Humanity’s legacy lies in our garbage. Trash offers archaeologists insight into the day-to-day lifestyles of people long past. Even today, we’re leaving future excavators plenty of specimens to ponder: Most Americans produce around 4.5 pounds of waste each day. This time-traveling dumpster dive shows some of the most revealing junk we’ve accumulated over the past couple of millennia—and the things we’re tossing now that will exist long after we’re gone.
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21st century: Worldwide
We toss more than 40 million tons of cracked phone carcasses and other e-waste each year. Much is shipped to developing countries, where workers strip precious bits—like rare-earth metals—and chuck the rest. This “recycling” will leave mountains of petrified plastic, toxic chemicals, and metal scraps.
20th century: United States
Plastics popularized during World War II began to take over our lives when soldiers came home. The first Tupperware hit the market in 1946, followed by staples like Lego bricks and grocery bags. We’ve used and discarded more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic since.
19th century: Old England
The Industrial Revolution, which began around 1760, sparked an increase in consumerism. Rubbish from Victorian manors in East Anglia is packed with single-use glass bottles and metal containers as a result. The litter also includes the disembodied heads of popular porcelain dolls.
18th century: New England
On Colonial farmsteads, people literally pitched their refuse out windows. Archaeologists discovered one 18th-century property strewn with broken bottles, snapped pipes, and cracked earthenware. The waste hints at frugality: Everything they tossed was irreparably broken.
5th century: Israel
Byzantine landfills like the one in Elusa (in what is now the Negev desert) served as the final resting place for ashes, shells, ceramic shards, olive pits, and wine jars. Carbon dating of the trash links the town’s sudden collapse to the same time period as a mini Ice Age brought on by nearby volcanic eruptions.
2nd century BCE to 6th CE: Egypt
An arid desert dumpsite outside the city of Oxyrhynchus preserved 500,000 papyrus fragments—receipts, tax forms, horoscopes, and forgotten works of Sappho and Sophocles—that illuminate what residents owned, who they married, and which sexy novels they read most.
This story appears in the Spring 2020, Origins issue of Popular Science.