Historical Archaeology, Fall 2014
Dr. Mullins


This exercise will train you in data collection and material analysis of a contemporary material assemblage:  a single household's garbage.  For seven days, you will make a detailed record of every object that goes into the garbage you discard in your household trash. This is a selective sample in the same way as all archaeological analyses.  Nevertheless, it will be a vastly more systematic record than you could ever make simply from memory, and it will inevitably illuminate patterns that you may not fully comprehend or recognize at all.  Each of us will bring in our garbage data record, exchange anonymous collection records at random, and analyze another person's data.  You will end up finding that patterns in another sample are often more obvious than those patterns in your own trash, and you'll quickly see that the process of interpreting even the most mundane objects and the social behaviors they reflect is quite complicated.

Data Collection

The garbage record should be made over seven consecutive days.  Choose any days you want.  I suggest you make the collection from a single receptacle; the kitchen trash can will work best for most people, since it tends to have the most stuff.  Please use a receptacle that includes food discards, since these compose the bulk of all households' refuse; do not use a trash can in the bathroom or garage, which end up receiving vastly different trash than a kitchen can.  You might consider throwing most of your household refuse in this one receptacle for the seven-day sample period, if that is manageable in your household.  It is not crucial, though, that the receptacle contain absolutely everything you discarded, because we will approach every sample as potentially containing some discard biases.

This page outlines the basic data you should record for each discard and includes basic directions for how to make your collection entries.  At the bare minimum, you absolutely must fill an average kitchen trash bag (i.e., roughly 13 gallons) during your sample period.  If you are truly that tidy or you recycle everything in the house, then you should continue the sample until you have filled a 13-gallon bag with garbage.  If you do this, please make a note on your garbage record that your collection was made over more than seven days--do not interpret why you did this, because that is the analystís mission.  Do not go out of your way to launch an atypical discard episode: for instance, donít decide that since youíre making this record this would be a good day to clean out the fallout shelterís freezer or something you would not normally do.  It is reasonable that you might throw away a few outdated items from the fridge in any given week, but try to continue your normal discard pattern as much as possible. You also can choose to include a second can in your sample if you tend to discard stuff in a second receptacle a lot (e.g., a study, kid's room, bedroom, etc). For most of us, the problem will not be too little trash; rather, we'll have more than enough.  Including enough refuse in your sample is essential to support interpretation: good data recording is as important a part of this exercise as your analysis.

Record absolutely everything that goes into the can, including stuff from other household members or guests.  If you share the collection unit with other folks or have visitors, they may not be keen on divulging the contents of their refuse, or they may forget to let you know what they're adding to your sample.  If so, you should keep your own trash or some manageable receptacle for the collection period.

Data Forms

Begin your data collection by printing off several pages of the refuse recording sheet; large refuse samples will require several of these sheets.   When your seven-day sample period ends, print off one copy of the cover page, and staple this page on the top of your refuse recording sheets.  Please place page numbers on your refuse recording sheets at the end of the sample period (i.e., "1 of 11 pages," "2 of 11 pages," and so on).  After your collection is completed, turn in the refuse recording sheets with the cover page: your social security number should be on the cover page only, and after your score is recorded the cover page will be detached and discarded.  Your name should not appear anywhere on the data collection sheets (e.g., do not sign it, and do not include names on any discarded mail).  If your printer cannot interpret the refuse recording sheet as it is set up on this web page editor, you can prepare your own chart provided it includes the same information outlined on the sheets.

Keys to garbage recording

It is absolutely essential that you be as detailed as you can in your recording and complete as much of the data as possible.  You don't need to weigh every container or analyze the chemical composition of your discards, but try to reasonably ballpark odd quantities (e.g., "small bowl Captain Crunch in milk").  If you don't know or can't gauge a quantity, record quantity as unknown.  Even if a discarded container is empty, record as much data as you can from the refuse/container itself: this should include contents, brand name, weight on package, cost (if recorded on a price sticker), and so on, and you should indicate that the discarded container was empty.  The object's composition (e.g., metal, rubber, paper) may be unclear, particularly with so much weird packaging today; guess within reason, and if that fails simply record it as unknown.  For any non-personal paper goods like junk mail or letters, record the sender and a basic description of the letter/message/product (e.g., "Publisher's Clearinghouse, Kalamazoo, Michigan, request to subscribe to various magazines, paper with cellophane window"); a detailed transcription of the letter is not necessary.  For personal mail, simply record "personal letter" and length/composition (e.g., "one page, envelope, paper") and include no other information.  Any data collections that do not contain sufficient detail will be returned to you for another data collection and you may not receive credit for the assignment:  please take the time to make a very detailed data collection, because this will make the subsequent analysis much easier and a lot more entertaining.

Number of items: This should be a number that indicates how many of these products are being discarded at one time. If you discard a single granola wrapper each of the days, they can each be recorded singly as you fill the sheet out along the way. If you discard two of the same types of wrappers at once, list the number of items as two.

