By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.
I cannot help myself. When I travel, I buy books. ‘Tis a sickness for which I have found no treatment, yet. Several years ago, I returned from a visit to London and the British Museum with A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010) by Neil MacGregor, who was then the museum director. The objects were chosen to “address as many aspects of human experience as proved practicable…and tell us about whole societies, not just the rich and the powerful within them.” These remarkable artifacts include an Olduvai Handaxe (#3, 1-1.2 million years old from Tanzania) and a Clovis Spear Point (#5, 11,000 BCE, Arizona) from a million years later. They are similar in shape and look simple, but they took great skill to make. Arrowheads and spear points that look outwardly similar were collected on the farms of my grandparents’ generation throughout Middle Georgia (and eventually dispersed, probably ending up in flea markets). Some were made of native stone, and some were trade goods from farther reaches of North America. They were altogether full of wonder.
An Early Writing Tablet (#15, 3100 BCE) in clay from Southern Iraq presaged great things, as shown 2,500 years later by the Flood Tablet of Nineveh (#16, 700-600 BCE ) from Northern Iraq near Mosul, which is a “prequel” to The Great Flood of Noah. When the tablet was deciphered by one George Smith (1840-1876), an apprentice printer working near the British Museum who spent his spare time in the Museum’s tablet room, it quite naturally shook up the world of ancient history and Biblical scholarship:
demolish the house, and build a boat! Abandon wealth and seek survival. Spurn property, save life. Take on board all living things’ seed! The boat you will build, her dimensions shall be equal: her length and breadth shall be the same. Cover her with a roof, like the ocean below, and he will send you a rain of plenty.
This was written 400 years before the earliest surviving version of Great Flood of Noah in the sixth chapter of Genesis:
God said to Noah: An end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with wrongdoing through them; here, I am about to bring ruin upon them, along with the earth.
Make yourself an Ark of gofer wood…And this is how you make it: Three hundred cubits the length of the Ark, fifty cubits its breadth, and thirty cubits its height…As for me, here, I am about to bring on the Deluge, water upon the earth, to bring ruing upon all flesh that has rush of life in it, from under the heavens, all that is on earth will perish…and from all living-things, from all flesh, you are to bring two from all into the Ark, to remain alive with you…a male and female of each.
This tablet represents both an early form of narrative literature and evidence that there was a core event behind both versions of the Great Flood, the earliest found in the eleventh chapter of the Epic of Gilgamesh dating to the third millennium BCE. This would have greatly disturbed Isaac Newton, who in addition to being enthralled with alchemy, was much interested in the Bible and Biblical chronology and its significance for the study of history. Such is the nature of the artifacts of human life.
Next, we have money in the form of a Gold Coin of Croesus (#25, minted in modern day Turkey, 550 BCE), Gold Coins of Abd al-Malik (#46, minted in Damascus, 696-697) from a millennium later, and Pieces of Eight (#80, minted in Potosí , Bolivia, 1573 – 1598). The Lydians of Croesus’s kingdom were among the first to use coins as a means of exchange, and people still want to become “rich as Croesus.” The two dinar coins from Damascus were minted in the century following the death of Mohammed in 632. Abd al-Malik was the ninth caliph – leader of the faithful – and successor to the Prophet Mohammed. Before Mohammed, Arabic was barely a written language, but after Mohammed written Arabic was necessary to record the Word of God faithfully. The second coin contains one of the earliest Qur’anic texts in existence. The silver of Potosí made the Spanish kings of the 16th century the most powerful in Europe by paying for their armies and their armadas. Castile has long since faded as world hegemon. Many of the people of Potosí are still poor, and silver miners still die of silicosis. Colonialism has long lasting consequences, something often forgotten by those with little historical memory and even less imagination.
On a more familiar domestic front, we have the Early Victorian Tea Set (#92, Staffordshire, 1840-1845). As luxuries became necessities in the 19th century, tea became ubiquitous in English society. Although produced by Wedgwood, this earthenware set was definitely mid-range and intended for use in “quite modest British households.” Nevertheless, this set was also decorated with drapes of silver, perhaps intended for a formal teatime midway between lunch and evening of the long 19th-century workday. The ruling class also had an abiding interest in promoting tea drinking in the growing urban populations of Great Britain. Tea was prepared using heated water, so it mimicked beer, port, and gin in that it was safe to drink in a London where John Snow removed the handle of the Broad Street pump. Better to have the working classes of all stations staying relatively healthy and happy while drinking tea rather than gin!
