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100th object contender: No.5 - Pestle and Mortar

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 09:00 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010


A pestle and mortar


It’s the final day, and we come to the last of the contenders that may be the 100th object in the A History of the World series.

So far we’ve seen a lamp powered by renewable energy, a mobile phone from Africa, an Antarctic suit, and a football shirt.

What’s missing from that list? Yes, it’s food.

Looking back over the previous 99 objects, there are a surprisingly large number that relate to food. In the first 10 alone, we had a stone tool used to chop food, a spear point used to kill it, and a pot used to cook it.

This object is a stone pestle and it looks like it’s considerably older than the other objects on our shortlist. It’s not, but in many ways it is timeless. It’s the kind of object we could have featured in pretty much any one of the 19 weeks in which we’ve broadcast this series so far.

So, what’s it doing here?

Well, this pestle is from Bangladesh, but was given to the British Museum this year by someone living in London. It’s true that in 2010 we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing what we fancy for our dinner. Among the reasons for that are scale and speed of migration in the twenty-first century.

More of us are moving from one part of the world to another than at any other time in history. Millions of us in fact. And as we move from one place to another – often for political or economic reasons – we tend to carry parts of the culture in which we were raised with us. A seriously important part of that is invariably food and the objects used to prepare it.

Across a global city like London there are utensils, bowls, pans and dishes being used right now that previously would only have been available in very specific parts of the world. And in the global city more and more of us explore and enjoy the food traditions of other cultures.

When the archaeologists of the future dig up what remains of such a global city, they’re going to find implements representing cultures from all over the planet.

The previous owner of this object was given it by her mother in Bangladesh when she came to London to get married in the 1970s. By using it to prepare the family’s meals, its owner was ensuring a taste of the homeland – many thousands of miles away – could be had in her new home.

It’s an interesting thought that although we experiment with food from other cultures, what we eat and the way we prepare it are often the slowest things to change. So the basic objects used to pound and grind food have often changed very little over thousands of years. 

The previous owner of this object was maintaining her contact with her cultural heritage, connecting with her past, even though she was geographically so very far removed from it.

This object is not just an object of our time, it’s an object of all time and it gets to the very essence of what it is to be human. We make things and we depend upon them. In some cases we take them with us wherever we go and they connect us to our past like little else can.

This object is both a part and evidence of humanity’s collective memory.

  • Listen to Evan Davis discussing this final contender with curator JD Hill

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What do you think? Add a comment


  • Comment number 1.

    The mortar and pestle is the best object to choose for the 100th object, a brillant way to round up this fantastic series of programs. It encompasses time and space of all human activity, from the stone age, and is still an important tool in the daily life of humans all over the world today.

  • Comment number 2.

    The pestle and mortar are OK but is anyone else a bit disappointed by the 100th object shortlist in general, or is it just me?

    I was convinced there would be a really bold link to the single most important subject for everyone and everything on the planet today – the environment. The Arctic suit and solar lamp come close but I hoped for something more fundamental, something closely associated with water.

    Water makes our world unique. Life evolved in water. Each of the 99 objects needed water to exist either directly or indirectly. Water will have to be a central part of the world's ongoing history if anyone is going to be around to appreciate it.

    A "watery" 100th object could have been anything: a beautiful fountain; a functional filter or desalination unit; or a simple bottle or container. If that last one had been something that could have been taken out into space, then so much the better.

    Never mind, the series has been wonderful all the same. Many thanks.

  • Comment number 3.

    I agree with number 1 above - this is a fitting end to the series. This object is universal, functional, beautiful, timeless. It tells a powerful story about current times, global issues and our futures - yet it also brings the series back round to stone tools and the origins of human society and this series. Very neat - I will listen tomorrow with interest to see if the pestle is the 100th object.


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