A History of the World in 100 Objects: From the Handaxe to the Credit Card
“A History of the World in 100 Objects has wide and universal appeal, both entertaining for the broad audience and illuminating for the advanced student of history. You cannot read this majestic, inspiring, knowing book without concluding that its expansive, comprehensive, and conclusive approach is a truly essential and fascinating way to present, teach, and learn history.”
Employing an innovative, provocative, and ultimately highly rewarding approach to tell the story of history, not through events but through objects, Neil MacGregor traces humanity’s path and progress “from the handaxe to the credit card,” the apt subtitle of A History of the World in 100 Objects.
The objects featured are functional and decorative, symbolic and practical, innovative and prosaic. Among the riveting themes are the early cities and states, beginnings of science and literature, ancient pleasures and modern spice, status symbols, the first global economy, mass production and mass persuasion. Of the 100 featured objects, 61 were “found” while 39 were minted or made. Significantly and understandably, in the earlier periods far more objects were “found” than made: 43 of the first 50 of the featured objects were “found” and 7 made, while 32 of the second half of the 100 objects were made and 18 “found.”
The author writes, “In this book we travel back in time and across the globe, to see how we humans have shaped our world and been shaped by it over the past two million years. The book tries to tell a history of the world in a way that has not been attempted before, by deciphering the messages which objects communicate across time—messages about peoples and places, environments and interactions, about different moments in history and about our own time as we reflect on it.”
This engaging world history is organized in 20 parts, starting with “Making Us Human,” covering 2,000,000 to 9000 BC, and concluding with objects from the last century in “The World of our Making.” Each part consists of five sections, which in turn feature a five-page narrative and images of the featured object.
The 100 commentaries on the objects are readable and accessible, necessarily succinct and selective, yet still informative and engaging.
Among the eclectic topics—in addition to such usual suspects as sculpture, painting, pottery—covered in this entertaining, educating volume are pipe-smoking, paper money, textiles, gods, games, horses, exploration, food, farming, clothing, death, decoration, astronomy, bureaucracy, luxury, communications, navigation, authority/power, trade, writing, and women’s roles.
And along the way, any number of fascinating aspects of, penetrating insights into, and distinguishing features of many, many places are provided.
Each commentary covers the stories these objects tell, time and place, cultural context, and backstory. The 100 object histories are enhanced both by extracts from original source materials and also by expert commentaries by a diverse, distinctive collection of experts.
Concerning the part covering the Silk Road and Beyond, cellist and composer Yo-Yo Ma, a longtime student of the Silk Road and its significance, observes, “I am particularly interested in how music may have traveled. . . . The more you look at anything, at the origins of where things are from, you find elements of the world within the local.”
These essays were first presented as programs on BBC Radio 4 in 2010 and broadcast throughout the world. This venture is described by the author—who for the last decade has been the Director of the British Museum—as “simply the latest iteration of what the Museum has been doing, or attending to do since its foundation” in 1753.
The 100 objects were selected by the museum staff “to cover the whole world.” They would try to address as many aspects of human experience as proved practicable, and to tell about entire societies, not just the rich and powerful within them. The objects would therefore necessarily include the humble things of everyday life as well as great works of art.”
Concerning the representativeness of the coverage, seven parts extend up to the Common Era; seven parts trace the period from that point through 1500, featuring the Renaissance and the commencement of what has been widely described as the Modern Era; and six parts pertain to the last 500 years. The places of the objects featured reflect that the goal of equitably covering the whole world was reasonably realized:
Middle East 22
North America 13
Latin America 5
The author states his intention is to chronicle and interpret the “signals from the past—some reliable, some conjectural, many still to be retrieved.” The distinctive aspect of this approach to history is that the signals represented by the 100 objects featured “speak of whole societies and complex processes rather than individual events, and tell of the world for which they were made, as well of their later periods which reshaped or relocated them, sometimes having meanings far beyond the intention of their original makers.”
Directly contradicting the maxims that history is written by those who prevail in confrontations and by those who are literate, the author observes that “to tell a history that does not unduly privilege one part of humanity, you cannot do it through texts alone, because only some of the world has ever had texts, while most of the world, for most of the time, has not.” He continues that for many cultures the study of their artifacts, “if we are to know anything about them at all . . . is the only way forward.”
Rather than yet another narrative history based on the discovery of new documents or a scholar’s most recent interpretation of the record, A History of the World in 100 Objects is truly different.
One of the great virtues of this remarkable history is that it is so very different than those stories that have been heretofore told, for as the author accurately notes, “The history that emerges from these objects will seem unfamiliar to many.” Indeed, “Spinning the globe, trying to look at the whole world at roughly the same moment . . . is not the way history is usually told or taught.”
A History of the World in 100 Objects has wide and universal appeal, both entertaining for the broad audience and illuminating for the advanced student of history.
You cannot read this majestic, inspiring, knowing book without concluding that its expansive, comprehensive, and conclusive approach is a truly essential and fascinating way to present, teach, and learn history.