“A History of the World in 100 Objects” by Neil MacGregor


“In 7 houses there are 7 cats. Each cat catches 7 mice. If each mouse were to eat 7 ears of corn and each ear of corn, if sown, were to produce 7 gallons of grain, how many things are mentioned in total?” This is just one of 84 different problems that grace the Rhind mathematical papyrus found near Luxor in Egypt. It dates back to 1550 B.C. and records not only the questions but also the answers and the calculation sequences in true textbook style. There are computations such as how many gallons of beer or loaves of bread you can get from a given amount of grain or how to calculate the slope of a pyramid.

In this spectacular book, MacGregor presents 100 artifacts from the British Museum that shed new light on the human experience. A 1.8 to2 million year old stone cutting tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania testifies that man existed long before the biblical God created him in 4004 B.C. The Flood Tablet from Nineveh (near Mosul, Iraq) that relates the story of the Great Flood pre-dates the Old Testament by a few centuries. A 5500 year old clay model of four cows found near Luxor reveals that cows were venerated in the Nile region then (as they are in India today).

The earliest pottery was made in Japan 16,500 years ago. (No, there isn’t an extra zero!) The Olmecs of Mexico devised the first ball games using rubber balls well over 3000 years ago. A 5000 year old clay tablet with the earliest writing reveals beer measures and the birth of bureaucracy in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Apparently, beer was the first currency, for coins appeared only 4500 years later. The earliest gold coins minted by Croesus of Lydia (Turkey) around 550 B.C. are also mentioned in the book.

The 196 B.C. Rosetta stone led to the cracking of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. A silver drinking cup made around 10 A.D. near Jerusalem depicts scenes of adult men having sex with adolescent boys. (In those days, Jesus would have been a young boy living in the region.) The cup was shunned by art collectors until the British Museum finally bought it in 1999.

A 27-25 B.C. bronze head of Augustus Caesar found in Sudan has piercing eyes that avoid your gaze, no matter where you stand. The statue has an interesting history. A fierce one-eyed queen of Meroe decapitated the statue and had it buried at the base of a flight of steps leading up to a temple, thereby ensuring that every person mounting the stairway would step on the head of the Roman emperor.

The first Islamic gold coins minted in Damascus in 696-697 A.D. had the image of the 9th caliph, Abd al-Malik, but within a year the coins with images disappeared and were replaced with Quranic text. Today a selfie with a Sheikh would not be considered un-Islamic and one could boldly post it on FB and expect dozens of ‘likes’.

A stone fragment dated around 238 B.C. from one of Emperor Asoka’s pillars declares, “I act in the same manner with respect to all. I am concerned similarly with all classes. Moreover, I have honoured all religious sects with various offering.” These values of tolerance, pluralism and humanism still hold good.

Among the recent finds is a throne of weapons obtained from Mozambique, a chair made from parts of guns that were made all over the world and exported to Africa. An aboriginal bark shield brought to England by Captain James Cook tells a sad tale of the Botany Bay encounter between the white invaders and the aborigines. A 1903 penny from England has the words VOTES FOR WOMEN stamped all over the king’s head. The coin’s Latin inscription proudly proclaims, ‘Edward VII by the grace of God, King of all Britain, defender of the faith, Emperor of India.’ The slogan that disfigured it was an ingenious campaign method devised by the suffragettes. It would circulate widely and indefinitely because it was too numerous and too low in value to recall.

A Buddha head from Borubodur in Indonesia. An Inca gold llama from Peru. A banknote from Ming China. An ancient stone statue from Easter Island. A ritual seat of the Taino people of the Dominican Republic who were wiped out by 1600, a century after the arrival of Columbus. A Huastec goddess from Mexico. An Indus Valley seal dating back to 2500-2000 B.C. From Istanbul, a 16-century tughra, the stamp of authority of the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, a magnificent calligraphy with the sultan’s name in Arabic and the words below in Turkish.

From the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, several chess pieces made of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, probably fashioned in Norway. The queens have their palms supporting their chins and their eyes stare into the distance. The kings are seated on thrones and have their swords on their laps. Only the soldiers lack distinctive character.

A 700 year old Shiva-Parvati sculpture from Orissa brought to England by Charles Stuart, an officer of the East India Company, who was nicknamed ‘Hindoo Stuart’ due to his love for all things Indian. He spoke out against missionary attempts to convert Hindus and in 1808 he published a pamphlet titled, ‘Vindication of the Hindoos’. Will our Hindutva brigade scour the libraries of Kolkata to trace this document? I would love to read it.

Overall Assessment: Never judge a book by its cover – this one’s a masterpiece.

A History of the World in 100 Objects
Author: Neil MacGregor
Publisher: Penguin UK
Publication Date: June 2012

Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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