Friday, 14 January 2011

What have I got under my wooly hat?

Sat on the settee here, wooly hat on, top zipped up. I've had the mother of all toothaches all week, finally giving in and going to the dentist on Wednesday. One filling and a few antibiotics later I'm beginning to feel a bit better -I think- but...

Enough of feeling sorry for myself. Among several amazing books I was given this Christmas was The History of the World in 100 Objects - the book of the BBC radio series. For anyone unfamiliar with this, it's a series created by Neil MacGregor, director of The British Museum. The book is the best book on history I've ever read.

By "best" I mean best for me. I always wanted to learn about history, but found most history books nigh-on unreadable. It obviously wasn't my subject. For some reason, MacGregor's format lets me in: I suspect its emphasis on objects rather than dates fits better with my style of learning. (If you feel the same way about history, you might find it works for you, too).

I've just got to object 26, which brings us to about 500 BC. What I've found most startling so far is the sheer length of time we've been around. I'm sure I knew it, but like all good books (and teachers) MacGregor makes you stop and think about it. The first tools, made of stone, emerged about 2 million years ago. For the vast majority of those 2 million years those stone tools were all we had. If all human history were compressed into 24 hours, then all the stuff of modern life we take for granted -and I'm talking basic stuff here- would be compressed into the last few minutes. Something happened to the human brain between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. We started to be creative: we started to make patterns and decorate things. 16.500 years ago we started to make pots.

If I understand MacGregor right, this is more or less what he's saying or, at least, my take on it: each of us only has a few short years in which to stuff our human brains with memories, but the human brain has been around for so much longer than that. And although these days fatalistic wiseacres are fond of pronouncing that "you can't stop progress", for most of those millenia of millenia nothing much seems to have happened that today we would describe as "progress". What our brains are now has been formed by the lives we led over that time. No wonder that they -our brains- take us by surprise with their superstitiousness and irrationality. No wonder we find life in modern societies hard to make sense of. For example, in cities:
We sometimes just can't cope with the sheer mass of people. And this, it seems is not entirely surprising. Apparently, if you look at how many numbers we're likely to store in our mobile phone, or how many names we're likely to list on a social networking site, it's rare even for city-dwellers to exceed a couple of hundred. Social anthropologists delightedly point out that this is the size of the social group we would have had to handle in a large Stone Age village. According to them, we're all trying to cope with modern big-city life equipped only with a Stone Age social brain. We all struggle with anonymity.
Neil MacGregor: King Den's Sandal Label

It's a great read. It's a long time since I wandered around the British Museum and I didn't wander around it half so much as I wish I had when I had the chance, but this book takes me right back.

You can explore the 100 objects here.


The Solitary Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Solitary Walker said...

You've sold it. I'm ordering it. I heard a few of the radio programmes, but it will be nice to have all 100 - plus pix.

Anonymous said...

What a great series it turned out to be after so unpromising a brief: unique objects presented for the listener to see. But we did and as you say, history lived through the commentaries and discussions.

Argent said...

I always thought that book looked interesting. You might enjoy The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, which is coming towards the head of my book queue.

Hope you're feeling better.

Pearl said...

That sounds great. I'm going to get it...


Anonymous said...

nice to meet you.
like the tunes of the trio.

Rachel Fox said...

Great photo. You look quite the hermit in a cave!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Dominic - a great post and yes, it does link up well with my recent ruminations on creativity.
Hope your toothache vanishes soon - that woolly hat looks like it's hiding a lot of pain!

Titus said...

Big kids got me this for Christmas!
Bit out on the stone tools timeline (2.6 million, and I reckon we're going to get finds from earlier) plus it's looking most likely that the Australopithecines used them too.
And two new homo species now!
Anyway, really just an excuse for my best ever poem to appear on your blog. Because I think the biggest thing to happen to the brain was the first tools and language. Don't forget we only find what can be preserved. Oh, I could discuss this stuff forever! Looking forward to the book.


for a heartbeat there is no heartbeat
between the hominid and me
she holds it steady hand like mine
I hold it steadfast in my gaze
and will not look away till I can bear the weight
for this is it this rock
the birth of homo habilis who bears me
these two million years past imagine
what happens in her mind that makes her reason
if I hit this with that then other will result
and I can use it glass-cased before me
is the Olduvai Core of Prehistory
and I can’t use language in order to grasp
this the moment of the start of our past

Olduvai Core: Africa: The Art of a Continent, Royal Academy, December 1995

Jules said...

Interesting post, Dominic...I'm going to have to find a copy of that book! I know what you mean about certain authors 'letting you in to a subject'. It's wonderful when someone opens your world up to something new.

John Hayes said...

Fascinating stuff. Was I correct in looking over the list that the first sign of money on the list was the Alexander coin? Coinage goes back a ways further than that--I believe Herodotus credits the Lydians with first making coins. As Braudel said, the "metaphor that conquered the world." Interesting that a credit card is one of the recent objects.

Gwilym Williams said...

I meant to ask if you went for a New Year swim. I saw a few hardy types on BBC World News I think, you look like they did after the event :)

The ice has melted. I've just managed an hour jog up the local hillock.

Kat Mortensen said...

Having toothache in your neck of the woods is really perpetuating longstanding experience. If you read, "Home at Grasmere", most of Dorothy Wordsworth's days have an element of coping with toothache in one way or another.