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Home » Neil MacGregor: 2600 Years of History In One Object (Transcript)

Neil MacGregor: 2600 Years of History In One Object (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Neil MacGregor’s talk titled “2600 Years of History In One Object” at TED conference.

In this TED talk, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, delves into the profound history and impact of the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay artifact dating back two and a half millennia. He uses this object to explore themes of empire, religion, and politics, demonstrating how an ancient artifact can embody the cultural and political dynamics of its time.

MacGregor highlights the Cylinder’s role in the establishment of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, emphasizing its significance in promoting religious tolerance and freedom for the enslaved peoples of Babylon. The talk also connects the Cylinder’s history to modern times, illustrating its influence on contemporary politics and its symbolic power in debates about national identity and heritage.

MacGregor’s insightful analysis reveals the Cylinder as not just an archaeological find, but as a pivotal document in human history, comparable in its ideals to the American Constitution and Magna Carta. He invites the audience to consider how such objects inform our understanding of history and the ongoing discussions about the role of the past in shaping the present and future. The talk stands as a testament to the enduring relevance of historical artifacts in fostering a deeper understanding of human civilization.

Listen to the audio version here:


The things we make have one supreme quality — they live longer than us. We perish, they survive; we have one life, they have many lives, and in each life, they can mean different things. Which means that, while we all have one biography, they have many. I want this morning to talk about the story, the biography — or rather the biographies — of one particular object, one remarkable thing.

It doesn’t, I agree, look very much. It’s about the size of a rugby ball, made of clay, and it’s been fashioned into a cylinder shape, covered with close writing, and then baked dry in the sun. And as you can see, it’s been knocked about a bit, which is not surprising because it was made two and a half thousand years ago and was dug up in 1879. But today, this thing is, I believe, a major player in the politics of the Middle East.

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