Recycling Is An Old Thing

One of the things I do at museums is read that signs next to the things on exhibit. Silly I know. But one learns a lot from those little signs. One of the things I have learned over the years is that people have been recycling since before written history. Perhaps they haven’t been doing it quite the same way we think of it all the time but they have been doing it. And this has interesting consequences.

Take for example the coliseum in Rome. Do you know why it is in ruins? over the years the coliseum fell into disuse and was no longer being maintained. So people started recycling. They took stones and bricks from there to build other things. In fact most ancient cities and buildings were built in part with materials recycled from earlier cities and buildings. The only way to avoid that was for a structure to remain in continuous use until more modern times.

And then there is the case of tapestries. Old drafty castles and what not had huge woven tapestries to help keep them warm, decorated and less drafty. Not many of these have survived into the modern era. Why? Well because over time people needed money so they burned the tapestries. This allowed them to recover the gold and silver from the treads that were woven into the material. In fact with gold it is estimated that some percentage of all gold ever mined well into the upper 90 percent is still being used. It has just been recycled time and time again.

Which brings me to a more local example. You may have seen a bowl or other piece of silver worked by Paul Revere. This is not because he was the most prolific or even the most talented colonial era silversmith. Rather it is because he was famous for his Revolutionary War exploits. Most silversmiths of the era had their work melted down and recycled over time. As people run into money shortages or perhaps got tired of a pattern or their needs changed it was quite common to have silver and pewter melted down and reworked into something else. More recycling.

So over the years we have lost many things of potentially great historic value because of recycling. Is that bad? Someone else will have to answer that question. But I think today we think carefully before we turn one things into another. Clearly aluminum cans are not worth saving in any great numbers. Buildings are a more tricky matter. But the fact remains that recycling may be a big thing today but it is by no means a new thing.

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