500 years from now, an archaeologist accidentally stumbles on the ruins of your home, long buried underground. What will she learn about early-21st-century humans by going through (what remains of) your stuff?
I’ve answered the question in a slightly different, more general manner.
Most of us think trash is trash, of no use; that’s why we toss it. But “much of what archaeology knows about the past comes from trash, if trash is defined as the products of human consumption. Trash is a proxy for human behavior.”* This I know firsthand because my father-in-law, together with his son and daughter-in-law have headed up and/or participated in many digs into Roman ruins in Britain, and among their greatest finds are “middens” or trash pits.
Many of the ancient artifacts we see in museums are dredged up from trash pits: broken pots, utensils, dull arrowheads, broken tools, bones — useless stuff discarded, but evidence of how people lived in the distant past. Trash can tell us how they made and decorated pottery, what utensils they used, how advanced their tools were, what jewelry or adornments they wore, and what ores they had available.
“I think almost all earlier civilizations recycled in one way or another,” one archaeologist* posits, explaining that ancient peoples across the world would recycled organic matter as fuel, while inorganic refuse would be used to build the foundations of a house. Theirs was a natural kind of recycling — as opposed to the enforced recycling we employ these days. That has reduced our trash by about 30%, but some sources believe that it’s possible to recycle up to 75% of trash. That, of course, can be used to save natural resources, produce new products, and even supply energy needs. So, as time goes by, who knows what actual trash society will outlast its users.
Today’s consumerist society and planned obsolescence accounts for the incredible growth of trash in the last couple of centuries. Since the industrial revolution and mass production took hold, the world has grown into a far different, more affluent, disposable place.
Thus, one of the easiest finds for people five hundred years hence, if the earth still exists, would be in our great trash dumps, the acres and mountains of material we discard. Archaeologists would be overwhelmed by the trash society in the 20-21st centuries produced. If the current trend continues, the whole earth may be much larger and bumpier for all the trash we’ve dumped.
Five hundred years from now it would probably be plastic and metal products that would remain, and some china, stoneware, glass, small tools, nails and screws, plastic toys, and leftover parts of computers, TV, etc. Not knowing what kinds of innovations the future holds, it is hard to say what monstrous metals boxes with doors and lids would say about us, nor all the plastics in an array of thicknesses, shapes and colors. I think seekers will find more solid waste from our century than they will from future generations because more recycling and reuse will surely take place. They will certainly be able to come to the conclusion that we threw a lot away, and loved our gadgets and machines. The plethora of electric cords and connecting cables may be of interest (I must have 50 in a box), because I imagine in 500 years, the things we use and take for granted now will be very different. I wonder what they will make of the compressed rectangles of mashed up cars?
Having no idea what the future holds, it’s hard to know what items will be of interest to archaeologists. The pace of change has sped up so much since the beginning of the 20th century that I expect things will be far different in the five hundred years.
*Laura Allsop,Trash or treasure? Sifting through ancient rubbish for archaeological gold, CNN, Oct. 4, 2011