The final two artifacts in the book are a Credit Card (#99, United Arab Emirates, 2009) and a Solar-Powered Lamp and Charger (#100, Guangdong, 2010). Like all the others, they certainly have a story to tell. But I have something in mind, perhaps more prosaic, that also speaks to us today: the Coke Bottle.
I found this artifact several years ago when cleaning out an office. As was the practice when this bottle was made, the location where it first passed through a bottling line is present in raised letters on the bottom: Quincy, Florida, c. 1970-1980. What does this bottle represent?
The contour Coke Bottle is a triumph of industrial design. It is attractive and has become a trademark of the Coca-Cola Company. This bottle is also evidence of sound thinking about the present and the future. It is functional as well as practical, easily held. Most importantly, it was reusable rather than recyclable (the latter is mostly observed in the breach, whatever the religion of the Professional Managerial Class – PMC – in all its guises tells us). Although an expert collector could probably look at the scratches surrounding the widest part of the bottle where it touched other bottles in the bottling line and rubbed against the partitions in a crate of 24 bottles in which it was commonly shipped, this bottle has clearly been used many times. When found, the Quincy Bottle had traveled about 200 miles along two-lane highways and farm roads. It would have continued its wanderings had someone returned it for the deposit after drinking its contents.
The Quincy Bottle is also evidence of the importance of a local economy to the health of a community. Quincy is 25 miles northwest of Tallahassee, and has had a stable population of approximately 8,000 for the past 60 years. This small town within a short drive of the capital of Florida nevertheless supported a Coca-Cola bottling plant. My southern hometown of 20,000 supported a large Coca-Cola bottling plant from the 1920s through at least the 1970s. It was good business for the owner and a source of stable employment in the community. Anecdotes are just that, but the owner of the bottling plant was a neighbor (we lived on the side street behind his fairly grand house with the large organ in the living room). Although my dealings with him were those of a neighborhood kid, his reputation as a community leader was sound if the adults I knew were telling the truth. I do know that after a tropical storm his workers used their heavy equipment to remove downed trees throughout the city. At the time there were more than one thousand local Coca-Cola bottlers across the United States in small towns and major cities. Now, the bottlers, which are separate from the Coca-Cola Company, have consolidated into regional behemoths and the local bottlers are no more, having been reduced to distributors if they survived at all. Thus, a common story of consolidation and profiteering with little recognition of local consequences.
The returnable and reusable bottle of any kind is rare these days. Yes, several states collect deposits on each single-use bottle sold, glass or plastic, but it seems likely that most of them are thrown away rather than recycled. The 6.5-ounce bottle in the photographs could be reused until it was chipped and removed from the production line by one of the workers who we could watch the large front windows of the local bottling plant. In retrospect, this seems to have been intentional on the part of the local bottler. Showing the kinetics of an important local firm to the public is good business (and certainly enthralling to children).
From my memory, sometime after the late-1970s, when reusable 32-ounce contour Coke bottles were still sold in sixpacks at the local grocery store, it became “good business” to ditch the returnable bottle in favor of single-use plastic bottles, in sizes ranging up to two liters. That has not worked out so well, but the substitution of glass for plastic and the overuse of plastic packaging has been an economy-wide process. The deleterious effects of plastic pollution worldwide are well understood, despite denials in certain circles.
There is something else about the Quincy Bottle that jumps out at us today. When my friends and I were collecting bottles for a movie ticket or something more lasting, a single serving of Coca-Cola was 6.5 ounces, available for a nickel during much of my childhood and a dime for the “king-size” 10-ounce bottle (a king-size RC – Royal Crown Cola – was 12 ounces for the same price, so that was often the choice). Not only that, but in restaurants Coke did not come with free refills, often self-serve, as it does today. Of course, in the South sweetened iced tea did come with “free” refills, and it undoubtedly had more calories than Coca-Cola or any other soft drink. Still, the transition to larger serving sizes of virtually everything in the American diet was not a favorable development. This is a long story, previously considered here, related to the damage done by the diet-heart hypothesis and the demonization of dietary fat and cholesterol, with the substitution of refined carbohydrates in food-like substances and industrial vegetable oil (e.g., margarine) for the lost calories from what at one time was rightly considered a healthy, balanced diet. The consequences have been dire.
