Allison Mickel. The Unmanned Sieve: How local archaeological expertise is made invisible, and how to see it again


Allison Mickel, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Lehigh University

Archaeological excavation, around the world, has relied on local communities living on and around archaeological sites for information about where to excavate, past land uses, and most basically, to allow access to sites identified as archaeologically significant (Chadha 2002; Reid 2002; Shepherd 2003; Breglia 2006; Quirke 2010; Leighton 2016). Archaeologists, moreover, have hired members of these local communities to carry out the most taxing manual labor of the excavation– often hiring from the same families and villages for decades. Some of these communities have accordingly developed reputations among archaeologists for being especially reliable and capable archaeological laborers, lauded by the likes of Flinders Petrie (1904), William Foxwell Albright (1954), and Seton Lloyd (1963).

Despite these examples, in the majority of published archaeological work from the last two centuries, local labor is generally unmentioned. In most excavation documentation, local communitiesrarely receive credit for their physical contributions to the excavation process, let alone for their intellectual participation in the production of knowledge. The image of excavation constructed through 19th and 20th century archaeological documentation is of an unmanned sieve; the earth digs itself and both artifacts and facts emerge from the soil.

In this paper, I present the results of seven years of ethnographic research with the communities of Çatalhöyük, Turkey and Petra, Jordan, and demonstrate the explicit and tacit knowledge that local workers possess, and how this expertise has contributed to the successful production of archaeological knowledge. This work joins other ethnographies of archaeology that have helped to better understand the physical steps and intellectual stages by which archaeological knowledge is produced and who gets to participate. The work in Matt Edgeworth’s (2006) as well as Castaneda and Matthews’s (2008) edited volumes exemplify this approach. Such scholarship illustrates how an anthropological approach—including building rapport, making the familiar strange, and conducting embedded ethnography—can lead to new insights about how facts are, in fact, formed over the course of the archaeological process.

My work combines the hyperlocal, humanistic approach of ethnography with the more structural and quantitative perspective of network analysis, a suite of techniques that has been gaining usage in archaeology in recent years (Brughmans 2013; Knappett 2013; Mills 2017). I use network analysis to compare the content of the archives of two major archaeological projects at Çatalhöyük and Petra with the oral history interviews that I conducted among the former excavation workers in these communities.What I am able to show using these methods is that different labor management strategies in each of these locations has led to the locally-hired laborers developing different forms of expertise—but in both cases, this expertise has been essential to the success of the archaeological enterprise. Workers from the local community have insight into artifact assemblages and methodological abilities that normally goes entirely undocumented and is accordingly lost forever.

Importantly, this is not by accident. My research demonstrates how the archaeological projects historically conducted in these locations have largely erased the degree to which local expertise enabled their excavations. Specifically, the archaeological industry has made it financially risky for local community members to claim and advertise their own expertise. This situation has engendered a phenomenon I call “lucrative non-knowledge,” wherein local community members are monetarily compensated for professing ignorance about the archaeological process. This is how they get hired. This is how they keep their jobs. This is how they earn promotions.

It is in the best interest of archaeology as a discipline to address and reverse this phenomenon, to ensure that local communities benefit from sharing their expertise. Over the past three decades, there have been numerous calls for greater social engagement and community outreach in archaeology (McDavid 1997; Schadla-Hall 1999; Merriman 2004; Silliman 2008; Stottman 2010; Little and Zimmerman 2010; Atalay 2012). Responses to these calls have included:community education initiatives, celebratory open days and festivals on archaeological sites, the creation of online virtual spaces for interaction between archaeologists and interested nonspecialists, consultation on K-12 education programming, government advocacy, ensuring publications appear in the language of the host community, and the development of site museums or other displays meant to engage the public in novel ways.More radical examples of community archaeology have decentered the role of the archaeologist more explicitly, inviting descendant, indigenous, and other stakeholders in the archaeological enterprise to actually lead the project design and execution. These types of projects involve fundamental changes in the types of questions that archaeological excavations seek to ask—and how those questions are framed in the first place—as well as the methods used to excavate, and what is ultimately done with the results (e.g. Atalay 2012; Lightfoot 2006; Dowdall and Parrish 2003).

I support all of these types of initiatives. I am convinced in particular that those which elevate community interests and participation at all stages of the excavation process have challenged and expanded archaeological knowledge about the past. My research, however, suggests that even projects which have prioritized community engagement in certain ways have generally not taken workers’ expertise and the economic dimensions of archaeological labor as an explicit concern. The ethnographic and network analysis I have conducted points to the need to do just that.

One way that I suggest to shift the economic dynamics of archaeological excavation is to change what local laborers are being hired to do. In this paper, I present the results of an experiment I conducted in Petra and at Çatalhöyük, in which local archaeological workers used cameras to contribute to the photographic archive of the projects on which they were employed. I found that this experiment enabled workers to share their specific perspectives on the archaeological process—perspectives which normally go unrecorded—and to be recognized as intellectual as well as bodily contributors to archaeological work. Their photos decenter the archaeologist, literally and figuratively, featuring instead subjects like the surrounding environment, themselves, and (perhaps ironically) archaeological equipment at rest, like the unmanned sieve depicted above.These photos are demonstrably distinct from what is normally recorded through archaeological photography, pushing the photographic archive in new and vital directions. While small-scale and preliminary, the results of this experiment provide some hopeful initial indication that restructuring our social and economic interactions with local communities will indeed allow archaeologists to create more dynamic, nuanced, inclusive, and complex knowledge about the past.


References Cited.

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Atalay, Sonya. 2012. Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Breglia, Lisa. 2006. Monumental Ambivalence: The Politics of Heritage. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Brughmans, Tom. 2013. “Thinking through networks: a review of formal network methods in archaeology.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20(4): 623-662.

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