New Exhibition Reveals A 3,600-Year-Old Disposable Cup

The two cups in the exhibition. British Museum

If you think disposable cups are a recent invention, think again. Humans have avoided doing the dishes for millennia. A new exhibition at the British Museum in London will soon showcase an ancient clay cup next to a more modern paper cup.

The cup was made on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea around 1,700-1,600 BCE. It was a product of the Minoan civilization, one of the first advanced civilizations in Europe. The cups have been found in high concentrations at sites across the islands, and for this reason, they are believed to have been single-use. After serving wine, they would be discarded in large numbers in a single go.

“People may be very surprised to know that disposable, single-use cups are not the invention of our modern consumerist society, but in fact can be traced back thousands of years,” Julia Farley, co-curator of the exhibition, said in a press statement. “Three and a half thousand years ago, the Minoans were using them for a very similar reason to us today: to serve drinks at parties. The only difference is the material. With ceramics being a higher status material to us now, it seems strange to throw them away after just one use. But like plastic today, clay was readily available, cheap to acquire, easy to mould. But also like plastic, clay stays in the ground for many, many years.”

Despite our technology, some of the ways humans think and behave have remain unchanged since we first evolved as Homo sapiens, from lewd graffiti in Pompeii to disposable cups.

The Minoan cup will be displayed alongside a waxed paper cup from Air India from the 1990s, as well as a fishing basket made from discarded plastic that washed up on a beach in Guam. The maker, Anthony Guerrero, wants to comment on the level of plastic pollution in his local area as well as highlight how most of the plastic in the Pacific is created by fishing industries, food transportation, and the construction industry.

“People have always made and then disposed of objects," said Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum. "But becoming rubbish is not necessarily the end of an object’s life; some items get recycled, some repurposed, and in a few very rare cases, some are reborn as windows to the past after being rediscovered hundreds of years after being thrown away. We hope that this display will make people think about their relationship with rubbish, then, now and in the future."

These objects will be on show in the Asahi Shimbun Displays as part of “Disposable? Rubbish and us”, which will open later this week and run until February 23, 2020.

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