Ancient Garbage

Since the appearance of civilizations, there has been garbage. For archeologists, trash is an important way to analyze a society’s life and structure. How trash was disposed and why it was placed in certain areas by its generators reveals interesting patterns.

One classical archeologist has studied Pompeii’s waste disposal intensely and believes the ancient Roman city was purposeful about where it put trash and even put trash to good use. Kevin Dicus’ studies show that most of Pompeii’s trash was taken beyond the city limits. When engineers needed to level the ground back inside the walls or fill in wells and basements, they brought trash back inside to do the job. They were “reusing” their waste!

Ancient Romans are far from the first people to think about reuse, however. In 2013, archeologists in Tel Aviv discovered evidence that our prehistoric ancestors reused and recycled their old items. The tools these people used, made from flint and bone, would break over time. Occasionally, instead of tossing out these broken tools, their owners would either rework the material to do its original job or sharpen it into eating utensils or smaller blades or scrapers. Just as we recycle to conserve energy and resources, these ancient people recycled for the same reasons.

Scholars disagree on how widespread this type of recycling was among Homo erectus and Neanderthals. Some say it was a part of their routine, while others argue it only happened as needed. Either way, this study and Dicus’ research in Pompeii both suggest that humans have been presented with the same challenges and found many of the same types of solutions over time. It was only natural that we, too, would find ourselves reusing and recycling our waste.

So the next time you think about throwing away that water bottle or stack of paper, just think—what would ancient people do? Recycling and reuse are a natural part of civilization.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Dicus. Dicus was featured in a documentary on Pompeii that aired on the Smithsonian Channel.

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