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Book Review: A Pictorial Story of the Past

Would you like to walk through the history of art, across the centuries and cultures-one step at a time? This is precisely what Neil MacGregor’sA History of the World in 100 Objects intends to do.
MacGregor, who has been the curator of the British History Museum for over ten years, conceived a radio series based on the stories of some 100 antiques present in the British Museum. Initially considered too lofty and ambitious, the series surpassed all inhibitions to become one of the most successful radio shows ever. MacGregor then decided to bring the sounds bites of his show to pen and paper.
The book has a comprehensive introduction which states the writer’s unique perspective lucidly. MacGregor wonders, how in AD 300, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, moved towards the “conventions of representations,” visible even today. “Was it because they were all products of rich and expanding empires…?”
He explains that the longest lasting relics are made of stones. Cultures that used other organic materials, especially in the tropics, have few traces left. However, these figments of the past can be incomplete or even literally rubbish but still hold many buried secrets. He adds that the objects described in the book have had a dynamic life of their own, and he has had to discuss these artefacts with experts, scholar, artists and people native to the areas where these were found to ensure “many different voices and perspectives.”
The writer believes that these objects tell us a more complete story of the past, of a time when writing didn’t exist. But he also admits that comprehending written text is easier because there is a centuries old apparatus to assist our analysis. The challenge becomes more even more difficult when a non-literate society comes in contact with a literate one.
The first object in the book is the “Mummy of Hornedjitef”,which is a wooden mummy case discovered in Egypt, from 240 BC. It isn’t the oldest object, but rather the “one that continues to give up its secrets.” Over the decades, scientific advancements have made it possible to look into the mummy without disturbing its contents. Inside the case is a world in itself, the promise of an afterlife, made through intricate drawings of people and animals. The mummy couldn’t have possibly felt lonely with that much going on nearby.
The older the object, the less familiar it seems and hence more fascinating it becomes. The oldest object in the museum and the book is the “Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool”, almost two million years old and discovered in Tanzania. The stone is a metallic grey. Most of its layers are sharpened by nature, but some by man as well. Hence, it the oldest known object to be shaped by man and hence a key to solving some of the mysteries surrounding human origins. The second object is the “Olduvai Handaxe”, found in Tanzania again but only around 1.4 million years old. Hence, this is not just a sequence in the chain of human evolution, but also a direct evidence of the evolution of our thoughts. This is a sharper, light green stone, with a narrower tip. The making of this required a “manual dexterity” which was a “conceptual leap” in itself.
The “Flood Tablet”, found in northern Iraq is bewitching for two reasons. One is the aesthetic appeal of the sophisticated writing on the clay tablet. And second is the fact that in 6-700 BC, it narrates the tale of a man, who was asked by God to board a ship with his family and all other species because a great flood is about to hit the world! And MacGregor rightly asks: “What does it do to your perception of a religious text when you discover that it comes from an older society, with a very different set of belief?”
One of the most interesting objects in the book is the ” Standard of Ur,” made in 2600 BC and found in the royal cemetery in the Mesopotamian city of Ur (Iraq). It is a box, with a mosaic which depicts rows of people sitting, standing or following their cattle. No one has been able to determine what the box was used for, because it is partly damaged. The blue background of the mosaic gives a velvety feel while telling something about one of known world’s first and greatest civilisations.
A few objects from the subcontinent are also mentioned in the book, naturally sending a wave of excitement in my heart. One was the Indus Seal, almost 3500 years old, discovered from Harappa. A small white stone which was used as a seal for wet clay, has the image of an animal, a relic of a lost civilisation around the Indus River. The second most enchanting object from our region is the “Seated Buddha from Gandhara.” The statue, from 100 to 200 AD, is made of a rock with crystal residues, that make it glitter in light. Buddha had always been depicted by symbols before, and this is possibly the first image of his body. And it is remarkably similar to how Buddha is still being depicted.
The 700 page volume can seem daunting at first, because of its thickness and condensed information. The book is difficult to finish in one sitting. Perhaps that would defeat it purpose as well. It is to be taken up, slowly like opium, relished for as long as possible. And of course, one can reopen it and restart the journey into a different world every time. It is possibly the closest one can get to a comprehensive world art history- a much more enduring link than even the most meticulous visit to the British Museum.
Ammara Ahmad is a staff member of The Nation, with an interest in human rights, arts and literature. She tweets as @ammarawrites.

One Response to Book Review: A Pictorial Story of the Past

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