Garbology: Leaps in Data Interpretation

Trying to construct the life of my assigned subject in the Garbology project has been an opportunity to see how easy it is to make leaps with data interpretations and cultural knowledge. My subject’s coffee consumption appeared to mirror my own – does that indicate they also require coffee to function on a daily basis? Or, also like myself, perhaps they cannot justify the expense or time required to stop at Starbucks every weekday? I can easily voice the assumption that the absence of any evidence of meat may indicate vegetarianism. It’s also just as possible that availability, expense, or eating meals out of the home could have influenced the contents of my subject’s garbage. A more solid statement regarding the absence of meat products would be supported by the presence of other alternative proteins, which would then perhaps strongly indicate a vegetarian diet.

Though Garbology is a study of the recent past, it provides a good lesson to those who study archaeology of any era: the absence of one sort of item in an extremely limited data set does not always indicate a particular pattern. The presence of coffee may very well indicate a sleepless student, and the absence of meat may point to a vegetarian. But to make the leap and say emphatically “This is the way of life of the subject” is jumping to conclusions without enough supporting evidence. A researcher should critically analyze the data available, question it from multiple angles, and acknowledge when one interpretation is not the only possibility.

Garbology: How the Present Day Informs Us About the Past

This week in our Lab we looked at personal recordings of trash disposal. In both recording my own data and reviewing another one of my classmate’s (Eshmun), I quickly discovered how looking at someone’s trash is both informative and deceptive. In both our garbage cans and in middens from a previous human settlement, only the unwanted items of a person’s or village’s life are left behind. We can see partially what they consumed and perhaps even what they used to cook and eat their meals with, but it is not often that we can see the items saved and not discarded. In the past there is a lack of how they obtained those items, did they grow/farm them, gather them, hunt them, fish for them, perhaps even trade for them? But in modern times some of these questions are easily answered, the food was mostly procured at a grocery store, recipes can show which particular store it was bought at, and particularly for this seven day recording period, a pattern can sometimes be discerned. What’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner are easily noticeable with a general understanding of American food culture. An individual’s personal preferences and behaviors, like a love for coffee (or perhaps a requirement for it), can almost create an image of that individual’s daily routine. I believe analyzing what and how we currently understand present day behaviors allows us to in turn question previous cultures’ and societies’ behaviors, especially pertaining to food. Why did they eat this, when during the day did they eat this, why did they eat this during this period of the day, and etcetera. It’s also interesting to consider the differences between a self reported document and the physical items discovered, and how both can lack information pertaining to the individual. Not only does the study of garbology help us in understanding the present day and our future, but for archaeologist it also helps to generate new questions and perspectives about how we understand the past as well.

A day in Melqart’s life.

**This story was constructed from a self-recorded garbology report from an individual known as Melqart. Below are some of the recordings that was used to construct this story**

It’s a Friday morning and Melqart wakes up feeling off. She knows she only had one glass of wine last night, so it wasn’t a hangover. Dressed, she heads to the kitchen where she finds an empty wine bottle on the table. “My roommate must have finished it” she thinks as she places the bottle in the recycling bin.

Image result for stash tea chamomile nights

She starts eating a banana and boils water for tea while she packs her school supplies. The bus is coming in 15 minutes and she still needs to pack her snacks (a granola bar and orange). She looks for her French bread to make a quick sandwich only to realize it has gone bad. As she throws it away, Melqart thinks about what to do for lunch. She looks out the window and notices it’s another rainy day in Seattle. Suddenly, pho sounds like a reasonable meal. She finishes her tea and catches the bus.

As the day goes by, Mel isn’t feeling any better, but she also isn’t feeling worse. Before going home, she does a quick stop at a Fred Meyers to buy some cough medicine.

Image result for night time cough medication krogers 10 oz

Melqart doesn’t want to risk getting sick enough to miss school. But it has been a long week, and on the bus ride home she convinces herself to relax tonight. Upon arriving, she grabs a glass of wine (what better way to relax), orders couple of pizza from Vince’s and puts water to heat up.

As she wait, she does some minuscule cleaning, throwing away the granola wrapper, orange peels, recycling the pizza box and even shreds a couple of documents with private information. She’ll take her medication tomorrow night if her sickness persists. (Spoiler alert, it does).


Selective recordings from Melqart’s report



How to tell if someone is a snowbird from their garbage…

In a recent garbology project I participated in, each member was given a set of data from one another that listed their garbage from the past week or so. In the sample I received there was food, packaging, cat food cans, and a curious piece of paper that was a boarding pass…to LAS VEGAS! The date for said boarding pass was the 17th of December. So what does this mean? Someone went to Las Vegas for a little winter fun, or maybe to visit family around the holidays? Regardless of what happened I feel that a lot can be learned from this piece of paper in regards to the person/people who threw it away. The conclusion I came to was that they are either from/ are connected to this desert oasis, or flock there every winter to get away from the bitter, harsh, slushy, winter we have here in Seattle. Though my conclusion might be far from the truth, it shows the power in trash. From a single item in the trash, we can learn quite a lot about a person or group of people. As the field of garbology has risen over the past years, we are beginning to better understand our current and not so distant selves in terms of what we do and what we throw away. So whether or not these people are snowbirds based upon their boarding pass, I still know they had some fun in the sun during the holiday season.