Royalty Reconsidered: The King’s Beer and the Commoner’s Shirt

A new exhibition looks at Europe’s earliest societies

HUMANITIES, Winter 2024, Volume 45, Number 1

As visitors exit “First Kings of Europe,” the gift shop offers a kind of test. Two craft beers were created for the exhibition, a collaboration between the museum and Off Color Brewing: Beer for Kings, made from top-quality rich and ancient grains, and Beer for Commoners, made from the more modest ingredients of the poor. Beneath the racks of beer hang T-shirts with the art for each. Which identity does the visitor want to take home: commoner or king? The answer for most exhibitions celebrating the awe-inspiring treasures of royalty would be easy, but “First Kings of Europe” is a different kind of show, with an ambitious new approach to how we display and envision power, kingship, and history.

Inside, the expected golden crown greets you in the doorway, a modern splendor of arches and jewels, looking just like crowns in coats of arms and corporate logos. But around the first corner waits something very different: simple clay figures seated in a circle, with them, tools of farming and daily life, simple clay altars for personal use, and a model of a village where the brown thatched homes are all the same—no chief’s or ruler’s hall, no temple, no one who has more than others. It is the world before inequality, before social class, before elites and kings. Only after an immersion in this early world of clay and flint, imagining ourselves planting and harvesting the wheat and barley on display, or using a flint blade or a clay pot with a funny face, do we hear around the corner the clink of the blacksmith, the roar of the fire, the advent of metallurgy and, with it, wealth and war.

Pin with two large circles and a man
Photo caption

Elaborate bronze pins are among the splendors in the show. 

Amber breast ornament. 600–400 BCE. Courtesy the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb. Photo by Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

Traditionally, exhibitions about ancient kings have invited visitors to imagine themselves living in the palaces. Labels describe the rulers’ lived experience: What did they eat? What did they wear? What luxuries did they enjoy? This focus on elite experience flows in part from what we excavate; many of the best-preserved and most popular objects are palace complexes or golden treasures from the tombs of the wealthy. Such exhibitions teach visitors to imagine themselves inside the palace, as the 0.01 percent and their privileged companions—to identify and empathize with the beneficiaries of inequality. Just as animated movies teach our kids to imagine themselves as princesses and their entourages, for more than a century, museum celebrations of ancient royalty, as in the first displays of the treasures of King Tut, have encouraged us to imagine the past from the point of view of those in power. From histories that divide time by the reigns of kings or emperors to historical bodice rippers whose heroines are wooed by numerous and implausibly handsome dukes and princes, to the titular message of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, narratives, both fiction and nonfiction, teach us to imagine the rise of kings as our rise, one that benefits us, and to distance ourselves from identifying with the barely mentioned laboring majority. The rise of elites and hierarchy are depicted as progress, a good and necessary step forward, a more sophisticated society than the egalitarian world which came before.

“First Kings of Europe” is a bold inversion of this, a history of the origins of inequality spanning from the Neolithic period through the Iron Age that shows its kings rising through wealth and violence, keeping the point of view firmly centered on the experience of the many while chronicling the means and brutality of the rising few. Trade and metallurgy, starting with copper tools, birthed the first chance for those who traded more or found more ore to grow richer than their neighbors: That sweet, circular village changed by one house growing larger than the others and, over time, encircling and dominating them with walls, blades, and laws. Horses, bronze, and armor increased this inequality, enabling more distant trade, costly luxuries, ambitious conquests, and use of force. By several rooms in, as the expected golden earrings and amber necklaces begin to appear, they do not feel like treasures one might possess, but like tools others would use to display their power over you, luxuries enabled by your own exploited labor. Nor is this about royals, the celebrity families of modernity, but about elites. Museum labels compare finds to the wealth of political families or the superrich, who spend lavishly on luxury cars or Gucci bags, displays of conspicuous consumption parallel to ancient kings burying gold and jewels. The film at the exhibition midpoint shows the process culminating with a statesman in a business suit pontificating at a podium, looking out on the masses amid a sea of microphones.

View of a green display in First Kings of Europe
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Visitors are invited to identify with the masses. 

