Books · Colonisation · Performance & Arts · Political

hearing the handaxe

A History of the World in 100 ObjectsA History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the British Museum, where I go often, I usually feel nearly overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. I am ashamed of my country’s heritage of colonisation and our seemingly unclouded sense of entitlement to enjoy the world’s riches and also at the same time I am utterly seduced by this booty and plunder, and I’m shedding these useless White Tears and doing nothing to get my foot off the neck as it were. Reading this is perhaps too soothing at times, and I tried not to be soothed, and to keep seeing as many layers as possible…

Some of these objects came to the museum through violence, when the people who made them were deprived of any chance to speak for themselves and MacGregor inevitably becomes a kind of vetriloquist, trying to speak on behalf of the silenced. And yes it must be better that we tell all of the truth we can find of these histories so as not to repeat them, but here is this bark shield* dropped by the man who ran from the musket shots of Cook’s guards in Botany Bay* and even now the suffering and subjugation of the indigenous Australian population continues and it is not only a case of not repeating as thinking how we can make reparations. I hope that the objects help to open such conversations and make space for, not replace, the voices of oppressed people…

One painfully literal exemplification of layering is the Sudanese slit drum that bears beautiful Islamic patterns, having been taken as booty in the Egyptian slave trade and recarved by its new owners, and also bears a British royal stamp, having been taken as booty again by Kitchener when his army took Khartoum in 1898. Twice stolen heritage of Black Africa standing in a gallery whose greatest early donor Sir Hans Sloane was himself a slave owner in Jamaica, as MacGregor reports in the chapter on a Victorian tea set, discussing the violence embodied in our national drink.

I can’t shake off my own colonisation. Another object that speaks insistently and uncomfortably to me is the buckskin map made by ‘Piankishwa’ (Piankeshaw) people about an illegal land purchase by settlers. MacGregor is eloquent on this, he grasps that to the people of the Piankeshaw the concept of owning land, much less selling it, was as bizarre and perverse as the idea of owning the air above it. On the map, distances are marked in travel time. MacGregor states that the British tried to reign in the settlers and that the “British Crown[‘s] eager[ness] to maintain good relations with the Native American chiefs” helped trigger the War of Independence. I guess he mentions this to elaborate on how the object speaks of wider events, and to complicate simplistic understandings, but let me not hear it as an invitation to feel better about the British role in settler colonial genocides. Let me not be soothed!


The rationale of the 100 Objects project, anyway, attracted me as soon as I heard of it. MacGregor states at the outset that part of the idea was to tell the stories of ordinary people rather than only elites. I’m aware of this as a trend through my Mum’s work in heritage (she is often advocating for women and non-elite stories in interpretation) and this is one of the things I really love about the British Museum. There are lots of rich and royal things in here I have always struggled to absorb histories; I can take in a narrative thread but I find it extremely hard to synthesise parallel stories into big pictures, and I was pleased to find that the focus on objects helped me to take in a lot more than usual.

Theses have doubtless been written about all of the things in this book, and my comments below aren’t so much on favourites as on… things that provoked me personally to comment! I see I haven’t mentioned any of the American objects, even though they are poignant and amazing, or Japanese objects, even though I find them moving and beautiful. So these aren’t the highlights, just me saying what I have to say.

Chapter 3 Olduvai Handaxe
This object totally blew my mind, because I didn’t realise that “for a million years the sound of handaxes being made provided the percussion of everyday life”. The earliest made thing in the book, a chopping tool, is 2 million years old, and this is about half a million years later, putting the speed of technological advance in my own lifetime into perspective. I didn’t know about the handaxe, the ‘Swiss army knife of the stone age’, the thing over which we maybe learned to speak, and which enabled us to spread from Africa across the whole globe. A few chapters later is a Clovis spear point, from 11,000BC, even more precisely designed and perfectly made after another 500,000 years or so of development!

