Refusing the Dig Gig
While a refusal is “to say no,” it is much more than this. A refusal is not just an ending, the breaking of relations or of histories; a refusal can mark a beginning, the wellspring of a new way of being and doing (McGranahan 2016). A refusal can be generative. A refusal says: “a better world is possible.” When we have reached our limit, when we cannot carry on any longer with old ways, we refuse.
Audra Simpson’s ethnography Mohawk Interruptus considers refusal as a subject, a method, a mode of analysis, a writing style, and a profoundly productive act in the world (Simpson 2014). Simpson originally set out to study nationhood and citizenship among an Indigenous people known to some as the Iroquois, whose ancestral lands straddle the US-Canadian border, focusing on questions related to varying kinds of jurisdictions: territorial, legal, and cultural, among others. The process of the research forced her to confront a dense web of ideas, positions, and claims that had no business circulating outside their original context among the people of Kahnawà:ke (Simpson 2016). This led Simpson to refuse to write a conventional anthropological monograph about this research.
Simpson tells of reaching her own limit when she realized that the data that she was collecting would neither help bring about Iroquoian sovereignty, nor adequately remediate the oversimplified, inadequate, and harmful representations of Iroquoian people in anthropological scholarship. Just as some of her research interlocutors refused various forms of imposition on their sovereignty, identity, and history—such as by rejecting American and Canadian citizenship—Simpson chose not to share the information that she had collected. Remarkably, and deservedly so, issuing this challenge won Simpson book awards from the American Studies Association, the American Anthropological Association, the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association, and the American Ethnological Society.
Inspired by Simpson, I want to share my own story of refusal. I recently completed a PhD in anthropology, with a dissertation focused on the Bronze Age of Iran. The process of doing this work—and of being disciplined in the multiple intersecting fields that my thesis pulled together—left me personally and professionally unsatisfied. More than simple frustration with being thrust into precarity after what was a fairly comfortable seven years as a doctoral student, I have found that many aspects of business-as-usual in my field must be refused.
Lest I be misunderstood, I have been extraordinarily fortunate in many regards—after all, how many people get live their childhood dream of becoming an archaeologist? I certainly did, but I also learned to be careful what to wish for. What follows is the story of my disenchantment with a pursuit that has led me around the world several times over, but which has also left me unemployed and unfulfilled. But, in this moment I have the power to turn the tables, if only rhetorically: to refuse that which has refused me.
My first experiences with the field were challenging for all the usual reasons. Archaeology is hard work and there can be a steep learning curve with many of its techniques, from the use of simple tools such as shovels and trowels to complex scientific instruments, like total-stations and GPS equipment. I first learned to dig working on simple agricultural village sites at home in Ohio, and then abroad in the Ohio of Europe—Hungary.
These experiences were largely positive, characterized by the comradery of a group of scientists working together with their students to understand the past. Fieldwork in these contexts was largely conducted in a bubble, where “the field” was as much a mindset as it was a location. In Ohio and Hungary both, when you stepped onto the survey tract or the excavation site, you entered a world of deep time, where the temporal dimension was emphasized over the world of the now. That is not to say that my colleagues were unaware of or inattentive to the larger social and political worlds in which their work was embedded, but that under these conditions, it was perfectly normal and untroubling to bracket the present and to focus primarily on the material remains of ancient history.
It wasn’t until I traveled to Oman during the final semester of my undergraduate degree that I was confronted with a fieldsite where the present was impossible to avoid and the enchanted bubble of “the field” was punctured.
First, there was the labor arrangement. In many parts of the Middle East, archaeologists hire day laborers—workmen, as they are often called—to do most of the manual tasks, from shoveling, carting, and sifting sediments to moving large rocks and hauling equipment (see Mickel 2021). In the part of Oman where I worked, nearly all of the workmen are from South Asia, principally Bangladesh, whose normal employment is in construction and agriculture. This fieldwork was my first real exposure to true global north-south power imbalances on a visceral, interpersonal level. My daily responsibility at the excavation site involved giving directions across multiple language barriers and setting the pace of the digging. Mostly, however, it involved me sitting and watching other people labor for a pittance. I didn’t then have the critical vocabulary to explain why or how uncomfortable the whole situation was, but I felt as though you could have swapped my felted hat for a pith helmet and my trowel for a whip and the scene would have been straight out of Kipling.
