Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Migrant Workers Leave Behind Clues To Depression-Era Lifestyle

American University researchers (front to back) Marek Cabrera, Dan Perry and Scotty Summers excavate an area in Delta, Pa., where migrant workers camped during the Depression. In the area in this photo, taken in 2016, researchers found evidence of a shelter, a slate mandolin pick and fragments from a ceramic bowl, plate and cup.
American University researchers (front to back) Marek Cabrera, Dan Perry and Scotty Summers excavate an area in Delta, Pa., where migrant workers camped during the Depression. In the area in this photo, taken in 2016, researchers found evidence of a shelter, a slate mandolin pick and fragments from a ceramic bowl, plate and cup.

A group of archaeologists in Delta, Pa., are trying to humanize one of history's most marginalized groups: migrant workers.

They've been digging at a Depression-era camp where laborers moving from place to place in search of work would have lived. Daniel Sayers, the department chair of anthropology at American University and a co-director of the dig, says the archaeologists were exploring what was once called a "hobo jungle."

"What we focus on typically are the things that people often just aren't paying as much attention to," Sayers says on NPR's Morning Edition. "It's the stuff that we leave behind, it's the garbage, it's the things of daily use, it's the places we create — and the places we make reflect ourselves."

Migrant workers aren't known for leaving much behind, but Sayers and his colleagues were surprised to find numerous "hobby items," including a mandolin pick and what they think are board game pieces, all hand-carved from slate found in the local area. They also found a fire pit, metal cans, a frying pan, ceramics, mason jars and medicine bottles.

This tells them that the people living in this camp likely had a tight-knit, domestic community, even though people would have been continuously coming and going.

Justin Uehlein, a doctoral candidate at American University and another of the dig's co-directors, says that understanding the daily lives of the people at these camps can help us reframe the way we think about present-day immigrants and migrant workers, who still face a great deal of stigmatization.

"[They] are kind of reduced to simple phrases like 'immigrant' or 'taking a job.' These very short phrases that don't do anything to tell you who these people are or why they're forced into this kind of practice."

Sayers and Uehlein hope that their project, which archaeology students have been at since 2016, can draw attention to the systems that cause the exploitation of migrant workers, rather than blaming the workers themselves. They're encouraged by the communal nature that they see evidenced in the remains of the camp.

"I think when we start looking at these marginalized communities, we see different ways of existing emerge. Different forms of community organization, different ways that people help one another out," Sayers says. "And it's not that basic relationship of 'I work for you for X amount, and you take what I produce and sell it yourself to make more money than you're paying me.' We can see a range of alternatives."

The researchers from American University say that what's left of out-of-the-way communities like this one are all around. They've already identified several other sites they'd like to dig – including some around Washington, D.C. — and believe these projects provide both criticism and inspiration for American society today.

Tyler Hill is aMorning Editionintern.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.