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Weekly theme: Inside the palace - secrets at court

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 12:06 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010

A scene from the Lothair crystalFor many of us on the outside, it's intriguing to imagine what goes on behind the closed doors of the rich and powerful. And in the modern age we certainly get opportunities to take a glimpse - be it through glossy magazines, or the occasional tabloid exposé.

For us, objects allow us a similar opportunity to spy through the palatial keyholes of the past.

This week in A History of the World, we've got five objects from AD 700-900 that offer the kind of stories of upper crust homes, lives and relationships that would have a newspaper editor reaching for their chequebook.

JD Hill, lead curator of the series, explains:

Our objects this week come from Tang China, the Islamic Empire of the Middle East, a new power emerging in Europe in the form of the Carolingians and Buddhist Sri Lanka  - some of the driving forces of the world at this time. But we're going to hear about the view from the top: the rulers.

Now, that view might not necessarily represent what is really happening in these places, but it's interesting that we find common issues in very different courts across the world, especially in the key relationships between rulers and their wives. But perhaps most importantly by looking at objects from the hearts of these courts, we get a sense of how rulers viewed themselves and the world they were making around them.

So, who are these powers, and which courts will we be peering into?

In the Americas at this time Mayan city states were found across parts of modern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. A stone sculpture from a Royal palace gives a sense not only of the ritual that governed this great civilisation, but also the role played at its highest level by women - the king watches as his queen pierces her tongue to induce a hallucinatory trance.

In Europe, a large swathe of the continent was briefly united under Charlemagne. After his death it was divided into three kingdoms. A crystal made for the ruler of one of them, his great-grandson Lothair, tells the Biblical story of Susanna, falsely accused of adultery by two men.

For Lothair, there's an interesting undertone to this story - he had himself tried to divorce his wife, falsely accusing her of adultery, when the pair of them failed to produce an heir. In the story of Susanna, the fate for those falsely accusing her was to be stoned to death.

The magnificent city of Samarra, in what is now Iraq, was for a short time the capital of the Islamic Empire. Fragments of a painting that once decorated a royal harem in the city offer a tantalising glimpse behind the palace walls. And a gilded statue of a Buddhist deity, probably commissioned by the rulers of Sri Lanka, shows the wealth of one of South Asia's leading powers of the day.

And finally, from Tang Dynasty China, tomb figures recovered from the burial of an important general show how he aimed to manage his own image in the afterlife. Among the figures accompanying him are civil servants who, as they would have done in this world, are on hand to help manage things in the next.  

So, in our exposé of the rich and powerful we have royal tongue-piercing, a harem, the scandal of royal divorce, and the importance of having a spin doctor by your side - sounds like a whole week's worth of tabloid front pages.

What do you think? Add a comment


  • Comment number 1.

    I have a general point to make about the BBC series, but I heard the programme about the goddess Tara today, and I've listened to quite a few other episodes.
    I am struck by the huge omissions from the ' history of the world'. One being the omission of any context about how the objects ended up in the British Museum.
    Terms are used as ' appeared' ' turned up' at the British Museum, surely this is History redacted.

    And objects are presented as divorced from the contemporary people and cultures, ie the Tara statue, and divorced from British history. As if they (objects) just ' appeared'.

    A radio series called the 'History of Britain in a 100 objects from around the World' would more historically accurate and enlightening.

    I am well aware of the agenda of this series but I don't think we should let it pass without comment.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thank you for making this point. It’s an interesting and important one that has regularly been discussed throughout the research and making of this series. How objects were collected or how they how they came to be in Britain is certainly an important part of any object’s history and in fact these aspects of an certain object’s histories have been raised in a number of programmes – the Rosetta Stone, for example.

    But of course each radio programme is just 15 minutes long and our challenge is to work out what the key points about an object and its history are that we want to make, and to decide what has to be left out. As a key aim of this series is to introduce listeners to the history of parts of the world they may have little or no previous knowledge of, this has been the main focus of most programmes. Even with this aim, much has to be left out.

    JD Hill, British Museum

  • Comment number 3.

    Actually I think you have done a magnificent job in digesting and presenting all the wide range of objects. Overall on a weekly basis, the themes have clearly emerged and been very illuminating. I know the BM pretty well, but have been much enriched by AHOTW. Thankyou.


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