Garbology as a first introduction to hands-on archaeological analysis of material remains


I was first introduced to the concept of “garbology” on my first year of college, at my Anthropology 101 class in Bellevue College. We read an article of a professor in Arizona who was trying to paint a more complete picture of the population that was crossing the U.S Border at the desert, by analyzing all the items that had been left behind in the bushes, and it immediately opened my eyes to the immense  treasure that our disposal means for anybody trying to construct a context of who you are without your presence itself, only through your trail of used materials.

This is what Archaeology really seems to aim at, right? Building a strong context with the multiple layers of realities that compose our human existences. And this is what I’ve seen during this lab exercise. When I started seeing patterns emerging beyond the apparent frenetic disposal of random objects of the individual the case that I analyzed, it really motivated me to keep on trying to discern the micro-fibers of this complex tapestry:

Could I tell if the person was going through more unstable mental periods because of the rate of food disposal and the types of food been consumed? Could I tell if the person is experiencing the collapse of the middle class by the fact that instead of buying food in bulks they had kept buying them individually, even though the number of household members was great enough to qualify for deals found in larger purchases?

This is definitely something I will bring with me, into my practical analysis of material data. That is why it’s so important to seek inter-sectional approaches to such data!

[Insert pun about garbage here]

Garbage is an ever present, unappealing part of today’s society. It burdens the mind with concerns over pollution and conservation. Just as easily, though, it can be swept out of mind by dropping it in the bin and leaving it for an early morning truck to disappear. In our own adaptation of Bill Rathje and Cullen Murphy’s Garbology project, we charted the deposition of trash, compost, and recycling in our own homes before analyzing the anonymous deposition of a classmate. While odd and sometimes gross, this project spotlights how archaeologists take the discards of the past and use them to describe the people who left them behind.

In the trash, compost, and recycling bins, the data were unsurprisingly in line with daily household activities — cooking meals was reflected in pasta boxes and frozen broccoli bags; cleaning up was seen in discarded paper towels and junk mail, and taking care of the oneself was reflected in a spent deodorant tube and Q-tips. What was surprising, however, was how easy it is to rely on thin evidence and assumptions to support broad conclusions about the person doing the discarding. The national brands of yellow pasta, marinara sauce, and broccoli suggest, because of my personal experience, a person who is new to cooking for themselves and hasn’t branched into more imaginative cooking. The national brands also suggest to me that the person isn’t exploring regional or local grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Maybe a newcomer to the area? Aside from relying on my subjective perspectives, all these interpretations are further made problematic by the short data collection period of one week. Imagine how a new job, school quarter, or travel plans might skew what you throw away and where.

For archaeologists tasked with interpreting the material record of past human life, recognizing the subjectivity we unavoidably bring with us is essential to any analysis. Our trash, ancient or modern, has a lot to say about us, the catch is in how we selectively give voice to these discarded objects.

Not Another Trashy Blog

This assignment truthfully scared me a little at first, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it and found it to be really interesting – my own record and the one I analyzed. I do want to note how so often we are told always how we live in such a materialistic and consumerist society, which I don’t disagree with, but I honestly expected more refuse from myself and the sample I analyzed. After the first day of recording, I was definitely very aware of what I was throwing away and wondered how someone else would interpret it.  When I first looked at the sample I was analyzing, I didn’t think I would be able to guess as much about the person as I was able to, but a few items here and there definitely helped get a clearer picture, from papers to other items, although I still would not put 100% into my guess of gender and socioeconomic status. This is the first archaeology class I have taken with a lab, and I before this I don’t think I understood just how valuable and insightful minuscule ‘small things forgotten’ items can be towards interpreting and understanding the way a person lives. I also thought that had it been another week how my trash might have been completely different, and if the sample period had been longer what else could I guess about the person and if I would be more accurate, or would it become too much for a clear picture? We learned that people tend to underreport as well, which makes me wonder if the sample I analyzed or I did that. Garbology, while sounding very skeptical at first, definitely provides a lot of information about a person, their habits, and lifestyle, and is a very useful tool for learning about people in the modern age.

Garbology 101

Looking at trash is nothing new for archaeologists, the human past is littered with refuse and archaeologists use those leavings to determine a variety of things about past societies. However, it wasn’t until recently that archaeologists began looking at modern garbage for our research. Looking at the detritus of current societies offers a number of insights that we are unable to gather when looking at trash heaps or middens that are as much as a hundred years old, much less thousands. This is because there is so much of it to look at. Partly because humans have started making more waste than ever before and partly because types of waste like plant matter have not yet decomposed beyond the point of recognition. Packaging labels are still legible, not yet faded with time, meaning we don’t have to speculate as to where people are shopping and what they’re buying and eating. Which in our consumer driven society is a huge part of our culture.
For our Historical Archaeology class this past week we were asked to collect and record our own garbage over a seven day period. Stinky, but super interesting! Even just looking at my own garbage was illuminating and I was shocked by how much waste my family generated over the course of a week. Looking at such a small sample as compared to much larger garbology studies like the one at the University of Arizona might not seem worthwhile since there isn’t as much we can glean from this limited amount of trash, but there are still a number of conclusions that can be made. And even if it only has the outcome of making one or two students think twice before they throw something away that doesn’t sound too bad.

