A ceramic conical cup, an Air India cup, objects made of antler, bone, bronze, ceramic and jet, and a fishing basket.

What does our rubbish say about us?

By Kayte McSweeney, Community Partnerships Manager and Julia Farley, Curator, British and European Iron Age Collections

Publication date: 19 December 2019

Co-curators Julia Farley and Kayte McSweeney explore how rubbish has enabled archaeologists to better understand the lives of people living in ancient Britain, and consider what our own rubbish will say about us.

What does our rubbish say about us?

The Asahi Shimbun Displays Disposable? Rubbish and us explores our changing relationship with rubbish. Wandering the galleries of the British Museum, you can see some of the finest objects ever created by human hands. But you might be surprised to learn that some of our most precious objects are things that were once thrown away. Today, they have become invaluable tools for learning about the past.

On display in Room 3, Disposable? takes a group of objects from the Museum’s diverse archaeological collection: finds from Staple Howe in North Yorkshire, a small settlement inhabited sometime between around 700 BC and 450 BC. These pot fragments, animal bones, and tools were cast aside when they were no longer useful, accumulating in dumps of refuse around the site and being used as packing around the perimeter fence. Thousands of years later they were uncovered and carefully recorded by archaeologists, allowing us to study and better understand the people who made, used, and eventually discarded them.

An settlement of several huts surrounded by a low fence on top of a large hill with a valley and river below.
Artist’s representation of how the settlement at Staple Howe may have looked. Illustration: Craig Williams.

From Staple Howe's rubbish we know that its inhabitants farmed sheep, cattle and pigs, and grew wheat. Most of their materials came from nearby: local clay was used to make pots, animal bones and shed deer antlers were used as raw materials for fishing equipment. People living in the settlement were very resourceful: a broken pot was recycled to make a spindle whorl (used for spinning wool to make thread for clothing), and a razor has been heavily sharpened to extend its long life. They also cared about their possessions and their own appearance, gathering jet from the beach to make beautiful jewellery and decorating their pottery with delicate lines of finger impressions. New research by Meredith Laing at the University of Leicester has used the size of these marks to show that the pots were made by women and children.

Pottery jar rim, roughly moulded, with a line of finger-tip impressions around the diameter.
Pottery jar rim, Staple Howe, 700–450 BC.

The skilled craftspeople of Staple Howe left no written accounts of their lives behind. We cannot speak to them, but we can place our fingers into the hollows where they once pressed theirs. The pots they made have stood the test of time. Two and a half thousand years later, they allow us to ask new questions about life in ancient Britain.

Today, our relationship with rubbish is very different. The second half of the Disposable? display looks at the human impact of modern waste in the Pacific Island nations, which are suffering some of the worst effects. Across the world, we are seeing the creation of single-use products, particularly ones made from plastic, reach unprecedented levels. Fuelled by our demand for convenience and cheap goods these items can take hundreds of years to biodegrade and are often disposed of poorly. This has led to almost eight million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every single year. Over fifty percent of this ocean plastic is waste from the international commercial fishing industry and is made of up of discarded nets, lines and broken equipment. In the Pacific these plastics join with the discarded waste entering the ocean from surrounding large nations, creating ‘garbage patches’ swirled together in ocean currents called Pacific Gyres.

Seashore on a tropical island scattered with cardboard boxes, plastic bags, food packaging and other rubbish
Polluted seashore in Honiara, Solomon Islands. Image: Roy Hills.

A simple yet technically beautiful yellow fishing basket made by Guam artist and net-maker Anthony C Guerrero highlights the extent of the plastic waste problem in the Pacific. For centuries, fishing baskets in Guam were woven from coconut leaves but here Guerrero used discarded plastic wrapping found on his local beach. These straps are waste from the construction industry, which mostly services foreign tourists. While the basket is made using traditional weaving techniques, the plastic wrapping is more durable than plant fibres. Guerrero has found a creative and practical way to give this robust single-use material a second life.

Basket made from recycled lengths of plastic with two loops at the top to enable it to be attached to a belt.
Anthony C Guerrero, fishing basket made of recycled plastic construction strapping, Guam, 2016.

In 2016 Guerrero exhibited the basket at the Festival of the Pacific Arts in Guam where it was bought by a British Museum curator and entered the Museum’s collection. A beautiful work of art, the basket demonstrates the resilience and resourcefulness of the local Chamorro culture in Guam. It can also be seen as a powerful political statement created in response to the impact plastic waste is having on people living in the Pacific. Communities across the Pacific, like Guerrero, are working together to activate grass-roots initiatives to try and stem the impact of the problem through beach clean-ups, re-purposing discarded items and banning some disposable plastic items. However, these local responses can by no means alleviate the scale of the problem. Much of this waste is not created locally and Pacific Island nations often have little infrastructural support for large scale recycling of waste. The plastic crisis cannot be left to individuals or small-scale interventions and will take a concerted international effort by governments across the globe to take legislative action to effect change.

A fisherman stands on a rock in shallow ocean, with a fishing basket strapped to his belt, holding fishing nets
A fisherman in Guam using a recycled plastic basket, much like the one on display in Room 3. Image: Julie Adams.

If the rubbish from Staple Howe can act as a treasure trove of information, helping us build stories and details of people who lived in ancient Britain, what can today’s plastic rubbish tell us about ourselves? What objects will future museums use to tell our story?

The Asahi Shimbun Displays Disposable? Rubbish and us was in Room 3 until 23 February 2020.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.