The assignment below is one iteration of a module on trash, consumption, material culture, and behavior that I have used in my Introduction to Roman Archaeology course. Any three of the components can stand alone.

The assignment is contextualized by a discussion about collecting and sorting material culture, and how we make decisions about grouping objects according to different categories. We also discuss how material culture reflects behavior, and how to ask questions that generate more information and connections between sources about the past. We also do a short exercise in which students analyze a modern trash bin and consider what the contents reveal about the household that produced the waste.

Activity: Trashed!

“what people have owned—and thrown away—can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever man.”—William Rathje and Cullen Murphy in Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (2001, pg.54)

Directions: This assignment asks you to think critically about our consumption and disposal patterns, and what the physical remains of what we lose and throw away can tell us about human behavior and society. The material collected in trash pits, dumps, and heaps (as well as places where lost or dropped objects collect) can provide archaeologists (and ‘garbologists’) a wealth of information about the people who produced this rubbish—likes and dislikes, access to particular goods, patterns of consumption and changes over time, dates or seasons of items, evidence for trade, etc.


The assignment unfolds in three parts:

1. First, you’ll read about Monte Testaccio, a Roman “trash heap” in use for about 300 years beginning in the reign of Augustus (1stc. CE) until the mid-3rdc. CE. Excavations of this massive, 150ft high mound (comprised of millions of pieces of broken and complete ceramic vessels called amphorae, or amphorain the singular), have shed light on a number of different aspects of the Roman economy and how it changed over time.

2. Second, you’ll explore Below the Surfacethe website for the artifacts uncovered by archaeologists draining the Amstel river in Amsterdam before construction of a new metro line between 2003-2012. The material found in excavations of the riverbed including 697,235 archaeological finds, with material from 2000 BCE up to 2005 CE! You’ll explore this material, answer some questions, and reflect on what you’ve encountered. Then…

3. You’ll pick TWO days and keep a log of everything you throw away, including amounts, brands, and where you disposed of it (if a trashcan, where—at the hallway in school, etc.). Then you’ll take a look at your log and answer some questions which ask you to reflect on what you consumed and threw away, and what archaeologists might be able to tell about you from seeing it.

You’ll put all your answers to the questions for each part of this assignment into a single word document for submission.

The pdf here contains the detailed assignment instructions.