Another vivid memory concerns our negotiations to rent a house to live in, which made the power differentials of fieldwork tangible for me in a way they had not been previously. I remember looking on as my professor and the landowner—a wealthy tribal elder and a patriarch of the family to which our local collaborator belonged—discussed the terms of the contract while the occupants of the house—an elderly widower, and the farmhands that operated the ranch on which the house stood—nervously awaited the outcome of our agreement. The old man did not want us there, but he was powerless to refuse our presence due to familial obligations to his (and our) landlord. All manner of conflicts, large and small, flowed from this arrangement—from difficulties with the cook, to whether or not firearms were allowed in the house, to where and when was acceptable to pray—all of which opened my eyes to what the business of archaeology could at times entail on a practical human level.
Over seven years of graduate training in archaeology and many more trips to the Middle East for fieldwork, my eyes have been opened wider still to the broader real-world situation of the conduct of archaeology. As a result, I have confronted limits that I can no longer cross. In what follows, I explain why I came to refuse to continue practicing archaeology-as-usual in the Middle East, to refuse to accept that knowledge production for its own sake as a virtue unto itself, and, to refuse to shape my work around a professional incentive structure that is profoundly broken.
Although I had extensively studied and was committed to specialize in the archeology of Iran, Trump’s travel bans and other issues made fieldwork there impossible during the exact window of time I had available for my dissertation research. To acquire the requisite credentials to prove my ability to run a dig and thus be qualified to be a Professor of Archaeology, I got involved in three field projects during graduate school to compensate for not having my own dig: one each in Mississippi, Oman, and Turkmenistan. Mississippi was great, but that’s a story for another time; Oman and Turkmenistan were less so.
Oman was troubling for a couple of reasons. While the project that I worked on was well run and had amicable relations with local professionals and community groups, the global power disparities baked into the fieldwork process had, with time and exposure, become increasingly unpalatable to me. I don’t mean to bite the hand that feeds and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to have been able to travel and have had these experiences, nor do I intend to level a personal critique at the directors of this project, who all do good work and who have been key mentors for me. But I don’t think any foreign archaeologist working in Oman will find it inaccurate to say that Western heritage professionals have a lot of power in that country and that, in the main, they have used this power to set the agenda of what kind of archaeological research gets done there. Moreover, as access to the field has become restricted in countries like Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt, many Western archaeologists have found Oman an inviting and welcoming stop-over to continue fieldwork until they can go back elsewhere. In my view, this has led to patronizing attitudes and superficial engagement with Oman’s heritage. I know this because I caught myself adopting these dispositions and was fortunate enough to stop myself before it was too late.
Turkmenistan was difficult for many reasons, but most relevant among them are its authoritarian police state and the fact that archaeological fieldwork brings unwanted scrutiny to the communities who live and work in heritage landscapes. Due to dire economic circumstances, some residents of the area where I worked engage in wildcat-farming of the desert’s clay flats, illegally siphoning off the government-run irrigation canal to grow watermelons, sunflowers, and corn, presumably as cash crops for the market, but for all I know, for subsistence. Either way, the presence of foreign archaeological missions brings heritage inspectors into the area, who spend as much time documenting these illicit activities as they do the archaeology if for no other reason than the rogue farmers’ canals, fields, and campsites are often inadvertently dug into archaeological sites. I do not know what is done with this information, but—given that a local archaeologist was professionally blacklisted for five years for a minor breach of bureaucratic protocol—it is not difficult for me to imagine the consequences of being caught defying a repressive and totalitarian police state’s planning of agriculture, or of being accused of damaging propagandistically-valuable national heritage.
While these personal experiences were instrumental in leading me to my refusal, it was also informed by my exposure to critical histories of the discipline more generally.
The field of Near Eastern Archaeology was born in the era of high empire, but despite formal decolonization, this legacy lives on in our fieldwork (Gillot 2010). Indeed, archaeology cannot be separated from “imperatives of Empire” and, like cultural anthropology, from particular power/knowledge technologies of access and rule. The history of the discipline is part and parcel of the colonial drive to obtain, whether territories, resources, or both. Knowledge is also a resource, characterized by its own modes of acquisition—particularly observation, translation, categorization, and comparison—all of which are historically coupled with the militaristic, ecclesiastical, metropolitan, and administrative logics of conquest (Simpson 2014: 95).
