“Fitting in” – Being a White, Female Archaeologist in the Middle East

…a (controversial?) dissertation chunk…

Entreaties to “fit in” aside, the excavation team was constantly harassed by the locals on the street, particularly the women on the team; no amount of discreet dressing or walking in pairs stopped rocks from being thrown or come ons from local youth. Being up on the opposite tell was a relief from living in the small, rural town; only a few goatherds and our trusted workmen accompanied us while we were on site. Still, the relationship we had with our workmen was complex—most of them did not speak English and most of the archaeological team did not speak Arabic. The workmen were primarily older men who had lived and worked in the area for most of their lives, while the archaeology team was young and foreign; as a younger woman directing older men within a landscape that was more home to them, I negotiated the difficulties in customs and language as best as I could.

It is a truism in the Middle East that white women are to be treated as men by Muslims, though in truth we inhabit a third gender, an ambiguous pastiche of impressions gleaned from foreign media, personal experience, true curiosity and a profitability assessment. While we could negotiate this ambiguity on an individual basis, or in small groups, our status as outsiders made us extremely vulnerable to harassment and insulting encounters outside of the confines of the accommodations and the tell. Many female archaeologists are loathe to discuss this aspect of working in the Middle East (or, indeed, in other contexts–sexism is not an exclusive trait); we are expected to “fit in” and not complain so that we will be viewed as equal to male archaeologists. Complaining about ill treatment would jeopardize our standing as equals to male archaeologists. Not “fitting in” bears a stigma, if you are harassed then it is seen as a failure as an anthropologist to successfully negotiate your surroundings, and this has a serious chilling effect for women working on archaeological projects.

In 2011, journalist Lara Logan was attacked while covering the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir square, but she spoke out regarding her sexual assault, and in doing so both highlighted the embodied violence that both western and local women are threatened with on a daily basis. Working in much of the Middle East is a tacit acceptance of treatment that would not be acceptable in the United States, submitting to this treatment in hopes to “fit in” and remain silent and professional is part and parcel of this arrangement. Working in the Middle East is a constant negotiation of gendered terms, re-positioning our identities as professionals and respectable women in a context that has absolutely determined that we are neither of the above.

Practical Archaeology Fieldschool Tips – Start Today!

You’re going to a field school? I’m excited for you! You’re reading your field school manual, you bought your trowel, you have your plane/train/bus tickets, and you’re ready to go!

Terry Brock has some good tips on how to get an A in field school.

But I, I will teach you to be a ninja. Or a ninja-archaeologist. Archaeoningologist? This is how you can start improving your field technique BEFORE you go to the field.

1) Teach yourself to write architect style–in block capital letters. I know you are a unique individual, and your flowery script reflects the depth of your soul. I don’t care. Write like an architect. Some archaeologists never learn and they are cursed by subsequent researchers, museum handlers, and data-entry folks. Your handwriting sucks. Fix it. Now. BLOCK CAPS.

2) As a corollary to rule one, write your numbers correctly. Look up there, at the photo. I actually had a hard time writing them incorrectly, but your numbers should not have personality. They should be clear at 50 paces. This is more important on international excavations where you have people writing wonky ones and sevens.

3) Where is north? From where you are sitting, point north. Can’t do it? Learn. At several points of the day, figure out where north is. You should always know where north is, no matter where you are. Fancy phones have compass programs now and it shouldn’t be hard. Level up–find out what the declination is for where you are and where you will be digging. I would probably faint if a student came to field school and knew what the declination was for the area.

4) Practice distances and measurements. A good archaeologist should be able to put two fingers out in front of them and accurately portray 10cm, 20cm, 30cm. Start estimating how big things are in centimeters, then whip out a ruler and check. None of this inches business–I don’t care what they do at Monticello. We estimate a lot in archaeology–know if a rock is 2-5cm or 5-10cm or 10-15cm.

5) Know your pace. If you can, lay out a 10-20 meter tape on the ground. Walk it. See how many steps of yours is 10 meters. I come in at about 12 at a regular gait. If you know this, you can walk around sites and have a rough idea of how close things are together. It’s actually best to practice this along 50 meter stretches so you don’t have as much stopping and starting.

6) Know how to tie a few basic knots. Square knots are useful, as are slip knots. It’s amazing how few people know how to tie a few useful knots. (Including myself–I need to get better at this)

7) Take a shower with very little water. Fill up a bucket, then get a smaller cup, and there you go. You should be able to get really clean with 2L of water, and pretty clean with 1L of water.

8) Get sporty! Go online, check out a few walks or hikes in your area and go outside! You don’t have to run marathons, but you should also not rely on field school to get you into shape, because it won’t–unless you are hiking in and out and shoveling all day, then kudos! But the people who have the most fun on digs are the folks who like to be outside. Get a book on whatever birds or rocks are local to your dig site.