My Life as Oscar the Grouch

I may not be green, or furry, or a monster for that matter, but I did spend the last week living in the garbage. This isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time, but if Oscar can embrace it, so can I.

My Spirit Monster

In brief, my task was to look at a week’s worth of garbage from an anonymous individual and interpret it to try to get a look into this person’s life- what types of information can you learn from what someone has thrown away? Yes, this is legal- even if it hadn’t been voluntary (California v. Greenwood).

To be honest, there wasn’t that much that I felt I could accurately interpret from the trash that wasn’t immediately evident. It was obviously someone who ate meat, as there were chicken and bacon among the objects in the garbage. Yet, as this exercise would have been pointless if no one made any bold assumptions, I pushed myself to use a little imagination- I started small: this person probably has a car… I mean, they shop at multiple different grocery stores and visit different arts and crafts places- this would be a hell of a lot easier if you weren’t dependent on bus schedules. Next, I assume this person has long hair because as a short haired person, I have never had a need to throw away my hair. It conveniently flows down the drain never to be seen again. Growing up in a household with sisters and a mother, there was ALWAYS long hair in the trash- pulled from combs, brushes and the shower drain. The long hair was my first and only real epiphany. I’m sure for others the trash spoke volumes, sang even, but for me the trash mumbled and whispered. Could I assume this person’s gender based on what was in their garbage? Not really… there were no targeted ads that were thrown away, there were no diagnostic artifacts of sex or gender, and if the garbage isn’t going to tell me, I’m not going to assume.

One of the more striking outcomes of this study was the difference between my expectations of what one would throw away versus the reality of the assemblage I was given. My discard habits definitely influenced my ideas of what people throw away. The things I expected to see were the things I throw away on a weekly basis, but the things I saw reminded me that individuality is apparent in the garbage record- everyone throws away things unique to their identity, whether or not it tells who they are.


We Are Trash

I would’ve never thought trash could say so much about a person. This past week, recording all the items that went into my apartment’s garbage made me realize 1) how much trash my roommates and I produce within not even a week, 2) I absolutely hate sifting through garbage, and 3) people like to wait until the garbage gets overfilled because we’re all too lazy (or too busy, if you wanna be nice about it) to walk all the way down to the dumpster in the garage (at least in my case). Also, spending half of my time – just in this past week – out of the apartment made it a bit harder to collect data since some days would go without recording refuse since it wouldn’t have been a control of how much, and what my collective household throws away. Otherwise, this was a very informative assignment.


This assignment also included the chance to analyze and interpret someone else’s garbage. They separated their refuse into garbage, recycling, and compost, and shopped at Trader Joe’s, ate lots of organic food, you get the idea. Then we were to infer from that what kind of person they were and honestly all I could say was that

they’re probably ten times healthier than me;

probably use public transportation and/or ride a bike, or own a Prius;

and they probably remember to bring their reusable shopping tote(s) to the grocery too.

From their descriptive data I could only infer these things, but I’m honestly hoping I’m like, 80% correct. It’s like the world is saying we are our own trash. If you ate a lot of meat, we would probably find empty bacon wrappers, meat packages, maybe chicken wing bones or T-bones. We could infer you really like your protein for working out after (who knows?). If you’re in an Asian household, you’ll probably never find expired foods because “IT’S STILL GOOD” according to my Asian mom, and will be left in the fridge until spring cleaning; but you can almost guarantee you’d find some Spam cans, some Seafood City or H-Mart take-home packages, sauce packets with foreign names, noodle wrappers, and some black hair-dye (secret: that’s how Asians stay young).

Es x̣ʷéʔeli

Over the last week, I have recorded every scrap of garbage that I had produced and analyzed another students’ garbage in the process.  While we sat and read about garbology from Little and Rathje and Murphy, we learned about the ongoing anthropology of modern garbage.  It was somewhat interesting and mortifying to see how much waste we produce, I wonder about today’s consumer culture and why everything we buy nowadays seems to come in copious amounts of packaging.  Even the fruit we buy we feel the need to put much of it in bags, which we throw away.