Excavation is archaeology’s primary way of knowing, its most distinctive practice, its ostensible raison d’être. But there’s a lot more to archaeology than digging. In general, the archaeological enterprise can be thought of as a diverse set of techniques and routines that result in the creation of a variegated suite of products, from the actual artifacts themselves to books, photographs, films, art, television programs, museum exhibits, websites and so on (Bernbeck 2012). Crucially, there are massive geographic disparities in this production process. The global division of labor in archaeology embodies a “dependency model,” in which the countries of the Global South (i.e., the “studied” regions) are positioned as sites of extraction.
It has historically been the case that American, European, and Japanese archaeologists constitute the specialist and managerial class in the global division of archaeological labor. The countries of the Middle East in turn, primarily provide resources, a “topography of raw material extraction”—i.e., the sites and manual labor required for processing into archaeological knowledge products in the neo-colonial metropole (Bernbeck 2012: 90). Data and its collection have come to be configured as the domain of the periphery, whereas intellectual work and knowledge production is seen as the prerogative of the core. Reinforcing this dynamic is the fact that many Western archaeologists cannot even be bothered to learn the languages of the countries where they work beyond the bare necessities required to direct workmen in the trenches.
Another force shaping this topography of extraction is a professional incentive structure that drives researchers to perform excavations on a regular, if not yearly, basis. To attain stable employment as an archaeologist, it is necessary to fund and conduct an active fieldwork project, where you can take students regularly and produce the raw materials needed to transform into the articles and monographs required to progress toward tenure. It is certainly possible to do this in a completely above-board fashion, and many do. But because archaeology is such a highly capital-intensive and contingent process, the stakes and risks are extraordinarily high. When professional advancement depends upon resources to which access is tenuous—and largely outside the researcher’s control—corner-cutting and exploitative behavior is perversely, if inadvertently, rewarded. Indeed, the entire lifecycle of an excavation has many leverage points that can be taken advantage of by the less-than-scrupulous and the self-aggrandizing. Everyone I know in the field has their own stories of having witnessed the patronizing and exploitative behavior of foreign archaeologists toward locals; if you get them drunk enough—and archaeologists do love to drink—they might even tell you about their own.
Thus, geopolitical conditions, academic funding models, tenure-and-promotion requirements, regulatory environments, institutional entanglements, and so on, collectively (re)produce an incentive structure that perpetuates a certain way of doing things. Bernbeck uses adjectives like authoritarian, servile, disregarding, disdainful, opportunistic, hypocritical, and colonial to describe the attitudes and activities of those middle-to-upper class professionals from Western countries whose socialization from birth and cultural capital predisposes them to become the most successful archaeologists. Does he go too far in this characterization? Some might say so. I wouldn’t necessarily.
I have witnessed and heard many stories about the behavior Bernbeck describes in the field, from the seemingly minor act of a survey leader refusing invitations to visit for tea with local landowners to outright exploitation of laborers by an excavation director, pushing to move the maximum amount of dirt and objects possible in a four-to-six week field season. While not everyone proceeds in this fashion, enough people do to call the entire enterprise into question.
Near Eastern Archaeology didn’t develop this modus operandi accidentally. The discipline has in fact always been directly entangled in colonial projects and conflicts, going right back to the discipline’s origins in the quest to uncover the historical verisimilitude of the Old Testament (Kuklick 1996). These connections are particularly evident in conflicts over the delineation of nation-state boundaries and national identity on the one hand, and over access to natural resources such as oil on the other. Moreover, the militaristic history of archaeology is thinly disguised at best—we do still often call our projects “expeditions,” after all. Spectacular examples can be seen in the case of T.E. Lawrence (i.e., he, famously, “of Arabia” who was a specialist in the archaeology of Crusades-era military architecture), but it is in the routineness and normalcy of the militaristic elements of the discipline where the most pernicious bits are to be found (Meskell 2020).
Sometimes, the military-archaeological connection is stunningly direct. Take, for example, the decision on the part of some American archaeologists to involve themselves with the United States military during the invasions of Iraq in the early 2000s. In the name of “protecting heritage,” American archaeologists embedded themselves in the military apparatus to provide cultural heritage sensitivity training under the guise of preventing the destruction of sites and museums (Hamilakis 2009). Their mission failed catastrophically, as the US military’s negligence led to the partial destruction and well-documented looting of the National Library and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Surely some heritage sites were saved from destruction as a result of American archaeological intervention, but ultimately, I side with those who view participation in invasions—even if the aim is to protect heritage by providing strategic advice—as rendering archaeologists into combatants, rather than civilians (Mourad 2007).
