Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Coke Bottle Water Pipe

Joshua Callaghan-Sloane (Archaeology and Anthropology at Keble),

Lazarus Halstead (Archaeology and Anthropology at Keble),

Vernon Silver, Archaeology DPhil student, St. Cross College,

& Andrew White (Archaeology and Anthropology at Keble),

1999.41.1 Water pipe made from a Coke bottle

1999.41.1 Water pipe made from a Coke bottle

At the back of the Pitt Rivers museum in the far right-hand corner is a case full of different smoking devices. Number 1999.41.1 is described on the label as a “water pipe for smoking marijuana”. Marina de Alarcon, a curatorial assistant at the museum, bought the pipe on the 25th of November 1999, from the Bombay Emporium on East Oxford’s Cowley Road, and donated it to the collection. The device is fashioned from an empty 330 ml Coca-Cola bottle.

Upon closer examination it is obvious that the contraption is made simply, but is functional as opposed to merely ornamental. For its water jar, the pipe is comprised of a standard, glass Coca-Cola bottle of the iconic shape and design found across the world. Into the neck of the bottle the pipe’s maker inserted simple a bung with a valve, hose and a body valve on top of which is the bowl and plate, as indicated by the diagram.

The markings on the bottle – “Mainland U.K. Distribution Only” – indicate that the pipe was probably made in Britain from a container used in the country. While Coca-Cola is ubiquitous, this particular combination of recycled glass Coke bottle and common laboratory equipment is unusual in the world of water pipes, even those of the homemade variety. By contrast, the most frequently cited instructions found online for fashioning such smoking devices call for using larger, 2-litre plastic bottles. It’s not clear if the smaller water capacity of the Pitt Rivers’ example would affect the pipe’s utility in filtering the smoke.

Bombay Emporium

After being used as a drink container somewhere in the U.K. and then transformed into a smoking pipe by an unknown craftsperson, the Coke bottle made its way to the Bombay Emporium, which advertises itself as selling a selection of Asian themed gifts. Founded in 1986 by immigrants from India, the shop’s specialty shifted over the years from imported fabrics, to children’s clothes to smoking paraphernalia such as the pipe. One of the Emporium’s founders and owners, Maya Angrish, says the shop bought the pipe either from merchants at the outdoor market in Oxford’s Gloucester Green or from a supplier elsewhere in England, perhaps London. Otherwise, she says she has no specific record or memory of the pipe’s origin.

When de Alarcon bought the pipe, the surrounding East Oxford neighbourhood had been known through the 1990s for drug use, crime and a transient population often housed by social service agencies in bed-sits. In 1999, the year of the water pipe’s purchase, a community group called East Oxford Action, working in part with local businesses, began a turnaround program aimed at reviving the area, which had ranked in the lowest levels nationally among indices of deprivation factors. East Oxford has since rid itself of much of the blight, such as lots littered with hypodermic needles. The Bombay Emporium’s owners say they no longer re-stock smoking pipes because they set a bad example for children.

The Collector

Curatorial assistant Marina de Alarcon purchased and donated the Coke-bottle pipe in November 1999 for inclusion in a Pitt Rivers exhibit called “Transformations – The Art of Recycling,” which she was helping set up for the following spring.

Her purchase and donation came a month after she returned from a collecting trip to Pakistan -- a trip during which she bought many similar items made from recycled containers. Among the 122 objects she acquired in and around Peshawar from September through October 1999 were oil lamps fashioned from used Pepsi Cola cans (1999.33.16 and 1999.33.34).

In one instance (1999.33.34) she recorded that the Pepsi can originally came from Dubai. In the other lamp, at least one of the drinks cans that comprised the object came from Malaysia.

Seen from the perspective of the collector, the smoking pipe that de Alarcon bought upon her return to Oxford is a particularly English counterpart to the items she found in the markets in Pakistan's frontier region bordering Afghanistan. De Alarcon, who still works at the museum, now as Senior Curatorial Assistant, says the English pipe and some of its distant Pakistani cousins displayed in the recycling exhibit, which ran from 25th March 2000 to Easter 2002.

The purchase and exhibit coincided with a growing anti-globalisation movement in which brands such as Coca-Cola were cast as symbols of corporate domination. Naomi Klein, a Canadian writer and activist, published her book “No Logo” in 2000 in an attempt to rally young people against the power of global conglomerates. Against this backdrop, the making and using (and even purchasing and displaying) of a Coke bottle pipe can be seen as subversive acts against the worldwide brand.

