Wednesday December 19, 2018

Garbologists find roots of modern waste by digging through Victorian-Era garbage

In the Victorian Era, the civilization made a permanent shift towards a throwaway society, and the production of waste only began to increase from this point in the timeline

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Victorian era Mineral bottles. Image source: Tom Licence
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  • Garbology is the “study of a culture or community by analysis of its waste”
  • The Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, West London boasts a collection of 12,000 unique items like cartons, boxes, paper cups tins etc
  • The Victorian era also marked the rise of the packaging industry

East Anglia, a rural area north of London, became a place of historical interest for Tom Licence and his research team, What East Anglia Threw Away, early 2016, when a scavenging streak for Victorian Era trash gripped their minds. “We’re aware that there’s a dump close to the cottage, and that’s part of our interest, but also we’ve set up a little history group, and we’ve been working on the history of Castle Rising ever since”, says Sylvia Cooke, who came to East Anglia about 14 years ago.

“We are pioneering garbologists”, says Tom Licence with a friendly laugh. Garbology is the “study of a culture or community by analysis of its waste”. The Victorian Era, which spanned through the years of 1837 till 1901, witnessed a crucial shift of consumer patterns – with an increase in wealth and the Industrial Revolution, the civilization shifted from making things at home to buying them at grocery markets and shops. This era also marked the rise of the packaging industry.

As people began to gain awareness about germs and hygiene, they became distrustful of local vendors and grocers,some of whom added spurious ingredients to increase the weight of the product. A packaged product guaranteed it hadn’t been tampered with, and hence more trustworthy. Moreover, it also ensured that the manufacturers were able to design and control their own brand. The means of packaging then involved bottles and tins, or small containers which couldn’t be reused and hence found their way into what is now called as Victorian Era trash.

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The importance of collecting and preserving garbage from those olden days was cleverly identified by Robert Opie, a social historian, who founded the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, West London. The museum boasts a collection of 12,000 unique items like cartons, boxes, paper cups tins etc. which documents the progression of brands of some of the world’s most popular companies like Cadbury. The museum assumed a larger space recently to accommodate the growing interest. The colour on these packaging materials dim as war years are approached, The Guardian reports. “It’s a portal into your own past”, Robert Opie says.

Victorian Era
Dundee Marmalade tin containers. Image courtesy: Tom Licence

In the Victorian Era, the civilization made a permanent shift towards a throwaway society, and the production of waste only began to increase from this point in the timeline. Before this time, humans produced next to no waste at all. In large cities like London, there was a systematic disposal of waste, but in the rural areas like East Anglia, it wasn’t economical to supply ash carts to every household, so the people here would dig up pits in nearby areas and bury their waste there. This is one of the primary reasons why Tom Licence and his local volunteers targeted East Anglia.

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Tom Licence also has knowledge of similar findings all over the world. There have been people from California and India who show an interest in Garbology. A worker digging up the Earth for the construction of the Olympic Stadium in Brazil found packaging products that originated all the way from England. Licence believes this was the time when trade flourished, and the human carbon footprint made its stamp on the face of the Earth for the first time in history.

Discoveries made by garbologists in England have helped them analyse the living patterns of the civilizations in the British subcontinent, dating all the way back to the Victorian Era. If similar expeditions were to be carried out in all places over the world, it would help us comprehend a much better understanding of how humans led their lives in respective countries, and that would indeed be interesting to the historian palette.

-by Saurabh Bodas, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter:@saurabhbodas96

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  • I coined the word garbology to mean the study of the garbage of the rich and famous but you folks are doing a great job in retro-garbological pioneering. Congratulations!

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Angola Fossils Bring A New But Familiar Ocean in View

These fossils are the patrimony of Angola, these are their heritage, and for us to be able to bring them to the Smithsonian and ultimately back to Angola.

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Angola Fossils
This full-size fossil reconstruction of a sea turtle from the prehistoric South Atlantic looks very similar to the giant sea turtles which still swim in our oceans today. VOA

Some may be familiar with mythical sea monsters. For example, Scotland’s infamous Loch Ness Monster “Nessie,” and Giganto — fictional beasts of comic book fame. But millions of years ago, real-life sea monsters lived and thrived in what we now call the South Atlantic Ocean.

South Atlantic Ocean basin

As the continents of South America and Africa separated millions of years ago, scientists say a fantastic array of ferocious predators and other lifeforms colonized the newly formed body of water off the coast of Angola.

That diverse collection of marine reptiles included mosasaurs (aquatic lizards), plesiosaurs (which exhibited broad flat bodies, large paddlelike limbs, and typically a long flexible neck and small head), and the more familiar giant sea turtles.

But a catastrophic asteroid that hit earth 66 million years ago wiped most of them out, according to scientists.

