The need for archaeology of Syrian refugees and migrants

Hundreds of thousands of life jackets litter the mountainside of the island of Lesvos, Greece. These life jackets are left behind by refugees who have survived the arduous journey by sea to Greece, or recovered from the bodies of those who did not survive. The sheer number of jackets is immeasurable and incomprehensible. The mountainside of Skala Skamnias is sprinkled with orange and red cheap pieces of nylon and polyester, items that are supposed to be “life savers.”  According to the UNHCR, “3,400 refugees and migrants land each day” (Strickland, Patrick Al Jazeera) on the shores of Lesvos. With each refugee that lands, they shed and leave material items. Each life jacket is a story of a person who has traveled far from home and left everything behind. Like those crossing the Sonoran Desert to get to the USA, many smugglers and businesses profit off of those making the journey. One refugee was shocked “when he paid smugglers $100 only to find that his jacket was packed with nylon and padding…People spend their life savings and are only given symbolic protection” (Strickland, Patrick Al Jazeera). One can find these life jackets offer no protection. Lesvos does not have the capacity or ability to recycle the thousands of life jackets and cannot afford to ship them to mainland Greece, so they are simply sitting in what looks like a material graveyard, remnants of people’s lives tossed away.

In an unfortunately ironic twist, the conference on “Dialogues in Archaeology” was hosted in Lesvos in 2016, and the opening discussion was about “The Archaeology of Forced and Undocumented Migration” (Hamilakis, Yannis The Nation). In a country rich with remains of monuments and material culture, it is ironic how this unique and relevant material culture is not being studied or cared for. The entire country is covered in remains of boats, dingies, life jackets, shoes, clothing items and personal memories. Seemingly mundane and ordinary objects to some tell the stories of thousands who have risked everything to come to Europe. The sad reality is that, as of the moment, “these are not recognized by Greek law as archaeological artifacts, worthy of preservation” (Hamilakis, Yannis The Nation). Instead of learning more about the refugees, the government is ignoring the issue by not taking the accurate and necessary steps to preserve this history. Not only will Greece benefit by preserving yet another rich history, but the world will benefit by learning the stories behind each life jacket, shoe, and tent. This archaeology of forced migration serves to humanize the refugees.   Instead of just viewing them as numbers or statistics, they should be seen as people with hopes, dreams, and precious items just like everyone else.

Thousands of life jackets in Lesvos, Greece

Small boats carrying refugees across the Mediterranean. The boats are too full and the life jackets will not protect them.


Strickland, Patrick. “Life-Jacket mountain a metaphor for Greece’s refugees.” Europe | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 29 Dec. 2015,

Hamilakis, Yannis. “The EU’s Future Ruins: Moria Refugee Camp in Lesbos.” The Nation, The Nation, 15 Apr. 2016,

“Refugee crisis on Lesvos ‘is a new Greek tragedy’.” ITV News, 16 July 2015,

“Volunteering on the Greek Island of Lesvos.” JASON’S STORY, a mother’s story, 6 Nov. 2017,

Extra Readings:

Forensic Anthropology is more than just the television series “Bones”

When we think of archaeologists, we tend to think of people digging thousand-year-old mummies from the ground. This isn’t always the case. Forensic anthropologists use physical anthropology and bio archaeology to help solve legal cases. This field has become extremely essential in recent years due to the high numbers of genocide and the unidentified victims. Dr. Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkley, has traveled to Rwanda, Guatemala, Iraq and other sites of genocide in order to bring closure to the families and punish those who committed these atrocious war crimes. Forensic anthropologists examine not only the cause of death and identify of the victim, but also look towards the greater cultural impact of their death. Dr. Stover learned that “…the means of killing is often easy to identify, whether by machete or rifle. And evidence of execution is often readily apparent as well…”. For him, it is more difficult to identify the victims, determining their approximate age and sex through bone and dental records when the country is in the midst of turmoil. His victims, however, tend to be recent and still have evidence of ID, keys, money and other factors in the event that they could return home.

The Dirty War in Argentina was waged from 1976-1983 by Argentina’s military dictatorship in an attempt to get rid of left-wing opposition. Thousands of Argentinian citizens were executed or simply “disappeared”. Dr. Stover traveled to Argentina in 1984 after three women showed up at his office begging him to find their loved ones. The women told Dr. Stover that pregnant women were kidnapped and executed after giving birth to supply military couples with children. This piece of cultural evidence allows Dr. Stover to contextualize the murders and place stories, background and a path for prosecution behind the victim’s identification. Liliana Pereyra, a 21-year-old pregnant student, disappeared in October 1977. After the military junta was overthrown, government officials told Perevyra’s mother that she died in a shoot out with the police in an attempt to cover up her murder. In 1985 Stover and a team of archaeologists and anthropologists exhumed a grave containing three bodies. Dr. Stover used x-rays taken of Liliana to match her with one of the bodies and to identify the method of execution. When he gathers this information, he gains pieces of evidence to persecute the perpetrators.

Dr. Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who helped successfully identify aspects of the assassination of JFK, inspects x-rays of a skull fractured by a bullet.

Families in Iraqi Kurdistan are shown pictures of their relatives in an attempt to ID bodies.

Forensic anthropology is a controversial field when the identifications of genocide victims are at stake. The exhumation of bodies and of objects is always a tricky situation in regards to archaeology because you risk damaging the area, disturbing something that was not meant to be disturbed and destroying artifacts and bodies. A specialist is needed who has a multi disciplinary background in order to not only scientifically identify the victims but place them in a larger social context for greater analysis, a perfect skill for anthropologists. In the case of genocide victims, forensic anthropology is necessary because the victims did not die of their own accord, but a violent political death that deserves remembrance.



Nuwer, Rachel. “Reading Bones to Identify Genocide Victims.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Nov. 2011,

“Dirty War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 20 Mar. 2014,

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Image Sources:

Nuwer, Rachel. “Reading Bones to Identify Genocide Victims.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Nov. 2011,

“Dead Reckoning: War, Crime, and Justice from WW2 to the War on Terror | Press Release | Pressroom | THIRTEEN.” Pressroom,

Further Reading: