Too Much Stuff: Archaeologies of Acquisition and Sedentism


Reconstruction of a Jomon Pit House. Photograph by Dan Reeves

by Jerry D. Moore

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.

– George Carlin (1997) Braindroppings

In the waning decades of the 20th century, my wife and I, then recent Ph.D.s, moved thirteen times in six years. This was hardly an itinerant lifestyle compared to highly mobile hunters and gatherers like the Ache of Paraguay who reportedly moved fifty times annually, but thanks to the internal combustion engine and jet turbines, we had them beat in distance.

In August 1988 we left Santa Barbara, California, and took separate university teaching jobs in Kansas and Minnesota, each as one-year temporary lecturers in anthropology departments. At that point our peregrinations began in earnest: we went from Kansas and Minnesota to southern Mexico (for archaeological fieldwork), back to Minnesota (teaching), and then to Antigua Guatemala (a Fulbright grant), on to Albany, NY (“soft-money” research jobs), to Southern California (finally, a tenure-track job), back to Albany (birth of son), south to Washington, D.C. (fellowship), back to Albany (summer jobs and house-sitting), return to Southern California (return to tenure-track job), to the United Kingdom (fellowship), and finally back to Southern California in August 1994.

Our six year Wanderjahre covered 30,862 miles.

We seriously considered renting a self-storage unit near the geographical center of the lower 48 states, near Kansas City, where the north-south Interstate 35 and the east-west Interstate 40 intersect. That way, if we needed something in the course of another cross-country journey (“Do you know what ever happened to the espresso maker?”) we could simply swing by and pick it up.

Amazingly our situation was not far from the average American experience. According to the US Census Bureau, the average American moves 11.7 times in a lifetime, although most people move relatively short distances. Fifty-seven percent of Americans have never lived outside of their home state; thirty-seven percent have never left their hometown. Since the 1950s when more than 20% of Americans changed residences each year, American’s mobility actually has decreased, although 11-12% of Americans moved in 2008 alone.

A number of factors account for Americans’ mobility. The principle reason for moving is employment: people move to find work and to survive, a rationale understandable to any hunter-gatherer.  People who earn more move more. Only 25% of Americans with household incomes of $100,000 or more live in the community where they were born. More educated Americans have moved more, going away to college and then moving on to pursue jobs.

The young move more than the elderly. Westerners move more than Midwesterners. When Americans move, they tend to head south.

Such patterns of mobility in the U.S. are not shared by other industrialized nations. Overall, Europeans move about half as much as Americans. While mobility in the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries approaches the American pace, in other nations, such as Italy, Portugal, Greece and Ireland, less than 5% of the population moves annually.

So despite a decrease in mobility over the last sixty years, Americans still move a lot.  Which you would think would mean that we would have less stuff.

But if you have moved recently, you know that isn’t true.

The prehistoric shift to permanent dwellings and settled villages occurred around 18,000 – 15,000 years ago, but at various times in different places for distinct reasons. About 13,500 years ago in Japan, a durable prehistoric cultural tradition emerged known as the Jomon. Initially recognized from its pottery, some of the oldest known in the world, recent archaeological research has pushed knowledge of Jomon back to its pre-ceramic antecedents.

The earliest Jomon houses were shallow pit-houses or tents associated with other features that suggested a prolonged stay. Heavy grinding stones, some weighing more than 40 kilograms, indicate sustained encampments. The Jomon became sedentary.

The origin of sedentism in Japan is literally nuts, as the diet was based on acorns, beechnuts, walnuts, buckeyes and chestnuts. Earlier Paleolithic foragers had used stone mortars, pestles and hammer-stones to crack and pulverize nuts. But as post-glacial climate warmed and deciduous broadleaf groves replaced conifer forests, nuts became essential staples in ancient Jomon cuisine.

Sannai Marayama is the largest known Jomon site. Discovered in the mid-1990s during a construction project in the bustling port city of Aomori, Honshu, the site was excavated and then preserved as a major cultural center. More than 600 pit houses have been uncovered at Sannai Marayama, dating over 12 phases between 3900 and 2300 BC. Most of these houses were small pit houses and rectangular raised dwellings less than 5 meters long. Permanent single-family homes.

It was not the sheer abundance of food that allowed for more permanent Jomon homes and hamlets, but rather the availability of storable foods. Acorns, chestnuts, buckeyes and walnuts were harvested in the fall, stored in pits, and eaten throughout the winter. Fall was also the time for fishing for migrating salmon and for hunting fat deer, and dried fish and jerked venison lasted months.

Living near the ocean by a river delta and with densely forested hills and mountains only 5 – 10 kilometers to the south, the people of Sannai Marayama were ideally positioned to take advantage of rich and diverse natural resources. That explains the successful growth of the community, until Sannai Marayama grew too big.