Chapter 13 Indus Seal
I have to admit that I had barely heard of the ancient Indus valley civilisation, whose script has remained undeciphered. What made me sit up was the news that their cities, such as Harappa, built on grid patterns, with sophisticated sanitation systems and home plumbing, housing 30,000 to 40,000 people, seem not to have royal palaces or great differences between rich and poor dwellings, and were unfortified, and weapons are not found in the sites. No sign of what Doris Lessing’s narrator in Shikasta calls ‘the degenerative disease’. ‘Is it possible these societies were based not on coercion but consensus?’ asks MacGregor almost incredulously. Apparently made uninhabitable by climate change 4000 years ago, these cities stand as models of possibility…

Chapter 18 Minoan Bull-Leaper
The ‘Minoans’, like the Clovis people and the Celts, are a group of people whose name for themselves has been lost. This is a good example this books style of evoking ancient myth (the minotaur), contemporary cultural and economic circumstances (maritime trading of bronze, bull-leaping) and a bit of modern thought (psychoanalysis) to swirl around an object. Saying that Picasso turned ‘instinctively… to that underground labyrinth and to that encounter between man and bull that still haunts us all’ seems unduly universalising and accepting of Freud to me, but I suppose these sorts of flourish gives MacGregor’s history its idiosyncracy.

Chapter 20 Statue of Ramesses II
Ramesses II presided over a ‘golden age’ (MacGregor uses this phrase again later to describe a period when a ruling class was exceptionally wealthy, the later Roman period in Britain) of imperial expansion and to save time, changed inscriptions on existing statues to be about him. When a battle went badly his subjects were none the wiser as the official line proclaimed was always victory. The labour involved in making this huge statue was ridiculous and largely provided by slaves. But I haven’t picked out this chapter to complain about ancient antecedents of more recent rulers, but to mention the inclusion in the book of relevant experts (I noted that these were women as often as not) In this case, MacGregor turned to Antony Gormley, always wonderfully eloquent. He shared this thought:

For me as a sculptor the acceptance of the material as a means of conveying the relationship between human-lived biological time and the aeons of geological time us an essential condition of the waiting quality of sculpture. Sculptures persist, endure, and life dies. And all Egyptian sculpture in some senses has this dialogue with death, with that which lies on the other side. There is something very humbling, a celebration of what people can do together, because that is the other extraordinary thing about Egyptian architecture and sculpture, which were engaged upon by vast numbers of people, and which were a collective act of celebration of what they were able to achieve.

I’m not sure that that is true, but it is precisely what MacGregor wants I think, when he talks about using poetic imagination…

Chaper 26 Oxus Chariot Model
In all my years of compulsory schooling I don’t think anyone ever mentioned the ancient Persian empire to me. I come from a part of the UK rich in Roman artefacts, and I have been familiar with Greek and Roman mythology for as long as I can remember. I also learned about Vikings and Anglo Saxons, and a little about ancient Chinese civilisation and pre-modern Japan. But it took actually becoming friends with an Iranian girl when I was 16 for me to find out that modern Iran has an ancient, unique heritage.

MacGregor tells us that 2,500 years ago, the Persian(or Iranian) empire was the world superpower. But unlike the Romans, who encouraged those they conquered to identify themselves with Rome (read: imposed their culture on the vanquished), the Iranian empire was non-hegemonic, apparently actively respecting rather than merely tolerating religious and cultural practices of subject peoples. This exquisite model shows a satrap (local governor) taking a road journey, for which he requires no armed protection or attendant other than his coachman, indicating that peace prevailed within the empire. Herodotus wrote his best known words of the Persian couriers, telling us that their roads and organisation were terrific. Those who criticism multiculturalism in the UK would probably sound less credible if we were taught a fraction about ancient Iran of what we learn about the Romans.

Chapter 28 Basse-Yutz Flagons
One thing MacGregor does often is highlight ethnocentric elitism. Here he is agreeably unpleasant about snobbish Mediterranean attitudes towards the ‘Celts’ (named thus by the Greeks) who were, I guess the archetypal barbarians (that is the word the Greeks used for non-Greeks), but made objects like these unutterably beautifully made flagons. He also talks here about the problems of understanding the Celtic lineage through the ancient Greek stereotype and equally misleading, much later British one. “the challenge… is how to get past those distorting mists of nationalist myth-making and let the objects speak as clearly as possible about their own place and their own distant world.” Quite.

