BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE LOGO


ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 53, June 2000

PETER ELLIS

It has been suggested that prehistoric societies had a most interesting approach to rubbish disposal. They were not chucking things away any old how, but instead made sure that each item carried the maximum message to the underworld. Thus what had been an ordinary rubbish pit in prehistory has now become - for the modern prehistorian - a meaningful layout of objects.

To take a modern analogy, red milk bottle tops would be more common than silver tops in pits to the east and vice versa to the west, while banana skins would be dominant over apple pips to the north and vice versa to the south.

This is serious rubbish disposal and you can imagine what the tabloids would make of it if they got wind of the theory - No rubbish in prehistory? Rubbish says The Sun - although there is some sense in this more commonsense approach. What for instance about that bone pin that snapped just as you were finishing it off or the beads that your icy fingers wouldn't thread. Or what of the porridge left on the boil too long or the cat's fur balls?

Even in the perfect world of the past there must have been a little bit of bad temper as Enid Blyton called it. I'm sure there were some items that, either in rage or disgust, had to be consigned to the most meaningless of ends, ie simply getting chucked away. It can't have been the case that someone collected children's litter and then lectured them about it - no hang on, that still goes on every day in schools in an interesting embedded pattern.

It seems hard to imagine the prehistoric kitchen area. `Could you ritually dispose of that pile of chicken bones instead of sitting around planning your next posthole?' `That bucket over there is for the entrails that you need to dig a special pit for.' Or could it be that the kitchen area was entirely in the hands of men - that gender notorious for making preferential lists and supporting hopeless causes. Perhaps when the women and children just wanted to get out into the sunshine, it was the man of the kitchen who established all sorts of tricky rules about what went where rather like the layout in father's garden shed today.

Nevertheless, however crazy it sounds, the theory does seem to be backed up by evidence. The pits archaeologists dig up do seem to have most interesting imbalances of rubbish once one applies some heavy calculating. Perhaps this is not so great a surprise. Thinking about it, one can see that ritual rubbish disposal takes place today. In my house there's a compost bin, a box for tins and bottles, a plastic container, a holder for plastic bags, and an old newspaper corner. There are special collection days plus elaborate arrangements - similar to medieval calculations of Easter - explaining when different types of rubbish are collected and what happens when there's a bank holiday on the day in question.

There is also a ritual centre in the town, the council tip. Here the Volvos pull up and their contents are taken by smiling citizens to the garden greenery area, the concrete recycling area, the metal area, the battery and refrigerator liquids area, and all day long there is the merry sound of breaking green, brown and clear glass - but perhaps this only happens under a Liberal Democrat authority.

The truth of the matter may be that what we all love most is breaking things, which explains all those thousands of pot sherds, and chucking them away, which explains the weird pit fills. And like archaeologists today, perhaps people in the past just loved jumping back into their rubbish pits to have another go at sorting it all out.


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© Council for British Archaeology and author, 2000