Archaeology: The Homeless Population’s Hero

Most people think of archeology as a field that solely specializes in analyzing the past through the discovery of mysterious artifacts that have been submerged under layers of soil for hundreds of years. However, this is a faulty misconception. Since archaeology is about analyzing “stuff” – material culture left behind by people – it is quite possible to gather archaeological data from a site that was deserted as little as 5 minutes ago. In fact, archaeology has the potential of being extremely valuable in the settlement of current social issues. One such present-day problem is homelessness in America.

This topic holds special weight with me. The town where I live has a large homeless population, and when I was younger I used to help my mom cook for them at our local soup kitchen. I’ll never forget the time a homeless man, setting up his bed next to a church on a cold night, told me, “Be thankful for your parents, and let them know how grateful you are each and every day”. I was eternally touched by his simple words. These people are very much human and very much like the rest of us, but the majority of society tends to view homeless people as very separate from the common person. Do we really know what they need? Do we really know who they are? That’s where archaeology comes in.

Material culture at a homeless camp.

A study was completed by Larry J. Zimmerman and student Jessica Welch that analyzed the material culture left behind by homeless people in an outdoor camp in Indianapolis. They found that the materials the homeless used can help us realize what they need, not just what we think they need. For example, they discovered a large number of canned food items, but the cans were not opened very successfully. This demonstrates how although we think we are helping homeless people when we give them canned goods, we rarely recognize that they don’t have can openers to access the food.

Most food drives are for canned foods, but we fail to realize that the homeless have trouble opening these cans. Collecting can openers would be effective.

Also, Zimmerman explains how he found lots of travel-sized shampoos, conditioners, and toothpastes. However, the toothpaste was the only item that was opened and used. Obviously, without running water, homeless people cannot wash or condition their hair. We are unintentionally ignorant to the actual needs of these people, but through archaeology we can reevaluate our view of the homeless and actually make a difference.


Therefore, with the help of archaeology, the homeless can be humanized and understood on an entirely new level. This knowledge can aid us in developing a more accurate view of their culture, and that understanding can be applied publicly and lawfully. So, all we have to do is publicize these truths about the homeless and make the community in which they live aware of their real necessities, right? This is easier said than done.

Publications are rarely made about archaeology and social matters because people don’t like hearing bad things about what they like and what they do. We don’t want to have our lives analyzed and scolded, and the truth that archaeology exposes reveals humanity’s “dirty little secrets” that we naturally want to keep concealed. Archaeological knowledge can be applied to current issues and accurately breed social justice, but this can’t occur until misconceptions about archaeology are obliterated and the field is understood by the public.

What’s Done Is Done…Or Is It?

A recent influx of embracing the present and future has overshadowed any appreciation we have for our pasts. As human beings living in the 21st century, we are bombarded with urges to “live in the moment” and “seize the day”. We have become obsessed with knowledge about the end of the world (such as 2012…which is rapidly approaching!). Even popular media figures have enlightened us with quotes to live by, such as Drake’s famously rapped motto “YOLO – You Only Live Once”.

This disconnection doesn’t seem to be purposeful, but merely a result of technological advances (everybody impatiently awaiting the newest iPhone model) and the fact that human beings are currently in a constant forward plow towards an obscure future (going to college in order to get into graduate school in order to get a job in order to raise a family, etc).

However, as Professor Beisaw made us all aware of in class on Thursday, the past is interwoven into every single facet of our daily lives. Although we tend to neglect this fact, we aren’t entirely oblivious to the past – but we only use it when it is convenient (to describe the unique nationality you inherited from your father’s uncle’s mother’s Portuguese brother). We ignore it when it is hurtful (losing a war) or shameful (slavery in colonial America). As inferred in Bernbeck and Pollock’s article “Ayodhya, Archaeology, and Identity”, human beings manipulate the past, and therefore archaeology, so that it becomes a glamorized version that we can be proud of. This is displayed through ascending and descending anachronisms. An ascending anachronism attempts to push a past event farther back in time so that it appears to be more distant, while a descending anachronism brings events closer to the present. By ascending events that are dishonorable and descending events that are more respectable, people take control of their histories and create a version to fit their desires.

This is where the public misunderstands archaeology – archaeology provides the facts of the past, but these facts are misconstrued by public manipulations. Mythical history “stresses continuity of past and present” (Bernbeck and Pollock 140), and many political issues today are based on this manipulation. For example, the current battle between the Hindus and Muslims in India displays how “bringing the past very near to the present helps to legitimate revenge for past injuries” (Bernbeck and Pollock 140). This is just one example of how issues based far in the past are manipulated by present day humans in order to solve ancient quarrels that probably don’t even matter in the slightest bit.

This just proves to show how archaeology is relevant to EVERYTHING. Archaeology is the analysis of our pasts but places so much emphasis on the bigger picture, and therefore has so much substantial influence in our present and our futures. People misunderstand this aspect of archaeology because of our manipulation of the past, as well as our inherent obsession with living in the now and embracing our futures. The truth is, the past is what makes us who we are and what gives us a sense of identity. The present and future are nothing without the past, and to say “what’s done is done” is ignorant. That present and future are nothing without the influence of the past – and that’s where archaeology comes in – it is the vehicle through which the past is revealed and interwoven into our lives.