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Posts Tagged ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’

This week there have been many stories about the Japanese maintaining their civility and dignity as they struggle with the aftermath of the earthquake :

“Emergency centers, where more than 450,000 evacuees are being housed in stadiums or schools, are neatly organized, with people constructing origami boxes made of newspaper in which to nestle their shoes. This is a country where people do not wear shoes inside, and the habit extends to the little islands of blankets that each evacuated family claims in their emergency shelter” (Time’s Global Spin blog)

The stories reminded me of episode ten in the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects about a Japanese clay jomon pot, made around 5,000 BC. Presenter Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, says:

Jomon pots are used as cultural ambassadors for Japan in major exhibitions around the world. Most nations look back to imperial glories or invading armies – and I think it’s extraordinary that a technologically, economically powerful nation like Japan proudly places the very origins of its identity in the early hunter-gatherers. As an outsider, I find the meticulous attention to detail and the patterning of the surface, and the long continuity of Jomon traditions, already very Japanese.

– author Marie Mutsuki Mockett gives us an insight into modern day Japan in her wonderful piece Memories, Washed Away ;

– the Daily Mail on the courage of the Fukushima fifty workers at Japan’s stricken nuclear plan ;

– CNN on how Japan’s religions confront tragedy ;

philosopher Alain de Botton on tsunamis and Stoicism ;

– an interesting take from Larry Elkin on the Japanese emperors’ speech explaining a constitutional monarchy to Americans :

We have seen many times how monarchs can inspire their people, raise morale and even change history, all without any real political power at all. Royals are at their best when suffering is greatest and they provide whatever relief they can.

Japan’s suffering is the greatest it has seen in a very long time. I hope their emperor can help the Japanese through these trials.

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“We know that in the early Bronze Age very few people would get older than about 25 years. Most children would not get older than 5. Many, many women would die in childbirth, and a few would get very old, and these very old people might have had a very special status in the society.

It’s actually difficult to know whether our concept of children applies to this society, where you very quickly became a grown-up member of the community, even if you were only 10 years old, because of the average age of the communities that they lived in. That would mean that most people around them were teenagers, there were very few old people in this kind of society.

What this of course challenges, is our perceptions of age and responsibility. In many societies in the past, a teenager could be a parent, a full adult, a leader.”

Archaeologist Marie-Louise Sorensen, A History of the World in 100 Objects

These words sprang to mind when I went to see the remake of True Grit by the Coen brothers.

The lead character is Mattie Ross, a 14-year girl who heads off into Indian territory with two lawmen to hunt down her father’s killer. This seems believable in the Wild West of the 1870s but something you cannot imagine today  as her mother would probably be jailed for letting Mattie leave the house on her own.

I haven’t seen the original  but really enjoyed this movie which has the Coen trademarks of great performances – especially from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld who plays the teenage Mattie and Matt Damon as the vain and pompous Texas ranger La Boeuf – quirky characters,  unusual dialogue and one scene of graphic violence during which I had to hide my head in my hands.

These are all bought together by some stunning photography from cinematographer Roger Deakins – some snatches of which can be glimpsed in the trailer:

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By complete coincidence I got to number 20 of A History of the World in 100 Objects – the British Museum’s statue of Ramesses II – as protests erupted in Egypt (incredible eyewitness photo).

The giant statue inspired poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to create Ozymandias in 1818 – but it seems startlingly relevant to current events.

He knew what had happened to Egypt after Ramesses – with the crown passing to Libyans and Nubians, Persians and Macedonians, and Ramesses’ statue itself squabbled over by European intruders.  Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’ is a meditation not on imperial grandeur, but on the transience of earthly power, and in it Ramesses’ statue becomes a symbol of the futility of all human achievement.

Ozymandias

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

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“When people come to the museum, they choose their own objects and make their own journey round the world and through time, I think what they will find, is that their own histories quickly intersect with everybody else’s – and when that happens, you no longer have a history of a particular people or nation, but a story of endless connections.”

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum

A History of the World in 100 Objects combines two of my favourite things from home – Radio 4 and the British Museum. The book accompanying the series was a bestseller and I only managed to get a copy because I was in a shop just after a delivery (providing the perfect riposte to those who think you have to dumb things down to be successful).

I use a pestle and mortar to grind spices and through the podcast discovered a connection to the people of  Papua New Guinea who used a bird-shaped pestle in the same way 4,000 to 8,000 years ago.

This ancient pestle is also used to illustrate the time, about 10,000 years ago, when we became farmers and for the first time bred animals, cultivated plants and cooked them in new ways. Martin Jones, professor of archaeological science at Cambridge University, points out this gave humans a competitive edge over other species as we could eat food that would have been indigestible, or even poisonous, when raw.

Early human’s competitive advantage is also shown by the oldest object in the British Museum, a stone chopping tool made nearly two million years ago, found in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, East Africa :

“From this point on, we can’t survive without the things we make and, in this sense, it is making things that makes us human.”

Another object found in the Olduvai Gorge, a handaxe from between 1.2 and 1.4 million years ago, highlights the beginning of speech. Scientists have found that areas of the modern brain that are activated when you make a handaxe overlap with those used for speech:

“It now seems very likely that if you can shape a stone you can shape a sentence.”

We transformed from toolmakers into artists as long ago as the Ice Age as shown by this beautiful sculpture of swimming reindeer carved from a mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago.

These objects show that humans have not fundamentally changed.  Our ancestors had the same preoccupations that as us – family, religion, art, sex, love and food. As MacGregor says:

Leakey’s discoveries in the warm earth of the Rift Valley did more than push humans back in time, they made it clear that all of us descend from those African ancestors … So it’s good, it’s essential in fact, to be reminded that the idea of our common humanity is not just an enlightenment dream, but a genetic and a cultural reality.”

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