3,500-Year-Old Trash Proves Ancient Civilizations Were Just as Lazy and Wasteful as We Are

Piles of single-use clay vessels were found near ruins in Crete, essentially serving as the red Solo cups of their time.
December 17, 2019, 6:45pm
clay pots and bowls
Photo: Getty Images

As this decade ends, Greta Thunberg and other Gen Z teens have raised their profiles—and their voices—to try to convince Boomers that climate change is real, that our throwaway culture is problematic, and that buying plastic straws to "own the libs" just makes them look dumber.

The British Museum is trying to do its part too, although it's picking through thousands of years worth of trash to try to teach us about the future. On Friday, the museum will open a one-room exhibition called The Asahi Shimbun Displays Disposable? Rubbish and Us that includes an ancient single-use cup, one that its curators say show that early civilizations weren't exactly environmentally focused… and that they also hated doing the dishes.


According to The Guardian, the exhibition includes a 3,500-year-old disposable clay cup that was used by the Minoans. Large piles of the handle-less wine vessels have been found near the ruins of the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, which makes them sound like the red Solo cups of their time.

"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," British Museum curator Julia Farley said. "The elite were showing off their wealth and status by throwing these great big parties, feasts and festivals [at the Palace.]"

The upper class probably only used the clay cups once, and the fact that they trashed the handmade items instead of washing them was apparently the ultimate Aegean Bronze Age flex. (And the British Museum has acquired "thousands" of them, which will be great if a group of restless Minoan spirits ever wants to play beer pong.)

Farley said that the clay the Minoans used and our very modern plastic have some similarities, in that both materials are readily available, cheap to acquire, and easy to work with. "But also like plastic, clay stays in the ground for many, many years," she added.

The cup will be displayed beside one of its more modern counterparts, a waxed paper cup that was manufactured in the 1990s and used to serve hot drinks on Air India flights. The other items in the exhibition include a fishing basket that was made from plastic that washed onto a beach in Guam, and photos showing the amount of plastic pollution that litters the Pacific Ocean.


Photo courtesy of the British Museum

Farley said that she hopes the exhibition will not make visitors "feel guilty" about the trash that they might leave behind, because some trash is inevitable in any society. "We are tool-using animals. We wear clothes. Nothing lasts forever. It’s in the very nature of our existence that we make rubbish," she said. "This is a sobering message about scale and consumption and I think we need to find that balance, which humans have never been very good at finding.”

The difference, Farley said, is one of scale. Although the Minoans might've left behind thousands of discarded clay cups, that's nothing compared to the amount of waste we generate on a daily, if not an hourly basis. According to National Geographic, 3.5 million tons of plastic and "other solid waste" is generated worldwide every day. The United States produces 250 million tons of trash every year, which averages out to 4.4 pounds per person, per day.

So, uh, does the British Museum need to borrow a shit-ton of discarded plastic or whatever? Because it seems like Americans probably have some to spare.