William L. Rathje, Who Broadened the Subject of Archaeology

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on June 15, 2012 in Archaeology |

“William Rathje and colleagues have brilliantly demonstrated the applicability of archaeology to quite contemporary phenomena…”  –Thomas F. King (2002:166).

“William L. Rathje…has given some valuable and unexpected insights into the pattern of consumption of the modern urban population – and the methods employed are purely archaeological.”  -Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn (1991:11).

“All archaeologists study garbage; the Garbage Project’s raw data are just a little fresher than most.”  -William L. Rathje (1978:374).

I was saddened recently to learn of the passing of William L. Rathje, one of the best original thinkers of 1970s archaeology.  His long career and impact on education were noted in the University of Arizona obituary.  Entering the tumultuous early 1970s as a young but influential specialist in Mesoamerican archaeology, Rathje initiated the Garbage Project–  Le Projet du Garbage–  an innovative application in which archaeological methods were use to measure a great but virtually unknown subject:  the role of actual human behavior in contemporary waste discard.

I always was thrilled to read of Rathje’s work, especially when the story was how his research results either provided a basis to improve commercial waste management, or offered baseline information correcting faulty popular notions of what was filling up the landfills.

Rathje (1978:373) argued that an investigative focus using traditional archaeological methods and measures “provides a unique materialist perspective on our present society that contrasts to most sociology and psychology studies based on interviews.”  That is, he collected data on how intensely people actually consumed products rather than what they thought they consumed, or were willing to report to researchers.  Early in the project’s history, trash sorted by students in lab coats and masks was evaluated in terms of interview information on selected areas of Tucson.  “Front-door” informant data were compared to “back-door” archaeological surveys that classified and counted the wide range of stuff that came out of the garbage cans (The Garbage Project recorded information at the census-tract level in order to protect privacy and maintain anonymity).

In the 1970s, Rathje saw the Garbage Project’s work in part as providing a basis (using present-day data) to extend the long time-frame in which archaeologists could observe and explain the ways in which people perceived, used, and discarded material objects; how reuse, recycling, and discard patterns changed over time under different conditions.  He could thus place the differential rates of consumption of 18th and 19th century ceramics in Plymouth, Massachusetts and the rate of reuse and ultimate discard of bottles found in a 19th century site in Magdalena, Mexico in the context of understanding and influencing patterns of household consumption and waste in 20th century America.

At the same time, Rathje understood that his research results were relevant to critical, contemporary economic, health, and environmental issues.  For example, his data showed that when asked, people most often underestimated their consumption of alcohol and tobacco.  He found that food waste increased when people purchased items in unfamiliar varieties, packaging, or quantities.  He found (counter-logically) that in modern contexts, during shortages such as the beef and sugar shortages of the 1970s, waste of the scarce products actually increased.

Early in his investigation of modern garbage Rathje was particularly interested in patterns of food waste, as these had a bearing on nutrition; but he found little existing research on the subject.  What he did find indicated that earlier in the century, due to concern over food being wasted because of inadequate packaging, better packaging was introduced.  This led to a substantial reduction in the percentage of food wasted between the World War I era and the 1970s.  However, improved packaging to reduce food waste led to increased use of non-renewable resources such as iron, oil, and aluminum, and slowly renewed resources such as forests.  Rathje called these kinds of societal decisions about resource use and waste “historic trade-offs”.  The relevance of knowing this kind of information is obvious today in a world of shrinking resources and stressed home economies.

Rathje’s work in this area eventually was referred to by the catchy name “garbology”.  These studies eventually developed into a way to determine what is actually going into landfills, and by extension, how products and services can be improved to reduce waste, bolster sagging corporate images, conserve landfill space, and presumably, reduce the historic trade-off of open space for landfills.  Rathje broadened archaeology’s subject matter, and was arguably the poster-child for this process of disciplinary growth in the 1970s.  At least as important, covered by the press and valued by the waste management industry, garbology’s popular resonance spoke to concerns about packaging, consumption, and waste within the larger, dynamic conversation between consumers and corporations.  This conversation has continued to develop since the days when Le Projet du Garbage lent a humorous name and a serious method to the search for important information about contemporary society and material culture.

King, Thomas F.
2002  Thinking about Cultural Resource Management: Essays from the Edge. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

Rathje, William L.
1978  Le Project du Garbage 1975:  Historic Trade-offs. In Social Archeology: Beyond Subsistence and Dating, edited by Charles L. Redman, Mary Jane Berman, Edward V. Curtin, William T. Langhorne Jr., Nina M. Versaggi, and Jeffrey C. Wanser, pp.  373-379. Academic Press,New York.

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn
1991 Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. Thames and Hudson, New York.

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