May 2016 Archways

Talking Trash


In Astrid Lindenlauf’s Archeology, Anthropology, and Sociology of Rubbish class, students are examining a rich trove of ritually deposited archaeological finds—votive offerings to the Goddess Athena.

But the specimens under analysis didn’t come from the Athenian Acropolis. They came from Thomas Great Hall, and they are offerings left to Athena by Bryn Mawr students past and present. Analyzing these gifts to Athena deposited on the statue’s base, hidden behind the statue, or tucked carefully in a fold of her garment, the students engage in an exercise in excavation.

“I want them to think archeologically,” Lindenlauf explains. She asks the students to forget what they know about the offerings and look at them as if they were an archeological deposit. But was this a rubbish deposit or a ritual deposit?

To answer this question, students first look at the gifts. Half-eaten chewing gum, empty bottles, and worn clothes seem to indicate that this deposit consists of old and unwanted items, which might be subsumed under the term rubbish. Coins and artwork, however, point in a different direction.

When Lindenlauf asks the students whether the location of the deposit holds any clues, they say, ‘Well, it is in a corner, not in a thoroughfare? It seems to have been protected.’”

The exercise introduces students to the phenomenon of traditional methods of dating as well. Sorting through boxes of objects, students look to coins and movie tickets for clues about dating. But since a coin can circulate for a long time, they quickly learn that the most recent securely dated objects—those movie stubs—date the entire deposit.

And the class has observed that, like the ancients, many of her devotees choose offerings for Athena that are meaningful to them—and that value is in the eye of the beholder.

Marianne Weldon, collections manager of the Art and Artifacts Collections, photographed these Mawrters’ offerings to Athena. For a gallery of photographs, click here.

Comments on “Talking Trash”

  1. This is marvelous, it almost reminds me of building a time capsule in Elementary School. In essence Archeology is researching time capsules of a sort….