For much of its history, Sannai Marayama was a modest village, usually with fewer than fifty dwellings housing 200 – 300 people. In the middle of the Middle Jomon, however, the settlement experienced a building boom and grew into a large village of 200 houses. But after reaching this peak population, Sannai Marayama declined, reverting to a modest village of people living in small huts.

What happened?

Junko Habu, an archaeologist from the University of California Berkeley who has excavated at Sannai Marayama, argues that the site’s population grew to unsustainable levels. Ancient plant and animal remains were poorly preserved and rare, so Habu analyzed the different stone tools used in hunting, gathering and food preparation (like inferring dietary differences based on the ratios of salad forks to steak knives in a vegan’s and a meat-lover’s respective kitchens.)

Habu’s analysis pointed to major shifts in subsistence over time. Beginning with the Early Jomon levels, the relative number of grinding stones increased through time, until peaking in the early phases of the Middle Jomon, when these tools used for grinding plants comprised 80% of all the stone tools. Then the pattern changed calamitously: the percentage of grinding tools was halved and arrowheads became the most common stone tool. The preponderance of arrowheads marked an increased emphasis on hunted game rather than collected plant foods.

Habu argues that the people of Sannai Marayama were victims of overspecialization. When hunters and gatherers are mobile, they usually collect and hunt a wide array of plants and animals. When hunters and gatherers become more sedentary, they become more specialized. The people of Sannai Maruyama could no longer be sustained by wild plant foods. Adjustments were critical. People first tried to make up for lost calories by hunting more; that was not enough. The community inevitably declined. Ultimately Jomon hunting and gathering, a supremely successful adaptation for more than ten thousand years, gave way to village life based on cultivating rice.

This is a fundamental lesson from the past. Human communities may evolve extraordinarily successful ways of life, but only by making specific choices with unknown consequences. In the process, the range of possible options inevitably narrows; a limiting challenge when circumstances change. The changes need not be dramatic, just enough to tip the balance of stability. When this happens, humans, like all other animals, have a fundamental choice: adapt or die.

Here is another lesson from prehistory: transitions are reversible. We often think of human history as progressing inevitably from gathering to farming, from mobile hunters to sedentary town folk and city dwellers. But archaeology demonstrates that these cultural thresholds, once crossed, are not inevitable transformations.

The Archaeologists, Giorgio de Chirico, 1927

In the last six decades, we Americans have doubled our rates of consumption and we are paying the price.  Measured in constant 1982 dollars, the average American spent $6,600 on consumption in 1947; in 1990 that number had grown to $14,400. This means that although the average American house has grown in size and the average American family has decreased, we literally have tons and tons more stuff.

If you move from your comfortable, but “modest,” three bedroom, 2000 sq ft house, you will need to schlep about 16,000 lbs of stuff (this is after the garage sale and the trip to the dump.) The most mobile home-owning, Americans, people whose only homes are their recreational vehicles, calculate that their RV’s must be sufficiently sturdy to accommodate 1500 lbs of stuff per person (and remember this doesn’t count their already built-in beds, fridge, stoves, and other furnishings.)

Correlated with American consumption is the growth in self-storage facilities, now a $20 billion business.World-wide there are approximately 60,000 self-storage facilities; 52,000 of them are in the U.S. In 1984 there were 6,601 storage facilities with a total volume of 289.7 million square feet. By late 2008 this had increased some 800% to 2.35 billion square feet. The single largest self-storage facility in the United States is thought to be Alpine Storage, an enormous, 16 acre facility located in north Salt Lake City, with easy access from Interstate 15.

The burdens of the American dream are demonstrated by ongoing archaeological research into modern material culture. The Sloan Center on Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California, Los Angeles, includes a research group led by the archaeologist Jeanne Arnold. Arnold is an expert on the evolution of prehistoric chiefdoms along the Pacific Coast, research that examines how ancient households were reshaped by changing patterns of politics and economy.

Since 2001, Arnold has applied archaeological methods to modern American households. Beginning with a sample of homes in Los Angeles, Arnold and her team carefully mapped houses with detailed locations of modern artifacts. Residents were video interviewed about their uses of domestic spaces. The researchers systematically clocked how people used different parts of their homes and backyards, contrasting what informants said they did with what they actually did. Digital photos recorded interiors and exteriors, resulting in a 21,000 image archive of the use of domestic space in early 21st century America.

Arnold and her colleagues have documented “archaeologically” the modern American “storage crisis.” The crisis has various causes, the increase in American consumerism, the explosion of goods, but also some unexpected factors illuminated by the modern archaeology of home.

Collecting data before the recession-driven foreclosures of 2008-2010, Arnold and co-author Ursula Lang noted that skyrocketing LA real estate prices had forced middle-class families into less-expensive housing, including older and smaller houses. Unlike homes in the Midwest and East, California houses have small attics and lack basements.

