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Weekly theme: The world in the age of Confucius

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 14:45 UK time, Monday, 22 February 2010

Golden charioteerRemember when you could leave your front door unlocked and local bobbies upheld the peace with nothing more than a wink and a cuff round the ear? Me neither. But it's something of a habit in us humans to look for a moment in time when things were somehow better than they are now.

In week six of A History of the World in 100 objects we're parachuted back to between 500 and 300 BC a point in human history when ability, knowledge and vision had seemingly reached a high point.
As lead curator JD Hill puts it:
We have philosophical, intellectual and artistic traditions being created which will survive, be discussed and continue to influence for the next 2,500 years.
For our objects this week, we look at five examples of this 'golden age', and ask whether it was really so golden.
Take the Centaur and Lapith sculpture from the Parthenon in Athens. This is Classical Greece, when great statesmen were steering the earliest democracy, Plato was sharing ideas with anyone who'd listen and where one of the great masterpieces of world art was sculpted in marble on the Acropolis.

But Athens wasn't alone.
In China, Confucius was forming ideas that would influence philosophical and political life in the east, and beyond, for thousands of years. The Chinese bronze bell shows the importance of music in China at this time and its influence on Confucius and his belief in musical harmony as a metaphor for social harmony.
It was also at this point that the Persian Empire spanned three continents and, under the rule of Cyrus, enjoyed such familiar staples as religious tolerance, regional government and a postal service. We get all that from a tiny gold chariot model found in Tadjikistan.
But, explains JD, as golden as this age clearly was, there are practical reasons why we tend to look to this moment as a high point of civilisation.
Both in the West and in China there is a tendency to look back at the fifth century BC as somehow being an important intellectual age - as if there wasn't a similar tradition taking place before.

One of the big questions we have to ask is how much is that really true? Or do we in the west look to Classical Greece or the 'Age of a Hundred Schools of Thought' in China as the high point because it is a cultural tradition that left behind writings which are constantly picked up for the next 2,500 years? While other traditions have not left this continuing literary legacy.
Telling a history of the world through objects, as we are, we can look past the page, papyrus or tablet.
Greek and Roman writers describe the Celts of northern Europe as barbarians or noble savages. But the Basse Yutz flagons are evidence of a sophisticated, skilled and artistic people. The Olmec stone mask, made in what is now Mexico, reveals the culture behind the calendars, religion, town-planning and art that would characterise Central American civilisation for millennia.
So how about it: was this really a 'golden age'? Were our 2,500 year-old ancestors better off, or more advanced, than those who came before?

Or are we living dangerously if we only believe everything we read?

What do you think? Add a comment


  • Comment number 1.

    Who knows, David?


  • Comment number 2.

    Frankly I'm infuriated by the arrogance of the producer (Robert Ketteridge?) on Feedback. Won't listen to any criticism, even when contributed by those that appreciate the overall production. Thoroughly disgraceful!! I urge all to listen to the interview. It seems BBC producers have learnt a lot from those at Westminster.

  • Comment number 3.

    The concept of a golden age is an interesting one, David. If you take something like the Arthurian Age, it has its roots in a pre-literate age of Celtic story-telling, which may have been more dark than golden, so you can play with these metaphors to make a point. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, looked back from Socratic argie-bargie, to the pre-literate age of the Homerian epics.

    As for dairymade, I guess that producers feel obliged at least to attempt to defend their products. If we feel dissatisfied with 'A History of the World', we can at least write our own history, and post it here?

    My own feeling would be that we currently live in something of a golden age, although it may be something of an illusion.

  • Comment number 4.

    Gold has that particular quality of never appearing to tarnish, wherever it might have been in the past hundreds of years. Dig up a medieval gold ring, wipe it on your sleeve and it can look as fresh as the day upon which its previous owner lost it.
    I feel the description 'Golden Age' is the metaphor of the precious metal itself. We might look back at any period of choice, select the artefacts that still glisten, and extrapolate a 'golden rule' that this was indeed an advanced society. However, I feel one must put the golden ring to one side, and take note of that which is rusted and tarnished, rotten and decayed, often lost or destroyed; those elements of life that do not immediately glint in the new-found sunlight. Therein will be found the true history.
    "All that glisters, is not gold", says William Shakespeare. And we should take note of his meaning It might be the most beautiful golden artefact you can hold, but true light might, meaning and wisdom will be shone from that which is made of baser metal.

  • Comment number 5.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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