Socialist Worker

A History of the World in 100 Objects - reveals how our labour defines us

On The Radio with Mike Gonzalez

Issue No. 2189

The tip of a mammoth’s tusk carved into two swimming reindeer

The tip of a mammoth’s tusk carved into two swimming reindeer

I don’t know whether Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, is a secret socialist. I doubt it somehow.

But Radio 4’s wonderful “History of the World in 100 Objects” is materialist history at its very best.

The “Thought for the Day” crowd, who insist that only religious people can speak about moral issues, must be gnashing their teeth.

In an impeccable BBC accent, MacGregor explores how labour – the action of human beings on the physical world – is the driving force of change and human progress.

He has chosen tiny, apparently insignificant items as his starting point.

Yet each of them is a marker on a historical path that carries its past within it and signals the future.

The Olduvai chopping tool, probably two million years old, is the most primitive tool with which human beings began the long march through history, forging their way through nature.


It is a crude tool, but it became more refined as the tasks the hunters set themselves grew more and more complicated.

A fine jade axe, forged many millennia later, was carved and honed by another tool that could crack and polish the hard green rock.

About 13,000 years ago an unknown hand exquisitely carved the tip of a mammoth’s tusk into two reindeer.

It is evidence of the way human creativity explores our relationship with the world as we transform it.

Just eight inches long, this tiny carving is no longer a tool. Instead it commemorates the relationship between humanity and nature at one moment in time, and conserves it. In other words, it is art.

The Flood Tablet, was written between 700 and 600 BC in Nineveh, in what is now Iraq.

It tells the story of a man who built a boat to rescue his family and every type of animal from a great flood.

This is the same story as Noah’s ark of course, but was written centuries before it appeared in the Bible.

The challenge for the religious lobby is startlingly clear.

The story of Noah was not a revelation given to a chosen few, but part of a body of myth written in clay hundreds of years earlier and passed down through popular culture.

Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi, seemed oddly uncomfortable when he was interviewed on the programme. “Without that Jewish break with the world of myth,” he said, “we would never have had science”.

In its own polite and restrained way, the series throws down gauntlets.

There is no magic here or divine intervention – simply what Karl Marx calls “the process of appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man.”

As our labour on nature began to produce a surplus above bare subsistence, societies were divided into classes.

While some produced, others came to dominate – like King Den. One object is an ivory label, which was attached to a sandal in Den’s tomb. It depicts war and domination in the Egypt of the Pharaohs 3,000 years BC.


It also challenges the European-centred vision of the march of civilisation.

The beginnings of human society are in Africa. Some of its most glorious and ancient expressions now lie under the ruins of Iraq, which was its early cradle.

As this history of the world continues, we will discover that religion was not the source of science nor, as Sacks argued, morality.

Instead, as object follows increasingly sophisticated object, we will see that it is the relationships that human beings forge in their struggle with the material world that produce both art and science.

From the crude stone axe to the extraordinary technologies of today, the story of these objects is evidence both of the incredible ingenuity of human beings and the struggle to take advantage of their achievements.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is on Radio 4, Monday to Saturday at 9.45am, and is repeated at 7.45pm and 12.30am.

The programme has a lively website, go to »

For details of the exhibition, go to »

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Tue 16 Feb 2010, 18:13 GMT
Issue No. 2189
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