The modern world has a big problem, doesn’t it?
Okay, no, not global warming, the other one.
No, no, not the impending economic crisis. The OTHER ONE.
Yes, that one. Plastic.
We really backed ourselves into a corner with plastic, didn’t we? We’ve made hundreds of thousands of tonnes of it. And for good reason: it’s very useful, after all. It keeps fresh food packed up nice and airtight so it can be transported safely without going bad. It can be moved straight from transport to the supermarket shelves without having to be opened and repackaged.
It’s probably the single biggest reason why we live such comfortable, convenient lives today, with huge supermarkets giving us an unprecedented selection of foods to choose from – all in one place.
But damn if it isn’t hard to get rid of.
So we’ve come up with modern ways of dealing with the problem: if we can’t get rid of it, we have to reuse or recycle it. Some people turn old plastics into things in their houses – plant pots, for instance, or decor. Of course, if worst comes to worst, we can just bury it or burn it.
It seems like a thoroughly modern problem – but the thing is, the Romans had an almost identical issue: amphorae.
Amphorae were the plastics of the ancient world: made en masse, dirt cheap, essential for daily life. They fulfilled the same role plastic does today: moving food and drink long distances without destroying it. To do this, it had to be fairly robust, or it wouldn’t be any good.
However, you also need it to be easily disposable. This contradiction was something that stumped them just as much as it stumps us today.
See, once an amphora was used, it usually wasn’t cost-efficient to reuse them. They were so cheap and plentiful, and cleaning them was so costly, that they were often just smashed and left behind. The result is pretty stunning: fragments of amphorae turn up everywhere the Romans went, from Scotland to Egypt. They are ubiquitous: we’ve literally found too much of it to count. Even thousands of years later, it’s lying there under the dirt, not biodegrading – to use a modern term – but waiting for us to find it.
The Romans weren’t stupid, though. They saw the problem and they tried to solve it in various ways. Amphorae appear to have been reused as drain pipes, flower pots and the like. A lot of the time, the broken amphorae were crushed into fragments and used to make opus signinum, a type of Roman concrete that could then be used in construction.
But sometimes, there was no way to reuse them. Then the Romans resorted to that surprisingly ancient method of disposal: the landfill.
There is a huge amphora landfill site in Rome that survives to this day: Monte Testaccio.
Now, Roman dumpsites were well-managed, and they seem to have been organised by the government: most are built so the risk of landslides are minimised, for instance. But there’s a weird kind of organisation to Monte Testaccio that goes beyond that: almost all the amphorae there contained olive oil and are of a particular shape, the Dressel 20 – more information on it here.
Historical Note: The Dressel 20 is an interesting amphora. One of the most common shapes, especially in the western provinces and in the later years of the empire, the vast majority are located in the dumping site in Rome or along the ‘limes’ – the Roman military border – in Britain and Germany. This, along with the extensive information stamped on them – place of origin, etc – suggests they may have been a favourite of the Roman army – especially since many of the estates that made them were imperial-owned by the 300s.
Historians have struggled over the reasons for this and have come up with two conclusions: the first is that, due to their shape, they were difficult to crush into concrete – too many curved edges, not enough flat. I’m not sure I like that one. I find the second much more plausible: the residue from the olive oil was just too difficult to remove. The Roman concreting process used lime, and when fat and lime react together they make soap: not what you want when you’re trying to make building materials. Olive oil is a fat, which would explain why contains holding it would have to be dumped instead.
So the Romans didn’t find a solution to their recycling problem, either. Shards of these things turn up all over the place, much like our plastic will millennia from now, and they eventually resorted to just burying it in piles and leaving it for someone else to sort out. Sounds familiar.
But it’s not all bad. These dumps are incredibly useful – because most of the time, the Romans printed information on their amphorae. Doubtless this was for much the same reason we do today: accountability, to ensure a certain standard. In many cases not only was the place of origin included, but the names of the people who packaged them and who made the product inside. The destination was there too, naturally, as was the weight of the vessel itself. When it was full, it was weighed again and the new, full weight was included too – so someone along the line couldn’t take some off the top. Very clever. And very useful, too, because by analysing this data we can start to build a picture of the Roman economy – something that would be impossible if they had found a way to recycle them.
No doubt historians in thousands of years will be picking through our landfills, marvelling at the might of Wal-Mart or the amount of additives we put in our food. They’ll even be able to reconstruct the history of our consumption: how eating has changed since the 80s, for instance.
So landfills have been around forever, unfortunately. But – from a historical viewpoint at least – that might not be an entirely bad thing.