Garbageways of Ujir

Archaeologists (and other anthropologists) think a lot about food. This shouldn’t be surprising; after all people in general think a lot about food. Food, eating, and nutrition are also pretty easy to observe with scientific methods: skeletal chemistry can tell us about where a person grew up and what kind of foods they ate; food processing often leaves bones and shells and other relatively imperishable things behind for archaeologists to look at; food gathering and management is also a main source of human effects on the environment, many of which can be observed through scientific methods. Food is also socially meaningful in so many ways that I won’t even try to list them here. So not only is food convenient to study, it is also very, very important. Because food is so central to human life and culture, anthropologists devote special attention to the behaviors and practices that relate to food, and they’ve coined the term “foodways” to group all these practices together. The term has become reflexive for anthropologists.

I would argue that there is another aspect of human life so relevant to the archaeological understanding of the past that it deserves a similar catch-all phrase: call it “garbageways.” The idea of delving into the cultural practices of throwing things away first occurred to me as I was grading a garbology lab for a historical archaeology methods course taught by Sara Gonzalez at UW. I got all excited about it and wrote a brief post about this idea on the course blog, and then promptly forgot about it, more or less. However, I think it’s worth getting into more detail about what garbageways are, why they’re important, and why archaeologists in particular need to think carefully about them. To do that I will use some observations from Ujir as an example.

First, I should define what garbageways are. This requires an embarrassing foray into theoretical jargon normally out of place in a blog; forgive me.

Similar to foodways, garbageways are the collection of human practices, behaviors, social values, mores, judgments, and meanings related to the throwing away of trash. The decision to throw out a carton of expired milk, the refusal to throw away an object of sentimental value that no longer fulfills its original function, the choice to throw away a banana peel in a compost bin rather than out in one’s front yard, and even the functionally motivated desire to compact trash so it’s easy to transport, are all different garbageways. Garbageways are socially situated; they depend on a combination of shared social conventions and individual values. Garbageways can have considered, deliberative political meaning, or people can engage in garbageways on a completely subconscious (even unconscious) level. In all cases, garbageways affect the way a given object ends up being deposited in the archaeological record, perhaps more than any other similar grouping of human behavior. That is because usually garbageways are the human behavior closest in space and time to the deposition of that object. In other words, garbageways are most closely related to how an object is likely to have entered the archaeological record.

There are some notable exceptions to this: any archaeological material that was deposited with a ritual or symbolic intention is less subject to influence from garbageways. This would include burials, monuments, caches, and the like. Objects that were created for the express purpose of being deposited in the ground might not really qualify as garbage, because they are still serving their intended purpose through the fact of their remaining in the ground. Even these examples might be affected by garbageways, or mutate into garbageways in certain situations. Garbageways are expansive and embracing. For example, the burial of human remains in shell middens is arguably a case where symbolism, ritual, and garbageways interact. As with foodways, many socially important actions blend into garbageways. Sorting out what is and what is not a garbageway can therefore only be done in relatively vague terms, and must be contextually specific to a very high degree if one wants any sort of precision or accuracy. A potentially problematic aspect of garbageways is that understanding them requires a firm grasp of intentionality in many cases, though arguably not in others. However, all that said, thinking about garbageways as a somewhat discreet category of behavior can be helpful for archaeologists for the very reason that most of what we deal with was discarded intentionally. Getting at the social decisions that influence where, when, how, and why something is discarded is thus essential if we want to have any hope of reaching those theoretically fraught post-processual goals of inferring meaning, agency, or symbolism, to name only a few.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, let’s consider some modern ethnographic examples from Ujir.


Case Study 1: repurposing. The first garbageway is actually more of a case of something not getting thrown away. Ujir is not completely isolated from the global marketplace, but most manufactured goods are only accessible by a boat ride to Dobo that takes around three hours each way, and depends on the tides and on having access to a boat in the first place. Because of this, it’s often easier to make or repurpose a particular tool than it is to buy it. The best example of this is the well bucket that came with our house. It was made from a plastic jug that had once held cooking oil. Someone had cut off the top of this jug, drilled holes in two sides, and fixed a stick between them with screws or nails to form a handle, to which attached the rope. Actually, half of the handle to our original bucket had broken off, but it still sort of worked.

Until one day it didn’t. Emilie found someone who could make a new bucket in the same way, with a sturdier handle and a better place to tie the rope. A lot of detail had gone into attaching the handle to the plastic—the person who crafted it had reinforced the places where the screws attached, and the handle itself was smoothed and rounded. It was downright ergonomic! The handle was also made out of a very heavy kind of wood, so that as you lowered the jug/bucket into the well, the weight of the handle tipped it over and allowed it to fill. Really, it was a well-designed object. So, something that would otherwise have been thrown away got cut up, and most of it was reused. Something else happened to the top half; I’m not sure what. Considering how valuable these oil jugs are for repurposing, I doubt if any of them enter the archaeological record in one piece. Even the old bucket got repurposed for something: I cut a piece out of it to use as a reflector for my laser rangefinder.

