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A History of the World in 100 Objects

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  6,749 ratings  ·  654 reviews

This book takes a dramatically original approach to the history of humanity, using objects which previous civilisations have left behind them, often accidentally, as prisms through which we can explore past worlds and the lives of the men and women who lived in them. The book's range is enormous. It begins with one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands, a c

Kindle Edition, 681 pages
Published October 6th 2011 by Penguin (first published October 25th 2010)
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Average rating 4.19  · 
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 ·  6,749 ratings  ·  654 reviews

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Nandakishore Varma
Apr 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I visited the British Museum recently. Due to the shortage of time, I decided to take the one-hour tour suggested by the brochure: a visit to ten objects separated across various galleries, spanning historical space and time. Even though it was a good introduction, and gave me a taste of the museum as a whole, I was strangely dissatisfied: it was rather like cramming for an exam where you end up with a lot of bits of disjointed knowledge.

As we were leaving the museum, I asked my brother-in-law (who is settl
Jan 02, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Kitchen book method for people with a very low boredom threshhold. Like me.
I always have a kitchen book, it sits there waiting for me to have to do something or other that requires little concentration and then I read a bit. So while my immersion blender is immersed, on the whisk is automatically frothing, or I am just absent-mindedly munching away and pretending I'm not eating (view spoiler) ...more
Apr 09, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Zanna by: Sally Bleasdale
Shelves: native, environment, iran
In the British Museum I usually feel nearly overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. I am ashamed of my country's heritage of colonisation and our seemingly unclouded sense of entitlement to enjoy the world's riches, and at the same time I am utterly seduced by this booty and plunder, and I'm shedding these useless White Tears and doing nothing to dismantle the master's house as it were. Reading this is perhaps too soothing at times, and I tried not to be soothed, and to keep seeing as many layers a ...more
Mark Lawrence
Jan 29, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book I've been reading for a year at least. I think I got it for Christmas 2013. It's divided into 100 sections so it's ideal for dipping in to. It starts with objects of great antiquity from pre-history and moves forward, ending up with an object from 2010. There are black and white pictures of each object and periodically a bunch of coloured pages with photos of the items too.

The objects are interesting and well chosen to illustrate the cultures they came from and the cha
Dec 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites, nonfiction
A treasure chest, a Wunderkammer of human development explained and illustrated!

I have approached this book from many angles. I started by listening to the charming BBC broadcast. Fascinated by the different voices of the interviewees just as much as by the objects themselves, I fell in love with the concept of travelling the world, historically and geographically, on a quest to discover the diversity of man-made objects and look at them from different perspectives to tell their stor
Aug 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in history
If you are interested in history, you should read this book: 100 objects at British Museum, first discussed at BBC Radio 4 string of shows in 2010 (which explains the end year), with 5 objects discussed each time (thus the things in this book are put in groups of 5). The objects have been carefully preserved, or thrown away in piece, and everything in between, then found or bought or taken, and found their way to the museum. There are black and white pictures of all of them (though some would be ...more
Preface: Mission Impossible
Introduction: Signals from the Past

--A History of the World in 100 Objects

List of Objects
Text Acknowledgements
This is a nice big thick book with lots of juicy wonderful pictures.

THe author, a curator of the British museum, has the airs of a fascinating and scholarly tour guide, and shows pieces diverse - from the oldest known tools to a modern credit card and a solar lamp. Some are ornate and expensive (the model mechanical ship is astonishing), and some are broken fragments, or tools left behind as little fragments, which reveal some little fragments of the lives of those before us.
Nov 28, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This does exactly what it says in its title. And it does so elegantly, entertainingly, educationally and beautifully.

However, it was not originally an illustrated book, but a BBC Radio 4 series! The idea of doing such an apparently visual series on the radio was extraordinary, brave... crazy even, but it worked brilliantly, and that is all down to MacGregor himself.

The radio programme was so good, I wondered if the book could compete, but it does, though if I hadn't been able to ima
I was going to give this to my brother for Christmas, and then I opened it before wrapping it.

