Image.
  72. Ming banknote. A surviving example of one of the world’s first paper banknotes – much bigger than the notes of today and dated 1375. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explains how paper money comes about. While the rest of the world was happily trading in coins that had an actual value in silver or gold, why did the Chinese risk the use of paper? Image.
  73. Inca gold llama. A simple gold sculpture of a llama. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines the animal that helped fuel the success of the great Inca Empire, which ruled over some 12 million people along the Pacific west coast of America. He tells the story of the Inca, their culture and religion, as well as what happened to them when the Spanish arrived. Image.
  74. Jade dragon cup. Jade cup that belonged to one of the great leaders of the Timurid Empire. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, tells the story of a cup once owned by Ulugh Beg, who built the great observatory in Samarkand and has a crater on the moon named after him. Neil explores the story of the Timurids in Central Asia and the influences that spread along the Silk Road at this time. Image.
  75. Dürer’s rhinoceros. Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving of an Indian rhino. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, tells the story of one of the most enduring objects in art history, and one of the most duplicated – an animal which the artist had never seen. The rhino was brought to Portugal in 1514 and Neil uses this classic image to examine European ambitions at the time. Image.
  76. The mechanical galleon. A small automaton, shaped like a galleon. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the impact of travel, trade and conquest in Western Europe between 1450 and 1600. This object shaped like the galleons the Spanish sent against England in the Armada, was made for a grand dinner table and could move, make music, tell the time and fire tiny cannons. Image.
  77. Benin plaque – The Oba with Europeans. Plaque showing aspects of Benin court life. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines some of Africa’s most famous artworks, the Benin plaques, and the effect these brass portraits first had when they arrived in London at the end of the 19th century. With contributions by Sokari Douglas Camp and Wole Soyinka on the art and heritage of Benin. Image.
  78. Double-headed serpent. Turquoise ornament shaped as a serpent. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, describes the Aztecs, who created this double-headed serpent from tiny pieces of turquoise, and the Spanish conquest of their culture. Aztec specialist Adriane Diaz Enciso discusses the role of the snake in Aztec religion. Image.
  79. Kakiemon elephants. A pair of Japanese porcelain elephants. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at how the skill of porcelain production spread across the Far East. Kakiemon, named after a Japanese potter, was much desired by the European elite. Image.
  80. Pieces of eight. 15th-century silver coins. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines pieces of eight – rough silver coins that were to become an international currency as Spain’s trade with the world grew in the 15th and 16th centuries. He describes Spain’s dominance in South America and the discovery of a silver mountain in Potosi in present-day Bolivia. With a contribution by historian William Bernstein. Image.
  81. Shi’a religious parade standard. Religious parade standard from Iran. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the development of faiths about 400 years ago, beginning with a standard from Iran that was carried at the front of processions as a symbol of the country’s Shia faith. He also visits religious sites to reflect on the spiritual climate of the time. With contributions by Hossein Pourtahmasbi and Haleh Afshar. Image.
  82. Miniature of a Mughal prince. Miniature showing encounter between an Indian Mughal prince and a holy man. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at a 17th-century miniature and uses it to explore the religious tolerance encouraged by the rulers of India’s Mughal empire. With the help of the historian Aman Nath, he looks at encounters between holy men and men of political power throughout Indian history. Image.
  83. Shadow puppet of Bima. Puppet from the Indonesian island of Java. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the relationship between religion and society in South East Asia 400 years ago by examining a shadow puppet from Java. He talks to a Javanese puppet master while the Malaysian novelist Tash Aw discusses the influence of shadow theatre today. Image.
  84. Mexican codex map. Map showing details of the foundation of two towns in Mexico. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines an old map, or codex, that illustrates Spain’s zeal for building churches after conquering Mexico in the 16th century. He looks at how Catholicism was assimilated alongside older pagan beliefs, with contributions from the historians Samuel Edgerton and Fernando Cervantes. Image.
  85. Reformation centenary broadsheet. Broadsheet depicting the Reformation of the Christian Church. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines a souvenir commissioned in Saxony in 1617 to raise morale on the centenary of the Protestant Reformation. With contributions from the satirist Ian Hislop and the historian of religion Karen Armstrong. Image.
  86. Akan drum. 18th-century African drum. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines an African drum that was taken to America during the slave trade – where drumming was to prove an important cultural influence. The object was later brought to England by the physician and collector Hans Sloane. With contributions by historian Anthony Appiah and writer Bonnie Greer. Image.
  87. Hawaiian feather helmet. Feather helmet worn by Hawaiian chief. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines a chieftain’s helmet given to Captain James Cook after he landed in Hawaii in 1778. He looks at the impact of Cook’s mapping and collecting expeditions in the Pacific. With contributions from the anthropologist Nicholas Thomas and the Hawaiian academics Marques Hanalei Marzan, Kyle Nakanelua and Kaholokula. Image.
  88. North American buckskin map. Map of the area between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the differing attitudes towards land and living of Europeans and Native Americans in the 18th century. He looks at a buckskin map drawn up by a Native American as the British negotiated for land between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. With contributions by cartographer Martin Lewis and historian David Edmunds. Image.
  89. Australian bark shield. Aboriginal shield collected by Captain Cook. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at a shield owned by one of the first Indigenous Australians to set eyes on Europeans, as they descended on Botany Bay in 1770. What can this object tell us about the early encounters between two such different cultures? With contributions by Phil Gordon, of the Australian Museum, Sydney, and the historian Maria Nugent. Image.
  90. Jade bi. Inscribed jade disc. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores life in 18th-century China through a jade disc, or bi. This disc was owned by the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty at a time when the country’s culture was much admired by intellectuals of the European Enlightenment. With contributions by historian Jonathan Spence and the poet Yang Lian. Image.
  91. Ship’s chronometer from HMS Beagle. A 19th-century chronometer. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at an instrument that first helped Europeans to navigate with precision around the world – a marine chronometer. In particular the chronometer that accompanied Charles Darwin on his historic voyage around the world on board HMS Beagle. With contributions by geographer Nigel Thrift and geneticist Steve Jones. Image.
  92. Early Victorian tea set. Wedgwood pottery tea set. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at the history of Britain’s relationship with tea by examining an early Victorian stoneware set made by the Staffordshire pottery firm of Wedgwood. He discovers how mass-produced pottery and porcelain popularised the beverage. With contributions by Celina Fox and Monique Simmonds. Image.
  93. Hokusai’s The Great Wave. Hokusai woodblock print. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines The Great Wave by Hokusai, one of the defining images of the power of the sea. He discovers its production initiated a wider awareness of Japanese art and became emblematic of the opening up of the country in the second half of the 19th century. With contributions by Donald Keene and Christine Guth. Image.
  94. Sudanese slit drum. A wooden drum from central Africa. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, examines a buffalo-shaped drum from Sudan which was played in a court orchestra and used to transmit messages or summon warriors to war. The drum was captured by the British and Egyptian army at the Battle of Omdurman, near Khartoum, in 1898 and presented to Queen Victoria by Lord Kitchener. Image.
  95. Suffragette-defaced penny. A defaced coin from 1903. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the rise of mass political engagement in Britain and the emergence of the suffragettes by examining a penny coin, on which the image of Edward VII has been defaced with the words “Votes for women”. With contributions from Helena Kennedy QC and the artist Felicity Powell. Image.
  96. Russian revolutionary plate. Decorated plate from St Petersburg. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the Russian Revolution by looking at a plate painted with propaganda for the new Communist state. The plate was made at the Imperial Porcelain Factory, St Petersburg, in 1901, but was decorated 20 years later in the same factory, which had become the State Porcelain Factory in the newly-named city of Petrograd. With contributions by Mikhail Piotrovsky and Eric Hobsbawm. Image.
  97. Hockney’s In the Dull Village. Print by the British artist David Hockney. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the sexual revolution of the 1960s through a print by David Hockney which shows two men in bed together. The work was one of a series created as the British government was planning to decriminalise sex between male partners over the age of 21. Including contributions by the artist himself and Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty. Image.
  98. Throne of weapons. Chair made from decommissioned guns. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the impact of weapons on the modern world by examining a sculptured throne made from decommissioned guns. The weapons are remnants of the Mozambique civil war – a conflict that claimed almost one million lives. With contributions by the artist, Kester, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Image.
  99. Credit card. A plastic credit card. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, explores the changing role of money in the modern world by looking at a Shari’a-compliant credit card. How is modern banking adapting for new markets and what are the moral issues confronting global finance? With contributions from Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, and Razi Fakih of HSBC. Image.
  100. Solar-powered lamp and charger. A lamp that runs off sunlight. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at the final object in the series: a solar-powered lamp with a charger that can bring cheap light and power to people around the world with no access to the electric grid. Simple, cheap and clean – is this the revolutionary technology of our future? With contributions from Aloka Sarder, a mother and adult student in West Bengal, and Nick Stern, expert on the economics of climate change. Image.


