As archaeologists, much of what we study is garbage, the things that people before us left behind in piles known as middens. If we rely on these middens to provide insight into the lives of people who were living in the past, wouldn’t it also make sense that our garbage today can similarly provide insights into modern life? This is precisely what William Rathje and Cullen Murphy propose in their book Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage where they detail the ongoing Garbology project run by the University of Arizona.
Our historical archaeology class did our own mini week-long garbology project. While a week only allowed for the accumulation of a miniscule amount of garbage compared to the UoA Garbology project, it still highlighted how much can be learned about a person or culture through their garbage. The project made me aware of how much my own life experiences affected my interpretation of the garbage collection I was analyzing, especially with regards to how I came to conclusions about the size of the household, genders, ages, and wealth of the individuals being analyzed. The project also made me more aware of how much garbage I produce and what people could learn about me based on what I leave behind.
It is surprising how much can be learned about an individual through their garbage. This is particularly true for modern people since most of the objects discarded are still present, whereas in fifty to one hundred years all that may be left is the glass, plastic and metal that people threw away. This leaves the gaps of most of the organic material that would have been discarded. Garbology can help us to better understand what types of activities and garbage may not be represented archaeologically and what this means for our interpretations of archaeological assemblages.