What Does Our Trash Say About Us?
What comes to mind when you think about archaeology? Egypt? Bones? High-waisted trousers and chisels? The word “archaeology” comes from the Greekarkhaiologia, which literally means “the study of ancient things.” But in the 1970s, an American archaeologist named William Rathje decided to study his own era’s trash, and a new field emerged: contemporary archaeology.
In their 1992 book, Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage, Rathje and co-author Cullen Murphy wrote, “What people have owned—and thrown away—can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever may.” They found that humans consumed less fruit and more junk food and alcohol than they said they did. And, counterintuitively, people actually wasted more during economic recession.
Phonebooks, disposable diapers, medicine vials, half-empty cans of paint—this was the stuff of Rathje’s attention. It was no less deserving of it, he argued, than the artifacts placed behind glass in museums. (After all, one could argue that’s just antique trash.)
But while Mayan remnants look like limestone fragments and ceramic vessels, humans of the past century have left behind aluminum, concrete, plastic, and more.