Tough luck bro. But hey, you enjoyed Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942.

This book is absolutely awesome!

Originally done as a radio program, this book looks at the history of the world though 100 objects that are found in the British Museum. A few of the objects are obvious, the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles (strange, how Greece is quiet about those lately
Nov 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was fascinating. I read it a few years ago and am about to embark on a reread. It is/was the companion piece to an exhibition at the British Museum. It is based on the premise that most recorded history is written by the winners or rules out cultures who did not record their histories in written form or whose materials were organic and so disintegrated.
It is so informative , original in its perspective and also tells us about how more recent generations sometimes altered artefacts to
Roy Lotz
For our 101st object on our history of humanity, we have our first example of a printed book. Now, printing was invented a long time before 2010; but most of the surviving books were lost in the great purges of the Trump-Putin era. This book survived by being buried in rural Canada under a rock on a peninsula far from any population centers. Its owner must have known what was coming. We owe its discovery to the great potato recovery efforts of the previous decade, as the grounds were combed for ...more
Roshani Chokshi
Since I've been on mandatory typing rest (and have to dictate everything, including this post) I've just been devouring as many books as possible. I picked this up after listening to the BBC podcast that came out a while back. For a book that a hefty 600 or so pages, this was utterly engrossing. I love how in each evaluation of an object it's put into the vast scope of human history. It's not a dry read at all, but packed with fraught emotional tension and urgency. I also appreciated that this b ...more
Dec 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
This is a marvelous book that looks at the history of the world by taking a look at 100 objects that now reside in the British Museum in London. The objects range from a crudely carved rock used as a tool to a solar powered lamp and charging unit.

By the objects we learn who made it and how they used it. We learned where the object was used and when. Each object was presented with a photo and short text. It's one of those books that does not have to be read from front to back all at o
Dec 28, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I believe I learned more per page reading this book than any I've ever read. A tour through all of history using objects collected (stolen?) by the British Museum, this book is a bravura execution of material culture and archaeological studies. In fact, I used several entries with my Advanced Placement Literature class in order to expose them to effective and interesting "close reading." MacGregor does with objects what literary critics do with a passage of poetry: he describes the object (lovel ...more
Any history buff should be happy reading this book. Don't expect in depth analysis, because at an average of three small-type pages per object, you don't get too much information. However, since there are 100 objects and a lot of technical data about them, you do feel tired after reading even 50 pages. The scope is unbelievable - you'll find all the continents represented, a LOT of countries, and if a country is not specifically represented by an object, you might just find it as a reference for ...more
May 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a great book. In some ways a light read - organised into a chapter of a few pages on each object - it nonetheless provides insights and analysis which catapults us into history. It brings history to life using everyday objects rather than lists of "great leaders", kings or battles.

Well worth a read.
Oct 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Citizens of Earth
Recommended to Alan by: A trove of knowledge centuries in the making
The tl;dr (too-long; didn't-read) version of A History of the World in 100 Objects:
"We pillaged the world to collect these things, and now we will explain them to you."
The article that starts the title is significant, though—this book never pretends to be the history of the world. It is a singular slice through time and space, a selective view, that tries to be inclusive (and, for the most part, succeeds). It is limited, yes, but it acknowledges those limits gracefully.

The tl;dr (too-long; didn't-read) version of A History of the World in 100 Objects:
"We pillaged the world to collect these things, and now we will explain them to you."
The article that starts the title is significant, though—this book never pretends to be the history of the world. It is a singular slice through time and space, a selective view, that tries to be inclusive (and, for the most part, succeeds). It is limited, yes, but it acknowledges those limits gracefully.

Neil MacGregor does sometimes fail to transcend British cultural myopia. A Native American pipe gets described (on p.235) as similar in size and shape to a "bourbon biscuit"—whatever that is. Other references to football pitches and sheets of A3 paper are more translatable, if no less Anglocentric. Setting aside the literal insularity of its viewpoint, though, A History of the World in 100 Objects is a truly amazing compendium.

