Garbage Archaeology

Gem Baldwin, Edmonds Community College

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


This assignment applies the research principles of archaeology to modern American culture, with a specific focus on consumption and waste. As many archaeologists do, we will be looking at garbage. Using the principles and guidelines in "The Story of Stuff",, we will look at some of the trash that we produce as a culture, and address specific questions about the origins, costs, and ultimate destination of this stuff. Students will discuss the ideas presented in "The Story of Stuff", create formal presentations, and participate in peer reviews.

Learning Goals

The purpose of this assignment is to give students a hands-on introduction to the working principles and techniques of archaeology, while also having a positive impact on the local environment. This is an experience based "lab" assignment that can be used or adapted for use in cultural anthropology, biocultural anthropology, or archaeology courses.

Anthropology "Big Idea": Archaeological field techniques

Sustainability "Big Ideas": There is no "away", as in to throw away, and small actions can lead to large impacts.

Context for Use

This assignment is designed for use in an online course, although it could certainly be adapted for use in grounded courses as well. Between research, actual garbage collection, presentation, review, and reflection, this assignment will require about 15 hours of student work. I use it during the second half of the quarter, preferably toward the end of the term.

This assignment asks students to look at the garbage we create as a culture in a deeper and more connected way. Archaeology is an excellent field tool for looking at material evidence (garbage, in this case), and theorizing about the culture that creates and uses it. We will be focusing the lens of archaeology on our own culture by closely examining the garbage we create.

Description and Teaching Materials

Student Assignment: Garbage Archaeology Assignment Part 1– Material Culture: "The Story of Stuff"

This is the first of two segments to the Garbage Archaeology Research Lab assignment. The idea is to get students thinking about human material culture, or *STUFF*. Your stuff, my stuff, our stuff. What is it, where does it come from, who pays for it, with what currency, and where does it go? Why do we want it or need it, and is really worth the cost?

Students will receive an introduction to the global materials economy in the 20 minute video, "The Story of Stuff". After watching the video, students will discuss key concepts on the course discussion board.

Student Assignment: Garbage Archaeology Assignment Part 2– Experience Lab / Field Research

When archaeologists study the remains of human culture, much of the evidence they have to work with is actually the refuse, or garbage, that individuals and groups have left behind. Archaeologists find the remains of various items in situ, then catalogue them carefully, taking care to note their location and relationship to other objects. It is these remains of material culture that have given us much of the information we now have about prehistoric human societies.

This lab assignment is to evaluate modern garbage, as an archaeologist, and extrapolate as much as you can about our culture, based on your material evidence, using the structures and principles outlines in "The Story of Stuff" (

The first step in this assignment is to choose a piece of garbage (hereafter referred to as "evidence"). This can be something that you have seen in the trash, have thrown away recently or are about to throw away, or something that someone you know is throwing away. It could even be a piece of furniture that someone has placed on a street corner. You have complete freedom as far as the evidence you choose to research.

Student Handout: Garbage Archaeology Student Presentations Template

This is a template for the student to follow to prepare for their presentation.

Garbage Archaeology Assignment Part 1 (Microsoft Word 93kB Oct21 11)
Garbage Archaeology Assignment Part 2 (Microsoft Word 148kB Oct21 11)
Garbage Archaeology Student Presentation Template (Microsoft Word 99kB Oct21 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This assignment is designed for use in an online course using Blackboard. All of the written discussion, the presentations, and the peer reviews, take place on the Blackboard discussion board. This enables everyone to access, read, and comment on each other's work throughout the course of the assignment. It could easily be adapted to another online format, or adapted for use in a grounded course.

This assignment could also be adapted to include a service learning component. Working with a Community Partner such as Puget Soundkeepers Alliance (, garbage collection projects could be arranged. Students could work in groups and document the kinds of trash they find. This sort of thing is much easier to arrange in a grounded course than in an online format.


Students are encouraged at all points in this project to engage the material with depth and breadth. One of the things I like about projects like this is the interaction with the instructor and peers throughout. I am participating, and students are receiving feedback from one another, during the process of the assignment. Although much of the work is independent, there is a strong group, even community, component. This makes it easier to encourage students in directions of deeper engagement, gives me the opportunity to ask questions and make suggestions, and also demonstrates the value of the peer group for enhanced learning.

References and Resources

The Story of Stuff Project. The Story of Stuff.

The Story of Stuff Project's goal is to extend the film's, the Story of Stuff, impact on society. The project achieves this by creating a public debate on various environmental, social, and economical topics, among other things.

Evergreen State College