Week 12: Rubbish! Contemporary Garbage in Archaeological Thought

Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
  • Author
  • #80815
    Kelly M Britt

    From the articles you read for today and the garbage study you conducted over the weekend. What kind of information can be gleemed about garbage? What are the limitations? Use your own garbage collection experience to provide examples if needed.


    Jaeden Granger

    Jessica Leigh Hester’s Exploring a Hidden Archive of New York City’s Historic Trash discusses the various types of items that were found in the garbage that now preserved at the Tenement Museum. William Rathje’s Integrated Archaeology: A Garbage Paradigm discusses the archaeological context on the trash in which what they can tell us about human behavior. Michael B. Schiffer, Theodore E. Downing and Michael McCarthy’s Waste Not, Want Not: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Reuse in Tuscon, Arizona discusses the process of disposition, and the impacts of reused materials in Tuscon.            The three documents describe what garbage can tell us about the 21st century. Garbage can tell archaeologists the cultural and societal behavior of a place like New York’s Lower East Side of Tuscon, Arizona, like “the methodology of behavioral science needs to be revised –and greatly heightened in prominence. The reason is that in both archaeology and the other social sciences, material traces have usually been measured as ‘reflections of behavior’ to document change. But material traces are not a simple mirror; they are a critical component that plays a leading role in the direction of behavioral change. Are McDonald’s and other fast­-food restaurants only a reflection of changing family eating habits and values, or were McDonald’s et al. a part of the cause?” (Rahje, William. 69) The biggest type of waste produce in America inexplicably is food waste. Using my own garbage collection, I can determine that most of my garbage is mad of food that I either thought was inedible, or food I was finished with and I wasn’t going to get back to. Garbage can determine how much waste we produce within a given amount of time, what type of waste people create, and which type of waste gets reused for different purposes and what is being left behind.


    Reflection #12

    From the articles you read for today and the garbage study you conducted over the weekend. What kind of information can be gleamed about garbage? What are the limitations? Use your own garbage collection experience to provide examples if needed.

    The name of the first article is “Exploring a Hidden Archive of New York City’s Historic Trash,” by Jessica Hester. The article describes the Tenement Museum’s archive of trash. The curators of the Tenement Museum, located on NYC’s Lower East Side, categorize and preserve the collected remnants of everyday life from the 1930s and earlier. They receive artifacts from archaeological digs and renovations on one of the two tenement buildings that the Museum owns. The types of artifacts, while varied, could all fit under one description: historic trash, i.e., they were thrown away or lost only to be found by archaeologists in the present day. One thing commonly found is coins. The coins are helpful in that they can help to date the layer in which they are found because they give an indication that the layer could have been formed no later than the coin was forged, assuming the coin has a readable mint date. Other things commonly found are tonic bottles and dolls in varying degrees of preservation. One type of artifact that is much rarer to find is food, such as fruit pits or extremely rare, almost completely preserved foot, such as a half-eaten bagel, which was found behind a hearth in one of the tenement buildings. The article notes that, while trash is one of the most valuable sources of artifacts to an archaeologist, it is also more limited. It provides a snapshot of daily life rather than a day-to-day picture. It can be hard to tell when certain things were deposited because trash tends to be mixed up together. There is also preservation bias.   Biological things tend to rot away completely or severely decay by the time they are unearthed. Another thing which can affect what is found is pests, such as rats and mice. They can break down biological materials such as wood and food even faster than and they can collect things such as coins in one place. Rats apparently like shiny things. The rat’s propensity for gathering coins makes dating by coin more difficulty.

    The second article is a chapter excerpt, “Integrated Archaeology: A Garbage Paradigm,” by William Rathje. It is about the discrepancy between self-reporting of the amount and type of garbage thrown away and the actual amount catalogued when the interviewee’s garbage is assessed. Rathje suggests multiple methods of analysis are necessary to gain a proper understanding of today’s garbage because most people don’t have any real idea how much they are throwing away. It was found that, depending upon the type of refuse, people tended to under report. An example was liquor bottles in which the under reporting was 40-60 percent. One thing that I found interesting was the things they were asked to study by the United States government kept on shifting. Part of the project’s focus went from studying general garbage to how much fat in meat was being discarded. An example from my garbology project is that I found that I drink a lot of soda. I found that such refuse probably accounted for 40-50 percent of my entire garbage.

    The last article is “Waste Not, Want Not,” by Michael Schiffer, et al. The authors looked at patterns of reuse, more specifically recycling. Their project was called the Reuse Project and was located in Tucson, Arizona. They looked at how different neighborhoods reused or recycled their unwanted goods. They found the most popular disposal method was as a donation to a shop or charity. The second most popular method of reusing was gifting the object to a relative or friend. They found that the older a household, the more things that were reused. I don’t particularly reuse anything. Everything I use tends to be a single use or, if it isn’t, I just don’t recycle it. The only reason why I recycle bottles is because there’s a monetary factor.

