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The Making of Meaning

Neil MacGregor reflects on how we come to understand images, with a focus on the rock art of the San people in southern Africa, and a Japanese shrine to the Shinto divinity Inari.

Neil MacGregor continues his series about the expression of shared beliefs with a focus on how we come to comprehend sacred images.

Our understanding of the rock art created by the San people of southern Africa over many centuries is helped by written accounts, so that what first appears to be an image of a hunting expedition becomes a record of a spiritual journey into another realm of experience. "For many years it was a matter of gaze and guess," says David Lewis Williams, an authority on rock art: "You gaze at it, and if you gaze long enough, your guess will take you close to what it's all about - and I'm afraid that's not the case, but we don't have to gaze and guess any more."

In the British Museum, a small 19th century Japanese shrine shows the spirits coming to visit a long-settled agricultural society. The curved doors of a small wooden box open to reveal, inside, a shimmering world of carved gilded wood, and a scene to which Japanese viewers would bring different interpretations.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

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15 minutes

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Neil MacGregor tells the stories of some of the key objects in the series.

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