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Posts Tagged ‘British Museum’

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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