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11.5: Activity 4 - Someone Else’s Trash

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    Darcy L. Wiewall, Antelope Valley College

    Most people consider human archaeology to be the study of past cultures and activities. However, the basic ideas of archaeology can also be used to study and learn about the present. By examining the material culture of today’s population, archaeologists can draw inferences about its inhabitants in the same way they learn about past peoples and societies. This is the premise behind garbology, which was introduced into archaeology by Professor William Rathje of University of Arizona. Garbology is just what it sounds like—the study of garbage! More specifically, it is the careful observation and study of the waste products produced by a population or people—common pieces of trash become valuable and interesting artifacts. The goal is to learn about the population’s activities from their disposal of waste and consumption of food and everyday items. We can learn a lot about your family’s eating habits just by looking in your trash can!

    Part 1: Assignment Description and General Instructions

    Record everything you throw away at your residence for one week to create an inventory of your trash. In Part 2 of this activity, your inventory will be given to another student to interpret. (While the goal is to record all of your residence’s trash, keep in mind that others in your class will be looking at what you record – anything you consider private can be omitted.)

    1. Select a trash container or other type of trash deposits in your home or apartment.
    2. Collect everything you throw away (the assemblage) for one week (5-7 days). If you wish, you can record your findings in a series of shorter periods of 2-3 days to make it easier to inventory (your house may produce a lot of trash).
    3. Inventory: Be as accurate as possible when compiling your inventory. Your list should look like the Garbology at Lancaster list in the preceding activity (11.3). Each object recovered in the assemblage must be listed by type of good (e.g., milk), brand or manufacturer when possible (e.g., Pillsbury), container type (e.g., paper, plastic), and remains of any product left in containers unconsumed (e.g., half-filled bottle of pickles).
    4. We recommend that you keep a clipboard or notebook handy so you can write down items as you throw them away. Alternatively, you can collect and then inventory your trash after a couple of days, but that can get gross! It is completely up to you to decide how to conduct your inventory.
    5. Take several photographs of your trash/midden assemblage and submit the photographs with your inventory list. This documentation will make it easier for your fellow student to analyze your trash.
    6. You should choose a source that provides a diverse assortment of kinds of refuse. Your inventory list must include at least 50 different kinds of things.

    Bring TWO copies of your inventory list to class on the date specified by your instructor—one for you to receive points and the other to give to a student to analyze.

    Part 2: Interpretation of the Data

    You will receive another student’s list of modern “archaeological” data—their trash—and your assignment is to interpret that data. Interpretation of the data is the tricky part! Ask yourself questions about the garbage and what it tells you (and doesn’t tell you). Consider focusing your questions about what the garbage tells you on three major categories:

    • The culture in general
    • The specific domestic unit
    • What the garbage doesn’t tell you

    Following are more-detailed questions to help you.

    1. What does the refuse tell you about the household?
    2. What in this assemblage suggests the time of year in which it was deposited?
    3. How many people do you think lived in the residence?
    4. What ages and genders appear to be represented in this household? How do you know? Is it possible to interpret the gender of the inhabitants in a different way than the one you used?
    5. Can you identify the likely ethnicity of the people in the household? What sorts of material in the assemblage provide clues to their ethnic background? Why?
    6. Can you infer the socio-economic class of the household?
    7. How would you characterize their diet? For instance, what range of foods appear to have been eaten? How healthy is their diet? Does their diet appear to be expensive, cheap, trendy? What does their diet suggest about their lifestyle?
    8. What does this refuse tell you about the political and economic system of the culture?

    Keep the following written interpretation in mind as you analyze the assemblage. You will need to be able to describe how the items of refuse provide the interpretations you present in the written report.

    Part 3: Complete a Written Interpretation of the Artifacts

    Compose a written interpretation of the assemblage that describes and supports your inferences from the artifacts and gives an image of the culture that created the refuse.

    Though the preceding questions can be answered in a few words, your written interpretation of them must clearly link your interpretations to specific artifacts in the assemblage. Be thorough as incomplete and/or unclear answers will be graded down. Points are given for articulate interpretations that also consider the range of ways one can interpret the material so USE specific EXAMPLES (lines of evidence) that support your interpretations.

    Consider other potential interpretations even if you think they are less likely than yours.

    Be careful not to overstate your data and avoid cultural bias and “assumed” knowledge. Everything you write about the assemblage’s culture must come directly from the specific items in the trash.

    Your final written report should be typed. Your instructor will provide you with other specific criteria for this assignment.

    The best refuse lists will include an inventory list of 50 or more items with each object recovered described in detail in terms of the type of good, brand or manufacturer, container type, and remains of products in containers. Photographs of the assemblage may be included.

    The best written analyses will discuss the individual domestic unit and culture as a whole using concrete examples from the garbage inventory. In addition, aspects of the data that may be ambiguous are discussed.

    This page titled 11.5: Activity 4 - Someone Else’s Trash is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Darcy L. Wiewall (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .