One Man's Trash

sydney brown

The AFAR program has taught me many lessons in life, but one particularly interesting lesson I learned through the 2019 Portugal Excavation truly changed my view of the world - that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that treasure can have a larger impact on life than you think. 

mosiac floor

My main job on-site in Portugal was excavating and preserving the mosaic floor tiles and pottery, all of which were found in ancient vats originally used to make fish sauce. Every day, I got to see amazing artistic patterns and styles manifested in objects that had been buried for centuries. While I loved learning about conservation techniques and the history behind simple things such as floor patterns, I was most fascinated by the reason that all the artifacts we uncovered were there in the first place - we were uncovering trash heaps. 


I learned that after the vats stopped being used for fish, they were used as a dumping ground for things that the citizens of Troia did not consider useful, such as cracked or broken pots and flooring that they intended to replace. To me, the tiny, cube-shaped pieces of flooring were some of the most valuable things I had come into contact with, so it was hard for me to understand that the ancient inhabitants of Troia saw them as nothing but wasted material. I thought about the things that I throw away every day - food wrappers, plastic bottles, napkins, and more, and could not compare such trivial things to these pieces of “trash” we were uncovering on site. 

 Soon, I started to wonder what future archaeologists would think of the things that we throw away if they were uncovering one of our trash heaps centuries from now. After all, I found the old mosaic tiles of ancient Romans so interesting because they were the foundation for a civilization that affected the world for centuries to come. What would our trash say about US?


The reality of the situation is that each piece of trash in our landfills is having an impact on what our world will look like in future centuries. Every current news platform seems filled with stories of oil spills wiping out entire populations of sea creatures, chemicals in plastic polluting water sources, and more horror-stories about the waste that humans put into the world. So, what will that archaeologist see when he or she studies our trash? Maybe the plastic water bottle I threw away at lunch will be like a tiny piece of the force that ruined our Earth’s ecosystems for the generations to follow us.

 In the end, a somewhat simple task on-site led me to really think about what impact I could have on the world, and I would definitely encourage others to think about the things they leave behind. Our civilization will change the world whether we like it or not, but I think that we should do everything we can to our impact a good one, one plastic water bottle at a time. 


PortugalSydney Brown