During my nightly walks, I have been listening in awe and wonder to the podcasts of the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor’s, A History of the World in 100 objects. This series why I’m more than happy to pay my BBC licence fee. The 100 programs in the series have been played on Radio 4 and most are a delight, despite the sometimes irritatingly over-breathy flute playing in some versions of the opening theme.
The series begins two million years ago with a stone axe and concludes with a solar powered lamp and a refurbished mobile phone. If you’ve not visited the web site or downloaded the podcasts you’re definitely missing out of a fascinating series. The site encourages you to upload an object you own, which may be historically significant and I may oblige here, with a post of a couple of things for a history of dkpw.
Before that I thought I would select my top 10 from the series to give you a flavour of what is on offer. Here they are in chronological order.
Object 5: Clovis spear point
The razor sharp, flint spear head is 13,000 years old from North America. Still deadly, it’s over engineered for its purpose, deadly but beautiful.
Object 18: Minoan Bull Leaper
I picked this damaged but fascinating bronze statue from Minoan Crete (c.1700 BC) since I’ve been to Knossos, the home of King Minos, his son the Minotaur and seen the man and bull motifs still in evidence. During This programme included an interview with a Spaniard who does not fight bulls but leaps them, so the practice still continues to this day.
Object 25: Gold coin of Croesus
Who doesn’t like gold? Who hasn’t heard the phrase, “As rich as Croesus?” This coin is about 2,000 years old and formed part of his vast wealth. The source of which was his establishment of a state treasury which controlled and regulated coin production and thereby the money supply. I also liked the fact that lower value coins were smaller and would feature only part of the above design, for example the lion’s ear.
Object 33: Rosetta Stone
This famous stone enabled the translation of the hitherto unknown Egyptian hieroglyphs since it contains the same proclamation of priestly tax exemption in Greek, hieroglyphs and demotic. The final language carved on the stone is English, placed there after Nelson defeated Napoleon in 1801 and took the stone from the French.
Object 35: Head of Augustus
“What have the Romans ever done for us?” As John Cleese found out, quite a lot actually. As the only boy in a class of 20 who at the age of 9 preferred to be a Roman rather than a Briton, I could not omit a Roman artefact, and what better than an official bust of the Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, the first Emperor. While a committed Republican, and I would have suffered the same fate as Cicero no doubt, I admire Augustus’ achievement of solidifying and extending the empire, while bringing peace to Rome and bringing about its “Golden Age” of Latin literature.
70: Hoa Hakananai’a Easter Island statue
The story of Easter Island is a mixture of marvel and tragedy. Almost certainly the last place on Earth to be settled by humans, we proceeded to wreck the place in about 400 years. Over population and an almost suicidal, ancestor-worshipping religious compulsion to construct, locate and then move these huge statues, Moai, around the island caused great periods of ecological damage leading to civil war, decline and disease. A history of the world on one island and a potent warning.
Object 71: Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent
A Tughra is simply a cipher, a monogram, a signature. Suleiman The Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire was a contemporary of Henry VIII. His seal was placed at the beginning of a document to one of his generals, or governors, as an expression of favour and to remind the recipient who was the boss. Regardless, I enjoy it because of its beauty, design and artistic expression.
Object 75: Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros
Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros was transported from India to Portugal as a tribute to the King, who felt that so unusual an animal should be given to The Pope (from whom the King hoped to gain support in a territorial dispute.) Sadly the animal and all the crew of the transport ship perished in a storm. Had the Rhino not been chained to the deck it may have been able to swim to shore. So Dürer never actually saw his rhino, which is why his drawing is not strictly anatomically correct. The magic of the print and the animal relate to the writings of Pliny the Elder who wrote about Rhinoceroses and so the veracity of classical literature was “proved.” It’s still fascinating today.
Object 91: Ship’s chronometer from HMS Beagle
How could an admirer of watches and Darwin’s theory of Evolution, not include one of the ship’s chronometers used on the voyage of HMS Beagle in 1831. Marine Chronometers, are highly accurate, mechanical, time pieces used to reference GMT on naval vessels thereby acting as a longitudinal navigational aid. This clock was one of many on the Beagle and based on one of John Harrison’s famous chronometers, accurate despite the ship’s movement, temperature and humidity. Clocks like these were accurate to better than one second deviation a month! A Rolex chronometer is considered accurate with a variation between -4 or +6 seconds a day. Non-atomic controlled digital watches, typically have an accuracy of +/- 15 seconds a month, or 0.5 seconds per day, still not a patch on this clock built in about 1800.
Object 93: Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave
Finally, Hokusai’s Great Wave. I like it simply for it’s colour and drama.
And in true BBC tradition, if I had to pick one object, it would of course be the chronometer.