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Not Trash. History!

In today's edition of the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung," an intriguing article is featured under the title, exploring the archaeology of the modern era or contemporary archaeology. This field of research aims to cast a new light on the familiar, highlighting how perception varies from person to person and how inherited knowledge may not always align with the truth.

The strength of archaeological research lies in its ability to tell an independent story through its findings. These discoveries can be the missing piece in solving unresolved issues and filling informational gaps. Ultimately, it's about deducing the everyday life of people from the remnants they've left behind. Contemporary archaeology, beginning with the onset of industrialization, focuses on the era marked by significant human impact. It pays special attention to industrial culture and the effects of industrialization's material products on society, landscape, ecology, and art.


Excavations keep the darker chapters of history alive in our collective memory, a role becoming increasingly vital as eyewitnesses soon may no longer be with us. For instance, archaeologists at the Mauthausen concentration camp unearthed prisoner tags that were intricately decorated. These finds help to uncover more about the lives of those persecuted and killed by the Nazis.


Another subject of contemporary archaeology is plastic, exemplified by Lego pieces. Lego boats frequently wash up on the shores of England, Ireland, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, originating from a freighter that lost a shipping container during a severe storm in 1997. The plastic pieces from the container seem to be deposited on the beaches after storms, making the subject interesting to archaeologists because plastic particles dominate our era's material culture, gradually being released from a hidden archaeological site in this case.


These findings also reflect people's ambivalence, providing unexpected and surprising insights into everyday life. For example, in the New Buffalo hippie commune in New Mexico, archaeologists discovered a trash pit filled with soda cans and bras, despite the community's commitment to renouncing consumer goods and rejecting traditional gender roles and notions of femininity. Similarly, excavations in the Free Republic of Wendland, a site of ecological activism against nuclear power cleared by bulldozers in 1980, revealed the use of plastic dishes, cups, and ready-made meals.


What can we learn from this? When developing packaging, we need to pay more attention to biodegradability. We must anticipate that packaging could inadvertently end up in the environment. And we must reckon with human ambivalence, such as the irresponsibility of trash disposal despite better knowledge in certain situations.


In this context, the statement by Reinhold Leinfelder, a retired archaeologist, geologist, and Anthropocene researcher at the Free University of Berlin, is noteworthy. When asked whether a circular economy would render this archaeology obsolete, he responded, "Well, it will take a long time to establish a complete circular economy. And many things will not disappear."


You can find the link to this fascinating article from the FAS here:


Behind a paywall.


Thomas Walther

Corporate Strategy & Innovation Baumer hhs