In any case, the dose makes the poison, which sugar is not in small amounts. A current serving size for soft drinks and fruit juice-like drinks, which are also loaded with sugar, is the 20-ounce single-use plastic bottle. What was a treat at 6.5 ounces “The Pause That Refreshes” has morphed into something entirely different that could contain almost 400 empty calories instead of the 76 calories in the Quincy Bottle (the current 20-ounce plastic bottle contains 240 calories). We can do better. And we are starting to realize that diet and health are much too important to be left to Big Agriculture, Big Pharma, and their appurtenances. This is even penetrating the diversified corporate consciousness. Perhaps. While public relations is just that, once in a while the truth sinks in and sometimes oozes back out.
What are the solutions to the disappearance of the reusable contour Coke bottle? The first is prohibition of single-use plastic bottles (bottled water, soft drinks, peanut butter and mayonnaise jars and the like, plus other ridiculously elaborate and hard to open plastic packaging). Coupled with this, we must require the concomitant return of the reusable bottle that is good for 20 or more refills, after which it can be melted down and made into new bottles or crushed and used in aggregate for road building. Given that we are running short of sand, recycling the glass as roads seems like a good choice, even at the margin. Whatever the final disposition of the glass, it will not add the horrific plastic burden in the ecosphere.
Production must also return to the smallest unit possible in a local economy. Local business when possible is good business. Making a mess at home is both noticed and frowned upon, or was at one time and can be again. Besides, in the near future our world will shrink to human scale once again if what we call civilization is to survive. One hears that a few large transnational corporations may be getting the message, perhaps because reality bites eventually. Repeated doses of real democracy will be required, however. The question is whether we as a people have the will. There is reason for hope, even in the absence of optimism.
The artifact of the day with a story to tell is the returnable, reusable until damaged contour Coke Bottle. It could find a place in the British Museum of 2123 or 3123, if the museum is still there, as an object lesson in what not to do. What are some others? Several years ago I would have listed the printed book, but it seems to be holding its own despite the e-book in various formats and the pdf. Nevertheless, it is worrisome that students seem to be too attached to their laptops and tablets, which is a topic for another time. The first two artifacts that jump out to me are related: The Tesla and the hypertrophied American pickup truck that has morphed into a more dangerous, outsized SUV, if that is possible. Neither is what its producers and buyers believe, contrary to the hype and the expense, including the significant negative externalities associated with both. A truck without scratches on the paint and scrapes in the bed is not a truck. An electric car is a solution for absolutely nothing, and it is not emission-free in most of the world, despite what the license plate says around these parts. The emissions, they just happen in a different place.
Outwardly simple and seemingly rational choices often have far-reaching consequences for those who cannot or will not imagine the day after tomorrow. What other mundane artifacts will have a story to tell a hundred or a thousand or 10,000 years from now? Good or bad, happy or sad, if stories are still told?
 A favorite translation of the Books of Moses, The Schocken Bible: Volume 1. The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox, translator.
 In the mid-1960s an enterprising 10-year-old could collect unreturned bottles and take them to the nearest neighborhood grocery store and get $0.03 per bottle. This must have been a minor irritation to these stores, but all of them paid the deposit and then collected it back when the bottles were picked up. When a movie ticket was only 50 cents for those younger than 13 and refreshments another 25 cents at most, life was good. It usually took only a few hours to fill the saddle baskets on a Schwinn Stingray with the banana seat and make the grand sum of $1.50.
 Or a patent medicine. My relatives in my grandparents’ generation were unanimous: A small bottle of Coca-Cola on crushed ice was the perfect treatment for an upset stomach and whatever else ailed you. The ice had to be crushed, though, as in a mint julep. I can’t remember that it worked, but it was used often.
 It was clear that we completely lost the plot when people started paying for water in plastic bottles that had been freely available, if not exactly free, at water fountains far and wide. Admittedly this was before Flint (Michigan) and Jackson (Mississippi) and other similar catastrophes that keep arising, because markets. The latest fad of alkaline water is beyond my ken completely. It will not remain alkaline for long in the stomach, and homeostatic mechanisms will maintain blood pH in the normal range in a healthy person.