Homeless Heritage

Rachael Kiddey’s Homeless Heritage: Collaborative Social Archaeology as Therapeutic Practice (2017) is among the best books that I’ve read over the last few years. Kiddey describes the work of her and her colleagues, some of whom were homeless, in documenting the material culture of homelessness in York and Bristol. It also traces Kiddey’s own progress through her Ph.D. and her discovery and engagement with homelessness and homeless people as she worked with them to document their skips, routes, and lives through various cities and present the results of her research. The book is less about the empirical results of her research, although she does present some of those, and more about how how Kiddey and her homeless colleagues created a social archaeology project that both generated useful data on homeless practice and gave a sense of meaning to the daily lives these individuals. As the subtitle suggests, the project had a therapeutic element to it for both the homeless participants and, less visibly in the book, but certainly present, for the author herself.

The book was inspiring and incredibly positive despite the potentially heartrending topic. More than that, it embodies the kind of “archaeology of care” that Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I began to imagine over the course of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. Kiddey’s work is better and more involved (and involving), but we shared her understanding that conducting archaeology communicated the significance of a situation to the homeless or to the residents of a North Dakota man camp. Here are some observations about the book (which you really should just buy and read!):

1. Heritage. The idea that the homeless produce heritage is an important because it embodies a fundamental tension within 21st century material culture. First, the era of precarity creates ephemeral landscapes that emerge and dissipate in response to various contingencies as diverse as police activity, seasonal changes, and the availability of food or shelter. The skips and squats that various homeless participants frequented often were already abandoned or access was restricted by the time that they documented them with the homeless heritage team.

The other side of this tension is the ubiquity of stuff in the modern landscape. So precarity and contingency compresses the duration over which a site remains active, the abundance of modern material produces a more robust assemblage of stuff than would otherwise be expected. The routes and sites described by Kiddey and her colleagues were filled with stuff ranging from bedding, to broken glass, beer cans, and pallets that show signs of past use and an effort to make the place a little more comfortable. 

Charting these places as heritage, then, becomes less a traditional archaeological intervention which produces a site with clearly delineated boundaries and interpretative signs, and more a documented landscape that alerts the passer-by to the potential of homeless heritage and instructs them on what this might look like and how to engage with the evidence. 

2. An Outline of Social Archaeology in Practice. The strength of the book is Kiddey’s narrative of her engagement with the homeless individuals with whom she collaborated on the project. She described how she created an inclusive environment for all the participants on the project which allowed them to share their expertise and experience without the need for an excessive hierarchy or a tidy divide between the archaeologists and the volunteers. 

This organization extended from the first phases of field work to excavation, public engagement, and scholarly publication of their research. Kiddey hints that the practical challenges of breaking down the barriers between the “researcher” and the “researched” by admitting that some of her colleagues continued to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, struggled with low self-esteem, and had personal entanglements that made consistent participation with fieldwork a challenge, but she also detailed how inclusive practice recognized these challenges and accepted them. Here you can see the faint shadow of real practices on any archaeological project where team members regularly accommodate the different abilities of participants in a project. No one has ever changed a stratigraphic level based on my observations in the field even when I was “project director.”

While the book is clearly the work of a single author, who tellingly has both a first and a last name, the work of her colleagues is in the very near background. I was fascinated by this ambiguity. On the one hand, her homeless colleagues clearly made this work possible (and, if I understand correctly, she dedicated the book to one of them) and participated as fully as possible in the undertaking including giving a paper at Cambridge and co-curating the public exhibits on homeless heritage. On the other hand, by the end of the book, I was hoping that their participation in the project would allow Kiddey to raise the veil a bit and re-craft them from participants to authors. For example, none of them ever get a last name, which at first reinforced the authenticity of the street voices protected as it were by monikers and nicknames, but on the other hand, as the participants took increased ownership of the academic space of writing, curating, and presenting their experiences, I desperately wanted them to break through the “fourth wall” and become academic co-authors (at least in presentation) closing the loop in their collective participation on the project. Perhaps this desire reflects my own experiences on projects where student “volunteers” who return and contribute to a project over time invariably appear as co-authors on papers and with more formally recognized academic identities. 

This isn’t a criticism, of course. If anything, it reveals my own normalizing of academic conventions which ignores the realities of folks living on the street and the challenges that they face. For example, I thought about suggesting that Kiddey should have authored this book as “Marmite” which was her name among the homeless folks that she encountered in the book, but I also recognized that this may be inauthentic. On the other hand, that one of her colleagues, Smiler, abandoned that name for his birth name “Andrew” suggests that the use of proper names and nicknames in this book does map, to some extent, onto the participants sense of self and identity. Perhaps, then, the authenticity of the book comes from the voices of Jane, Punk Paul, Dan, and others whose single names represent their identities and authority as homeless individuals as much as from Rachael Kiddey, whose full name (so we’re led to imagine) represents her (literal) authority as author of the book.

Managing identities, authority, and knowledge is hard.   

3. Narrating to Inspire. Finally, this book is well written and engaging. I read it more or less in a single sitting gripped as much by the book’s narrative arc as the compelling characters Kiddey presents. Without giving too much away, the book has a brilliant climax that involves getting lost, rain, and a daring drive through a hedgerow (which offers as brilliant a critique of enclosure and homelessness as I’ve ever read!). 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this book was crafted to bring the reader along on a challenging journey rather than to present, in an empirical or analytically transparent way, data from an archaeological project or even a template for a similar project. As someone who has played a bit more explicitly with genre-hopping, I can only admire Kiddey’s subtlety and creativity in using a range of narrative strategies (stories within stories, dialogue, academic prose, and a broader narrative arc) to carry some of the interpretative burden of the book. In many ways, her forms a more understated parallel to Laurie Wilkie’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi (2010) which likewise intermingles academic prose with other narrative forms to produce a compelling study of a university fraternity in the first half of the 20th century. As I discovered with my little effort, writing in this way is difficult, but when it works, like it does in this book, the results are inspiring and compelling.

Read this book. 




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