Weekly theme: Inside the palace - secrets at court
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.
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