    You must be logged in to view attached files.
    Andrew Poccia

    This weeks articles show us what can be discovered about a society based solely the garbage left behind. In Jessica Leigh Hester’s “Exploring a Hidden Archive of New York City’s Historic Trash” she explores the history of the garbage items found in in the city that are now artifacts. Items from a specific time period can show a lot about the ways of life for people in a certain area during that time. The repeat of items is another factor that can show its significance and uses whether a certain item could have been common to many families or something that not everyone may have. William’s article takes a deeper dive into the same ideas about peoples garbage and what it can teach us. The article mentions food waste products such as cuts of meat and types of vegetables that can give an idea as to what diets were in a given area during a given time period. The more items that are found when actually excavating a site, the more information there is to be discovered and studied. This is why garbage items or middens are such an important part of archaeology and the study of past people and their lives. When conducting my small garbology project over the weekend, I felt it was much different to some of the studies I read about in the articles. I found myself throwing away items that are disposable such as paper plates and recycling plastic water bottles. This really showed me the changes that are in place as we live in a modern day society. Many aspects of peoples lives in the past that may have been important to them such as their silverware or ceramic houseware, like we read about in the previous articles on material culture, are now less common in modern day homes as they are replaced by disposable products that are used everyday. While discovering items like these in the future may not tell us much about an individual, they will certainly tell us something about the time we live in now and how things have changed.

    Matthew Wojcik

    Trash often is a reflection of society. It provides us with concrete examples on how a society funtions. It also poses a major logistical challenge for cities, since millions of people generate thousands upon thousands of tons of garbage. Reusing items, destined for the bin, also gives insight on how a person views value on certain items.

    “Exploring a Hidden Archive of NYC’s Historic Trash,” by Jessica Hester, talks about tenement living. The museum restores living settlements that existed during the Industrial Revolution. This reminded me of the Irish immigrants reading. The exhibit shows off 97 Ochard, a building built during the Civil War. They also had items from a hardware store that existed since the Prohibition days. This article shows how immigrants were always part of America’s history.

    “Integrated Archaeology; A Garbage Paradigm,” by William Rathje, goes over the aptly named Garbage Project. The Garbage Project aims to review waste, diet, recycling, census reports, and greener solutions. The article offered great insight on how deceptive people could be. For example, the article mentions the “Good Provider Syndrome.” This relates to how the women in the household often over report what the family eats. But the truth is in the trash. Archeologist can determine what the family actually eats from looking in the bins.

    “Waste Not, Want Not,” by Michael Shiffer, Theodore Downing, and Michael McCarthy, aims to break the stereotype that Americans waste alot of resources. The article mentions how items are given a new lease on life via yard sales. Americans also give many items to charities and thrift shop, when said items are not in use. I myself remeber campaigns in middle school urging us to reuse, reduce, recycle. As for the the garbage searching project, I confirmed that I have a certaim affinity for potatoes. Mostly because I was the one peeling the potatoes. Not just regular potatoes, but yams as well. Thanksgiving is right around the corner, mind you.


    Jessica Hester’s article would not open for me. It kept popping up “youve gone off the map”. However the other two articles I could open and found them to be full of useful information.

    The article by Rathje was about how people don’t know what they use. Rather described the garbage project and how when studying people’s waste after asking them what they thought they used the two answers were completely different. He specifically uses alcohol consumption as an example. People tend to play down how much alcohol they consume and Rathje says that due to the project people had to face the reality of their alcohol consumption. Another thing he mentions is how hazardous waste refuse programs actually hurt the disregarding of hazardous waste. Most people miss the day when hazardous waste is supposed to be taken and end up putting it with regular trash. Rathje’s overall argument is that various branches of archaeology have to come together to properly study what humans leave behind in terms od garbage and other waste.

    The Schiffer article from 1980 shows that americans don’t waste as much as people thought. I think for this study to be relevant there should be an updated version, however this study was still interesting. Schiffer showed that more high status households would pass down their older products to pooper families through ways like garage sales. While the common misconception is that the richer you are the more useful products you waste because you want newer versions, this isn’t true. Schiffer shows that through a semi complex social system.

    Through studying my own garbage I found that while I recycle most plastics, cardboards, glasses, and metals I still sometimes just throw them away. This is usually due to the fact that I’m too lazy to rinse them out. I also found that I throw away paper receipts and grocery bags. I used to keep grocery bags but I have too many now. Raw meat containers and unfinished meals were also among the items in my trash


    Kelly M Britt

    Nice work everyone-especially the comments about your own trash. If you were having issues accessing Jessica Leigh Hester’s piece try it from the syllabus or searching in Atlas Obscura directly. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/new-york-museum-trash-archive.

