Practice and Process in Archaeology

Over the weekend, I read Mary Leighton’s “Excavation methodologies and labour as epistemic concerns in the practice of archaeology. Comparing examples from British and Andean archaeology” which appeared in Archaeological Dialogue 22.1 (June 2015), 65-88. The article compares a British and an Andean archaeological project to demonstrate how excavation practice plays a key role in understanding how archaeologists produce knowledge. Leighton’s argument focuses on the disjunction between discussions of archaeological method (and methodology) and what actually goes on during a dig. For Leighton, archaeological methods have become a “black box” (to use Latour’s term) in which a wide range of different practices take place, but are occluded from critical scrutiny. Leighton suggests that the variation in how projects implement established practices and procedures influences the results that these projects produce.

Her two case studies demonstrate the differences in archaeological field practice in the Andes where local communities provide unskilled and inexperienced labor for archaeological projects, graduate students document the work, and experienced archaeologists manage the labor, work flow, and results. In the U.K., Leighton looks at CRM practices that use the MoLAS model (Museum of London Archaeological Service). This model features single context, open area excavation and the archaeologists responsible for documenting work are also the primary excavator. The use of Franco Harris Matrices ensures that the individual contexts align immaculately across the site (ok, I made part of that up, but she does argue that the use of Harris Matrices to document “archaeological events” allows for comparisons between areas at a single site.) In short, the British MoLAS model is organized horizontally, whereas the Andean model is organized vertically.

Leighton draws some interesting conclusions about how these two forms of organization function on the ground. For example, she argues that in the example from Andean archaeology, archaeologists and excavators function as interchangeable cogs in a machine because the work of archaeology is to reveal objects (however broadly construed) in the ground. In the more apparently “democratic” system from the U.K., it is nearly impossible to separate the archaeologist from the interpretative process that produces an archaeological event which is ultimately represented as a box in the Harris Matrix. As a result, archaeologists appear vital to process. At the same time, the use of standardized forms and practices in the British system hints at another reality: the professional gaze of the archaeologist is focused on one particular area of the site, documented in a consistent way, and lacks a larger, synthetic perspective.

Leighton concludes two things from an article rich in detailed observation. First, that the “micropolitics” of fieldwork shape archaeological results outside of the prevailing conversation about field methods, procedures, and processes. The result is that two projects with very different field practices will appear to employ similar methods and to produce comparable results. The other conclusions generalizes this situation by arguing that British and North American archaeology has dominated conversations about methodology and expectations of best practices have been projected across the global south (and, I’d contend, the Mediterranean littoral). The process of “black boxing” field practices occludes the variation across projects and the reasons for this variation. If the tools we use shape the know that we produce, we should not underestimate the importance the organization of labor, the individual excavator, and the implementation of methods on how we understand the past. 

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