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Garbology

Obviously everyone here’s familiar with ‘The Rock’ and his great work ‘Doom’. You all know the story – a rooky Space Cop gets sent to a distant Martian colony (for crimes he didn’t commit) and finds that a team of hapless scientists have accidentally opened an inter-dimensional portal leading straight to the gates of hell. Some demons escape, people get eaten – it’s all very unsavoury.

Funnily enough something similar happened to me a couple of years ago on a building site in Cambridgeshire. As our 360-tracked excavation machine scraped away the rubble from a previously demolished plastics factory, the archaeological layers of a complicated post-medieval site were suddenly revealed, and we discovered, to our shock and horror…
a series of small walls!

‘What do you think it is?’ asked the County Archaeologist, her pen poised inquisitively on her clipboard.
‘I came here to chew gum and kick some ass,’ I shrugged, nonchalantly spitting a chunk of Hubba-Bubba over her shoulder.
‘And I just ran out of Gum.’

It turned out to be the first historic cockpit in Britian, but whilst we were on site this was far from clear. This structure was the first of its kind, and with no other examples to compare it to we were well and truly flummoxed. It was only during post-ex, whilst analysing our samples, writing up our notes and drafting our plans, when the clues that would finally solve the puzzle finally emerged.

Now here’s the question: if we hadn’t had documentary evidence – manorial rolls referring to the site as “Le Pitts” and an 18th century will identifying the plot as “the cockpit”, how could we be certain that the enigmatic circular structure, different from anything that had previously been found, wasn’t really a portal to the 4th dimension? In fact, how can we know anything at all before people wrote things down?

We do it by getting our hands dirty – by meticulously excavating the rubbish people throw away and recording the things we find in a scientifically controlled way. Over the last hundred and fifty years archaeologists have developed a barrage of scientific techniques and conceptual tools that help us understand how this material culture relates to the people who made it.

And if the rubbish people threw away in antiquity holds the key to understanding the past, then it also stands to reason that archaeologists of the future will study the things we throw away today to find out more about what makes us tick. This is the basic premise behind contemporary archaeology, a branch of science pioneered by William Rathji at the University of Arizona called ‘Garbology.’ If you really want to know someone, if you really really want to know someone, you could do a lot worst than rummage through his or her wheelie bin. That’s exactly what Rathji and his team has been doing at the Municipal dumps in Tuscan, Arizona. By applying standard archaeological techniques (such as the changing typology of Coke can ring pulls), the garbologist’s record the types of rubbish people throw away then compare those results to the answers the same people give in questionnaires. They’ve found a startling difference between how people would like you to think they behave and how they really behave when nobodies looking.

‘I know’, I thought, ‘I’ll try this on the people next door.’ And so at the crack of dawn this morning I tomb raided this wheelie bin from outside my neighbours house. I’ve no idea what’s in this bin yet, but in a groundbreaking piece of Internet science, I’m going to open it. Here. Today. Live. Now. This second.

According to the ‘we can’t know anything before people wrote things down’ theory, I won’t find out anything I don’t already know. Not only do I wave at my neighbours regularly over the fence, chewing the fat over the important issues of the day (rising price of chips etc), I’m also the proud owner of their family newsletter sent out this year with their Christmas cards. I know for instance, that February was a peaceful month punctuated by trips to the dentist; and I know that in June the cat learnt to open the fridge. There’s surely nothing new to find out here.

Or is there?

Before I begin (taps bin dramatically), I’d just like to say that under no circumstances should this experiment be attempted at home. Ethically, bin sealing’s a grey area. Legally, it’s black and white. What can I say: I’m a maverick. An urban forager. An aggressive recycler. A midnight marauder… Can you feel the excitement? It’s like Harold Carter cracking the tomb of the kings…

OK. Here we go…

Oh my god what kind of people are you!?!?!?!?
Ach… help… can’t… breath…. It’s an… inter-dimensional portal… please… send… Help….

Anyone got the Rock’s number?

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