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One Person’s Trash is Another Person’s Artifact

Archaeological practices are incremental to our future

How much have you thrown away today? I certainly don’t keep track. The wrappers, water bottles, and cans you use aren’t meant to be kept track of, which is why they’re waste products. But the Sonoran Desert in Arizona is filled with these objects as hundreds of migrants from Mexico and Central America pass through it—on a near daily test of survival—to get to the United States. And whether these objects are considered trash or artifacts is up for debate.

Think of an artifact. Some things probably come to mind are ancient bronze tools or maybe a simple clay pot. Now take your perception of that “trash” that you threw away, and what is currently filling the Sonoran Desert, and combine them with what you think an artifact is. Essentially, they are the same. All of these things are artifacts because they leave an important mark on the material culture of our collective history, and they should be thought of as such.

Now think back to the desert, and the migrants from Mexico and Central America who are attempting to cross into the United States. An exodus of people such as this is considered an epic event, and there have been many like it in the past: the fleeing of Ireland from famine in 1845, the emigration away from poverty in Italy in 1880, the escape of Jewish people from Nazi Germany in 1939. What did these people leave behind other than stories and documents? They left physical remains of their struggles and hardships—pieces of evidence that they abandoned their homes to find refuge in a new place. All of these were massive movements of people who made their mark on the earth, and left behind fragments that tell a tragic story about each man, woman, and child. Items like the backpacks, water bottles, papers, and shoes that are littering the Arizona desert are a link on this same chain. The items left behind—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—all tell a story.

The items left behind … all tell a story.

In archaeology there is an important concept called context. Context is, in part, the location where an artifact was found. It is also the type of soil it was in, the type of site where it was found, and perhaps most importantly, what the artifact was found with or in relation to. So while the object itself can give us some information, it is actually the context that gives us the most information. This is why it is often illegal to move or take objects from an archaeological site. It is this idea of context that makes removal of these migrants’ personal belongings so problematic. Removing them before recording them is an active erasure of history and meaning. How will we be able to accurately record the struggle of these families in 100 or 500 years if we actively work to remove it beforehand?

Together we must work to preserve an ever-growing history of the Americas, to honor both the memories of the hardships our ancestors suffered in the past, and the suffering experienced by migrants today, so we may never forget these journeys.

A version of this piece originally ran in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and is reprinted here with permission from the author.