The stories our trash can tell

Since the beginning of Archaeology as a discipline archaeologists have been enthralled in the business of digging through someone else’s trash. Mind you it is normally at a couple hundred years old so all smells and general unpleasantness associated with garbage has faded. Even though we refer to these artifacts as material culture it does not change the fact that it is some ancient persons refuse. From this old trash we can infer a range of aspects and behaviors of past peoples. Eventually this raised the question ‘if we can do learn all of this from ancient garbage can we not use modern trash to observe behaviors among the current population?’ and so the field of Modern Garbology was born.

Through the use of archaeological techniques garbology can help us identify trends in human behavior, such as food consumption (Meat, processed food etc), as well as other aspects of life, such as household size, social class, disposable income etc. But why do we need to dig through someone’s garbage to find this out you may ask? Can’t we just ask them to self-report what their throwing away? As it turns out people tend to under report certain in terms including red meat and alcohol, while over reporting items such as diet foods. This gives impression that the household in question has a significantly healthier lifestyle than in reality (Rathje 2001,71).

Over the course of 7 days each person in our class kept a record of the garbage they disposed of. We swapped records anonymously and analyzed each other’s trash. At first I couldn’t really see any trends but once I began organizing the data it became evident that there was a notably lack of waste associated with full meals. From this I inferred that this person preferred to eat out and tended to avoid cooking extravagant meals. I extrapolated from this that they may have a hectic schedule which does not allow time for cooking. Once I got into the nitty-gritty details of the record I was amazed at the information that could be gleaned from just a handful of objects.

Recording my garbage really made me stop and consider the amount of stuff I was throwing away. By the end of the week I couldn’t fathom how I could have produced so mush trash in such a short!!!

Well thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more about garbology I would 100% recommend Rathje and Murphy’s ‘Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage’.


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