Chapter 30 Chinese Bronze Bell I’ve picked up on this chapter as MacGregor reflects on the handing back of Hong Kong in 1997 when the British, with hilariously and embarrassingly maudlin pomposity, played the Last Post on a bugle. The Chinese performed a specially composed piece of music partly played on a set of ancient bells. He sees this as stereotypical – a solo instrument connecting with war and conflict versus a celebration of harmony and continuity. A fascinating discussion of the importance and history of bells in Chinese culture follows, which I won’t spoil.

Chapter 32 Pillar of Ashoka
Another another non-hegemonic empire where the idea of public service and mutual respect were much vaunted – that of Ashoka, in India, the largest in the country’s history. After some brutal conquering, he converted to Buddhism and became a gentle philosopher. MacGregor compares the principles of rule that governed his later years to modern Bhutan, quoting the coronation speech of the current king “throughout my reign I will never rule you as a king. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son.” But then he expressed doubt that ‘such high ideals can survive the realities of political power.’ Bhutan is doing pretty well with its Gross National Happiness, as far as I’m aware.

Chapter 41 Seated Buddha from Gandhara
“The religions that survive today are the ones that were spread and sustained by trade and power. It’s profoundly paradoxical: Buddhism, the religion founded by an ascetic who spurned all comfort and riches, flourished thanks to the international trade in luxury goods.” I don’t see anything ironic about this, because before people saw the suffering that came with unethical trading practices and unscrupulous struggles for wealth, what need had they to reject them? Buddhism followed the poison for which it presented itself as the antidote.

Chaper 42 Gold Coins of Kumaragupta I and Chapter 68 Shiva and Parvati Sculpture
I like how MacGregor picks up and has a go with the objects where possible. From one perspective this might seem a bit annoying, as if he’s lording it over us plebs from the other side of the velvet rope, but I see it as an attempt to bring us as close as we can get. In these chapters he is evidently keen to point out the current importance and vitality of Hinduism in the UK, which non-Hindus seem to hear very little about. Rather than having a go with the objects themselves here, he goes to the Swaminarayan Mandir, the Hindu temple in Neasden and talks to Shaunaka Rishi Das about how Hindus think about the divine and bring it into their lives. These discussions were fascinating to me and I am glad I recently bought [The Hindus], hopefully my first of many steps to learning more about the culture.

He also talks about the comfortable place occupied by sexuality in Hindu theology. Historian of religion Karen Armstrong has this to say: “in the monotheisms, particularly in Christianity, we’ve found questions of sex and gender difficult. Some of the faiths that start out with a positive view of women, like Christianity and also Islam, get hijacked a few generations after the foundation and dragged back to the old patriarchy. I think there’s a big difference, however, in the way people view sexuality. When you see [it] as a divine attribute… a way to apprehend the divine, that must have an affect. You see it in the Hindu marriage service… Questions of gender and sexuality have always been the Achilles heel of Christianity, and that shows that there’s a sort of failure to… integrate a basic fact of life”

Chapter 42 Sutton Hoo Helmet & Chaper 60 Kilwa Pot Sherds
One of the moment when my mind changed while reading was in the discussion here of ancient maritime links, so important since before fossil fuels water was much the easiest way to transport people and goods. In the so-called Dark Ages after the Romans left Britain, sophisticated trading relationships between Britain and the Scandinavian world probably became more important. To people on the north east coast, Danish and Norwegian people were neighbours, while folks living in Devon or Dorset were a world away. Similarly, favourable trade winds in the Indian Ocean made eastern Africa and most of Asia a vast, cosmopolitan trading community, as illustrated by a collection of pot sherds from a beach in Tanzania with pieces from China and the Muslim world amongst locally made ware

Chaper 52 Harem Wall-painting fragments
These little pieces of a palace wall from Samarra in Iraq trasport MacGregor to the world of Scheherazade, and he talks delightedly about them. I do wish though that he would say some more about whose bombs destroyed Samarra in 2006, and the unedifying history that has recently been made in Iraq by invading US and British military forces destroying much irreplaceable ancient material heritage (to say nothing of the civilians killed and injured, homes and infrastructure destroyed, resources appropriated et cetera) something we should surely be raising awareness about and doing something to make reparations for.

