Garbagemen and Archaeologists: What can trash tell us about people?


The unusable or unwanted remnants of everyday life end up in the garbage. By studying the items that people have discarded, archaeologists can learn a great deal about the human activity and behavior. This is true not only of prehistoric people who left no written record about their lives, but also of people today. Former UA archaeologist William Rathje coined the term “garbology” with his study of human waste right here in Tucson during the 1970s. From this study Rathje learned many things about the relationships of human behavior and trash disposal, information useful in studying people of the past and the present. He found that people often tell an interviewer what they believe is the appropriate behavior, but the garbage tells another story—it doesn’t lie! For example, people frequently said they ate lots of fruits and vegetables, yet their garbage shows they do not.

Just as we don’t throw our trash in any place, neither did prehistoric people. Archaeologists call their garbage heaps middens. Middens are a rich source of archaeological information about ancient people’s lifeways. Layers of trash also tell a story over time. Archaeologists excavate middens very carefully and record the location of artifacts and samples they recover. They analyze small fragments of prehistoric meals (bones, seeds, plant parts) and charcoal from cooking fires. This type of information provides archaeologists with the types of evidence need to make inferences about the economy of past people. If a midden is disturbed and the layers are mixed, chronology and context are lost; it then becomes nearly impossible to interpret the lifeways of past people.



You are going to be archaeologists and have the task of analyzing middens (garbage heaps) to learn about the people who threw it away. Demonstrate some of the information that can be learned from garbage by examining a small amount of trash from your classroom trash can:

Paragraph One: Based on the contents of the garbage, who does it belong to? What can you infer about the people who threw away these things and the origin of the garbage based on your observations? Is cafeteria trash the same as trash from the library? How is a single person’s garbage the same or different from that of a family with many children? Tell the story of the person or people who live in the house where the garbage was taken from.

Paragraph Two, Three, and Four: Arrange the trash in chronological order from oldest (the pictures of front) to most recent (closer to the trash can). If you find evidence for absolute dates (e.g., newspapers), you can establish a precise date for the trash. In each of these paragraphs, pick a story about an artifact and describe what happened in the people’s life related to the artifact.

Paragraph Five:Make a prediction about future dates and draw a conclusion about the household.

2. Use the chart to help you identify the artifacts you are most interested in. This will help you build your story. The rubric for this assignment should be a guideline for your essay.