For the last couple of years, I’ve had Emma Blake and Rob Schon’s “The Archaeology of Contemporary Migrant Journeys in Western Sicily” from JMA 32.2 (2019) on my “to read” list. Unfortunately, I didn’t even have a copy of the article “to read” it. Fortunately, a colleague came to my aid and I was able finally to read the article and read the very recent piece by Elizabeth S. Greene, Justin Leidwanger, and Leopoldo Repola in the most recent AJA on a similar topic: “Ephemeral Heritage: Boats, Migration, and the Central Mediterranean Passage.”
Both articles documented assemblages associated with voyages across the Mediterranean by migrants looking to enter Italy (and possibly Europe beyond). Blake and Schon look documented five assemblages located near the western coast of Sicily which suggest deposition by small groups of migrants who came ashore nearby. They likely traveled from Tunisia which is the closest point to the western Sicilian coast and, significantly, represented a long standing point of contact between the island and Tunisian coast. In fact, historically migrants cross back and forth for seasonal work and prior to 1990 a passport was not even required. Today, of course, things are different owing as much to changes in border regimes supported by Italy’s membership in the EU in the 1990s to more recent anxieties prompted by populist politics and fears of regional instability.
Blake and Schon compared the assemblages found near the coast with assemblages documented by Cameron Gokee and Jason De León from the Sonoran desert left behind by migrants who risked the desperate crossing of this dangerous landscape. In some cases, the differences are pretty straight forward. Objects left behind in Sicily did not show the same efforts to camouflage their appearance as those in the desert. In other ways, however, the assemblages suggest similar strategies for migrants. For example, the assemblages showed the discard of clothing, water, and anything else that might indicate travel. They also included hygiene products such as deodorant and body spray that indicated efforts to fit into local society.
There were other somewhat unexpected patterns in these assemblages such as the relatively dearth of objects clearly associated with Tunisian origin (such as brands or labels that indicate a product could only be acquired in Tunisia). This speaks both to the globalized character of our material world where objects can cross borders and shed evidence for their origins in ways that humans struggle to do.
Greene et al.’s article focuses on a ship used to traverse the dangerous two day passage between Libya and Eastern Sicily. The document the ship after it had been intercepted by Italian border officials. Unlike the rather small assemblages documented by Blake and Schon the assemblage associated with the former fishing boat impounded in Sicily was expansive. It included not only clothing, food and drink, and objects like blankets, scarfs, and cushions adapted to the migrants’ journey, but also signs of discarded documents, modifications to the boat itself, and medical supplies.
As with the material found in the Blake and Schon assemblages, this material came from both Libya and a much wider area indicating how in the contemporary world goods move more easily across borders than humans.
To be clear, neither of these papers is really about the material culture per se. Both papers show how the study of material culture has the potential to humanize the plight of migrants who undertake dangerous journeys to escape from even more perilous situations. The abandonment of clothes and objects not only marked a key phase of their trip but also a poignant one as they shed material indicators of the past in the hope for a better future.
As a side note, I was excited to see that that AJA had published an article that demonstrated how their new publication policies would work in practice. Historically, the AJA focused its interest the Mediterranean (broadly construed to include Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia) in the period from prehistory to Late Antiquity. Over time, most scholars have come to recognize that this was not a particularly useful chronological or geographical definition as a significant number of projects in the Mediterranean were diachronic in character and a scholarly interests even among those identifying as “Classical” archaeologists now regularly included comparative and interregional perspectives.
This article represents the first, in my memory at least, that focused exclusively on the contemporary period and while the study area was in the Mediterranean heartland, it is easy enough to understand the context of his article as much more expansive. As a gesture to authors, this article is incredibly important because it shows that the AJA is not only ready to embrace the diachronic complexity of the Mediterranean, but also abandoned a periodization scheme that carried on a colonialist and, for many, racist legacy by isolating “Classical” antiquity as a period deserving particular attention. Obviously, this is position that was no longer tenable for the flagship journal of the Archaeological Institute of America in that it neither reflected the attitudes of its diverse membership nor the contemporary political landscape. I love that an article interrogating the human cost of the contemporary political landscape of the Mediterranean marked the editor’s more expansive reading of their editorial policy (which also reflects its expansion in May 2021) and look forward to the continued development of the journal in light of these new political and discipline commitments!