The archaeology of the homeless
the homelessis the archaeology of ten minutes ago.
"It's a little complicated in one sense, but not at all
in another," said Larry Zimmerman
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
"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,
"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
"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
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.