The springs of a mattress collected by photographer Gideon Mendel at the site of the Calais ‘Jungle’ in 2016 (c) MOLA

The Dzhangal Archaeology Project: an archaeological perspective on modern migration

Janet Miller

Today, on International Migrants Day, our Chief Executive, Janet Miller, talks about the Dzhangal Archaeology Project, and why she believes archaeologists should be discussing and engaging with difficult issues like modern migration.

In 2016, artist and photographer Gideon Mendel went to Calais to teach residents of the Jungle camp photography. Gideon soon learnt that the refugees didn’t want to be photographed, partly fearing being identified would undermine their asylum claims. Determined to artistically represent the residents’ humanity and the plight of displaced people, Gideon turned his attention to the lost and damaged objects on the ground, collecting them and trying to understand the patterns that emerged.

“I set about forensically photographing these found objects as if they were precious archaeological artefacts that might help us to make sense of the complex relationships and politics of the place.” Gideon Mendel

I was struck by Gideon’s approach to this issue, which although is not top of the news agenda at the moment, affects the lives of millions.

Migration is a highly emotive and politically charged subject and I recognise that some people will question what archaeology can contribute. Archaeology is about people and so I believe that at the very least we should play our part in raising awareness of these issues. And of course migration is nothing new. It has presented challenges and opportunities to all societies throughout human history. We see it in the early archaeological record, including in London. So our work on the material collected by Gideon Mendel is about directing our archaeological lens to the objects and material – most often everyday objects – to help us and society to think about the experience of migration today, much in the same way that we study older artefacts to help us to think about life in the past.

But my hope is that in embarking on this journey we also turn that gaze back on ourselves as archaeologists. As a profession, we should always be mindful as to how the knowledge that we create is used. We know that archaeology and history are often employed to rose-tint or indeed taint opinions of people, societies or events. And so I hope that looking at this contemporary collection will help us to question the ways in which we as archaeologists work - are our current frameworks of studying archaeological material open, appropriate and meaningful?

So archaeology is more than just studying old things to work out what happened in the past, it’s a way of seeing - looking at objects and places in order to understand people and society. And we can apply this way of looking to the present as much as to the past.

For the Dzhangal Archaeology Project, MOLA archaeologists are studying the collection of items from the Calais Jungle. In doing so we are not attempting to tell the stories of the migrants, who are of course far better placed to do this, but we do hope to learn about the wider systems and networks involved in modern migration and the development of the Jungle camp itself.

Our work will focus on the life histories of the objects: their use, reuse, their eventual destruction and the wider social, political and economic context that led to their being and eventual deposition at the camp.

There are of course questions that could be asked about whether archaeologists should even be allowed to study these items but my view, as an archaeologist who believes that archaeology is of benefit to society, is that just because migration is a difficult and complex issue, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a duty to engage with it and contribute to debates and dialogue about it.

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