Editor’s note: This is part of a Summer Reading Series featuring notable books, author Q&As and more.
Seeing constant images of floating trash islands and overwhelmed landfills can make it seem as though garbage has been a problem piling up for all of human existence.
However, UChicago Asst. Prof. Sarah Newman wants to dispose of this simplified version of history. In “Unmaking Waste: New Histories of Old Things,” she argues that “waste is neither universal nor self-evident.” The anthropological archaeologist claims that waste—what we deem “unwanted”—is a relatively recent idea.
According to Newman, Western assumptions about waste begin with an imagined long, dirty stretch of “ancient past” broken up by a few expectations like a gleaming Rome (which Newman says is nastier than we think). In traditional histories of trash, this is followed by a filthy, unwashed Middle Ages leading into a dawning awareness of hygiene, public health and sanitation.
Newman moves away from this sanitized narrative and heads to ancient Mesoamerica where the story of waste is far from linear. Using examples and archeological evidence from before and during colonization, Newman shows that people have thought about—and used—“trash” in many different ways.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
Q: What drew you to study the history of waste?
I got interested in the history of waste during graduate school, while I was working at an ancient Maya city called El Zotz, in northern Guatemala. Over a couple of field seasons, archaeologists from our team uncovered unusual, very dense deposits of artifacts in the palace at the city’s center.