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Lesson 1.8

Subjects: science, social studies, language arts.
Skills: application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.
Strategies: scientific inquiry, problem solving, discussion, forecasting, research skills, writing, classification, sequence.
Duration: 60 to 90 minutes.
Class Size: any; groups of 3 to 4.

Broken spear point from Stanly County, North Carolina, ca. 8000 BC.


In studying archaeological concepts, students will analyze garbage from different places to:


Filled wastebaskets or small garbage bags from several places in the school, home, or elsewhere, selected to represent rooms of different function; disposable gloves; plastic tarps are useful when spreading out the garbage. (Undesirable and unsanitary items, such as used tissues or rotting food remains, should not be included in the trash to be analyzed.) "It's in the Garbage" activity sheet for each group; Garbage Chart" activity sheet for each group (optional).


Artifact: any object made, modified, or used by humans; usually this term refers to a portable item.

Chronology: an arrangement of events or periods in the order in which they occurred.

Classification: a systematic arrangement in groups or categories according to established criteria.

Context: the relationship artifacts have to one another and the situation in which they are found.

Culture: the set of learned beliefs, values, styles, and behaviors generally shared by members of a society or group.

Data: information, especially information organized for analysis.

Evidence: data that are used to support a conclusion.

Hypothesis: a proposed explanation or interpretation that can be tested by further investigation.

Inference: a conclusion derived from observations.

Midden: an area used for trash disposal; a deposit of refuse.

Observation: the act of recognizing or noting a fact or occurrence; or the record obtained by such an act.


The unusable or unwanted remnants of everyday life end up in the garbage. By studying what people have thrown away, archaeologists can learn a great deal about a culture. This is true not only of prehistoric peoples who left no written record about their lives, but also of people today. Archaeologist Bill Rathje studies the garbage of Americans. He has learned many things about the relationships of human behavior and trash disposal, information useful in studying people of the past and the present. Rathje has found that people will often tell an interviewer what they believe is appropriate behavior, but their garbage tells another story. For instance, people frequently say they eat lots of fruits and vegetables, yet their garbage shows they do not. Another example is that people say they recycle more than they actually do (Rathje 1984, p. 27).

Just as we do not throw our trash in any old place, neither did prehistoric people. Archaeologists call their garbage heaps middens, and middens are a rich source of archaeological information about ancient people's lifeways. Layers of trash also tell a story over time. Archaeologists excavate middens slowly and carefully, recording the location of artifacts and samples they recover. They analyze the tiny fragments of prehistoric meals (bone slivers, seed hulls, plant parts) and charcoal from cooking fires. The animals and plants from which the bits of evidence came can be identified, and archaeologists can learn very precise information about the economy of past people.

If a midden is disturbed and the layers mixed, chronology and context are lost; it then becomes impossible to interpret the lifeways of past people. Vandals looking for artifacts dig in middens, and they destroy irreplaceable information about the past. They tear pages from the history book of time. Everyone can help by not digging archaeological sites or collecting artifacts and by refusing to buy artifacts from people who do.

Setting the Stage

The famous anthropologist Franz Boas reportedly said, "Man never lies to his garbage heap." What do you think your family's garbage could tell about you? (Examples: family size, income, preferred foods, and activities).


1. Review the concepts learned in Part 1: culture, context, observation, inference, classification, chronology, and scientific inquiry. Students will be applying these concepts to their study of garbage.

2. Explain to students that they are going to be archaeologists, analyzing garbage (middens) to learn about the people who threw it away. Demonstrate some of the information that can be learned from garbage by examining a small amount of trash from your classroom trash can:

3. Divide the class into groups of 4 to 6 students and give each group a bag of trash (and disposable gloves). The group analyzes its trash using the activity sheet "It's in the Garbage" (and optionally the "Garbage Chart").

4. Students visit each other's "middens," and a spokesperson from each group presents a summary of its findings.


Lead a discussion using the "Garbage Concepts" questions.


Collect the students' activity sheets and reports.


Lesson 2.2: "Stratigraphy and Cross-Dating."

Lesson 2.3: "Artifact Classification."


Rathje, William L. 1984. "The Garbage Decade." American Behavioral Scientist 28(1), pp. 9-39.

Rathje, William L. 1991. "Once and Future Landfills." National Geographic 179(5), pp. 116-134.

Rathje, William L., and Cullen Murphy 1992. Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: Harper Collins.

Smith, Shelley J., Jeanne M. Moe, Kelly A. Letts, and Danielle M. Paterson. 1993. Intrigue of the Past: A Teacher's Activity Guide for Fourth through Seventh Grades. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior. [This lesson is adapted from "It's in the Garbage" on pp. 34-38, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.]

Ward, H. Trawick, and R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr. 1999. Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. [The image in this lesson's main heading is taken from Figure 2.4.]

Activity Sheets for Lesson 1.8

"It's in the Garbage." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

"Garbage Chart." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

"Garbage Concepts." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

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