Some of the objects were self-selecting. The British Museum couldn’t leave out the Rosetta stone or Ife head or something from the Elgin Marbles or English treasure hoards.

Some, like the throne of weapons, were inspired choices.

Some seemed arbitrary. (As in A Study of History, big points were supported by examples selected by lucky dip. But there is no way round arbitrariness, and the reasons to defend the Study are also the reasons to defend what we have here.) Does the Hockney print really reflect the mood of the ’60s? It says nothing about Cavafy. Was the solar-powered lamp the right object with which to end?

The Warren cup was ready to enter popular culture.

Some were there to make sure that a cultural zone was not omitted. You cannot accuse MacGregor of cultural bias.

The experts and “celebrities”, a remarkable roster, brought some of the objects closer to some listeners and helped to vary the tone.

The text is well printed, the paper good. Some people have complained about the quality of the reproductions. They are fine by me. This isn’t a coffee-table book. It wasn’t even television.

4 Responses to “A History of the World in 100 Objects”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Profile of MacGregor:


    “MacGregor’s […] exercise in comparative history […] firmly shoos us out of the art history we know – from ancient Greece and Rome to the Renaissances of northern and southern Europe – and into something much bigger and wilder.”

    Toynbee’s does likewise, if you take “art” out of that sentence, though he often returned to his Greek spiritual homeland.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Warren Cup may be a forgery:

    MT Marabini Moevs, Per una storia del gusto: riconsiderazioni sul Calice Warren, Bollettino d’Arte 146, Ottobre-Dicembre 2008, pp 1-16.

    I am not surprised: too much verismo. Didn’t MacGregor suspect?

  3. […] which completed its BBC Radio 4 run on the eve of 25 years of “Germany”, was as good as his A History of the World in 100 Objects (old post). This time, thirty 15-minute episodes, not quite chronological, “using objects, art, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s