Finding Treasures in Ancient Trash Middens

Hearing the word “trash” brings about connotations of smelly, dirty, unwanted and unpleasant refuse.  Just because something is trash however, does not make it useless.  Archaeologists are acutely aware of this (as are “dumpster divers” and the homeless) and they are able to glean much value from other people’s discarded items.  In Archaeology a trash pit is referred to as a midden.  A midden can contain a diverse assortment of trash, or it can be a discard pile used for a specific purpose.  These middens provide insight into the everyday lives of humans, both past and present.

Despite lacking an understanding of germs and how diseases are spread, humans early on discovered the benefits of designating a particular area in their community for the dumping of refuse.  This area was outside the ring of habitation, in which humans lived and slept.  Early humans produced far less garbage than do modern humans as most goods were reusable or consumable.  Nevertheless, at times an item had outlived its usefulness and was deposited in the communal dump.  Most items deposited in this way are biodegradable and therefore little is left to study.  As science has progressed however, we are better able to determine what the contents of these middens were.

Shell middens are preserved largely intact as shells do not biodegrade quickly.  Shell middens are trash piles composed largely of shells.  These middens are located in coastal regions and can indicate how long humans inhabited a particular area.  One such example is the Blombas Cave site in South Africa which contains evidence of the earliest known instance of shellfishing, dating to approximately 140,000 years ago.  At this site there were also beads made from shells dating to approximately 75,000 years ago and engravings in ochre dating to approximately 70,000 years ago which is the earliest known piece of artwork.    

Aside from determining the length of time humans have inhabited an area, a midden can also provide insight into the day to day life of a culture.  The East Chisenbury midden in the United Kingdom, known for its enormous size and containing approximately 65,000 cubic meters of rubbish, contains pottery that still shows evidence of the food contained within.  This site dates to the First Millennium BC and provides examples of the tools used during this time period.  The size of the midden also seems to indicate that several surrounding communities contributed to the midden over an extended period of time.

Without delving into the trash of our past, who knows how long it would have taken to discover the same information through traditional archaeological digs.  No doubt the tremendous amount of trash we produce today will be the subject of study at some later date.  There’s a lot of truth in the saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.