A new display at The British Museum features a single-use wine cup from between 1700 and 1600 B.C.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated December 18, 2019
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Imagine tossing your disposable Starbucks coffee cup in the trash in 2019, only to have it reappear in a museum in the year 5719, misspelled name intact. You'd be left with so many questions (beyond "How the heck have you lived to be 3,732 years old?")—but hopefully, the experience would also hammer home just how long "disposable" items actually hang around on the globe.

The Trustees of the British Museum

A new exhibit opening up at the British Museum this week presents just such a cup. No, it didn't hold a Venti latte; instead, this clay cup was produced by the ancient Minoans over three millennia ago, believed to be used as a disposable wine glass during a feast on the island of Crete around 1700 to 1600 B.C. The museum explains that "thousands of them have been discovered in high concentrations in archaeological sites across the island, demonstrating that these cups were often deliberately discarded in large numbers in one go."

The Trustees of the British Museum

"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," explained Julia Farley, co-curator of the display—which is called "Disposable? Rubbish and Us," presented as part of The Asahi Shimbun Displays series. "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."

The Trustees of the British Museum

To further emphasize these similarities, the Minoan cup will be displayed alongside a more modern vessel: a waxed paper cup from the early 1990s used for serving hot drinks by Air India and produced in Finland. "People have always made and then disposed of objects. But becoming rubbish is not necessarily the end of an object's life," Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, added. "We hope that this display will make people think about their relationship with rubbish, then, now and in the future."

The Trustees of the British Museum

Also included in the four piece display is a modern fishing basket made as a political statement by using plastic waste that washed up on the beach in Guam as well as "a range of contemporary photographs from across the Pacific, which show the extent of the plastic problem and what local initiatives are doing to help tackle the issue." Meanwhile, the British Museum says they are also trying to be more sustainable: Over 90 percent of the display materials have been repurposed and recycled from a previous exhibition.

Disposable? Rubbish and Us can be seen in Room 3 of the museum from December 19, 2019 to February 23, 2020. After that, the Minoan cup will not be disposed of; it will continue to be part of the museum's permanent collection. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the billions of other disposable cups used each year.