Mary Leighton. Six Years of Eternal Winter: The Temporalities of Field Work Between the Global North and South

Mary Leighton, Post-doctoral Fellow, Anthropology, University of Michigan

This project draws from a multisited ethnography of two archaeological communities that was conducted between 2008-11; US, Canadian, and Bolivian archaeologists (“Andeanist Archaeologists”) who work in the Bolivian altiplano, and Chilean Archaeologists who work in the Tarapacá desert in Chile. Building on the work of STS scholar Karin Knorr-Cetina (2009), the overarching argument I draw from this ethnography is that archaeologists in different countries have non-commensurable ‘epistemic cultures’. By this I mean that different communities of archaeologists, who have been trained in different education systems and work in their own university-based academic communities, have non-commensurable values, practices, and ways of warranting knowledge claims. However, these differences are not well understood or acknowledged.Instead there is an assumption of universalism: that all archaeologists everywhere in the world are working in similar ways and have the same understanding of what counts as ‘good science’.

My research explores the unintended consequences of this assumed universalism in contexts of transnational collaborations between archaeologists from the Global North and Global South. For instance, when archaeologists from the US and Canada travel to Bolivia to conduct excavations and employ local Bolivian archaeologists, or when Chilean and US archaeologists come together to co-direct a field school. In such collaborations, assumptions of universal practices and values result in conflict and misunderstanding, which ultimately reveal the unequal distribution of epistemic and economic power, between archaeologists from the Global North and South.

A central finding of my research is that the epistemic culture of archaeological communities tend to follow a similar pattern or have a similar structure, but that the enactment of this pattern varies. In this paper I will illustrate this principal, and highlight the consequences of the mismatch, through the example of fieldwork temporality and the role it plays in creating ‘the field’ as a specific kind of scientific space.

Enacting The Field

When compared to other sciences, archaeology, but also for other field sciences, face a problem in authority that stems from their not being lab sciences. As classic science studies research has shown (e.g., Latour and Woolgar 1986, Traweek 1988, Knorr-Cetina 2009, Shapin and Schaffer 1985), the enclosed, controllable space of the laboratory is a critical component in the legitimization of scientific knowledge-claims. In contrast, field sciences create knowledge out of transient spaces that are ambiguous, unbounded, uncontrollable, and may even be simultaneously non-scientific spaces. For instance, a public park or a tourist site (Graff 2011, Ramsey 2014), a family home or an activereligious monument (Carmichael 2013, Cusack 2012). How, then, is a fieldsite created and maintained as a legitimately scientific space?

I argue that the ‘The Field’ isenactedby archaeologists as a separate space/time to spaces of professional archaeological work that are, in contrast, enacted as the non-field or ‘Home’ (i.e., the university campus, the museum hall, the pages of journals, etc.). In prior papers I have explored mechanisms for enacting the field through:

  • Scientific practicesas demonstrated by excavation methodologies (manipulation of material objects, inscription of the landscape, performances of expertise, forms of sensory engagement);
  • Performativeinformal sociality (espousement of meritocratic or non-hierarchical labor organization, ‘rugged’ aesthetic in clothing, a culture of drinking/drug taking, communal living);

Here, however, I will focus on:

  • Movement in space (from urban to rural, North America to South America), and
  • Cyclical temporal rhythms (winter to summer, week to weekend) through which The Field is made and re-made as a separate and distinct space.

Cyclical Temporal Rhythms

My argument is that ‘The Field’ is constituted as a specific place-out-of-timethrough cyclical movement in time and space. However, there are multiple temporal cycles, which in some cases conflict with or erase each other. These conflicts illustrate the extent to which different nationally-based epistemic communities within archaeology are structured according to similar principals (cyclical rhythms) but that the non-commensurable enactment of these principals has unintentional consequences. Moreover, the consequences serve to undermine the epistemic authority of archaeologists from the Global South.

In this presentation I will describe the three case studies:

North American Andeanists archaeologists travel to Bolivia for 1-3 months in their summer vacation (May – July). While in Bolivia, they live together in a rented apartment in the city of La Paz during the weekends, and in a rented house near the rural fieldsite during the week.

The Bolivian archaeologists who work on North American-funded and directed projects live in La Paz all year round. Those who study or work in a university in La Paz may still be taking classes in May and June (their winter months), and have to interrupt exams or classes to fit in with the North American’s schedule.During the week they travel to the field site and live in the same rural rented house as the North Americans.At the weekends, however, when the North Americans go back to their rented apartments together, the Bolivians return to their family homes.

An unintended consequences is that, for the North Americans, The Field includes weekend socialization in the city of La Paz, where important networking occurs through drinking together, eating together, and communal living. Bolivia colleagues, however, return to their family homes at the weekend, meaning they are unconsciously excluded from the bonding and networking that occurs at the weekend.

As a contrasting example, Chilean archaeologists have, for the most part, resisted working with North American archaeologists. Funded by generous research grants from the Chilean government, they fund and direct their own excavation projects and are able to refuse ‘collaborations’ with foreign archaeologists that are not equitable. Chileans live and study in the capital city of Santiago year round, traveling to their rural excavation sites for periods of 1-3 weeks at any point during the academic year (which runs from March – December).

The multiple temporal cycles described include: Seasonal cycles from winter to summer or dry-season to wet-season, which are of course reversed when traveling from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere. Academic calendars, which are often assumed to be similar but in fact vary significantly. Cycles from the rural to the urban, which in some cases match the week-weekend cycle. And also what I refer to as ‘academic time’: how fieldwork cycles shape career paths and movement through adult life-stages, as individuals who must travel to the field for 1-3 months a year negotiate domestic relationships, teaching obligations, and parental responsibilities.

If temporal cycles of field work are non-aligned, what are the consequences for North-South collaborations, and specifically for those in the Global North who live in space marked as ‘The Field’? The North-South divide is not only geographic (i.e., manifest through alternating seasons) but also co-constitutes the epistemic and political-economic divide between North and South Americans. Given that ‘The Field’ is created in contrast to ‘Home’ (the non-field), the cyclical temporalities bring to the fore the way in which one archaeologists’ Field is another archaeologists’ Home. For North Americans, ‘The Field’ is not just the excavation site, but the whole of Bolivia-from-May-to-July; the Field is a time, but also a whole country, including the people (Bolivian archaeologists) who are found there. Thus Bolivian archaeologists are unintentionally associated with the contingency, informality, and unboundedness of the field: they become part of the ‘data’, and the process of doing fieldwork, rather than equal, academic colleagues.


Carmichael, D. L., Hubert, J., Reeves, B., &Schanche, A. (2013). Sacred sites, sacred places. Routledge.

Cetina, K. K. (2009). Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. Harvard University Press.

Cusack, C. M. (2012). Charmed circle: Stonehenge, contemporary paganism, and alternative archaeology. Numen59(2-3), 138-155.

Graff, R. S. (2011). Being Toured While Digging Tourism: Excavating the Familiar at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. International Journal of Historical Archaeology15(2), 222-235.

Latour, B., &Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory life: the social construction of scientific facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,

Ramsey, J. D. (2014). Spaces of possession: Negotiating ‘ruin’ at the Mexican periphery (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Chicago).

Shapin, S. and Schaffer, S. 1985. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.

Traweek, S. (1988). Beam Times and Lifetimes, Cambridge and London.