Archaeologies of Waste: Encounters with the Unwanted

From Daniel Sosna & Lenka Brunclíková

What have ornate Neolithic vessels, 17th century human faeces and contemporary fuel in nuclear reactors in common? Regardless of how silly this question sounds, it provides an opportunity for a reflection of the relationship between humans and things. Virtually anything can become waste in the eye of the beholder. Things simply tend to turn into an unwanted part of reality as time gallops towards the future. Aesthetics of ceramic vessels dissolves in Neolithic pits, tasty cakes turn into pollutants that must be removed from urban dwellings, and powerful uranium fuel becomes trouble as contemporary governments negotiate with villagers in remote areas about the construction of storage facilities for nuclear waste.

Any kind of waste, however, can re-emerge charged with new value and engage in new relationships. A reconstructed Neolithic vessel may become a precious object in a private collection, human faeces may become a commodity for farmers who use it as a fertilizer, and spent nuclear fuel may become attractive for companies that specialize in its reprocessing. In fact, things can undergo such a transformation of value back and forth multiple times during their lifetime. On the other hand, plastic bags for milk, though cleaned, stored, and reused by Czech villagers in 1980s, are unlikely to become precious objects on the regular basis today unless a collector recognizes their value for embodying nostalgia.

Waste seems to be a strange category. It is associated with dirt and pollution within the frame of human classification. Waste, nonetheless, is ready for transformation and its perception may change over time.

Perception of waste disposal changes as well. It can be largely unconscious and habitual practice as waste items fall on the ground and from time to time get swept to the periphery of human dwellings. Alternatively, waste disposal may be deliberately understood as a matter of hygiene to protect inhabitants of urban areas from disease. In capitalist societies waste disposal represents not only the removal of the unwanted but also the creation of space for the purchase of new commodities, which is essential prerequisite for the capitalist beast to thrive.

Sorting garbage on the sieve. Photo: Daniel Sosna

The collection of texts in this edited volume demonstrates that waste is a great concept to think with. Although some readers might get an uneasy feeling from the absence of strict and unequivocal definition of waste, we see it as an advantage. Similarly to ‘gift’, waste is an ambiguous category that invites a wide range of conceptualizations. It is not a coincidence that the debates about the nature of gift continue since Marcel Mauss’ powerful synthesis in 1924.

Our edited volume was designed to account for various approaches to waste. It is a result of an exploratory enterprise that invites comparison across various dimensions and scales. One can trace meaning assigned to waste, change in disposal practices over time, social differences reflected in consumption, production of waste in ritual, relational potential of large accumulations of waste, transformation of value via recycling, or semiotic potential of waste as a sign of life for non-human organisms. We hope that the book will generate questions, which will stimulate further research on waste.


Archaeologies of Waste, edited by Daniel Sosna and Lenka Brunclíková and published by Oxbow Books, is a major new multi-disciplinary exploration of the relationship between waste and human societies in terms of value, social differentiation, and space.

“…the editors have assembled a diverse set of innovative papers to help us understand the new and sophisticated ways that archaeology, sociocultural anthropology, and history, are forcing us to rethink the human universals of waste production and waste handling. This is a must for scholars and students interested in consumption, materiality, archaeology of the contemporary, and, well – garbage.”
~Jason de León, University of Michigan

Archaeologies of Waste is available now, and can be ordered on the Oxbow Books website or by calling our customer services team on +44 (0) 1226 734350.

To read about the book in more detail, or to order online, just click the cover image above.

*Pre-publication price is valid until one month after publication date, and will cease to be available on 31st December 2016.