Our modern day “solid waste approaches,” including our local landfill have more ancient roots than we might realize.
Ariel David, a Tel-Aviv journalist, dug into ancient Jewish and Roman trash for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Archaeologists digging up a 2000-year- old landfill think a combination of Roman efficiency and Israeli interest in cleanliness created a unique system to take out the trash,” reported David last year. “The mother of all garbage dumps,” the landfill was 70 meters in height-- -- that’s nearly 230 feet. It operated roughly in the first 7 decades of the first century until the whole city was “trashed” (destroyed) by the Romans.
Before the Roman era, as far back as the Neolithic times, humans have dug pits for their garbage. Ancient Romans sometimes collected it for later use as fertilizer, or “reuse” it, to level terrain when constructing new buildings – both practices are still done today. But most authorities agree humans historically would often just live with their garbage. In ancient Pompeii, for example, trash was evidently piled in cemeteries and along city walls.
In Rome, the sewage system was also a common “garbage disposal” option. In fact, the body of a murdered 3rd century emperor was actually dumped in the sewer. He was neither reduced nor recycled. He simply became political “refuse” in more ways than one.
In Jerusalem, things were different. They had a landfill, replete with “alternating layers of ancient trash and soil.” Yuval Gadot, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist, has suggested that “there was a deliberate attempt to systematically cover the garbage to prevent smells and deter scavengers.”
“It looks like there was a mechanism in place that cleared the streets, cleared the houses, using donkeys to collect and throw away the garbage,” Gadot speculates. According to David, the system may have developed because of a growing observance among Jews of religious Neolithic Huts (anticipating “greener” times) purity norms. “It could be that it became a norm in Jerusalem that you have to take out the garbage, because it’s impure and has to be brought outside the city,” Gadot suggests. “It’s not the municipality saying so: God says so, and that makes it easier.” Cleanliness was indeed next to godliness. “Thou shalt take out the trash,” and not keep it your city.
Gadot says that garbage included animal bones, charred remains of grains, olive pits and wood from household ovens-- -basically, leftovers from ancient lunch. Waste from the manufacture of glass and stone vessels was also present. Very few bronze and iron artifacts have been found. Why? Because they were being recycled.
“It seems that any material that they could recycle, they collected separately and it never reached the landfill. It was melted or reused,” Gadot says. “Maybe at the domestic level they sold scraps of metal to someone who specialized in that.”
So at least one groundbreaking society managed to reduce, reuse, recycle and RETHINK way ahead of others. And at the Miami County Solid Waste District, we’re committed to following that approach as well.
OUR TURN: Has this always been mankind’s approach? Let’s continue to lay some historical groundwork for why we in Miami County are doing what we’re doing to deal with our solid waste. Perhaps this overview can inspire us all to take a more active role in “reducing, reusing, recycling and rethinking” our personal approach to waste production and management, just like the Jews in first century Jerusalem did.