AHOTW Symposium - Dr Belinda Crerar - Reading without Words

Video | Updated 8 months ago

Reading without words: a history told through things


Belinda Crerar: I’m going to talk a bit today, this morning, about the ways in which we can look at the past through using objects. So as any historian will know there are some very clear problems with understanding history through the written word alone. For many cultures there simply aren’t written texts available, at least not written by the people themselves. Often all we have to go on are texts written by outsiders looking in which are prone to misrepresentation, sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate. This is true for most of world history and certainly all indigenous cultures of the Americas, of sub-Saharan Africa, the Australian continent, but also many cultures within Europe, Asia and North Africa. So when the A History of the World in 100 Objects project began back in 2007 it had the perhaps slightly ambitious aim of telling a narrative of global history which does not privilege any one culture over another, in particular not privileging literate cultures over non-literate cultures, and the best way, it was thought, of going about this was to use objects. Objects are something that all human cultures have produced, something that we all have in common, and the idea was to put the objects themselves in the spotlight and interrogate them as we would any other kind of evidence. So with this in mind I’m going to talk about some of the different ways in which we can do this using some of the objects which are on display in the exhibition, and I’m going to look at this from what I see as three different but slightly related angles. So I’m going to be looking at those objects which can tell us about cultures for which there are simply no written sources at all, cultures that pre-date writing of any kind. Then I’m going to look at objects which can give us a different perspective on periods of history which are well recorded. And then I’m going to look at some of the new ways that we are learning to extract information from objects through modern technology, which are telling us things about the past that perhaps the makers of the objects never really thought that they would be telling us. When we think about cultures which have left no writing my mind in particular always turns to Central and South America. This part of the world that hosted vast and sophisticated civilisations like the Inca and the Aztec, the Maya, and yet right up to the 16th century we have no textual information about them. If you trace the objects from this part of the world through the exhibition you’ll notice that they’re are constant presence in every section but their constant presence really serves to highlight how little we know about this part of the world for most of its history. This is the British Museum’s collection to show you the sort of range that we have in this material. You see that they come in many shapes and varieties. We’ve got these absolutely exquisite portrait faces which show us about personal dress, elite representation, they may actually be portraits of individual people. We’ve got others that seem to suggest something about religious belief with this strange cow-headed figure, and we’ve got others which show us scenes of maybe daily life, maybe important activities, like this deer hunt scene at the end. But just to bring us back to the ones that are in the exhibition, one of the things that really dominates the pots is the theme of violence and conflict, and we know from these pots, from other material and from the archaeological excavations at Moche sites that violence was a very key part of Moche society. So this figure here, I should just explain, this figure is dressed as a Moche warrior and you can see he’s wearing the sort of standard uniform and weaponry of a very small circular shield and a little stout club, and this is part of the excavation at one of the Moche sites, at a site called Huacas de Moche, at which two Moche temples were identified, and over 70 skeletons, mainly of young males, showing signs of violence, broken bones for example, but also more deliberate ritualised acts, possibly, such as having throats slit, and the association between these bodies and the temples seems to suggest that maybe there was some sort of religious element to this, some sort of sacrificial aspect. This is just one of the examples in the exhibition about how we can slowly start to piece back together these societies for which we don’t have any written sources at all, just using the archaeology and the objects alone. I want to come now to my second point which is looking at how objects can give us a new perspective on periods of history which are quite familiar to us, periods of history that we have written sources to. Now the majority of these instances occur when a literate culture or society meets a non-literate culture, and what we get is the literate culture’s perspective, so looking at objects from the non-literate cultures is really the only way that we can try to understand that encounter from that perspective. Anyone who was on the tour this morning may already be familiar with this piece, I think this is really one of the best examples of the value of looking at objects to understand world history. What we’re looking at here is a brass plaque. Plaques like these were made in their hundreds from about the 13th Century onwards in the Kingdom of Benin which is now in Nigeria. To put this plaque in context, what we see happening in the late 14th century is a Europe which was obsessed with goods from the East, from Asia, which were travelling to Europe along the silk road, having access to those goods cut off by Ottoman control of the Middle East and seeking new channels round into Asia, and this brought them by sea round Africa and into contact with the great medieval kingdoms of Western Africa, which they set up trading relationships with. The Kingdom of Benin was one of these. This plaque originally hung in the palace of the Oba, the ruler of Benin. It’s made from brass which was one of the main goods desired by West African kingdoms to be brought from Europeans, and one of the main goods traded in West Africa for all of the goods that were desirable by Europeans, like ivory and gold and coral and ultimately of course slaves. We have a lot of written sources which tell us about this encounter and this relationship from the European perspective which reveal a quite intensely disparaging and condescending attitude towards West Africans and their lifestyle. But what this plaque seems to give us is one of those rare and phenomenal glimpses of the attitudes of the West Africans towards their European trading partners. What we see on this plaque is, the central figure is the Oba himself seated on his throne with a huge presence, he fills up almost a third of the plaque. Either side of him are his attendants, still quite massive figures although slightly smaller, still dominating the scene, and just above his head either side are these tiny little Europeans which only appear as heads and arms, they don’t even have full bodies, they’re just disembodied little arms and heads in feathery hats with long hair clutching their goods for trade. The one on the right is holding a manilla, which was the main source of brass which was coming into the country. I think that even allowing for the clearly stylistic representation of all of the figures in here it seems clear that there is a deliberate differentiation between the massive African figures and the tiny floating Europeans behind them, and I think that this is designed so as to leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind as to who was really in control in Benin, who really controlled trade. The second object that I want to mention is this one. It’s a Roman statue, it was probably created in Rome itself maybe around 100 to 200 CE. Now this is a culture that we know a lot about from themselves essentially, if you like, telling us. We have a lot of sources from the Roman world, we have a lot of literature. They wrote prolifically about themselves and about other cultures that they encountered. We also know a lot about Roman religion, we have epic poetry which tells about the exploits of the gods, we have calendars of festivals and yet I just wanted to highlight this because even within those cultures that we have a lot of sources for, that we feel we understand well, there are always gaps, there are always missing pieces of the puzzle, that can only be filled by looking at the objects. This statue was created and worshipped by followers of the god Mithras and it represents Mithras killing a bull. This is a religion or a cult, if you like, that we know essentially almost nothing about. It was a deliberately secretive religion, and details of the rituals were kept separate from non-initiates, and hardly any text even reference it let alone go into any detail, so this is part of Roman culture that we simply just don’t have access to through other sources. All we have are these objects, we have statues like this one, several reliefs showing similar scenes, and we have the remains of Mithraea, the subterranean temples in which the worship of the god took place. Now this might not be the best example of what we can learn through objects because even looking at this statue we still know very little about how to interpret it. It seems like an image that is full of symbolism but we just don’t quite know what it means, especially when you consider other images of this scene, this bull-slaying scene, sometimes have zodiac images around it or images of a sun god, so it seems like there’s the whole cosmological setting for this, we just don’t know what it was. But there is something, something tangible that we can access about the past through these objects. I want to show you this map – I know it’s a bad image and I don’t expect you to be able to read everything on it – but this is a distribution map showing finds of images of Mithras and his temples throughout the Roman world. It’s quite an old map, it was made in 1956, but I’ve being informed that this is still the most up to date version. What I want to draw your attention to is – I don’t have a pointer do I no it’s fine – the huge concentration if you look in Germany and also if you look up in Britain along Hadrian’s Wall. What we find is that the densest concentrations of the material relating to the cult of Mithras occur along the frontiers of the empire where the army was being stationed. So using the objects we can piece back bits of information which suggest to us that although we don’t know quite what this cult meant we at least know who it meant something to. It seems like this was a very important aspect for men in the army.

