As much as anything else, the production of trash marks human lives. What we dump in the trash tells quite a lot about who we are and what our lives are like. Digging through trash from the past gives us a snapshot into ancient life.
This last year, excavations have been targeted not at the random items left behind in the ancient sites of Halutza and Shivta, but rather at organized dumps from the past. These Negev strongholds had central areas for dumping trash which were located at the edge of town. Within these dumps, exist archaeological layers. If we look at the heydays of these cities, late Roman through Byzantine eras, we see an abundance of trash, as one would expect in a large, sophisticated society. Especially interesting is the appearance of different pottery types and sources.
The trash during the late Roman through the early Byzantine era (until 450 C.E.) included pottery from the area of Aqaba (Eilat) on the the Red Sea. There was a special kind of pottery produced there for storing rations for the 10th Roman Legion which was stationed on the Red Sea.
As the Byzantine period continues, we see this Aqaba pottery disappearing when the 10th Legion disperses. In its place, Gaza ware comes onto the scene. This type of pottery which was imported from the Mediterranean coast was very common for storing wine. Gaza ware was found in the trash heap during the Middle and Late Byzantine periods but not afterwards during the Moslem period, when wine was forbidden according to Islamic law.
Over half of the pottery from the Byzantine period in Halutza was Gaza ware. Looking around today at the parched landscape, one may incorrectly think that they needed to import pottery because there was no local production. Byzantine Halutza, however, had its own pottery factory. Gaza ware was of superior quality and the wealthy Negev cities could afford to have the best storage for their wine.
This wealth is evident by the remains of foodstuffs found in the trash. The Halutza populace was eating fish from the Red Sea and mollusks from the Mediterranean, attesting to the high socioeconomic level of Middle and Late Byzantine Halutza and Shivta.
At the end of the Byzantine era, for reasons which are as yet unconfirmed, the Negev cities become slowly depopulated. During their slow demise, the people living in Halutza and Shivta stop taking their trash to the dump. In my mind I think about the decline in Detroit. When a population moves out and becomes impoverished, their trash accumulates nearer to their homes. We find that in Shivta, the residents of this slowly failing city start dumping their trash in their neighbors’ abandoned homes and cease to use the municipal dump. Turns out what is thrown out and where it is deposited can say something about history. We are creating an archaeological record when we tell our kids, “Please, take out the trash.”