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Unmaking Waste

New Histories of Old Things

Explores the concept of waste from fresh historical, cultural, and geographical perspectives.
Garbage is often assumed to be an inevitable part and problem of human existence. But when did people actually come to think of things as “trash”—as becoming worthless over time or through use, as having an end?
Unmaking Waste tackles these questions through a long-term, cross-cultural approach. Drawing on archaeological finds, historical documents, and ethnographic observations to examine Europe, the United States, and Central America from prehistory to the present, Sarah Newman traces how different ideas about waste took shape in different times and places. Newman examines what people consider to be “waste” and how they interact with it, as well as what happens when different perceptions of trash come into conflict. Conceptions of waste have shaped forms of reuse and renewal in ancient Mesoamerica, early modern ideas of civility and forced religious conversion in New Spain, and even the modern discipline of archaeology. Newman argues that centuries of assumptions imposed on other places, times, and peoples need to be rethought. This book is not only a broad reconsideration of waste; it is also a call for new forms of archaeology that do not take garbage for granted. Unmaking Waste reveals that waste is not—and never has been—an obvious or universal concept.

296 pages | 30 color plates, 18 halftones, 1 line drawings | 6 x 9

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Latin American Studies


“Newman uses an archaeological lens to pose deep questions for our understanding of human waste management, including our very definitions of what constitutes ‘waste’: the result is a timely and original intervention that will resonate across disciplines and offer fresh perspectives on contemporary environmentalist movements.”

David Wengrow, coauthor of The Dawn of Everything

“‘Trash talk’ at its finest, this epic and engaging book reimagines how we should think about both the history of archaeology and our present-day pollution crisis. Destabilizing taken-for-granted assumptions about garbage, Unmaking Waste excavates multiple understandings of trash and time across centuries of Mesoamerican, European, and Euroamerican history.”

Byron Hamann, author of The Invention of the Colonial Americas

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: A Fortress of Indestructible Leftovers
1. Throwaway Living
2. Archaeologies of Garbage
3. Cleanliness and Godliness
4. Dirty Work
5. Things Left Behind
6. Anamorphic Archaeology
Conclusion: A Weakness in Our Imaginations?

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