On the Value of Waste
Updated: Sep 6, 2018
The Age of Plastic is hopefully, beginning its decline. We cannot expect that it will quietly slip into its grave; plastics have been here for a while and will be here for a long time to come; but at least there is today a growing awareness of the need to seek more environment-friendly ways of supplying our daily needs.
While pollution is a major concern today, and a very real threat to the continued survival of the planet, archaeologists delight in waste. The more there is, the happier they are. It is precisely those objects that were disposed of in the past as waste that enable us to build a picture of how people lived. Broken bowls and jugs, olive and date pits, discarded chicken bones - these are our treasures. When people visit my excavations at Montfort Castle, they frequently ask me what I regard as the most valuable find that we have made. My answer is rarely what the questioners expect to hear. Of the greatest value for an archaeologist are those things that provide the most information on the past, and they may be objects of great beauty and monetary worth, but they may equally be, and indeed generally are, things that others would regard as valueless. Whatever objects survive the passage of time are of value, and if they are gold coins or carbonised intestinal worm eggs, it makes little difference. Stone, ceramics and bones are among the most frequent survivors from the past. Fabric, wood, metals and other substances survive in the right conditions. These materials teach us much about what life was like, what people ate, how they dressed, how they fought, what their pastimes were, what they suffered from. In the future, plastics will no doubt serve a similar role, and while the present inundation in plastic waste is far from a positive thing, it is indeed probable that plastic objects will make up many of the treasures of archaeologists of the future.