Prof cleans up old Rome's rep by digging in its garbage

Kevin Dicus at a dig in Rome

If one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, then the UO’s Kevin Dicus hit the jackpot when he found a way to turn several cities’ worth of garbage into an archaeological research project.

The classics professor has been digging into trash – literally – to understand how urban centers handled garbage in the ancient world. Through a 12-year project across four cities in Italy, Dicus examined piles of trash and excavation reports to uncover waste management practices in ancient Rome and better understand how that civilization would discard, reclaim and reuse waste.

While the subject matter may be buried in the distant past, Dicus stresses its persistent relevance as societies around the world continue to grapple with the most sustainable and effective ways to handle garbage.

“Garbage is our albatross these days,” Dicus said. “It’s important to understand how people have managed waste over time.”

Dicus believes Romans offered some shining examples on how to handle garbage. He’s found that they were innovative and forward-thinking with their trash practices, despite having a reputation as a less-than-tidy culture.

He came to that realization during many long and scorching days digging under the Italian sun. As he chiseled and sifted through the hot soil, he kept encountering a curious pattern of archaeological objects that stayed consistent across many research sites.

“There were several deposits across urban centers that contained a myriad of artifacts that shared little chronological or functional relationship with one another,” Dicus said.

He was stumbling upon many collections of disconnected pieces that had seemingly no reason to be stored in the same space, everything from ceramics to religious objects to jewelry to shards of glass resting in close proximity to one another.

After uncovering several similarly dissimilar deposits, he realized that the confusing array of objects actually did have something in common: It was all garbage. And the explanation for its presence in so many spaces was that Romans were reusing and repurposing waste as building materials in their homes and businesses.

“I believe waste, after discard, was reclaimed and reused as a convenient and abundant resource for construction projects,” Dicus said.

One common scenario he points to is a household that decided to repurpose a vat-like space used for household chores like washing clothes. To replace those hollow spaces with something new, engineers would fill the obsolete vats with heaps of garbage before building a floor over the formerly open area. They would also use trash to fill in wells and basements. 

“Because their city dumps were full of relatively ‘clean’ garbage, the Romans were able to reuse it in very safe, pragmatic ways,” he said.

A funny thing that happened on the way to Dicus’ discovery is that it also revealed some widespread misconceptions across other excavation projects.

He notes that many archaeologists were uncovering evidence of sacred objects and speculating that the sites they found them in were religious ones. But through his discovery on how the Romans were repurposing trash, including many bits of religious relics, for construction, Dicus believes these sites were not actually holy ground, just holey ground filled with rubble.

“I believe many of these spaces were misinterpreted because archaeologists were asking too much of the evidence and artifacts, when they were really pieces of garbage,” he said.

Another misconception Dicus has addressed through his discovery is the perception of the Romans as a dirty culture, which was based largely on the prevalence of trash inside city walls. 

“By studying the contexts in which the deposits appear, it is possible to explain why waste was so abundant within these urban centers,” Dicus said. “They weren’t dirty, they were just putting their trash to good use.”

Dicus is currently working on a book about this research project, for which he’s earned support through the Oregon Humanities Center and the American Academy in Rome.

He hopes his findings expand what scholars know about ancient waste management policies and encourages new research to examine the archaeological record, including more of his own projects. He got his first foray into rubbish research as an undergraduate student studying anthropology at the University of Arizona, and his fascination with garbage hasn’t faded.

“Trash is an important way to analyze a society's life and structure,” Dicus said. “How trash was disposed and why it was placed in certain areas by its generators reveals interesting patterns throughout history.”

—By Emily Halnon, University Communications