For Tom Licence, nettles mark the spot. They bristle up out of salt marshes, the clusters suggesting that treasure might be concealed below the dirt.
Licence digs at the topsoil with a spade. He reaches a layer of grainy cinders and ash, then sand or clay, serving as a sealant for what’s beneath. He pulls on thick gloves and feels around for shards of shattered glass or splintered crockery. The pit might be just a few inches below the grass, or some 10 feet deep. But eventually, the ground turns up dirt-chocked objects tucked below its surface. And that’s when the real fun starts.
Licence, a lecturer in medieval history at the University of East Anglia and the author of the book and blog What the Victorians Threw Away, is a garbologist. He systematically unearths and studies domestic detritus in order to figure out what 19-century habits have to say about what consumers bought and threw away. But more than that, he says, the habits help us understand what people valued, both materially and culturally.
Rooting around in personal trash dumps allows Licence to excavate a narrative about a specific family. “If you dig up a little rubbish dump at the bottom of someone’s garden, you know you’re only going to find what that particular household threw away,” he says. “In the larger dumps, it’s anonymous.” By digging up part of a doll’s porcelain face, or a medicine bottle, he can imagine how daughters spent their days, or what ailments afflicted the patriarch. “You can work out what sorts of illnesses they had, what sorts of luxuries they enjoyed,” he tells CityLab. “You can match the objects to the people.”