Garbology: Remember, YOU are Compostable

This past week, our class recorded our trash, compost, and recycling discards in order to compare and study how they might represent our lifestyles. This is something that archaeologists do frequently in order to understand lifeways of the past —  consider, for example, the study of middens, essentially ancient dump sites. Through this project, we were asked to categorize the discards and see what we could conclude definitively and infer as well.

The exercise was interesting, but the behavioral patterns that were most striking were those of omission. In the trash I analyzed, there was almost exclusively food and kitchen waste, leaving me wondering where non-dietary items were being discarded. After all, it seems questionable that in seven days, all that would be thrown away would be related to food — we constantly accumulate items in our day to day life…where do they go?

The tendency to over-report items viewed typically as “good” and to under-report items viewed as “bad” is explored in Murphy and Rathje (2001) and Little (2007). Though there is no way to conclusively know what was left out short of actually rooting through the bins, the fact that we can tell for sure that some thing were omitted begs the question of what else did not make it into the report. Though this is not of tremendous importance to the class exercise, it is easy to see how this might present problems for historians and archaeologists. For me, one of the big takeaways is that if modern humans cannot accurately recall or report their household trash for seven days, how can we be trusted to be on the mark in recalling or reporting other things, such as our own history? I think that the exercise was designed to bring this conundrum to light, and to suggest the power of archaeology — actually examining what material is present — to speculate about what is left out, and why it was omitted.

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