Digging through trash to find history

Robert Schuyler

Robert Schuyler leads students in an archaeological dig in the back yard of a demolished Victorian house in Vineland, N.J.

For Robert Schuyler and his students, one town’s trash is their archaeological treasure.

Associate Curator of Penn Museum’s Historical Archaeology section, Schuyler has been working with his students for the last three years to unearth garbage from the not-so-distant past.

Schuyler and his team didn’t have to travel far to get their hands dirty—just to Vineland, N.J., in the Pine Barrens region. Why the Garden State? Schuyler explains that Vineland wasn’t settled until the mid 19th century, making it an excellent place to study modern archaeology. The close proximity to Penn’s campus, adds Schuyler, makes it convenient for students to gain experience at an actual archaeological dig.

Today, Vineland is largely a bedroom suburb for Atlantic City, but the trash deposits of townspeople from the Victorian period and early 20th century remain. With his team of undergraduate and graduate students, Schuyler hopes to find out how the town formed in the 19th century and how it developed throughout the rest of its history. “We’re looking at an American agrarian community [to see] how it was established in the Victorian period,” says Schuyler, “and how it evolved. . .to be what it is today.” To find answers, Schuyler set up a dig in the backyard garbage pit—the main means of disposal until about 1940—of a razed Victorian house.

So far, Schuyler and his students have found embossed bottles, a woman’s compact, broken dishes, buttons and discarded toy parts—evidence of a successful middle class household. In a nearby yard, the teams have also found concrete blocks from an early auto shop and fragments of horseshoes.
But as Schuyler will tell you, the dig won’t tell the whole story. That’s why he’s leading his students in a variety of information gathering techniques known collectively as historical ethnography. These include researching archived materials such as deeds, wills and letters, and collecting oral histories from residents.

This fall, Schuyler will wrap up work on the site and, in collaboration with the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, find another in which to dig for buried treasure.

Schuyler acknowledges that the scope of his project is unusual, but says his interest in the Vineland site is both global and personal. “It’s right in our own back yard. It’s the archaeology of everybody.”

Originally published on September 9, 2004