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Learning Activities

Trash Can Archaeology

The above heading – Trash Can Archaeology — refers to a student activity that is being undertaken by many teachers and their classes as an easy and interesting way to learn about people by analyzing the trash that they have discarded. There are literally dozens of Web sites that have student projects called either “trash can archaeology” or “garbage can archaeology”. Following are a few sites that you can look at to get you started and to give you an idea of how popular and how enlightening this activity can be.

Some of these projects are aimed at university students and they use a rigorous methodology to determine what will be collected and how it will be analyzed. For their purposes, they may collect some pretty “yucky” stuff, including materials that can be dangerous (e.g. broken glass, discarded pills, decaying foods). For our project we do not want to deal with any materials that could present any kind of danger to either teachers or students. Furthermore, we want to be able to leave the trash containers in the classroom for several days if need be.


  • To learn how we can learn about people by analyzing material that has been discarded in their trash. As one pioneer of modern archaeology pointed out, it is the study of the ordinary, everyday items of the past that best help us to understand the past — far more than the rare, valuable and unique items that are usually far better protected. And many of the common items sooner or later make their way into the garbage. It is in the garbage dumps or middens where many ancient secrets have been discovered. Archaeology is often involved in the study of garbage.
  • In carrying out this discovery process students will practice their categorization skills, will address issues and solve problems while working as a team. Students will also learn about limitations inherent in the process; the trash will not contain all the answers.

Recommended Process concerning trash collection .

  1. Contents of the “trash can” will be assembled by or under the direction of the teacher. A list of desired items could be distributed to students and they could be asked to bring in these items, and additional appropriate material, to a designated collection zone.
  2. Containers that once held wet food (yoghurt tubs, baby food jar, canned beans, sardine tins) must be thoroughly rinsed out- taking care not to get cuts from any sharp edges! During discussion with students later, review how the complete removal of the food might have an impact on the information available — particularly if labels are torn or missing. Note that archaeologists often find pottery containers with the remains of barley, olives, dried food, etc. which can provide information on agricultural practices, preservation techniques, trade, etc.
  3. The teacher must review the material in the collection zone to make sure that there is nothing there which is dangerous, unsanitary (used tissues, dental floss, discarded medication) or which could contribute to bacterial growth, mould, mildew and the like. When the trash is handled later by the students, the use of disposable, transparent painters’ gloves is suggested.
  4. Following is a list of material which was collected for a similar exercise: a take-out container for Chinese food, ticket stubs from a hockey game, a Stones concert and a movie, broken tennis racquet, broken flower pot, empty milk carton, empty book of matches, bubble gum wrapper, discarded sneaker, empty pop cans, French fry box, old magazines, hot dog wrapper, pogo stick, yoghurt container, empty bag potato chips, beer cap, chocolate bar wrapper, dry ball-point pen, cork from a champagne bottle, cigarette butt, business card, empty tuna fish tin, Tim Horton’s coffee cup, discarded electric razor, paper clips, battery, piece of twine, postcard, pizza box, assortment of nuts, bolts, screws and fasteners, pen cap, empty cigarette package, sweetener packet, small pieces of molding, elastics, empty container of contact fluid, 8-track tape, calendar, old film, broken plastic toy, newspaper, chunk of electrical wiring, wire hanger, old typewriter ribbon, floppy disc, coffee stir stick, advertising flyers, ketchup packet, drinking straw, piece of Lego, old license plate, expired sunscreen lotion, shoelace, cereal box, empty can spray deodorant, stamped envelope, allspice container, mitten, deflated birthday balloon, small computer parts, hockey puck, scratched 78 record, birthday candle, Christmas card, frozen orange juice container, empty can of peas, juice box, Beta tape, eraser, piece of chalk, empty roll of scotch tape, golf pencil, broken golf tee, emery board, empty water bottle. It may give you some ideas for the range of trash you might expect to be collected.


  1. Divide the class up into small groups of 5-6 students. Today archaeology tends to be a team pursuit involving, on large digs, a number of specialists — surveyors, photographers, draftsmen, cooks, guards, diggers, conservators, people specialized in analyzing soil, pollen, seeds, bones, (some of whom may be on site a lot or just brought in on a consultant basis), epigraphers, etc. depending on the complexity, nature and location of the site and the completion timeframe. Working on a team basis gives a better sense of this collaborative methodology. Note that when a site is dug, it is destroyed forever.
  2. The teacher should take the trash collection and divide it up into a number of containers. You may find that recycle bins work nicely, depending on the size and volume of the trash that has been assembled. Depending on the material that you have available it may be possible to divide the material up according to some scenario e.g. junk left over after a birthday party. (Usually, however, randomly-acquired trash such as this may not lend itself to an overall organizing framework.)
  3. Have the students begin by categorizing the material. Their objective is to try and make order out of what may appear to be a disorganized mess. How they may organize it is less important than thoughtfully trying to “make order out of chaos”. Some of the material can logically be organized into categories such as: things used in the storage and distribution of food, things used in leisure activities, things which are made of plastic, things which are designed to be discarded, etc. Obviously, some things fall into more than one category.
  4. The next step is the core of the exercise. First, the students carefully observe the objects (carefully recording their observations) and, subsequently, recording the inferences they have drawn following their observations. It is typical for both students and adults to have difficulty observing and then inferring. Remember that it is a two step process.
  5. Each group will then present their conclusions to the larger assembly. The group should be able to explain how their final decisions on categorization enabled them to make more astute observations and inferences.
  6. After all groups have finished their presentations have a class discussion on whether/how presentations from other groups might have led them to reach new conclusions… based on having a full set of data rather than a partial set.

Some questions for students to think about…

  • Is it possible to learn a reasonable amount of information from people’s garbage?
  • What kind of life do these people live, according to their trash?
  • How many people appear to have been involved in discarding trash?
  • How old were they?
  • What gender were the majority?
  • What goods are used by which elements of this society?
  • How sophisticated is their culture compared, say, to the ancient Greeks?
  • What can we clearly conclude?
  • What do we need to come to more complete conclusions?
  • What might be missing from the trash and why?
  • What kind of misleading conclusions might one draw from this trash?


There are a number of popular books on archaeology now available. Suggested:
The Practical Archaeologist. Jane McIntosh. Checkmark Books. 1999.
The Young Oxford Book on Archeology. N. Maloney. Oxford Press. 1995.
Archaeology for Young Explorers: Uncovering history at Colonial Williamsburg.

This activity was adapted from the Educator’s Guide available at