Writing Week: Chapter 1 Archaeology of the Contemporary World

For those of you who don’t know what this is, go and read this blog post. My typical blog is on hiatus this week as I work to catch up on some writing.

Enjoy the fragments and fruits of my labor all week, fresh from the tips of my fingers:


One of the nagging questions behind our work on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition was whether this constituted “real archaeology.” There were reasons for doubt. A documentary film company had arranged to excavate the landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico to verify an urban legend which claimed that a struggling Atari Company dumped hundreds of thousands of returned, unsold, and otherwise compromised products into the Atari landfill. From the start, the project was not directly driven by professional archaeologists. In fact, a gifted amateur archaeology and garbagologist, Joe Lewandowski, identified the most likely location for the excavation and coordinated the logistics for the dig.

The object of this work did not fit neatly into existing categories of archaeological artifact. An Atari game cartridge was not over 50 years old, particular unusual, rare, or even culturally significant according to traditional archaeological criteria. The role of the game in an urban legend of corporate hubris and decline seems more fitting for a documentary than the work for serious archaeology.

We had only minimal influence over how the excavation was carried out. Richard Rothaus’s early arrival at the dig site gave him access to the work of bucket auguring (and the location of a least a few augur holes) that identified the most likely place to excavate for the games. A massive excavator dug the trench which revealed the games and the instability of the landfill itself and the documentary film crew’s desire to preserve an element of surprise limited access to the immediate vicinity of the excavation. Despite limited access, the excavation revealed a predictably simple depositional history that hardly warranted archaeological attention in its own right.

Finally, once excavation discovered and removed the artifacts, we had only limited access to the material. In fact, our interest in documenting the assemblage was a far lower priority than the needs of the documentary film crew to get footage and the various city officials in preparing an inventory of the finds for their eventual sale. While we did manage to document the deposit where the games were found, it was hardly at the level of archaeological scrutiny that one might find in either a traditional excavation or over the course of the late Bill Rathje’s Garbage Project excavations. We did make recommends to city officials and set aside some games to be sent to museums, but we do not know whether the city followed through on our recommendations.

As at least one participant in the project noted, the documentary filmmakers regarded the archaeologists as props to validate their claims rather than as active participants in the work of excavation, documentation, and artifact recovery. At the same time, our status as props gave us access to a unique excavation and allowed us to observe and document a project that sat at the intersection of several key issues relevant to recent interest in the archaeological engagement of the contemporary world.

The Archaeology of Trash 

Archaeologists have always been interested in trash. In fact, some scholars have recognized that some of the earliest archaeological work focused on trash. Dietmar Schmidt, for example, argues that preeminent German anthropologist Rudolf Virchow’s accidental discovery of rubbish pits in Berlin represented a crucial moment in the understanding of archaeology as both a practice and metaphor for modern social science (Schmidt 2001). In the late 1860s, Virchow thought he had discovered the remains of an Iron Age pile dwelling in the middle of the modern city, but soon realized that the deposit of bones, shells, and kitchen pots was discarded rubbish from the previous century. Despite his disappointment, he documented the deposits carefully and presented a number of papers arguing that this deposit of 18th century kitchen waste revealed a good bit about the culinary habits of the German aristocracy and their predilection for oysters and mussels in particular. When Virchow goes on later in the century to visit Heinrich Schleimann’s dig at Troy he comments on the discarded refuse. Moreover, Virchow’s work led to periodic investigations of modern sewers and other nearly contemporary refuse deposits elsewhere in Europe. Schmidt suggests that Virchow’s and others’ interest in the mundane trash rather than simply the glorious inspired Freud’s use of the archaeological metaphor to characterize his exploration of the human consciousness.

Even without such grandiose claims, excavators have invariably recognized the value of middens, rubbish pits, and other deposits of discarded objects. These deposits speak to both the material assemblages associated with every day life as well as discard practices and attitudes toward what is valuable and what is not. Bill Rathje in the early 1970s recognized the value of applying archaeological attention to discard practices and garbage to the modern world (Rathje 1992). Rathje’s work focused initially on contemporary household trash from the city of Tuscon, Arizona. The trash was sorted carefully by volunteers and recorded to present a profile of consumption and discard practices for a cross section of an American city. By the end of the project Rathje had expanded his work to excavating and taking cores from landfills, and this work linked the life of a single household to the more complex system of waste management.

Rathje’s Garbage Project spurred a growing interest in the nature of trash in modern society. Michael Tompson’s Rubbish Theory (Thompson 1979) offered a theoretical point of departure for the movement of objects from houseful use and value to rubbish and, at times, their return to value. Thompson argued that objects circulate through various economic, social, and cultural contexts which assign or rob the object of value. Contemporary scholars might dispute Thompson’s tendency to separate an object from an external context and prefer to understand objects in a network or web of relationships with other things, people, and ideas, but his idea that objects have little in the way of intrinsic or material value allows us to use the study of trash a venue for the larger study of society as a dynamic force.

More recent work on our interaction with trash continues to make visible the complex way in which we engage with discard as a practice and discarded objects as thing.

One Comment

  1. Actually quite enlightening. Little by little you’ve been bringing me up to date on modern archaeology. I still kick and squirm a bit though.


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