Recently, I’ve been stumbling across all kinds of historical lists, like “Who’s Biggest?” Another fascinating list is the BBC’s “History of the World” site, which tries to capture universal history in 100 objects from the British Museum.
By grounding its version of world history in a series of artifacts–which of course represent ideas, events, and achievements–the BBC list is oriented towards cultural history, which far more diverse (and interesting, I would argue) than the “Who’s Bigger?” list, which focuses on people and is therefore skewed towards the political. This early writing tablet, for instance, contains details of beer rations inscribed in cuneiform. It tells us about food allocated to workers–as the description explains, “The symbol for rations is a human head eating from a porridge bowl.” (It looks like that’s the image in the bottom left corner of the tablet.) More significantly, the tablet tells us about writing: “The oldest known example of writing comes from Mesopotamia and dates to about 3300 BC. In time different-looking writing appeared in the river valleys of Egypt, the Indus Valley, China and Central America. We cannot yet be certain whether writing spread from Mesopotamia, or developed independently in these civilisations. As Mesopotamian society became more complex, writing allowed administrators to keep an account of who had been paid and what had been traded. The earliest cuneiform tablets are almost all records of accountancy.” So beyond the rations, beyond the invention of writing, what we have here is a window into the earliest forms of human society: accounting, a bureaucracy, and the emergence of a state.
The 1oo objects from the British Museum come from around the globe, and together with many others drawn from various partner museums, represent a dizzying array of historical themes: art, body, clothing (a 4000-year-old gold cape), death, food, leaders, war, government, protest, communication, science and technology, entertainment, money (paper money from the Ming Dynasty), religion, sport (a Mesoamerican belt worn in a ball game), trade, travel (a medieval Hebrew astrolabe), work, family, and the home. It’s a well-rounded collection appropriate for the kind of cultural history that an institution like the British Museum fosters.
Clicking through the various objects in the list of 100 raises all kinds of questions. Why do cultures everywhere care so much about the afterlife? (Check out the Egyptian mummies) Can we be human without tools? (See the Olduvai stone chopping tool) Why do even the most “primitive” cultures create art? (How about that Ice Age sculpture of reindeer?) What is the relationship between civilization and violence? (See the Standard of Ur) From this perspective, what seems at first glance to be little more than an antiquarian’s curiosity shop (or perhaps a fantastical treasure chest) becomes a meditation on the deepest questions of human existence. And that’s worth a look.