Silver & black quartz wall clock, Threshold brand from Target, with my dog in the background, 2018.
history museums pragmatic historian

The Litter Layer

Silver & black quartz wall clock, Threshold brand from Target, with my dog in the background, 2018.
Silver & black quartz wall clock, Threshold brand from Target, with my dog in the background, 2018.

I walk my dog twice a day. One of the things I note on our walks is how much litter there is. Aside from food wrappers and plastic bottles, the detritus has included a lens from sunglasses, a knife, random clothing, pens, plastic bags, receipts, and the odd coin. Pretty much anything that can be dropped or discarded eventually becomes litter.

When I was a kid, there was not nearly as much litter as there is now. There were campaigns to encourage people to pick up litter. Now we have the Adopt a Highway program to help keep our road ditches clean, but what about the litter that accumulates along rail beds, abandoned property, or ditches and slivers of spaces near roadways that aren’t part of Adopt a Highway?

Litter has become so voluminous that keeping an area clean of it seems well nigh impossible now. And picking it up necessitates throwing it in the trash, which means it will end up in a landfill.

Landfills, which used to be called dumps but are more carefully regulated than old dumps, are trash sites that are shared by a community, but there are also private dump sites.

During a county board meeting a while back, I heard about a silo that was going to be demolished and buried in place. I wondered if the county had any way to track silos and farm buildings that were buried in place, at the very least for future landowners, but also for future questions regarding historic sites and archaeological digs. There is no such tracking for private demo sites on rural property. Might make a good project for Google Maps, eh?

The Midden Piles of Society and the Litter Layer

I think about trash a lot in terms of history. Dumps, landfills, and private demo sites are the midden piles of society and will become the dig sites of future archaeologists.

What will they think of our culture and society based on our extensive mounds of trash? What will they think of all the random litter within this era’s layer of earth, the Litter Layer? What sort of context will they be able to make out based on where this random litter is found?

Surely they will instantaneously know that our society was one of mass consumption. How will they ever sort it all out? How much of it will be excavated in order to retrieve and reuse the resources captured within? How much of this trash will be transformed by the elements? How much will be preserved in the anaerobic environment of the landfill?

How much of it will end up in museums as archaeological collections? Museums, what might we do to prepare for this onslaught?

As it is, there are archaeologists working on sites not only from thousands or several hundred years ago, but from more recent history, as well, including this 2015 excavation of an 1870s-era saloon in Hastings, Minnesota.

When might archaeologists turn their attention to today’s landfills or the old dumps of the 1900s?

This Pragmatic Historian has already been gathering data on past local dump sites from archived newspapers. The research on our Litter Layer has begun.

Historians, are you collecting information on your area’s past dump sites? Have you been keeping track of their locations?

Archaeologists, what is the era of the most current dig site you have worked on? What was formerly on the site?

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