Week 3: Archaeology and Garbology

After a brief hiatus, the TMSE blog is finally being updated!


For this week’s lesson, our students learned about another branch of anthropology – archaeology.  Archaeology is the branch of anthropology that focuses on studying people in the past. However, since archaeologists cannot follow the lead of ethnographers and ask ancient peoples about their lives, archaeologists have to rely on other evidence to learn about ancient societies. Specifically, archaeologists have to rely on looking at the material remains of human activity. Specifically, archaeologists study artifacts, or items that were made and used by humans, as well as sites, or concentrations of artifacts.


While the idea of “material remains” or the “archaeological record” may at first sound obtuse, nearly every human activity leaves a trace, and, archaeologists are trained to compare those material traces to learn about human behavior.


My favorite example of the material record always begins with a family picnic, which at first seems to be a fairly ephemeral event. However, even though much of the food has disappeared by the end of the meal, the associated refuse would likely tell us much about the event. For example, inedible food remains (e.g., bones, fruit peels, etc.) and the quantity of associated trash would tell us how many people were present (3 or 20?), what was being served (friend chicken, hot dogs, or fresh veggies), and even the nature of the event (birthday party? Family reunion? Wedding party?). While it may seem strange, studying both ancient and modern trash is one of the best ways to learn about a society.


Accordingly, for this week’s activity, our students were introduced to archaeology by becoming Garbologists! They sifted through assemblages of household trash to learn about the individuals who created it. By comparing the types of materials within each assemblage, student groups were able to categorize the materials and discern the types of activities that led to its creation.


For example, one group’s assemblage consisted of wood blanks, nails, household glue, snack food wrappers, and random paper items. Based on this information, our group concluded that they were looking at the remains from a workshop or a toolshed.


Another group’s assemblage consisted of numerous food wrappers, office paper, used envelopes, broken pens, broken toys, mother’s day cards, nursery items, and paper towel rolls. Based on this information, the group concluded that they were looking at the remains of a household that contained, at a minimum, a mother and children of various ages.


Our TMSE students effectively learned about modern activities by looking at trash, which is the same thing that archaeologists do for ancient peoples. By looking at the detailed material culture associated with archaeological sites, archaeologists can reconstruct the lives of ancient societies.

The lesson plan for the Archaeology and Garbology activity can be downloaded here:

Week 3 Archaeology and Garbology

Thanks for checking in-

Dr. A. Brooke Persons


1 thought on “Week 3: Archaeology and Garbology

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *