You can tell a lot about a person by looking at his garbage
Atlanta — Leather scraps of a child's shoe . . . broken ceramic jugs . . . a much-used toothbrush . . . tarnished brass hinges . . . turkey and pork bones. . . . If this sounds like a collection from an old garbage dump, it is. But you will find these items -- and nearly 100,000 others -- neatly packed in cardboard boxes or wooden drawers in two archaeology research rooms at Georgia State University here.
The Georgia State collection is not alone. Archaeologists working for the City of Alexandria, Va., have been digging through 18th- and 19th-century garbage and learning some interesting things about life in those days. And in Tucson, Ariz., researchers have been sifting through fresh garbage as it arrives each weekday from various neighborhoods.
Archaeologists in the United States are paying increasing attention to cities -- and urban garbage has become one of their targets.
In the past, archaeologists often regarded cities as "big, messy things you couldn't handle," says Bert Salwen, archaeologist at New York University. "I think those feelings are rapidly changing."
Researchers examining urban garbage hope to glean information about people's buying, eating, working, and other social habits. Often written records of the past have been lost or have not recorded much of the day-to-day life that people took for granted, urban archaeologists explain. Even questionnaires reveal only what people are aware of or want to be known.
Sampling of fresh garbage, says Fred Gorman, a Boston University archaeologist who worked on the Tucson project, compares "what people say at the front door to what goes out the back door."
In the Tucson garbage project, personal items such as bank records and letters are not examined. And garbage is not identified by household but by neighborhood, Professor Gorman says. Among things learned from the Tucson project, he says: Mexican-Americans spend more on household cleaning items than other ethnic groups; Mexican- Americans buy more child educational games while Anglos buy more toys; when meat prices are high, people actually waste more meat by buying unfamiliar cuts and kinds of meat and then discarding more.
Here in Atlanta, for the past 4 1/2 half years a team of Georgia State archaeologists has been digging through some of Atlanta's garbage dumps and abandoned wells and other sites of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The researchers dig in areas being exposed by construction of Atlanta's rapid rail transit system. "We've had to stay one jump ahead of the bulldozers," says research leader Roy S. Dickens Jr., associate professor of anthropology.
Among the questions he hopes the Atlanta garbage will help answer: How did eating habits differ among various economic groups (bones indicate which kinds of meat and which cuts were used); which areas got electricity first (many old records are lost but comparison of discarded kerosene lamps vs. light bulbs is already yielding some clues); when did people shift from patent medicines to pharmaceutical drugs (studied by comparing medicine bottles). "Archaeology provides us with a collective memory," Professor Dickens says. Sifting through garbage is not as glamorous as overseas expeditions searching for the tombs of Egyptian kings, but "it has a lot of practical worth," he says.
But Richard Stanger, an official with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which has funded the $50,000-$60,000-a-year research under federal historical preservation mandates, says "the MARTA board over the years has become more and more skeptical over the need of archaeology."
A few years ago there were only two or three urban archaeology digs under way with federal funding compared with about a dozen today, says Thomas King, senior archaeologist for the Federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.