In other cases, the militarized dimension is less obvious. For example, techniques and technologies of survey developed for militaristic purposes (e.g., transits and theodolites, used originally in artillery) and for oil and mineral prospection (e.g., geophysical instruments) are often retooled for archaeological use. Archaeological survey has a long history of connection to the technologies of espionage as well, including the use of aerial photography, satellites, and drones (Meskell 2020: 556). The increasingly popular use of declassified spy satellite photography in particular, while apparently justified by a rhetoric of salvage—i.e., gaining access to a landscape from 60 years ago that has since been largely destroyed by development and conflict—is highly problematic, especially when used in conjunction with present day satellite imagery. These technologies allow archaeologist to perform Donna Haraway’s god-trick, to elide the profoundly political and exploitative practice of surveilling the landscapes in which people live without their consent (Pollock 2010). It is not just technology transfer, however, that gives me pause about our discipline’s historical legacies and way of doing things, but also the actual use of archaeologists as intelligence assets in the conduct of espionage and covert operations. A famous case is that of Art Historian and field archaeologist Donald Wilber, who was the principal agent of Operation Ajax, which overthrew the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. A recent and particularly troubling example is the Human Terrain Systems program, which enlisted anthropologists and archaeologists in the War on Terror as cultural experts, interpreters, and intelligence assets inter alia (Meskell 2020: 561).
This entanglement of cultural heritage and conflict has real-world implications. Why have some archaeologists been so concerned about rescuing objects and preserving monuments, but less so about people? Perhaps an answer is to be found in the idea that archaeology is “the discipline of things,” but this is a trite response. Meskell cautions that privileging things over people—and thereby ignoring the human toll of war—is an act taken at our own peril and that of others (2020). Archaeology’s historical legacy of military involvements, whether as a cover for espionage and surveillance, as well as famous archaeologists’ involvement in the drawing of the borders of the modern nation-states of the Middle East (most prominently, Gertrude Bell), firmly ensconces the discipline and its practitioners in an imperial framework, where the archaeologists’ own ambitions of securing access to sites and objects have been paramount (Bernhardsson 2005).
Given this history, I ask: Who does our work actually serve? As I have come to see it, at its least malign, only ourselves; at its worst, empire. But, if we refuse to engage in (neo-)colonial extractive archaeology, what then?
Many archaeologists working in other parts of the world who are interested in post-, anti-, and de-colonial forms of research are embracing the principles of so-called “community archaeology,” seeking a more public and stakeholder-engaged way of conducting field research (Hoffman 2020: 65). Community archaeology prioritizes the needs of the people whose history is embedded in archaeological sites, the needs of the heritage professionals working in host countries, and is oriented toward mutually-beneficial arrangements, where the conduct of the research and its goals are agreed upon collectively. In this way, knowledge production can be pursued in a way that is more equitable, just, and living people-oriented. Community archaeology is not a panacea for all of the discipline’s ills, and it is not without its challenges, of course. But these changes in the ethical and relational orientation of our research practice are, in my view, a net positive and signal a major shift in the way that archaeology is and can be done. Community archaeology, at least in theory, represents a refusal of business-as-usual that I can get behind. Whether such a form of archaeology is logistically possible in the Middle East or desirable to participate in for local communities is an open question, however.
What else can be done? Following Natasha Lyons and Kisha Supernant, I believe that at minimum archaeologists have a duty to practice rigorous self-reflexivity about our conduct in the field and in our writing. This is difficult work, and it requires us to think carefully about and honor the relations that make the work possible, particularly our relationships to communities of stakeholders, including descendant communities, local heritage professionals, students, and various publics (Lyons and Supernant 2020: 6). I agree, but I don’t know that this is going to cut it for communities that have been promised that hosting an archaeological project will be good for their local economy, only to find that the reality is much more complicated once the foreigners arrive.
The point that I want to drive home here is this: archaeological research has real consequences in the world. I have come to believe that it is not enough to answer purely academic research questions about prehistory, as I did in my dissertation. Knowledge production for knowledge production’s sake has abetted all manner of elisions of injustice and abrogations of accountability. Not to be too facetious, but, if Peter Parker’s uncle had been a certain mid-century French historian, old Mikey F. might have told him: “with great knowledge comes great responsibility.” I would ask in response: responsibility to whom?
