A Sort of Urban Warfare: The Future Archaeology of Hostile Architecture

One of the reasons why I like speculative archaeology, or hypothetical archaeologies created in the future of our present, is that is allows us to look at current issues from a different perspective. In particular, I enjoy speculating on how specific iconography and design choices might be interpreted – for many of us, one of the first archaeological exercises you do in college is to speculate how a coin would be seen by future archaeologists, and I guess I never outgrew that. Let’s move beyond the fanciful interpretation of how George Washington’s face on the quarter could be seen as worship and idolatry (actually, there’s something there…), and move towards something perhaps more urgent: hostile architecture and design.

Recently, the MTA in New York City was justifiably put on the spot for its blunt stance against unhoused people, which was exacerbated by the unveiling of more benches designed to deter people from hanging around too long – again, something which will disproportionately affect unhoused people.  This got me thinking about the hostile architecture and what it encapsulates about our current world. “Hostile architecture” refers to specific design features made to deter people from staying too long in public spaces. This includes incorporating spikes on flat surfaces, placing seats at uncomfortable angles, and including dividers to prevent people from laying down. Hostile architecture and design removes comfort and rest from public spaces, and often funnels those needs into commodities (Kim 2019) – if hostile architecture makes sitting for free in a courtyard an impossibility, would you then turn to being a customer of a nearby café just to sit down and relax?  And again, these design choices disproportionately affect certain groups of people: disabled people, unhoused people, and poor people. 

It is easy to imagine the sort of interpretations that future archaeologists will make of the more overtly hostile architecture – both designed to repel people, one can see how spikes on a windowsill in New York City can evoke the imagery of defensive systems used in the historic and prehistoric past, from sticks and stones which were used as Iron Age chevaux-de-frise  (Murphy 2018) to the stockades often used by colonial forces during military expeditions (Jayasena 2006). Hostile architecture also inspires its own adjacent archaeologies as well, with people creating their own spaces in response to this antagonism. Here, we can actually turn to work being done alongside communities of unhoused peoples, as archaeologists such as Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield in the United Kingdom, and Larry J. Zimmerman and Jessica Welch in the United States have demonstrated with their research (e.g. Kiddey and Schofield 2011, Zimmerman and Welch 2011).

Of course, it should be said that hostile architecture shouldn’t need this sort of roundabout form of reflection to be seen as “bad”, and that choosing to divest from these antagonistic designs should be based on empathy and respect for people regardless of their circumstance, rather than the imagined judgements of a far future archaeologist. Fortunately, there are many who continue to speak out against hostile architecture and protest there use – this includes people who have also taken things into their own hands and have removed these features themselves (Suliman 2018).  And maybe this is where archaeology can step in…after all, I’m pretty sure many of us have a mattock or two to spare.

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Hostile Architecture found on a Manhattan windowsill (Photo Credit: JL Jahn/Alamy)

To end this post, I’d like to promote some groups and organisations who are doing good work at providing mutual aid for unhoused people in the UK and the US. Please consider donating, and remember that unhoused people are also part of your communities, and deserve the same respect, dignity, and care that everyone else receives. 

Remora House DCWashington DC, United States

From the Heart PNW – Seattle, WA, United States

Feed the People Dallas Mutual Aid – Dallas, TX, United States

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless – Chicago, IL, United States

Coalition on Homelessness – San Francisco, CA, United States

National Coalition for the Homeless – United States

Museum of Homelessness – United Kingdom

NRPF Network – United Kingdom

Homeless Network Scotland – Scotland

References

Jayasena, R.J. (2006) The Historical Archaeology of Katuwana, a Dutch East India Company Fort in Sri Lanka. Post-Medieval Archaeology 40(1). pp. 111-128.

Kiddey, R., and Schofield, J. (2011) Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and Homelessness. Public Archaeology 10(1). pp. 4-22.

Kim, E. (2019) A Field Guide to the ‘Weapons’ of Hostile Architecture in NYC. The Gothamist. Retrieved from https://gothamist.com/news/a-field-guide-to-the-weapons-of-hostile-architecture-in-nyc

Murphy, K. (2018) The Atlantic Coast. Internet Archaeology  48.

Suliman, A. (2018) Public Hits Back at ‘Hostile Architecture’ in European Cities. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-cities-homelessness-idUSKCN1M419S

Zimmerman, L.J., and Welch, J. (2011) Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology 45(1), pp. 67-85.

