Since the beginnings of organized archaeology in the Middle East in the 19th century, western archaeologists have typically employed large “gangs” or “teams” of locals to perform the manual labor of excavating a site. Frequently considered “unskilled” workers, their contributions to archaeology have often been overlooked and underappreciated. Allison Mickel disrupts this narrative, demonstrating the myriad ways in which archaeological site workers in the Middle East are immensely knowledgeable about sites, finds, and their interpretation—albeit in sometimes different ways than the archaeological staff.
Despite intimate, and incredible knowledge of local archaeology, site workers, Mickel observes, are often reluctant to consider themselves “experts,” choosing to mask their familiarity of archaeological method and practice. Mickel calls this phenomenon “lucrative non-knowledge,” where locals often benefit financially by feigning ignorance or performing an expected role rather than declaring their great expertise. Why Those Who Shovel Are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor (UP Colorado, 2021) breaks down the Catch-22-esque factors that cause local site workers to downplay their experience and proposes ways for archaeological projects to craft more suitable, community-minded labor management practices.
Why Those Who Shovel Are Silent is based on Allison Mickel’s research at the Temple of the Winged Lion Cultural Resource Management project at Petra, Jordan & the Çatalhöyük Research Project in Turkey. Allison is currently a Fellow at the American Center of Research in Amman. Jordan has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 Pandemic; please consider donating to the GoFundMe to support the Bedul community of Petra.
Samuel Pfister is the collections manager at the Badè Museum in California's East Bay.