Indigenous Archaeology Again

My friend Dimitri Nakassis directed me toward a recent article in American Anthropologist 118 (2016) by Mary Leighton titled “Indigenous Archaeological Field Technicians at Tiwanaku, Bolivia: A  Hybrid Form of Scientific Labor.” I’ve blogged about Leighton’s work here a few months ago particularly her effort to dissect the organization and realities of field work as a vital component to archaeological knowledge production. Her work appears in the bibliography to my recent effort to propose a “slow archaeology.”

In her 2016 article Leighton explores the relationship between local, indigenous labor in Bolivia and archaeological work. She argues that the indigenous workers who do much of the labor associated with field work at her project in Bolivia have significantly different conceptions of the organization and purpose of field work. For example, local Tiwanakeño workers negotiate their roles in the project not based on experience or expertise, but according to a rotational scheme arranged by community leaders. Moreover, local workers do not think about their work on this archaeological project as co-producing scientific knowledge and were reluctant to share or simply ambivalent about their views or interpretations of artifacts and features that documented by the American and Bolivian archaeologists. Efforts to press the indigenous workers to interpret their works and its results were an awkward failure. At the same time, there was little evidence that working on a scientific archaeological project “colonized” Tiwanakeño understandings of their past. Members of the indigenous community remained adept at “code switching” and able to move between traditional understandings of their history and the requirements of archaeological field work.

A few years ago, I played with the idea of indigenous archaeology in the context of my experiences in Greece and Cyprus. A common refrain among foreign archaeologists working in both places (and in Greece in particular) is that so much has been excavated, particularly by the Greek Archaeological Service and the Archaeological Society, and so little has been published. Few have worked in Greece without encountering famous stories of notebooks being passed down from the excavator to their wives and children as well as “rights” to publish particular material. I argued that for some in Greece, the work of excavation was not about producing publishable “scientific” results, but about expressing ownership over the objects and features excavated. Excavating specific sites and artifacts produced a kind of political power that was independent of the need to publish the results. In fact, excavation and possession represented a kind of authority that was in no way inferior to producing new knowledge. (And this extends to the sometimes protracted publication schedules embraced by foreign archaeologists as well). This isn’t to suggest that Greek archaeologists are any less committed to or capable of producing scientific results, but that archaeology in Greece has a range of different purposes from nation building to personal political advancement and the production of new knowledge.   

On Cyprus, I noted that archaeologists sometimes blended their faith and the faith of local communities with archaeological work that contributed to longstanding views of Cyprus as a Christian nation. This kind of national archaeology continued a tradition of Christian archaeological practice with roots in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period. Like their Greek colleagues, these archaeologists are capable of a kind of “code switching” between different discursive formations that give archaeological work meaning. Recognizing this kind of code switching allows archaeologists to move from relatively simple binaries that understand good and bad archaeological practices as mutually exclusive and toward larger critiques of archaeological goals and the relationship between archaeological work (both in the field and in an academic and narrowly defined professional sense) and our understanding of the past. 

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