Thanksgiving is right around the corner, meaning lots of food, lots of left overs, and lots of trash.
And people 200 years ago weren’t that much different. They ate and they disposed of dinner trash. The main difference is that in the past, trash was usually dumped in a hole in the backyard. Today we put it in a trashcan which is then picked up by a sanitary worker and taken to the dump. While this makes our backyards smell better, it will make it much more difficult for future archeologists to match up trash with specific individuals and social classes. But archeologists of today don’t need to worry about that. The cultures we study made it easy for us to learn from their trash.
What do trash pits tell us about eating habits?
Faunal (animal) remains are often found in trash pits. While a lot of archeologists aren’t thrilled at the thought of sorting through the remains of dead animals (myself included), these remains can provide us with very useful information, such as what past people ate.
Dinner at the Narbonne House
For almost a year, I have been working with artifacts from the Narbonne House at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Included in the collection are a wide array of faunal remains excavated from two trash pits dating to 1790 and 1805.
Some site background
Although the site is called the Narbonne House, the trash pits date to the time when the Andrews family lived in the house. Jonathan Andrews was a tanner and his wife, Mary Gardner, came from a merchant family. After Jonathan’s death, only a year after moving into the house, Mary was left reasonably well off. Not only did she receive money from her late husband’s estate, but her father passed away two days after her husband, leaving her with additional wealth and earning her a spot in the upper middle class.
The Andrews’ Trash provides clues to their Dinner
So what did this upper middle class family eat?
The two trash pits contained similar faunal remains suggesting that their diet remained pretty consistent between 1790 and 1805 (note – dates are shown in instances where a species was only found in one trash pit). From these pits, we can see that Mrs. Andrews and those in her household likely consumed:
- bullfrog (1790)
- Gull (1790)
- Passenger Pigeon
- Canada Goose (1805)
- Ruffed Grouse or Ring-necked Pheasant (1805)
- Mutton and Lamb
Not so different from what we eat today, right?
But how do we know the bones = leftover dinner?
Bones reveal many clues about their use. One clue is in the actual bone types – the parts of the animals that are recovered. Because of the type of bones found, it is believed that most of the family’s meat was purchased from a butcher shop/market, suggesting it was used for meals.
In addition to the types of bones found, the bones themselves will often reveal clues. One such clue is saw marks. Saw marks are exactly what they sound like – marks from the saw cutting through the animal bone to create sellable/edible/usable pieces of meat. Think about the meat you buy. You don’t buy an entire animal. You buy a pack of chicken legs or a rack of ribs. Butcher shops 200 years ago were not all that different from butcher shops today.
Now think about dinner at your house. When you have meat, you usually cut into it. If the meat is still attached to the bone (think Thanksgiving Turkey), the knife is likely to hit the bone. This leaves marks on the bone. These butcher marks are a good indication that meat was used for food.
And of course, there are always teeth marks. Teeth marks are probably the best indication that meat was consumed.
What are you having for Thanksgiving dinner?
As you can see, what the Andrews’ ate was not that different from what we eat today. You may eat less red meat or no meat at all and the Andrews did not have access to fast food, but, all-in-all, the meats they ate should sound pretty familiar.
So, what will your trash remains this Thursday reveal about your eating habits? Will a future archeologist find turkey, or does your family have different traditions? And what about foods that don’t preserve very well, like cheeses, breads, pies, and most vegetables? Do these foods leave other clues behind? What do you think?
Moran, Geoffrey P., Edward R. Zimmer, and Anne e. Yentsch. Archeological Investigations at the Narbonne House, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts. Cultural Resources Management Study No. 6. National Park Service, North Atlantic Regional Office, Boston. 1982