When old age shall this generation waste ….

by Chris Bertram on November 17, 2008


Originally uploaded by Chris Bertram

I bought a Song dynasty Qingbai bowl at the weekend. So what’s so great about that, you might reasonably ask? After all, it lacks the beauty of some more modern ceramic pieces. It is hardly a patch on a high-fired Ruskin vase, from a purely aesthetic point of view. (Some of the more delicate northern Song pieces might compete, but not this one.) Well I think the attraction is this. Here’s an artefact, made from an amazing material, porcelain, about a thousand years ago. Someone crafted it then, and someone (maybe someone else) incised little pictures of fishes as decoration on the inside. They probably made hundreds, indeed thousands of similar bowls. They lived a life long ago in a place very distant from where I live (maybe Jingdezhen), and they are now dead, many many generations past. When they lived, England was feudal, probably the Normans had recently invaded, and life was short and fairly brutish. But the artefact survives, a very material, tactile link between that human being’s craft activity and the present.



virgil xenophon 11.17.08 at 10:58 pm

As both an admirer and collector of Chinese porcelain I share your sentiments, sir.
I’ve been to the National museum in Taipei–incredible–but haven’t made it to China proper yet. When stationed in England in 60s-70s used to wander the halls of the the British and Victoria and Albert in their Chinese wing for hours on weekends in London–entire floors of the most incredible stuff. Here, the New Orleans Museum of Art also has a nice but limited collection, of course the Avery and the Met in NYC are a must see too. Tons of smaller ones on the West Coast I’ve never made it to, only one so far the Los Angeles County one–very nice.

The fact that so much beauty was invested in such often very utilitarian things….


Neil 11.17.08 at 11:14 pm

I have an Egyptian scarab from the middle kingdom. It is has the name of the owner inscribed. For reasons I can’t articulate, I find the fact that it has writing on it incredibly powerful and moving, even though as an artistic object it is low value (it is very worn, and probably not a very good exemplar to begin with). As anyonr who watches Time Team knows, at the same time Egyptians were producing written records, the British were scraping a very marginal iron age existence.


Laleh 11.17.08 at 11:34 pm

the fish and the writing are the most tactile visceral evidence of another hand, so long ago, and that connection *is* indeed incredibly moving when counterposed against our mortality and finitude.


Anderson 11.18.08 at 12:00 am

Very cool, sir.


MH 11.18.08 at 1:58 am

Now, who has the Cap’n Crunch?


fcc 11.18.08 at 2:50 am

As I struggle to make up several grand in property tax arrears it will be a salve to know someone has the means to preserve culture and class.

I strive by your example. Despite no work, no prospects and investment accounts halved in value, I’ll rush right out to buy something of lasting value.
Can’t aspire to a bit of rare china of course , but maybe a bit of brown rice at Trader Joes will do.



Matt 11.18.08 at 3:08 am

I tend to feel something like this for the few pretty old (over 100 years in a few cases, less than that but still old in some others) 1st edition books I have, and they are obviously both less old and less directly connected to the “maker”. It’s an interesting feeling.


FS 11.18.08 at 3:15 am

Anyone else reminded of Heinlein’s “–We Also Walk Dogs”?


lisa 11.18.08 at 4:19 am

That’s amazingly cool. The bowl is beautiful, also, even without the provenance.

The problem for me is that I apply such thinking to much less historic artifacts and then become unable to get rid of anything. I had this dresser made during the depression that I needed to rid myself of and could not, simply because of the accidental varnish handprint on the inside. I finally did give it away to someone who agreed to appropriately appreciate the accidental handprint.


Dan S. 11.18.08 at 4:33 am

One summer in the late ’90s I was on an archaeological dig in the White Mountains of New Hampshire – a Paleoindian site that (early work indicated – don’t know how things stand currently) seems to have been used at various times by one or more family bands somewhere around 11,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age was ending – glacial lakes, caribou, cold. The bulk of what we recovered was debitage, waste flakes from making or retouching stone tools; important to archaeologists, of admittedly less interest to others, but that’s what my story touches on.

Now, here’s the scene: we’re crouching in this big excavation block – think a rather large rectangle of ground that’s been excavated pretty evenly 2 feet or so down – slowly, carefully, painstakingly troweling away the dirt, hour after hour, interrupted on occasion by even more delicate brushing away of same. It’s a bit tiring. Luckily we’ve also uncovered (this being New England) some big rocks that make passable seats, albeit requiring some fairly careful positioning to be endurable. As time passes, each individual sitter happens to start noticing something interesting: they’re finding the highest concentration of waste flakes more or less right in front of them, and fading out somewhat to the sides in a kind of arc . . .

I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but at some point people realized what it was that they were seeing – that over 100 centuries before, other people had been sitting themselves down right in those same less-uncomfortable spots and getting to work, to the task at hand.


