A few months ago, I stole an idea from Richard Rothaus called “the archaeology of care” and wrote a blog post on it. The good folks at the North Dakota Humanities Council office then asked if they could get a version of it for the On Second Thought magazine. I said, “Sure! But since I stole the idea from Richard, he should do all the work turning it into an article (or similar).” Richard then did most (97% with 3% coming from from gentle editorial pen of Ann Crews Melton) of the work turning this into an article, so it only makes sense that I steal it once again and post it here to my blog.
An Archaeology of Care
by William Caraher and Richard Rothaus
Like many archaeologists, we have been horrified and outraged by the recent destruction of antiquities and monuments in Syria. But our predictable outrage is probably less interesting than ISIS’s relentless desire for media attention and access to the outrage amplifier of the Internet. It would be unfair to 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 ISIS represents to the archaeology of both the Middle East and the world. We think, however, that archaeologists could perhaps use their skills and knowledge more productively.
Our 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. We were particularly moved by the International Rescue Committee’s September 4, 2015, article “What’s in My Bag?: What Refugees Bring When They Run for Their Lives,” which asked Syrian refugees to show the contents of the bags they carried. This article is meant to be a provocative play on similar stories run on tech websites, where overprivileged techsters show off the tools of their trade.
Reading the short article on the contents of refugees’ bags made us 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 race and class conflicts, and many other aspects of the modern world (including punk rock music). Our 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 refugee 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 are 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 we’ve learned from working in the Bakken alongside social work historian Bret Weber is that our work is more than systematically documenting and understanding material culture. Our work in the field demonstrates a kind of care for the communities in which we work. Our conversations with people, 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. We have taken to calling this work the “archaeology of care.”
The “archaeology of care” was not something we set out to invent, nor is it unique to our work. It is a natural result of sincere and caring people working with other people in difficult circumstances. Richard first stumbled upon this when he was doing fieldwork on the archaeology of earthquakes by going into areas immediately after major seismic events. The first such trip, to Gölcük, Turkey, in 1999, found Richard’s group arriving even before search and rescue teams. To his surprise, and contrary to his fear of being seen as ghoulish, Richard found that he was welcomed by people whose entire lives had just been destroyed. The locals understood that the archaeologists were not going to fix anything, but that did not matter. What mattered was that the archaeologists came and studied, which showed that they cared about the lives and experiences of the people.
It took a few years to wrap our heads around the “archaeology of care,” but its genesis was in Turkey, when Richard was invited into shattered homes to share what food could be found, and was encouraged by walks and talks with families wandering through apple orchards gleaning food. Richard’s team spent one night in a family’s large tent, next to a fallen minaret, as waters from an erupted hot spring flowed by in the street. As the team ate fresh hazelnuts and listened to the history of an extended family who had homes no more, Richard began to understand why an archaeology of care was necessary.
When it comes to the idea of care in the current Syria crisis, archaeology has two advantages. First, we focus on the relationship between objects and people. As if our imaginations were 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. The contents of refugees’ bags, the arrangement of their camps, and the difficult choices about what to bring and what to leave behind are significant to the history of the world and carry equal weight in our eyes to the monuments targeted by ISIS or the Taliban.
Archaeology also carries with it the burden and benefit of its past as a discipline. When archaeologists turns their focus to a monument, a landscape, or an object, the world recognizes that “thing” as important. In fact, ISIS relies on this professional recognition of artifacts and monuments to direct its 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 that they matter. 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 the meaningful and tangible narratives of their past. At the end of the day, however, these sites will survive, whatever the crisis. 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. We are confident of this.
What we are more concerned about, however, are the more subtle, ephemeral, and elusive histories, artifacts, and sites of the refugee experience. Documenting and understanding the experiences of refugees might seem like a fairly low priority when temples at Palmyra are being bulldozed, but we’d like to suggest that it might be a higher priority to the discipline, to the communities housing the refugees, and to the people forced from their homes in these desperate times. In the Syria crisis, the more we focus on the communities and individuals as real people with real lives—not as abstract victims—the less we give power to ISIS’s obsession with destroying monuments. We could turn archaeology against the flashy ISIS show, and rather than giving it free publicity, focus instead on the people whose lives must go on.
Prof. William Caraher is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Dakota and an active field archaeologist with projects in Greece, Cyprus, and Western North Dakota. He is an avid blogger and co-produces a podcast, Caraheard, with Dr. Rothaus.
Dr. Richard Rothaus is the Interim Vice Chancellor of Academic and Student Affairs for the North Dakota University System and a research assistant at the Center for Heritage Renewal at North Dakota State University. He has conducted fieldwork in North America, Greece, Turkey, Oman, India and Belize.