Old photograph of Middle Eastern archaeological dig

Allison Mickel Examines the Limiting Labor Practices of Modern Archaeological Excavations

Mickel explores the notion that the exclusively manual work that local site workers do not only exploits them in terms of labor conditions, but also puts them at risk of job loss if they exhibit their work as intellectual or scientific labor.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

The opening scene of the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist features thousands of local workers digging for artifacts in Hatra, Iraq. More than 40 years later, the scene serves as not only an accurate depiction of archaeology’s past, but also, in some ways, its present, says archaeologist Allison Mickel

Mickel, an assistant professor of anthropology, specializes in the Middle East, where foreign archaeologists have been leading excavations for two centuries. Historically, these archaeologists hired teams of thousands of people. Over time, the teams have gotten smaller in size, but hiring and labor practices remain the same, she explains.

Clay pots from archaeological dig

Mickel explores the notion that local laborers are "exploited and untapped at the same time." 

“We haven’t really changed the hierarchy of how we hire or the fact that workers are paid minimum wage—sometimes as little as a few dollars a day, which is not very much to spend even in their own context, for work that is dangerous and has a lot of risk to it,” she says. 

Mickel’s interests straddle the boundary between cultural anthropology and archaeology: She supervises and participates in excavations in regions such as Petra, Jordan and Catalhoyuk, Turkey, while researching the history of archaeology and its contemporary practice. Mickel argues for ways in which the field could be producing better science if archaeologists were to change their labor practices. Her current book project, “Why Those Who Shovel Are Silent: The Unknown Experts of Archaeological Excavation,” explores the notion that the exclusively manual work that local site workers do has created a situation that not only exploits them in terms of labor conditions, but also puts them at risk of job loss if they exhibit their work as intellectual or scientific labor.

If site workers share information about their own technical knowledge and past experience with an archaeologist, Mickel says, the archaeologist is less likely to hire the workers to avoid paying them a higher wage. 

“Archaeology in the Middle East would not happen without local labor, and yet at the same time—and I don’t think it’s a conscious thing—local laborers are constantly working to find ways in which they hide just how essential they are to that process. So they’re doubly vulnerable. They’re vulnerable in the way in which they’re doing hard physical labor for almost no money, but then they’re also vulnerable because if they show ways in which they have skill or knowledge or expertise, they’re at risk of losing their jobs or not getting hired again. They’re almost exploited and untapped at the same time.”

A sense of territoriality also pervades the field, Mickel says. 

“The gentler critique is that it is a structural thing, but the reality is that archaeology has this history of being this very masculinist, expedition-oriented, colonial and kind of penetrative science or activity. And the inheritance of that is one where a lot of people who work in the Middle East—and I’m really painting with broad strokes—see themselves as kind of like an Indiana Jones-type character, in which case infringing on their claim to being right is problematic. … There’s that hierarchy, not just a passive inheritance from these ugly days of archaeology when you had 7,000 workers on the hill. It is also something that we’re actively working to maintain. We want our claim to authority, and it’s really hard to let go of.” 

Archaeological dig

Mickel argues for ways in which the field of archaeology could be producing better science if archaeologists were to change their labor practices.

Digging Up Artifacts and Experiences 

Mickel has spent two to three months each summer in Turkey and Jordan, and between 2011 and 2015 spent a year at both sites, conducting dissertation fieldwork on a Fulbright grant.

“What I find in [Petra and Catalhoyuk] is relevant to a lot of other contexts because archaeology is fairly regional in its practice,” she says. 

Mickel participates in excavations during her time on sites, and she considers that participation a critical part of her work. 

“I just don’t think it’s a very productive exercise to look at archaeology from the outside and critique it. I think if I’m going to make an argument about how archaeology projects are managed, I need to be part of that structure. I want to own some of this responsibility, too. I don’t know that I’ve done enough to upend the labor management practices that we’ve been engaging in for so long. So I do also dig.” 

Beyond digging, Mickel examines records of archaeological excavations for the individuals listed as site workers. She visits their homes and asks questions about the site workers’ experiences on the excavations. 

“I found that this system has led to one in which workers are doing this dance all the time in archaeology where they are integral to carrying out an excavation, they work for almost nothing, they are good at what they do, they have decades of experience in addition to generational knowledge that’s been handed down. … Most of these people, for context, their fathers worked in archaeology, their grandfathers worked in archaeology—it’s almost like a family business for them to be there. So they have a ton of knowledge, but if I tell them how much I admire their expertise, they react really negatively to that label of expertise.” 

Mickel believes that an improvement of labor practices would benefit not just workers, but archaeology as a whole. 

“This isn’t charity work. If we want to have better archaeology, if we want to know more about the past, then we need to find ways to benefit from the knowledge that these people have been hiding for decades and decades and decades from us.” 

The Business of Improved Working Conditions

A second phase of Mickel’s research examines two separate companies—one in northern Jordan and another in southern Jordan—that seek to address in different ways the problematic nature of archaeology as an employment sector. 

“In a broad sense, archaeology is not doing right by the people working on the ground locally in Jordan,” says Mickel. “And so both [groups] had the idea of forming companies that would be composed of local people who would be responsible for site management [and] cultural heritage protection.”

In southern Jordan, one company focuses on training and certifying locals as experts and ensuring that they are paid and treated fairly on archaeological digs. The other company, located in the northern part of the country, provides micro loans to small businesses related to archaeology and tourism. Although their focus areas are slightly different, both companies emphasize community benefit, the protection of workers and the reclaiming of the archaeological industry in the region—an odd juxtaposition, Mickel says.

“These companies to me are essentially performing the work of unions in archaeology,” she explains. “There are some complicated legal reasons why there aren’t unions among workers in archaeology … and so these companies are essentially performing the work that a union would do in a legal way, which is so incredibly fascinating because in so many ways the idea of unions is opposed to the idea of capitalism. In the United States especially, unions and companies are opposed; they have opposing ethical centers, I would say. And then here in Jordan, companies are being pointed to as the solution to the problems that a union would ordinarily be addressing.”

Mickel plans to follow the progress of these companies for three years, splitting the summer months between the two. She will live in the communities, attend company meetings and work on site with them. She hopes in observing the development of each company she can discover what works—and what doesn’t. 

“Over three years, each summer [I will ask]: Where are they? How have they changed archaeology? What’s going on? Have they managed to create this shift that they’re envisioning? And if not, why not? What are the obstacles that they faced? Is this problem bigger than something that can be solved on the ground with a startup?” 

Transcending an Ugly Past

Mickel tells a story about the 1840s excavation of a colossal winged lion sculpture in Iraq. The sandy desert terrain made it difficult to move one of the sculptures, and after attempting several strategies to engage the interest and effort of the workers—removing those deemed bad luck, having a woman sit upon the sculpture for good luck, dressing up and naming chief of the group a young boy and then an old man—the archaeologists went so far as to have several unpopular workers lie down in front of the cart. 

“[They thought] it would be good luck if they ran someone over with it,” Mickel explains. 

The modern discipline of archaeology, says Mickel, is engaged in conversations about how archaeologists might engage local communities around the world. But without meaningful changes to the treatment of site workers, the significance of the story of the winged lion lingers. 

“Actual labor practices are pretty recognizable from the early days,” she says. “So until that changes, I really dont think it’s too dramatic to say that we’re still going to be wearing the legacy of these bloody stories. We’re just not that far away from it.”

This story originally appeared as "The Unknown Experts of Archaeology" in the 2019 Lehigh Research Review.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

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