The Presence of Garbology in Middens

Image 1: Illustration of the overwhelming amounts of trash in landfills

Trash is our most widespread artifact and one of our most identifiable landmarks. In an average life span, Americans toss 102 tons of trash from clothing to broken pieces of technology and even plastic water bottles. These objects are important in framing how we think about the world. When a new model of the object comes out and the one we have doesn’t serve us any purpose, we throw it away. It’s the height of capitalism driving consumerism, ultimately filling up landfills with artifacts. Artifacts can be defined as an object made or altered by humans at any time and place (Renfrew 2018). Often found secreted under sediments, they provide essential clues about life by allowing a glimpse into a society’s culture and era. We make sense of people’s beliefs and practices by studying the treasures and objects that serve a function in humans’ daily lives.

Recently, scientists like William Rathje have studied how the materials in landfills decompose in various environments, identify how waste shifts over time, and then draw conclusions about artifacts and behavior through landfill excavation (Ian McTaggart 2015). When studying trends of human behavior, trash is an important physical data point. It looks at consumerism in aspects such as diet, clothing trends, and planned obsolescence in tech.  Most of Rathje’s studies have taken place in moderately modern landfills dating from the early 1970s to the early 2000s which constantly leads to the connotation that garbology is about more present-day artifacts (Jeff Harrison 2012). However, the notion of garbology, studying the waste of a specific society, has been present for some time within the boundaries of archaeology. From lithic debitage to middens, waste or byproducts have been studied to give context to the specific diet and practices of a society.

Image 2: William Rathje and his team work through a landfill sifting and identifying artifacts

Middens are archives of lifeways and environments. Archeologists have studied middens through the shell refuse and soil which builds up at these trash sites, resulting in the formation of mounds on what was once level ground. These middens preserve a record of occupation by providing a record of ancient inhabitants. These archeological studies have included food processing methods, seasonality, and even other purposes for the shell mounds.

Image 3: An excavation of a shell midden showing the different layers of artifacts such as bone, ash, and shell

More specifically,  in shell middens, bone artifacts, shell artifacts, food remains, and oftentimes, even ceramics are preserved. They are found throughout the world, on coastlines, near lagoons, and tidewater flats, along major rivers, and even in small streams. Most shell middens have been dated to the Late Archaic or Late Mesolithic periods(around 4,000-10000 years ago) thanks to the use of radiocarbon dating (K. Kris Hirst 2019). Middens are flourishing with waste and they help give archaeologists an enhanced perspective of ancient livelihoods.

Although garbology remains a term more often used in the modern sense, the study of human waste has had a large presence within the field of archeology. Artifacts range from an array of subjects but human waste is abundant in this world and it’s what allows us to keep learning information about human behavior. 


McTaggart, Ian. 2015. “A Tale of Garbage.” Earth Common Journal 5 (1),

Harrison, Jeff. 2012. “William L. Rathje: 1945-2012.” The University of Arizona News. 

Hirst, K. Kris. 2019. “The Archaeological Study of Shell Middens.” ThoughtCo. 

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.


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