And then there are moments of clarity, like this observation—so much against our conventional wisdom—about bureaucracy as "life-saving continuity":
Modern politicians proudly announce their desire to sweep away bureaucracy. The contemporary prejudice is that it slows you down, clogs things up; but if you take a historical view, it is bureaucracy that sees you through the rocky patches and enables the state to survive.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit the British Museum in London several times during a once-in-a-lifetime visit to England back in 2013, and I was amazed by the breadth and range of its collection. I saw several of the artifacts featured in this book firsthand—among them, the Rosetta Stone (Ch. 33), the moai Hoa Hakananai'a (Ch. 70) and this Aztec double-headed feathered serpent (Ch. 78):
double-headed feathered serpent
I was (if I may use a Britishism here) gobsmacked by their antiquity, and also by the respect with which the Museum treats the objects under its care. It's certainly possible to dispute that the British Museum should be caretakers for the many items in its collection that come from other parts of the planet, but you can't argue with the care itself.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is a long book, but it is a lively and entertaining one as well. Its short chapters lend themselves to episodic reading, and the photographs of the artifacts it highlights are uniformly of high quality. You'll notice, if you read through this book from start to finish, that there's a fair amount of repetition—phrases and observations that crop up again and again. However, this book was originally a series of audio segments broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (which amazes me anew, as being able to see the objects discussed, even if just in photographs, adds so much to the text), and so the repetition is not a flaw, but rather a way to tie these pieces together.

And tied together they are. The final quotation out of the many in A History of the World in 100 Objects sums this up rather well:
"When we look at the history of the world, it is very important to recognize that we are not looking at the history of different civilizations truncated and separated from each other. Civilizations have a huge amount of contact, and there is a kind of inter-connectedness. I have always thought of the history of the world not as a history of civilizations but as a history of world civilizations evolving in often similar, often diverse, ways, always interacting with each other."
Amartya Sen, p. 658
Perhaps this book's 22nd-century reissue will even include the current edition as its 101st object. From this viewpoint, that seems like an excellent choice.
I love this book. I got it from my dear friend Dean, who is a museum professional, as a gift last Christmas. The reading of it has lasted me the entire year and has been a source of continual wonder. It consists of a series of short essays on 100 objects chosen by the director of the British Museum to tell the story of the history of the world. The objects are beautiful, inspiring, ingenious, inventive, compelling, challenging, complex, profound. I kept the book by my bedside. Sometimes I would ...more
Jun 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A lot of history and archaeology is conveyed in meaty lectures, or via dense scholastic tomes written for academics. Not in this instance. This is like sitting down to tea and crumpets with a fascinating friend, who is infinitely knowledgeable....yet who imparts that knowledge with a modest charm. In this book Neil MacGregor, head of the British Museum, describes some of the objects to be found in his museum.

For some reason I have never been very interested in archaeology, or ancient
Feb 06, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history
Fascinating, both in the selection of objects and in the descriptions of what they are and what they (likely) meant to their original owners. The pictures are clear and uncomplicated, though I would have been happy with more details. MacGregor does touch, very briefly, on the controversies inherent in a collection largely based on plunder, but in a relatively superficial way. Honestly, I wouldn't have expected much more than that. That is not what this book is about, and it's a complicated issue ...more
Roman Clodia
Apr 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A generous and nicely eclectic approach to global material culture

MacGregor has done an excellent job here of turning modern academic approaches to material culture into a welcoming, intelligent and absorbing `popular' read. Organised around short chapters, each of which starts with an object from the British Museum, he then widens his perspective from the object itself to the society or culture which produced it, and what it might tell us about the world: not just at the point at wh
Apr 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As a history enthusiast, I want to know more about history of civilization, especially from the dawn of history to the present time. After seeing the title of the book, I was intrigued to read it. All I could say about the book is that it is a fascinating introduction to the human history, containing high quality image from the objects.
In my opinion, the main feature of the book is that it tells the history through objects. As the director of the British Museum, the Neil MacGregor’s narration
May 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Five stars plus. Reading this book was like visiting an enormous museum with your own personal curator, who points out details you would not notice or be able to interpret and who paints a sometimes surprising picture of what each object reveals about the society and time it came from.

