Source of Evidence



History is littered with examples of the ingenious schemes designed to rid us of the rubbish from which we cannot escape. We might think of the legal procedures of the Assizes of Nuisance in medieval London that fined those who defiled the streets. Our attention might be drawn to the efforts of Napoleon’s engineer Bruneseau or later the works of Haussman to clean up Paris, or to Albert Giblin, that forgotten hero of waste management whose early 19th century invention, the Silent Valveless Waste Water Preventer, was later popularized by the all too familiar Thomas Crapper. Across the centuries, the efficient removal of waste from the domestic setting has become synonymous with ‘progress’ and civility. By the 18th century it was part of the discourse of improvement, a marker of polite society, a policy driven by the urban bourgeoisie.

Place-names, the labels given to landscapes, fields and streets,  are another source of evidence that preserve memories of waste and attitudes to it. Cullen and Jones (2012), have noted a variety of waste-related place-names from dating from Anglo-Saxon charters through to nineteenth-century Tithe Awards. For instance, the meox beorhym, ‘dung hill’ mentioned in a 10th-century charter boundary for Alderminster, Warwickshire, must have been a permanent (and significant) enough landscape feature to warrant record.

Archaeology is particularly well suited for understanding attitudes to waste as the profession is, essentially, based on the study of ancient rubbish; concerned with examining the artefacts and food remains thrown away by people in the past.

Given the archaeologist’s fascination with ancient refuse it is possible for them to highlight  cultures that were fastidious recyclers and others that accumulated  monumental rubbish dumps.

Importantly, when archaeological data are combines with information from other disciplines it is possible to examine the consequences of the different strategies that humans have employed to deal with ‘waste’.

In this chapter, we will do exactly this: examine how attitudes to waste have changed and where apparent ‘achievements’ in waste management may, in the long term, have been little cause for celebration