    Blessing Tate

    Garbage holds essential information about people, their behaviors, culture, and the communities that they live in. Indeed, much of the artifacts that the archaeologists collect, record and evaluate in compulsive detail is what people in the past threw away as valueless—broken ceramics, dulled or broken stone tools, food-making debris, rusted metal, broken glass, cards, etc. Hester (2018) asserts that garbage is seemingly the greatest currency of archaeology. There is a lot of information to be uncovered from them, for instance, migration patterns and social-economic status of a community. Rathje (2001) cites a garbage study by Rathje and Murphy (1992) that compared the alcohol containers and interview survey reports to the level of alcohol consumption of the people. The researchers found that the alcohol containers collected as garbage showed accurate results of the levels of alcohol consumption and concluded that interview survey reports underreported such results by 40 to 60%. Additionally, household food wastes can be used to understand people’s lifestyles and their economic status, like in the present state of the U.S—the country has been historically “stereotyped as wasteful consumers” (Schiffer, Downing, and McCarthy, 981). Schiffer, Downing, and McCarthy (1981) conducted a study using data collected from reuse patterns in Tucson, Arizona to analyze the proposition that contemporary Americans conserve more material culture that has been historically portrayed. Through the analysis of the garbage wastes the authors found that Americans are indeed wasteful consumers, nonetheless, they are also reusing a lot of items and materials.
    The main limitation of using garbage as a source of archeological data is that they are difficult to measure. And also finding important facts about people and their culture is difficult when using garbage. For example, trying to measure food wastes might be difficult and also households might have other options for dealing with such wastes, for instance, giving out pets or composting on farms. They’re also the issue of not being able to place the trash to an exact location and to who actually used the materials.


    Exploring a Hidden Archive of New York City’s Historic Trash

    In this article, Hester states, “Trash is perhaps the greatest currency of archaeology”. It also showed even though many people consider these objects simply garbage, it can depict, preserve and remind people of the origins. This article was very interesting it gave a glimpse of the past life of people that occupied these tenements. The people that occupied these spaces were immigrants approximately 7,000, and ranged from many countries of Europe, including Germany, Turkey, Greece, Spain etc. A lot of the artifacts found are just snippets of a person’s lifetime. For example the dolls, marbles and playing cards could’ve indicated a family or person that liked to use these objects as a pass time once lived there. However, it doesn’t reflect the whole story. A few of the surprising discoveries were the curry powder, dried up raspberries, and a half eaten bagel. It was shocking because at the time European immigrants were deemed too poor to afford fresh produce and meat, it was viable that they could afford soup and bread. This shows that these artifacts conflicted with what is known about the time, one cannot make an entire story based on a few objects.


    A Garbage Paradigm by WIlliam Rathje

    This article was written by William Rathje and his journey directing the Garbage Project. The purpose of the Garbage Project was to show that by using archaeological methods in current time, it can have an impact on society effectively and not once the dust settles as the author put it. This study was different because it focused more on food usage and waste. People who consumed alcohol input their consumption of alcohol as being lower than it actually was, women reported higher food consumption in a household than what was actually consumed and men reported changing and disposing of motor oil at a higher rate than evidence provided. It wasn’t clear whether people did this on purpose or just because that is what they believed to be true. Rathje humorously described these as being ‘Lean Cuisine Syndrome’ people reported eating less than actuality, and ‘Surrogate Syndrome’, if you want to know how much alcohol a person consumes ask the non drinker in the home for an accurate description. Rathje provided a model in which recordings can be accurate. 1. Perception elements- Gathering data that a person- self reports, 2. Behavioral elements- the data recorded in the past (demographics) and 3. Material Traces Elements- the actual materials founds in a location and drawing a conclusion from that. These are good methods to accurately record the findings of a community.


    Waste Not, Want Not: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Reuse in Tucson, Arizona

    By: Michael B. Schiffer, Theodore E. Downing, and Michael McCarthy

    This article was similar to the previous being that both created projects that studied the usage of items. This project was called the Reuse Project, where they studied the disposal of things like furniture, household items, things that could be gifted or recycled. The researchers came to the conclusion that higher income households would pass down usable items to lower income family households through gifting, garage sales, etc.

    Through looking at my own garbage I can see snippets of each of the articles. I found garbage that wouldn’t depict my entire life based solely on that object. I reported select items only, not the whole garbage bin, and lastly there were things I’ve purchased from resellers for a lower price. These articles were all relevant to modern times.

Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message