—“First Kings of Europe” installation. Photo by Mikayla Delson © Field Museum

This is a timely message, in a world where fear and crisis have raised many global conversations about the roles of democracy, populism, elitism, autocracy, and authoritarianism. No moment could be better for “First Kings of Europe” to remind us to identify with the oppressed, not the oppressor, and that the glittering treasures of ancient tombs are relics of unfairness, inequality, and systems of coercion that force the many to labor for the enrichment of the few—systems which, the exhibition stresses, are very much with us today. Room by room, the experience quietly erodes the fantasy of being an ancient king, replacing it with an acute sense that elites are not just the beneficiaries but also the creators of injustice, and of solidarity between the working majority of 3,000 years ago and today. Even the fantasy of being an ancient warrior in bright bronze armor, loved by museum gift shops which stock play weapons for kids and gleaming helmet replicas for grown-ups to display in offices and dens, is shaken by the reminder that, while the first rulers rose in part by sword as well as purse, this let them entrench power so that later generations’ warriors could not have the same chance to rise, instead becoming tools to keep their own oppressors in power.

Another invaluable achievement of the exhibition, manifest more in silence than presence, is its intentionally provocative definition of the continent. “First Kings of Europe” makes visitors expect either pan-European material or objects from western Europe—France, England, Italy—but the objects are exclusively from the Balkan Peninsula. The exhibition is actually a first-of-its-kind collaboration among an unprecedented number of governments and museums in the Balkans. Rather than center that in its advertising, the curators chose to label the show as European—not eastern European or marginally European but fully and unquestionably European—specifically to provoke quiet surprise in the visitor: Oh yes, the Balkans are Europe, aren’t they?

Once across the threshold, the visitor walks a path in which the political definitions of space and rationality are surprisingly silent. The map that welcomes you to the exhibition shows the bare geography: coasts and rivers without borders, city locations, names, or labels of any kind. No hint of politics, just the world and humanity within it. Label texts throughout stress messages of universal, civilizational experiences: the transition from copper to bronze to iron, the invention of armor, the wars of kings—these are discussed as if they could be anywhere on earth, without any claims about the distinct or unique cultures of a region or a people, which more traditional museum exhibitions tend to emphasize. Religion is barely discussed, the accessories of a priestess and gold artifacts depicting the goddess Nikke presented simply as examples of how elites replaced those humble household altars with arguments for their own spiritual superiority, turning religion into another axis for them to entrench their power.

The choice to not make any claims about the uniqueness of the peoples it examines makes the show a profound but quiet act of opposition to nationalism and the ways it pushes us to divide and define places and peoples by their modern political experience. The artifacts come from many current countries, and the label texts celebrate how they have been brought together for the first time, but the stress is on harmony and collaboration, on the unity of a region famous for its disunity. As the curators argue, when we think about the Balkans, the plurality of languages, religions, and cultures is almost always framed negatively as the fragmentation and dysfunctionality summed up by the term balkanization. Why don’t we think of it as diversity and richness of culture, as we do for the Indian subcontinent? Why not celebrate the region, for once, as one?

Amber necklace
Photo caption

Intricate amber jewelry shines in the Chicago show. 

Amber breast ornament. 600–400 BCE. Courtesy the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb. Photo by Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

This celebration of unity is powerful, but also hides how much this exhibition was a major political achievement, and a major risk. When the curators began, they explained in an interview, many museums told them what they hoped to do would be impossible, since there is so much historical tension between the countries involved. Yet scholarship and cultural exchange can often be a space of first collaboration. The 700 objects assembled from 11 European countries are a significant political achievement, assembled by persistence, patience, and the excitement of scholars to share their findings with the world. The process of assembling the exhibition has already birthed several ongoing collaborations between museums in the region.

The last room of the exhibition presents the lavish golden treasures promised by its advertising: a grand golden collar and leaf crown reminiscent of the Romans, whose rise and conquest mark the exhibition’s temporal end. But by this point, one feels very differently about these wonders than when they appeared on the posters around Chicago, less inclined to want to wear them than to join in overthrowing those who wore them.

Back at the exit, the gift shop staff have found their biggest sellers are the Beer for Kings cans and the Beer for Commoners T-shirts. An audience that wants to enjoy the king’s beer but wear the commoner’s shirt is a good synthesis of today’s wealthy democracies, which encourage us to feel that we can enjoy luxuries while still identifying with the masses, not the exploiters. This attitude is not without problems, especially as wealthy nations continue to fund their luxuries at the cost of harm to many regions, including the Balkan Peninsula itself, but the dream of putting the riches and fruits in the hands of the people is certainly the right one, especially if paired with the sense of universal—not national—human solidarity that “First Kings of Europe” conjures so powerfully. Certainly, we are in a different and better museum exhibition than the many shows where the only T-shirt celebrates a king.