Like Indiana Jones, Rathje is an archaeologist. And like that fictional University of Chicago prof, this actual University of Arizona prof occasionally finds himself in sticky situations. But they've got different ideas about what a "gem" is. Rathje has assembled a career from the junk we throw away--in 1973 he established UofA's Garbage Project, an investigation involving sifting, sorting and recording the contents of urban landfills. Now his work--and the work of some 800 students who have passed through the project--is documented in the just-published Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, a book Rathje wrote with Cullen Murphy, the managing editor of the Atlantic (and the guy who scripts the "Prince Valiant" comic strip).
Serving as both a brief survey of garbology (Rathje acknowledges a debt to self-styled "Dylanologist" A.J. Weberman, who made a brief career of picking through the folk singer's trash cans) and a perspective-lending look at the solid-waste "crisis," Rubbish! is breezy, pragmatic--and surprising. It explodes a lot of the simplistic notions we hold about what we throw away, such as the commonly held ideas that plastic, polystyrene and fast-food packaging take up a significant amount of landfill space, that biodegradable items are always more desirable than nonbiodegradable stuff, and that we're running out of room for landfills.
For the past several weeks, Rathje's been hyping the book on talk shows and chatting with reporters on the telephone, and Rubbish! has subsequently shown up on some best-seller lists. It's generally been well-received. On July 6, in the wake of a gentle review by Witold Rybczynski in the New York Times Book Review, the irrepressible Rathje scored a few moments to plug his book on NBC's Today show. Now back in Tucson, Rathje says he's on the "raw edge of burnout," grousing that publishers are like piranha--they don't talk to you, they just bite."
All in all, he's a long way from digging holes in the backyard of his parents' house in Wheaton, Illinois. That, he says, was the seminal impulse that set him on the path to archaeological glory. "I didn't know why I was digging the holes," he says. "I didn't know whether I was going to get all the way to China or if I was just going to get under the house."
Even as an 8-year-old he was developing the people skills that would later allow him to convince squeamish undergraduates to get elbow-deep in sopping, smelly bags of refuse. "I was sort of the Tom Sawyer of hole-digging," Rathje says. "I'd get all my friends over to dig the holes for me."
Perhaps the professor's instinct to dig is hereditary; he's a cousin of Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. In any case, his grandparents sought to channel young Rathje's enthusiasm, so they gave him The Golden Book of Archaeology.
"I still consider that to be the best archaeology textbook I've ever read," he says. "It was filled with interesting stories; it was all watercolor paintings of temples and palaces and gold cups and jade beads. . .I loved it. I figured out right then that I wanted to be an archaeologist."
Well, almost right then. Rathje flirted with architecture for a while, but he wanted to avoid the math (he didn't--much of archaeology depends on the ability to cipher). And for a time he thought about songwriting, but when he decided to go to UofA as an undergraduate, he was going to study archaeology.
"By the time I was a junior, I figured out that jade beads and gold cups are really the tip of the iceberg," he says. "The rest of it is just plain garbage--broken pottery, broken stone tools, animal bones, plant remains, et cetera. I really thought it was neat."
So Rathje went on to Harvard for his doctorate, writing his thesis on the ascendancy of Mayan civilization. Then he returned to UofA as a professor, to tell his students "from the point of view of a Ph.D. in archaeology, what they needed to know in life about archaeology."
It didn't work. Rathje had no previous teaching experience, and he was perplexed to find his students didn't seem to care too much about his subject.
"I couldn't communicate to them," he says. "So, to help me, I figured I would get the students to look for patterns in the artifacts in their own society where they knew what the patterns meant to begin with."
He had his students observe such things as what makes of cars were likely to have things dangling from their rearview mirrors, and the differences between cars in the university's parking lots and cars parked at a church or a retirement center.