What's the oldest thing I can buy, just to have?
September 17, 2021 9:28 AM   Subscribe

What's the oldest human-made thing I can buy, just to have? I really want to own something that is hundreds or thousands of years old.

I would like to have a very old item, just for the sake of reflecting on history and humanity and as a conversation piece.

-Under $500, although less expensive is better.
-Smaller is better (I have a small living space).

Bonus points for recommendations of where to buy whatever it is you're recommending.

I'm thinking a coin is the most obvious, but am open to other suggestions and also to suggestions for a specific coin if there is some particular coin that is recognized to be the oldest common coin or something like that.
posted by tiamat to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
An arrowhead, maybe? They can be thousands of years old. I’m not sure of the price but it’s worth looking into.
posted by Jubey at 9:34 AM on September 17, 2021

Arrowheads are common and cheap.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:35 AM on September 17, 2021 [10 favorites]

Fossilized rocks, i.e. a small rock with a feather or foot print on it, are pretty easy to get. Also geodes maybe?
posted by Melismata at 9:38 AM on September 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

For oldest, human-made thing it’s going to be some kind of stone tool, for sure. I don’t know who the reliable dealers are but cursory search suggests that you can get a 100,000+ year old hand axe for under $500.
posted by mskyle at 9:41 AM on September 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If the Mini Museum is to be believed, they have fragments of some pretty ancient handmade objects for sale including:

Aterian Tools
Neanderthal Hand Axe

or for something more "modern" there's Egyptian Papyrus
posted by castlebravo at 9:47 AM on September 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You can get an Acheulean-period hand axe for a few hundred dollars. They're so old they were made by pre-sapiens hominid species like Homo erectus and Homo ergaster.
posted by theodolite at 9:59 AM on September 17, 2021 [9 favorites]

Mr. BlahLaLa has some old Roman coins which are literally a couple thousand years old, and I've been shocked to see that they're generally not expensive (fancy ones excepted).

(Ebay links provide for example only; I don't know how to decide who is a reputable seller.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:04 AM on September 17, 2021 [5 favorites]

If this is the way your brain works, and if you ever have the opportunity or desire to travel to London, you might consider mudlarking.
posted by The Bellman at 10:11 AM on September 17, 2021 [16 favorites]

Seconding ancient Roman coins. Some websites sell older coins in poorer condition in bulk.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:21 AM on September 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Missed human made - suggested megalodon tooth. Arrowheads are an option. Same with old pottery.
posted by Crystalinne at 10:52 AM on September 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had a catalog of antiquities, some years back. It was full of stuff you wouldn't think you could get - ancient pottery, fragments of mummy cases, old metal artifacts. Many things were only a few hundred bucks.
The oldest stuff you can get will likely be stone tools, but to give the feel of antiquity I think more recent but still ancient stuff is better.
I don't know where ... hang on. Here.
Some of this stuff has a seriously ancient feel. Also it's beautiful.
I once worked in an antique store, and we very occasionally got something in that felt so old it didn't belong in our civilization. Egyptian stuff is like that, for me.
I know trilobites aren't human made (though I'm told if you buy them in a fossil shop, or they come from Morocco, they probably are) but creatures from the Burgess shale are more than half a billion years old, and represent the early dawn of multicellular life. They're pretty much the oldest things you can get that aren't rocks, and I think they're wonderful.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 12:54 PM on September 17, 2021 [5 favorites]

Think Tetradrachm, the silver coinage of ancient Greece weighs 1/2oz = 17g. As a teenager, a palomino was being dragged to visit Delphi by his parents and got caught behind a bus-load of tourists. There in the dust was an Attic tetradrachm brought to the surface by the chattering horde having been lost for 2400 years. You can get later coins for much less than $500 if you make a mission of it. Good fun; good luck.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:41 PM on September 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just to be a wet blanket, things you “wouldn’t think you could get” can also be things you shouldn’t be able to get. Be cautious about artifacts listed having Native American provenance. A whole lot of those things are on the market due to illegal grave plundering over a long period of time, and it still happens. Also, plenty of them are bullshit fakes, made last month in factory in China like everything else you own. (Same for ancient coins, btw.)
posted by spitbull at 4:13 AM on September 18, 2021 [11 favorites]

I will mention that you can legally and legitimately buy artwork by Alaska Native artists made from fossilized ivory and bone. You can’t leave the country with it however, and ever bring it back, no matter what the documentation. I own many such pieces, most gifted to me by Alaska Native friends, a few purchased from Native (Inuit) artists I know personally. The bone and ivory is very old, fossilized long before it was used to make tools or jewelry generations ago. Now the ivory and bone pieces — both antique human-made items and raw fossilized ivory, usually walrus tusk — wash up on Alaska beaches regularly (I’ve been fossilized ivory hunting with my Alaska Native friends, who have in some cases built collections of ivory worth tens of thousands of dollars that they use to make crafts and art or sell to fellow Native craftpersons and artists — who are the only ones allowed to sell new products made from this stuff.)

The items are legitimately extremely old — thousands of years in some cases. And you can buy certified authentic pieces from legit Native artists. They will be expensive. But their provenance will be documented and legal.
posted by spitbull at 4:20 AM on September 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

(This assumes you’re an American, by the way. If you’re Canadian you can buy such pieces easily in Canada too, but not bring them into the US legally — and the penalties for illegal importation of marine mammal parts are damn serious.)

If you want to do this you should work through a known gallery agent unless you can travel to Alaska Native communities personally. Even then, amateur collectors can make serious mistakes.
posted by spitbull at 4:26 AM on September 18, 2021

Best answer: Seconding spitbull's caution re ancient coins. The really cheap ones on the internet (Ebay, etc.) are almost certainly looted or fakes, and in either case, seriously unethical to purchase because they drive demand up further for looting, leading to even more destruction of ancient sites. Certainly one can buy ethical, provenanced Greek and Roman coins, but not like that.
posted by lysimache at 5:43 AM on September 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

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