How Archaeology Can Help Us Understand the Homeless

Homeless people exist in most urban areas; according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the state of California alone has roughly 134,000 homeless people in it––more than some countries (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness 2017). We don’t really like to think too much about them––we may give them a bit of our sympathy or maybe just look the other way––but they do exist, and they are indeed human, just like us.

Larry Zimmerman studies artifacts from common homeless resting places in order to get people to understand the homeless in cities. By investigating these sites, Zimmerman, assisted by a student, Jessica Welch, who was homeless for a period of time, determined that the modern day homeless is likened to an “urban nomad,” as they are extraordinarily adaptable (Zimmerman 2016). Many homeless people “panhandle” for money, their locations being spread out and diverse within the city. Welch explained this situation:

This image depicts a camp site scattered with essentials and valuables, which are frequently discarded as trash by city officials.

“You develop coping mechanisms––a fight or flight response–– when you are homeless that are probably not appropriate in mainstream culture. You get increasingly defensive and desperate. This is just one of the many things that make it difficult for homeless people to re-enter normal society. We have to understand that a goal of creating more affordable housing units is not enough; we need a complete social safety net, including better treatment and counseling options, and plenty of compassion and understanding on the part of the community” (Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis 2008).

While more affordable housing units is an excellent start to decreasing the rate of homelessness in cities, we need to actually understand the people we actively shun. While investigating the sites, Zimmerman and Welch discovered an abnormally large amount of hotel shampoo and conditioner, which was left unused. Why would people without a reliable access to water have a need for stolen hotel shampoo and conditioner? We also give them cans of food, but no can openers. This just shows an ignorance about homelessness; we give the homeless what we think they need, but not what they actually want or need. Some picture homeless people as uneducated, when in reality, many of them can and love to read. They also own many priceless objects, such as pictures of their family, or medications; these are frequently thrown out by city officials. Some consider themselves “home free,” as they are liberated from the confines of mortgages and rules.

Though we think of them as “homeless” many actually consider themselves “home free,” as they are free of the constraints that come with a house.

Perhaps this archaeology of homelessness could educate us about what the homeless are really like and what they really need. Charities and shelters could help them more than ever before; they now know not to waste money on cosmetic supplies and can now focus their efforts on essentials. It is best to stop treating these homeless people like lepers––they are not invisible and they do not plague and pollute the streets of cities. A homeless person is just like you or me: a person––a human being that is worth understanding.



Albertson, Nicole.

November 2009  Archaeology of the Homeless. Archaeology Volume 62 Number 6.

Zimmerman, Larry J., Singleton, Courtney, and Welch, Jessica.

August 2010  Activism and creating a translational archaeology of homelessness. World Archaeology Volume 42, 443-454.

Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

November 2008  Archaeology of Homelessness accessed December

1, 2018.

United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

2017  Homelessness Statistics by State[]=1500&fn[]=2900&fn[]=6100&fn[]=10100&fn[]=14100&all_types=true&year=2017&state=CA accessed December 2, 2018.


Additional Readings:

Politics of Homelessness in the United States

U.K.’s Homelessness Problem Is Growing, and Spreading, Report Finds

State of Homelessness

What the Temple of Ebla Tells Us About the Cult of Ishtar

According to Babylonian myth, Ishtar––known as Inanna in Sumerian Myth––was a powerful goddess who had control over war and love; she brought forth rain and thunderstorms, which, since her myth was mostly rooted in Mesopotamia, served a central role in the agricultural aspects of daily life. Ishtar, often represented by doves, was also the goddess of fertility and was revered by many, both of high and low status. As Ishtar rose in prominence, she became central in Babylonian and Sumerian society, and thus became the central figure in the Cult of Ishtar, which expanded throughout the Babylonian and Sumerian sphere of influence. How do archaeologists identify evidence for these cults? Ebla, a town located in modern day Syria, is presumed to be highly influenced by the Cult of Ishtar; the evidence found in the town’s religious temples could help archaeologists accurately describe the goddess and her worshippers, as well as describe the affect that the cult had on the society.

This image is a relief of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, war, and love.

In order to determine the location of a cult, archaeologists must first find attention-focusing devices, such as sacred temples, where the community would presumably go to worship. In Ebla, temples were discovered; religious practices most likely took practice in a central space, bounded by cisterns. Archaeologists found the most evidence for the presence of Ishtar within the temple; As archaeologists began to excavate the stratigraphy around in a favissa, or pit, they discovered a plethora of artifacts, including carnelian lions, bronze bulls, and bronze snakes: all common iconography of Ishtar. The addition of figurines depicting domesticated animals and naked women––symbols of fertility––also suggest Ishtar’s influence within Ebla.

This image depicts the remains of a temple at Elba in modern-day Syria, a site that suggests influence from the Cult of Ishtar.

The archaeologists also began to find pottery sherds dumped in pits, which were then hypothesized to be influenced by the Cult of Ishtar; though they were unable to be completely reconstructed, the decorations of the pottery often depicted a common theme of birds. These birds however, were most likely doves than birds of prey; this hypothesis is supported by the presence of dove bones on the site, which were most likely used as offerings towards the goddess. The presence of doves suggests that Ishtar’s sphere of influence had expanded beyond the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Though the pottery is not complete evidence for the Cult’s presence, the contents within the pottery is what deems their religious significance. The pottery obtained at the site contained burnt offerings, such as processed food and bones; this signifies the town’s participation in the offering­­s, another major aspect of cult identification.

These findings within the temples’ favissa suggests that Ishtar’s influence was expanding westward, which indicates the Babylonian and Sumerian sphere of influence was growing towards the Mediterranean, allowing their culture to be adopted by more people.


Additional Readings:


Heffron, Yaǧmur. “Inana/Ištar (goddess)”, Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2016

Marchetti, Nicoló. Nigro, Lorenzo.

1997  Cultic Activities in the Sacred Area of Ishtar at Elba During the Old Syrrian Period: the Favissae F.5327 and F.5238 Journal of Cuneiform Studies (49): 1-44.

Pinnock, Frances.

2000  The Doves of the Goddess. Elements of the Cult of Ishtar at Elba in the Middle Bronze Age Levant (32:1): 121-128.

Renfrew, Colin, and Bahn, Paul G. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. 2nd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2015.