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Test 1 / 23

A History of the World in 100 Objects

In this book we travel back in time and across the globe, to see how we have shaped our world and been shaped by it over the last two million years. The book tries to tell a history of the world in a way that has not been attempted before, by deciphering the messages which objects communicate across time – messages about peoples and places, environments and interactions, about different moments in history and about our own time as we reflect upon it. These signals from the past – some reliable, some conjectural, many still to be retrieved – are unlike other evidence we are likely to encounter. They speak of whole societies and complex processes rather than individual events, and tell of the world for which they were made.

The history that emerges from these objects will seem unfamiliar to many. There are few well-known dates, famous battles or celebrated incidents. Canonical events – the making of the Roman Empire, the Mongol destruction of Baghdad, the European Renaissance – are not centre stage. They are, however, present, refracted through individual objects. Thus, in my chapter on the ancient inscribed tablet known as the Rosetta Stone, for example, I show that it has played a starring role in three fascinating stories: as a legal document in ancient Egyptian times; as a trophy during the rivalry between the French and the British; and finally as a key to the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian writing system at the end of the nineteenth century.

If you want to tell the history of the whole world, a history that does not unduly privilege one part of humanity, you cannot do it through texts alone, because only some of the world has ever had written records, while most of the world, for most of the time, has not. The clearest example of this asymmetry between literate and non-literate history is perhaps the first encounter between Europeans and Australian aboriginals. From the European side we have eye-witness accounts and scientific reports. From the Australian side, we have only a wooden shield dropped by a man in flight after his first experience of gunshot. If we want to reconstruct what was actually going on that day, the shield must be interrogated and interpreted as deeply and as rigorously as the written reports.

All so much easier said than done. Writing history from the study of texts is a familiar process, and we have centuries of critical apparatus to assist our assessment of written records. We have learnt how to judge their frankness, their distortions, their ploys. With objects, we do of course have structures of expertise – archaeological, scientific, anthropological – which allow us to ask critical questions. But we have to add to that a considerable leap of imagination, returning the artefact to its former life, engaging with it as generously, as poetically, as we can in the hope of winning the insights it may deliver.

One of the characteristics of things is that they change – or are changed – long after they have been created, taking on new meanings that could never have been imagined at the outset. A startlingly large number of our objects bear on them the marks of later events. Sometimes this is merely the damage that comes with time, or from clumsy excavation or forceful removal. But frequently, later interventions were designed deliberately to change meaning or to reflect the pride or pleasures of new ownership. The object becomes a document not just of the world for which it was made, but of the later periods which altered it.

History looks different depending on who you are and where you are looking from. So although all these objects in the book are now in museums, it deliberately includes many different voices and perspectives. It draws on the museums’ own experts, but it also presents research and analysis by leading scholars from all over the world, as well as comments by people who deal professionally with objects similar to those discussed. This book also includes voices from the communities or countries where the objects were made, as only they can explain what meanings these things still carry in their homeland. Countries and communities around the world are increasingly defining themselves through new readings of their history, and that history is frequently anchored in such things. So a museum is not just a collection of objects: it is an arena where such issues can be debated and contested on a global scale.

What claim does the author make about his book in the first paragraph?
The Rosetta Stone serves as an example of an object
The author believes that basing a history of the world on texts alone
The author says that compared to the interpretation of texts, the interpretation of objects calls for
What is the author’s attitude to the fact that objects often change over time?
Why does the author include comments from people who live in the area where the object was made?
Test 2 / 23

The Ghost

We were speaking of sequestration, alluding to a recent lawsuit. It was at the close of a friendly evening in a very old mansion in the Rue de Grenelle, and each of the guests had a story to tell, which he assured us was true. Then the old Marquis de la Tour-Samuel, eighty-two years of age, rose and came forward to lean on the mantelpiece. He told the following story in his slightly quavering voice:

I, also, have witnessed a strange thing, so strange that it has been the nightmare of my life. It happened fifty-six years ago, and yet there is not a month when I do not see it again in my dreams. From that day I have borne a mark, a stamp of fear, do you understand?