So that leaves the garage.

As the garage was transformed from a carriage shed in the backyard or alley to an integrated sector of a house, the garage became, as the late landscape historian J.B. Jackson noted, “thoroughly domesticated, an integral part of home life and the routine of work and play.” In that process, the garage’s function changed. No longer a place for housing automobiles, the garage was transformed into home office, entertainment and exercise areas, but preeminently a place for stuff. Only 25% of the households in study actually parked a car in the garage, and nobody used the space exclusively for an auto. Most families didn’t even try. Some garages had been converted into bedrooms or recreation areas, but the majority of garages were exclusively for “storage.”

“The garages of middle-class America,” Arnold and co-investigator Ursula Lang write, “are suffering an identity crisis.”

The disorder of the middle class American life is captured by the qualitative variable used to describe storage in 14 of the 24 houses in the study: “Chaotic.”

There is no doubt that American consumerism is excessive at a global scale. As the planet’s principal consumers of fossil fuels and everything else, so this is no surprise. Even so, are we the only society that has too much stuff?

Obviously, the spreading forces of globalization encourage the “global consumer culture,” but how does this translate into material possessions? A visual perspective on global consumption is found in the photographic collection, Material Worlds: A Global Family Portrait.

The project was designed by the photojournalist Peter Menzel, as “a unique tool for capturing cross-cultural realities.” In the early 1990s, Menzel and a team of photographers focused on thirty of the 183 countries that belonged to the United Nations. In each sample country, Menzel and colleagues carefully chose families that reflected the national average. The team photographed these families at meals, at work, studying school lessons, and worshiping. But the key image was the Big Picture: “a unique photo of each family with all its possessions outside its dwelling.”

Not surprisingly, the differences are striking.

The Thoroddsen family of Hafnarfjördur, Iceland, stands outside their three-bedroom, 2000 sq ft home in the violet twilight of a December afternoon. They are surrounded by two televisions, a pair of Icelandic horses, two cars in the driveway, a showroom’s worth of furnishings, a bevy of kitchen appliances, and two cellos. Still inside the Thoroddsen house are a baby grand piano, hundreds of books, miscellaneous house-wares, and six canaries.

The poorest family photographed in Material Worlds is the Getu family of Moulo, Ethiopia. In 1994 Ethiopia ranked 180th in affluence among the 183 UN countries. Outside the Getu’s 320 sq ft home, the mother and five children sit on the family bed. The father stands between his two oxen. One of his three horses is nearby, and five cattle are in the corral. There is a waist-tall wooden mortar and long pestle pole for milling grain. An assortment of storage, serving, and winnowing baskets.  Pottery water jugs and cooking pots. A tea kettle and cups. Frying pans. Empty tin cans used as drinking cups. The Getu family also has a radio, but the battery is dead.

Each image in Material World is a fascinating glimpse of global domestic life, an intimate perspective on the objects that make up home. And although there are marked and obvious disparities in the range and variety of each family’s possessions, there is a basic truth common to them all:

No one can carry all their stuff.

This is not a trivial point. After about 15,000 years ago, human societies in different portions of the world increasingly relied on stored food: foodstuffs initially collected, then cultivated, and eventually farmed.  With those changes, the configurations of our material culture diversified and our stuff weighed more.  When that happened, our homes changed from principally places of temporary shelter into more permanent refuges for ourselves and our possessions.

Sedentism did not result from agriculture. Sedentism developed when people had too much stuff.

The author’s mantlepiece

Like most Americans, my wife and I have too much stuff. We do not own a lot of consumer products (or at least we think we don’t). Our television is small, our CD player was purchased in 1989, and our cell phones can only be used to make calls on the rare occasions the batteries are not dead. Books are our weightiest weakness.

But our largest class of clutter is mementos. Most are objects and artifacts we have brought home from fieldwork in Latin America, supplemented by gifts that other anthropological friends have brought home from their fieldwork sites. Objects in wood, pottery, metal and cloth, these items occupy every flat and vertical surface of our home.

As one small sample, here is a partial list of objects on the mantelpiece over our fireplace, a flat surface ten inches wide and five feet long. Beginning at the far left:

A small handmade doll fashioned by the Paipai Indians of northern Baja California.

A stone pestle from the Caribbean, a large tear-drop of pecked and smoothed basalt.

A hammered metal cross from southern Mexico.

An ex-voto to the Virgin of Juquila, Oaxaca, from one Jesus Aguirre Morales, thanking the Virgin for her protection during a truck accident in March 1972.

A carved wooden image of Santiago, the patron saint of the Spanish conquest and of Guatemala, astride a horse with sword raised.

A small Mexican box holding two miniature dioramas depicting the classic calavera skeletons from Day of the Dead. One shows an altar from the Day of the Dead, a minute example of self-reference where figures portraying the dead represent the living. The second is even less reverential, showing a skeleton playing billiards using grinning skulls as pool balls.

