Rubbish Game

** Note for teachers and educators - there is a PowerPoint presentation and prep document available on the Downloads and Further Resources page to assist the delivery of this activity in the classroom **

A Really Rubbish Game

Archaeologists can learn a lot from rubbish. The things that people throw away can tell us a lot about their lives. What’s more, waste was often disposed of in pits or ditches in the past, which are sometimes wet environments. These wet environments can allow the preservation of organic materials that don’t usually survive, such as leather and cloth.



Gather a collection of items that you might find in a rubbish bin today. Try to select items made from a range of materials e.g. glass, plastic, wood etc. Thoroughly wash and dry the food packets, and boil and bleach bones to clean them. Rub the edges of broken crockery with sandpaper to remove sharp edges, and cover sharp edges on cans with duct tape or masking tape. You might like to include some objects that are not easily recognisable, such as the bobbin from a sewing machine, or a random kitchen gadget - archaeologists often find things that they are unable to identify!

These could include:

  • Food tins, with and without labels
  • Drinks cans/bottles, with and without labels
  • Cereal boxes
  • Sweetie wrappers
  • Paracetamol packet or cough medicine bottle
  • Meat bones (boil to remove meat residue and sterilise)
  • Apple cores, banana skins
  • Broken crockery
  • Old clothes and shoes
  • Handwritten notes (e.g. a shopping list)
  • Flour, sugar, pasta packets
  • Shampoo/shower gel bottles
  • Broken toys/dolls
  • Cinema/theatre/concert tickets
  • Bus/train/tube tickets, boarding passes
  • Newspapers or magazines
  • Pet food tins/packets
  • Used matches

Imagine that you are on an archaeological excavation in the year 3000, and have dug up the items above. Life is very different in the year 3000; you have little idea how people lived almost a thousand years ago, so you don’t necessarily recognise the objects in the rubbish.

Look at the collection of rubbish. What can you learn about the people who threw away these things? Depending on the rubbish, you might be able to say that:

  • they enjoyed a varied diet
  • they ate both fresh and packaged foods
  • they used medicines, showing that they suffered from illnesses but that they tried to make people better
  • they were concerned about hygiene and appearance
  • they didn’t need to make everything from scratch because you could buy things ready made
  • the rubbish comes from a family e.g. adults and children, rather than just adults or just children
  • they enjoyed being entertained, listening to music, watching films and so on
  • they could travel around the country and around the world
  • they liked to play with toys
  • they made fire
  • when something broke, people might just throw it away instead of trying to fix it
  • they kept animals as pets

Extension Questions

A magazine or newspaper would give a huge amount of information, like any other written record of life in the past. However, would it all be true? Might one source contain more accurate factual information than another? E.g. a gossip magazine compared with a broadsheet newspaper.

Consider now which materials would survive. Remove the items that would rot away in the ground: organic materials like fruit/veg, paper and cardboard would probably rot away; paper labels would come off the tins. Would this change your interpretation of society a thousand years before?

If the organic food items like fruit and veg peelings do not survive, does that mean that people did not eat any fruit or veg?

How would you interpret a can or any other form of packing if you didn’t know what it was, and it didn’t have a label telling you that it used to contain food?

How could you tell what year/time period the rubbish came from, if you didn’t have a newspaper or magazine to tell you? Might the form of the packing help you figure it out? e.g. plastic food packaging was first used in the early 1900s, and cling film was first used for protecting food in 1949.