As a modern Indigenous person, I live in a typical American fashion while keeping foot in traditional Indigenous traditions.  In terms of garbology, I started thinking about the garbology of the Indigenous, i.e. Indigenous garbology (I may or may not have just coined a term).  What would Indigenous garbology entail?  In my case, I produce much of the same type of garbage that the typical American household produces, plus garbage produced from producing cultural objects.  In my case it is processing raw materials such as roots, working with feathers, beadwork, and carving wood and ivory.  It is important to note however that much of this does not make it into the garbage can.  Natural things I tend to dispose of in a respectful and symbolic manner.  If it is natural, I tend to put it back into nature.  Other things however, such as miscellaneous and malformed beads and nylon bead thread tend to go into the garbage.  I would imagine this would differ from one Indigenous population to another, but I wonder what we could learn about how we continue our Indigenous culture in the modern world from looking at our garbage?

This lab was absolute Garbo logy

Over a week I recorded all of my garbage disposal and interrogated my family on what they threw out in my absence to avoid digging through again. I realized what kind of habits my family and I have in our disposal and also our purchasing habits so when I went to analyze another person’s, I made many connections on what a person could find out just by digging through trash. And when I started making connections to who that classmate could be, I realized how creepy Garbology work can appear to be. The things found in trash can be commonly found in relation to each other such as vegetables and fruit be associated with perhaps a paper or plastic bag from QFC. It takes no genius to come to that conclusion but when you consider the lack of marks or the unreliability of stamps can be, it takes a bit of wet work. But for this lab, it was pretty easy simply because of familiarity to those objects.

Found this old relic in my trash bin! Incredible what you find in there.

The person whose garbage I had is definitely a child of the West Coast or at least internally became one deeply. The fact that the refuse is separated by trash and recycling in such a detailed way shows this person is a Seattleite. It’s reflective of this city’s general concern with environment and probably its eating habits as well. The person was very dissimilar to me but at the same very similar. It just goes to show how much we can learn about each other through archaeology even in very recent times.

And here’s my dog

it’s interesting how many households keep these artifacts whose only function appears to be leaving garbage around the house. Perhaps a culture of cleanup?

Talking Trash

No, I’m not talking about boastful archaeologists trying to to intimidate their competition. Instead I want to talk about garbology. Garbology is the study of rubbish or what we commonly call trash. It first began with the Garbage Project in Tucson, Arizona in the 1970s. William Rathje, an American archaeologist, started this project because he felt trash could offer more insight into peoples lives than the people themselves. After reading a few chapters from Rathje and Murphy’s book, “Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage”, I was hooked. The evidence and findings from their research were surprising and left me creating my own hypothesis for each study. A perfect example from their book is a study about waste behavior during a red meat shortage in the United States. They had hypothesized there would be less red meat waste during the shortage. But what they discovered was an increase in beef waste due to “crisis buying”. People had stocked up on beef but did not have the knowledge or tools to cook and store their meat. Leading to an increase in red meat waste. Something they had not anticipated going into this study but lead to an additional study to support their theory.

Last week I had the opportunity to conduct my own rubbish analysis for my Historical Archaeology course. I reported my waste for a week and in return I had to analyze a classmates waste. In comparison my waste was very different from my classmate. For example, I had a significant amount of waste because I live in a two person household that cooks one to two meals a day. But 32% of my classmates waste was take out food and beverage containers. This evidence suggests my classmate lives in a one person household that does not cook at home. This can also be supported by their other waste. Which included snack packages and beverage containers. These findings would also suggest a household with disposable income. My classmate spent $65 on take out food and beverages in a week. And that only includes food or beverages that were brought home. When I reached this conclusion I began to ask myself why do they have this food behavior. I looked through their report again for clues. I found my answer when I saw three cardboard Amazon boxes in their refuse collection. Their waste reflects a life that requires convenience. Maybe because they grew up in a culture that is focused on convenience or maybe because they are a full-time student working a part-time job. In order to draw more precise conclusions I would need more material evidence. I know that is not possible in this situation but that won’t stop me from developing my interest in garbology and talking trash with my fellow archaeology students.

Garbage, It’s Not Just Trash

Did you know that what you throw away can actually tell a story about you? Garbology is the study of refuse and is used to detect patterns in human society. We (that is to say, archaeologists) use it as a tool to get an in depth look into people’s lives. By studying garbage, we can see things such as what certain demographics of people use more frequently than others, or a company can even use it to figure out common wastes in their products and tailor their marketing accordingly.

Our historical archaeology class did a garbology experiment where we would keep a log of everything that was thrown away in our kitchen trash at home for seven days. After which we anonymously switched logs with another person in class and did an in-depth analysis of their garbage. Questions we had to ask and find answers to were things like, how many people lived there, can you tell how old they are, and can you tell what their income is. From writing my own log and examining others, I would say that these questions could be answered easily, and it was utterly fascinating the amount of information you can gather just by looking at someone else’s trash.