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What’s the Most Important Cultural Object in the World?

By Terp Staff

Collage of gears, papers, a building, an eye, etc.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Bill Bowerman
Chair, Department of Environmental Science and Technology

The four copies of the Magna Carta, for the essence of governance and rights is derived from it. This is especially true in our current time, when we have questions of the rule of law and the role of the sovereign. While we are a melting pot of nationalities in our country, which is our great strength, the origin of our laws is derived from the United Kingdom, and ultimately, from this document.

Henry C. Boyd III
Clinical Professor of Marketing, Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Gettysburg Address. In a two-minute speech, Abraham Lincoln encapsulates the rationale for the Union cause. The U.S. Civil War, in many respects, becomes the inevitable test of the proposition that all men are created equal (even those held in bondage). In plainspoken language with an almost hypnotic cadence, Lincoln showcases his political genius to forge a connection with the common man. To this day, Americans still cherish his deftly chosen phrases such as “they gave the last full measure of devotion,” “a new birth of freedom” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Janet Chernela
Professor, Department of Anthropology

I have long thought that the so-called “flower burial” found at Shanidar Cave in Northern Iraq in 1975 is one of the most important assemblages of human intentionality yet known. The site contains the remains of at least 10 Neanderthal adults and one child dating to between 60,000 and 90,000 years ago. So far it would seem not to be cultural. But one of the skeletons is dusted with pollen as though flowers were strewn over the body. Although the findings are all natural elements, when considered in context, they suggest the concept of an afterlife and, therefore, a language in which to conceive it.

Niklas Elmqvist
Professor, College of Information Studies

As a computer scientist, I don’t feel fully qualified to answer this question. But, if you will allow me to leave aside the real world for a moment, when I play Sid Meier’s Civilization (which I’ve done faithfully since the original in 1991), I tend to go for the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria early on because it gives all my naval units extra movement points. One of the seven wonders of the world, the Lighthouse was built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom sometime during the period 280–247 BC. Of course, with the new Civilization VI, the metagame is changing, with the Forbidden City, the Ruhr Valley, and the Eiffel Tower competing for top spots…

Steve Mount
Associate Professor, Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics

The Antikythera Mechanism is a complex clockwork device, or analog computer, dating to about 150 BCE in ancient Greece. The mechanism could track astronomical and lunar positions for calendric calculations, and predict eclipses of the sun and moon decades in advance. It was retrieved from the sea in 1901 in one piece, and X-ray tomography to image inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism has allowed the identification of 37 bronze gears, and inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine. This object illustrates the sophistication of “ancient” Mediterranean technology some 1,300 years before clockwork returned to Europe, and 2,100 years before digital computers.

Ana Ndumu
Postdoctoral Research Scholar, College of Information Studies

The most important cultural object in the world is the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. More significant than the edifice itself is what took place in and through it. The “castle” was one of the most active ports during the slave trade. Despite the horrors of slavery, African diasporic communities continue to demonstrate strength and pride. The Cape Coast Castle is the setting of a book that I am currently reading, “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi. The Obama family visited the castle in 2009. I am looking forward to my first visit this year.

Philip Soergel
Professor and Chair, Department of History

The greatest inventions of the human hand were the alphabet and the pictograph. Literacy granted the human race the ability to keep records, to communicate with others at a distance and across the ages, and to nurture self-reflection and the internal world of the spirit. Most all the attributes we think of as typical of “society” can be traced to the abilities to read and write.

Margaret A. Walker
Assistant Clinical Professor, Art Education, Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership

I don’t believe there is one “most important cultural object,” as every culture has created something of great significance to the shaping of our world. But one of the greatest objects to change and shape culture in Europe was Gutenberg’s printing press with moveable print. This allowed ideas to be spread much more quickly, and helped to democratize European society through access to literacy, education and learning, rather than being reserved for the moneyed elite.

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