Toward a Thorough Understanding of Human Garbageways

In the course of reading your excellent posts on the garbology project, it occurred to me that just as we have been talking about “foodways” as a label for the entirety of human behavior surrounding food, we need to think more about the full range of human behavior that relates to the throwing away of things—garbageways, to coin a term.

This may seem like less of a universal phenomenon than the eating of things—after all, we tend to think of the discussion of garbage as a relatively recent phenomenon. Yet people have been discarding things since before they were anatomically (not to mention behaviorally) modern Homo sapiens. The few odd bits of debitage that survive from the production of Oldowan tools attest to this fact, but doubtless there were also discarded bits of husk, bones, and the pieces of plant or animal that could not be transformed into perishable tools. In fact, archaeologists interact primarily with things that have been diverted from use by human garbageways, and thus understanding the full range of waste disposal behaviors should really be obligatory, if we hope to interpret the archaeological record with any degree of accuracy.

For example, the near-absence of certain valuable materials in the archaeological record, depending on broad contexts, must often be attributed to recycling or repurposing. A rather vulgar but illustrative example of this phenomenon is the Domus Aureus on which the Roman emperor Nero wasted huge amounts of public money during his reign. Naturally, archaeologists have never found remnants of the tons of gold and precious gems (not to mention Parian marble, bronze sculpture, etc.), that were devoted to the house’s construction, because after Nero’s assassination, these were diverted from the stream of garbage that leads to the archaeological record. In fact, the very recycling of the Domus Aureus could be interpreted as a political act, in the same way as one might interpret participation in certain foodways as a political act (think, for example, of Kirk’s careful parsing of ingredients to make her PB&J sandwich in class today: she took pains to explain that the use of wheat bread and jam with seeds left in put her in a distinct socio-political group).

Thus, our consumption and abandonment of materials share many, many qualities, most of which are useful from an archaeological perspective. Thanks for your posts; I’ll send you each some comments on them soon.

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