Freud in the Garbage Dump

One of the project that I’m committed to re-energizing this semester is my book on Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. It’s been a bit slow going, in part, because I’ve had to reacquaint myself with historical archaeology more broadly and, in part, because I’ve had other demands on my time.

Anyway, I’m making progress these days, and can’t resist working into my chapter on garbology, some references to Freud. I was particularly charmed by an article by Raymond H. Thompson on A.V. Kidder, who famously excavated Pecos and was instrumental in creating policies that set the groundwork for NAGPRA. Kidder spent some time around the Andover, Massachusetts dump. The opportunity for my two-penny Freudian musings was simply too much to resist.

Here are two paragraphs from my chapter: 

In the field of archaeology, the study of contemporary or nearly contemporary trash is as old as the discipline itself. 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. Both trash and Freud’s construction of the unconscious represent objects that are hidden but also poised to reveal their formative and foundational influence on contemporary life.

A similar early examination of a nearly contemporary garbage dump comes from A. V. Kidder early exploration of the dump in Andover, Massachusetts. In 1921, Kidder, who is better known for his systematic excavations at Pecos, New Mexico, found himself in Andover caring for his aging mother. Over the summer, he made regular visits to the dump initially attracting the attention of the local police who thought he was either a vagrant or an escaped resident of a psychiatric hospital. While we have little direct records of his observations in the Andover dump, the various bits of information that Raymond H. Thompson gleaned for archival sources demonstrated Kidder’s fascination with both the depositional processes that created the landfill as well as the sequence of lamps that mapped the shift from whale oil to lightbulbs. Over the course of regular observations, Kidder recognized that the process of dumping material on the landfill mound influenced the distribution of artifacts with objects like baby buggies and garbage can lids rolling to the bottom of the slope. He also collected an assemblage of lamps during his observations at the dump and was able to developed a typology that anticipated the well-known Mayers-Oaks (1955) illustration of lamp seriation. Kidder’s initial inability to recognize a number of flattened metal bands which his mother identified as metal corset bones, and made clear, as Thompson observed, that his study of the garbage dump offered insights into women’s underwear to which Kidder would not have otherwise had access. In fine Freudian fashion, Kidder’s time caring for his mother opened a marginal and hidden world to him in the Andover dump. Kidder’s himself endured marginalization when he was misrecognized as a vagrant or as someone escaped from an institution explicitly linking the dump to individuals and circumstances meant to be invisible.

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