Useful again, 2,000 years later

The earthen bowl seems inconspicuous and drab among the other items on my writing table, such as the gilded penholder, the leather-bound diary, and the elegant wooden frame that holds my child's image, perennially smiling at me.

To some, the red fired pottery, rough and raw as the cheapest matka (pot), might suggest the owner's penchant for the ethnic. Others may surmise that I am a nonconformist.

Very few people have asked me about the plain bowl. Most took away with them their own silent conclusions (if they had any). The fortunate few were those who queried. The curious ones learned that the potter who created this bowl lived 2,000 years ago.

Not only for its antiquity do I treasure this bowl, though. It was an offering from friends and is a tangible reminder of their affection.

I received this gift at the end of a long season at an archaeological site on the fringes of the Thar Desert in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan.

My friends and I dug up the bowl together, clearing an ancient kitchen floor with trowel and brush.

First, inch by slow inch, we uncovered the hearth, lined with dressed stones. Beside it was a refuse pit full of ancient ashes and bones. And then, at the very edge of the rammed clay floor, the bowl came to light.

It seemed as though it had been used only yesterday. All I had to do was nudge my imagination a little to re-create a scene as familiar as time: the lady of the house stoking the fire, a toddler playing, and the father striding in to quench his thirst with sweet water out of the earthen bowl.

The task of recording the kitchen vessel fell to me. During the course of cleaning, measuring, and drawing the terra-cotta bowl, something happened. It seemed quietly to divorce itself from its exalted status as "scientific evidence" and joined the modern world.

The old container never went back into the pottery bag. Instead, it remained on my table in the tent, serving as a repository for small change, keys, and other items I cleared out of my pockets at the end of a busy day.

After being buried in the earth for 20 centuries, the bowl had become a thing of utility again. Perhaps it was my friends' recognition of this that prompted them to give it to me.

"Drink deep from it and remember us," my colleagues said, like the old Vikings who would provide a drinking horn to one of their comrades going to Valhalla.

On occasions I do drink from the old earthen vessel - and when I do, I think of open skies, of the cool musk aroma of freshly upturned soil, and of the strange camaraderie of those who dig into the past.

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