Rustic figurines of a resigned-looking Virgin clutching her child may have no obvious literary or artistic merit to us today. But understanding what they meant to the spiritual lives of their owners can offer a glimpse of the human hopes and fears that people have, for centuries, invested in inanimate objects.
The early modern period (1500-1800) saw a surge in the keeping of records. A conference later this week (9-10 April 2014) at the British Academy will look at the origins of the archives that shape our understanding of history. We asked ten of the speakers to tackle some fundamental questions.