MH 11.18.08 at 5:05 am

That’s much better than my “We were drinking beer in a field and we came across beer cans so old that they had the pull-tabs” story. But, sort of the same.


nick s 11.18.08 at 6:40 am

Roman glass is really quite cheap, too, if you value age, and thinking of that continuity is very moving. But Dan S. wins the thread.


Martin Wisse 11.18.08 at 8:36 am

[aeiou] “OOH look at me! I just bought a nice antique bowl! Aren’t I interesting!”


Dru 11.18.08 at 8:52 am

… ne mæg weorþan wis
wer, ær he
wintra dæl in woruldrice.


Chris Bertram 11.18.08 at 9:07 am

Actually Martin Wisse – I’m just making an effort to provide some content for CT that isn’t just US elections, credit crunch, hardcore social science, economics and philosophy. Consider yourself permanently banned from commenting on my posts.


bad Jim 11.18.08 at 9:19 am

Close to hand I have two trilobite fossils and a piece of a Campo del Cielo meteorite, and yet, by contemporary standards, my computer itself is antiquated. There’s a nice stainless steel mobile in the living room, with a bungee cord resting at its base so I can quickly bind it up to keep my toddler nephew from cracking his skull with it. He’s just noticed the parachute cloth mobile dangling from the ceiling in the studio, which is more than most of my former colleagues ever did when I had it in my office. I think he’ll do well.


Tracy W 11.18.08 at 11:42 am

I remember at primary school, scrabbling around in the dirt one day in the playground, we discovered a penny with King George VI’s head on it (yes a penny, not a cent). The sense of connection with history, even at that young age, was exciting enough for me to remember it now.


Alan 11.18.08 at 11:47 am

It’s a beautiful piece. I made an effort to acquaint myself with Chinese archaeology over the Summer (heaven knows why…) and the artefacts they produced were simply extraordinary. I’m largely an old books person myself, because my father is, but I’ve always wanted something like that.
Re: Martin Wisse – I, for one, am pleased to see something non-economic/politics related on CT. It’s all interesting but sometimes you just need to take a step back, look at beautiful things and feel humanity resonate down the centuries.

Apologies for the cheesy final sentence! But it does make you feel connected, yet at the same time so distant from people so similar to us, yet so different.


Eszter Hargittai 11.18.08 at 1:41 pm

I have a tiny desk drawer painted dark green and blue. I picked it up one year in graduate school as the undergrads were moving out. The mother of the student mentioned that it had been in their family for a long time and she was sorry to see it go. I have never forgotten that and am happy that I can still provide a home for that little piece of furniture. I just wish I knew the name of the family so I could let them know that the piece continues to serve function and delight. Obviously this doesn’t have the historical significance of the piece you talk about here, but it reminded me of this continuity through objects.


jackd 11.18.08 at 2:58 pm

It’s odd what strikes us viscerally about artefacts. In Wales the Roman ruins at Caerleon are wonderful, but what I recall best is a Roman roof tile with a footprint in it. We saw some fantastic illuminated manuscripts at the British Museum, but what struck me the most were some simple cartoonish illustrations where the artist’s brush or pen strokes were very obvious. The simplicity of those “material, tactile link[s]” gave them an immediacy I seldom feel with more sophisticated work.


Delicious Pundit 11.18.08 at 3:29 pm

I imagine future generations will feel the same reverence when they dig up our coffee mugs with Sandra Boynton kitties on them.


Alan 11.18.08 at 3:46 pm

jackd: I think it is the sense of brushing past someone who has gone, is finished. I’m always blown away by the monumentality of ruins, castles, cathedrals etc. But what touches you is the evidence of an individual, like that footprint or the immediacy of simply illustration. Another example, I find, is graffiti in old prisons, barracks, construction sites. Sometimes they are incredible pictures but often enough are just the marks of some individual who, at some particular moment, sometimes long gone, sometimes recent, expressed themselves, identified themselves as a person.

Delicious Pundit : I *really* hope no one judges me by my mugs!


John Meredith 11.18.08 at 5:02 pm

“But the artefact survives, a very material, tactile link between that human being’s craft activity and the present.”

And a very, very expensive one, let’s not forget that. I look forward to hearing about your new Porsche and/or fine wine collection in due course, or is gloating about that kind of conspicuous consumption during a recssion somehow vulgar?


dsquared 11.18.08 at 5:09 pm

And a very, very expensive one, let’s not forget that

Actually, about a hundred quid, given that it’s reasonably similar to the first result for a google search on “Qingbai bowl. It’s actually quite easy to check these things John, using search engines. While you’re using search engines, you might also search for terms like “academic blog”, which will pull up a whole list of alternative sites that you can read instead of Crooked Timber, I promise you that we won’t be hurt.


