We human beings have devised countless ways of recording and archiving the things that we consider important. We have libraries, museums, zoos, gardens, galleries, journals, and myriad other collections that help us to conserve and organize information and objects of importance. I myself work on one of these grand archives: I work in the Steere herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, where I conserve, organize, and curate a collection of preserved algae specimens that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. This job, like many of the archival projects around the world, has recently taken on a digital nature: I am preparing these thousands of specimens to be scanned into a digital archive that will be accessible to scientists and laypeople all around the world.
Recently, though, I made a discovery at work that has made me think about archiving in a different way. UC Berkeley sent the Garden a donation of around a hundred dried, unmounted specimens, and I was charged with the task of mounting them on paper and readying them to be entered into the collection. These specimens ranged from 40 to 120 years old, and they had been sent to us in the original paper that they had been dried in–namely, contemporary local newspapers. As I peeled the algae off their pages for mounting, I set these aside to bring home; they would have been recycled otherwise. Although, to the herbarium, these newspapers were merely a medium for preserving the more “desirable” algae specimens, to a Bay Area historian, they themselves would have been the archived material. And, thankfully, due to the stable conditions in an herbarium, this ephemera has survived beautifully preserved.
The case of these newspapers has made me think about all of the other artifacts that have been archived accidentally due to various circumstances. I see these objects all the time in the Herbarium: from whole mussel shells and arthropod exoskeletons that collectors failed to sort out of their algae specimens, to the letters, grocery lists, and business cards that their collection information has been haphazardly written on. But there are all sort of example of accidental archives sprinkled through the archives of human history. For a broad example, think of fossils; these are sort of the ultimate in accidentally archived things, creatures whose bodies left petrified impressions that we now go to great lengths to discover, study, and preserve. While they themselves were accidentally archived by geologic forces, they are now intentionally archived by archeologists in museums and other research institutions.
A related example is the case of “bog bodies“: the corpses of people that have been nearly perfectly preserved by the conditions in peat bogs. These have been discovered all throughout Europe and The Southern US, and some even date back 10000 years. Bog bodies have helped shed light on certain areas of human evolutionary biology, as well as social evolution; garments and jewelry have often been preserved with the people, and offer insight into burial practices, including certain sinister–but nonetheless glamorous–insinuations about human sacrafice, suicide, and criminal execution. These bodies–in all probability–were not buried in peat bogs in order to preserve or archive them for future generations; in fact, it is assumed that peat bog burials were reserved for the ignoble or socially outcasted, who were not deemed worthy of proper burial and remembrance, or that some of the bodies were murder victims that had been dumped where they might never be found. Nevertheless, they have provided an important historical record, preserved by happenstance rather than intention.
In some ways, today’s landfills may end up being more important sources of archived information than the libraries and museums we have worked so hard to preserve. Contrary to what we would like to believe, most of our trash does not biodegrade in landfills to end up as dirt. When William Rathje pioneered the archaeological study of trash (“garbology”) in the 1970’s, he helped to dispel the myth of landfill decomposition by excavating organic matter–including newspapers and even a hot dog–that had been preserved, rather than destroyed, by the airless, lightless conditions in landfills. He talked about landfills as though they were time capsules, and discovered that people’s trash is often a better indicator of buying and consumption habits than their own estimation–when asked, we often overestimate our consumption of certain goods (such as fruit), and underestimate others (alcohol, junk food). Our trash, however, offers a more objective account of our lifestyles. Trash, by its very nature, should be a sort of anti-archive, but Rathje’s research has revealed how it can actually function as it’s own opposite, archiving our present culture–albeit in a disorderly and smelly way–for future generations to study.