All muck in

28th October 2005 at 01:00
The country's only garbology officer shows children that rubbish heaps can be a source of riches. Fred Sedgwick joined them.

Ben, who is seven, has found a shell, and he is washing it with a brush.

Duncan Allan, the garbology officer for Suffolk County Council's archaeological and waste management services, asks him, "What kind of shell is that?" "An oyster?" suggests Ben. "Yes. How do you think it got here? Did it walk?" Ben thinks it may have been in a river and people collected it. "Why do you think that?" asks Duncan. "They were looking for pearls,"

says Ben, confidently.

Garbology is derived from the work of William Rathje, who examined modern landfill sites in the US to study social trends. He was especially interested in the dietary habits of the poor, and he learned about them from the garbage they had left. Duncan Allan and his colleagues have extended his work into primary education. What could children learn from archaeology?

Ben is one of 30 children from nearby Middleton School involved in a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. "Garbology" may be an ugly word, but it represents a step forward in the teaching of history. It's about learning from primary sources, using rubbish from the recent past to help to explore their heritage. It raises questions about conservation, recycling, and the disposal of rubbish. It offers children a chance to interpret evidence.

And, as it is essentially collaborative, it contributes to children's social and moral education. In two ways, it is about citizenship: working together, and discovering our past.

Duncan says: "We find a site where we know there's been a rubbish tip. We dig a test pit first, to check for health and safety, and to check that there's stuff there. Children love finding things. We use recent sites, from the past 50 or so years, first because with older ones there's a chance that children may destroy evidence. Those places need experts. But also finds are limited. Here you find something in every bucketload, things they can relate to, toys, bits of cars, crockery, bottles.

"This site is mainly 1960s, and it's exciting for the children to bring something out of the earth, to clean it. I tell them, it's been asleep for 40 years, now you've woken it up."

The local authority is backing the project because it involves two first schools and a middle school and therefore helps with transfer. The children will get together to share their findings. It's also backed by waste management services.

The teacher, Annie Clark, says: "They're getting their hands on live history." Parents like it, too. Caroline Baggott, who is here with the children, says "It's brilliant. They're actively seeing history. You can hear the excitement."

And you can. After 10 minutes Ben is still cleaning his oyster shell and telling his friends his pearl hypothesis. Another group squats on tarpaulins, sieving the earth or digging about in it with trowels. Duncan has told them everything they find will be a "nasty" or a "goody". Nasties are dangerous things: broken glass, bottles that might contain dangerous fluids and the like. The children are taught to place these in a separate container. Sorrel, seven, and Emily, six, have found a goody. It is the side of a pot, and Sorrel says: "It's got E N G on it! I bet that was England!"

There's an artist on the site, Clare Hamilton. "I saw a rainbow on the way here, and I'm making the pot at the end of it. I'm going to get the children to make the treasure to put in the pot."

Children crowd into her marquee, which already contains objects made by children from a previous school: junk musical instruments made of old bottles hung on a frame, and shoes made of clay and painted with natural pigments. They'd used shoes as a theme because they had dug up examples by the hundred. The previous day, Duncan said, there'd been a jam session, with Clare on recorder, a visitor on guitar, and the children on junk percussion.

Duncan talks to the children, with seven-year-old Laura as enthusiastic feed. "What's in this pit?" "Mud" says Laura. "We'll call it soil," replies Duncan. He tells the children: "People threw stuff in little pits, like this one. They didn't have big landfill sites like we do today. We'll find clues, evidence in here. We're going to dig it out."

As always these days, safety rules have to be made clear. There are gardening gloves for handling evidence, rubber ones for washing it. "There have been hundreds of children here recently," Duncan tells the children.

"How many of them do you think have cut themselves on broken glass?"

"A hundred?" says one boy.


"None?" says someone else.

"That's right - and we are going to keep it that way."

The first finds are a fragment with "Indian tree" on it, and a bottle that once contained Bouquet Dusting Powder. There is nothing as distant as the recent past, and brand names always make this clear. I secretly hope someone will dig up a Harpic tin, or a bottle with Double Diamond on it.

As I leave, Duncan grins and says, "I am unique. I am the only garbology officer in the UK, and I hope it's going to spread."

Meanwhile, Ben is still thinking about oysters and pearls, and other children are handling evidence that will tell them something about the lives their grandparents, or even great-grandparents lived.


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