Rubbish clearance practices in the ancient world is a fascinating topic but also a little gruesome so prepare to be grossed out!
There were no bin men back or back alley rubbish clearance skips in the days of the ancient Egyptians. However, each family was obliged to take their rubbish to a communal dumping ground, usually in the irrigation canals. This, of course, caused rodent and other vermin to congregate at these areas, as well as a thriving population of bacteria associated with human refuse. This is partly why plagues travelled so quickly through populations back then.
Sanitation wise, we might cringe at the thought of this practice but the rubbish clearance practices were actually even worse in other cultures and at other times. The largest settlement of Natufians, who lived around 10,000 years B.C.E., was Jericho, located about kilometres to the north of the Dead Sea. For most of their history, the Natufians lived in stone houses, partially underground, with a hard dirt floor. It may be hard to believe but all of their rubbish clearance, including bones and other food craps, stone chips from making tools, and even human remains was placed on and in the dirt floor inside their homes! In fact, this is how archaeologists know so much about their daily lives. Two thousand years later, when they started using a plastered floor, archaeologists are left with far fewer clues to how their culture evolved from there. However, they still cleared their rubbish in the dirt between houses.
About 500 B.C.E., in Athens Greece, the very first “modern” landfill was devised for rubbish clearance purposes. Regulations had been put in place that all rubbish clearance had to be taken at least one mile outside the city. So the first municipal landfill grew out of these new laws and practices. In smaller towns around this time, they started using a designated dumping site in town or very close to town.
Before 500 B.C.E., the Greeks and other cultures living in cities had simply gone outside their homes and dumped their rubbish directly into the streets! Occasionally, they would cover the rubbish with a new layer of dirt. While their rubbish clearance was far more biodegradable than ours is today, it is still estimated that the streets in Troy were raised about five feet per hundred years or about a foot per twenty years! Can you imagine what would happen if our streets kept rising due to rubbish accumulation?
In case you’re wondering if all that rubbish clearance in the streets stunk – it did! In fact, it was quite popular back then to wear around your neck a pomander, which was basically a perfume ball filled with very pungent perfumes or other strong aromas. In some cases, it was an orange (or dried orange zest) spiked with cloves. Strong perfumes included ambergris, civet musk, or deer musk. Ambergris is essentially hardened “amber” derived from the gut of a sperm whale! When it is first formed, it smells like faeces. However, as it ages, it turns into a strong pleasant earthy sweet scent. These were used because they would overpower the stench of the rubbish clearance in the air that was so prevalent in these ancient environments.
Some cultures used a big pit in the ground that doubled as a cesspool (for human waste) and rubbish removal. These are usually called cesspits. In other cases, people would mix their rubbish clearance in with the animal manure. Some people would put it in a natural loam pit as well, which essentially turned it into a compost pile! This was probably one of the most sanitary methods of rubbish clearance in the ancient world. Loam has a lot of sand mixed in with clay so the drainage is good, setting up conditions where aerobic soil bacteria can live and break down the organic matter in the rubbish clearance. Middens were used by some cultures for non-biodegradable waste like seashells.
All we can say is thank goodness for bin men, rubbish clearance companies like Clearabee, and modern-day roadside rubbish clearance! Now if we could just get better as a modern human race at recycling or reusing our rubbish! If you use Clearabee’s rubbish clearance services, about ninety percent of your rubbish will end up recycled or reused. However, if you depend on the services established by the city councils, the percentage will be much lower, below fifty percent in fact for much of the country.