One Man’s Trash

Sometimes the smallest, most insignificant things can be the most important.

One thing I learned at the archaeological dig at Tel Rehov was the important role pottery plays in helping archaeologists reconstruct the history, movement, and daily life of ancient peoples.  The study of pottery is a science all its own.  Even small sherds of pottery can tell a huge story to a skilled archaeologist.  A pro can look at a piece of pottery and tell its approximate date or it’s use simply by looking at the curve of the lip or the markings on the side.  There is almost nothing more important on an ancient site than the pottery.  This is fortunate, because ancient people were very considerate and left broken pottery all over the place in their houses.  Their nearly 3,000 year old trash is our treasure.

Each day as we dug we collected buckets and buckets and buckets of broken pottery.  In the afternoons we would wash the pottery, and then the archaeologists would sort them.  All the good pieces that could be reconstructed or could provide some information about that stratum would be bagged and sent to the lab.  But all the sherds that had no distinctives we took back to the site and dumped in a pile.  These are pictures of our reject pile:

Pile of pottery

Pile of pottery

Soooooo many sherds!

Soooooo many sherds!

I was hiking on some of the Asbury trails above the Kentucky River a few weeks ago when I saw something glistening and shiny a little ways off the trail to my left, right on the edge of the cliff above the river.  Naturally I jumped off the path and went to investigate.  What I found was an enormous pile of junk, mostly broken bottles and old metal cans and large pieces of metal that are all many years older than me.  There was a rusty old metal spring mattress that is slowly disintegrating, but for now it traps much of the broken glass in its coils on the edge of the cliff.

My initial reaction was disgust.  Who would leave such a huge pile trash out in such a beautiful location?  Already pieces of glass and metal have begun to slip over the edge.  Someday they may reach the river, but most of it is going nowhere fast.  Thousands of pieces of glass and metal are going to settle down into the dirt until they are covered over by grass and weeds and eventually lost to memory.  Unless the whole face of the cliff falls off into the river below, that junk is going to be there for centuries.

The pile

The pile

High above the Kentucky River

High above the Kentucky River

I believe I even see a kitchen sink.

I believe I even see a kitchen sink.

When I thought about how long it could stay there, it reminded me of the pottery sherds we had dug up at Tel Rehov and what they told us about life in Iron Age Israel.  That trash had sat undisturbed for centuries before we dug it up so we could study it. Those ancient people had no idea that their trash would one day be so precious, so important, so illegal to remove from the country.

Now here in Kentucky I find a whole new pile of trash that’s probably already been sitting there for well over 30 years.  What if 3,000 years from now, after the pile has been covered by centuries of dirt and rock and fallen trees, some archaeologists come along who notice ancient shards of glass trickling down the cliff side?  And what if they decide to dig there and find this trash pile?  What if they are so excited at the discovery of this ‘goldmine’ that their students collect the glass in buckets, and in the afternoons they scrub the shards clean so the archaeologists can sort them and study them?  What will they learn about us?

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“See this piece of green glass with a long slender neck?  It would have been a container for a sugary-sweet drink that Computer Age I Kentuckians called ‘soda’ or ‘pop.’  Eventually they figured out that this stuff was pretty terrible for humans, and it disappears from the record about a hundred years later.”

The writing on the bottom of this bottle says "Dispose of Properly."  Fail.

The writing on the bottom of this bottle says “Dispose of Properly.” Fail.

“Score!  I found an inscription!  Does anyone know how to translate “Dispose of Properly” into Latin?” (In 3000 years everyone will be speaking Latin.)

I guess I’m just trying to look at the glass as half full.  It’s too bad that this huge pile of junk pollutes what is otherwise a beautiful river vista.  But maybe, just maybe, it will all pay off someday waaaaaay down the road.

Good job, Kentucky.  Way to plan for the future.

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3 responses to “One Man’s Trash

  1. Great read. I often wonder what archaeologists a thousand years from now will think of when they find a “Barbie” doll. Fertility symbol? In rural Ohio, where I live, houses often have a rustic star posted on their house or barn as decoration. Just decoration–a current decorating craze in the “Primitive” Style. I often joke that when digging these up centuries from now, it will be concluded that the people who occupied these dwellings must have been members of a particular religious group or star cult. I wonder how much of what think we know about finds at dig sites are really what we think they are. When visiting Florida, I was amused to see concrete manatees as holders for mail boxes. I joked about getting one and putting it up in my rural Ohio home just to confound future scholars.

    But think on this: I recently watched a PBS program on Machu Picchu.and one of the mysteries is how an iron age society could build a city with such precision and skill yet not have a written language other than the quipu (a series of knots on a string). And it made me think of our current digital age. How much of our knowledge will be lost if not written in stone or written on parchment & buried in a jar in cave? What will future generations conclude if all they find is writing on a bottle that says “Dispose of Properly”?

    • Great insights! I was moving a few weeks back, and I found some stones I had picked up several years ago out of a stream in Idaho. I decided to throw them in a nearby creek in Oklahoma, just in case it would ever confuse future geologists!

      I’ve often wondered the same thing about our digital information. It kind of makes me hope that somewhere there is a computer that is printing the entire Wikipedia website!

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