An Archaeologist Creates the Definitive Guide to Beer Cans

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

As a bev­er­age of choice and neces­si­ty for much of the pop­u­la­tion in parts of the ancient world, beer has played an impor­tant role in archae­ol­o­gy. Beer cans, on the oth­er hand, have not. Unlike mil­len­nia-old recipes, beer cans seem like no more than trash, even in a field where trash is high­ly trea­sured. This is a mis­take, says arche­ol­o­gist Jane Busch. “The his­tor­i­cal archae­ol­o­gist who ignores the beer can at his site is like the pre­his­toric arche­ol­o­gist who ignores his­toric pot­tery.”

David Maxwell, an expert in ani­mal bones who trained as a Mayanist, has rec­og­nized the truth of this state­ment by turn­ing his pas­sion for beer can col­lect­ing into beer can archae­ol­o­gy, a tiny niche with­in the small­er field of “tin can archae­ol­o­gy.” Maxwell became the reign­ing expert on beer can dat­ing when “in 1993, he pub­lished a field-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion guide in His­tor­i­cal Archae­ol­o­gy,” notes Jes­si­ca Gin­grich at Atlas Obscu­ra, “which has since become an indus­try stan­dard and his most-read work.”

The first com­mer­cial canned beer appeared in 1935, after sev­er­al unsuc­cess­ful exper­i­ments start­ing in 1909. Exper­i­ments in beer can­ning took a hia­tus dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion, and canned beer itself went off the mar­ket dur­ing WWII as sup­plies of tin plate were rerout­ed to the war effort. Dur­ing that inter­reg­num, only the mil­i­tary shipped canned beer, to sol­diers over­seas in olive and camo-col­ored cans. When sales resumed after the war, beer cans assumed more rou­tinized design ele­ments. Maxwell him­self became fas­ci­nat­ed with beer cans from afar. “While canned beer sales explod­ed in the Unit­ed States after World War II, Gin­grich writes, “the indus­try failed to take off in Cana­da until the 1980s.”

As a child in Cana­da, Maxwell col­lect­ed bot­tle caps. “All the beer came in the same shape bot­tle,” he says. Cans seemed exot­ic, espe­cial­ly those of an old­er vin­tage. “They had punch­es to open them instead of pull rings, and all I knew was that they pre­dat­ed me.” The val­ue of dis­pos­able arti­facts less than 100 years old isn’t imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent to most peo­ple, says Jim Rock, a pio­neer of tin can stud­ies who calls cans “the Rod­ney Dan­ger­field of arche­ol­o­gy. They just don’t get any respect.” But the fact is “all arche­ol­o­gy is garbage,” says Maxwell.

Dat­ing cans gives arche­ol­o­gists a pic­ture of mod­ern con­sump­tion pat­terns — and pat­terns of eco­log­i­cal destruc­tion — in the refuse tossed on high­ways and the stra­ta of trash found in con­struc­tion sites, land­fills, and even ancient dig sites, where dat­ing beer cans can tell arche­ol­o­gists when ear­li­er tres­passers might have arrived, removed or altered arti­facts, and left their trash behind. Maxwell, who has recent­ly down­sized his col­lec­tion from 4500 to 1700 cans to save space, admits that a nar­row focus on the beer can takes a spe­cial com­bi­na­tion of skills.

“Col­lec­tors are a fab­u­lous resource for aca­d­e­mics,” he says. “These are the guys who do the grunt work” — the end­less­ly curi­ous cit­i­zen sci­en­tists of archae­ol­o­gy. “I can’t think of any­one else who would do that except some­one who is obses­sive about what it is that they are col­lect­ing.” In Maxwell, the obses­sive col­lec­tor and rig­or­ous aca­d­e­m­ic just hap­pened to come togeth­er to pro­duce the defin­i­tive guide. (See Beer Cans: A Guide for the Archae­ol­o­gist online.) But even he has had to “face the ques­tion of what deserves to be archived and kept,” Nico­la Jones writes at Sapi­ens. In dis­card­ing 3,000 of his own cans, most of them acquired through col­lec­tors online, he had to admit that “though the rusty cans were a part of his­to­ry, they weren’t worth much to the rest of the world.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Beer Archae­ol­o­gy: Yes, It’s a Thing

The Sci­ence of Beer: A New Free Online Course Promis­es to Enhance Your Appre­ci­a­tion of the Time­less Bev­er­age

The First Known Pho­to­graph of Peo­ple Shar­ing a Beer (1843)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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