Imagine you are an archaeologist thousands of years in the future. You are excavating the site of my apartment. The objects you recover there, found in three distinct areas of the living space, are what is left of my life. What would you know about these objects? What could you tell me about who I was and the society in which I lived?
This is the scenario that I give to my undergraduate Introduction to Archaeology students each semester when I invite them to look through my trash. A few weeks ago, I also had the opportunity to present the same activity to four groups of eighth-graders at the Georgetown Day School in Washington D.C. The exercise helps students of any age think about how archaeologists do their job—piece together information about the past based on fragments of trash that people left behind. The activity introduces the idea of material culture and the clues it can give us about societies, cultures, and people, using objects that the students see on a day-to-day basis. By asking them to think about how an outsider would look at the things they have in their own homes, it helps them to understand the process of constructing the past through archaeology—both its insights and its shortcomings.
What is most fascinating about this activity is the way in which different groups of students—regardless of age or experience in archaeology—focus on similar or different aspects of the objects. They are presented with the same information, and they will generally come to the same conclusions, but depending on who they are, the students centered their analysis on different details and explanations.
Below are the objects I use in this exercise. They were taken from three different trashcans in my apartment about three years ago. I ask the students to identify what the objects are, what they could have been used for, what area of the apartment these objects likely represent, and what they reveal about me, my choices, and my society. I chose them based on their durability and the information that they could provide for discussion. Ask yourself as you read: given these objects, what conclusions would you make about our culture?
The piece of paper lists food items in the column:
- ground turkey
- ice cream
Students readily identified this as a grocery list, though I had to caution them that thousands of years in the future, the English language might change significantly or die out entirely. Assuming that someone on their team is a specialist in ancient languages, the students then used the artifact to help understand the idea of centralized locations for buying produce rather than consuming only what I can produce by my own horticultural skills. It also provided clues about diet, nutrition, and technology. Some noted that some items on the list are base ingredients that need to be combined in order to make meals, while others (like the ice cream) have been processed already. The ice cream also hinted to students about the kind of refrigeration technology available in our society. The availability of avocados suggested the globalized trade of our economy, since avocados are not grown in Maryland, but must be imported.
While examining this historical document, students saw how they could draw conclusions about my literacy, level of education (based on the logo for the University of Maryland), and living situation (the food is likely for an individual rather than a family). In addition, it was important to make students aware of the fallibility of written documents. People do not always write events exactly as they happened. What if I created the list, but did not stick to it? Could I have purchased items that weren’t on the list and ignored ones that were?
Based on the wrapper, students thought about food processing, advertising, diet, and lifestyle. The portable packaging suggests that this is a food for convenience. The expiration date would help archaeologists date the materials, but even without the written date, this artifact can provide plenty of information about time period. The material, technology involved in the packaging, and the style of the Quaker logo would all give archaeologists a clue about when this item was used. Styles change fairly consistently over time, so by looking at logo or maker’s mark of an artifact, archaeologists are able to date it.
Although not every group got the pun, most students used this object to discuss personal preferences in consumption. One eighth grade group focused a great deal on the marketing demographic of the packaging, pointing out the gender and class-based ways in which the item is advertised on the packaging.
Although most groups were able to identify that this object was a nut or fruit pit of some kind, only some used the grocery list to determine that it is an avocado pit. Many students also noted the cut marks to conclude that this type of food was processed by me within the living space.
After reviewing all of the artifacts, the students easily decided that Area One represented a kitchen based on the food-related artifacts.
Assuming that the archaeologists had done their historical research and knew that Barnes & Noble was a retail seller of books, this item led students to think again about literacy and personal preferences. The gift card also suggested to them the gift-giving practices of our society. Especially through the Christmas-related iconography, students could make assumptions about religious and secular festival celebrations and personal versus casual gift-giving.
Although every group of students understood that the envelope could tell them about the long-distance communication and travel in our society, it took prompting to get them to go deeper. The form of the address on the envelope can provide a great deal of personal information about me, social norms and expectations, as well as the type of card that was inside. First, the name includes the title “Ms.”, which suggests an unmarried woman. The fact that this is an important aspect of identification in our society suggests something about gender roles. The fact that there is a title and that the address has been printed rather than written also indicate that there is a degree of formality involved. Yet, my name is written as the nickname “Beth” rather than my full name “Elizabeth,” so the sender of the note and I must have been familiar. Both the formality and familiarity of the envelope led students to conclude that this was an invitation or thank you card from a formal event.
The container for printer ink cartridges provided students with information about technology as well as, again, literacy.
Overall, students concluded that Area Two was either an office or den in the apartment.
The box for contact lenses, and the prescription information along the side, helped the students understand about medical care within our society. I also asked them to think about the social and practical implications of contact lenses as opposed to glasses.
While the writing on the container is mostly in English, there were several other languages represented in the instructions, allowing students to make conclusions about globalization and immigration.
With the Motrin bottle in particular, students discussed the standardization of medicine and availability of care in our society. Assuming that they could trace the company and type of medicine, this bottle would help them understand the ways in which people treated pain within the household. There was no prescription information on the bottle, suggested that this medicine is available to anyone who can afford it.
One group of eighth graders preferred to pretend that they could not read English in the future, and instead focused on the technology used to produce the bottle. The plastic material and form of cap could help them to determine the age of the artifact.
All of the students easily identified the toilet paper tube, though how they used it to interpret the level of hygiene in our society varied. Some students used the item to suggest that our society had a high level of sanitation, while others used it to represent the opposite. There are many other cultures in the world who use water to clean themselves in the bathroom rather than just thin strips of paper, and depending on your perspective, the toilet paper roll can be seen as primitive or civilized forms of cleanliness.
For students, it was obvious that Area Three represented the bathroom.