Material Possessions of the Homeless: An Archaeological Perspective


As the homeless population continues to be neglected, and in some cases ignored, there remains a misunderstanding of the material possessions and the culture that accompanies being homeless. However, a recent study conducted by doctor Larry Zimmerman, a professor of anthropology at the University-Purdue University Indianapolis provides insight through an archeological perspective that strives to reverse the stigma against homelessness within the United States.

Until recently, archeology observed homelessness through a historical and ethnographic perspective, “To date, homelessness has not been the subject of systematic archeological study” (Zimmerman 2011: 68). Although this methodology enables archeologists to understand certain aspects of homelessness, it fails to address the material culture of the homeless (Figure 1). The study of such evidence would not only provide insight and explanation as to how homeless individuals live their lives, but also assist in understanding what variables affect where they live.

Figure 1. Material possessions of a homeless campsite under Highway 290 South in Austin, Texas.

In 2003, Zimmerman began his archaeological study of the homeless population within the city of Indianapolis. The primary methodology of his research comprised of pedestrian surveys that identified a one-mile square radius in which the homeless population was most prevalent. Upon identifying this area of study, a series of excavations, random site surveys, and surface collections were conducted in which the volume and depth of materials found enabled Zimmerman to categorize each survey site.

Upon analyzing recorded materials from over 50 sites, each site was placed into one of three categories. Route sites, being the least occupied, offered limited evidence of sleeping or camping. Material use and disuse of this site included articles of clothing, food, and human waste. Similarly, short-term sites produced articles of clothing, food, and shelter. However, given the depth of materials found, it can be inferred that homeless individuals slept there for two or more days. Campsites (Figure 2), which produced the most material evidence, indicated common usage as materials found included long-term shelters for sleeping, cooking materials, food, and personal possessions stored in garbage bags or cardboard boxes.

Figure 2. A “No Trespassing” sign is displayed upon entering a Greensboro homeless camp.

Along with evidence of material possessions, which help categorize survey sites, Zimmerman suggests that surrounding structures play an equal role in the amount of activity produced. “ The range of homeless populations may depend on access to sources of food, medical care, and interaction with non-homeless citizens and law enforcement” (Zimmerman 2011:67). Given that route and short-term sites tend to be further away from structures that limit environmental exposer and privacy,  it can be inferred that this limits evidence of occupancy. Contrary, campsites offer increased evidence of material possessions as they are closer to structures and offer more suitable living conditions.

Overall Zimmerman, argues that homelessness is widely misunderstood, and despite popular belief, material possessions found at each site help better explain the culture of the homeless population within the United States.


Albertson, Nicole

2009  Archaeology of the Homeless. Archaeology Magazine Archive. Archaeological Institute of America, Accessed November 9, 2019

Aisen, Cindy

2008  Archeology of Homelessness. EurekAlert! Indiana Research. Eureka Alert! Accessed November 9, 2019

Zimmerman, Larry J. & Jessica Welch

2011  Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology. vol. 45, no. 1, 2011, pp. 67–85., doi:10.1007/bf03376821.


McLaughlin, Nancy

2016  City to Disband Homeless Camp: ‘Where Are We Supposed to Go. Greensboro News and Record. News & Record Accessed November 9, 2019.

Rich, Davis

2019 Homeless in Texas. The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune. Accessed November 9, 2019

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The Sangam Era of South India: Dating Methods Reveal New Periods of Existence


New information provided by methods of radiocarbon dating and accelerator mass spectrometry has presented archaeologists with a more accurate timeline regarding the site of Keeladi, a small village which bordered the districts of modern-day Madurai and Sivagangai in Tamil Nadu, India (Figure 1). In an article written by Dennis Jesudasan of The Hindu, Jesudasan details aspects of the recent discovery. “Six carbon samples collected from the fourth season (2018) of excavations at Keeladi were sent to Beta Analytic Lab, Miami, Florida, U.S., for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) Dating” (Jesudasan, 2019). Originally, the Sangam Era was thought to be had taken place between 300 BC. and 300 AD. However, data collected from recent radiocarbon and accelerator mass spectrometry samples indicate that the site had been occupied 300 years prior than originally thought, thus placing its existence between 600 BC. and 100 AD.

Figure 1. Archaeological survey site of Keeladi in Tamil Nadu, India.

The relevance of this newly discovered evidence plays a significant role in constructing the culture of this civilization during the Sangam Era in South India. Initially, it was considered that although the Sangam Era produced numerous literary documents, this aspect of their culture was not developed until third century BCE. However, since the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department of India announced the newly reported dates, it can be inferred that literacy among the population was prevalent as early as sixth century BCE. Furthermore, as radiocarbon dating continues to allow archeologists to develop a better understanding of the culture and human activity during the Sangam Era, it further assists in dating the origin of the Tamil-Brahmi script to sixth century BCE.

Among surveys which included radiocarbon dating and accelerator mass spectrometry, materials recovered from a 2018 excavation of the site continue to portray the human activity within the village of Keeladi (Figure 2). Materials such as spindle whorls, bone tipped tools, and numerous fragments of terracotta spheres indicate that the village of Keeladi was relatively industrial and most likely produced textiles as a means of trading. Continued portrayal of human activity within the village Keeladi was developed as animal bone samples were sent to Pune’s Deccan College of India and determined to be the bones of various farm animals, thus illuding to an agricultural aspect of the small village. As a result of the combined efforts of archeology, such as radiocarbon dating and accelerator mass spectrometry, there now exists a more comprehensive understanding regarding the village of  Keeladi.

Figure 2. Recovered material from the most recent excavations conducted at the village of Keeladi.


Jesudasan, Dennis S.

2019  Keezhadi excavations: Sangam era older than previously thought, finds study. The Hindu.    The Hindu, Accessed September 20, 2019

Saju, M. T.

2019  Sangam age is older than previously thought, carbon dating of Keeladi materials suggests: Chennai News – The Times of India, Accessed September 19, 2019

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2019  New Dates Push Back Creation of India’s Tamil-Brahmi Script. Archaeology Magazine. Archaeology Institute of America, Accessed September 20, 2019


2019  Hoary past: One of the samples collected at the depth of 353 cm goes back to 580 BCE. Keezhadi excavations: Sangam era older than previously thought, finds study. The Hindu, Accessed September 20, 2019 report/article29461583.ece

2017  Artefacts unearthed at Keezhadi archaeological site at Sivaganga district. Keezhadi might have been an industrial town: Archaeologist. Daith Thanthi, Accessed September 20, 2019

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