The History of a City is Rubbish



Look at it this way. Humankind has been throwing things into rivers for thousands of years – rubbish, talismans or coins, items which accidentally fall in or which are dramatically dumped, and we all know about the ubiquitous shopping trolleys right?

River beds are a microcosm of human history and chart the development of cities.

The history of a city is, literally, told in its rubbish.

Shopping trolley dumped in the River Thames at Deptford










The excavations for the North/South metro line in Amsterdam yielded thousands of finds going back centuries as they dug into the Amstel River bed. The Below the Surface project has documented these in detail and also presented them online, giving a glimpse into almost 1000 years of history of Amsterdam.

Dating the finds mirrored the economic cycles of the city, reflecting the blossoming of international trade in the seventeenth century, the stagnation and decline of the eighteenth century, and the renewed opportunity and growth brought by the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century.

The Museum of London also has some great stuff, available online, cataloguing the various finds in London resulting from the waves of development the city has experienced in the last few decades.

Of course food, that palimpsest and storyteller, is the one thing that archaeology of the traditional kind can’t quite uncover. Food has but a short life and its decomposition tells us little about the way that it reflects waves of migration and trade.

Perhaps modern archaeology tells us something about the way we might be headed.

What is little spoken about is the amount of modern waste that has to be cleared through to get to the older finds. We seem to be denying our present problems in the search for salvation from the past. We might instead also need to look at what is staring us in the face, the rubbish at tidemarks along rivers, in hedgerows, strewn across pavements. That’s our modern story, and it isn’t a good one.