An Archaeology of Care

Like many archaeologists, I’ve been horrified and outraged by the events in Syria over the past month. I find it much harder to understand the logic behind dying for an archaeological site (although I suppose in my most heroic moments I can understand it), than to grasp ISIS relentless desire for media attention and access to the outrage amplifier of the internet. At the same time, I cannot find fault with the archaeologists, scholars, and members of the media who have expressed their horror at the destruction at sites like Palmyra and have used this horror to publicize the larger catastrophe that the ISIS represents for both the people and the archaeology of both the Middle East and the world.

My greatest concern throughout the continuous outpouring of outrage and horror regarding the destruction of archaeological sites is that there has been so little effort by archaeologists to see their discipline as a way to understand more fully the human cost of the destabilized Syria. I was particular moved this weekend by a short article which asks Syrian refugees to show what’s in their bags

This article is meant to be a provocative play on similar stories run on tech websites where over-privilege techsters show off the tools of their trade. It’s a clever idea. In fact, Richard Rothaus and I picked up on it last year and did a podcast on the gear in Richard’s bag and truck. The American Schools of Oriental Research has also done a similar thing. I think we got the idea for our podcast from their series.

Reading the short article on the contents of refugees’ bags made me wonder whether archaeology has a greater role to play in the current conflict and refugee crisis. Over the last decade, archaeologists have become more and more attuned to the archaeology of our contemporary world. This work has expanded our view of homelessness, poverty, consumerism, contemporary raceclass conflicts, and many other aspects of the modern world (including punk rock music). My own work has used archaeology to engage seriously the issues of workforce housing and industrial landscapes in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota

The ongoing refugee crisis offers another important opportunity for archaeologists to document the human condition. That the crisis is playing out partly in Greece, a place with more archaeologists (both foreign and local) per square kilometer than almost anywhere in the world, amplifies the potential of this opportunity. An archaeology of the refugee crisis could help us recognize what these displaced people value when they’re forced to leave their homes, what they look for and need during their arduous journeys, and how they arrange their lives when thrust into the unfamiliar (and usually under-resourced) conditions in a foreign place. Archaeological inventories, plans, and descriptions of refugee camps, places of transit, and personal goods could also help local communities accommodate and understand the influx of temporary residents. Archaeology can both protect the distant past and contribute to a more sophisticated understanding of the current human crisis.

One of the lessons that I’ve learned from working with Richard Rothaus and Bret Weber in the Bakken is that our work as archaeologists is more than systematically documenting and understanding material culture. In a recent podcast, Richard described this as the “archaeology of care” in a podcast last spring and made it even more human and evident in his contribution to our Punk Archaeology volume (download the entire volume here for free or just grab his contribution here). 

Our work in the field demonstrates a kind of care for the communities in which we work. Our conversations in the field, attention to detail, and willingness to take seriously the everyday life of individuals and communities creates a connection between the wider world (which we represent, oddly enough) and their very personal experiences. I recognize that archaeology is not the only field that can do this. Indeed, entire disciplines focus specifically on linking the individual to a larger context.

Archaeology, however, carries with it two additional benefits. First, we focus on the relationship between objects and people. As if our imagination was not enough, the little essay on the bags of refugees demonstrates that displaced people carry with them more than just the practical needs for survival, but also objects that link them to their homes. We care about this connection between an individual and an object. It’s what we do.

Archaeology also carries with it the burden and benefit of its past as a discipline. When an archaeologist turns their focus to a monument, a landscape, or an object, the world recognizes that “thing” as important. In fact, ISIS relies on this disciplinary recognition of artifacts and monuments (through museums, archaeological parks, et c.) to direct their attacks on civilization. When archaeologists and historians focus on the everyday life of particular communities and individuals, they place these individuals and communities into a larger historical and archaeological narrative. In other words, we show them that they matter. The contents of the their bags, the arrangement of their camps, the difficult choices about what to bring and what to leave behind is significant to the history of the world and carries equal weight in our eyes to the monuments targeted by ISIS or the Taliban. I’ve experienced the impact of this realization on people living in workforce housing in the Bakken. Our very presence reinforces the idea that their experiences and lives are important.

As archaeologists express outrage and deep sadness over the destruction of the region’s (and the world’s) archaeological heritage, we work to ensure that future generations can witness the history of these regions and celebrate meaningful and tangible narratives of their past. At the end of the day, however, these sites will survive. The history of careful documentation, the durability of the materials, the expansiveness of the monumental material culture, and the hard work of outraged and dedicated archaeologists will ensure that these sites will continue to form visible monuments to the region’s past. Evidence for the difficult recent circumstances will be both wiped away and, where appropriate, commemorated in the fabric of these long-lived places in the landscape. I am confident of it.

What I’m more concerned about, however, is the more subtle, ephemeral, and elusive histories, artifacts, and sites of the refugee experience. Documenting and understanding the experiences of refugee might seem like a fairly low priority when temples at Palmyra are being bulldozed, but I’d like to suggest that it might be a higher priority to the discipline, to the communities housing the refugee, and to the people forced from their homes in these desperate times.

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