The British Museum picked 100 man-made objects from its collections, beginning with an Egyptian mummy and stone tools from Olduvai Gorge and ranging all over the world up to the present day, to talk about the hist
Jill Manske
A few weeks ago, I read a fabulous book (A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson) that was highly entertaining as well as very informative and educational. So when I saw this book on the new acquisitions shelf at my library, I eagerly took it home, thinking it would be of similar quality. Hmmm. This is a hefty book, in size and weight as well as subject matter. And it's very cumbersome reading, figuratively and literally. I like to read in bed before going to sleep, but this book was ...more
Sarah Bringhurst
Apr 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, britain
This book somehow migrated into our bathroom (actually, our bathroom is full of books, like most other rooms in our house), and my husband and I are both addicted to it. In fact, now whenever he's missing, I expect him to emerge full of words of wisdom about the Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine or Hokusai's The Great Wave.

Interestingly enough, the book is actually a compilation of a BBC radio series that aired in 2010. The series included short programmes (what amounts to 5-6 printed pages each) o
Annette Abbott
Nov 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I haven't yet worked out if this would be better if it were read cover-to-cover since I basically have read it by jumping back and forth. Having grown up in a world where most Americans had a set of Encyclopedia Britannica's in their home, I read this the way I would "read" an encyclopedia - by just cracking it open and reading an entry. It's informative, it has great pictures, you can start anywhere, read a few pages and be educated/amazed.

It is the history of man through 100 objects - all of
Jul 29, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I am at a loss for what to rate this. On the one hand, it covers mostly the parts of history I’m interested in: ritual and domestic life, the things that tend not to be covered in Big History Books. And it’s interesting, and offers little bite-sized pieces of information about a lot of history and a lot of the world. But on the other hand, this book made me mad, so mad that I had to take several breaks while reading it to read other books and cool down.

This book has a narrative underlying the m
Jun 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've been having lots of fun browsing through A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. The book chooses 100 objects from the British Museum to tell a story about the world. The date of the objects begin about 2 million years ago with a stone chopping tool (though this is the second object featured in the book). It is astonishing to think that we have things that humans made that long ago. Trying to imagine what life 2 million years ago must have been like is hard to do and filled with g ...more
Jul 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
The people who give this book low ratings and complain of being bored, and of now knowing tons of useless facts, just stagger me. I almost wish I'd caught the original radio program -- I must look for similar things to listen to while I'm crocheting -- because I find all the information intriguing and worth keeping in my head (if not exactly useful in the sense of practical). To me museums have always been magical places, and though the provenance of all the items in the British Museum troubles ...more
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Goodreads Italia: La storia del mondo in 100 oggetti 4 30 Sep 18, 2012 05:16AM  

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Neil MacGregor was born in Glasgow to two doctors, Alexander and Anna MacGregor. At the age of nine, he first saw Salvador Dalí's Christ of Saint John of the Cross, newly acquired by Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery, which had a profound effect on him and sparked his lifelong interest in art. MacGregor was educated at Glasgow Academy and then read modern languages at New College, Oxford, where he ...more
“And the more you look at the history of Homo sapiens, it’s all about movement, right from the very first time they decided to leave Africa. It is this restlessness which seems a very significant factor in the way the planet was settled by humans. It does seem that we are not settled. We think we are, but we are still looking for somewhere else where something is better – where it’s warmer, it’s more pleasant. Maybe there is an element, a spiritual element, of hope in this – that you are going to find somewhere that is wonderful. It’s the search for paradise, the search for the perfect land – maybe that’s at the bottom of it all, all the time.” 7 likes
“It is, as we know, the victors who write the history, especially when only the victors know how to write.” 6 likes
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