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’.


Trash Talking

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.