If you seek answers from the past, there’s nothing better than finding an object—something really old— with the ability to reveal precious details about the human race and how life has evolved physically, emotionally, and intellectually over millions of years. History tends to focus on the lives and artifacts of the rich and powerful, but it is the more simple stories of the past about humble people trying to make it through everyday life that can be particularly moving. These discoveries, for all purposes, are even more exciting because they offer a chance to see and feel the experiences of those who came before and, like us, were engaged in the same pursuits of survival and a larger need for understanding.
Because not all cultures had a written history—many were conquered and destroyed—a significant number can only speak to us through the objects they left behind—it is their one voice. If we are to truly understand the language of the world rather than just those who triumphed, we must not only read the texts but the objects as well. It is more equitable and can teach us a great deal about our ancient relatives, whose only legacy remains cast in stone.
All of these objects can be found in the British Museum within a larger project to understand our human history more clearly through the examination of real, legitimate artifacts. This array of precious discoveries spans from the inception of human consciousness to the establishment of the credit card in the 20th century—a swath of time that has seen some unbelievable historical developments. But for the sake of ancient history, let’s explore the ten primary objects that have led human beings from the darkness of caves to the light of religious faith, a harrowing journey that brings us right up to the Common Era.
Separating Man From Beast
Found in Tanzania in 1931 by the famous archaeologist Louis Leakey, this is one of the oldest stone tools ever discovered. Since we know human life began in Africa, this artifact puts us directly in touch with the very beginnings of humanity who used such hand-sown objects to chop meat, bones, and wood. It was this increasing dependency on such tools that began to separate us from all other animals, apes in particular.
The site of discovery was also particularly fascinating, as it seems to echo directly into a time of primal human functions. The deep cleft in the flat savannah known as the East African Rift Valley is a massive tear in the Earth surface that spans thousands of miles. There, Leakey found exposed layers of rock that served as a series of time capsules, the first having been shaped by the elements—the sun, wind, and rain—and then giving way to stones that were molded by human hands. These incredible stones were found next to bones, and it was clear these sharp rocks had been shaped into butchering tools to break down animals killed on the savannah. Geological evidence subsequently proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the rock layer which held this tool was roughly two million years old—an archeologist’s dream.
The First Art
This sculpture carved from mammoth tusk and found in France is significant in the retelling of our history because it shows the shift between stone wielding hunters to more thoughtful, creative humans. Across the world, during this time, humans were beginning to decorate themselves, their environments, and not just to kill animals— but to admire and honor them by reproducing their images. In short, people were making art—and this ancient object is a masterpiece from the Ice Age.
The Swimming Reindeer is compelling because it speaks directly to the human desire to make art. Where does it come from? It’s clear from our history that it somehow accentuates our humanity, and yet we still don’t fully agree on how art is defined. This first known piece of art was carefully crafted by one of our ancestors who wanted to show his own world to himself, and in doing so, he has relayed that world to us with great immediacy. There is a level of creative, life-affirming consciousness in this process that clearly pulls man even further from the realm of mere cave dwellers.
Up until this point, humans had been roving the earth, taking advantage of newly-formed land bridges resulting from the Ice Age. This exposed frozen land allowed humans to cross bodies of water and reach the Americas for the first time, spreading themselves quickly across the continent. This incredible tool used to grind anything course to a fine consistency demonstrates what happened once humans settled down and began harvesting food and domesticating animals. They were paying attention to the finer details of life.
Just 2,000 years before this tool was created, the world had undergone a significant temperature increase, one that would give way to grass and the ability to farm. Food began to improve as well—people didn’t just roast meat—they actually prepared meals in a way that is familiar to us today. We were using our brains more than ever before and life was pretty good.
Once the weather and quality of life began to improve, humans were able to focus more readily on their favorite pastime—sex. This charming stone figurine found in Judea (near Bethlehem) shows two people literally wrapped up in each other and is the oldest known depiction of a couple making love. While it may not look like much, closer inspection reveals it is a rather moving likeness of two people staring into each other’s eyes while enjoying the closest of embraces.
This 11,000-year-old object illustrates a shift in the human experience from one of hunting and gathering to a more settled way of life. We began to shape our environment and control nature through sowing seeds and grinding grain to flour. With this more stable life came time to reflect and create, allowing us to celebrate key elements of our existence like food, power, sex, and love. It is said human beings have been emotionally sophisticated since at least 10,000 BCE when this sculpture was made, and this delightful rendering of a close human relationship is more proof of that notion.
The word excavation in Egypt usually makes us think of extravagant gold moldings of pharaohs or jewel-encrusted treasures obediently sent to the afterlife. This humble model pulled from a grave near the Nile in 1900, however, tells the story of a different ancient Egypt—one that consisted of small farming communities who lived along the river. It would be another 1,000 years before embalming or mummification were even invented, so this discovered gravesite of a respected man was simple and faced the setting sun as a way to honor his journey into the unknown.
The subject of cows is particularly important because it demonstrates how humans have depended on these gentle animals for thousands of years, for food, transportation, and blood. Because many of the cattle bones excavated in the area are too old to prove they were used for meat, it is surmised these animals were often tapped for their protein-rich blood which would continue to regenerate, providing a constant source of nutrition. Even further, the shapes of these cows tell us they were descended from African cattle that are now extinct.
