This book guides you through the journey of civilization from 2,000,000 BC until the present day, using objects from the British Museum. It describes how our first ancestors in Africa (which is the motherland for all of us, even Nigel Farage) dispersed across the continents and from small farming communities developed the first cities and empires, trading networks and a global economy, religions, literature and science. It highlights how much we can learn about past civilizations, especially those without a written record, through the objects they leave behind. It made me feel quite small by comparison with what has gone before.
There are many wonderful objects and stories in here but my favourite is that of George Smith. George was a printing apprentice with little formal education, who taught himself to became a leading cuneiform scholar and subsequently translated a clay tablet from 700-600 BC northern Iraq to reveal a description of a great flood 400 years before the earliest Biblical account. This ‘Flood tablet’ is better known today as the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known works of literature, so this really was quite a big deal. Therefore I think we can understand why, upon this momentous discovery, he exclaimed, ‘I am the first man to read that after 2,000 years of oblivion’ and promptly took all of his clothes off. You don’t see that on Time Team, which is surprising given it’s Channel 4.
For me the only negative about this book is its failure to properly address some of the unpleasant ways in which these wonderful objects made their way to that great historical warehouse in Russell Square. For example, were it not for an 1897 British expedition to Benin City to (allegedly) take revenge for the slaughter of British diplomats by creating the protectorate of Southern Nigeria, the glorious Benin Plaques may have stayed in their homeland. (I was going to make a joke here about Brits abroad but thought better of it.) Perhaps this book is not the place for a full scale debate on the British Empire, but it all became a bit Basil Fawlty for me (‘Don’t mention the Empire. I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it’).
However, this book is a wonderful way to get a sense of the our journey from the dawn of time until the present day, and to ensure that a trip to the British Museum includes more than a nostalgic visit to Ginger the Egyptian Mummy, to mingle with the school trip kids and reminisce about how much simpler life was as an 8 year old.