During the 1980s and 1990s, archaeology went through a transitional period where researchers began to wonder how their presence affected the local people through the work they were conducting. In her forthcoming book, archeologist Allison Mickel examines the history of archaeology, how it has been done in the Middle East and how it affects the communities located near dig sites.
Mickel’s fieldwork in Jordan and Turkey has examined the impact of tourism and archaeological research on local communities and forms the basis of her book Why Those Who Shovel Are Silent: The Unknown Experts of Archaeology. Based on seven years of ethnographic and oral history research at Petra in Jordan and at Catalhoyuk in Turkey, Mickel reveals the untapped expertise that site workers on these projects have developed from their years of participation in excavation.
“In the Middle East, we have decades and decades of hiring, especially men, from the local communities,” says Mickel, assistant professor of anthropology in the department of sociology and anthropology. “You essentially have these villages of archaeological experts. But students and volunteers are brought in to supervise and document the excavation. This means there’s knowledge missing, since you don’t have the same people doing the recording who are doing the digging.”
Mickel employed network analysis to systematically compare the workers’ oral historical record to the site archives from the two sites, demonstrating how the two bodies of information overlap, conflict or complement one another. Despite the evident professional knowledge and skills that locally hired laborers at Petra and Catalhoyuk possess regarding archaeological finds, methods and analysis, she posits that local laborers are valued purely for their manual expertise. The economic realities of how archaeological labor is organized make it financially beneficial for local community members to disavow their privileged expertise about archaeological work.
She found that workers are not paid to be experts, but rather to pretend like they are not skillful. Because archaeologists are working on a budget and overtly won’t recognize this expertise the workers possess, they want people who are going to be quiet, amiable, obedient workers, she says. Workers neglect to fully share their knowledge because it puts them at risk if they share the full extent of their knowledge. And because their work is seen as unskilled, they are paid very low wages.
“Many of these workers are seasonal hires who work in strenuous, often dangerous environments, and there is no assistance for a worker who is injured on the job. There’s a health cost and an economic cost to doing this kind of work,” Mickel says. “It is better for a worker to say, ‘I don’t know anything about archaeology. I need to learn from you. I want you to teach me,’ even if that worker has been working in archaeology for 30 or 40 years.”