Chapter 59 Borobudur Buddha Head
A British administrator in Java, Raffles, gave his collection to the British Museum and it included this head, from an extraordinary sculptural representation of the way to enlightenment, built 780-840, but abandoned in the sixteenth century when Islam became the main faith there. Raffles visited the overgrown site in 1814 and took a couple of fallen heads. What interests me is his attitude: he felt that the Javanese civilization built it was the equal of European civilizations. Unlike other orientalists, he was similarly appreciative of the Indonisian culture of his own day. Anthropologist Dr Nigel Barker shares this: “Raffles[‘]… concept of civilization… has a number of clear markers… the possession of a writing system, social hierarchy… complex stone architecture” Interesting perspective on the White/European gaze.

Chaper 63 Ife Head and Chapter 77 Benin Plaque
“In 1910, when the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius found the first brass head outside the city of Ife, he was so overwhelmed by its technical and aesthetic assurance that he immediately associated it with… the classical sculptures of ancient Greece… There’s no record of contact [between ancient Greece and Nigeria…so Frobenius decided that] the lost island of Atlantis must have sunk off the coast of Nigeria and the Greek survivors stepped ashore to make this astonishing sculpture”. A magnificent plaque from Benin showing the local ruler, the Oba and European traders similarly astonished the British when they colonised Nigeria in 1897. For all the appreciation for the amazing works, documented and expressed in these chapters, most Europeans probably still unhelpfully think of African art via European modernist ‘primitivism’. MacGregor does valuable work here to problematise and undermine such racism.

Chapter 71 Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent
Visually this is probably my favourite object, and I could talk about my love of Arabic calligraphy all day, but I’ve picked up on this because MacGregor uses it to point out that, “as the Ottomans demonstrated, paper is power”, pointing out that while the Inca and Timurid empires lasted only a few generations, while the Ming and Ottoman dynasties endured for centuries, and the difference was, he claims, efficient sophisticated bureaucracy. “Modern polliticians proudly announce their desire to sweep away bureaucracy. The contemporary prejudice is that it slows you down, clogs things up; but if you take a historical view, it is bureaucracy that sees you through the rocky patches and enables the state to survive.”

Chaper 81 Shi’a Religious Parade Standard
If you read about the Oxus Gold Chariot and didn’t think know the tradition of respect for religious diversity in Zoroastrian Iran persisted into the Muslim era, this chapter is for you. Shah Abbas, a contemporary of Elizabeth I, eager to develop trade relationships, had a very multicultural court at Isfahan, and this standard, made for a Shi’a ceremony but with skills and materials from distant lands, shows what a cosmopolitan place Iran was through the period.

Chapter 98 Throne of Weapons
“For the first time in this history we are examining an object that is a record of war but which does not glorify war or the ruler who waged it” I am tempted to reply ‘it’s a bit late to get critical’ but it wouldn’t be fair, because MacGregor has viewed war-making raiders and cruel traders critically throughout. One thing that this history has in common with the more familiar kind is that extent to which it is a history of power, but it is, much more than traditional history, a narrative in which the vanquished answer and cannot be silenced. It is not, in my view, a radical history, but it contains the seed of radical histories, and in this object, one of them begins to germinate.

Chapter 100 Solar Powered Lamp & Charger
The promise to tell the stories of ordinary people has been difficult to keep, but the intention returns MacGregor to this cheap, mass produced, but for many, potentially life-changing device. We now live in a world clogged with discarded objects, representing expended energy and released carbon. If there is to be any more history of us, we must become sustainable. That hope is embodied in this cutting edge, yet inexpensive technology.

*recently I saw an exhibition of artefacts related to the Botany Bay exhibition, including bark shields, made beautifully with breathtaking skill. There was a wooden Polynesian oar there that was worked all over in patterns and it occurred to me that people only make everyday objects like this really beautiful for the joy of it in what I would call free anarchist communities. But perhaps this was a foolish thought.

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