Why Those Who Shovel are Silent

This weekend, I read Allison Mickel’s wonderful new book, Why Those Who Shovel are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor (University Press of Colorado 2021). It’s pretty great and if the title appeals to you at all, then you’re best served by just going and buying a copy and reading it rather than mucking around with my blog post.

The book draws on ethnographic research at Çatalhöyük and the site of the Temple of the Winged Lions at Petra in Jordan. She analyzed the role of local labor in the work that these projects undertook both in the past and the present and demonstrates how certain long-standing colonial attitudes among archaeologists and the organization of archaeological labor continue to shape local practices and attitudes toward field work.

Some of her conclusions are not particularly surprising. For example, excavators recruited workers — especially at Petra — for their value as manual laborers and treated them as movable cogs in their knowledge-making machine. The precarious and seasonal nature of archaeological work also mitigated the kinds of intellectual commitments that workers were willing to make to projects. Workers in the area around Çatalhöyük, for example, often found agricultural work more remunerative; workers at Petra found the history of harsh and often unpredictable treatment at the hands of the excavators as a disincentive to developing any strong attachment to work. Even as projects sought to involve workers more explicitly in the knowledge making process, whether as ethnographic and ethno-archaeological informants or as recognized authorities on excavation methods, situations, and processes, workers at both sites continued to feel alienated from the final interpretations produced by the excavators in part as a result of historical practices and partly owing to the continued hierarchical nature of archaeological organization. To be clear, Mickel’s analysis is far more nuanced and sophisticated than what I presented here, but it makes apparent that despite the differences between the situation of work at Petra and Çatalhöyük, both projects produced similar sense of distance between the understandings produced among local workers and the synthetic analysis of the site.

(One thing that this got me wondering about is how digital practices will, in the present and the future, create more distance from local workers and the conclusions. Mickel considers this slightly in the final chapter of the book where she notes that context recording sheets could contribute to the alienation experienced by workers (both local and academic). Digital practices which facilitates the collection of data and facilitates the displacement analysis from the trench side to computers and offices around the world might create even a larger gap between workers and analysis.)

The most interesting finding of Mickel’s work, at least to me, is the way in which local workers tended to downplay their expertise. This involved downplaying not only their ability as excavators (that is as expert laborers who could perform the specialized tasks of identifying and removing strata, exposing and recognizing artifacts, and contributing to the accurate recording of information at trench side)) as well their ability to analyze and interpret the results of their work. Mickel argues that this reflects long-standing practices of valuing local workers as pliable, laboring bodies, whose specific expertise could be held against them if it meant that they might appear arrogant or less willing to follow the lead of a trench supervisor or research archaeologist. It also reflected a view of local labor that emphasized their authenticity as sources of ethnoarchaeologial knowledge. This encouraged an attitude that rewarded individuals who possessed a body of knowledge that was separate and in some ways antithetical to archaeological knowledge. Again, Mickel’s reading here is significantly more subtle than what I’m presenting and worth reading.

Mickel is not afraid to propose solutions to the ethical dilemmas that contemporary and historical archaeological practices continue to pose. For her, adjusting the criteria for pay on projects so that it encourages and rewards not only labor, but also the expertise possessed by local workers who make the production of archaeological knowledge making possible. This adjustment to how projects treat local workers should extend to giving them opportunities to demonstrate and refine both their specific expertise, but also specialized skills associated with the interpretative and analytical work that often occurs outside of the context of labor in the field. This creates opportunities for “local knowledge” and “academic knowledge” (for lack of better terms) establishing a middle ground that disrupts the outmoded, but persistent dichotomy of indigenous versus scientific knowledge.

One thing that I did wonder about Mickel’s work how local labor in Greece might fit into the paradigms that she discussed at Çatalhöyük and Petra. She demonstrates clear parallels in South America, South Asia, elsewhere. Superficially, it would seem that local labor in Greece and Cyprus continue to provide ethnoarchaeological perspectives and basic manual labor to foreign projects. On the other hand, perhaps Greece and Cyprus have practices that anchored in distinctive experiences with colonialism, orientalism, and archaeological practices? 

This is in no way a critique. In fact, it demonstrates how Mickel’s approach and questions have fired my imagination. In particular, I appreciate her effort to shed more light on archaeological labor in the present. It seems to me that many of the issues that she discusses in the context of local labor here open onto the context of archaeological labor more broadly. There’s part of me that has come to realize that for archaeology to become more ethical, equitable, and fair a discipline, we have to remake fieldwork from the ground up. It also seems to me that this will force us to be willing to accept that this might mean fewer new academic excavations, more costly academic excavations, and greater attention to ethical practices that produce what we claim as archaeological knowledge.    

One Comment

  1. Melissa Morison March 8, 2021 at 8:52 am

    I think you’re right about rebuilding, with full awareness of the depth and breadth of commitment and creativity that that would necessitate. (Not least due to the ongoing issue of disparity of opportunity at different types of institutions — access may become even more constricted….)
    Reminded of the “Archaeology of the Heart” that Ruth Tringham and others have been doing.


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