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!

Medicine Here and Now

“Drinking too much of a certain potent potable may require a leave of absinthe”




As seen in our assemblage, a vast majority of our examples seem to be of the medicinal type holding various tonics (about 29% of our assemblage). It’s hard to know exactly what was in the bottles and what they were used for so I took it upon myself to look around the internet for bottles with their labels still in tact. What I found is that not only were a good majority of these bottles were medicine for coughs but also that their ingridients would be considered downright illegal to sell in that state today.

It’s hard to imagine in a day where vaccines and modern medicine can nearly eliminate the large amount of diseases that were prevalent in earlier times. In the above photo we see an example of medicine for whooping cough, which is not nearly as prevalent as it is today thanks to vaccines which I know I received as a child. Just from googling around to find differing examples of cough medicine I was taken aback by the sheer number of different brands for the same illnesses (and the questionable ingredients in them). My favorite example found online was this bottle which contained fun ingredients such as:

1. Cannabis


3. Morphine

Although the above picture refuses to comply, nowhere on the bottle does this state if this is for children or adults. Just “one teaspoon every three to four hours depending on the severity of the cough”. What is interesting about the above sample is that it complies with the 1906 “Gould Amendment to the Pure Food and Drug Act” which requires products to list their ingredients and information on the bottle (Taken from the site). This doesn’t mean that their ingredients were necessarily “safe” but just have known information on the product. Nearly all these ingredients today are much harder to access without a prescription or the right permits, so seeing these three ingredients mixed together for a cough might suggest how severe these coughs may be for these people at the time or perhaps it was popular due to easy acquirement and abuse.



The above picture is of a modern medcine label which now has side effects, ingridient information, usage and various other warnings such as for pregnant women and even a hotline for parents to call about children abusing cough syrup. Although the Pure Food Act certainly helped get the ball rolling I can’t help to think of how many people were taking previous forms of medicine without really understanding what was going in their body. Although going off in a tangent, I think that people today also have this same problem although there is much more information avaliable today on these types than there was back then.

Also Fun Fact: often times these companies were not required to list the volume information until September 3, 1914 (which occurred about 15 years before the Seattle dump we looked at was sealed and ~15 years after our mean date which is about 1898). As anyone who has taken (or rather chugged) the generic brand of cough syrup or allegry medication, having a volume count to help you portion out your samples is useful so you don’t end up a droning zombie after a unfortunate encounter with NightQuil. It even comes with a measurable cap to help you portion out. Different from older medicines that used only corks or seals.

This makes dating the assemblage from Seattle a bit easier in regards to bottles that have volume information (generally seen similar to a symbol looking like “3iv”) this means the bottles most likely date to about 1914 when the law was put into effect and at least two bottle matches this from the collection (45K1765/Lw-1 is one example). Due to the dump being sealed in 1929 and the regulation before placed in 1914, this means there is a much smaller window of only fifteen years from when the bottle was probably produced to when it was finally discarded. One final note is the rather high lag date we recieved in our group project for these particular set of items. At 37.17 years for the lag date, this means that the medicine was either being kept around or being reused for later points in time. This is interesting due to the perishable contents found within. With all the laws and regulations today on medicine, looking back into bottles of the time is an inside look into how people regarded medicine and the casual use of what we consider now today opiates.