At least in my case, my primary responsibility—as someone with deep knowledge of the massive collections of artifacts from Iran stored in American museums, which were divided in half after excavation, with one part kept in Iran and one part exported to the U.S.—is to my counterparts in Tehran. Since Iranian researchers face many barriers to accessing American museums, my objective has become reparative: to make these objects and records as available as possible, to do everything I can to make the halved collections whole again. Indeed, the further extraction of the heritage resources of the Middle East is unnecessary, as many lifetimes of work remain to be done to reunite these divided assemblages. As Iranian antiquities are hardly a unique example in this regard, I believe that refusing to continue to do extractive fieldwork and to instead pursue repair is the horizon of archaeology’s future.
This refusal presents me with a professional conundrum, however. In the context of the bottomed out job market—and believe me, whatever you think about “the market” in fields like History, English, Political Science, Sociology, or others, it is much worse in Archaeology—the matter of professional advancement is never far from my mind as I refuse the forms of archaeological business-as-usual in the Middle East described above. Will refusing to do extractive research mean that I cease to be able to make my living in this business?
The present situation of the archaeological labor-market reflects a longer-term and epochal shift in the organization of the field, and by extension, academic labor as a whole. The archaeologists who began the modern discipline in the eighteenth century were gentlemen connoisseurs who could afford to pursue antiquarianism at their leisure. This remained true through much of the nineteenth century and largely was the case until World War II. Radical changes took place in the mid-twentieth century, when private foundations, the state, and academic institutions began to fund archaeological research and academic departments, leading to the discipline’s professionalization and stable, comfortable middle-class lifestyles for two or three academic generations.
More recently, the status of archaeological labor has again shifted, with many archaeologists forced into the international precariat. Like many other knowledge workers, archaeologists have been disciplined into greater flexibility of place, time, and conditions of labor than ever before (Bernbeck 2012: 90). Thus, archaeological knowledge production is already well on its way to parallel that of other modes of production, with a few managers at the top and a large disposal labor force at the bottom, even more unequal than it already was. In my view, the carrot that has done the most work to reproduce the colonialist, extractivist, militarized version of archaeology—i.e., tenure—appears doomed. Perhaps it was a Faustian bargain all along. Just as the reality of being refused, denied, and rejected are an expected part of academia (McGranahan 2016), so too can we refuse, deny, and reject the aspects of disciplinary reproduction and ways of doing things that are justified on the basis of being the path to stable employment, but which have little benefit for anyone else.
I no longer see the reward as worth the cost. My limit has been reached. I refuse to define myself and my approach based on my academic status and the promise of future stability. It was a shell-game that I didn’t even realize I was playing until too late. Many of the decisions that I made—about topics to work on, collaborations to pursue, skills to acquire—were based on other peoples’ ideas of “how people get jobs” (meaning, tenure-track jobs, and the promise of stable employment). As I now know, there were few-to-no “jobs” to begin with! And even if there were, such “jobs” would be no guarantee that the work would be fulfilling, meaningful, or a guarantee of being able to do good in the world. Indeed, much standard operating procedure in the fields of anthropology and archaeology traffics in precisely what Simpson critiqued in Mohawk Interruptus: the unjust extraction of tangible and intangible heritage and the subsequent circulation of that heritage through channels in which it doesn’t belong and where those to whom that heritage rightly belongs have little say over its interpretation and stewardship.
On the upshot, my refusal has led me to a new project to take the legacy of colonialism in archaeology seriously as a topic of research. If the opportunity presents itself, I will work to explain the conditions under which vast quantities of artifacts were extracted from the Middle East over the course of past two centuries and brought to sit in museum basements in cities like Philadelphia. More than historical understanding, my objective would be to figure out what to do about all of this and with whom, today and into the future. On the downside, now, precisely at the moment that I know what kind of work I think is most valuable to do, my academic career may be coming to an end.
If I have any regrets from my time as a graduate student in archaeology, it is only this: that I had committed to my refusal sooner, to give the generative power of refusal more time to work in, on, and through me, to bring about a better archaeology, one of which I could be more proud. The beautiful thing now, though, is that since there are “no jobs,” there is no more reason to prioritize access-archaeology, no more imperative to excavate, and no more resources to extract. There are only relationships to build.
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Simpson, Audra. 2016. “Consent’s Revenge.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3): 326–33. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.02.
Kyle G. Olson, PhD, is an archaeologist, an anthropologist, and a writer based in Philadelphia. You can follow his writing at https://olsonkg.com/blog/ and on twitter @olsonkyleg.