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Garbage exercise banner; background artwork from Augart Gallery

Human Origins and Prehistory
Dr. Mullins

The vast majority of archaeological materials are garbage: discarded stone tools, the remnants of meals, a broken ceramic vessel, the rotting remains of a seasonally occupied structure, and so on are all artifacts in the same sense that a discarded Coke can is an artifact. Prehistoric artifact "middens" are simply collections of refuse that contained food remains, domestic trash, and sometimes even dead bodies. In antiquity, many cities were literally built onto heaping piles of refuse covered with soil as a means to constructively utilize garbage: for instance, the shape of coastal American cities like Boston and New York has been transformed in the last 300 years by the dumping of garbage into coastal bays, dumping that significantly extended the land mass of those cities.  Most of the parking lots between the White River and Cavanaugh Hall sit on fill that has been placed in low-lying spots along the River since the nineteenth century.

The interpretation of all that garbage is the focus of archaeological analysis. So, you may wonder, what if archaeologists dug up US? What would they think of late-twentieth century types? This exercise interprets modern "archaeological" data--somebody's trash. A list of the recovered data and some archaeological excavation context are provided in this handout. You should use that data to answer the five exercise questions contained on the next page. These questions can be answered succinctly, but you will lose points if your answers are not clear--clear answers will specify what archaeological material culture is being used to support your interpretations. You must answer every question; you may answer them one at a time, or you can answer them as one narrative essay about the collection.

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Your completed exercise interpretation must be typed and double spaced. Please staple your pages. If you choose not to answer the exercise questions singly (i.e., you prefer to provide a narrative essay analysis), be sure to address each point in your interpretation. Be thorough--sketchy or unclear answers will receive lower grades than articulate interpretations that consider the range of ways to interpret the material culture. Be clear about how specific pieces of material culture support your answer for each question; i.e., USE EXAMPLES that support your interpretation. Concede other possible interpretations, even if you think they are less likely than your answer.

The exercise is due on or before March 23. Late papers will be penalized a point for each day they are late.  The exercise is worth 10 points, which is 10% of your course grade.  Papers completed before that time can be turned in early and grades will be available immediately; papers themselves will not be returned until all exercises are completed.

The Excavation at Indianapolis

During an archaeological survey of the now-abandoned midwestern region of North America, you identify a rare twentieth-century domestic site that was known during the period as an "apartment complex." At this site you uncover two undisturbed receptacles of material culture. The receptacles are typical of the period--the high density plasticine-based potpourri-scented 13 gallon "kitchen bag." Fortunately these receptacles preserved their contents quite well. All wrappers and glass or plastic containers, even if their contents were consumed, were preserved. Specialists know that this style of receptacle dates to the 1990s, during the late-Hedonistic period. Archaeologists who specialize in this period know that such receptacles usually were used to construct heaping middens that formed rich ecozones predominated by aviafauna and rodents. In this excavation, the two bags remain in the space they were originally collected, so we can actually attribute the assemblage to a particular household. These bags were recovered from a single strata within the food preparation zone, what this culture referred to as a "kitchen" (this was before the advent of food replicators). Consequently, we can safely infer that the deposit almost certainly was formed by a single household; however, we have no other information on the inhabitants and are compelled to rely upon your expertise in the analysis of this society.

Questions for analysis

1. In or after what year was this assemblage deposited? How do you surmise that date? During what time of year was the assemblage deposited? What material culture suggests that to you? Is there any evidence for seasonal activities that might not have occurred during other parts of the year? What material culture suggests this?

2. How many people do you think lived in this residence? What items of material culture suggest that to you? Be specific. What ages and genders appear to be represented in this household? What indicates that to you? Again, say what archaeological data makes you think that. Is it possible to interpret the gender of these inhabitants in another way than you interpreted it?

3. How would you characterize the household's income based on this material sample? What sorts of material culture appears to illuminate their economic standing, and in what way?

4. What sort of activities appear to be represented in the household?

5. Most of the data is from food consumption: how would you characterize their diet? For instance, what range of foods do they appear to eat?; how healthy is their diet?; does their diet appear expensive? cheap? trendy?; what does their diet suggest about their lifestyle?

