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Weekly theme: The Silk Road and beyond

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 11:05 UK time, Monday, 7 June 2010

Sutton Hoo helmetSo, let's begin with a local tale... Way up in northern Europe, in a corner of East Anglia a great warrior has died and his compatriots have laid him to rest. As is local custom, he is buried surrounded by his possessions.

It happens his possessions are pretty spectacular - ornately-crafted jewels, silver tableware, weaponry and a seriously amazing helmet. For some this burial is thought of as the beginning of the English nation as we know it - our warrior is an Anglo-Saxon and it's the seventh century AD.

In Week 10 of A History of the World in 100 objects you'll hear all about this helmet, but, as JD Hill explains, you'll also hear about why the tale of its burial is anything but a local story.

The Sutton Hoo helmet is probably the most iconic object from early British history - it's even had its own stamp! But if you spin the globe at the moment it was buried you realise that if Sutton Hoo tells us about the origins of England, it actually tells us just as much about the rest of the world.

The Sutton Hoo helmet and other objects found buried in Suffolk show that eastern England was at the time part of a wider North Sea community. This community was in turn on the edge of, but very much within, a network of trade that stretched as far as Korea and Japan.

One of the most important connections in this network was a collection of trade routes known as the 'Silk Road'. Running from China to Europe the Silk Road has, for thousands of years, facilitated the movement of people, goods and ideas. In fact, red garnets found in jewellery buried alongside our warrior may have travelled along this road, all the way from South Asia to Suffolk.

The silk princess painting - an image that tells a mythical story of what we might call industrial espionage - is a fascinating glimpse of this well-trodden path; but it wasn't just goods that travelled on the Silk Road. Buddhism spread along it from India into China and from there into Korea, where our Korean roof tile would probably have sat on a Buddhist temple.

At the same time, the Prophet Mohammad was preaching the new religion of Islam in the Middle East. How many people who have heard of Sutton Hoo, or seen the great helmet, realise its owner was a near contemporary of his?

A small gold coin not only tells the story of this new faith's rapid expansion, but also of how a ruler of the new Islamic empire that stretched from Iran to Spain resolved the relationship between religious and political power.

Meanwhile, there are shades of the buried hero of this tale in the Moche pot from Peru. In the shape of a kneeling soldier and found in a tomb, it shows how similarly warriors were regarded on opposite sides of the world at this time.

This week is halfway through our series and in many ways is - to borrow someone else's phrase - a tipping point, as we leave the ancient world behind.

In the next four weeks we'll discover what many of us would call the Middle Ages; meeting new powers, discovering new inventions and unearthing hidden treasures.

Exciting eh?

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