Peabody Director Talks Trash

Since 1974, when Richard H. Meadow ’68 began excavating at the archaeological site of Harappa in Pakistan, trash has been essential to his work.

When the ruins of the Indus civilization were first uncovered, archaeologists observed brick settlements that had grown upward in time. The vertical rise was caused by the ancient practice of dumping trash into the streets, which piled up and blocked doorways. The city’s inhabitants were forced to knock down old structures and build on top of them, leading to mounds up to 20 meters high.

Meadow, the director of the Peabody Museum’s Zooarchaeology laboratory, spoke on “The Archaeologist’s View of Trash” at the Geological Lecture Hall last night. His lecture was the third in a series titled “Trash Talk: The Anthropology of Waste” and organized by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Trash is often the exclusive source for understanding ancient civilizations in regions without a textual record, said Meadow, who is also a senior lecturer on anthropology. In his field work at the settlement, he has examined middens, or ancient dumping sites, to study the daily lives of the Harappans. From miniature figurines to fragments of Harappan vessels, objects that were once tossed away are to him priceless treasures.

Researchers also used the trash deposits to carbon date the civilization to 3600 to 1500 B.C. Furthermore, the deposits can be analyzed, using the remnants of long-decayed plants, to determine the diet of the Harappa people.

Pamela D. Gerardi, director of external relations at the Peabody Museum, is the organizer of the “Trash Talk” series which continues into Spring 2012. After the museum hosted a series on writing systems last year, she said she wanted to again focus on a specific topic and decided on trash because “it’s relevant, it’s timely, it’s something that concerns us all.”

Gerardi said the series isn’t about telling people a specific way to think about trash. She said that “when most of us have trash, we throw it away and never think about it again.” Instead, she said society should start by asking, “Where does it go when it goes away?”

The previous talk in the series was delivered by Susan Strasser, a professor of American history at the University of Delaware, and focused on trash during the Industrial Revolution. Future speakers will come from a variety of disciplines, including urban design, philosophy, and contemporary art, each presenting trash from a different angle.

For the time being, Meadow offered a unique perspective as a professional dumpster diver of sorts.

“Our view of trash, as archaeologists ... is quite different,” said Meadow. “It’s something I always look forward to getting my hands into when I go to an archaeological site.”

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