Two Article Tuesday: Cold War and Alienation and Agency in Historical Excavations

One of the great things about the long, slow slide into the summer is the alternation between frantically working on projects that must be finished before field season starts and the aimlessness of the final month of the spring semester when there are too many distraction to start a major project and too much time to just fritter a month away. As a result, I tend to try to catch up on article reading. 

Yesterday afternoon, I read Grzegorz Kiarszys’s “The destroyer of worlds hidden in the forest: Cold War nuclear warhead sites in Poland” from Antiquity 93 (2019), 236-255. The article documents several Soviet Cold War tactical nuclear warhead storage sites in Poland. The Soviets designed these bases to house warheads, missiles, and the trucks on which they’d be launched and transported. They usually consist of several hardened bunkers and then a range of barracks, garages, trenches, control points, and even recreational facilities associated with the soldiers stationed there. Kiarszys argues that documenting even very recent military bases poses certain challenges. First, these bases have left only a fragmentary documentary record based on declassified satellite photos and documents declassified from Polish and Soviet archives. It’s a good reminder that places and spaces from the recent past are not necessarily better known than those from antiquity. In fact, political, economic, and military imperatives often work intentionally to obscure landscapes, objects, and relationships “on the ground.” By

Second, Kiarszys makes clear that military bases are constantly in flux leaving behind a palimpsest of past interventions. As a result bases represent assemblages that are both diachronic and contemporary in character and demonstrate how the pace of change in the modern world creates complex archaeological objects that defy typical archaeological efforts to assign phases or order in time. The preservation of at least one fo the hardened bunkers as a museum only and the looted and deteriorating state of the other bunkers only makes the dynamic character of military installations more obvious. 

Finally, there is something particularly global about an archaeology of the Cold War that reflects the scope of that conflict and the reach of modernity. The sites in the forests of Poland detected by American satellites and documented in Soviet archival documents further complicates how knowledge of the modern world is a global project. 

I also read and benefited from Alison Mickel’s “Essential Excavation Experts: Alienation and Agency in the History of Archaeological Labor,” Archaeologies (2019). She offers a subtle and compelling reading of the alienation of labor in two 19th century contexts, Giovanni Battista Belzoni excavation in Egypt and Sir Austen Henry Layard excavations at Ur. Her article argues that while both excavators relied on local labor to excavate their sites, the local workers engaged in archaeological work in different ways. While Mickel argues that both projects alienated the labor of local workers, she stressed that the responses to this alienation differed. The workers in Egypt, for example, attempted to resist by violence or by strategic indolence. Layard, in contrast, developed the specialized expertise of his labor force and while he claimed the fruit of their work – in the antiquities and prestige associated with the excavation – they resisted by deploying their hard earned knowledge on other projects for further gain. 

Mickel argues that the different responses to the alienation of labor by these 19th century projects shaped the kind of the knowledge that these project produced. More than that, the variation between these two projects reveals the range of strategies employed by local communities and workers across the Middle East and suggest that a greater attentiveness to the relationship between the archaeological labor and knowledge not only will contribute to decolonizing the discipline, but also allow for new and more critical reading of archaeological work more broadly.

Particularly useful for my work are Mickel’s arguments that mid-19th century archaeology in the Middle and Near East did not universally rely on a Fordist (or Talyorist) models of organization in large part because the investment in the workforce not tied at all to their being able to consume the products of their labor. Moreover, Middle Eastern archaeology did not scrutinize the techniques and methods of archaeological laborers in the scientific or rigorous ways implied by Taylorism and scientific management practices, but instead relied on local practices. I more or less accept these assessments, but might suggest that over the course of the 20th century, particularly with the rise of New Archaeology, commercial archaeology in Western Europe and the U.S., and the growing discourse of methodology, field technics and practices have received more attention with a particular interest in improving the efficiency and accuracy of recording and recovery. 

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