Studying Human Migration in Long-Term Perspective (CfAS workshop), Arizona, 2019

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Photo credit: Amerind Foundation, 2019

Sometimes, I find myself in situations and wonder how on Earth I got there. This was the case recently as I watched shooting stars arc across the clear desert skies above the Amerind Foundation, near Dragoon, Arizona, USA. A chance meeting at the annual conference of the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) had led to an invitation to respond to a request for information from the Coalition for Archaeological Synthesis(CfAS). CfAS was looking to bring together around 15 researchers who were working on the subject of human migration in long-term perspective – that is, across deep time and global space – to engage in an intensive design workshop, to define problems that could be addressed using archaeologically sourced data. I applied and was lucky enough to be selected to attend the meeting and that is how, between 26th September to 1st October 2019, I found myself in Arizona.

The design workshop itself was modelled on that developed by other synthesis centres (e.g. the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis). Essentially, the workshop was first-most diverse, bringing together esteemed professors, cocky postdocs, and everyone in between; it was highly collaborative – we worked and ate together, and we shared accommodation; and the face-to-face nature of the meeting was intentional and useful. We met in a beautiful location which offered us space to think, time to talk, and few other distractions from the task at hand. This highly sociable workshop model has been acknowledged to be a powerful driver for advancing scientific research (Carpenter et al. 2009; Hackett et al. 2008; see also, Altschul et al. 20172018). Following previous synthesis centre models, the idea is that 15 or so researchers convene for an intense week-long workshop several times a year for two or three years. Researchers are then expected to collaborate remotely in the intervening months to produce transdisciplinary research proposals which reach beyond the confines of academia into policy, where they can have practical purpose.

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The CfAS Migration group was lucky enough to be hosted in the former home of William Shirley Fulton (1880-1964), who founded the Amerind Foundation in 1937 as a private, not-for-profit archaeological research institution. Fulton travelled and collected in the American South-West throughout the early part of the twentieth century and his collection of Native American artefacts – baskets, pots, bowls, tools, clothing, paintings, jewellery, religious and cultural objects – forms the basis of the modern-day Museum. The central aim of the Amerind today is to promote knowledge and understanding of the Native Peoples of the Americas through research, education, and conservation, and the Foundation works closely with tribes whose ancestral land the estate occupies.

Initially, it felt rather like being a character in an Agatha Christie novel! We met in the drawing room over drinks, admiring the impressive scenery that surrounds the house, before walking down the cloister to dine together. We were hosted and catered for all week by a small and dedicated team. It was collegial and friendly, with none of the snobbery that often surrounds such events at English universities. As the sun set, we retired to bed before 10pm, ready for the next day of thinking and conversing together. Officially, work took place in the Library but in truth, as many ideas came together over breakfast or an evening stroll. This was the true value of the specific workshop model. So often, academics meet at enormous conferences where they deliver papers to rooms full of people who already know their work intimately – the benefit of the model developed by CfAS is that everyone knows everyone pretty well after a week as colleagues and roommates! The model affords the time and space necessary to hear something for the first time and feel your brow furrow in confusion or disagreement – listen to an approach, an idea, a theory, a standpoint – and reflect upon it critically. Crucially, with this model, everyone has enough time to consider it deeply and enough informal encounters with other researchers to be familiar enough to ask questions, probe more deeply – this enables everyone to move forward with the thought together.

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After briefly introducing our individual work to one another, we opened to a wider discussion around the group of 15 or so researchers to identify the problems and key questions associated with the study of human migration in long-term perspective. This led to the creation of two (and later, three) project groups which broke off to spend the next two days turning a loosely defined problem into a much more clearly defined research proposal. This was where it got really exciting. As a Contemporary Archaeologist, I apply archaeological method and theory to the contemporary world. I use predominantly qualitative research methods, including ethnography, in studying the material culture of contemporary migration in Europe. My colleagues in our breakout project group, however, include those working on pre-Colombian Mexico, a bio-anthropologist, a metallurgist, a landscape archaeologist who works on the expansion of humans out of Africa almost 2 million years ago, and a quantitative archaeologist whose specialisation is statistical analysis in archaeology. It is fair to say that we are a refreshingly and unusually diverse group of archaeologists, whose expertise range across all manner of disciplinary and methodological boundaries allied to archaeology. This mix of people and approaches led us down some fascinating intellectual rabbit holes e.g. concerning the language which we use as archaeologists, what we mean by particular terms, even, whether it is possible to ‘do’ archaeology if one can’t provide a testable hypothesis or with data rather than datasets. If we, archaeologists, struggle to understand one another, what hope does the rest of the academic and non-academic world have? This is precisely why synthesis of our wide forms of archaeological knowledge really matters. This is why CfAS has developed this model of research in the hope that it can genuinely provide translational, useful, evidence-based new knowledge on human migration in long-term perspective.

Each group worked on their project idea until, all too quickly, the time came for us to open our ideas out for critique from the wider group, and later make our individual ways, across four continents, back home. The intense but profoundly stimulating experience of living and working together for a week is now complemented by ‘homework’ – collaborating over email until we have prepared our project proposals for submission back to CfAS. There is no guarantee that those invited to the first Migration group meeting will be invited back to the next. This is not a project for egos. Rather, this is about bringing together the right minds, the right knowledge, the right methods, data, approaches, attitudes, and experiences, for the task in hand. In this way, it clearly demonstrates the relevance and applicability of archaeological research. We want to better understand and be able to discuss human migration in long-term perspective. Personally, and I speak here for myself, not CfAS or my project colleagues, I see the value that this work has to potentially aid the defence of migration as a fundamental part of the human condition. One feature of being human is, perhaps, is to move through, between, and across all manner of borders.

To be continued (if they invite me back!)….

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