Defining our history and ourselves (in 100 objects)


If you wanted to select a set of objects which illustrate how history has shaped us, or perhaps vice versa, what would you choose? What objects, culled from throughout the course of time, define us as humans? What object from the distant past would you place first on the list? What object would you place last, to represent the very present?

The British Museum took on the task, as reported in last Sunday’s New York Times, to “distill the history of the world” and produced a list of 100 objects.

The oldest object of the 100: a stone chopping tool found in Tanzania, considered “the beginning of the tool box”. A bird-shaped pestle, found in New Guinea around 6000-2000 B.C. evoked the comment: “The history of our most modern cereals and vegetables begins around 10,000 years ago…It was a time of newly domesticated animals, powerful gods, dangerous weather, good sex and even better food.” The Rosetta Stone appears on the list, as you might expect, with the comment that “This dreary bit of broken granite has played a starring role in three fascinating and different stories:” … Greek kings … French and British imperial competition across the Middle East … and the “scholarly contest that led to the most famous decipherment in history – the cracking of hieroglyphics.”

What do you think that the 100 or so curators of the British Museum, who spent 4 years on this project, selected as the ultimate object? Think about it; I’ll mention it in a moment.

My favorite (based on the Times article; I still want to read the book) is the credit card. Perhaps nothing epitomizes modern day interconnectedness and globalization better than the curators’ selection of a Visa credit card issued by HSBC. “This particular gold card is issued by the London-based bank called HSBC, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. It functions through the backing of the United States-based credit association, Visa, and has on it writing in Arabic – it is in short connected to the whole world, part of a global financial system, backed by a complex electronic superstructure that many of us barely think about.”

That says a lot about why we must address local and regional issues within the context of our worldwide social and economic interdependencies.

I liked the comment about a two-inch-square ivory label once attached to the sandals of the Egyptian pharaoh, King Den. “The nearest modern equivalent I can think of to this label is the ID card that people working in an office now have to wear round their necks to get past the security checks.” The Head of Ife, from Nigeria A.D. 1400-1500 is striking. “It is one of a group of 13 heads, superbly cast in brass, all discovered in 1938 in the grounds of a royal palace in Ife, Nigeria, which astonished the world with their beauty. They were immediately recognized as supreme documents of a culture that had left no written record, and they embody the history of an African kingdom that was one of the most advanced and urbanized of its day.” A North American Otter Pipe (Ohio, 200 B.C.-A.D. 100) juxtaposed modern values with the earlier development of civilization: “Although smoking is now largely seen as a fatal vice, 2000 years ago in North America pipe smoking was a fundamental ceremonial and religious part of human life. Different groups of Native Americans lived across the continent, in ways much more varied than Hollywood westerns would suggest. Those Americans living in middle America – the lands around the mighty Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, from the gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes – were farmers.”

So, what appears last on the list, to reflect 2010?

As the Times reported: “a plastic, solar-powered light about the size of a coffee mug that came with a charger and cost $45. It can illuminate an entire room, enough to change the lives of a family with no electricity. ‘It is a transformative object, one that sets people free,’ Mr. MacGregor said. ‘Once they have access to solar power, they have access to the Internet, then they have access to the world of knowledge.’”

Very true, with profound implications.

So, take a look at the article in the Times, if you can. Read the book. Then, think: What would you select?