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Getting the Dirt on Garbage

It’s been a challenge since the dawn of civilization: How do we get rid of our garbage?dicus

Archaeologists have long maintained that ancient Romans simply threw refuse into piles that were most convenient for them. They appeared to cover smelly garbage with a layer of “clean” refuse to cut down on odors. Some digs have found junk in places that today we’d think of as being grossly unsanitary—such as under floors in homes.

The prevailing wisdom was that wherever those first citizens dumped their trash is where it stayed. Gradually, cities rose in elevation, the thinking went, as people were forced to build upon the garbage they had discarded.

As a result, experts believed, the earliest forms of waste management–or lack of it–essentially shaped cities haphazardly as people built on and around their trash.

But Kevin Dicus says we are looking at garbage all wrong.

Dicus, an assistant professor who joined the classics department in August 2015, says early city planners shaped their communities by putting waste in very specific places for very specific reasons. He suggests that digs often aren’t uncovering piles of garbage that were randomly strewn about walkways and homes but rather unearthing early fills used to shape land.

Dicus bases that on his findings from the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, located near present-day Naples, where he has supervised digs since 2006.

Research has already established that inhabitants of Pompeii brought their trash to piles beyond the city’s walls.

But archaeologists have struggled with why large piles of refuse were also discovered within the city. Dicus found that engineers reused that garbage by bringing it back into the city to level off the ground and make it more buildable. In other cases, they used junk to fill in defunct wells that became hazards or to raise floors during renovations.

Today we might call these planners environmentalists for reusing waste. But they were probably motivated more by practicality than altruism.

“In this way,” Dicus said, “garbage as a whole held great reuse value.”

Most findings about garbage happen incidentally while archaeologists are digging into other questions. Dicus is one of the few to look at waste for waste’s sake.

He developed this interest through his experience excavating Pompeii. The process of waste management in ancient and modern cities fascinated him. He also wanted to learn why archaeologists found garbage in areas where people lived. Since archaeologists so often rely on trash to tell stories, Dicus says, they should ensure that they are accurately interpreting those stories.

“How can one write an accurate narrative of a site if many of the deposits found at the site are misunderstood?” he asked.

Dicus will be going even deeper into dumps now after winning the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. He edged out more than 100 others to capture the honor, which supports research in the arts and humanities with a stipend and free living quarters at the academy’s 11-acre campus in Rome.

Dicus will use the award to live in the historic Italian city for a year while conducting research and working on a book about waste management in cities of the ancient Roman world.

He has applied for permits to excavate ancient dumpsites around Pompeii. He’ll also connect with archaeologists who are excavating previously undiscovered massive trash deposits in Rome.

His work has already caught people’s attention. Dicus will be featured in a documentary on Pompeii that will air on the Smithsonian Channel on Aug. 8.

By Jim Murez, College of Arts and Sciences

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