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British Museum to display 'world's first single-use cup' fashioned by Minoans 3500 years ago

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 30/12/2019 Camilla Turner

a close up of a piece of cake: An ancient disposable cup which is going on display at the British Museum - PA © Provided by The Telegraph An ancient disposable cup which is going on display at the British Museum - PA The world's first single-use cup is to be displayed by the British Museum, as the curator says it is "not invention of modern consumerist society". 

A 3,500-year-old vessel, which once contained wine, was made by the Minoans, one of the first advanced civilisations in Europe.

It will go on display later this month as part of a new exhibition called "Rubbish And Us" at 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," said Julia Farley, who is a curator at the British Museum. 

"The elite were showing off their wealth and status by throwing these great big parties, feasts and festivals. People were getting together in large groups and much like today, nobody wants to do the washing up."  

Minoans gathered at the palace for parties, feasts and gatherings such as bull-leaping festivals - a "more risky" version of "hurdles".  

Thousands of the handleless, conical clay cups have been discovered on archeological sites on the island of Crete and at the palace Knossos.

The civilisation is thought to have collapsed after the Minoans rapidly exhausted resources on the small island and because of a then "natural fluctuation" of climate change.

As well as being convenient, the cup was a means of showing off wealth because of all the resources poured into making it.

The British Museum has come under pressure over environment-related issues including over its sponsorship deal with the oil giant BP, which has been the museum’s corporate partner since 1996 and its current deal runs until 2023.

Ms Farley said she hoped the display would make visitors think creatively about reducing waste, instead of just feeling guilty.

"Human beings have always produced rubbish. Making some rubbish is an unavoidable by-product of being human." she said. 

"We are tool-using animals. We wear clothes. Nothing lasts forever. It's in the very nature of our existence that we make rubbish."

But 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."

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The ancient cup will be shown alongside a waxed paper cup from the early 1990s, made at around the same time modern disposable cups were taking off. Other objects will include a yellow fishing basket made from plastic wrapping and photographs from across the Pacific, showing the extent of the plastic problem.

 "We have thousands of these Minoan, disposable cups and that's a lot. But today we are making over 300 billion papers cups globally every year," Ms Farley said. 

"The Minoan civilisation is tiny compared to the global consumerist economy that we have now. Now we are doing what human beings have always done but we are doing it on an unprecedented scale with materials that are going to take hundreds, if not thousands of years, to biodegrade.

"We think of ancient people being in touch with their environment but if you cut down trees to make charcoal and burn it to fire clay that's releasing a lot of carbon dioxide."

The Museum said it is "striving to lessen its environmental impact", with all waste being either recycled or burned and converted to electricity.

Over 90 per cent of the display materials, such as plinths and cases, in the exhibition have been repurposed and recycled from the British Museum's recent Manga exhibition.

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