Quantity: This can be a literal weight or an estimate of the quantity of that product being discarded. For instance, a single entry for quantity could be "half a six ounce granola bar." If a wrapper or other container is discarded, enter the original quantity it contained; e.g., for a granola wrapper, "6 oz." Likewise, for an orange juice container the entry for quantity might be "24 fluid ounces," even though you should indicate that the container is discarded empty.  It is assumed that all containers are empty unless indicated here: e.g., the same container with orange juice remaining could read "24 fluid ounces, roughly half discarded."  In this instance, the comments column should be used to explain why half was discarded; e.g., "discarded because out of date," or "tasted bad."  The quantity on odd stuff can be ball-parked: e.g., "half a bowl of uneaten soup," and so on.  Be as specific as possible, and detail any unusual stuff in the comments column.

Cost: Enter an original price if it is on the container or discard.  If the container does not include a price (e.g., groceries with bar codes), the refuse is out of its original packaging (e.g., half an uneaten granola bar), or it was never priced (e.g., a piece of junk mail), enter "no price" in this space.  Don't include a price from memory if it isn't on the container.  Include a suggested retail price if it is on the container, even if it is not what you actually paid for the product.  If the container includes more than one price record them both and describe in comments.

Brand: Record the brand name on any container or product (e.g., Pillsbury, Marsh, National Geographic, Marlboro, etc). Every container should have a brand name (even if it is generic).  Food that is discarded separate of its container should not have a brand name entered, even if you remember what brand it was; it is likely that many of the containers for discarded foods are already in your sample, but some containers were discarded before the sample period began or being recycled.

Product description: Every entry must have some verbal product description entry.  It should be as specific as possible.  Foods should specify what sort of foodstuffs (e.g., "beef hash"), but detailed recipe entries are not needed.  Describe the discarded product as clearly as possible.  Specify if the discard is an empty container.

Composition: Record from the list below what the discard is made of.  List the prevalent material only: for instance, a corrugated cardboard box with staples and tape should be recorded as corrugated cardboard.  If the item seems to be made equally of two materials, list them both.  Any items whose composition is known but not included here should be described in the comments.  Any item whose composition is uncertain should be recorded as possible; e.g., "possibly plastic."  Any item whose composition is unknown should be recorded as unknown.

Composition types

ferrous (steel/tin)
plastic (including cellophane)
aerosol can
leather rubber
corrugated cardboard
other (specify in comments)

Comments: List any other descriptive information about this discard that an analyst would need to know.  You don't need to speak volumes on each thing, but detailed description helps considerably.  For instance, meat that was discarded because of freezer burn would be useful information, defective computer disks, and so on.  Not every entry needs comments, but detail on some objects will help a lot.

Anonymity; or, I Don't Want Anybody to Know I Don't  Compost/Eat High-Fat Sausage/Drink Beer, etc.

Your name will not be attached to your garbage record at any point in the analysis; whatever is in your trash will be known only to you.  Nobody's garbage record will be made "public" after analysis; i.e., we won't check afterward to see if we were "correct" in our analyses and have a public guffaw about all our odd behaviors.  When we discuss this project in class, we will discuss patterns, discrepancies, and the methods through which we made sense of a sample, but we will not analyze any individual sample.  Everybody's trash holds things we never thought about, and virtually all of our garbage at some time reflects wastefulness, penury, personal behaviors of all sorts, and so on; some of that we realize, and some of it we've never thought about, but none of your personal data will ever be shared with anyone else.  I've attached systematic directions for how to record your trash and suggestions for making it straightforward, and you should follow these directions closely because there is no chance your refuse secrets will be revealed.  Good data recording is critical to making this exercise work, so be as candid and consistent as possible. 

No matter how curious you are to find out just who threw away the refuse you analyze, do not attempt to identify that person for any reason. This may be a powerful urge, especially if you get an unusual sample: for instance, once a completed garbage record included over 50 cans of dog food, and garbage sometimes includes a range of unmentionables.  Somebody in class discarded it, so you know a fair amount about the demographic already, and you do not need to violate their privacy to quiz them on their discard behavior.  Plus, who is to say that the person who threw away these things understands them any better than you?  Please respect other peopleís privacy and do not self-identify your trash to another students or go seeking whoever discarded the sample youíre analyzing.

What About Cooties?

Your trash can be disgusting, but your health is almost certainly not in danger from ordinary household refuse: in all the years the Garbage Project has been collecting trash, none of the hundreds of student analysts is known to have ever gotten sick or acquired some illness from refuse.  Nevertheless, there are some things you should avoid.  It is unlikely that somebody will discard hazardous waste (e.g., motor oil, pesticides, medical waste, discarded nuclear fuel, etc) in your kitchen trash can, but don't use any trash unit that might receive such things. It is more likely that you will discard some household cleaner container (e.g., a Fantastik or Windex container, or an aerosol can): you can safely record such things, but you obviously should wash your hands thoroughly after handling them.  Cat owners who toss used litter into the garbage should make only a rough estimate of quantity (e.g., "small bag used litter"): kitty discards can have quite unsavory germs that you should avoid.  Don't be tempted to go back into a trash can if you forget to record something (particularly if it contains cat litter!): in archaeology such lapses are known as "field errors," and it certainly has happened before, so you should simply record that you discarded something and forgot to record it (e.g., "coffee bag, brand unknown, forgot to record"). You probably should keep a data record near the trash can or tape something to the top of the can to help remind yourself to write stuff down on its way out.  I will copy the original data record so each analyst will receive someone else's data record on a clean photocopy, but keep your original data record clean anyway: don't tape the record itself to your trash can lid, because you and I both have to handle that sheet of paper.


