Some of you may know that I received my degree in Archaeology (1). Archaeology is fun because you get to mess around in the dirt and dig holes very slowly. To dig your holes, sometimes you use shovels, sometimes trowels and every so often, you use paintbrushes. I have heard some describe it as a "lazy person's way to dig a hole" and how could I argue with that assessment? We dig, we look, we think about what we see, we take pictures of what is in the hole, maybe draw a picture of it, we take notes of what we think it is that we see and we have lengthy discussions with others trying to determine what the prehistoric function of whatever it is we see in the dirt. I have personally witnessed multiple-hour long discussions about what a particular thing is in a hole, only to have someone come by and say "that is a rodent burrow" (2). We of the archaeological world fancy ourselves as big thinkers, not necessarily big dirt movers.
An archaeologist's job is to explain what these things are in the holes. When reports are written, explanations like "I dunno" or "Beats me" are unacceptable. What takes their place is the explanation that the unexplainable thing has some "religious significance." That label gets chosen because most aspects of human life, whether prehistoric or current, have some fairly rational explanation. They built pit houses to live and sleep in. They grew corn to eat (3). They made pottery to store their junk in. Many religious activities of the past and present do not have the same clear explanation. Why did they make this different sort of building that is different from a pithouse? Why did they make these ceramic figurines? Why did they carve this pendant out of slate and why did they have a collection of red and green ochre (4)? I dunno, it must have some religious significance. When I read "religious significance" in an archaeological report, I know what that means -- they "dunno."
I've been thinking about what conclusions some extra terrestrial (5) might make of some aspects of our current U.S. society (6)(7). There is one thing that we all do, regardless of our background, socio-economic sphere and ideological and/or political belief-system and that is we take out the trash. This may seem, on the surface, to be a completely rational activity. We have to get rid of the junk in our lives. But here is where it might get confusing to our E.T. observer, nearly everything we do and certainly everything we purchase includes things that wind up in the trash (8). We ritually spend a portion of every day (or we probably should do it every day) taking things to the outside cans. Then, once a week, we take these special receptacles down to the curb. Then, almost magically, the cans are emptied and we return the cans to their normal position. The E.T. observer would see all us doing this, and doing it each week, rarely skipping a week. They would note that there is a communal sense to this activity. Everyone in a certain geographic area does this activity on precisely the same day of the week. Why do we do this? Our simple answer is that our lives are filled with trash and that is true. But why is it that our lives are filled with trash? What is the rational reasoning behind this? I submit that the E.T. observer might not come to the same, simple, straightforward conclusion.
Nearly everything we buy has some unnecessary and unwanted component to it. Almost every food product has something we get rid of – even apples and bananas have little paper stickers on them that we don't eat (9). We can't buy toothpaste without getting a completely unneeded box (10) which we immediately throw away (11). Some of us may remember the ridiculous early packaging of music compact discs. That has changed but there is still shrink-wrapped cellophane wrapped around each cd. If we buy an electronic device, we are certain to have more trash in the form of packaging material than we may be able to rid ourselves of in one week (12). Why do we do this? We don't want the stickers or the cellophane or the Styrofoam. We have no need for it. Our explanation is that is the stuff that we have to deal with to buy the things we want/need. This bonus trash is for the convenience of the retailer, the manufacturer or distributor. It may protect the thing we want until we can get it out of the box. It probably isn’t a sustainable activity, but it is what we deal with every day. And imagine an E.T. observer watching this, not knowing the reasons why and seeing this unsustainable, irrational activity happening in nearly every household on a nearly daily basis, culminating in each household with a weekly trip of the can to the curb. How would they make sense of it? I submit to you that it is quite possible that the E.T. observer, in their little notebook, is writing down that this trash can we take to the curb is religious equipment and our "religion" (13) requires us to get stuff to fill that can each and every week as some sort of religious offering.
And maybe that E.T. observer is right?
(1) Technically, Anthropology because there are no "Archaeology" degrees in the U.S. They are all Anthropology with Archaeology emphasis. I'm sure this clarification was important to you.
(2) i.e. a hole/tunnel dug by a rodent, probably recently.
(3) Or make corn beer with, a current notion explaining the domestication of that grain/vegetable (don't get me started on the argument over whether corn is a grain or a vegetable -- short answer is that it is a grain that we often treat like a vegetable).
(4) Fancy word for mineral dye.
(5) I'm thinking of E.T.s that are generally benign and more interested in studying us, someone with a star trek-like prime directive rather than War of the Worlds type invading aliens.
(6) I've taken a long time to even introduce what I'm thinking about. If you are still reading, I can't promise that your patience will be rewarded.
(7) I totally realize that I'm going from describing living people trying to explain what people long since dead have done with living extra terrestrials trying to explain what living people are doing. I hope this isn't too troubling to you.
(8) I'm generalizing trash to include recycling, green waste, compostables, and regular old trash.
(9) If you eat them, I apologize for this generalization and suggest you get the help you need to stop eating sticky paper.
(10) Unneeded to us, I guess the retailer needs the box to stack the product neatly.
(11) Again, by throw away, I include the action of recycling.
(12) Especially those Styrofoam things with the little white balls that get everywhere.
(13) I'm not trying to get deep or preachy here at all. This is merely an attempt to get at this absurd portion of our lives.
Reed Soper was born and raised in southern California. He considered attending the Lord's University but opted for BYU instead where he met Kathryn Lynard doing his home teaching. They married in 1992 and have seven children. Friends and loved ones often describe Reed as "difficult" or "a slow learner." In his spare time, he likes (virgin) pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. Read Reed's previous guest posts.
Image credit: Scott Heffernan (used with permission).