Sustainability Throughout History: Learning from the Past

Recently, I went to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology to complete their “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” self-guided tour. The Kelsey is a short walk down State Street, just past the Union, and is a great place to explore on a dreary winter day. Taking the tour was relatively easy, as admission to the museum is free and the tour pamphlets are conveniently located near the front entrance. 

While there, I was able to speak with Stephanie Wottreng Haley, the Kelsey’s Community and Youth Educator, who focuses on community engagement and interpreting museum content to make it accessible to broader audiences. Part of Stephanie’s job is to create a variety of tours focused on different audiences (such as ancient writing and medicine in the Mediterranean) to provide more specific information for museum goers. Additionally, she works closely with curators at the Kelsey to make sure that information is interpreted correctly. This is particularly important when it comes to understanding the use of ancient artifacts. 

I find it fascinating to learn about ancient civilizations, so I was thrilled to learn about the documented instances of reuse that U-M archaeologists and researchers identified on their own digs in the Mediterranean region. A lot of the Kelsey Museum’s collection is from Karanis, Egypt, where U-M held multiple digs during the 1920s and 1930s. During our conversation, Haley told me that “[Many of the artifacts] focus on daily life, so it is really cool to see how things are reused and repurposed, as we can see that in a lot of the materiality.”

A Taste of What I Saw on the Tour

The tour showed several different artifacts that had been repurposed, mostly after damage had prevented the item from being used in the original, intended manner. The image above shows a conical glass vessel with a chipped rim repurposed into a dice game. Originally created as an oil lamp and used during the Roman Period (1st-4th centuries C.E.), the chip on the rim prevented continued use. It is so interesting to see how an item originally created to provide a necessity—light—was turned into a game to be used for pure entertainment!

Items were not only repurposed for pleasure, but also reused within industries where they could serve a different purpose. For example, when shipping containers (amphorae) broke, they were sometimes repurposed as ostraka. An ostrakon was a broken piece of pottery (potsherd) reused for note-taking, much as we reuse scrap paper today. The notes on this particular ostrakon record a list of grain shipments.

This tour was so simple and accessible that I will definitely be going back to complete the other tours at the Kelsey—I was able to learn so much in so little time! 

Reflecting on Modern Times

Seeing these very different examples, from home life and trading, really got me thinking about modern day examples of resource reuse. We are so quick to discard items that no longer can serve their original task, yet there are so many historic examples of creative reuse that we could learn from! I love to craft and reimagine resources to fit a new purpose, such as a crochet bag I made out of thrifted yarn and fabric scraps!

Reuse doesn’t have to be using something for a new purpose, but can also mean shopping second hand. Although I did use the yarn for my tote bag (above) for its intended purpose, I prevented new materials from going into circulation by buying second hand. There are so many great ways, especially in Ann Arbor, to find used items in amazing condition. I picked up several (free) baby Jade plants on Freecycle over the summer, in addition to scouring the City of Ann Arbor reuse web page in order to find new thrift and reuse stores and events in my community! This experience really inspired me to brainstorm what I can do with items around my house that are nearing the end of their use. I hope that it inspires you, too!