Archaeological Data

Each object recovered in the assemblage is listed by type of good (e.g., milk), brand or manufacturer whenever possible (e.g., Pillsbury), container type (e.g., paper, plastic), remains of any product where left unconsumed (e.g., half-filled bottle of pickles), and web address wherever a producer or business has a website. The material culture is listed in no particular order. Some archaeological explanations of the goods are listed in brackets after several entries [like this].

2 egg shells

5 Huggies Supreme brand diapers, weight class 26-34 pounds, used

4 plastic wrappers, Old El Paso brand green chili burritos

1 half-gallon container Cub brand chocolate ice cream

2 coffee filters each containing 4 ounces ground Caffe Del Sol coffee (saturated during brewing) with empty coffee bag 

1 box Annie's Shells and White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese 7 oz.

1 32 ounce plastic bottle Gatorade brand sport drink 

1 half-gallon plastic container Stonyfield Farms Organic Whole Milk purchased from Wild Oats

3 12 ounce bottles Sam Adams Winter Ale

1 empty 3 foot-square, unevenly ripped fragment of paper with pictures of midgets in cold weather clothing cavorting in a winter landscape

3 12 ounce bottles Guinness Stout  

4 5.5 oz cans Precise Feline Hairball Formula

1 cellophane wrapper for 6 ounces Gouda cheese from Wild Oats, containing roughly 3 ounces remaining with thick mold growth on surface 

1 cellophane wrapper to large Wild Oats focaccia [a breaded Italian-style food]

1 paper bag from McDonalds, containing two paper boxes for "Big Mac" type hamburgers (each containing roughly one-quarter of an uneaten hamburger), two paper bags for french fries, 17 uneaten french fries, five unopened salt packets, six unused napkins, three packets unopened catsup, one packet opened catsup, one Happy Meal box shredded with unintelligible pen markings

1 store receipt for "Summer in San Francisco" Barbie from FAO Schwarz (cost $69.98, charged to Mastercard)

2 automatic teller machine banking transaction receipts dated 11/06/00 and 11/20/00, each for withdrawal of $10.00 (account balance $898.33 on 11/06/00 and $523.45 on 11/20/00)

1 32 ounce jar, Pace brand hot salsa, several ounces remaining with mold growth affixed to vessel interior rim

38 sections of unidentified brand paper towel saturated with alcohol-based lemon-scented cleaner; seven covered with egg stains

1 paper booklet "Showcase of Indianapolis Homes" containing illustrations of structures throughout the region

6 3 oz. cans Petguard Premium Feast Dinner

1 paper catalog from Road Runner Sports

1 unopened paper envelope from Citibank with certified mail receipt affixed

1 12-ounce bottle and empty six vessel paper container for Monteith's Porter

1 paper tag from Levi Strauss brand women's jeans, size 14 relaxed fit style

1 paper catalog from Performance Bike

1 package Krusteaz Sourdough bread machine mix

1 Cambria Bicycle Outfitters catalog

1 7 oz. box Panda Licorice chews

1 Brookstone store catalog

1 empty 12 ounce box of Good-N-Plenty [candy]

1 package Hungry Man Classic Fried Chicken

1 package Don Miguel El Charrito Grande Beef Enchiladas 

1 10-ounce container Barbasol Sensitive Skin shaving cream, empty, rusted base

1 paper magazine, Entertainment Weekly, cover detached, dated November 28, 2009

1 32-ounce container Oregon Chai tea latte concentrate purchased from Wild Oats  

12 paper envelopes, 11 opened (all empty and from separate addresses); one opened containing paper card with lithograph of hoofed animals in flight and indecipherable ink-inscribed interior message

1 copy November 23 National Enquirer

1 unopened paper envelope from Sierra Club

4 Power Bar wrappers

1 paper box from dozen Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnuts

1 empty prescription bottle from CVS for Colesevelam (brand name Welchol)

7 fragments of orange peel that can be reconstructed into a single orange

2 8.3 ounce cans Red Bull Energy Drink

1 ink pen, one end extensively modified by human teeth marks

1 box Kraft Easy-Mac

1 4.4 oz box Tofu Burger Fantastic Foods

1 64-ounce plastic bottle of Pepsi-Cola

1 empty five-pound bag white rice

1 unopened paper envelope from Citibank 

1 empty plastic bag from FAO Schwarz  

1 paper cash register receipt from Hollywood Video for $6.00 movie rental of three selections The City of Lost ChildrenThe Muppet Christmas Carol, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya due December 3, 2009

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Last updated January 11 2016