Tracking Trash in the Modern Archaeological Record

Artifact Deposition into the Modern Archaeological Record

Artifact Deposition into the Modern Archaeological Record

Have you ever wondered what happens to the styrofoam coffee cup that you recently tossed into the garbage bin? Once its liquid contents were consumed did you give any thought to the disposable container itself? Like most of us, the mass produced containers of our consumable society are taken for granted and quickly forgotten once they reach their designated garbage receptacles. It is precisely these disposed of pieces of our daily lives that the field of Archaeology studies, in order to understand material culture in the context of time and space. A broken piece of pottery from a 1,500 year old Woodland Period jar found along the Milwaukee River holds similar cultural meaning as an aluminum root beer can located in the same vicinity. Each elicits data pertaining to human rendered technology, cultural modes of consumption, environmental deposition, artifact preservation, etc. Yet, only a fraction of the cultural behaviors that were enacted to produce, consume and dispose of these disparately connected artifacts can ever be ascertained.

However, now with the aid of innovative technology developed by MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, modern artifacts are beginning to provide insightful information on the journey of a piece of trash through the “removal-chain.” TrashTrack uses hundreds of small, smart, location aware tags, which are part of a network of tiny locatable microeletromechanical systems currently under development. “These tags are attached to different types of trash so that these items can be followed through the city’s waste management system, revealing the final journey of our everyday objects in a series of real time visualizations.”

Data Collection Microchip

Data Collection Microchip

These kinds of data could have profound implications for how we think about the amount of waste we produce on a daily basis, as well as the distance and rate these objects travel over time. While this pilot program is designed for waste management purposes, the resulting data offer profound information for social scientists and certainly for future archaeologists. If someday all consumer products had similar microchips, one could locate the distribution and location of this garbage, which would be particularly important for environmentally degrading material culture, such as batteries, electronics, etc.

A Computer Midden from the Digital Age

A Computer Midden from the Digital Age

By cultivating a more informed population about the insights gained from this technology, perhaps our collective conscience will be more cognizant about our consumptive patterns of behavior. Perhaps now we will begin to confront the mounting question of where and when our trash is disposed of and how long it remains in the environment, before it is either destroyed or recycled. Nevertheless, a more informed public can only mean a more habitable future when we begin to address the impact we are leaving in the archaeological record.

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