Wednesday, August 31, 2011

3. Olduvai Handaxe (Tanzania, 1.8-1.4 million years old)

CLOTHING! It’s one thing to have a little pocket-knife sharpened rock handy, if you live in the tropics and there’s plenty to eat. A more advanced tool, with two sharp edges and a sharp point, has many more uses, including skinning animals. Which means, the invention of clothing. Which means, you don’t only have to live in the tropics...people can spread out all over the world, which they did once they figured out how to make these little tools.

This one, like the earlier tool I posted yesterday, was found in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. But little axes like this have been found all over the world. Food, shelter, & clothing, as they say...the last of these being the key to migration into the different climates.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

2. Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool (Tanzania, 2-1.8 million years old)

TOOLS. Other animals use tools; but what distinguishes man from everybody else is the crazy-big role tools play in our lives and history. Most other tool-using animals do so to solve an immediate problem, usually how to get food. For example, the otter takes a rock and cracks a mussel he’s already got; he doesn’t find a rock first and then go looking for mussels. We look for tools when we need help eating, like that, but we also make tools in the hopes that they might be useful someday, or knowing full-well they won’t be but we make them because we like them. The oldest item in the British Museum is a tool, basically a hand-held rock with a sharp edge created by whacking it with another rock. It’s extremely practical, but also a little fancier than necessary, suggesting its creator took him/herself seriously both as craftsman and artist. Louis Leakey found this item in the African rift valley in the 50s, and proved that the species as we are now originated in Africa—dismaying many in the racist white establishment of the day. MacGregor’s #1 ambition, in creating this series, is to write a world history telling the story of all of humanity together, instead of ‘us’ and ‘them’. A laudable goal; alas, the layout of the museum, created many years ago, organizes objects into geographical districts (ie, “Go upstairs to the Asian hall for Buddhist/Hindu stuff,” or “Go to the Muslim annex for Islamic stuff”). Today,we know—and NEED to know—that we’re all in this together. His special guest in this podcast was the great David Attenborough, narrator of just about every British nature film for five decades.

Monday, August 29, 2011

1. Mummy of Hornedjitef (Egypt, 300-200 BC)

British Museum Director Neil MacGregor chose this as his first object because he remembered seeing it as an 8 year-old boy on his first-ever trip to the British Museum, and now he runs the place. That’s his way of including himself and acknowledging that his biases will play a role in the series. He uses the mummy of a late Egyptian priest to indicate the many directions the study of objects can take you. As a kid, he was simply grossed out and fascinated by the idea of the mummy; as a scholar, he’s now more interested in what the writing on the lids tells us about Hornedjitef and his world. Contemporary techniques can analyze the remains, tell us what Hornedjitef had to eat, what medical problems he may have had, etc.; and of course there’s the politically complicated story of how the mummy got from his ancient Egyptian tomb to the British Museum, not to mention the ethical question of whether he belongs there. From being there in person, all I can add is that the British Museum ended up with a huge collection of Egyptian antiquities, and—although the Egyptians aren’t about the details of real or ideal human beings, as with the Greeks—much of it is dazzlingly beautiful.