 


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Does this Artefact “Spark Joy”? Marie Kondo as an Archaeological Framework

First, a confession: a few years ago, I did read Marie Kondo’s book and attempted to use the KonMari method to wrangle my large collection of “stuff” that I had managed to cultivate after only a year of living in the UK. Turns out, I am secretly a hoarder and everything sparks joy, so it didn’t really work for me.

With Marie Kondo’s new television show out and causing lots of discourse, it got me thinking about…what else? Archaeology! For those who don’t know, Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering and tidying (also referred to as the KonMari method) is based off of the idea that you should keep items that “spark joy”; by employing this particular mindset, clients are able to minimise their belongings to smaller collections that are more consistent with what they visualise as part of their everyday lives (Kondo 2014).

A drawer of shirts neatly folded according to the KonMari method.
A drawer full of shirts that have been neatly folded according to the KonMari method (Image Credit: Netflix)

But what about archaeological objects? Do we ever think about if they once “sparked joy”?

One thing that always bugged me about archaeology, particularly as an undergraduate student just learning the basics, was how much emphasis was placed on utilisation within interpretation – the main questions are usually “how was this used?” or “how did this make survival easier?” What about, “how did people in the past see this object?” or “did they like this object? Like, a lot?”

Of course, that’s not to say that archaeologists haven’t been discussing this very topic. Or, at the very least, they have been discussing around it. For example, as we move towards post-processualism in archaeology, we find that discussions of material culture turn towards examining the symbolic aspects that need to be interpreted from the artefacts, rather than observed (Hodder 1989).

However, could we possibly develop a Marie Kondo Framework in archaeological interpretation? Kondo’s methodology is based heavily on philosophical and aesthetic theories – is there any way we can carry this over into archaeology? Arguably, there must have been some artefacts that were deemed important and valuable not because it was a tool or  made of rare material; instead, these were valuable due to sentimentality, or aesthetics, or hell, maybe they were just a bunch of lucky stones for all I know.

Well, it’s complicated – particularly because philosophy gets involved. In a lot of ways, this question is similar to asking what “worth” means in an object. Is it about the materials used to make it? Or the personal worth, which can be dictated by emotions and experiential context? Is there even a solid definition of “impersonal worth” that can be used as a basis, reflecting the universal concept of what the value of an object is (Matthes 2015)? Yeah, my brain hurts too.

There is also the issue of ethics, in that questions of the personal in archaeology can easily lead to bias. Perhaps to you, this statue may look like it has symbolic significance. Maybe it was a deity that looked over the residents of this house, or perhaps a good luck charm that kept bad omens away? It’s easy to assign grand visions of high spiritual value and sentimentality to an artefact…that could easily just have been something an ancient person’s child made and was kept around like a drawing on a fridge. Ultimately that’s the big issue with artefacts and interpretation – as you delve deeper into the more philosophical and abstract, you end up with countless other questions regarding the “essence” of an artefact that undoubtedly cannot be answered (Shanks 1998).

However, I’d argue there are some approaches that can come close to getting a better idea of what the personal value of an artefact was. There are small indicators, of course – for example, you could argue artefacts that are worn and mended made reflect excessive amount of use and the desire to keep said artefact even after breaking. There are also some methodological approaches to examining possible concepts of value, such as utilising ethnographic studies and extrapolating results from this (Tehrani and Riede 2008).

We will never truly understand how people in the past felt about certain things, particularly prior to written record. But we occasionally get hints here and there, and that’s exciting! I think perhaps a Marie Kondo Framework is less about discovering what people in the past found joy in, and about remembering that people in the past did feel joy. And many other things! And although we may not be able to calculate that using lab analysis or statistics, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the people whose lives we are recovering through excavation are still people.

References

Hodder, I. (1989) The Meanings of Things: Material Culture and Symbolic Expression. HarperCollins Academic.

Kondo, Marie. (2014) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever. Vermilion.

Matthes, E.H. (2015) Impersonal Value, Universal Value, and the Scope of Cultural Heritage. Ethics 125(4). pp. 999-1027.

Shanks, M. (1998) The Life of an Artifact in an Interpretive Archaeology. Fennoscandia archaeologica XV. pp. 15-30.

Tehrani, J. and Riede, F. (2008) Towards an Archaeology of Pedagogy: Learning, Teaching, and the Generation of Material Culture Traditions. World Archaeology 40(3). pp. 316-331.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.