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One Person’s Trash is Another’s Artifact

A short op-ed NHAS member Paul Oberheim did for his UMass writing class based off of Jason De León's book Land of Open Graves. It address migration from across the US-Mexico border and what archaeology is/can be mostly looking at what has been left behind during the border crossings and supporting De León's stance.

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How much have you already thrown away today? I certainly don’t keep track and I can assume that you don’t either—why would you? The wrappers, water bottles, and cans used aren’t meant to be kept track of, that’s why they’re waste products. The Sonoran Desert in Arizona is filled with these objects as hundreds of migrants pass through it on a near daily test of survival to the United States.

Each of these objects leaves an important mark on the material culture of our collective history and should all be thought about in the same fashion. Now think of an artifact. Some things that probably come to mind are ancient bronze tools or maybe a simple clay pot. Whatever you think of is probably dirty, or on display in some museum collection. Now take your perception of that “trash” that you threw away and what is filling the desert from before and combine it with what you think an artifact is. Essentially, they are the same.

We as humans leave behind a lot of stuff. In general, that’s the best way to refer to it: heaping piles of stuff. For every year we as a species have been on this planet we have made something, used something, or broke something. This can be as small as a child’s doll or as large as an entire civilization. Most of the time that stuff doesn’t just disappear; some trace is left behind. What’s left behind will slowly be consumed by the sands of time only to be pried out of the earth hundreds or thousands of years later by an archaeologist clad in a beige zoot suit. Essentially, everything will be overtaken by this process—it is an inevitability of life. What doesn’t degrade remains and what remains leaves an imprint of what was. Now think back to the desert, the migrants from Mexico and Central America who are attempting to cross over into America. That is a massive social movement. This movement of people is making its mark on the Earth, leaving behind fragments telling a tragic story of each man, woman and child.

With an exodus of people comes epic events describing them: the fleeing of Ireland from famine in 1845, the emigration away from poverty in Italy during 1880, the escape of Jewish people from Nazi Germany in 1939. What did these leave behind other than stories and documents? Physical remains of the struggles and hardship of these people. Pieces of evidence in both Europe and America that these people left there and came here, bringing with them their beliefs, culture, and waste.

The backpacks, water bottles, papers, and shoes that are littering the desert are a link on this same chain. Leaving behind these items tells a story: children’s shoes baking in the heat, photos of loved ones who may never be seen again, or even the tattered remains of clothes once worn not too long ago. These are the markers of an epidemic, not of polluters or marauders, but of desperate human lives that are being consumed by the swirling sands of the Sonoran Desert.

Right now, across the United States a loud conservative voice is angry. It is ranting at the “garbage” in the desert. They cite illegal immigrants’ abandoned wares as evidence of the problems migrants bring across the southern border and into the country. That their country is dirty so now they just spill it into ours. So, they clean it up, loading it into trash bags and hauling it away to a landfill.

Archaeologists have something very important called context. The context of an artifact is what helps determine its place in time and space. The personal belongings I listed are all real: children’s shoes, photos, tattered clothes. Removing them before recording them is an active erasure of history and meaning. How will be able to accurately record the struggle of these families in one hundred or five hundred years if we actively work to remove it beforehand? Those angry with the border crossing will actively chastise researchers like Jason De León, one archaeologist working to preserve that history. He isn’t working on an ancient temple or lost city; he is working on something just as human and important. This event, whether you like it or not, is history in the making. If we don’t work to preserve what we have today, to learn from it, we might be more apt to repeat it or worse.

Back to what you threw away today. What will your waste say about your life? The people who excavate your home in a thousand or more years – what might they find? Those people will be trying to understand you just like how we are trying to understand many of those who lived before us. But what if your home were to be bulldozed? What if the ground were all dug up and a new foundation was put in covering where your house used to be? Who will be able to find out the person you were now? How could an archaeologist ever hope to understand how your family lived and what they went through from a few stray pieces of your “garbage”? They can’t.

Illegal immigration is working the same way. If we are to better understand how whole groups of people made this dangerous journey in the future, we cannot continue to destroy the evidence. By using archaeological practices we can work to save the information now and keep it for the future. We must work to preserve an ever-growing history of the Americas both to honor the memories of hardship our ancestors suffered and the migrants suffering today.

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