An Introduction: Archaeology at the Margins

This week, I started work on the fifth chapter in my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. It’s the first chapter of the second part of my book going to center and this chapter will focus on the archaeology of borders and the archaeology of homelessness. Unlike the tentative title of this chapter, I’m going to suggest that these areas are not marginal, but central to our experience in the 21st century world. To do this, as my short introduction to the chapter will show, I’m going to leverage Jason DeLeon’s work pretty extensively as the really brilliant work of Rachel Kiddey in the UK and Larry Zimmerman in the US on homelessness.

Here’s my introduction. It’s as always rough and ready:

It is commonplace to hear that digital technology and the supply chain logistics have brought about an unprecedented level of global connectivity. At the same time, the global refugee crisis has demonstrated that this connectivity is unequally distributed. It remains possible for the material present in a digital device to cross national borders far more easily than any of the myriad individuals associated with it manufacturing. The miners for rare earth in Congo and the workers on the assembly line in China, for example, would find it difficult to follow the devices that they make possible on their global route. In fact, policies that allow good and capital to flow freely on a global scale are often tied to policies that limit the movement of labor and work to create pools of poor, low cost workers who can ensure high profits on lower cost goods enjoyed by European, North American, and Asian consumers. The refugee crisis precipitated two decades of warfare and economic sanctions in Iraq and Syria brought new attention to the movement of people across borders on a global scale (Hamilakis 2016). Attention to borders themselves and, more importantly, the movement of individuals across them goes well beyond the recent “refugee crisis” in Europe and has produced significant work on the social, political, and material contexts of immigration, forced and undocumented migration, and refugees in North America as well. This work has attracted a wide range of archaeologists whose area of specialty and approaches often fall outside of the conventional training in historical archaeology at the core of archaeology of contemporary American society. Jason DeLeon and his collaborators in the Undocumented Migration Project, for example, have shed significant light on the movement of people across the US-Mexican border and applied archaeological methods developed in the American Southwest and Mesoamerica and ethnographic practices to document the material culture of undocumented migrants (DeLeon 2015, 10).

Forced migrants represent just one of any number of groups and communities rendered invisible in contemporary society and attracting the attention of archaeologists. Archaeological methods have proven suitable for documenting the often ephemeral traces left behind by individuals who sought to remain invisible. Archaeologists have also sought to make visible communities and practices marginalized by the dominant racial, economic, and political groups. For example, by bringing to light the workings and consequences of immigration policies and border control tactics, archaeologists have brought attention to brutality associated with state sponsored efforts to preserve borders as symbols of political integrity and identity. When states encounter refugees or undocumented and forced migrants, they often detain them in secure “camps” located in marginal places and designed both to obscure status as provisional in the eyes of the state and to bring them back under state control and authority. Archaeologists have also directed attention to the homeless and the residents of temporary squats who often find security in their invisibility while, at the same time, being systematically overlooked and ignored by many in society. The work by Larry Zimmerman and his students on homelessness first in Minneapolis (Zimmerman 2004) and then in Indianapolis initiated a global trend in the archaeological investigation of homelessness that brought together practices associated with historical archaeology and contemporary ethnography.

The work of archaeologists along what many suppose to be the margins of the state and society have revealed the mechanisms employed to maintain certain groups in their marginal and subordinate positions as well as strategies adopted by these groups to avoid harm, mitigate their often harsh circumstances, and manage their daily life. As Alfredo González-Ruibal has noted, there remains a fine line between acknowledging the distinctive practices of certain groups pushed by policies and politics to the margins and normalizing these practices and groups as legitimate and inevitable parts of the modern world (González-Ruibal 2019, 53-54). Navigating this tension emphasizes the role of archaeological work as political activism that both recognizes the diverse ways in which groups navigate the margins of society and works to mitigate the conditions, situations, and attitudes that created these conditions from the start. In this capacity archaeology of the contemporary world, especially when engaging with individuals and groups who lack conventional social and political power have ethical obligation in how they study, document, and present their research on the homeless or undocumented migrants. At the same time, this kind of archaeological work open news possibilities for ethical interventions into public policy when it makes visible groups and practices which the state and society have sought to obscure.

The following chapter explores the archaeology of contemporary borders, migration, refugee and the archaeology of homeless. These two areas not only have attracted serious attention in an American context, but are also areas where work in a North American context speaks to global concerns in both contemporary society and in archaeological practice. As our contemporary world is increasingly bound up in global systems that produce and require borders and rely on the preservation of surplus labor, homelessness and forced migration speak not only to marginal groups in peripheral situations, but are fundamental features of the 21st century capitalist society.

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