So far I’ve been talking about objects which were designed by their makers to express something, something about their belief or their culture or their priorities. But now I want to talk briefly about some of the objects in the exhibition which are sending us information from the past that they were not deliberately designed to send. This taps into the new ways that we are learning to extract information from objects through scientific advances. Since more or less the 1970s scientific research in archaeology has hugely improved they types of information we have access to with for example radio carbon dating, isotopic analysis, even things like paint analysis using UV light showing us the ancient colours that would have decorated marble statues, I mean, it’s very, very likely that our beautiful white shining statue of Mithras was originally painted in all kinds of beautiful colours. So the exhibition begins with a wonderful example of this, of how modern technology is changing our access to the past, with the CT scans of the mummy which was originally inside the coffin of Shepenmehyt. This is one of a number of Egyptian mummies in the British Museum’s collections which have recently been scanned using hospital CT scanners to look inside the wrappings without having to disturb them, and this has revealed all kinds of new information to us about the people who were actually buried within these coffins. We can see hidden amulets for example placed over the body, we can see evidence of disease in the bones just from these scans alone, and we can see evidence of the embalming process. In the mummy in our exhibition we actually found a spatula inside the cranium which had presumably been dropped whilst the embalmer was trying to get out the last piece of brain matter, and I really like thinking that whoever dropped it thought, oh I’ll just leave it, no one’s ever going to find out. [audience laughter]

Belinda Crerar: But what I really want to talk about are these two objects. These are both—objects one and two in the exhibition—¬these are both pieces of volcanic rock found in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. They were found in different layers of stratigraphy which indicate there was roughly about 400,000 years between the manufacture of both of them. They are the oldest objects in the exhibition. The top one dates to about 2 million years ago and the bottom one to about 1.2, 1.4 million years ago. The top one, the older one, you can see it’s quite a crude object. It’s really nothing more than a rounded rock that has been broken maybe a few times to create a sharp edge.

The next one, however, is much more clearly a designed object. It’s been turned, it’s been struck several times to create at least two cutting edges with a symmetrical shape in a process called ‘knapping’. To whoever made this second object perhaps it was just a functional object for, say, cutting meat but to us this is an extremely early example of the human ability to forward plan, to imagine something and then take coordinated steps to create it. This object is unwittingly telling us about the development of the modern mind and this is where modern science is really helping us to unlock our earliest history. For about 15 years now a branch of research has been using technologies used in radiology to track brain activity when objects like this are made by modern knappers, both with people who are very experienced in knapping and also people who are less experienced and still learning as they are creating. Very, very broadly, what the results show is that the parts of the brain that are activated in these creative activities overlap with the areas of the brain activated in speech. More specifically as the object being created becomes more complex, and therefore more difficult to imagine beforehand, these areas of activity overlap more. So in tracing the increasing complexity of tools at this early stage what we can really trace is the development of language, and this perhaps tells us about social changes. I mean, language becomes necessary when people start living together, when you have to exchange information, when you need to coordinate actions. These sorts of new research techniques which are available to us are really improving the kinds of stories that we can get from objects. I’m running out of time, I’ve only had time to talk about very few objects in the exhibition. There are many, many more which I had hoped to talk about, in particular some of those which show where images or objects have been deliberately selected in place of a written source, like if any of you saw the reformation centenary broadsheet, that was a very deliberate example of a choice where pictures, images, had been chosen instead of words, which I find a very interesting way of looking at objects as well. But what’s clear is that even though written sources are a huge bonus when studying the past, and they give us a wonderful advantage, they do only get us so far. Objects and the discoveries of archaeology not only help us uncover those cultures for which there is no chance of using writing, but they also offer us new and sometimes surprising insights into periods of history with which we are more familiar, and are an essential tool for telling a more globally unbiased history. Thank you.

[audience applause]

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