Seeking Urban Metabolisms through Archaeology

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The metabolism of a city is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in its archaeology. Decades of excavations triggered by cultural heritage management legislation in Melbourne, Australia reveal a city honeycombed with rubbish pits. Disused cesspits (old-fashioned long-drop toilets), purpose-dug holes and localised dumps filled to the brim with rubbish remain below the factories, office buildings and car parks we see as we walk the city streets.

What lies in these pits is an archive of wastefulness, of how we got to where we are today. Modern landfills and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will be the future archive of current generations. A reading of this archive reveals metabolisms at a number of scales: the city itself as a living organism taking in, processing and excreting waste (Pincetl, 2012); bodies within cities consuming food and goods, metabolising toxins and pollutants (Solomon, 2016); and the metabolic rift in the social and ecological machinations of capitalism.

Melbourne’s archive of wastefulness

In late 1871 and early 1872, after years of grappling with the effluent of a booming Gold-rush population—of cesspits overflowing in heavy rain and filling the streets and nearby cellars, of waste leaking into the ground water, of night-cart men asphyxiating while emptying a cesspit—the aptly named Inspector of Nuisances was closing down Melbourne’s cesspits (Hayes and Minchinton, 2016). Residents were given two weeks to fill their pit with clean fill. For most this meant filling it with all their no longer wanted, out-of-fashion household items. This wasn’t just the wealthy few, but also the working poor living in tiny inner-city cottages. From wooden toothbrushes, to T-bones from steaks, to transfer-printed ceramics, it’s all still there. The city can’t metabolise these objects. They remain.

The cesspit closures provide a rare opportunity to examine exactly what particular people discarded, the contents of each cesspit forming a particular ‘assemblage’, in the terminology of archaeology. In not all, but some cases, the cesspits can be linked via ratebooks to the people responsible for the rubbish. Their life histories and personal stories can be cross referenced with the rubbish they discarded, and the consumer decisions of people from different walks of life laid bare. It is there revealed that the Mayor of Melbourne was concealing his convict roots by buying flashy tablewares from the seconds market, that wannabe gentry chose expensive but demure goods to convey their status, and that sex workers were tapping in to a middle-class consumer culture to attract clientele.

What these individual insights afford is a bigger-picture view of the distinctive culture built on things that emerged as a result of the Victorian Gold Rush. The massive influx of people to the city after the European discovery of gold led to a social climate where, for many, backgrounds could be obscured, pasts hidden and opportunities for social mobility taken. Consumerism filled the space left by familial and inherited claims to status in this colonial city. What resulted was a redefining of status that was based much more on what people purchased, wore and displayed.

Excess and wastefulness are there from very early on in the history of Melbourne. In the pastoral era, before the Gold Rush began in 1851, Melbourne had fewer than 50 merchants: shortly after, it had upwards of 300. The influx of goods to the colony in 1853 and 1854 resulted in unwanted merchandise spilling out of warehouses (Davison, 2001: 55–56), and as any Melbourne-based bottle hunter will know, unwanted cargos dumped along the banks of the Yarra River. Melbourne had several bottle washing factories in its centre in the 1860s and 1870s, yet the archaeology shows that working- and middle-class people were all throwing away perfectly reusable bottles. A rubbish pit out the back of a draper shop in the working-class Little Lon neighbourhood was filled with clothes and shoes, presumably dumped because they either didn’t sell or went out fashion. By tracking the quantity and variety of discarded ceramics, it’s clear that people were also discarding perfectly useable table and tea wares for the sake of an update to the latest fashions.

Metabolic rift and social drivers for wastefulness

Melbourne’s cesspits were filled with rubbish not long after Marx was writing about metabolic rift (Marx, 1867; 2012; Foster, 1999). Industrialisation, colonialism, gold rushes and the increasingly global trade in consumer goods were compounding the rift between urban and rural, capital and labour. What humans extracted and consumed was no longer being returned to the earth, evident not just in the depletion of soils but also in the extraction of raw materials (from clay to glass to gold) to line the pockets of a few at the expense of many. The rift was becoming an increasingly global one by the 1870s.

Source: Museums Victoria, Queen Street Assemblage; Photographer: Sarah Hayes.

Take, for example, the above saucer. In 1865, clay was extracted from the land in England, shaped by a dust-inhaling worker into a saucer in Staffordshire, decorated, shipped by a crew of shipmen to the opposite side of the world, unloaded by dock workers, sold at a market, used, deemed out of fashion, and discarded, only to sit in the ground with countless others just like it for 150 years. Each year that goes by more is taken from the earth, to be processed through the city in whatever form, then ultimately become clogging pollution. As the decades pass, the rubbish is harder to contain. Where once it was curtailed within backyard rubbish pits and nearby city landfills, the rubbish is increasingly making its way into farther removed and larger landfills, urban rivers, animals’ guts, and oceans. Glass and ceramic can last thousands of years in the ground and plastic is even more enduring and toxic. The metabolism of the city and wider environment becomes more and more sluggish, slowed down by toxic garbage that it can’t excrete. City residents then absorb toxins and consume micro plastics. Metabolic health—urban, global, animal and human—suffers.

To understand and perhaps begin to repair this rift, it is critical to examine metabolic flows between social systems and the environment, and also the modes of thought that enable and perpetuate cultures of waste. A key question for archaeology should be ‘the dynamic structural coupling of brains, bodies and the material world’ (Malafouris, 2010: 270). As with research on human metabolisms providing better outcomes in the future, so too understanding the metabolism of the city and the social factors at play can aid in predicting or altering future consumerism and climate change.

