Status Symbols (1200 - 1400 Ad) [A History Of The World In 100 Objects]

Episodes

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01Lewis Chessmen2010062820210705 (R4)

This week Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has chosen some of the great status symbols of the world around 700 years ago - objects with quite surprising links across the globe.

Today he is with one of the most familiar objects at the museum; a board game, found in the Outer Hebrides but probably made in Norway - the Lewis Chessmen. They are carved out of ivory and many of the figures are hugely detailed and wonderfully expressive. They take us to the world of Northern Europe at a time when Norway ruled parts of Scotland and Neil describes the medieval world of the chessmen and explains how the game evolved. The historian Miri Rubin considers the genesis of the pieces and the novelist Martin Amis celebrates the metaphorical power of the game of chess.

Producer: Anthony Denselow

Neil Macgregor's history through objects - today the famous Lewis chessmen.

Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, retells humanity's history through objects

02Hebrew astrolabe2010062920210706 (R4)

Neil MacGregor's world history as told through objects at the British Museum. This week he is exploring high status objects from across the world around 700 years ago. Today he has chosen an astronomical instrument that could perform multiple tasks in the medieval age, from working out the time to preparing horoscopes. It is called an astrolabe and originates from Spain at a time when Christianity, Islam and Judaism coexisted and collaborated with relative ease - indeed this instrument carries symbols recognisable to all three religions. Neil considers who it was made for and how it was used. The astrolabe's curator, Silke Ackermann, describes the device and its markings, while the historian Sir John Elliott discusses the political and religious climate of 14th century Spain. Was it as tolerant as it seems?

Producer: Anthony Denselow

Neil MacGregor with an extraordinary astronomical instrument.

Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, retells humanity's history through objects

03Ife head2010063020210707 (R4)

The history of humanity as told through one hundred objects from the British Museum is back in Africa. This week Neil MacGregor is exploring high status objects from across the world around 700 years ago.

Today he has chosen a sculpture widely considered as one of the highest achievements of world art. It comes from Ife, a city now in South-Western Nigeria. It's a slightly less than life sized representation of a human head, made in brass at a time when metal casting had become a hugely sophisticated art. The head, with its deeply naturalistic features, was probably that of a great king or leader although its exact function remains uncertain. The head leads Neil to consider the political, economic and spiritual life of the Yoruba city state that produced it. The writer Ben Okri responds to the mood of the sculpture while the art historian Babatunde Lawal considers what role it might have played in traditional tribal life.

Producer: Anthony Denselow

Neil MacGregor with a magnificent brass head from the African city of Ife.

Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, retells humanity's history through objects

04The David Vases2010070120210708 (R4)

The history of the world as told through objects that time has left behind. This week Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has chosen some of the great status symbols of the world around 700 years ago - objects with quite surprising links across the globe. Today he is with a pair of porcelain vases from Yuan dynasty China. This instantly recognisable blue-and-white designed porcelain - that we usually associate with the Ming Dynasty - rapidly became influential and desirable around the world. Neil describes the history of porcelain and the use of these vases in a temple setting. The historian Craig Clunas talks about the volatile world of Yuan China while the writer Jenny Uglow tries to put her finger on just why we find Chinese porcelain so appealing.

Producer: Anthony Denselow

Neil MacGregor - and the transformation of ordinary clay into beautiful Chinese porcelain.

Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, retells humanity's history through objects

05Taino ritual seat2010070220210709 (R4)

The history of humanity as told through one hundred objects from the British Museum. This week the Museum's director, Neil MacGregor, is exploring high status objects from across the world around 700 years ago.

Today he tells the story of a beautifully carved ritual seat - an object which has survived the destruction of the Caribbean culture that produced. This four legged wooden stool, or duho, with its long shape and wide-eyed face probably belonged to a chief, or "cacique" of the Taino people of the Caribbean. Taino was a term used to describe a spectrum of peoples who originated in South America and who populated the whole region, including Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Neil tells the story of the Taino speaking people and their demise following the arrival of Europeans. The archaeologist Jose Oliver looks at how the Taino spread around the Caribbean while the Puerto Rican scholar Gabriel Haslip-Vieira explains their impact on the region today.

Producer: Anthony Denselow

Neil MacGregor with a ritual seat from a Caribbean culture that has been destroyed.

Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, retells humanity's history through objects