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A trash bin with common, household waste

Archaeology: Treasure in the Trash

earth science, social scienceJohn Gordon, Content DeveloperSep 11, 2020

"Real archaeology isn't like Indiana Jones."

I think I had three anthropology professors start their classes with that line in college. And none of the archaeologists I've spoken to have ever mentioned motorcycle chases, face-melting, or skydiving on an inflatable raft. In fact, I'm eighty percent sure that none of them have ever even used a bullwhip at work.

If Indy were a real archaeologist, he'd be spending a lot less time pocketing golden treasure, and a lot more time digging through trash.

See, finding buried treasure isn't the real goal of archaeology. Learning about the lives of past humans is the goal of archaeology. And studying the junk people produce is a pretty good way to learn about their everyday activities. 

Years ago, I participated in an archaeological dig in Alaska, about four hundred miles down the Alaskan Peninsula from Anchorage. We camped near the remains of a 1,300-year-old village perched on a grassy bluff with a salmon stream on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The main target of our dig? A garbage pit. Or, to use the archaeological term, a “midden.” This midden was beginning to erode out of the side of the bluff, and we wanted to excavate and study it before it fell away entirely, because in archaeology, trash is treasure. 

The pit was full of shells and fish bones (showing what kind of food the people of the village ate and when), broken stone tools (showing how they made tools and how they used them), pieces of whalebone (leftover from carving or house construction), and more. Each item of "trash" was like a piece of a puzzle, or a tiny window into the past. To look through those windows and see into the past, you just needed practice.

Here's an activity to help you practice turning your trash into archaeological treasure.

What you'll need:

  • Trash!

  • Old newspaper or a tablecloth—something to keep your work surface from getting too dirty

  • Gloves 

Step 1. Find some trash. Any trash—or recycling—will do, but you might want to consider ahead of time how messy you're willing to get. Office or bedroom trash will probably be pretty dry and papery. Kitchen trash could be interesting, but that might be more sloppy and stinky. Bathroom trash . . . actually, maybe just avoid bathroom trash.

Step 2. Prepare your archaeology lab. Lay out a surface covering to set your "artifacts" on so you don't lose anything or make more mess than you need to. Get a notebook or computer to record your observations. Lastly, have gloves ready for any sharp or icky items!

Step 3. Begin your excavation! Carefully remove objects one by one and record what you notice about them. Did they come from the top, middle, or bottom of the trash? The nearer the bottom an object is, the older it will be.  

Step 4. Analyze your finds. Digging is only part of archaeology. There's also "lab work." You have to study your artifacts and think about what they might mean. Try categorizing your artifacts in different ways; by color, material, size, use, or something else. What can this trash tell you about the people who made it? Think about this like a news reporter or a detective, and go through these basic questions:

  1. WHO made this trash?

  2. WHAT is it? What was it before it was trash? How was it used?

  3. WHEN was it manufactured? When was it used? And when did it become trash?

  4. WHERE did it come from? Was it used and thrown away in the same place it was made?

  5. WHY did these objects end up in the trash? Are they broken? Used up? Worn out?

Step 5. Clean up! This is a boring step, but it's going to keep you out of trouble. And at least you know where everything goes (back in the trash).

When you're all done, think about what you learned from the trash. Did you notice anything about the behavior of the people who made the trash that you didn't notice before? What might someone from a culture different from yours (or a different time!) guess about you based on your trash? What wouldn't they be able to learn about you from your trash?

Now you're thinking like an archaeologist! No bullwhip required.