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Popular anthropology for everyone.

The politics of migrant material culture

How archaeologists find the stories in our refuse

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Humans share a short list of must-haves: food, shelter, love. But archaeological data around the world suggest another uniquely human need that we tend to forget (unless you are an archaeologist): trash disposal.

As humans fill their lives with more and more material culture, stuff inevitably breaks and ends up on the scrap heap. Archaeologists examine trash in order to gain some insight into the daily lives of people in the past, perhaps to determine the meaning beyond the function of some everyday items. An archaeological inquiry into discarded items in our modern world shows how rubbish can become a politicized object.

People have been filling holes large and small with their cast-offs for millennia and these features provide an essential element of archaeological inquiry. They range from the small and irregular to neatly excavated trenches, disused storage pits to entire house cellars.

As Native Americans settled in more permanent communities, their village sites were peppered with small trash pits, some taking advantage of failed hearths or storage pits.

The Roman citizens of Pompeii used small trash pits in their houses, some dangerously close to the cistern, their main source of drinking water.

The Shakers, a religious sect that flourished during the 19th century in the eastern United States, were exceptionally tidy by nature and filled abandoned cellar holes with household refuse, rarely using impromptu pits.

British potteries piled their factory waste in heaps called sherdrucks large enough to create new land for new house construction.

In North American cities, as indoor plumbing became more common and reliable towards the end of the 19th century, families and landlords eventually abandoned their cisterns and privies, filling them over a period of weeks or months or so with broken bottles, dishes, toys, and pails and pails of coal ash.

For archaeologists, trash pits are a narrow glimpse into the past, enhanced by their typically tight timeframe and wealth of material culture. These features typically develop quickly and provide a snapshot of environment, health, diet, and consumer behavior.

Rubbish is becoming a visible reminder of the cultural material associated with recent human migration in Europe and the United States. Migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa travelling through the European Union have little choice but to discard their rubbish in roadside ditches; so far, no one is setting out dust bins along the roads leading from Greece.

Similarly, migrants from Mexico and Central America crossing through the Sonoran Desert of Arizona discard items, but not all of it is trash.

Analyzed as archaeological phenomena, these historical phenomena differ based on the environmental and political nature of the different migrations. But, in both cases, the items discarded by the migrants and refugees become politicized and provide a rationale for groups opposed to the migrants, as the trash becomes litter and thus is thought of as criminal behavior.

Jason De León, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, works with the Undocumented Migration Project, an archaeological project focusing on the material lives of migrants traversing the Sonoran Desert. In addition to studying shrines and way stations established along the migrants' paths, the project also examines the items left behind by migrants, and makes a careful and pointed distinction between trash and artifacts discarded for other reasons, like apprehension by Border Patrol.

In his new book, The Land of Open Graves, De León is also careful to pair an examination of material culture with the personal stories of migrants in an effort to tell a richer story of the migration experience. The project documents cherished personal items including children's photographs, Bibles, and other intimate mementos, cast-off items that suggest a tiring traveler shedding pounds from a backpack. These discarded objects provide a snapshot glimpse of life on the road and the consumption of comestibles under duress.

Regardless of the contents or the formation processes, the items left in the desert are conceptualized differently depending on who is cleaning it up. For De Leon and his students, the items constitute the material documentation of history in the making and an intimate insight into the lives of people struggling for the promise of a better life in the United States.

Federal and state government officials see it differently, though. According to the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, items left in the Sonoran Desert attracts scavengers and livestock, potentially ruins archaeological sites, and can be washed into major waterways during storms. And for right-wing militia groups promising a civilian defense of the southern border, the artifacts are the physical evidence of criminal behavior left behind by a population of "illegals."

So far, there is no similar attempt to archaeologically document the discarded things left behind by the thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees and migrants traveling across Europe, but an assessment of news coverage and social media can shed some light on the difference between this and the United States.

The influx of Central American and Mexican migrants into the United States occurs along largely clandestine routes through remote territory with little physical assistance or support. The European crisis, on the other hand, involves much larger groups of people on well-traveled routes meant principally for automobile traffic. While vocal and state opposition meets these migrants, there is also some political support for their cause from some EU member nations and a robust grassroots effort to provide water, diapers, food, and clothing along the way.

The movement of migrants through the EU has become linked in many minds with trash. Much of what the refugees receive in humanitarian aid comes in disposable packaging. The pace of migration is so fast that tents, discarded clothing, and food wrappers are left behind by this tide of humanity for the promise of more permanent aid in asylum-friendly nations in the northern parts of the EU.

News agencies report a general unpreparedness on the part of local governments, with little to no amenities for trash disposal. Transit camps along the way are set up arguably to slow and control the flow of migrants, but without adequate facilities, including trash disposal areas, people are understandably eager to discard dead weight and keep moving.

While the trail of artifacts in the Sonoran Desert is largely visible only by an aerial drone or through intrepid exploring, the trash left behind during the latest European refugee crisis is much more visible. The refuse lines the sides of roads and settles into ditches. It accumulates in the aisles and stairwells of trains and buses. And it covers the ground of transit camps in the European countryside.

These artifacts of desperation, empathy, and mass consumption, with the help of social media, are becoming a vector for intolerance. Just as the Sonoran "litter" becomes a criminal activity, another reason to keep "these people" out of the country, the European crisis is becoming another rationale for local politicians seeking to keep the stream of refugees out of their cities, provinces, and nation-states.

Worse still, tweets, Facebook posts, and comments on news articles pair images of actual trash with statements equating the refugees with trash.

Archaeology, at its most basic level, is an effort to understand how people and their stuff combine to inform, catalyze, and build social relationships. In the case of the refugee crises on two continents, the artifacts—the stuff—left behind by migrants are more than just trash.

For the migrants, many of these items were something special from home, something that reminded them of the generosity of strangers, or something that could be easily shed in order to lighten the load.

But, in both cases, the items left behind are also the way many people in the host countries experience the crisis, a sort of first impression. In both cases, the actual physical presence of the people is fleeting, and for good reason.

Residents may see, feel, and smell the trash, but rarely take the time to hear the voices and stories behind that material. But the discarded artifacts linger both on the landscape and in our memory and become the main framework through which some people experience these historic migrations.

While some may politicize this rubbish and hold it up as an "I told you so" moment of smug outrage, De León and other archaeologists can shed light on what an archaeological inquiry of migration may tell us about the personal experience of political flight.

The artifacts—the stuff—left behind by migrants are more than just trash.

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Trash image by Wojtek Mejor via Flickr.
Trash image by Wojtek Mejor via Flickr.