Archaeology of Homelessness (Slideshow)
The archaeology of the homeless is the archaeology of ten minutes ago.
"It's a little complicated in one sense, but not at all in another," said Larry Zimmerman, an IUPUI professor of anthropology and museum studies.
"Archaeologists, more than dealing with the past, actually deal with material culture - how people get things, how they modify them, how they use them and, eventually, how they dispose of them. That's what archaeologists have always done, whether it's 100 thousand years ago with some of the earliest humans or very contemporary peoples."
Zimmerman emphasized the theme this semester in the course "Issues in Cultural Heritage." Professor Elizabeth Kryder-Reid co-taught.
Through their fieldwork documenting the archaeology of homelessness, students gained deeper perspective on the relationship of humans to the things with which they surround themselves.
Archaeology focuses, in part, on discarded items, said Heather Meloy, a student in the class.
"Goods that are typically collected for the homeless community, aren't necessarily useful," Meloy said. "You don't necessarily think of things – like, they can't open a canned good.
"My parents' church collects the hotel-sized soaps and shampoos, but one of the things that are often leftover are the shampoos and soaps because there's not access to running water."
Meloy and some of her colleagues from the class mounted an exhibit "What does Homelessness Look Like?" on the 6th floor of the Indianapolis-Marion County Central Library. The exhibit opening coincided with a public forum on homelessness. Students also hosted an exhibit at IUPUI, created a small book and launched a Facebook page.
"When we talk about what all archaeologists do, we're looking at material records, not necessarily the fancy things you see in museums," said Dolly Hayde, another student in the class, at the library exhibit's opening.
Exhibit panels featured analysis of the material culture associated with homelessness, much of it focused on "the practical needs of daily survival" such as devising shelter from existing structures or from natural materials. Other items of interest included caches of personal material, reading materials and communication tools such as cell phones.
She added that she hoped this exhibit could illustrate what some social service organizations could change to improve their services.
"I think having something like archaeology that's going to go in and show you the objective data, we can say, 'Here's a factual basis for why we need the types of services and maybe a few of a different kind,'" Hayde said.
The students expressed hope that the work would change peoples' perspectives on homelessness and possibly rid them of long-held stereotypes.
"I think the most important message would be for people to look outside of themselves and, if we're looking at homelessness or any other issue, then we should be able to look at it from others points of view," Meloy said. "It's human beings who all have stories and lives; many have children and many have been through college. There's not one who's stereotypical."
Meloy said she likes how material objects in homeless communities are used to create heritage, a sense of place, comfort, and belonging.
Studying the archaeology of homelessness is also meant to provide students with a better understanding of the skill of homeless people in adapting to difficult circumstances and suggests better ways of helping them.
To help illustrate the concept of "the archaeology of ten minutes ago," forum organizers showed a video shot by Rachael Kiddey, a doctoral candidate at the University of York, in which her colleague talks with a young homeless man.
The researcher asks the young man about the purpose of what looks to be an ordinary empty bottle of water with a small hole toward the bottom.
The young man explains the purpose of the bottle is used to smoke or "shotgun" drugs.
Without being able to work side-by-side with the people they are studying, Kiddey said, it would be difficult to know the purposes of such enigmatic items.
Zimmerman's attention to Indy's homelessness archeology began years ago with student Jessica Welch, once homeless herself. Together they "surveyed, mapped and classified homeless encampments in the city," according to an IUPUI news account of the project.
Courtney Singleton, a former IUPUI student now in graduate school at the University of Maryland, also offered significant contributions to the Davidson Street project and spoke at the library forum with Zimmerman and Kiddey.
The archaeology of homelessness exhibit will remain on display at Central Library through Dec. 20.