Water Pipes

Water pipes find their origin in the Ottoman Empire, once a world power centred in modern day Turkey. Water pipes where called `Narquile' then. Water pipes are still very popular in the Middle East. Water pipes in these regions are used to smoke special kinds of tobacco, like honey and apple tobacco. Smoking and sharing a water pipe amongst friends can be seen as a sign of friendship and trust. “A water pipe, is a smoking device, generally used to smoke cannabis, tobacco, or other substances” It was probably designed to be able to smoke anything through and due the legal implications of selling drug related paraphernalia it was almost certainly sold as a water pipe for the smoking of tobacco in a way similar to that of hubble-bubble pipe or shisha which is common across much of the middle east and in parts of England before the smoking ban bought into force on 1st July 2007.

The alternate purpose for this water pipe which is indicated by the label is that of smoking marijuana. It would probably be described as a bong to those in the marijuana smoking circles. Bongs are essentially water pipes, where the cannabis smoke is passed through water before inhaling. This has the effect of cooling the smoke and to some extent filtering the smoke by removing the heavy tar elements.

Alternative Theoretical Argument

During use the bong quite literally becomes animated. It draws in and passes out air becoming an ‘external lung’ during the heightened mental state induced by the smoking of marijuana. We can thus see a nexus of complex relationships develop between marijuana, user and bong. The user breaths life into the bong but at the same time the bong breathes life into the user. Over time the user and her ‘external lung’ become connected by physical markers of their connected use. The bong becomes worn with the marks and stains of use and the user begins to exhibit the effects of marijuana use. The marijuana itself is consumed in the process as a magical substance. Its burning marks the transition between being inanimate and separate to being alive and connected.

The bong is clinical and seems mass-produced in form. Thus the idea of the ‘artificial lung transplant’ appears a good metaphor for understanding the bong and its ‘consumption’ within English culture. Although artificial lung transplantation was first pioneered in America it is certainly also part of the NHS’s remit and therefore of English collective identity. The bong could be seen as a counter-discourse to England’s hazy policy on the health risks associated with marijuana use. Whilst the NHS argues that lungs suffer as a result of smoking the bong presents a process of bricolage in which the utilitarian coke bottle is transformed into a new lung. Rather than being a destructive process, smoking marijuana becomes one of creation, imagination, and the subjective embrace of the bong into bodily identity.

Although this discussion couches the bong as bound up in individual experience it can also be one of shared experience with the bong being passed around a group of friends or used by different people at subsequent events. The bong represents self consumption. In using it you are consuming the shared breathing apparatus of all its previous users. This allows the ‘artificial lung’ to become externalised and internalised as an act of Durkheimian group self-affirmation within England’s youth.


The object illustrates a combination of aspects of differing cultures in a way that can be seen as encapsulating the concept of modern Englishness. Coca-Cola is the most universally recognised symbol and captures the essence of the modern consumer driven capitalist society that England has embraced. And its journey through the Bombay Emporium underscores the evolving definition of Englishness as the country has become more culturally diverse; while the front room of the shop is filled with Eastern exotica, the back room, where the owners serve tea to visitors, is decorated with a framed, full-length photo portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, taken on her coronation. The picture, standing nearly a metre high, was put there by the shop’s co-founder, Maya Angrish. Angrish, who was born in India in 1938, has been in England for 42 years and is a U.K. citizen.

The other culture that the Coca-Cola pipe clearly draws from is a Middle-Eastern smoking culture mentioned above. In such cultures where drinking alcohol is either not permitted or isn’t the cultural norm, often the smoking of shisha is a more common means of socialising. With the integration of peoples from a variety of cultures shisha smoking has been incorporated into modern English society.

The role of Coca-Cola in globalisation is frequently debated, with local uses of the drink and its containers a matter of contention and fascination for anthropologists who study the impact of the worldwide brand. Coke has been seen by some as an example of American culture taking over local traditions. But local adaptations, such as this English twist on the smoking pipe, can be seen as a way in which local identity can assert itself through a subversive act against the global brand. Seen in these ways, the Coca-Cola water pipe is uniquely English.

Further reading

• http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bong
• http://shop.grasscity.com/shop/grasscity/water_pipes.html
• http://www.ukcia.org/culture/smoking.php
• Brooks, Zoe, Transformative Planning, East Oxford Action, December 2006, www.eastoxford.com/tp.pdf
• Klein, Naomi, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. New York: Picador USA, 2000
• Miller, Daniel, Coca-Cola: A black sweet drink from Trinidad. In Buchli, R. (ed.), The Material. Culture Reader, Berg, Oxford, 2002, pp. 245–263.