US-Mexico border at Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico; and California. Photo courtesy Tomas Castelazo and wikicommons

The clandestine movement of people across the Mexico-United States border is of interest to many people, including archaeologists. There aren’t a lot of archaeologists doing fieldwork on it, but the results of those that do are fascinating, and important.

US-Mexico border at Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico; and California. Photo courtesy Tomas Castelazo and wikicommons

US-Mexico border at Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico; and California. Photo courtesy Tomas Castelazo and wikicommons

Archaeological fieldwork on undocumented migrants is often linked closely with Jason De Leon, a professor at the University of Michigan, a National Geographic Explorer, and Director of the Undocumented Migration Project. As described on the project’s web page, it is “…a long-term anthropological study of undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States that uses ethnography, archaeology, and forensic science to better understand this clandestine social process”.  The focus is on crossings from Mexico, by foot, across the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona.

The archaeology component of the project involves looking at the material remains left behind during the crossings, including discarded water bottles, shoes, clothing, and backpacks. There are also aspects of forensics and taphonomy, especially in regard to the study of those that die on the journey. Mostly the project has documented the remains left behind at what De Leon calls ‘migrant stations’, places where those crossing typically eat, rest, and change clothes.  Some remains, such as empty water bottles, worn shoes, and bloodied clothes, were clearly discarded on purpose. Other remains, such as personal letters and photos, may have been left behind in haste or accidentally.

The project has received considerable mainstream and popular media attention, much of which is linked on the web site, which also has a list and links to articles based on the project in scholarly journals.  There is also an exhibit on the project, titled State of Exception, currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit.

The popular appeal of the project is easy to understand. Undocumented migration is a hot-button issue in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people attempt to cross the border into Arizona every year. An estimated 80% are apprehended or turned back. Some die in the desert, and of course some go undetected. The material remains studied by De Leon and his collaborators offer a new lens to which the view and understand the migrations.

Standard archaeological methods are used in the project, including use-wear studies to make inferences. Rather than using it as most archaeologist do, on lithics and potsherds for example, archaeologists studying the border crossings examine the traces of use and modification on clothing, water bottles, and other artifacts to reveal various kinds of suffering and resorting to the use of contaminated water. This is elaborated upon in a 2013 article by De Leon in Journal of Material Culture titled “Undocumented migration, use wear, and the materiality of habitual suffering in the Sonoran Desert.”

Besides offering insight into the actual process of crossings, including it difficulties, archaeological studies of the border crossings also provide insight into the associated economic, political, legal, and social contexts of illegal migration across the border. Much of this is included in the scholarly articles based on the project. In “Better to Be Hot than Caught”: Excavating the Conflicting Roles of Migrant Culture  (American Anthropologist 114 (3) pp 477-495)  De Leon mentions that some view the material remains as mere trash, to which he responds that they “fail to recognize the historical, political, and global economic forces that have shaped border crossings into a well-structured social process….” He describes the material remains of the crossings as being  …“determined by a complex and culturally shaped set of processes influenced by many factors including economic constraints, folk logic, enforcement practices, migrant perceptions of Border Patrol and the human smuggling industry.”  One example is the changes in water bottles. Folk logic indicated that dark was better resulting in a sequence of white bottles to bottles artificially darkened with shoe polish or wrapping in plastic to the manufacture of black bottles.

Trowel. Photo courtesy Bob Muckle

Trowel. Photo courtesy Robert Muckle

The archaeology of undocumented migrants is not without criticism.  An article on the project called “Curating the Traces of Illegal Immigration” (originally in Hyperallergic and subsequently appearing Salon) includes De Leon’s acknowledgment that there are some archaeologists resistant to the project since it focuses on the present rather than the past and comments on the ‘State of Exception’ exhibit make claims of “white guilt” and the “appropriation of people’s suffering.”

In my view, the Undocumented Migration Project is an excellent example of the emerging subfield of the archaeology of the contemporary world. It applies archaeological method and theory to material culture today; it has elements of activism and social justice; the relevance tends to be obvious; and it can be used to effectively teach archaeological method and theory.

Robert Muckle has had his own CRM firm, worked extensively with Indigenous peoples, and directed many field projects. Publications include Introducing Archaeology, Reading Archaeology and The Indigenous Peoples of North America, published by the University of Toronto Press. He is based at Capilano University. He may be followed on Twitter at @bobmuckle or contacted at

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