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!

Garbology Project at the UW

Garbology is a field of study that attempts to understand modern culture through the analysis of what is thrown away in the trash. As part of a Historical archaeology assignment, our class was required to conduct a garbology project around the UW campus with the goal of understanding more about the type of people who used the trash cans. The University of Washington is a perfect place to collect samples not only because of its large population but also due to its wide variety of students of different ages and cultures.

Our team decided to collect samples from the business building (Paccar Hall) and the art building. We obtained garbage from areas that were relatively close to the cafeteria as well as the classrooms. We were expecting to obtain samples that would reflect the type of food that they consume and the type of materials that they used in regular basis. Although stereotypes are often misleading and many of them are wrong, we couldn’t ignore the fact that business and art majors are perceived through stereotypical lenses. For instance, we expected to find more expensive trash in the business building because we associated this place with people who earn a lot of money and work many hours. On the other hand, we expected art majors to be more concerned with recycling because people in that building are perceived as people who care about nature and the environment.

Some of the most common items found on both trash cans include yogurt, fruits (i.e. apples, bananas), napkins, disposable coffee cups and energy bars. Although we couldn’t find any significant results, the general pattern of collections suggest that users relied on food that is mostly found at the UW campus. We found many disposable coffee cups in both trash cans suggesting that the users forgot to use the appropriate containers (compost). Based on the items that we found, it was concluded that business majors tend to waste a lot more (e.g. half eaten sandwich, full bag of chips) than art majors. However, we couldn’t find major differences between both buildings in terms of recycling and expenditure patterns.