Chris Bertram 11.18.08 at 5:12 pm

_And a very, very expensive one, let’s not forget that._

As it happens, you are quite wrong about that. It isn’t an expensive object at all.


dsquared 11.18.08 at 5:22 pm

Actually, I don’t have much of an idea of scale from the photo above, and searching google for “small qingbai bowl” turns up a couple of examples at $60 or lower. So it could have cost no more than a decent cigar.


MH 11.18.08 at 7:06 pm

I’ve spent more than $60 on Sandra Boynton books. But, maybe they have increased in value because all of the chewing has given them (as Alan put it) “just the marks of some individual who, at some particular moment, sometimes long gone, sometimes recent, expressed themselves, identified themselves as a person”.

And all the drool means the teeth marks are really set.


Katherine 11.18.08 at 7:32 pm

Dan S, that is a wonderful, wonderful story. Thanks.


Nick 11.18.08 at 8:50 pm

Every so often, when I idly toss a nondescript pebble into a muddy pond, I wonder a) how many zillion years ago that thing eroded off a larger chunk of bedrock and b) whether humans will go extinct before it sees the light of day again.

Not quite the same thing as your bowl, but it’s cheaper and gives me a nice little glimpse of deep time.

(I do have a few Roman coins that give me the same feeling as your bowl, assuming they aren’t foregeries)


Nick Caldwell 11.18.08 at 10:36 pm

I find it astonishing that readers of a social sciences & humanities blog are complaining about a post on material culture. Do they hate archaeologists who don’t shoot enough Nazis?

Beautiful artefact, beautiful post, Chris.


John Quiggin 11.18.08 at 10:38 pm

I’ve owned a lounge suite for 30 years or so. It was old (interwar) when I got it, and is now old enough to be an antique, at least by Australian standards. It’s getting re-covered now: sad to say, that’s quite a bit dearer than a 1000-year old bowl. Being the hardcore economist at CT, I’m always fascinated by relative prices and perceptions of necessity and luxury.


parsimon 11.18.08 at 11:14 pm

I tend to feel something like this for the few pretty old (over 100 years in a few cases, less than that but still old in some others) 1st edition books I have, and they are obviously both less old and less directly connected to the “maker”. It’s an interesting feeling.

Older books might be less obviously connected to the maker, but are so much more clearly connected to their past readers; thumbed pages give not just a visual but an immediate tactile (and olfactory) sense of their passage through time. No substitute, really, which is one reason the passing of interest in books these days is remarkable — weirdly, we’ll be returning eventually to a day in which well-bound books are specialty items.


notsneaky 11.19.08 at 12:24 am

Re: amateur archeological digs

In Poland, in pretty much every major city, if you dug randomly in the ground you were pretty much bound to find something from World War II. Mostly, as kids, we used to find various bullet casings but occasionally some kid would dig up a rusted up German or Soviet helmet or a piece of a rifle. Then we’d trade them amongst ourselves and the more unique stuff you could sell to folks who we knew collected these kinds of things.

There was also a fairly widespread media campaign, aimed at kids, about how if you find something that looked like it could be an unexploded bomb then you should go tell an adult, don’t touch it, and definitely not try to make it blow up. It was in comics, on tv, in schools, on posters, like those GI Joe “knowing is half the battle” and McGruff the Crime Dog “don’t take candy from strangers” ad campaigns.

Well, once when I was like 9 years ago we (me and a group of other boys my age) did find something that looked like an unexploded bomb. It was all covered in rust but it was vaguely oblong and had somethings at one end that looked like tail fins. We didn’t go tell an adult. We touched it and picked it up. And we definitely tried to make it explode. By climbing on top of a two story construction building and throwing it off a couple times. If you were a 9 year old boy what would you have done? Come on, honestly.

Of course the “bomb” didn’t explode and I don’t even remember what eventually happened to it. Some kid took it home with him or something.

But it just shows you how effective those ad campaigns really are.


John Quiggin 11.19.08 at 2:12 am

An acquaintance of mine spent a fair while in hospital after going on an Army Cadets camp (this operated in high schools as a sort of preparation for military service) and finding an (until then) unexploded shell, which of course he and his mates played with.


John Meredith 11.19.08 at 9:27 am

“Actually, about a hundred quid, given that it’s reasonably similar to the first result for a google search on “Qingbai bowl. ”

I think the price is typically more like $500 – $1,000. Maybe Chris can enlighten us. I realise that that sort of money for a small piece of crockery may not strike a stockbrocker as very, very expensive, but that’s stockbrokers for you. If it did just cost 30 quid I suppose it is a bit different.

I think the subject of positional goods is fascinating in general, though.


John Meredith 11.19.08 at 9:31 am

“Being the hardcore economist at CT, I’m always fascinated by relative prices and perceptions of necessity and luxury.”

