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Weekly theme: Old world, new powers

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 11:54 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010

Gold coin of CroesusAs we all know, there are certain constants in this life and change is one of them. Like seasons, hairstyles or best friends when you're under 10 - nothing lasts forever.
History teaches us how this is true of power and who holds it and, as every good student knows, empires come and empires go. According to lead curator JD Hill, week five in A History of the World in 100 objects takes this power shift as its central theme.
Across the world, between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago, there are a series of quite marked changes and transformations - more than just the passing of one empire.
Often when we look back at places like the Middle East, China and Egypt we think that civilisations just chug along quite nicely. But, actually, there is a big sea-change at this point, as old powers and dynasties come to an end and new powers and dynasties arise. This is a period of upheaval.
Spinning the globe at this moment in time offers up five objects that show some of these major changes.
In Africa, the Sphinx of Taharqo is sculpted proof of the moment the ruled became the rulers, as the Kingdom of Kush in modern Sudan took on the once mighty Egyptian pharaohs and won. In Iraq, the military might of the Assyrian Empire is made clear in the Lachish Reliefs, carved decoration for palace walls showing the ruthless crushing of a local rebellion. And in China, the upstart Zhou dynasty overthrows the long-established Shang and writes about it on a ritual bronze vessel.
Change was also coming to Central and South America as the earliest complex societies began to emerge. From Peru, elaborate and highly-sophisticated textiles found wrapped around bodies in large underground cemeteries are a vivid window into one of these formative cultures - the Paracas.
But change wasn't just to be found in the displacement or development of civilisations. New ways of approaching old challenges were devised at this time. For example, many societies across Africa, Asia and Europe started using iron instead of bronze to make tools.
But one innovation was so good the change is still jangling in our pockets today.
The world's first coins were minted and used in the eastern Mediterranean and China at this time and our Gold coin of Croesus, issued by the fabulously wealthy ruler of what is now part of Turkey, is one of the earliest.

While plenty of societies didn't use this new currency at first, those that did had a new way to run their economies. This profound change was so effective thousands of years ago, it's hardly changed since, explains JD:

Societies could have cities, international trade and empires without them, but coins represented a change in how economic relationships were worked out - a change that would shape the world for the next 2,500 years.

Coins would also provide a new tool for empire and self-promotion as images of rulers and symbols of cities and states struck into metal were circulated in standard sizes and weights.

Change and its effects are the central theme of this week, but maybe this is the theme of history in general - finding moments of change and watching to see what happens next, analysing causes and dealing with effects, many of which are still with us today.

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