If you look closely at the god of maize, who was found in western Honduras, you can see he is clearly in some sort of communion with a different world, quietly meditating and giving the impression of serene power. Just like Bacchus was the god of wine in classical mythology, there were likely gods for all kinds of food when our ancient ancestors were alive. Food has always had a divine role in our lives—whether in drought or abundance—it is the very source of our livelihood. As ancient people from the Middle East to China began to identify and embrace a range of new foods, they also began to associate them with certain deities.
This maize god is important because he marks a time when stories of gods of all kinds began to emerge—gods of food, death, rebirth, love—gods who would protect the lives of the devoted and guarantee a prosperous future. Although the maize god has been worshiped throughout Central America for thousands of years, he provides key insight into how ancient people have thought about themselves in relation to the environment. He is a symbol of the worship humans have always embraced around birth, death, and rebirth. Just like the Hebrew god made Adam out of dust, the Mayan gods used corn to make humans. It is an ancient story of origin and one that existed long before more convention forms of religious faith. He represents the pagan beginnings of man and the ongoing quest to understand the basis of life.
Growing and Fighting
About 5,000-6,000 years ago, the world’s first cities and states began to emerge in the river valleys of North Africa and Asia. In what is now Iraq, Egypt, India, and Pakistan, people came together to form settlements that were larger than villages, and for the first time in history, there is evidence of great rulers and inequities of wealth. Power became something that was not guaranteed through mere humanity—it was a commodity that was wielded by those who were lucky enough to have it. It was this dominant paradigm that provided the means to control growing populations who needed governing and a sense of leadership. Perhaps these were the first days of vast networking and the struggle for power that would become modern politics.
If you listen to history, there is a clear parallel between an abundance of wealth, power, and enterprise and war. When you have something, you have something to lose that must be protected, and this leads to violence among people. Every great city has a monument to death on a massive scale, and the Standard of Ur is a beautiful representation of a time when new systems of power and control were developing. This wooden box inlaid with mosaic depicting chariots, soldiers, and war was found at the royal cemetery of Ur in southern Iraq and symbolizes the strength of the Sumerian city and its ability to reach far and wide through both conquest and exploration. Up until now, all the objects mentioned were made of a single material: wood, stone, bone, or pottery. This piece is made from several different materials traded over long distances and demonstrates the sophistication of this great city. There’s a reason why 6th-graders still study ancient Mesopotamia in school—it serves as an astonishingly resilient urban model, even today.
The First Story
Biblical stories have long been lodged in the minds of people, but it is rare to find any written material to verify their accuracy. In the British museum, there are roughly 13,000 clay tablets from Mesopotamia all relating different stories through an ancient cuneiform script. But this one, which looks a bit like an adds column from an old-fashioned newspaper, is particularly special because it helps us better understand the relationship between scripture and the truth. This tablet is about a flood—about a man who is told by God to build a boat and load it with his family and animals because a giant rain will soon wipe out humanity. Sound familiar? Of course, it perfectly describes the biblical story of Noah which was written in the Old Testament some 400 years later.
Now universally known as the Flood Tablet, this slab of writing from 7th-century Iraq supports the idea that the narrative in the Bible is far from a revelation—it is, in fact, a depiction of common legends that were shared throughout the Middle East during that time—precisely why this simple tablet is so incredibly important to humanity’s evolution. It is one of the world’s first stories. It is not only significant with regards to the history of religion, but it is a key document in the history of literature.
Building Empires And Egos
Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian empire in 334 B.C. brought in a new age of fantastical empires ruled by mega-egotists. Yes, there had been empires before, but this was the first time regional superpowers emerged in different global regions at the same time. The Roman emperor Augustus, India’s Emperor Ashoka, the Han Dynasty in China—they all produced vast luxuries to win both the admiration and obedience of their people.
This coin represents more than just the propagation of money throughout civilization, it literally stamps the authority of a leader onto the minds of his citizens. Money lives on long after we are dead, and this practice kept the legacy of power alive. It carried a political message of power and authority, and despite the fact that it was minted thousands of years ago, it is strikingly similar to the mode of currency we use today. By having his image forged in metal, Alexander made a few big statements: he had dominion over the Greeks and Egyptians and, with the depiction of the ram’s horn, he is clearly equating himself to the god Zeus. Up until this point, rulers may have been greedy or tyrannical, but they were not yet driven by this level of personal need for glory, prowess, and everlasting significance. This coin documents the rise of the human ego.
The Rise of World Faith
Today, Buddha is everywhere—but there was a time when the idea of the Buddha had no form. His teachings were only symbols and ideas. The fact that he can now be referred to as “he” is attributed to this depiction discovered in Pakistan some 1,800 years ago. By that time, Buddhism had already existed for centuries, but never with such a finite, conceivable, and human form. All religions must face the question of how we, as humans, can draw nearer to God. Some do it through chanting or praying, but most people found it useful to focus their attention on the divine through a human depiction. Perhaps it just makes God seem more like one of us.
This first statue of the Buddha represents that impetus to put a face to the name and gained momentum about 2,000 years ago, right around the time that Christianity and Hinduism also first started showing their God in human form. It was at this point in history that all three major religions established artistic conventions that live on today. This small, unassuming statue is much more than it seems; it is the first depiction of a god that speaks to our inner humanity in a way that promotes faith‚ cementing a degree of iconology that only seems to strengthen as the centuries go by. This object marks a shift in major religion to a time when we finally put the face to the name of God.
And the rest is history.