A History of the World in 100 Objects, Radio 4
Amazing what you can learn from an old tool
Sunday 24 January 2010
The Tories, to their shame, are threatening to trim the BBC's sails if they win the coming general election – in order, though they don't admit it, to let Good Ship Murdoch surge full steam ahead. We can only hope radio's not on their horizon. That could conceivably spell the end for the grand projects the Corporation does so well, which would be an epic scandal.
Neil MacGregor is the man behind one of Radio 4's grandest projects yet, picking out 100 objects from the British Museum, where he's the director, to tell "a" – not "the", he stresses – history of the world. Day by day he unearths a new treasure, each one freighted with significance.
There are several underlying themes, the most important of which MacGregor stated on Monday, observing: "It's never been more important than now to think of history of the world as one shared story" – and he's undeniably right about that. He wondered if the first exhibit, the mummy of Hornedjitef (pictured right), a priest from the Temple of Karnak, should even be in British hands. But the Egyptian novelist and commentator Ahdaf Soueif put his mind at rest – it reminds the world of our common heritage, she stressed, though I'd like to hear Greece's response to that, given their eternal grumbling over the Elgin Marbles. A map of the heavens on the inner coffin lid was intended to guide Hornedjitef through the after life. As MacGregor observed, he hadn't reckoned on the after life involving a glass cabinet in Bloomsbury.
MacGregor's mission statement included the promise of "a story of endless connections". As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen remarked, the history of the world isn't one of separate civilisations – we're all linked, we all interact, and always have done. If she was the world's educational dictator, Soueif said: "I would make every child learn a brief history of the entire world that focused on common ground." This series would be a great place to start.
Tuesday's object was the oldest in the museum, a chopping tool from the Great Rift Valley getting on for two million years old. It marked, we were told, the point at which the human brain became asymmetrical, when the two hemispheres began to do different things. There was the occasional feeling, through the week, of the pudding being over-egged – sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and all that – but perhaps my brain is less asymmetrical than most.
So the chopping tool also marks the point at which we became smarter than your average ape; Wednesday's hand-axe – "the Swiss Army knife of the Stone Age" – not only contains the seeds of speech (the bit of our brain responsible for carving shapes overlaps with the speech centre) but is also, in its over-elaboration, the beginning of art. Thursday's mammoth-tusk carving stands for the beginning of religion, meanwhile – for the Arch-bishop of Canterbury it demonstrates "human beings trying to enter fully into the flow of life around them ... to be at home in the world at a deeper level, and I think that's a deeply religious impulse" (well, he would say that).
But all this is probably just nit-picking. It's all fantastically interesting. And it can only get better; the coming week episodes will be about farming – and sex. Oo-er, Mr MacGregor.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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