And next to this, there is a small urn wrapped in reddish-brown velvet that holds my mother-in-law’s ashes.

In The Dominion of the Dead, Robert Pogue Harrison writes eloquently of the relationship between dwellings of the living and the resting places of the dead. Architecture is, Harrison argues, part of the larger human project of instantiation, in which we create “the places where human time, in its historical and existential modes, takes place. Such places—whether homes, buildings, cities, or landscapes—are recesses of mortal time in which we go about inhabiting the world historically rather than merely naturally.” Harrison adds, that “When we build something in nature, be it a dwelling, a monument, or even a fire, we create the rudiments of a world and thereby give a sign of our mortal sojourn on the earth.”

While the archaeological record does not support Harrison’s claim that “human beings housed their dead before they housed themselves,” the link between construction and continuity rings true. “To inhabit the world humanly one must be a creature of legacy,” Harrison writes. “[The living] placed [the dead] in graves, coffins, urns—in any case they placed them in something that we call their resting places so that their legacies could be retrieved and their afterlives perpetuated.”

Although such practices are not universal, a common human concept is the connection between residence and residents, living and dead. “Cemetery” comes, via Latin, from the ancient Greek for “dormitory,” and variations on this metaphoric parallel between death and slumber are widespread among world cultures.

Further, the creation of cemeteries in contrast to isolated burials is an archaeological signature of territory. This differs from the connection between people and place among mobile hunters and gatherers. For example, Judith Littleton has studied over 1500 pre-contact aboriginal burials in southeastern Australia, and she has identified specific patterns in the topographic features where burials were placed (such as on the tops of dunes, small hummocks and other raised features). Yet, even when a number of burials occur together, radiocarbon dates suggest that those interments could be separated by centuries. This reflects, Littleton suggests, a situation “where place persists but people do not.  …Even if a group leaves an area and is eventually replaced by others, the landscape symbols attract similar but new stories and designs….  The significance of the landscape persists because people share a model of how to occupy and react to it, rather than a specific knowledge or memory.”

With increasing sedentism, the connection between place and people changed, and this is visible in the archaeological record of Japan and elsewhere in prehistory. In the Jomon tradition, permanent cemeteries were created after the development of substantial dwellings, but not immediately thereafter. The archaeologist Yosuhiro Okada points out that although a sedentary strategy was adopted at approximately 7000 – 6000 BC in the Initial Jomon period, cemeteries were not created until the Middle Jomon at circa 3500 – 2500 BC, when the dead were placed in the center of Jomon settlements. At Sannai Maruyama, the Middle Jomon residents built earthen mounds, rectangular raised floor buildings, and dug floors and postholes for dozens of pithouses. The Middle Jomon dwellings cut into Early Jomon features, but carefully avoided the Middle Jomon grave pits and burial jars in the cemetery. Jar burials contained children; pit graves held adults. Cemeteries were common in Middle Jomon sites, leading Okada to quite reasonably suggest that “ancestor worship was an important category of ritual activities to Middle Jomon people.” Accompanied by mound building and increased quantities of ceramic figurines, the Middle Jomon was the moment in which place, ceremony and identity were linked, anchored in place.

Humans made shelter for thousands of years before they attached complex meanings to dwellings. The symbolic anchoring of place did not occur immediately with sedentism, but with a permanent connection to a place. In part this was triggered by the accumulation of goods, gathered foods, harvested grains, heavy tools and non-portable features, but the real difference was marked by the presence of our ancestors.

The profuse and complex symbolic associations and cultural meanings associated with home did not immediately emerge once people had a roof overhead. Based on what we know right now, dwellings were not imbued with such concerns until after sedentism had developed. The archaeology of Japan and elsewhere suggests that the transition to sedentism was not immediately marked by this intensely domestic concept.

Our complex domestic affiliations and meanings appear relatively “recently” in the human experience, roughly in the last 15,000 years. The myriad notions attached to home apparently required not only sedentism, but a connection of permanence, a new way to think about place, a transformation visible to archaeologists by the presence of the dead. Whether we bury our dead in village cemeteries or carefully store the ashes of our dead on a mantelpiece, this fundamental affiliation between dwelling and identity marks a transformation in the human creation of home.

Piece adapted with modifications from the forthcoming book, The Prehistory of Home by Jerry D. Moore (2012, © University of California Press; all rights reserved.)

About the Author:

Jerry D. Moore is an archaeologist, writer and professor of anthropology at California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson, California.  He has conducted archaeological research in Peru, Baja California, the western United States, and southern Mexico where his investigations explored the cultural landscapes and constructed environments of ancient peoples. His book, The Prehistory of Home, was published this month by the University of California Press.