Treasures from Ancient Trash

The evolution of trash dumps as archaeological treasure troves begins in Egypt, where the first methods of retrieving and disposing of garbage were developed.

The city of Oxyrhynchus in Northern Egypt is a fascinating story that spans the centuries. In the early 1800’s archaeologists found the city dump outside of the city walls. At the dump, they found and recovered over 50 thousand pages of papyrus and took them back to England, there they languished unstudied for over 200 years.

In 2005, NASA, had a well developed a multi spectral imaging system that was designed to help obtain enhanced images of distant planets.The system became well known for revealing things within the ultraviolet and infrared spectrum, so a request was made for the imaging system to be used on the massive pile of ancient papyrus from Oxyrhynchus.

When the works were passed through the imaging device, the newly revealed script proved to be a stunning series of find after find: There were bits of work by Homer and Sappho, parts of plays by Euripides and Sophocles, plus day to day records of inventories, news , and even portions of the gospels and Pauls letter to the Romans. Everything about the lives and times of Oxyrhnchus have been found there. A “sex manual”, grocery bills and a bountiful harvest of stories about the people who lived there, were recovered along with inventories, government documents and insights into how the city was managed.

Ancient garbage dumps in Libya, Scotland, and East-central Botswana have revealed that very intensive fires, over 1100 degrees f. were burned to create “midden glass”. It is not easy to create fires of that temperature with only grasses and woods available. But Midden glass is another fascinating treasure that comes with a mystery attached.

On the down side, ancient garbage dumps in Rome are found to be poisoning the water supply. Apparently Romans loved to drink from lead cups, which ended up buried in dumps which were built upon, and which are almost impossible to find in some cases.

In 1949, the oldest humans found evidence of the oldest civilization in South America at a garbage dump in an isolated, desolate area of Patagonia. Mollusk shells and dishes made of stone and bone were found.

The ancient garbage dump as a source of information about ancient life, including confirmation that ancient live existed, is not a new thing, but given the new technologies that we have, it will be exciting to see what can be found in the future about the past.

Washington Post

Prescott Evening Courier