Rubbish today ends up far from its original owners. There is a problematic lack of accountability in this: once our rubbish is in our landfill bin it’s out of our consciousness, never to be seen again. It is difficult, if not impossible, to interrogate who threw out what and why. Archaeology provides a rare opportunity to study the rubbish of a range of individuals; a chance to look at how goods are produced and where they are circulated; insights into the ways in which people bring them into their homes and use them and most importantly, how they discard them. We can better understand the culturally defined drivers for consumerism and excess by moving back and forth between the systems of consumerism and individual engagements with those systems. Archaeology can interrogate how luxuries become necessities, or the different cultural approaches to status competition and its role in driving consumerism, and can even aid in better allowing for the human factor in climate change models (Wilk, 2001; Roscoe, 2014). Further, archaeology is well-positioned to examine the role of cultural capital in consumer excess, commodity fetishism, and the rise of fashion and individuation. All of these can be tracked through archaeology, with potential to highlight change over time and global variances.

For Melbourne’s Gold-rush population, the rush for gold was also a rush for status and the combination drove consumerism to new heights. Material acquisition rapidly became the measure of a life, and the desire for things has never abated. Further, the metabolic rift in power relations between capital and labour widened as a result of the Gold Rush. Indigenous people were further displaced from their lands as prospectors moved in. Later, as alluvial gold became hard to access, profits increasingly went to wealthy large-scale mine operators instead of to the labourers or Indigenous custodians. In all of this, the environment was barely a consideration (Mountford and Tuffnell, 2018: 24–25)

Consumerism and wastefulness are ingrained with ideas around quality of life and social status in contemporary Australia, in distinctive ways that have their roots in Gold-rush society. The dominance of Western consumer goods and goods made elsewhere for a Western market are a big part of this and also reflect the dominance of Western values. Whether Irish Catholic, Jewish, Chinese or Indigenous, people’s rubbish in the Gold-rush period was dominated by British manufacture. This speaks not only to the accessibility of goods in this era and the dominance of Britain in global trade, but also to dominant ideas about what quality of life should mean and how that should be expressed materially. These were ideas that could be deployed to negate different cultural values, particularly those of Indigenous Australians. It is worth noting, however, that it is a rare assemblage that doesn’t include non-Western consumer goods, albeit in smaller numbers. Undoubtedly consumer goods played a role in pushing Western ideals and norms at a societal level; however, the archaeology of Melbourne’s Gold-rush era cesspits also provides an opportunity to see into personal values and individual responses. One interpretation might be that there was more of a blending of cultures and values on the ground, between individuals, than the historical record would lead us to believe.

Heritage, museums and behaviour change

A significant portion of archaeological work in Australia is driven by heritage management. And, what heritage is: past for the future. In addition to predicting and understanding future consumerism, there is no more timely and important a contribution for archaeological heritage than encouraging behaviour change for sustainability, particularly if done in partnership with museums. In this way, past legacies of waste can, in a sense, be metabolised into careers and understandings in contemporary society via blog posts, publications and museum exhibitions.

There is an opportunity in archaeology to capitalise on the human fascination with waste. A  small piece of a fatberg, a congealed mass of fat, wet wipes and other rubbish flushed by Londoners and recovered from the Whitechapel sewer, recently went on display at the Museum of London. The exhibition drew massive crowds and has opened the gates for museum displays of the disgusting and the everyday. The Melbourne Museum has followed suit by adding a fatberg to their current Gut Feelings exhibition.

Archaeological collections are notoriously difficult to display in museums. How to present broken bits of rubbish in an interesting and aesthetic way? However, instead of elevating the beautiful objects within an assemblage, the real power lies in the entirety of a rubbish collection. For example, a foyer display of the entire rubbish contents of a cesspit from Little Lon at Melbourne Museum was extended due to popular demand.

Archaeology and sustainability

Through urban metabolism, the city can be viewed as a lifeform. The porosity of the bodies that live in cities creates a blurred relationship of health and metabolic processing for both. So how much wastefulness can a city, and the bodies (human and non-human) that inhabit it, take? In the Gold-rush era, cesspit contents seeped into the groundwater and rubbish was stockpiled across the city. Analysis of the medicine bottles that people threw away show how city dwellers self-prescribed with a range of quack medicines in response. Fast forward to today and excess is an epidemic, health is in decline and plastics permeate bodies and environments.

Archaeology doesn’t have all the answers, but is a unique lens through which to engage with questions of sustainability. Heather Davis (2015: 356) has argued that ‘We must recognize the porousness of our bodies and thoughts that leach into economics and materials, that transfer our wastes across the planet and into the deep future.’ Archaeology can be an aid to this cause. If we gain insights into how people use things in status competition and in the formation of a ‘good life’ in different parts of the world there is a possibility to challenge ideas around the use of things. Further, encounters with waste in new and novel ways can challenge attitudes to throw-away culture and confrontations with historic waste via archaeology might just provide the wakeup call that we all urgently need.


Davis, H (2015) Life & Death in the Anthropocene: A Short History of Plastic. Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, 347–358.

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Solomon, H (2016) Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Dr Sarah Hayes is a Senior Research Fellow in the Heritage and Indigeneity stream at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. As an archaeologist and material culture researcher, she has a particular interest in the role possessions play in quality of life and social mobility, and in turn opportunity, inequality and wastefulness. She is an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award recipient, co-editor of the Australasian Historical Archaeology journal, and honorary associate at Museums Victoria.