Neil MacGregor: History of the World in 100 Objects

A story well told often needs an object to feel, touch and relate to: mission accomplished for a former head of the British Museum who told and then wrote a 2010 account of this illustrative history of the world

I’ve went back to the 2010 BBC4 podcast series and then to the book of Neil MacGregor after I savoured his great collection of stories about religion and societies as they come together in Living with the Gods.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is a companion to match it: very often the mentioned artifacts — edifices, monuments, headwear or other trinkets and tokens carry more in cultural or notional value than by weight or real-market value of what they are built of. Pieces of eight were precious both because they were made of silver yet also because they quickly, thanks to ample abilities to produce them from the silver mines of Potosi, became a standard. From 149 kg. of silver imported from modern Bolivia in 1490ies to 12 million kg. in 1590, silver, indeed became the foundation of Philip IV empire — and the reason for its demise: just as the financial leverage of Portugal made it both a dominant force to reckon with — as well as a corrupt and bankrupt state, even at times of other European nations marvelling at the Durer’s portayal of Albuquerque gift of a rhinocerus.

MacGregor again weaves a story of one worldly civilisation: connected in miryads ways, borrowing from each other and building on top of one another (a number of books to be covered here ooze with similar ideas):

  • for example, cuisine, the need to cook meat, season it with spices happened after the settlement, domestication of animals this all followed the development of social institutes that were needed to keep society in shape and form.
  • very often the art that carries the node of an era borrowed heavily from other cultures: either in elements used to shape and form them such as elaborate textures or carrier platforms (papyrus, manuscripts, sheepskin), coloration (lapis lazuli), forms like Kakiemon elephants from Japan that took with them the vacuum from the Chinese retreat from the market
  • the book demonstrates solidly the transfer of cultures, ideas, shared belief systems: the connection between the flood in the Old Testament and the Flood Tablet borrowing from Epic of Gilgamesh that is over 2000 years older: telling a story about Utnapishtim saving mankind on a boat — and proving the point that unchecked power of allmighty gods should be balanced by consensus and democratic elements (the story is even better told in Living with the Gods). When the Flood Tablet was brought to Britain in the 70ies of the 19th century, it only contributed to the ongoing discussion whether it refutes the text of the Bible as stories, or if it supports it: done on the back of recently published paper by Darwin having returned from his biological voyage it moved forward the discourse of human evolution and the role of the religious core.

As always, since a passionate topic to research for the author of this blog is the world of money, there are a few mentions of exchanged tokens: and it so pleases to report and share that all stories contribute to the powerful personal belief that money only survives if it facilitates trade: a useful token of exhange extending trust.

Where societies in the past, those engaging in trade with each other, had to achieve intrinsic trust, pseudonymous tokens like money (they had to carry the power of the national or personal brand of the originator, hence the pseudonymity) allowed that. For example, the success of Croesus silver and gold coins was dependent both on the quality of the metal — itself the achievement of a technological innovation allowing to separate silver veins from gold ones, as well as the notional standard stemming from the immutable standard.