Archaeology has been described as the science of uncovering and interpreting the development of societies based on the archaeological record of physical remains of life and human activities. In addition to making inferences about what has been left behind, discarded or lost, archaeologists can also find clues as to what value was placed on certain things by how they were accumulated, distributed, used, and re-used.
Archaeological sites can be found anywhere cultural remains may be found, and while the actual criteria for preservation purposes is usually fifty years, there is much that can be learned about groups of people based on “artifacts of daily living” that are from more contemporary settings. To provide you an insight into how archaeologists go about the business of asking questions as a basis for later archaeological interpretation, I offer, as a case in point, the Skagway City-Wide Recreation Center Beginning of Summer Sale.
Had the whole building been covered over in the space of the weekend, and preserved as an erstwhile time capsule or a snapshot of what life was like here in Skagway in the beginning of the season 2015, what would the piles of clothes, bedding, books, and various sundry other items have said about Skagway residents’ attitudes toward “things” as commodities, their concepts of wealth, or re-use of previously owned property? In addition, would the inferences change based on what was left after two days of being picked over?
Now it is always a good thing to keep in mind at any sale, even of brand new merchandise, that stuff is there for a reason. It could be that the actual size was not what the tag said it was, or the color was not a hit, or the style just did not seem to resonate with consumers, or the overall design was flawed, making the end result undesirable (need I say Edsel or Gremlin?). Also, with regard to used clothing, it is a pretty safe bet that it has been through the wash a bazillion times (technical term), and so the sleeves and length of a shirt or the waistband of a pair of pants could have shrunk considerably, or the integrity of seams could have been compromised etc. In fact, one donator was so concerned about this that there was a Post-It note on a pair of 29” waist pair of pants that warned, “Not really that size”. Are we to suppose then that thinner Skagway residents are more honest, or are more community oriented and concerned that someone else might make the same mistake of believing the label, or did they just have an “a priori” guilty conscience? (Note: those particular pants were still there at the end of the sale, so nobody was taking a chance!).
Then of course, there is the dynamic of the sale itself. Although it might be hard to distinguish in the archaeological record the number of people who lined up 20 minutes ahead of the doors opening, the size of the site itself, and the amount left over at the end might be able to provide some type of statistical fodder for analysis. Another question we could ask that would provide an insight into the Skagway continuum of value is, “How did people decide what to give away, or what has been so de-valued in their eyes – especially if there is nothing apparently wrong with the item – that the item is not worth keeping for themselves but it is just “too good” to toss out? Is it the brand name or how much it cost that is the deciding factor? And how much damage does an item have to have sustained before it is deemed unfit for secondary or tertiary consumption? Has a perfectly good shirt or top been discarded because it brings up memories of an exotic trip with someone who has fallen out of favor? Or is it more like the fleece-lined Carhartt work pants having been a faithful companion through cold and hard work (as evidenced by the paint and oil splotches) that makes the donor loth to give them up? As a corollary, we might ask how much “damage” or wear the buyer appears to have been willing to overlook in a prospective purchase?
Also, in a comparison of site change over time, which could be done with any historical site as long as proper documentation was available, questions about the motivation of consumers could certainly be asked. In looking at the diminishing piles, was it necessity, the thrill of the hunt, or addiction to getting a good deal that drove the buyers/lookers, or a combination of all the above?
In the case of archaeologists, we have a ready-made explanation for visiting Rec Center-type sales, because we can always say that we were doing “archaeological research” as we paw excitedly through the piles. We may also have to argue the point though, especially when we are seen about town sporting a New South Wales Fire Department T-shirt, a Cabela’s windbreaker with a “slight” stain on the shoulder, or sleeves that don’t quite cover our wrists.