Archaeology of Refugee and Forced Migration

I spent some time this weekend reading Y. Hamilakis’s edited forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. Since Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I contributed to the forum, we received an advanced copy and it’s my impression that the forum will be available very soon. The papers consisted of a wide range of reflections on the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrations. Most of the papers dealt explicitly with refugees, but a few, including ours on the Bakken in North Dakota, deal with other forms of undocumented migration which are more difficult to categorize.

The articles are short and painfully evocative of the plight of modern migrants. Even if you don’t care about archaeology or are skeptical of its value in illuminating the modern world (which you shouldn’t be, but whatever!), the stories presented in this forum are worth reading and contemplating.

There are some themes as well that extend far beyond the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrations and impact all archaeological work that intersects in a meaningful way with contemporary communities.

1. Ethics. Almost all of the essays in this forum reflect seriously on the responsibilities and obligations of the archaeologist and ethnographer when studying vulnerable communities. Without explicitly outlining specific ethical positions or practices, the contributors demonstrated how their own encounters with refugees or the material culture of migration was both emotionally and intellectually demanding. From objects like the Tu Do ship in the Australia and the Lampedusa Cross in the British Museum, to maps of migrant movements, clothing, and graffiti, the challenges of using archaeological approaches to unpack the real lives of individuals courses through these essays in a raw and disquieting way. There are no simple imperatives or solutions presented here.

2. Objects. I found the abundance of relatively un-theorized objects particularly refreshing. This isn’t to mean that objects weren’t considered carefully, respected, treated ethically, or placed within a historical, social, or cultural context. They were by all means. What was absent, however, from these short contributions was the intensive theorizing that objects have recently received from some archaeologists (and I’ll admit that I find the rise of “thing theory” and the material turn tremendously seductive. The objects in these contributions generally shied away from making claims to agency, from demands of symmetry with the archaeologist, and from entanglement in complex discursive ontologies.

I’m not pointing this out to celebrate the absence of theory or as a critique. Instead, I wonder if the rawness of the this kind of archaeology makes objects somehow less susceptible to agency? 

3. Methods. The contributions here – with a few exceptions – were also free from lengthy discussions of methods. Some of this is undoubtedly do to the relatively short length of the articles, but I wonder if some of it is also because the approaches to archaeology of the contemporary world are so relatively fluid. As people, objects, and places move, disappear, transform over short periods of time, methods become increasingly ad hoc as efforts to document the material experiences of refugee and migrants requires an acute sensitivity to the complexities of a particular situation.

This isn’t to say that the contributors were not systematic and careful in their approaches, but, again, the intersection of object, places, and people seems to drive these contributions forward rather than a preoccupation with methods or methodology.

4. Placemaking. Among the major themes in these essays is the challenge of placemaking in a condition dominated my placelessness or non-places. As the archaeology of the contemporary world approaches the supermodernity of contemporary existence, the challenge of understanding the contours and characters of non-places or places whose existence blinks on and off at the absolutely edge of archaeological awareness.

Places like refugee cars, camps that are obliterated, coastline or offshore encounters, and ephemeral traces in the desert challenge archaeological resolution and practices (as well, of course, as methods). Whenever I think too hard about what archaeology can do in an era of placelessness I can’t avoid the fear that the tools and techniques associated most closely with the careful and reflective approaches of the humanities might require some modification to contribute to 21st century existence. The contributions included in this forum are a reason for hope, but also, for continued awareness that the past and the present are very different countries. 

5. Archaeology of Care. Finally, I was really excited to see Richard Rothaus’s term an “archaeology of care” appear periodically in the volume (well, at least in our paper, Kostis Kourelis’s paper, and Y. Hamilakis’s introduction). I could’t help but notice throughout this forum that there were plenty of places where the interest of archaeologists in the lives and material reality of individuals gave as much to refugee and migrant communities as a well argued scholarly article or book. In other words, there were signs that a mutual understanding existed between scholars and migrants that their experiences were significant and important.

If this forum does nothing else, I hope that it communicates this recognition. 

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