Most people don’t know that thousands of finds from archaeological digs end up in landfill. Some of these “de-selected” artefacts turned up on the spoil-heap or outside the trench. They can’t be used to date deposits because they are not stratified within excavated layers. Many fragments of ancient bone, pot and stone are not scientifically valuable enough to keep after they have been measured, counted and listed. Nonetheless, they are curious and wonderful things.
There is not much archaeologists can do with de-selected artefacts. They don’t meet the standards to be accessioned by museums, but the developers who fund digs don’t pay for anyone to look after them. Dug up from building sites, de-selected artefacts are archaeology’s contribution to the five million tonnes of construction and demolition waste that goes unrecycled every year in Britain.
I am an archaeologist who rescues de-selected artefacts. Last August I got a call from a museum. About twelve and half thousand finds were going into a skip in West London. Could I take them? I started a project called Recycle Archaeology to explore if, and how, archaeological finds could be recycled. My idea was that archaeologists would send me their de-selected materials and Recycle Archaeology would find new uses for them.
Archaeology belongs to everyone. Recycle Archaeology uses artefacts for the common good, not for the private profit of individual collectors. We have made classroom museums for school children and sent hundreds of animal bones to anatomy labs for students. We run a Pub Archaeology night and craft workshops making mosaics from pot shards. Museum objects are shrouded in rules that make them less accessible to ordinary people. Recycling archaeology puts ancient artefacts in the hands of students, gardeners, artists, builders and makers.
This year many writers have been on strike against precarious employment and unequal pay in universities. I took five boxes of Recycle Archaeology’s artefacts to the picket line. I talked to striking writers about what they thought should happen to deselected finds. The writers selected some artefacts to make a pop-up museum on the picket. Here are the labels they wrote for the museum.
Bottle embossed “E.Rimmel” (c.1885-1900)
“IS STRIKE A DREAMSCAPE? A MESSAGE TO OUR FUTURE SELVES?
DON’T BOTTLE IT!”
Who was E. Rimmel? Maybe a purveyor of dreams. Was the contents of this bottle precious and eked out in small doses? Or imbibed in a single swig? Was the genie let out? Was the dream lost or stolen? Or did it fly?”
Stoneware Jar: “The Genuine bears the SIGNATURE of George Hancock, 1 OLD BOND STREET BATH” (1838-c.1850)
“This container still smells. Even though I lost my smell for a time in 2020. I have the conviction this pot contains the remains of a high end product in its crevices. Like a sweaty armpit, the inside corners fester”
George Hancock was Hair-Cutter and Perfumer to the royal family, His hair salon “Bee-Hive House” was famous for his hair lotion “Balsam of Honey”.
Medieval jug fragment with rim and handle (c.1350-1450)
Neolithic Tool (side-and-end scraper) (c.3,500 B.C. to c.1,500 B.C.)
“Magical volcanic glass in my hand helping me make thin strong objects”
Kangxi Porcelain bowl, (Lingzhi fungus mark on base, 1667-1722)
“Rice bowl(?) from China. Probably imported from China. Blue and white – indicates old age?”
Tin-glazed earthernware tile fragment (17th – 18th century)
HANDLE WITH CARE: All the way from China
STORY OF PORCELAIN
Clay Tobacco Pipe (1787 – 1807)
“Clay pipe adorned with kneeling slave symbol so it was likely owned by an abolitionist. The symbol was a popular icon of the time and may have been the first example of “woke-washing” as though the pipe was smoked by an abolitionist the tobacco would more than likely have been picked by a slave.”
Free-blown glass bottle (18th c.) and stoneware blacking bottle (19th c.)
“Utterly practical and yet for most of their life they have been trash. Also : the miracle of their intactness .”
Glass bottle containing remnants of blue ink, cork stopper (c.1880 – c.1925)
“Once used by a famous poet 1900-1910”
CALL TO ACTION:
De-selected artefacts are wonders waiting to happen. Can you think of a cool way of recycling deselected artefacts? Contact: https://www.recyclearchaeology.com/
Helen Wickstead is an archaeologist with 25 years’ experience of excavating old rubbish. She researches stigmatized, disregarded and overlooked collections and writes about secret museums, concrete megaliths, suburban goat-boys and the Cult of Kata. She is founder and director of Recycle Archaeology.