Today, thanks to a project called Projecto PaleoAngola among Angolan, American, Portuguese and Dutch researchers, paleontologists have been able to visit the coastal cliffs of Angola to excavate and study what remains of these giant animals.

“We knew that there were fossils there, we just didn’t know how good they would be,” says Louis Jacobs, collaborating curator and professor emeritus of paleontology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

“Nobody had been there, so this was a vast, unknown terrain and we wanted to get there.”

A 72-million year-old ecosystem

What the team of paleontologists discovered was a treasure trove, giving them an unprecedented look into a strange yet familiar ecosystem.

In addition to mosasaurs, plesiosaurs and sea turtles, there were fossilized remains of a variety of fish and other marine life forms.

Angola, fossils
Modern cliffs of coastal Angola where Projecto PaleoAngola paleontologists excavate fossils of life that once lived in Angola’s ancient seas. VOA

While mosasaurs have been known to exist on all continents and are relatively common in certain places, this particular sample is the largest collection of southern hemisphere mosasaurs known, according to the paleontologists.

“It’s certainly the best locality for these kinds of animals in sub-Saharan Africa and it could be one of the best in the world,” Jacobs said.

Rediscovering a lost world

Eleven authentic fossils from Angola’s ancient seas, full-size reconstructions of a mosasaur and an ancient sea turtle are on display for the first time in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, titled “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas.”

There are also 3-D scanned replicas of mosasaur skulls, and photo-murals and video vignettes transport visitors to field sites along Angola’s modern rugged coast, where Projecto PaleoAngola scientists unearthed the fossil remains from this lost world.

 

Angola, fosiils
The seafaring lizard Prognathodon kianda was a top predator in the Cretaceous waters. Scientists named this species after Kianda, the ruler of the ocean in Angolan mythology. VOA

 

Jacobs, who was part of a team of scientists and students at SMU that helped prepare the fossils for the Smithsonian exhibit, says any visitor “can look and see and compare how the ecosystem and its animals of the cretaceous of 72 million years ago are similar to ecosystems today in the same general areas.”

“The species are different, but the ecological jobs of the species are very similar,” he added.

Giant lizards

Michael Polcyn, senior research fellow at SMU, pointed out an example in the exhibit.

Standing in front of a fossil skull and partial skeleton of a mosasaur, he described the reptile as an “optimized fish eater.”

“You see the long narrow snout, the interlocking teeth — this would be similar to what you would see in the ocean today, in a dolphin for instance,” he said.

He gestured to a graphic posted on the display case depicting a rough toothed dolphin which it described as “the analog for the animal in the modern ecosystem.”

Angola Fossils
An artist’s rendering of Angola’s Cretaceous seas 72 million years ago, dominated by many species of large, carnivorous marine reptiles. VOA

Shell-crushing mosasaur

Another great example of diversity within that ancient ecosystem is the hardshell-eating mosasaur, Polcyn said, which preyed on large oysters which were almost a meter (three feet) across.

“They were really big, so to crack an oyster three feet across you needed the dentition and the musculature to do that, and that’s what you see here in these very strange mushroom-shaped teeth that you see in this animal,” Polcyn explained.

Within the same ecosystem was another example of a top predator, the Prognathodon kianda. Its full-scale skeleton on display in the museum is almost eight meters long.

In addition to top predators like the monster-like mosasaur, the exhibit also includes fossils of gentler creatures; small fish and an ancient giant sea turtle.

“We have a snapshot of this moment in time 72 million years ago that has preserved all of these animals that were living together in one place,” Polcyn said.

Angola Fossils
This mosasaur fossil skull shows how its mushroom-shaped teeth were optimized to crack hard-shell prey like giant oysters. VOA

The big dig

Jacobs says the fossil find in Angola was a big deal for a number of reasons:

“First of all because it’s going into a country that never really had a heritage of fossils,” he said. “It basically was unknown at the level that we are opening it up.”

“Fossils,” he says, “instill a sense of pride in what’s in the country, and it provides something to use for education, and it builds science. And the way it builds science is because every country has fossils, so every country has something to offer, so every country is a piece of the puzzle and the Angola piece is now there.”

Michael Polcyn agrees that unearthing this cache of ancient fossils has been a huge breakthrough on a number of fronts.

Also Read: New Artifacts Found in Cairo, Egypt: Archaeologists

“From a purely scientific point of view it gives us an incredible window into an ecosystem 72 million years ago that is relatively complete,” he says. “From a very human point of view this really shows the people of Angola, and the people of the world, what incredible resources we have in our natural environments.”

And lastly, he says, “These fossils are the patrimony of Angola, these are their heritage, and for us to be able to bring them to the Smithsonian and ultimately back to Angola, on a very personal level, is a thrill for us.” (VOA)