9) Get over your food issues. I understand that some people will die if they so much as smell a peanut, but try to eat everything that is offered to you. Vegans and vegetarians, don’t make your habit other peoples’ problem, and don’t be rude to local people who don’t understand why you don’t want their chicken. And for crying out loud don’t exist on protein bars–you are missing out if you are not eating the local food, whether you are working in Mississippi or Tibet. Be an loca-omni-vore and chalk it up to experience.

10) Read my old, yet still relevant tips on how to dress in the field.

Meg’s Papers: Just for Fun

I smiled when I read the title of the article on the manilla folder. On the outside, in Meg’s rounded, near-cursive print: MEG’S COPY, PLEASE RETURN. I cracked the folder open and the faint gray type was only just legible, the edges of the book were still visible from when someone copied the original article, many many years ago. Since then the article has been copied over and over again, for the yearly iterations of our introduction to theory class, the class that gives us the indelible stamp of Berkeley archaeology: 229A. It’s also one of the few articles that has made me laugh out loud–Kent Flannery’s Golden Marshalltown. I removed the staple and programmed the copy machine: Flannery_1982, single-sided, output to pdf.

I’ve been back in Berkeley for just over two weeks now. I hit the ground running–I rented a place to live, moved in, and presented my dissertation research to my department in the matter of days, finished up an article with the inimitable Stu Eve, and now I’m holed up in the library. On occasion I’ve been helping Meg Conkey clean out her office after she retired, converting the stacks and stacks of archaeological ephemera she’s collected over the years into pdfs.

It’s a little humbling, looking at all the authors and article titles and fascinating research that I’ve never heard of–or that I have never heard of that particular iteration of. So much diversity in the literature that it feels like we might not actually have made much progress in archaeology, we might just be writing the same things over and over and over again. I get to watch the progression of archaeological publication–hand-written notes, to typed pages, dot-matrix, then laser printing! and finally, pdfs. Monographs of all sizes and colors (particularly annoying for the copier) and notes from lectures given decades ago. Nice notes at the top of the page, marginalia, and occasional backstage-passes to legendary moments in archaeology:

I find these moments so delightful and such an intimate view into a long archaeological career.

But I have to wonder how much I am duplicating efforts, just how many scans of Flannery_1982 we need in the world. I know there are other departments with treasure troves of scanned material and it seems absolutely ridiculous that we have to have our separate stashes, especially when all the state universities are technically owned by the public anyway. It’s frustrating, and I know it will change soonish…but it’s like using a mimeograph in the digital age. Can we have the academic literature Spotify yet?

Permanent Error – A Distraction by Pieter Hugo

Photo by Pieter Hugo

I slowly cranked the handle on the end of the bookcase, sliding the high-density shelving over, clicky-clicky-clicky-click. The books I wanted were way in the back and I had about eight bookcases to move, large wedges of books moving slowly across the floor in the basement of the main library here at Berkeley. It’s finals week, so I took extra care that no students were hiding or sleeping between the stacks. When I got to the book I was looking for, I immediately took all the books to either side, and a few miscellaneous titles that caught my eye. I can’t really tell if it is a good or bad habit–you understand the range of literature on the subject that you are interested in, but you pick up a lot of random and possibly distracting books as well.

I managed to find an empty end of a long desk, and put my huge stack of books next to me. It is a pleasure to be back in a library where I can work this way again, weeding through large stacks of books, gleaning references, cross checking on worldcat, finding all the journal articles that cite the books, and so forth. I assembled the books on digital photography to review, noting a few new additions–working on digital media is always a losing battle, as it’s a field that is in flux and constantly growing. One of the additions was a medium-sized orange-red volume, pleasingly bound, and heavy with photography–Contemporary Photography from the Middle East and Africa. A distraction, surely, but…why not?

I paged through large, lush panels of photographs, discovering a few new names, modes, inspiration, but then I came across one of those arresting photographs that I will never be able to forget:

Jatto with Mainasara, from Pieter Hugo’s ‘Gadawan Kura – The Hyena Men Series II’

Sadly the version on the screen can’t do this photo justice, but the active pose of Jatto, the hyena, the photographer’s framing–spectacular. So I went looking for more Pietro Hugo:

Of course! He directed “Control” by Spoek Mathambo, the amazing darkwave South African track that was going around last year.

Finally, I went to Pieter Hugo’s webpage to see what else he has worked on. I immediately found more of his Hyena series, then clicked on Permanent Error, his latest work.

Photo by Pieter Hugo

Hugo has been documenting an obsolete technology dump in Ghana. From the artist’s website:

Notions of time and progress are collapsed in these photographs. There are elements in the images that fast-forward us to an apocalyptic end of the world as we know it, yet the alchemy on this site and the strolling cows recall a pastoral existence that rewinds our minds to a medieval setting. The cycles of history and the lifespan of our technology are both clearly apparent in this cemetery of artifacts from the industrialised world. We are also reminded of the fragility of the information and stories that were stored in the computers which are now just black smoke and melted plastic.

Photo by Pieter Hugo.
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