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Suffolk Garbology Project

Initiated by

Suffolk CC Archaeological Service Outreach Officer / Suffolk CC Waste Management Team

Run by

SCC Archaeological Service Outreach Officer

Funding sources

Heritage Lottery Fund


  • To develop the archaeology of past rubbish as a community resource for heritage learning in Suffolk.
  • To raise public awareness and understanding of issues surrounding the need for waste reduction.

Work done and results

Garbology is an Americanism coined by the researcher William Rathje to describe the study of a culture or society through what it throws away.

The Suffolk Garbology Project was developed with this idea in mind and is a joint venture between SCC Waste Management and Archaeological Services. It was designed to introduce waste reduction issues to young people and local communities through the use of archaeology and is intended to augment Suffolk County Council’s existing waste management strategy, tackling the issues from a different direction.

Children are naturally inquisitive and have a fascination for what is buried in the ground. The project exploits this fascination through classroom activities and the excavation of rubbish pits from the recent past. The recovered artefacts are then used to excite children’s imagination, ask questions about our present policies on waste disposal and stimulate an interest in archaeology and heritage.


The project works on two different levels. One element is classroom based and children spend their time sieving deposits, gathering evidence and researching what they have found using basic archaeological processes in a purely practical way. Looking at finds from different periods in history raises questions about waste disposal: What survives? What is missing? Where has it gone? Saxons come out pretty well, as they don’t leave much behind, whereas from the Victorians onwards the quantities of pottery glass and later, plastic just escalates out of all proportion. The lack of packaging in ancient deposits is also explored and through role play and re-enactment children are able to discuss the positives and negatives of our modern practices.

The second element targets rubbish dumps from the last hundred years where children can do what excites them, finding things. Issues about waste disposal become self-evident. For the last 100 years we have buried everything and much of it sits in the ground for centuries.

So far the project has opened town dumps, excavated a rubbish filled moat and cleared an ice house at a local boarding school of its fill of 1960’s school refuse. The project has had artists working on site with children; involved older people in oral history work; provided stimulus for poetry, writing and drama and worked with a dance specialist to produce a dance performance on waste and recycling which involved 150 7-11 year olds. Trips to active waste sites emphasise our practices today and allow comparisons with our past. (A DVD of the project has been produced both as a record and for publicity and training)

Impact of the initiative

Begun in January 2005, the project has worked with over 3500 young people in 55 schools from a range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. During these visits a total of 188 teaching staff and assistants have been directly involved in the sessions as well as 67 parent helpers.

What has been most encouraging is the all-inclusive nature of the project. It has proved equally rewarding for all ranges of ability. In several schools where there are units for children with learning difficulties staff are including these students within the sessions. And it works. These children, who are often withdrawn or disruptive, become focussed, animated and completely engaged in their tasks.

It is not just the children who benefit. Staff and parents also become very involved in the work and where parents and their children are involved in the same session this can be the beginning of a common interest that can be shared.

Feedback from staff and children has been unanimously supportive. From an analysis of the evaluation forms returned by schools the following points illustrate the worth of the project. In general teachers found that the sessions were:

  • very well organised and were just at the right level for their pupils.
  • particularly good because they allowed pupils to see, touch and discuss.
  • a good stimulus for further work in the classroom.

And that:

  • the staff, as well as their pupils, were inspired and learnt a great deal.
  • the sessions were good for the pupils because they were ‘hands-on’.
  • cross curricular thinking skills were encouraged.
  • the project inspired discussions and follow-up work.

Some schools sent in the views of their pupils:

‘I liked the bit at the end where we had to pretend to be shopping as an Anglo-Saxon and now. I can understand that shopping is really bad for the environment because of all the packaging.’ Alice.

Lessons learned

  • Rubbish can be fun!

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