Ceramic bowl from Macon County, North Carolina, ca. AD 1500.

Intrigue of the Past

From the UNC Research Laboratories of Archaeology


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In studying archaeological concepts, students will analyze garbage from different places to:

  • demonstrate competence in applying the concepts of culture, context, classification, observation and inference, chronology and scientific inquiry;
  • explain how their study of garbage relates to the methods of archaeology.


  • Filled wastebaskets or small garbage bags from several places in the school, home, or elsewhere, selected to represent rooms of different function;
  • disposable gloves;
  • plastic tarps are useful when spreading out the garbage. (Undesirable and unsanitary items, such as used tissues or rotting food remains, should not be included in the trash to be analyzed.)
  • It’s in the Garbage” activity sheet for each group;
  • Garbage Chart” activity sheet for each group (optional).


Artifact: any object made, modified, or used by humans; usually this term refers to a portable item.

Chronology: an arrangement of events or periods in the order in which they occurred.

Classification: a systematic arrangement in groups or categories according to established criteria.

Context: the relationship artifacts have to one another and the situation in which they are found.

Culture: the set of learned beliefs, values, styles, and behaviors generally shared by members of a society or group.

Data: information, especially information organized for analysis.

Evidence: data that are used to support a conclusion.

Hypothesis: a proposed explanation or interpretation that can be tested by further investigation.

Inference: a conclusion derived from observations.

Midden: an area used for trash disposal; a deposit of refuse.

Observation: the act of recognizing or noting a fact or occurrence; or the record obtained by such an act.


The unusable or unwanted remnants of everyday life end up in the garbage. By studying what people have thrown away, archaeologists can learn a great deal about a culture. This is true not only of prehistoric peoples who left no written record about their lives, but also of people today. Archaeologist Bill Rathje studies the garbage of Americans. He has learned many things about the relationships of human behavior and trash disposal, information useful in studying people of the past and the present. Rathje has found that people will often tell an interviewer what they believe is appropriate behavior, but their garbage tells another story. For instance, people frequently say they eat lots of fruits and vegetables, yet their garbage shows they do not. Another example is that people say they recycle more than they actually do (Rathje 1984, p. 27).

Just as we do not throw our trash in any old place, neither did prehistoric people. Archaeologists call their garbage heaps middens, and middens are a rich source of archaeological information about ancient people’s lifeways. Layers of trash also tell a story over time. Archaeologists excavate middens slowly and carefully, recording the location of artifacts and samples they recover. They analyze the tiny fragments of prehistoric meals (bone slivers, seed hulls, plant parts) and charcoal from cooking fires. The animals and plants from which the bits of evidence came can be identified, and archaeologists can learn very precise information about the economy of past people.

If a midden is disturbed and the layers mixed, chronology and context are lost; it then becomes impossible to interpret the lifeways of past people. Vandals looking for artifacts dig in middens, and they destroy irreplaceable information about the past. They tear pages from the history book of time. Everyone can help by not digging archaeological sites or collecting artifacts and by refusing to buy artifacts from people who do.

Setting the stage

The famous anthropologist Franz Boas reportedly said, “Man never lies to his garbage heap.” What do you think your family’s garbage could tell about you? (Examples: family size, income, preferred foods, and activities).


  1. Review the concepts learned in Part 1: culture, context, observation, inference, classification, chronology, and scientific inquiry. Students will be applying these concepts to their study of garbage.
  2. Explain to students that they are going to be archaeologists, analyzing garbage (middens) to learn about the people who threw it away. Demonstrate some of the information that can be learned from garbage by examining a small amount of trash from your classroom trash can:
    • What culture is this garbage from? Could the garbage be mistaken for that of another culture? Is the garbage in your classroom trash the same or different from classroom garbage in China? Portugal? Your town 100 years ago? Are basic human needs represented in the trash?
    • What can you infer about the people who threw these things away and the origin of the garbage based on your observations? Is cafeteria trash the same as that from the wood shop? the library? How is a single person’s garbage different from that of a family with many children? Is a vegetarian’s trash different from a meat-eater’s?
    • Arrange the trash in chronological order. On the bottom is the oldest trash, on the top is the most recent garbage. If you find dated items through the trash, such as newspapers or postmarked envelopes or product dates, you can establish a precise date for the trash.
    • Sort the trash into piles based upon some type of similarity. This is a classification, perhaps including categories like paper, food containers, and other office supplies.
    • The trash is obviously from a classroom because you have preserved its context, the relationship artifacts have to each other and the situation in which they occur. If you went to your town’s landfill, you might find some of the artifacts from your classroom trash. However, you could not interpret it as coming from your classroom because it has been all mixed up with trash from many other places. Its context has been lost.
    • Construct a scientific inquiry. An example is: “Was the trash made by very young children?” The hypothesis could be: “If there are few papers with cursive writing in the trash, then the trash came from young children.” Classify the trash into two categories: papers with and papers without cursive writing. Accept or reject your hypothesis.
  3. Divide the class into groups of 4 to 6 students and give each group a bag of trash (and disposable gloves). The group analyzes its trash using the activity sheet “It’s in the Garbage” (and optionally the “Garbage Chart”).
  4. Students visit each other’s “middens,” and a spokesperson from each group presents a summary of its findings.


Lead a discussion using the “Garbage Concepts” questions.


Collect the students’ activity sheets and reports.

North Carolina curriculum alignment

English Language Arts (2004)

Grade 5

  • Goal 4: The learner will apply strategies and skills to create oral, written, and visual texts.
    • Objective 4.02: Use oral and written language to:
      • formulate hypotheses.
      • evaluate information and ideas.
      • present and support arguments.
      • influence the thinking of others.

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 4

  • Goal 2: The learner will examine the importance of the role of ethnic groups and examine the multiple roles they have played in the development of North Carolina.
    • Objective 2.04: Describe how different ethnic groups have influenced culture, customs and history of North Carolina.

Grade 5

  • Goal 3: The learner will examine the roles various ethnic groups have played in the development of the United States and its neighboring countries.
    • Objective 3.01: Locate and describe people of diverse ethnic and religious cultures, past and present, in the United States.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • Grade 3

        • 3.H.2 Use historical thinking skills to understand the context of events, people and places. 3.H.2.1 Explain change over time through historical narratives (events, people and places). 3.H.2.2 Explain how multiple perspectives are portrayed through historical...
      • Grade 4

        • 4.H.1 Analyze the chronology of key historical events in North Carolina history. 4.H.1.1 Summarize the change in cultures, everyday life and status of indigenous American Indian groups in North Carolina before and after European exploration. 4.H.1.2 Explain...