The distance from our location to the nearest source of material caused us to throw away far less material than we might otherwise. The expense of time in crafting something was in this case far less onerous than going to buy it. This is a “law” of human behavior that actually might hold true, and although it applies to many non-garbage-related activities, it also engages with the world of garbage, since it has an influence on what gets thrown away (in this case, perhaps the oddly shaped top part of the oil jug). Thinking about this from a garbageways perspective (garbologically?), we can expect certain materials to show up less in the archaeological record if they are scarce and/or valuable, and easy to repurpose. Really, this is about what counts as garbage. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, as they say.

Case Study 2: where it ends up. I am proud to say that I don’t get culture shock very often anymore, and that within most bounds I can adapt to different cultural practices. However, I must confess that I was never able to emulate the local habit of disposing of garbage on the beach. Ujir is fronted by a beautiful white-sand beach, but the utilitarian value of this beach affects its aesthetic value from my perspective, since in addition to being a place to swim and launch boats, the beach is a garbage chute and, quite frequently, a toilet as well. There is a certain logic to this: every day, the tide comes in and removes most of what has been left on the beach, so this is effectively a trash removal system. As part of their daily housework, women of Ujir would drag small trash buckets (also made from a repurposed oil jugs, incidentally), to the beach and empty them there. At the time, I didn’t think to inspect what they were throwing away, but I think much of it was plastic wrappers and cans, with some plant material and perhaps eggshells as well.

Although I firmly believe that it isn’t my place to judge people, especially from other cultures, about things like this, I thought that I would have a very hard time living with myself if I threw all the garbage I was generating onto the beach. It was just one step too far, even though everyone else was doing it. So I found an inconspicuous place by the house where we were staying, borrowed a shovel, and dug a small pit in which I could bury our garbage. My own garbageways (in this case based on environmentalist values and a fair bit of experience scuba diving around other people’s garbage) were so deeply ingrained that I expended much effort digging a garbage pit, and probably caused the locals to think I was crazy. Not only that, but once the first pit was full I would have to dig another one. Really, the locals’ strategy makes much more sense.

Partly it is about priorities, and partly about how one conceives chains of causation. My priorities were the aesthetic enjoyment of the beach and the water, and a general assumption that having garbage floating out there in the ocean is just… bad. I could argue for that case in more scientific terms: that garbage in the ocean kills fish and turtles, and provides no benefit to counter that downside. That is the chain of causation aspect. However, the locals may understand very different chains of causation than I do, and they certainly have different priorities. Some of these aspects, perhaps, can be inferred archaeologically for past cultures.

Case Study 3: productive disposal. The final case study, similar to the first, is about people making use of garbage, but in a slightly different way, that may explain the absence of certain materials in the archaeological record. Many people in Ujir own small kebun or umaral; “gardens” is the direct translation for this term, but really these gardens are more like small plantations. Many umaral are planted with coconut palms, and every so often the coconuts are harvested and processed into copra, dried coconut meat, which in turn is sold in Dobo and at some point refined into coconut oil. This is a fairly labor-intensive process: the coconuts, husk and all, must be split open, the meat removed, and then something must be done to dry it. The leftover parts of the coconut are basically refuse. This is not easy in the tropics. I’ve seen copra sun-dried on racks in Polynesia, but in Ujir they have a slightly different strategy.

In Ujir, people dry the copra by smoking it (though the sun also plays a part). When you harvest coconuts for copra, the husks should already be quite dry (as opposed to coconuts harvested for juice or eating, where the husks are still green or at least not dry). In Ujir, and probably elsewhere in the world, the locals take advantage of this fact by building pits under their copra drying racks and burning the coconut husks, which would otherwise just be thrown away. The heat from these fires speeds up the drying process, and also gets rid of coconut husks that might otherwise just sit in piles and rot. These pits are distinctive features, which would be prominent in the archaeological record (I very well may run into one once I start excavating).

The important point here is that garbageways often relate to exploiting properties of garbage that can be useful. A very similar example is the way that 19th century whalers would use the “spent” pieces of blubber out of which most of the oil had been rendered to fuel the rendering fires. An example that falls closer to home, and doesn’t involve fire, is the giant compost heap at Colinwood farm where I used to work. The compost heap was really the heart of the farm, in an almost literal sense: it recirculated nutrients to the fields. Plant waste from the farm, and waste from fisheries, was combined and “pumped” back into the system of the farm. This is similar to but not strictly repurposing, since the garbage gets consumed entirely in the course of this process.


These examples were the ones that sprung most readily to mind, and it’s worth noting that they all have very functional elements, with the exception of my own aesthetically- and ideologically-motivated pit digging. It may be hard to access garbageways that result from these less tangible motivations even in the present, to say nothing of the past. There are some theoretical angles by which one might approach non-functional explanations for garbageways: the concept of chaîne opératoire may be useful, for example, to reconstruct the sequence of actions that led to a piece of garbage being deposited, repurposed, or consumed. I’m not going to go there now (this has turned into a rather long theory paper, just without citations!) but it’s something to think about. The important point is that a holistic understanding of garbage-related behavior (garbageways) is important, especially for a discipline that mostly studies garbage.

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One Response to Garbageways of Ujir

  1. Adrian Martin says:

    “Thinking about this from a garbageways perspective (garbologically?), we can expect certain materials to show up less in the archaeological record if they are scarce and/or valuable, and easy to repurpose.”

    Similar to Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s “silent evidence” problem that he talks about in his book “Black Swan.” We analyze the subset of data we have access to, but don’t know how that data is biased by the selection process that leads to its accessibility.

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