A boat intercepted in Italian waters, brought ashore, and impounded at Pozzallo in November 2018 preserves one movement in a series that spans deserts, detainment camps, and other liminal spaces. Port registries list 264 migrants on board, following departure from Misrata, Libya a few days earlier. Our project in early July 2019 served as a salvage operation involving archaeological recording and memorialization; the 13.66-m repurposed wooden fishing boat was scheduled for court-ordered demolition in the coming week.
More than 1000 objects of clothing, supplies, and other uses speak to an uneven mix of genders, ages, and backgrounds. Their distributions hint at shipboard inequalities, ad hoc communities, and onboard routines, including among those unaccustomed to the sea. Common food packaging and water brands may distinguish bulk provisions; individual items—from date paste and processed cheese triangles to toothbrushes and diapers—might be tucked away in knotted plastic bags hung from nails between frames. Foil rescue blanket wrappers and paper masks recall the vessel’s interception by Italian authorities, whose footprints add another layer to the story.
Perhaps the most common items left aboard are dozens of synthetic blankets, thick and thin, in assorted solids and patterns. Their labels are lost, fabrics worn, edges frayed, surfaces stained and speckled with chips of blue paint from the deck. The corners are often stretched, knotted, or tied with bits of string or fishing line, revealing changing functions along this and other segments of the journey: bedding, covers, and pillows for sleeping; coats, hats or scarves for warmth; floor covers; shade providers; space markers and partitions; baby slings; rucksacks and more. More commonly associated with safety, family, and the comfort of home, these blankets now signal displacement.
Bits of nylon and plastic rope and strips of fabric, thicker in most cases than those tying blanket corners, dangle from the metal-framed superstructure that had originally offered canvas for shade: makeshift handholds akin to the straps on buses or subways. Like the rough planks over this structure and the cabin designed to add space, or the cement poured between frames to lower the hull’s center of gravity, simple adaptations transform the traditional Mediterranean fishing vessel into something functionally unrecognizable. But the harrowing journeys to which they bear witness reveal the ongoing imperative for safe rescue and disembarkation, and the affirmation of global human rights.
Elizabeth S. Greene is an Associate Professor of Classics at Brock University. Justin Leidwanger is Associate Professor of Classics at Stanford University. They are the Co-Directors of Project U’Mari.