British Museum displays 3,500-year-old disposable cup

Made of clay, it may have held wine before it was thrown out after an ancient party on the island of Crete in Greece

A 3,500-year-old Minoan disposable cup is shown next to a modern-day paper one.
A 3,500-year-old Minoan disposable cup is shown next to a modern-day paper one.PHOTO: BRITISH MUSEUM

LONDON • About 3,500 years separate the two cups that sit next to each other at the heart of a new museum exhibit in London.

One is a paper discard from the 1990s. Researchers believe the other, made from clay, may have held wine before it was thrown out after an ancient party on the island of Crete in Greece.

Experts say they are united by a long history of humans churning out items meant to be tossed after a single use - and apparently a few millennia-long aversion to doing the dishes.

"Just like us, they didn't want to wash up," curator Julia Farley said of the Minoans who dumped thousands of the clay vessels as they built an advanced Bronze Age civilisation marked by palaces, written language and lavish art.

Staff at the British Museum hope the cup display, which opened earlier this month, will leave visitors thinking about the growing consequences of our love for the disposable.

"In one way, it shows this universal desire for convenience," Dr Farley said. "But today, we're making more than 300 billion disposable paper cups every year as a species. It's so completely different in terms of the scale."

She said the Minoan cup greeting visitors to the new exhibit was plucked from hundreds in the British Museum's hoard of items on reserve. It came to the museum in the 1950s, excavated by a man with the fitting name of John Valentine Salvage.

The small, brown ceramic cup is visually less compelling than what the museum usually displays, Dr Farley said. But as an archaeologist, she knows that the most illuminating objects from the past are often not the most striking. Discards can tell us more about people's everyday lives, she said, than magnificent marble sculptures and gold work.

And the Minoan cup's simplicity says a lot to people such as Dr Farley.

Handle-less, rough and covered in the fingerprints of whoever shaped it on a wheel, it seems to have been made in a hurry, she said. That sloppiness - and the existence of so many similar objects in big dumps near palaces - leads researchers to believe it was meant for just one night of drinking.

Dr Farley said the cups were probably the Minoans' way of streamlining cleanup for feasts that drew hundreds or thousands of guests. They also would have been a statement of wealth, given the resources required to mass-produce and then toss. That may be why it is rare, the curator added, to find similar troves of disposable dishes.


The Minoan cup is not the oldest such dish on record, but it still stands out.

The British Museum's exhibit will spotlight other human castoffs. An artist's fishing basket made from washed-up beach garbage is meant as a commentary on pollution, the museum says. Photographs from around the Pacific will capture the massive amounts of plastic collecting in the ocean.

"Humans have always produced rubbish and we always will, and I don't think we gain by making individuals feel guilty about producing rubbish," Dr Farley said. "But it's important for us to think about how as a species we're going to move forward in a more sustainable way."

The British Museum said it is thinking about its own sustainability as well, as it falls under scrutiny. Earlier this year, The Guardian reported, people packed the museum to protest its relationship with one of its sponsors, the oil and gas company BP.

The museum said in a statement that it is trying to reduce its impact on the environment by recycling or burning waste and converting it to electricity. More than 90 per cent of the display materials for its new exhibit are recycled from another showcase, it added.


The trash exhibit's lifespan will be short, just like those of the objects it highlights. It is part of temporary, more experimental displays sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper.

The show will run through Feb 23 in a single room.

"Small space, but big ideas," Dr Farley said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2019, with the headline 'British Museum displays 3,500-year-old disposable cup'. Subscribe