After data and demography records are copied, you will receive randomly selected data from another collection. Your analysis will be evaluated on its persuasiveness, creativity, and use of the available data, not on whether you "accurately" deconstructed the refuse depositor.

To begin the analysis you should take the data record and compile a typed record of the assemblage.  This will first involve putting all the same sorts of objects together.  For example, you should group all of the foodstuffs together, mail in another group, and so on, placing similar types of objects together in categories that make sense to you.  Then, within those categories, add together any objects whose exact entries appear more than once.  For instance, if the sample you're analyzing has two yogurt containers with the exact same brands, flavors, and description all listed separately, they should be compiled (in some samples, there will not be any duplications of the same discard twice). If, however, the sample includes six yogurt containers with different flavors and brands, they should remain separated in your list.

After you have organized the data you should type an analysis of the assemblage. The analysis must minimally examine at least the following issues:

1) contents: What is in your sample? Describe the range of goods in the collection you analyzed. For example, does the collection reflect numerous different household activities?; or does it reflect a few activities? What are those activities? What material goods did you use to come to this conclusion? For instance, food discards will be most common in many samples: how do those food discards represent the household's diet? What specific objects or range of objects suggest this conclusion?

2) discard context: Each collection represents a short deposition period, they probably over-represent the discards from a particular activity (e.g., kitchen refuse doesn't look like all garbage), and household composition can significantly impact discard patterns.  Are there types of refuse that you expected to find that did not appear in this assemblage?  How did the short deposition period shape this sample?

The age and quantity of household members almost certainly impacted the sample: how does the sample reflect the household's composition?  Based on this sample, what would you speculate the household's demographic make-up to be in terms of number of members, ages, and sexes?  What objects suggest this to you?

3) analysis: What specific sorts of things did you expect to find?  Be as specific as possible about what you thought you'd find. Why did you expect to find those things?  Was this the quantity of objects you expected to find, or did the sample contain more or less than you expected?  Were there things in your sample which you did not expect to find?  What were they?  Why did they surprise you?  How did your own garbage compare to this sample?  What sorts of different things did you discard?  Why do you suppose there were these differences or similarities?

4) interpretation: What does this refuse suggest to you about the sample household?  For example, what sorts of businesses and stores do they frequent?  Be as specific as possible.  Based on the products they discarded and the stores they frequent, how much disposable income does this sample suggest the household has?  How would you characterize their class standing, and why do you come to this conclusion?  Be specific about how the material culture supports those suggestions, even though we all acknowledge that our interpretations are tentative.  Go out on a limb on a few issues: for instance, what sort of car do they own (if they even own one)?; how big is their home?; are they long-term residents in this area or the region?  Be as creative and persuasive as possible, and be specific about how the data you have, primarily the objects, support your interpretations.

Grading and Due Dates

If you do not complete a data collection, you will receive NO credit for the exercise.   Data collection sheets (i.e., your record of seven consecutive days of household refuse) are due OCTOBER 6. The final analysis of another sample is due NOVEMBER 10.  Papers turned in late for either due date will be significantly penalized.  Students who do not turn a data collection by the October 6 due date will lose a full letter grade from their exercise grade; students who do not turn in a data collection at all will receive no credit.

When you have completed the record of your own refuse, you will turn it in to me and be credited with three points.  Your written analysis of your household refuse can be hand-written directly onto the attached handouts, but it should not include your name anywhere on the data collection sheet.  Only the cover page should include your social security, and I will remove that cover page before redistributing data.  I will not review exercises extensively, but I will make sure all discard records contain sufficient data and are clear.  It is absolutely imperative that your collection be completed by the due date of October 6 so that I can immediately redistribute samples for the analysis phase

The data collections will be distributed anonymously to another member of the class for analysis.  All written analyses must be typed and double-spaced in nothing larger than a 12-pitch font. All papers should have 1" margins on all sides and be justified left.  Papers that do not conform to these style guidelines will be penalized.

Your analysis will be evaluated for 1) your use of the data--you should address the questions in the handout and things you're interested in by citing specifically how discards led you to your interpretations; and 2) persuasiveness and creativity--try to build a believable set of interpretations that your refuse sample supports, and don't be afraid to acknowledge instances where you're taking interpretive leaps.  Detail is key to building persuasive interpretations, so be certain to include references to specific materials in your refuse sample and a subsequent explanation of why you interpreted particular objects or groups of objects in certain ways.

If you have questions email me.

Last updated July 13, 2014