The Archaeology of Refugee Camps in Greece

This blog is all about conflicts of interest and, in that spirit, I want to recommend a really great article by my friend and collaborator Kostis Kourelis in the most recent issue of Change Over Time.

The article is called “Sites of Refuge in a Historically Layered Landscape: Camps
in Central Greece” and is part of an issue dedicated to the heritage of war, conflict and commemoration. Instead of the usual consideration of battlefields, cemeteries, and other monuments established to mark fixed places in the landscape, Kostis plots the movement of a group of migrants through a series of camps in Greece over the course of a single year (2016). The movement of this group of people (and their fragmentation at various points) and the ephemerality of the camps in which they lived offers a counterpoint to our conventional idea of imagining spaces of heritage or historical memory as fixed places. 

Of course, there is precedent for places of movement being recognized as national moments (e.g. various sections of the Oregon Trail, for example). At the same time, as Charles Hailey notes in his classic study of camps, ephemeral architecture may well represent the future of housing, work, and life. More than that, there is something particularly urgent in the need to mark the experiences of groups and individuals in motion and the artifacts associated with their lives. If the experience of forced migration and being a refugee involves reducing individuals to mere life (as Giorgio Agamben has argued), then finding ways to represent this process in a persistent way presents an opportunity for resistance. A heritage of the ephemeral, the intentionally marginalized, and the disenfranchised represents a critique of the power of the nation state as a source both of the past (as traditional heritage tends to assert) and of the privileges of life so frequently associated with citizenship and legal rights. 

Kostis’s article is more elegant and subtle than my assertions here. More than that, he does a nice job documenting the sites of camps and their features as well as their historical situations in Greece. Contemporary camps for migrants often stood alongside planned villages established in the aftermath of the exchange of population in the 1920s reflecting Greece’s long history of accommodating new groups. The movement of contemporary migrants also intersected with the longer history of Greece both as part of the Ottoman Empire and from the Classical period. These intersection reveal another key line of critique present in Kostis’s article in that it reveals the fragility of the national narrative itself. The presence of a 16th-century mosque of Sinan in Trikala, mere meters from one of the migrant camps connects the Greek city with the Syrian city of Aleppo from where many of the migrants hailed. These pre-national monuments in Greece which have only just begun to be incorporated into a coherent national narrative continued to offer some resistance the alienated state of the Syrian migrants. While they may lack legal standing in Greece, the mosques of Sinan remind us that not only is their current situation historically situated, but also that they move through a shared cultural world where heritage can serve to resist efforts to reduce individuals to mere life.

Kostis’s article got me thinking a good bit about how our work in the Bakken could provide a framework for a heritage of booms and busts not just in one landscape – that is western North Dakota, which in many ways reflects a history of booms and busts – but across the entire US. In fact, the mobile population drawn to North Dakota in the 21st century oil boom are often the same people who participate in oil booms elsewhere in the US or who move seasonally to work in regions with small populations and limited surplus labor. Marking the location of work force housing camps in the Bakken, for example, could serve not only to commemorate the ephemeral, but also to document the interconnected social, economic, and political worlds of 21st century labor.

By challenging the notion of the local as the source for political and ultimately human rights, a heritage of the ephemeral and the mobile whether labor of migrants fleeing from war and destruction, provides a way to resist the reduction of individuals to there mere humanity. 

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