This week I’ve become completely distracted by the work of Jason De León and his colleagues on the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP). I had known this project existed and had even skimmed some of their articles, but I hadn’t read their stuff carefully. With the semester looming and far more pressing projects (like writing syllabi), I decided to take a long look at this project’s publications. Check out the articles that De León has posted to academia.edu. This is his book on the topic, The Land of Open Graves (California 2015) appeared last year, and you can read reviews of it here, and here’s an interview.
To summarize this project briefly, De León and company have been documenting the material remains of undocumented migrants across the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. This route of undocumented migration is shaped largely through an official policy of “prevention through deterrence” which channels border crossers toward this forbidding desert route hoping that the immense challenge presented by this landscape will deter their efforts to enter the US. The result of this policy is hundreds of immigrants have died attempting cross the border through this desert and while thousands have made it successfully, the pain and suffering experienced in this landscape have left a material mark in the desert. De León documented over 300 sites of undocumented migration ranging from short-term shelter sites (themselves ranging from rest sites to camp sites), to religious shrines, humanitarian water drops, sites of death, and interception sites where the Border Patrol agents intervened in a border-crossers attempt. He complemented his archaeological data with ethnographic interviews and photography (including giving some border crossers disposable cameras to document their own trips across the desert with the extraordinary results).
His work on the desert has given me serious project envy. Here’s why:
1. Archaeology of Care. Archaeology of the contemporary world has the unique opportunity of making the discipline of archaeology into an expression of care, interest, and concern. Richard Rothaus and I have termed this “the archaeology of care” and it emphasizes how the practice of archaeology created meaningful bonds between the archaeologists and the communities and create space for archaeology to create meaningful social change. The archaeology of care is a descriptive term that seeks to identify moments when archaeologists and communities identify shared priorities and commitments and work together to document experiences, sites, and objects in ways that build a view of the past that has both academic and social legitimacy. This shared process of constructing a meaningful view of the past allows communities to leverage archaeological knowledge production for their own ends and enables archaeologists to escape historical claims to paternalism or, worse, indifference to the communities in which they work. By documenting the material remains of immigrant crossings and working with immigrants to understand the challenges associated with these routes, the UMP produces a shared history of the border region and the communities for whom crossing the desert marks a significant moment in their history and experiences.
2. Data: One of the long-standing challenges facing archaeology of the contemporary world is that that amount of material and data that we confront is overwhelming. As a result, many of the most exciting archaeological projects dealing with the modern world have been relatively data-poor, In fact, I’ve argued that the hyper-abundance of material has led to producing datasets that are both too complex for current archaeological approaches and equally abundant. De León’s team managed this data deluge as well as any project has dealt with the abundance of modern things. He not only documented numerous sites, but also documented and collected material from these sites to produce quantitatively meaningful assemblages. He then queried and analyzed this data in ways that allowed for more nuanced and sophisticated conclusions than impressionistic encounters would allow. This isn’t to say that De León’s work didn’t embrace qualitative arguments, but that it fortified these observations with an impressive dataset that I hope he makes available in the future.
3. Sites. As a survey archaeologist, I am obsessed with sites. In fact, the definition of sites from surface scatters remains one of the great challenges of intensive pedestrian survey. The UMP’s sites in the Sonoran desert are interesting because they are rather well-defined scatters of material and the assemblages allow for the production of a significant (and meaningful!) typology of sites. The blurred edges of the typology, of course, form productive areas to queries the complex relationship between the material signatures left behind in the desert and human behaviors.
4. Site Formation. One of the most useful and provocative observations appears in De León’s book. He states that formation processes are political. This is a simply statement, and difficult to refute, but for some reason I hadn’t thought about it in such a clear and direct way. De León was referring to efforts to “clean up” immigrant assemblages in the desert, the tendency to refer to material left behind from these desperate crossings as trash, and the refusal of some to see this work as archaeology at all, contributed directly to the production of the archaeological landscape in the desert.
In a recent short article that I submitted to a Journal of Contemporary Archaeology forum, I observe that political decisions concerning workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch will directly impact the future visibility of these sites in Bakken landscape. Calls for sites to be returned to their previous state (however “pristine” this was imagined) served to effectively erase workforce housing (and to some extent, the massive influx workers) from the Bakken landscape. This not only reinforced a view the oil just appeared from the ground to make North Dakotans wealthy, but also that permanent communities were somehow responsible for the oil wealth. It also has the unintended consequence of occluding the challenges facing the region during the Bakken Boom and embracing a nostalgic view of settlement in the region that ensures communities are unprepared for the next influx of population. The formation of sites in the Bakken, then, contributes to the production of a past for the region and impacts future challenges.
So, go read this stuff. It’s good.