Me too, especially among those who profess a leftist politics, and argue fo greater distribution of wealth. Whenever we buy a luxury or positional good we are,eschewing a painless, cost-free (to us) opportunity to redistribute wealth that could, in many circumstances, change the life of a person or family. What, I wonder, does that reveal?


dsquared 11.19.08 at 9:53 am

On the other hand, with the time you spent pointlessly sniping at Chris, you could have been looking up the price of a small Qingbai bowl (or for that matter, doing more or less anything – I would have guessed that the very best use of your allocated time might have been looking for another blog to go and bother) rather than guessing. What, I wonder, does that reveal? I think it reveals that you’re a snidey bore with a grudge, but I could be wrong.


Alex 11.19.08 at 9:59 am

36 is roughly equivalent to saying “Well, if you believe there should be a higher top rate of income tax, why don’t you send more money to the Inland Revenue on your own then? Eh? Eh?”, and is also about as much fun.


Dave 11.19.08 at 10:40 am

@38: Because they’d waste it on one-legged lesbian single mums’ support groups, of course…

[haha, joke]

And actually, I think 36 is, in a slightly snidey way, asking a perfectly fair question – what is the balance that a ‘leftist’ should strike between participating in a market for cultural goods that is necessarily capitalist and individualist, and distributing their surplus income in line with their professed beliefs? if ‘champagne socialism’ is at one extreme an absurdity, and deliberately choosing to live in a rented bedsit so you can give 80% of your income to support the struggle might be equally absurd, what is the ‘sensible’ position? Is there one? Does it, can it, come down to personal choice, or is that not a whole lot different to simply reiterating a liberal-capitalist position that it’s their money to do as they please with?


John Quiggin 11.19.08 at 10:49 am

“the very best use of your allocated time might have been looking for another blog to go and bother’

I disagree.

As JM would be the first to point out, every hour he spends threadjacking on blogs and detracting from the sum of human knowledge is an hour he could have spent working and giving the proceeds to the poor or, if that’s too much to ask, fixing broken links in Wikipedia or contributing to some similar project. But he prefers to be what he is. In the interests of learning about consequences, and since Chris hasn’t done it himself, I’ll advise JM that he is permanently banned from commenting on any thread of mine.


Chris Bertram 11.19.08 at 12:08 pm

I’ve blogged about the Meredith-type “why don’t the leftists give all their money to the poor – what hypocrites!” position before


In the particular case, the answer is actually 90 quid.


Neil 11.19.08 at 12:37 pm

As a leftist, I don’t want a society in which there is more charity, I want one with higher taxes. I put my vote where my mouth is. Welfare should not be dependent on good hearts of individuals, but should be socially provided,


Dave 11.19.08 at 1:00 pm

@41: Thanks, an interesting read [and set of comments…]
@42: yes but no but yes but, awaiting the glorious day when a political party somewhere in the developed west actually proposes such a redistribution and gets more than 10% of the vote … in the meantime, what do you do with your money?


richard 11.19.08 at 4:43 pm

Nice bowl. I don’t treasure my own material possessions all that much, and I wouldn’t describe myself as a leftist, but I can still make myself a target of ridicule: the object that consistently gives me the most to ponder is a Qur’an stand I got from a madrasa far away from where I live, that was offered to me because I was the only person who’d come through in a year who seemed vaguely interested in Islam. The stand is too small for its stated function and is therefore clearly decorative/ornamental.

The madrasa operated a gift shop full of generic Ali Baba costumes made in India, targeted at the tourists that visited them in order to look at their building. The rather shamefaced guide ushered me out of this, following our conversation regarding the history of his insitution, into a workshop where, I was told, the madrasa students themselves made the Qur’an stands for their own use, enjoyment and exchange with other madrasas. The madrasa stands in a country seldom visited by Americans. I was funded by a university to go to there in order to research cultural monuments; I doubt I will ever return. I gave the equivalent of $11 for the object, in an exchange in which market value was not explicitly stated.

I offer this nicely complicated case study as fodder for a serious investigation of value. I would be unwilling to part with the object for less than 5 figures.


Neil 11.19.08 at 9:07 pm

Dave, I do many things with my money, including paying membership in a political party which gets around 10% of the vote (given Australia’s preferential voting system, I was able to vote for a party which has traditionally taxed people like me a little more than the opposition; they won). I also spend money on extravagant (though unless I don’t know what the word means, not genuinely positional) goods like the scarab I mentioned; perhaps in the order of $1000 over the past 8 years. It is an extravagance. But on the other hand I still have the TV I bought – secondhand – in 1997, I don’t have a car at all. I think spending money on my toys, though it doesn’t make me a good person, doesn’t make me a worse one then the plasma TV buying set. It is at least more environmentally sustainable,

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