Ancient Pleasures, Modern Spice, AD 1 – 600

In traditional models of Chinese history decadence and luxury are associated with periods of decline. The collapse of the Han dynasty into the chaotic Period of Disunion was partly blamed on emperors succumbing to the pleasures of court life. Similarly in Rome intellectuals worried that the taste for luxury goods from the east, like pepper, would bankrupt the empire. Attitudes to pleasure, luxury and leisure fluctuate throughout history. For example, the relationships between boys and older men tolerated in the Roman Empire would be deemed illegal today. Many of our modern leisure activities have their origins in ancient religions. Tobacco smoking and some of the earliest team sports first occurred in the Americas, where they were used in religious rituals.

The Rise of World Faiths, AD 200 – 600

A small number of major faiths have shaped the world over the last 2000 years. The iconography and other key features of Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism all developed within a few hundred years of each other. Buddhism first began to allow images of the Buddha in human form from AD 100 to 200, while the oldest images of Jesus Christ coincide with the acceptance of Christianity as the predominant religion of the Roman Empire in AD 312. At a similar time, Hinduism developed out of the Vedic religion in Gupta India. The birth of the Prophet Mohammad in AD 570 set the scene for the rise of Islam, which eventually replaced Zoroastrianism in Iran and the earlier religions of Arabia.

The Silk Road And Beyond, AD 400 – 700

The Silk Road from China to Europe was at its peak between AD 500 and 800, the time of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ in Western Europe. This trade route connected a revived Tang China with the newly formed Islamic Caliphate, which conquered the Middle East and North Africa. It was not only people and goods that spread along the Silk Road but also ideas. Buddhism spread from India into China along the Silk Road and also into the newly formed kingdom of Korea. Silk Road products even made their way to remote Britain, as shown by the South Asian gems found in the Sutton Hoo burial. Meanwhile the first organised states in South America were beginning to flourish.

Inside The Palace: Secrets At Court, AD 700 – 950

While the Maya were flourishing in the Americas, two other great powers: Tang China and the Islamic Empire were also at their peak. A large part of Europe was briefly united under the rule of the Emperor Charlemagne, before it fragmented into individual, squabbling states. The great powers of Eurasia were connected by maritime trade across the Indian Ocean, which fuelled a booming world economy. Objects from the hearts of these courts, provide an insight into how rulers viewed themselves and the world they were creating.

Pilgrims, Raiders and Traders, AD 900 – 1300

Medieval Europe was not isolated from Africa and Asia, pilgrims and merchants regularly criss-crossed between the continents carrying with them goods and ideas. The Scandinavian Vikings travelled and traded from Greenland to Central Asia. In the Indian Ocean a vast maritime trade network connected Africa, the Middle East, India and China. Buddhism and Hinduism had spread along these trade routes from India to Indonesia. Even the Crusades did not prevent trade flourishing between Christian Europe and the Islamic World. In contrast, Japan, under the Heian dynasty, chose to isolate itself, closing off relationships with its neighbour China for the next 300 years.

Status Symbols, AD 1200 – 1400

Objects have always been used by the wealthy and powerful as status symbols, but such objects could not be created without skilled and knowledgeable craftsworkers. Technological advances during this period fuelled the creation of magnificent objects across the world. Iconic blue-and-white porcelain was first developed in Mongol-ruled China, and went on to be desired across the globe. In Ife, one of the first city-states to arise in West Africa, artists created lifelike sculptures using sophisticated bronze working techniques. Within the Islamic world arts and sciences flourished and European scholars soon benefited from Islamic advances in astronomy, maths and even chess. A ruler’s status in the Caribbean was closely tied to their relationship with their ritual throne.

Meeting The Gods, AD 1200 – 1400

Throughout the world during this period objects were used to bring the faithful closer to their gods. In the Western Church, pilgrims flocked to shrines to see holy relics, including the body parts of saints. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, images of Jesus and the saints were venerated in the form of icons. Hindu worshipers in India used statues to developing a personal relationship with individual Hindu gods. In Huastec Mexico, penitents visited statues of the mother goddess asking for forgiveness. The religion of Easter Islanders in the Pacific changed to reflect their deteriorating environment. Polynesians ceased worshiping statues of their ancestors and instead created a cult associated with the island’s diminishing bird population.