Yes, for ten minutes I was a prey to terror, in such a way that ever since a constant dread has remained in my soul. Unexpected sounds chill me to the heart; objects which I can ill distinguish in the evening shadows make me long to flee. I am afraid at night.

No! I would not have owned up to such a thing before reaching my present age. But now I may tell everything. One may fear imaginary dangers at eighty-two years old. But before actual danger I have never turned back, mesdames.

That affair so upset my mind, filled me with such a deep, mysterious unrest that I never could tell it. I kept it in that inmost part, that corner where we conceal our sad, our shameful secrets, all the weaknesses of our life which cannot be confessed.

I will tell you that strange happening just as it took place, with no attempt to explain it. Unless I went mad for one short hour it must be explainable, though. Yet I was not mad, and I will prove it to you. Imagine what you will. Here are the simple facts:

It was in 1827, in July. I was quartered with my regiment in Rouen. One day, as I was strolling on the quay, I came across a man I believed I recognized, though I could not place him with certainty. I instinctively went more slowly, ready to pause. The stranger saw my impulse, looked at me, and fell into my arms.

It was a friend of my younger days, of whom I had been very fond. He seemed to have become half a century older in the five years since I had seen him. His hair was white, and he stooped in his walk, as if he were exhausted. He understood my amazement and told me the story of his life. A terrible event had broken him down. He had fallen madly in love with a young girl and married her in a kind of dreamlike ecstasy. After a year of unalloyed bliss and unexhausted passion, she had died suddenly of heart disease, no doubt killed by love itself.

He had left the country on the very day of her funeral, and had come to live in his hotel at Rouen. He remained there, solitary and desperate, grief slowly mining him, so wretched that he constantly thought of suicide. ‘As I thus came across you again,’ he said, ‘I shall ask a great favor of you. I want you to go to my château and get some papers I urgently need. They are in the writing-desk of my room, of our room. I cannot send a servant or a lawyer, as the errand must be kept private. I want absolute silence.

‘I shall give you the key of the room, which I locked carefully myself before leaving, and the key to the writing-desk. I shall also give you a note for the gardener, who will let you in. ‘Come to breakfast with me to-morrow, and we’ll talk the matter over.’

I promised to render him that slight service. It would mean but a pleasant excursion for me, his home not being more than twenty-five miles from Rouen. I could go there in an hour on horseback. At ten o’clock the next day I was with him. We breakfasted alone together, yet he did not utter more than twenty words. He asked me to excuse him. The thought that I was going to visit the room where his happiness lay shattered, upset him, he said. Indeed, he seemed perturbed, worried, as if some mysterious struggle were taking place in his soul.

At last he explained exactly what I was to do. It was very simple. I was to take two packages of letters and some papers, locked in the first drawer on the right of the desk of which I had the key. He added: ‘I need not ask you not to glance at them.’

I was almost hurt by his words, and told him so, rather sharply. He stammered: ‘Forgive me. I suffer so much!’ And tears came to his eyes.

I left about one o’clock to accomplish my errand. The day was radiant, and I rushed through the meadows, listening to the song of the larks, and the rhythmical beat of my sword on my riding-boots. Then I entered the forest, and I set my horse to walking. Branches of the trees softly caressed my face, and now and then I would catch a leaf between my teeth and bite it with avidity, full of the joy of life, such as fills you without reason, with a tumultuous happiness almost indefinable, a kind of magical strength.

As I neared the house I took out the letter for the gardener, and noted with surprise that it was sealed. I was so amazed and so annoyed that I almost turned back without fulfilling my mission. Then I thought that I should thus display over-sensitiveness and bad taste. My friend might have sealed it unconsciously, worried as he was.

The manor looked as though it had been deserted the last twenty years. The gate, wide-open and rotten, held, one wondered how. Grass filled the paths; you could not tell the flower-beds from the lawn.

How does the Marquis look back on what happened to him?
Why hasn't the Marquis ever told the story before now?
Why did the narrator's friend look so much older?
Why did the narrator's friend ask him to go to his chateau?
Why was the narrator offended during his breakfast with his friend?
Which word is closest in meaning to 'avidity' in the third to last paragraph?