Using the archaeology of garbage to reconstruct ancient life
From time immemorial, people have produced rubbish. Yet to an archaeologist, not even this discarded material is a waste! Just as archaeologists can glean information about the past by excavating ancient houses, streets, and temples, so too can they learn by studying ancient trash. What people discarded tells a lot about how they lived.
One of the world’s oldest landfills was recently uncovered in Jerusalem. Situated on the eastern slopes of Jerusalem’s Southeastern Hill (the “City of David” or present day “Silwan”), the landfill dates to the Early Roman period (first century B.C.E.–first century C.E.). Through a systematic excavation of this landfill, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Yuval Gadot and his team have been able to shed light on Jerusalem during a particularly tumultuous chapter of its history—when Rome ruled, the Temple stood, and Jesus preached.
Explore Jerusalem’s ancient landfill with Yuval Gadot in his article “Jerusalem and the Holy Land(fill),” published in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Gadot details some of the interesting discoveries from the landfill and how he and his team excavated this difficult terrain.
Jerusalem during the first century C.E. was a place of political turbulence and social unrest that eventually culminated in its destruction in the year 70 C.E. This was also a time of growth when Jerusalem swelled to an unprecedented size, expanding to include three sectors—the Upper city, Bezetha, and the Lower city. Economically and politically, the city revolved around the Temple as local and international pilgrimage—unique to the Temple in Jerusalem—continued to grow, reaching its zenith during the first century C.E. The garbage layers on Jerusalem’s eastern slopes, in some places more than 36 feet thick, are a silent witness to those glorious but troubled times. If excavated correctly, we hypothesized that the garbage layers could potentially shed light on the dietary habits, trading practices, and vocational diversity of the ancient residents of Jerusalem.
Gadot’s team has been able to gather such information—and much more. Further, digging through these ancient trash layers revealed information about how garbage was processed in the ancient world. The scale of garbage found at the site suggests that this enterprise was a public work. Gadot explains:
The nature of the massive amount of garbage concentrated at this site suggests the presence of an established, citywide garbage disposal operation that included the development of a specialized mode of collection and transportation to the top of the slope (a convoy of donkeys hauled the waste), the deliberate disposal of the garbage down the slope, setting the garbage on fire, and burying the remains beneath a layer of soil. The scale of work dictates that this waste management operation was a public enterprise. And while this may seem natural and vital for those of us living in the 21st century, this was not necessarily the case in antiquity.
To learn more about the Jerusalem’s ancient landfill, including why Jerusalem had a landfill and other contemporary cities did not, read Yuval Gadot’s article “Jerusalem and the Holy Land(fill)” in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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