Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum, begins this series about the role and expression of shared beliefs with the Lion Man, a small ivory sculpture which is about 40 000 years old. The figure has a human body and the head of a lion - it is a being that cannot exist in nature. While we shall never know what the Lion Man meant to the community in which it was created, we do know that it mattered enough for the group to allow someone to spend about 400 hours carving it.
The programme visits the cave in southern Germany where fragments of ivory were discovered in 1939. These fragments were gradually pieced together by archaeologists decades later to re-assemble the figure. Some smoothing on the torso suggests that the Lion Man was passed from person to person in the cave.
Neil MacGregor begins the series with this object because, in his words, 'what the archaeologists did as they pieced together the Lion Man is what societies have always done: work with fragmentary evidence to build a picture of the world. You could say that it's when a group agrees on how the fragments of the cosmic puzzle fit together that you truly have a community - one that endures, encompassing the living, the dead and the yet unborn. What this whole series is about is the role that such systems of belief - and perhaps even more the rituals that express those beliefs - have played in the creation, and sometimes in the destruction, of societies. Are we humans distinguished not just by a capacity to think, but by our need to believe - in a context where the search is not so much for my place in the world, but for our place in the cosmos - where believing is almost synonymous with belonging?'
Producer Paul Kobrak
The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum, with the assistance of Dr Christopher Harding, University of Edinburgh.
Photograph: (c) Museum Ulm, photo: Oleg Kuchar, Ulm.