BBC Radio 4
« Previous | Main | Next »

Weekly theme: Ancient pleasures, modern spice

Post categories:

David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 12:24 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

A family scene from the Admonitions scrollI've often heard the phrase "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." and wondered just how true it is.

It's easy to look into the past and get a little bemused by what those who came before us got up to, or what they thought, but this week on A History of the World we have five objects from around 2,000 years ago that show we're not so different after all.

JD Hill, lead curator of A History of the World, told me why:

Going to dinner with friends, watching a football match with mates, or sharing a cigarette are important features of many people's social lives that also reveal much about the structure and nature of 21st century society.

The objects we have this week show that 2,000 years ago we were doing pretty much the same things and, at the same time, they tell us a huge amount about the wider context in which they were made.

Objects used at Roman dinner parties reveal more than just what happened around the dinning room. They can reveal much about attitudes to sex and the surprising scale of the economy at the time. A sporting trophy from Central America shows how similar ancient passions for sport were to our own.

The Warren Cup is evidence, if any were needed, that the Romans took dining every bit as seriously as we do now. But in its scenes of love being made between men - scenes that were headline news as recently as 1999 when the Museum bought the cup - it's also evidence of Roman attitudes to sex and sexuality.

In the Hoxne pepper pot we get a sense of why this exotic spice graces our own meals to the extent it does. And the fact it was consumed in Suffolk, but grown in India tells the story of the extent of Roman trade at this time. Indeed pepper was such a significant commodity that there were those who feared it could bankrupt the empire.

In China fears over the future of empire in part inspired the creation of the Admonitions Scroll, perhaps one of the greatest works of art from the ancient world. Its scenes of life in the upper reaches of society aim to teach the women of the court how to behave, for fear their vanity, cowardice and tempting ways will undermine the dynasty. Attitudes to women have certainly changed, but the moral pronouncement on behaviour remains a feature of many modern publications.

The otter pipe shows how the earliest tobacco smoking in North America was a religious undertaking that underpinned daily life, while the ballgame belt reveals the world's oldest team sport to be a Central American ritual dedicated to the gods.

Smoking may not be so closely associated with religion anymore, but it's still with us. So too sport, which may not have the ritual significance it once did, but still retains some of the characteristics we associate with religion: hope, belief and the collective spirit. And sport can still bring together even the most disparate of tribes - just ask anyone wearing their lucky t-shirt and sobbing as penalties loom yet again at this summer's World Cup.

What do you think? Add a comment


  • Comment number 1.

    Brilliant programme - have listened with rapt attention all week as it is definitely one of the best things on R4. Well done and keep up the good work.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great programmes but is there an easy way of finding photos of the objects on the website? I'm sure I'm missing something obvious but at present I can't track down this week's objects at all!

  • Comment number 3.

    affront - you can find all of the objects in the series here:

    You can also find them through the Explore page, where you can filter by various criteria including time, theme, culture and material, or even contributor. If you search through Explore you'll find loads of objects from similar moments in time, or places uploaded by other museums around the UK and individuals who've added their own objects.
    David Prudames, British Museum

  • Comment number 4.

    Dear David Prudames,

    I would like to know, why it´s so important to you to draw a parallel between the past and the present. It seems to me, that you might as well focus on the differences.

    Thank you for an interesting programme
    - Signe

  • Comment number 5.


    Thanks for your question, which is a really interesting one. For me there are fascinating discoveries whether you go in search of similarities or differences, and in fact we normally end up with both.

    In this series Neil MacGregor does just that (and some of the contributors to the radio programmes make extremely interesting comparisons between objects of the past and the present). In the programmes in the week I write about here you can hear that there are some aspects of recent life that have parallels and resonances in the past – something that many people may not realise.

    Take sport - on a personal level you may have guessed I’m a keen follower, and frankly I revel in the fact that in the shape of the ballgame belt there is evidence that so many years ago there were people with passions just like mine, even though they might have pursued those passions for different reasons and in different ways. In some way I feel I’m connecting to those people through the fact that this small part of their lives was not so different to mine.

    But of course in just 15 minutes worth of programme we’re limited in the amount we can say, so perhaps a fuller discussion of the ballgame would allow the differences to be highlighted more.



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.